Sauntering into Hollywood’s 101 Coffee Shop for a late breakfast on an incongruously warm Valentine’s Day, KCRW DJ Garth Trinidad displays an understated aura that belies his ever-adapting focus and vivid appreciation of life. In gray-tone street-chic and a few days' growth, he attracts little attention as he slides into a sun-streaked window booth. He’s polite, thorough and thoughtful, yet has the air of a man with little to prove.
See, Trinidad is acknowledged as the voice of the urban alternative movement. Currently celebrating the 10th anniversary of his lauded “Chocolate City” radio show, he’s credited with breaking artists including Jill Scott, Kelis and Van Hunt, and is a sought-after programmer and music supervisor for the likes of iTunes, Nike, UPN and United Airlines. He’s hosted, produced and promoted special events from the Conga Room to the Getty Center, sits on the Grammy Awards R&B board, and has record production credits on releases from numerous major labels.
But while he’s known as a musical visionary and ultra-cred taste-shaper, Trinidad is also a gifted visual artist who holds a fine arts degree from L.A.’s prestigious Otis College of Art and Design. Originally on course to be an illustrator, Trinidad began volunteering at KCRW while still studying at Otis and, though this veered him from his original career plan, he’s deeply appreciative for his education.
Raised in L.A.’s View Heights area until his early teens, Trinidad initially attended Catholic school (“uniform and all that”), until his parents – both high school teachers with concerns about the burgeoning drug and gang culture in Los Angeles in the 1980s – moved the family out to Woodland Hills, from where Trinidad commuted to High School in nearby Calabasas.
“I was like the high school artist – that’s who I was, that was my identity … the cool guy who knew how to draw. So I was doing anything from the [school] paper’s comics to the whole airbrushing thing that was popular then – that’s what I did at weekends, that was my business. I did more free stuff for people than I made money of, but it was really fun to do. I was very much into graffiti culture – I wasn’t a graffiti artist myself but I admired the art and culture. The whole thing was going to art school … straight after high school my goal was to get into Art Center [College of Design] in Pasadena.”
Hoping to get a foothold at Art Center, Trinidad attended night and weekend school there to build-up his portfolio. He bounced around area city colleges – Pasadena, Moorpark, Pierce College, a couple of classes at S.U.C. – collecting course units, including a couple of media classes.
“The media classes came along because I’d just begun listening to KCRW,” says Trinidad. “It was just kind of an inkling in my head, like ‘I’m interested in this – radio is cool,’ but it wasn’t like a career thing.
“For the first class you had to interview somebody, and I was like ‘Oh, that would be hot – I could interview Jason Bentley [KCRW DJ]’ … My impression of him was hilarious because I thought he was like a big black guy with really good diction who knew all this cool music. But when I met him it was this skinny white kid, he himself sort of fresh out of college. So it was really cool to go down there and see how open he was to answering questions.
He was real supportive and it was very cool.
“I had an introduction to how radio production and television production worked [at Moorpark College]. Those were what the projects were about. We interviewed someone in the media, I think our final project was a television commercial, we did a radio demo … But while I was going to City College I was kind of floundering, really going to school part-time, working part-time, partying, chillin’.
“Shortly after that class I found sort of a job … it was at the American Radio Network, ARN, in East Hollywood. I ended up being one of their studio directors after a while ‘cause I just kinda clicked with the radio thing and it all fell into place for me pretty easily.
“I left there and started volunteering at KCRW. By the time I was there I had already learned
how to control the board, I had mic technique,
I was just learning about music really. So that was kinda like my intro during those formative years … but I was still doing the art thing. I went to Otis – good experience, but by the time I graduated I already had ‘Chocolate City’ 5 nights a week.”
Stymied in his attempts to get into Art Center full-time, Trinidad heard about Otis College through a friend. His portfolio was of sufficient standard to gain admission, and his studies to date meant he could skip the first year of what’s normally a 4-year
fine arts degree program. With student loans, grants and part-
time jobs (some of them on the Otis campus) to pay his way, Trinidad enrolled in 1995.
“My favorite forms of illustration are graffiti art and comic book because those things lend themselves to the career I wanted which was illustration and graphic development of films: Animation, sci-fi … “The Matrix”, “Lord of the Rings”,
“Star Wars” etc. – that’s what I wanted to do. Storyboarding, character design, costume design, set design, that was my thing.”
Trinidad’s weapons of choice were (and still are) ‘dry’ mediums: pencil, pen and ink, marker, color pencil.
“My style lends itself to that really illustrated kind of graffiti, comic-book art – character-driven, personality-driven … I considered being a tattoo artist because I love tattoo work. A lot of people tell me my work has this dark, edgy vibe to it.”
“I was scraping for dollars [while at Otis], doing everything I could, broke, not really eating, always sick … living in the little single apartment thing. But I was blessed nevertheless to be able to pull it off, honestly, because art supplies were expensive.”
“I was volunteering one day a week [at KCRW], for a few hours. And I really became fond of doing it – I was making friends with people there, other volunteers, Santa Monica College students. I was coming into a whole new group of friends in Los Angeles who were experiencing a lot of the same things I was.
“My parents were incredibly supportive of my art career when a lot of parents don’t really see the value, even when the child is extremely talented – they’ll be pushing for something else, something more ‘realistic.’ But my parents didn’t get my radio efforts; they couldn’t really see it early on. Here I am going to art school and they’re like, ‘Well what are you doing now? You’re supposed to be doing this.’ But the thing that I had working for me was that I was basically going to pay for school myself. I was the one getting the loans, getting the grants here and there, but they still had a say because they were helping me out … they were there for me.”
Trinidad graduated from Otis in 1998, by which point “Chocolate City” had taken on a life of its own and Trinidad's immediate life path was obvious. But he’s grateful for his Otis experience and believes in the intrinsic value of structured learning, whether or not it pertains to your eventual career.
“Number one, I got a degree that I was able to use to my advantage at certain key times in my life … When people were asking to see resumes early on, whether it was for a music-related gig or not, they wanted to see a degree. ‘I see you graduated from Otis’ – that was major!
“I learned about organization of my time – just that sort of mental training that was needed to juggle and balance things … Along with the time organization came this whole learning about the hustler culture – not street hustling, but the mentality of how to hustle, how to be hungry and learn how to succeed – taking the desire to succeed and making it real.
“Because I was having trouble before Otis knowing … I saw the open door but I didn’t know how to walk through it. Otis taught me how to walk through that door. And I think that really gave me an advantage at KCRW.”
And KCRW – part of Santa Monica College – was an educational experience in itself for Trinidad. “Big time, big time … from the people I met to just learning the inner workings of the radio station, to taking the knowledge that I had from Otis and applying all that. That’s how I got to know people, that’s how I began to train as a DJ, that’s how the relationships started.”
Now a parent himself, of two young children, Trinidad thinks about his attitude to their education in the years ahead. “I want to be the kind of parent who is supportive but also realistic. Like, if you’re going to start something you’re going to finish it; you’re going to tell me how it feels to you; you’re going to tell me what you see in it. And I’m going to help you because I’ve been there before trying to figure it out. So I’m going to know if you’re passionate; I’m going to know whether you’re just doing some kind of trendy thing.”
As prominent DJ, first-call music guru and proud parent, Trinidad finds little time to express himself visually these days, but hasn’t ruled out a return to his original passion. “Every once in a while I sketch out an idea that’s in my head,” he says with a laugh. “Maybe do a logo concept as a favor. I’m going to end up retiring and getting back into my artwork because it’s in my blood.”