Under his house music alias Claude VonStroke, Barclay Crenshaw packs massive clubs like downtown L.A.'s Exchange with throngs of party people looking for hours of four-on-the-floor good times. He leads cohorts on his Dirtybird label through festivals and incredibly popular barbecues and is himself a beloved DJ on the festival circuit.
Under his real name, though, Crenshaw is starting over as a hip-hop producer. His self-titled debut album, released on Jan. 27 through Stx&Brx, is a concept piece merging sci-fi-sounding beats with alien imagery. The accompanying tour features Crenshaw performing shorter DJ sets in smaller venues. On Feb. 25, he'll play the Roxy.
“We had no idea what was going to happen,” says Crenshaw by phone before a gig in New York, of the tour. “Fortunately, the response has been amazing, but there's no way to know that beforehand. Some of the rooms are smaller than what I play as Claude VonStroke because we're just breaking this name for the first time.”
Hip-hop has long been Crenshaw's love, but house is how he made his name. “I just got into house music by accident and I was good at it, so I went with it,” he explains. But the bug to make hip-hop got stronger after he had the chance to see and meet L.A. beat titan The Gaslamp Killer. “I saw what he was doing and thought, wow, you can actually go all over the place,” says Crenshaw. “He's really creative and entertaining.” Things came full circle when Crenshaw launched this tour at the long-running Lincoln Heights beat scene party Low End Theory, where The Gaslamp Killer is a resident, in what he calls a “bucket list” show.
While it might seem that someone could move from one producer-driven genre to another with ease, it's not quite so simple, says Crenshaw. Making hip-hop and making house are two different things. “It's just a lot slower and groovier,” he says of hip-hop, “so there's a lot more leeway for things to not be perfect, but still sound right or sound funky. It can be a little bit off the pattern and still work.”
Plus, there's a freedom — and difficulty — that comes with making music that isn't specifically intended for DJ play. “I still DJ all this stuff, but it's so much more freeform from that, it doesn't matter if you change the BPM [beats per minute] drastically in a set,” he says. “It's not so confined. But, at the same time, the restrictions are what makes house really good. Restrictions also help creativity.”
For his album, Crenshaw used live musicians, which was new for him, and found vocalists after the tracks were in the works. Crenshaw brought in a solid crew of collaborators, including Chuck Inglish and Sir Michael Rocks from The Cool Kids along with Mr. Carmack, Lady Chann and The Underachievers.
Crenshaw didn't just return to his old love for hip-hop on this album. The alien theme, revealed in song titles like “The Real X-Files” and “My Dog Knows the Truth,” comes from a youthful fascination, too. (“When I was a kid, I tried to convince everybody I was from another planet,” he says.) However, the theme didn't truly manifest until Crenshaw spotted the detailed work of Arizona-based artist Daniel Martin Diaz, who provided the album imagery and gave the producer a does of inspiration in the process.
“It was so helpful to finish the album because I started to really see the path that it was going in, the direction,” says Crenshaw of the art, adding, “It's always helpful to have the artwork when you're trying to finish a big project, a music project, or a theme or something that you can vibe off of, at least for me.”
His primary endeavor, the record label Dirtybird, is heavy on art, too. Crenshaw selects a different artist to be the label's resident for the year. “We're probably one of the only record labels that spends the amount of money that we spend on the artwork,” he says. But he sees a clear benefit to it. “You remember records from what they look like, not who made them. Your brain remembers the green record with the white label and the red font. Even if you know who made it, you remember it visually just as much as you do [from] who the artist is.”
For this tour, Crenshaw's style of DJing is changing with the shift in genres. He's keeping the sets fairly short, no longer than an hour-and-a-half, but is cramming together more songs than he could while playing house music. He'll mix up old and new music, sometimes combining a familiar a cappella with a newer beat, and play with the tempos as he moves between genres like hip-hop and drum 'n' bass.
Crenshaw's new vibe isn't permanent. After he finishes this tour, he will be returning to his gigs as Claude VonStroke, and during this year's festival season, he is scheduled to play multiple events under both monikers. In the future, he says, he might just continue to go back and forth between his house alias and his real name — which for now he'll continue to associate with hip-hop.
Barclay Crenshaw plays the Roxy on Saturday, Feb. 25. Tickets and more info.