It’s Friday, Labor Day weekend in the Mission. There’s a party going on at Public Works, the gallery space-slash-performance venue on Erie Avenue. I’m headed there to see Satellite High, aka Jay Friedman. I hear he’s a badass MC.
Turns out he is.
Satellite is the second of three acts. He comes on after the amount of time it takes to finish a beer and maybe smoke a jazz cigarette. He’s a rapper you probably wouldn’t mistake for a rapper — up there in an SF hat and a T-shirt with a pastel-colored slice of pizza on the front. He sometimes wears red glasses and has a huge, wavy, Brian Wilson-type rally beard. He looks like he was spawned in the depths of the lower Haight.
His neck muscles strain when he’s getting into it. He’s got the crowd. He and the DJ are doing their thing, and that thing includes rhymes rehearsed to a T. At one point Jay clowns around and asks the audience to buy him shots. Someone does. The shot glasses are plastic. He tosses back both shots and thanks the crowd, warmly. Later he tells me that nobody had bought him shots on stage before. I doubt it will be the last time.
Girls in mini skirts and wedge heels stand next to guys with clean-looking haircuts. Nearby it’s denim jackets standing next to hoodies and scarves. Off to the side it’s black mini dresses and tall black boots standing next to no one. Some dudes in contemporary sports coats wander in late. In a group, of course. This is what a young Google crowd and its periphery looks like.
Jay Friedman, though, stands out from the typical San Francisco computer-professional flock. Yes, he’s a 33-year-old web programmer who specializes in user interface during the day — but at night and on the weekends, it’s all music. Jay produces his own beats, and not just from samples. He plays stand-up bass, guitar, accordion and drums, and has “weird noise-making shit” strewn about his studio. All of which goes into his music.
Friedman hails from Satellite Beach, Fla., near Cape Canaveral, where everything has a NASA flair. He actually went to Satellite High School, hence the Satellite High moniker. At the shows you’re liable to find Friedman selling tapes of his music. Yes, tapes. Cassette tapes. They even come with download codes, which lets you know you haven’t somehow stumbled back into the ’80s. A tape label culture is picking up right now in hip-hop, Friedman tells me. Apparently people still own tape players; the analog revolution continues.
Friedman’s wife, Centa, does a lot of the artwork for his tapes. She’s a photography graduate student at San Francisco State.
“When I first met him, it took him kind of awhile to actually let me listen to what he was making,” Centa says. “And then one day we were kind of drunk and he puts on some music and he guardedly said, ‘This is me.’ And I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is you?’ And he’s gotten even better since then.”
Centa agrees that there is something striking about the juxtaposition of Friedman with the music of Satellite High. “It’s interesting because you see him and then you hear his music, and it’s still him, but it’s kind of shocking to hear the difference,” she says.
I caught up with Friedman at his place, where Potrero Hill bleeds into the Mission. I met him at a corner store; he wanted to pick up some beer for a Saturday of working on music. He showed me his place and introduced me to Centa and their bulldog, Heston. The rest of the time we spent in the recording room/office, where arguably some of the best hip-hop this side of the Bay Bridge is being made. We spent the afternoon listening to unreleased music, and Friedman answered questions. Later on he let me film while he laid down a guest verse on another MC’s track.
ML: Why tapes?
SH: Honestly, it’s for immediacy and the ability to do things myself. I love records, but there’s a huge upfront investment anytime you make a record; there’s a pretty substantial turnaround time and it ends up being you’ve gotta make these large batches of things and sell ‘em. I like the idea of tapes because I can just sit down at night and just run off 10 copies and make packaging for them and that’ll never exist again. There’s something really cool and immediate about that. To me a cassette is neat, you can do cool packaging with it.
ML: What’s the story with music notes on your arm?
SH: This is from Stravinsky, from the sacrificial dance in the “Rite of Spring,” which is one of my favorite pieces of music. It’s really atonal and strange. When it debuted in Russia, people were so disturbed by it there was a riot in the opera house, because people were so taken aback by how discordant the music was. I just think it’s an interesting-looking piece of music [laughing]. There’s a lot of shit going on there.
ML: Everybody has a story about why they moved to San Francisco. What’s yours?
SH: I just wanted to shake things up. For me I think the main reason was just that I’d been there all my life and I was real bored. I’d been in Orlando for like eight or 10 years at that point, and it’s just a small-town music scene. Weather was a big part of it, too; I don’t like hot weather, so Florida is not the place to be. And the last year I was there we got hit by four hurricanes and I spent almost a total of two months that summer without electricity. That was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back, for sure — I was like, I’m done with this, man.
ML: Tell me about your background.
SH: My dad is Jewish, my mom is a Mohawk Indian, and I was raised by her pretty much exclusively. Culturally I’m not Jewish, and Jews don’t consider me Jewish, but [laughing] for all intents and purposes, to white people, I’m Jewish. I definitely identify more as a Mohawk, but it’s hard to get other people to buy that, given the way I look.
I spent a lot a lot of time on a reservation as a kid, in the Akwesasne Reservation in upstate New York. My dad’s family is very culturally Jewish, but I didn’t really have contact with that side of my family too much at all, so it’s not something I’ve ever really considered part of my makeup. I’m just used to people making that assumption. I look very much like my dad and not at all like my mom, so it’s weird to navigate. I think the way I consider myself and the way other people consider me along those lines are different.
When I think about spirituality or social things, my memories of my family are way more Native American than they are Jewish American, so it’s kind of weird like that. But on the same token I have an “i-e” in my name and a big nose and a beard, so I kind of live in both worlds, I guess. That sounds corny. You know what I mean. Whatever. Everybody is a million things.
ML: Talk to me about the spirituality piece. Does that make it into your lyrics?
SH: A little bit. I think mostly it’s not stuff that I ever talk about right up front, but I think that it guides a lot of the principles about the stuff that I do and don’t write about. My mom is very spiritual but in a very non-traditional way. You know, she’s from the ’60s — she’s a hippie who’s also a Native American — so we had this real weird mishmash of Buddhism and traditional native spirituality.
It a vague principle thing. I definitely go out of my way to not be hateful, even when I’m doing brag kind of punch-line stuff. I don’t want to come across ever as going after people for sexuality or race or things like that. I don’t ever want to be a negative influence if I can. I do take pains to make sure the stuff that I’m saying is stuff that I can stand behind. There’s stuff that I recorded way back when I first started out, when I was like, “I’ll say this because it’s OK because it’s hip-hop.” And now I listen to that and I wish I hadn’t have said that. So I wouldn’t say that I ever actually rap about the universal spirit or anything like that, but I would say that sort of stuff is always in mind when I’m writing. I want to be respectful because that’s part of my music and what I believe in on that level.
ML: What about politics?
SH: That’s something that’s big for me. It’s interesting because I think a lot of people that know my music probably got introduced to me because of that, because I used to do a lot of pretty aggro political stuff. I think that as I’ve gotten older I’ve kind of backed off that a little bit. There’s a lot of problems with doing leftist politics in hip-hop in general, especially because there’s always that racial element to hip-hop and there’s always that weird cultural element that comes when you’re a guy from a fairly privileged background lecturing rap people [about] what it’s OK for them to talk about. I started to become more and more aware that that’s what I was doing, because I’d write these songs about feminism or something but instead of being anecdotal and talking about my thoughts it would be all like me criticizing things people do in hip-hop.
Like it or not, when you’re doing rap as a white guy you’re coming at it kind of as an outsider, so you have to realize — you can take issue with things, and there can be things that you want to change, but there’s a real thin line. You know racial politics are huge for me, a lot because of what we were just talking about. Being the type of dude who identifies one way and looks another way, it’s always been something I’ve wanted to be really respectful about.