Power by Numbers: Fighting the good fight for Keith Tamashiro
A pillar of the Los Angeles arts community, graphic artist Keith Tamashiro suffered a brain aneurysm. His homies responded, organizing a benefit concert with a mega-bill of indie hip-hop artists that may never be topped. APA went behind the scenes, talking to a few of the principals involved. What emerged was a story that confirms both "the power of Keith," and the progressive forces -- both invisible and visible -- behind the hip-hop community.
Published: Thursday, June 08, 2006
33-year-old graphic designer Keith Tamashiro belongs to several identities and communities all at once. Just to name a few: Asian America, Los Angeles, graphic art, hip-hop. All of which are stories compelling enough to explore on their own terms. Unfortunately, there's a preface, one that speaks to the fragile balance between art and livelihood. You see, Tamashiro suffered a brain aneurysm recently, a reality made far graver by the fact that he, like many other on-the-radar, but off-the-payroll artists, doesn't have health insurance.
First though, a proper introduction. Thing is, Tamashiro isn't just any ole run-of-the-mill graphic artist -- he's the most sought-out, in-demand graphic artist in the Biz. Everyone from DJ Quik to Herbie Hancock to Ashlee Simpson has asked -- and, for the most part, received -- for album art from Tamashiro, whose style can best be described as potent but not punchy or self-important. Precise without stretching its boundaries too thin. Or, if you believe the word of the company he keeps, "Point blank, Keith Tamashiro is one of the most talented graphic designers of our generation," says noted cultural critic and friend Jeff Chang.
Talent sure, but revelance too? Judging from the response of the Los Angeles arts community, the answer is a quick and resounding yes. Though it certainly helps when said community is largely comprised of Tamashiro's brethren, some of the most impassioned, progressive folks working in the hip-hop game today, many of whom benefited from an album cover or ten. It's a list that includes: Cut Chemist, DJ Shadow, Jurassic 5, Madlib, X-Clan, The Beat Junkies, Dilated Peoples. And Tamashiro's chief architect, a photographer named Brian Cross, otherwise known as B+.
Naturally, an alliance was formed. And it wasn't long before the motherlode of philanthropic efforts was birthed: the benefit concert. Spearheaded by Cross, Tamashiro's neighbor -- a renowned road manager named Lalo -- and Gabriela Lopez, who along with Tamashiro, is the co-founder of graphic art company Soap Design, I See You Presents Word of Mouth meets Brainfreeze (the concert's eventual mouthful-of-an-official-title) soon blossomed into an unimaginably colossal indie-rap conglomerate, with all of the aforementioned acts, and then some, pledging their participation at the Mayan Theatre in downtown Los Angeles on May 25. Talk may be cheap, but organizing an event of this magnitude certainly isn't. Hence the burning question: would people -- namely the notoriously fickle Los Angelian arts community -- come to pledge theirs?
Count turntablist legend Cut Chemist, who performed a redux of his showstopping Brainfreeze set alongside DJ Shadow, among the early skeptics.
"As far as the community being there -- I didn't think it even existed, to be honest with you," Cut says rather bluntly. "But when I saw the turnout, I was like, 'Wow, they are here, they will support this cause.' When we were putting this thing together, I said, 'This is the greatest show on earth, bill-wise, but are people going to show up?' I wasn't sure if people were going to be like, 'Keith Tamashiro, who's that?' But people definitely did show up. Now it's like, 'What else can we do?'"
In part, Cut's initial hesitation probably had something to do with the hefty admission price, which at $75 a pop, is hardly chump change, even for the noblesse oblige who fancy themselves hipsters these days. But the fact that Los Angelians -- hipsters, industry bigwigs, families alike -- did show up (and in droves too) speaks highly of Tamashiro's visibility in these communities. Bright lights and shining stars are usually reserved for the recording artists themselves, while the other artists -- graphic or otherwise -- toil in obscurity. Which makes it that much harder to discount Tamashiro's subtler gifts. Starting with his attention to detail, both in his work, and in his personal relationships.
"With Lalo, for example, Keith would do little side jobs for him from time to time, like designing road books and making laminates for him," says Cross. "The thing you have to understand is that there are two kinds of economy in this town. There's the corporate economy, which is you where you sign a major record label, you get paid, it's all legitimate, and above-board, and the taxman knows about everything. And then there's this other economy, which is an economy of love, or caring, or friendship. Keith definitely had a profile in the corporate economy, but really, his heart, and most of his work was for this other economy."
Big-heartedness is a quality that gets brought up quite a bit by others in their attempts to pinpoint the essence of Tamashiro. Chang says, "He's always been the biggest hearted person in any room he's been in." Cut Chemist seconded that notion. Cross called it "the power of Keith -- his ability to reach into community and bring people together." The music industry, on the other hand, is a cutthroat business. To stay afloat requires a mastery of that "other" economy. A sense of one's surroundings. Community, I think is what they call it?
"It's definitely grown up," says Cross, referring to the ideological and aesthetic rifts that drove the Los Angeles hip-hop community in the mid '90s further apart. "And this event was a measure of that. It definitely set the bar in terms of what's possible, and the ability to help each other out. In the end, it really showed us that we need to do this more often."
There's no secret that fractiousness and frivolity have always been rampant problems in hip-hop. Rappers, in particular, are roundly blasted for their lollygagging when called upon to take a stand, any stand (See: Bush and Kanye, Katrina and Juvenile). Overprotectiveness of one's turf, and any number of identity crises are often associated with mainstream rappers. Meanwhile, their underground counterparts rap with a chip the size of the Wiltern on their shoulder precisely because the barometer for success remains mass appeal, and because with each barely sold-out show at a local venue comes the anxiety that the window of opportunity is that much closer to being sealed shut. The potential conflict then, with a bill as massive as this one, becomes one of status, real or perceived. There's no such thing as second bananas when everyone's such a top dawg in their own right.
Luckily, on this night at least, everyone checked their egos at the door. "It's no secret, for example, that Cut Chemist isn't in Jurassic 5 anymore," says Cross. "So it's a little tense between them. But there were things that night that brought people together in ways that only Keith and Keith's work alone could've made possible."
The collective goodwill that comes giftwrapped with a cause like Keith's is one such equalizer. Consistent crowd energy throughout -- rather than the usual favoritism for headlining acts -- is another.
"Everyone came with a good vibe -- it was all about good energy," says Cross. "Families were there that had never been to a hip-hop show their entire lives, and they totally felt welcome, and had a great time. Keith's dad was there, and tears were running down his face the whole time."
All gushing aside, for the purposes of total efficacy, the benefit still needed to, well, benefit. At press time, the final tally had not been confirmed, although Cross guesstimates proceeds will end up somewhere in the $100-200,000 range, a startling amount if one factors in advertising and venue costs. And Cross is confident that there will be a demand for the concert footage, which he hopes to turn into a DVD, and, if all goes according to plan, might feature some of Tamashiro's more recent handiwork.
If nothing else, the benefit (which, along with the show in Los Angeles, included an auction, an additional concert in San Francisco, and several receptions) is proof that the hip-hop community is no longer content with settling for the reactionary. And by finding solidarity through familiarity, it can sustain its breadth -- without running out of things to say. Who knows -- maybe it's only a matter of time before hip-hop becomes recognized as not only the black CNN, but the CNN of the world. But for now, tuning into the local news isn't a bad place to start.