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DJ Garth Trinidad of KCRW on the Music and Nightlife Scene in LA

An Interview With KCRW DJ Garth Trinidad

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Los Angeles DJ and KCRW Chocolate City Host Garth Trinidad

Photo: Wendy Le

Amongst music-heads and Angelinos in the know, KCRW is the radio station--boasting an eclectic line-up of programs showcasing its own breed of discriminating, self-dubbed 'hand-picked' music. In late 2008, its Jazz, nu-soul, funk, hip-hop and world rhythms music program hosted by DJ Garth Trinidad, was moved to a prime time spot, weekdays from 8 to 10 p.m. He had been with the station for 12 years at the time.

Trinidad's star was already ascending with the Grammy Awards largely basing its new 'Urban/Alternative' category on his show, in 2003. In addition, he has also been credited with boosting the careers of musical artists such as Jill Scott, Kelis, Gnarls Barkley, and Van Hunt.

In more recent years, the LA native DJ has been expanding his influence even more with online-offline projects like Moja Moja and a slew of gigs all over town. I talked to him about the music scene in the Internet age, his unpublicized creative talents and the the power of word of mouth.

Q: You grew up here in LA, in Crenshaw District, right?

Garth Trinidad: I was a baby when I came here. I was born in upstate New York. I’ve got roots in the South, East Coast and Midwest. I’m just a Black dude with a bunch of stuff thrown in.

When I was living in the Valley, I got away from my roots. I felt like I could identify more with the White kids and be less Black. Looking the way I do allowed me to do that. I was heavily into skateboarding. I got into punk rock culture a little bit. My dad was teaching in Venice. His students were the guys who started Suicidal Tendencies and Beowülf. They were part of the whole skate movement with Z-Boys.

Q: Give as a little chronology of the early years and how you got started DJ’ing at KCRW:

GT: I studied illustration at Otis. That was in the mid- to late nineties. I was interested in radio. I was looking in the newspaper for a job one day and came across this ad that said, “Get paid to do radio.” It was this little hole-in-the wall spot called the American Radio Network. It used to be on Sunset and Hobart. I go there to audition and make it in. You basically pay them a fee to train. I ended up being pretty good at it right off the bat so they hired me as a studio director and I became one of the trainers.

I was already a big time fan and listener of KCRW. Once I had enough of [American Radio Network], I started volunteering in the front office at the station. I started to assist Liza Richardson on the weekends. I became her die-hard volunteer, never left her side. She became my mentor. She helped me with my demo.

Chris Douridas was the music director and said, “We’ve got to get you on.” Eventually, a couple of spots opened up late at night on the weekends and they gave me a slot--Friday, midnight to three, and that’s how it started. I started on the air in 1996.

Q: How did you finally decide on the show's original name Chocolate City?

GT: I went through hundreds of titles for Chris. Chris didn’t like anything I had. I went through my record collection. I came across two albums. Parliament never fails. One was Get Up on the Downstroke. It was going to be ‘The Downstroke.’ The other was Chocolate City. I let the DJs put it to a vote and they voted ‘Chocolate City.’

Q: In the decade or so since you started, what are the most significant changes you’ve seen in the music scene in LA, KCRW and radio in general?

GT: Los Angeles is a car town. Usually when you have a car town, radio is a component because people play the radio in the car. Part of KCRW’s popularity comes from the fact that LA’s such a car town. New York has great radio but who the Hell listens to radio in New York? Everybody’s on the subway with their iPod.

Los Angeles has great radio. KXLU to this day is one of my favorites--if not my favorite--radio stations. They’re in there having fun; the energy is just amazing. That’s where Jason Bentley got his start as the music director there. KPFK, KJAZZ, everything left of the dial...there’s good stuff...

LA’s character is based on Hollywood really. This is the reason people come here. The ideas people have of what Los Angeles is come through a screen. In the ‘90s, commercial radio began to get one-sided and cookie cutter (after the Telecommunications Act). It was harder to find music outside the box. Commercial DJs were personalities for a media gimmick which came through the radio.

KCRW’s breaking artists from Sade to Beck and Coldplay, throughout history in Los Angeles. Hollywood started listening to KCRW and hand-picking the DJs to do things. It was really Chris Douridas who saw how he could walk through those doors and become this magnificent supervisor for major motion pictures. Before Chris, nobody was really thinking along those lines.

The thing that separates KCRW from all the other 'left of the dial' stations is the presentation. It does sound like a commercial radio station but it’s a public radio station. When I listen to KXLU I’m looking for the balance; I need that charm, that “oops I mess up.” I love it.

Q: How does word of mouth work in the Internet era? Music is accessible instantly. Many say there’s no more underground.

GT: Twitter and Facebook posting is never going to compare to you and I sitting here talking about something. [Underground music] is more accessible today. But if it wasn’t the MP3s of today it was the 7”, 10”, and 12” acid test presses of yesterday.

Q: Speaking of tech updates, how’s the blogging going?

GT: I like it. I wish I could post every day. I end up posting twice a month, three times a month if I’m lucky. Each time I try to offer something to somebody. I go to a friend, artist, producer, label and say ‘let me put this up on the blog as a limited download’ and each time they go to the blog they know they’re going to get something for free.

I like to express myself in writing. I’ve got a lot of things that I like to say, and try to get people to stay conscious of what’s going on in the media ether.

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