Skater/guitarist Tommy Guerrero plays in double time
Music talk with Tommy Guerrero
by David Ma
“I’ll take the dusty sound of a 45 over slick studio tracks any day,” so says Tommy Guerrero, whose name alone conjures two uncommon histories:
On one hand, he’s the storied amateur who defeated fifteen pro skaters at San Francisco’s first Golden Gate Park Street Skating Competition in 1984. For the next decade, he’d pioneer street skating internationally, bringing attention to a sport that seemed to have reached its competitive limits by then. He’s been covered in skate publications from Germany to Japan, and, at the age of forty-one, designs graphics for Real/Deluxe Skateboards, a successful San Francisco-based company he helped established.
On a completely different front, Tommy Guerrero has been releasing instrumental records since 1995. Beginning with his 10-inch EP, Backintheday, the discography he’s quietly built bleeds hip-hop, funk, and soul influences. Playing bass, guitar, keyboard, and vintage samplers alongside drum machines, Guerrero creates music that glides across the streets he used to skate on. Currently, he collaborates with a variety of vocalists, rappers, and musicians as his work is released on Quannum Projects. Later this year, Loose Grooves and Bastard Blues — Tommy’s debut LP — will be re-released to commemorate its ten-year anniversary. While most only garner attention in a single field, Guerrero has balanced two worlds respectively.
Guerrero examines hip-hop’s influence on his music, which legacy he’d rather be remembered for, why he prefers “the sound of a 45,” and other musings on the musical end of his dual history.
Can you tell us what’s in your studio, for all the folks who admire your homemade sound?
Recording-wise, I use Pro Tools, a Mac Powerbook, and a Digi 002 mostly. I’ll still pull out the four-track when it’s right. In terms of gear, I use 610 mic pre on everything. I record direct bass and guitar most of the time. I have a two-year-old, and my studio’s right below his room, so it’s all about headphones, man. [laughs] Let’s see what else? A Rhodes, Juno 106, Micro Korg, various vintage drum machines, Technics, of course. Oh, and lots of records!
What’s the workhorse of your production center?
My ’63 Fender jazz bass. That’s my second child. [laughs]
Most of your songs have real thick bass. What do you look for in a bass line?
You just feel it. I just play to the groove and it’ll come. I like letting the rhythm of the beat dictate the bass line.
Is the organic feel of your beats purposeful or just ended up being that way?
For the most part, it’s on purpose. I’ll take the sound of a 45 over slick studio tracks any day.
How so? Explain that a bit.
Things are more lifelike that way. If it’s too pristine and void of any human nuances or subtleties, it removes the listener. My approach is very spur-of-the-moment, so what you hear is pretty much what came to me at that point. I don’t really do demos or pre-production or scratch tracks. What you hear is what you get, for better or worse. I want to sound tactile, like you can reach out and feel the grit.
As a vinyl enthusiast, what the difference that strikes you when listening to a CD?
The depth. Vinyl has sonic girth to it. Maybe it’s from lugging records around, but to me, they have a warmer quality to them. Shit, maybe I’m high on goof-berries. [laughs]
Some of your early releases were on James Lavelle’s Mo’ Wax imprint. How’d that happen?
I forgot exactly how. But he or someone at the label heard my music and liked it, and it took off from there. I’m just real grateful for that whole experience.
Most of your records have been instrumental pieces. But if you could pick one rapper — current or past — to make beats for, who’d it be?
Rakim! Hands down.
Reflect on the impression hip-hop made on you while growing up.
I was in my teens and it was the early ’80s when I first heard “Rapper’s Delight.” It was the attitude that attracted me. Like skating and punk music, it was a big “fuck you.” I also admired the do-it-yourself aspect and how cats would jack beats out of necessity to make music. I also grew up seeing graffiti on trains and running from cops. In terms of how it’s affected my own music, I dig the audio collage aspect of true beat creating.
Which producers do you look up to?
That’s real hard to say because some lack consistency and change from album to album. But Premier has a great ear and knows what rocks. RZA has a unique slant because he uses obscure shit you’d never think of using. And even if the records ain’t obscure, he’s able to make it work without sounding cheesy. I’ve always loved RZA’s approach. I’d also have to say Hank Shocklee and what he did for Public Enemy.
So what are you favorite rap albums?
Eric B. and Rakim, especially Paid in Full. Rakim is king. Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation… is like being struck by lightning. Um, Tribe Called Quests’ Low End Theory has great production that knocks you out. Schoolly D’s Saturday Night is so ill and can still rock the club. I’d also throw in some random KRS records too.
As a kid who grew up in the Bay Area, you were still influenced with East Coast hip-hop. Is that fair to say?
Definitely, as you can see from my list. Most of my favorites are all East Coast cats. I think it’s the raw honesty of life that hits home. You can tell that what they’re illustrating ain’t no bullshit. You can feel the energy of big-city living.
So would working with Rakim be your absolute dream project?
Playing with Bill Withers is my dream. I’d be content just watching him do his thing.
Along with hip-hop, are there any specific soul or funk artists that helped sway your interest from skating to music.
Well, like I said, Bill Withers of course. Sly Stone, Betty Davis, Stevie Wonder of course, and Curtis Mayfield. Oh, and I can’t forget Al Green and Booker T.
What would we find you listening to on any given day nowadays?
Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise.” What a great fucking song that is. Talking Heads’ Remain in Light is another insanely good record I listen to all the time.
Who’s the one artist that has influenced you most?
I know I brought him up already, but Bill Withers. He’s an all-around bad ass!
What’s more satisfying to after all these years: playing a great song or landing a great trick?
They’re different vices. Skating’s a way to vent, release stress and anger. I mean, skating relaxes me. It stops the gears from turning, you know? Playing music is actually more like skating than any production work. I would rather not engineer, edit, or be behind the board at all. I do it out of default and necessity. So, I’m not sure which is more satisfying. Both are stress relievers.
After a unique career of being a pro skater and a well-liked musician, which legacy do you want to be remembered for?
My music. Music reaches a wider audience and speaks to people. I get to communicate without the failing of language. Skating’s more of a solo loner trip. [laughs]
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