Legend has it that a man in his 20s sat in a dimly lit dive bar in San Francisco with his brother and a couple of friends doodling on a cocktail napkin. These guys had a similar energy, a vibe, that sat somewhere on the fringe. They didn’t have any interest in chasing whatever was popular: they were outcasts looking to incubate their own sound because they felt like there was something special between them all.
According to the myth, a bar patron looked at the napkin and said, “That’s a dirty looking bird.” And Dirtybird was born.
Serving the underground dance community a dose of offbeat, wonky energy for over a decade, Dirtybird now stands as one of the most celebrated labels in house music. Choosing to forgo the traditional ideas of what electronic music should be at a time when the music industry is oversaturated with EDM, Dirtybird has made a name for itself by putting the music first and by continually asking the question, “What can we do to make this even more ridiculous?”
This mindset has blossomed into a ravenous and dedicated community, a family of sorts, that takes the time to appreciate the idiosyncratic nature of house music and cherishing the spirit of individuality. This has translated into Dirtybird’s notorious barbecue events and their more recent venture, the Dirtybird Campout, which has further fanned the flames of their cult like status. By catering to the weirdos in the club who didn’t have the time or patience or money to indulge in the absurdity of mainstream club culture, Dirtybird has become a solace for the club kids who live on the fringe; the label has become a bonding tool for the geeks, the nerds, the oddballs of the underground dance scene – and that breeds positivity.
It doesn’t hurt that Dirtybird has been the home of some of the underground scene’s biggest players of the last decade including turns from the likes of Eats Everything, Doorly, Shiba San, and Catz N Dogz among others, but it’s really the belief, the dedication, and the level headed attitude of the core players of Dirtybird that we have to thank for this phenomena.
Barclay Crenshaw, the rave dad at Dirtybird commonly known as Claude VonStroke, started as an engineer before eventually going all in to make the label a thing. Alongside the Martin brothers, Justin and Christian, D.C. bred producer Sean Williams aka Worthy, story goes that the crew dove headfirst into doing parties in the Bay Area. Crenshaw’s wife, and Dirtybird rave mom, Aundy, helped get the group started giving Barclay a year to turn the group’s dream into a reality. Between Claude, Worthy, the Martin Brothers, and early addition Jessica Phillippe aka J. Phlip, everything started from a desire to engage in the electronic music scene purely because they had a deep appreciation and love for dance music and fringe culture.
Partygoers in their own right, they soon earned a reputation for creating open minded, loving environments for people to get lost in – often bonding with others in the process. In an interview between Phillippe and Crenshaw for i-D, she detailed how she became a part of the crew simply by partying with them and bonding over their nerdy, idiosyncratic similarities and willingness to be silly. The openness has become a benchmark for how Dirtybird artists set themselves apart from many of their peers: choosing to invite others into their madness and making newcomers feel welcome to the party instead of being cold and unapproachable.
The early parties and overall wavelength between the core artists would lay the foundation of Dirtybird Records’ general aesthetic: a focus on music that was serious about not taking itself too seriously. It was tech, but it wasn’t explicitly about being technical. It was house, but it had some extra sleaze. It was the edgy, dorky, Cali-vibe answer to the more serious techno coming out of places like Detroit at the time; an appropriate palette cleanser and fun alternative. It was a major risk to counter program what was popular at the time, but according to multiple interviews with Dirtybird artists over the years, taking risks has always been one of their key modus operandi – a trait that would follow them and their success throughout the next decade.
And while their unique sound won a lot of people over early on, it was ultimately the core group’s humble attitude and openness with the community, however, that really moved people. In the early days of Dirtybird, the label was known to send their 12” records to tastemakers in the industry with handwritten notes – oftentimes unsolicited – to help foster a bond built on respect, warmth, and personal touches within the industry. In a 2013 interview with In The Mix, Crenshaw noted that they even took the time to “hand stamp” all the first records before sending them out – a fond memory of their humble beginnings. They hit the ground running with this approach: establishing themselves as personable, confident, and unafraid to take creative risks which would ultimately lead to earning the respect of some of the industry’s biggest tastemakers in the underground dance music community like BBC Radio One, Triple J, and support from dance music icons like Green Velvet, Richie Hawtin, and John Digweed early on.
Their cult status has led to multiple monster hits including the likes of VonStroke’s “Who’s Afraid of Detroit?,” Justin Martin’s 2016 LP Hello Clouds, and Shiba San’s dancefloor destroyer “Okay” – and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the label’s discography. The label’s A&R hustle, notorious for its “We listen to every demo” policy, has led to the discoveries of now label favorites such as Will Clarke, Justin Jay, and, most recently, Walker & Royce. Dirtybird’s dedication to showcasing eclectic and unique sounds has garnered them a reputation for supporting the little man – oftentimes predicting which DJs and producers will become successful well before they hit it big; a stamp of approval from Dirtybird is like glimpsing into the future. Over time, this has made each release on the label highly anticipated as each release comes with the expectation that the tracks are absolute bangers in their own right.
It comes to no surprise then that in 12 years and change, Dirtybird continues to develop its fanbase as it evolves and breeds more positivity. Between the growing roster of Dirtybird Players, its family of fans and supporters, and excellent curation skills, this is one of the labels that has not only carved its own niche in an oversaturated market, but it has helped shape the future of where #EDM – as it fizzles and bursts – could potentially go. Dirtybird is here to pay tribute to a time when the music was centered around sheer joy and fans of dance music were the crazy kids who bonded over the weird things they had in common. Not to knock on #EDM because, as many of Dirtybird’s veterans would agree on, all music has its place and should be respected, but at a time when dance music sorely needed diversity, Dirtybird became a grand community to engage with. And this has just enhanced the amount of positive vibes they’ve elected to share with the dance music community at large.
When people look back on this period, I’m confident in saying Dirtybird will be the gateway to a pantheon of sounds and the legacy of house music for many of the dance music fans in the world; similar to how artists like Tiësto, Frankie Knuckles, or Daft Punk paved the way for individuals to dig deeper into the archives that genres like house, techno, or disco had to offer. Their attention to ensuring the party thrives, that it doesn’t become solely about success or money, truly translates to a more pure form of musical ingenuity that was lost for a while, but has started to come back. And the crazy thing is, for some reason, all of this feels as if they’ve just gotten started.
Be sure to check out the Dirtybird BBQ when it hits Washington, D.C. on May 13. Featuring Dirtybird Players Justin Martin, Claude VonStroke, Kill Frenzy, Weiss, and Walker & Royce, it’s going to be a party for the ages.