The studio was filled with smoke. My eyes were red and puffy and each breath I took was filled with leftover joint fumes. I stared through the haze over the microphone into the engineering booth waiting for talk back.
“That was dope.”
“Really? You thought so?” I asked.
“Yeah, bro. Great take. Now, let’s do one more.”
The playback began and I inhaled to get my singing voice ready for another round.
I was deep in West Oakland at a music studio tracking the featured vocals for a new hip-hop song by John Brown. It was called No Games, a dark, gritty tune that would end his new album King of Da Burbz.
How I arrived here began when I was driving along the Northern California coastline on a surf safari in Sonoma County. As I scanned the horizon looking for surfable waves, my cell phone rang. It was my new West Coast booking agent, Steve, who said he had received a call from an artist who wanted to work with me.
They had seen one of my videos and wanted to pay me to come sing in the studio. I liked hip-hop but I was ignorant of current trends. I was still stuck in the 90s.
Now, I was standing in a cloud of weed smoke in front of a mic with a severe contact high, and John Brown was watching me intently from behind the glass with his engineer next to him hovering over the mixing board. I had already sung several takes for the chorus and finished my part. That’s when John asked me to ad-lib.
“You want me to improv?”
“Yeah. Like, get into it, you know,” John said with heavy street swagger.
I was standing there being a giant, white square. The least hip-hop person on earth.
“Um…you want me to make up a rap?”
“Yeah. You know. Like…flow.”
I didn’t know. Flow to me was when I played an arpeggio running down from the top of the keyboard or when I told a story on stage between songs. I considered what my voice should do, coughed up a ball of THC, and the music returned to my headphones.
Despite my being a foreigner in the hip-hop landscape, I was experienced in the music world.
I had been an award-winning classical pianist as a kid and formed my first alt-punk band The Eviction Committee when I was 15. Then I had been part of Seattle’s early 90s rock scene, and afterward became a DJ in Prague in the mid-90s with several stints in other projects. Those projects included avant-garde jazz bands, composition gigs for dance troupes, and opening slots for metal bands as a spoken word poet.
For a couple of years, I was the music director for a non-profit that taught music, dance, and theater to differently-abled adults. But my music career as a songwriter, singer, bandleader, producer, pianist, and performer really began in 2000 when I won a series of songwriting awards. Then I formed my band the Night Watchmen, a triangulation of goth, Americana, and vaudeville.
My solo career started in 2004 when I started recording and releasing records under my own name, but videos were a new ballgame to me then. People didn’t have high-quality smartphones to film everything, so cameras were needed and my first forays into video were filming live concerts to VHS tape.
In 2006, my brother, Kaleb, asked if he could direct a video for my song Heads on Fire from my new album No War. I excitedly said, yes, and we went out into the woods of Minnesota on a subarctic-feeling, 33-degree November day and filmed a guerrilla-style video.
In the video, I played air piano, high kicked, and lip-synched poorly to my own song. I also wore shoes, which was something I rarely did then, but I didn’t want to lose any toes to frostbite.
After that, I was on tour for several years. Technology got better, and social media became a reality when Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter entered our global lives. People shot lots of live videos of my performances and I let them post whatever they wanted.
But John Brown didn’t contact me because of Heads on Fire or anything shot before 2010. What he saw was Wild Women.
In 2010, after I had released my Gentry Bronson EP, I wanted to make videos for all the songs on it. I contacted my friend, Paul O’Bryan, who was an excellent director and former editor at Paramount, and asked him if he would work with me on a video. I sent him the EP and said to choose the song he liked.
I was surprised when he chose Wild Women because it wasn’t typical of my songwriting or other material. I had written it while I was on tour and intended it to be a guitar-driven song that maybe a country artist would like to record. My version was both a send-up and an homage to John Mellencamp, and my fans and audiences liked my song’s message that all women be liberated and free.
I gave Paul carte blanche to make the video and he found an excellent crew. It was my job to put together the cast, and I had Christina Belli act as my casting agent. She found most of the women for the shoots, including her daughter Isabella who played my co-star.
The indie world required different ways to produce and make music, film, videos, and art than the financially well-funded entertainment industry, so Wild Women was shot over three days. But those three days took nine months to schedule and happen.
When our shoot days came together, we filmed without permits in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and at Ocean Beach. Our final location gave us permission and that was at the Hotel Utah Saloon south of Market Street.
The video required a cast and crew of 25 people and each and every one of them did the work for free. That was the amazing thing. They all did it just to add to their resume, for the experience or just for fun. They were all remarkable.
Despite Paul’s choice to veer the video’s storyline from the narrative in my song, the video worked well to illuminate my song’s theme: the brilliance of fiercely independent women. It was released in February 2011.
The final product featured some fun and wonky elements. My very Elton John-esque sunglasses and a frilly violet tuxedo shirt, which were both wardrobe elements chosen by Paul. Rose petals dropping on my head, thanks to a rose petal-dropping mechanism developed by Rob Nye. And Mardi Gras beads worn by the cast on the beach, which foreshadowed my living in New Orleans several years later.
A few weeks after the video came out, I was in the recording studio delving deep into my psyche to come up with a hip-hop ad-lib that would go with No Games.
In my stoned state, standing in the dark in West Oakland with a pulsing rhythm track bouncing in my headphones, I could not find the vocalizations that John wanted. After my fifth attempt, I asked, “How was that?”
There was total silence from the engineering room. Then, the engineer finally spoke, “John said that was ok. We can stop.”
“No, no. I can get it,” I pleaded.
“Ok, let’s do one last one.”
This time, I incarnated some weird, wounded native ghost. Someone from my ancestry. A Native American dying in the void, and I yelped and cawed and whooped like a fool. It sounded ridiculous.
When the track ended, John spoke up quickly and I heard through my phones, “That was dope!”
I left the studio into the Oakland night not sure what had just happened or who John Brown was, but I had been paid and I hoped it sounded good.
After my 2011 European tour ended, I returned to San Francisco. Because I was between homes, Paul O’Bryan let me stay on the pull-out couch at his place. His roommate, Mark, a drummer who would later cast me as the role of ‘father’ in one of his band’s videos, was excited to talk to me one morning about John Brown and No Games.
Mark seemed a bit bashful when he asked, “So…you just worked with John Brown?”
“Yeah, man,” I replied.
“That’s so cool.”
“I didn’t know him until I met him in the studio in Oakland. He’s a great guy.”
“But you know John Brown? The white rapper?”
“Um, yeah, dude. I was just singing on one of his songs. And I think he’s Latino.”
“No, Gentry, man. John Brown. The White Rapper from VH1?”
“He was a star on Ego Trip’s The (White Rapper) Show on VH1 where MCs competed. He almost won but there was a controversy, man.”
I hadn’t watched VH1 in several years. So, Mark played me some videos of John Brown performing on the show. There he was. My buddy, John, rapping for millions of viewers.
A year later, I was preparing to return to Europe for a tour to support my new album Within a Sigh and a Curse. I hadn’t heard from John since I left the studio in Oakland, and I got a phone call.
“Yo. What up, G?”
“Hey, John! How are you?”
“Yo, King of Da Burbz is coming out, and I want to make a video for all eleven songs on the album. Let’s make a video for No Games.”
“I’m headed to Amsterdam in a few days so can we work out the details when I get back?”
John replied quickly, “I’m in New York. Put together a crew and I’ll meet you in Amsterdam. We’ll film it there.”
For some reason, I said, “Yes, ok. Sure, John. I can put together a crew.” And once again the strange gods of art and music sent me Bram de Hollander who agreed to film for free with a skeleton crew in Amsterdam just weeks later.
Bram had done an incredible job filming and editing a live solo concert of mine at De Groene Zwaan in De Rijp, Holland, and I felt he would do a good job. I left everything else to chance and improvisation. It had worked out before.
During the middle of my tour on a day off from performing, I took a ferry out to an industrial island near Amsterdam to meet Bram and John. I was with my Frisian buddy, Marten Spinder, who was coming along to be our audio replay guy. After passing by a series of stark, metal warehouses, giant cargo ships, and Greenpeace’s boat the Rainbow Warrior, we arrived and began filming.
It was a wet and brittle cold day that slipped quickly into night, but we got a lot in the can. Afterward, Marten and I went out and had many strong beers to celebrate. The next morning, I woke to the loud sound of the doorbell ringing at the flat where I was staying. Moments later, I was shook and told to answer the door by Sacco Koster who rented the flat. John and the crew were there for our second day of filming.
Sacco was my European booking agent, promoter, tour manager, and a good friend, but he didn’t seem happy about our early morning wake-up call. Despite his annoyance, I managed to convince him to let us film on his outdoor terrace. Then, we went out into the city and finished filming in the center, avoiding the police because we had no permits. I was nearly late catching a train to my gig that night.
John disappeared again after that, but a few months later, he texted me to say he was releasing the video. When I got to see it, I turned up my volume.
My music career was always teetering on the edge. A train nearly falling off the tracks. And the things I worked hard for never seemed to come to fruition. But the strange, unanticipated events were the ones that seemed to come together with ease. It was only later that I realized how cool it was to take part in the more bizarre, interconnected events. The ones I never intended.
That’s how I felt when I found myself singing solo and a cappella at Oakland Coliseum, which happened a few months after the No Games video was released.
I was a piano punk standing near the dugout with no piano. It was just me and a microphone and 44,000 seats around me. My voice was delayed in my earphones, which were shorting out and barely working, as my words echoed seconds later into the thousands of people surrounding me.
Baseball fans who had tuned in to watch the Oakland A’s play the Texas Rangers also got to briefly hear and watch me broadcast on live TV. I was filmed singing the U.S. national anthem with a terrible haircut that looked like the 1970s bowl cut I had as a kid. The same kid who learned to play Mozart on an old, upright bar piano with keys that fell off as I played.
I stood in front of home plate and looked up into the audience. My image was up on the giant Jumbotron video screen and green grass was under my feet when I sang out for the people and the expanding night.