I t’s a sell-out inside the Continental, with stylish folks from around the Bay Area crowded around a stage to see acclaimed LA trio KING. A handycam captures the groovy bass lines and delicate keyboard comps on a flat-screen television on the back wall, and the crowd shows love from start to finish, enough to earn an encore from the thankful group.
The performance is a watershed moment for the Changing Same (TCS), producers who host a weekly party at the Continental, showcasing musical minds interested in novel approaches to soulful music. On this night, Tommy Aguilar, well-known for bringing acts of this kind to San Jose under the Universal Grammar umbrella, is particularly proud. While a New York Times review may have just brought KING’s name into the mainstream, he’s been eagerly waiting to present the group since hearing their debut EP in 2011.
“We’re like knives. We sharpen each other. That’s what good friends do. It deepens the sound spectrum, and that’s what makes the unit what it is. You need that.” - Cory Randolph
In a musical world increasingly obsessed with classification, TCS stands out. The night they host is more about a feeling than a certain sound, and the eclectic roster of talent they have presented over the past year is a testament to the night’s diversity. Internationally respected selectors like DJ Neil Armstrong, DJ Proof, and Shortkut have all headlined, as have underground production duo Christian Rich and red-hot Soulection crew mainstays, like J-Louis and SoSuperSam. Live acts have included jazz/electronic innovator Taylor McFerrin, house band Tortured Soul, and vocalist SPZRKT.
On any given week, any or all of the producing group’s four residents maintain the TCS heartbeat: ringleader Tommy Aguilar (Chale Brown, formerly Chatos1013), futurist Mark Gamab (MarkPLSTK), the eclectic Shea Modiri (DJ Shea Butter), and the innately talented Cory Randolph (the CME). DJ Bluz and DJ ThatGirl are regular contributors. So is the night’s spiritual forefather, DJ Sake One, whose weekly San Francisco party Pacific Standard Time (PST) provided a blueprint for TCS’s future success.
When Sake’s party was running in the mid to late 2000s, he remembers PST regulars would occasionally ask if he was familiar with Aguilar’s work in the South Bay. Though Sake can’t quite pin down when they first met, just as with the other TCS residents, Aguilar’s reputation preceded him.
“The Changing Same [production] was a concept that literally came from a conversation me and Tommy had about music and society, the idea that ‘roots’ and urban music forms can [be] and often are the most progressive, quickly evolving, and influential genres,” shares Sake. The name came from the essay, “The Changing Same (R&B and New Black Music),” written in 1966 by African American writer and music critic Amiri Baraka.
“I wanted to bring a live element to a nighttime party—not just DJs,” Aguilar adds. “The Changing Same [concept] was a platform for this modern take on where R&B, soul, and hip-hop were kind of going,” Aguilar points out. “It had electronic elements. There was jazz in there, funk…. It was speaking to all those genres.”
With Pacific Standard Time and Universal Grammar as copresenters, the Changing Same debuted at Mighty in San Francisco in 2007. That night, the party presented LA duo J*Davey. Platinum Pied Pipers soon followed.
Randolph entered the TCS picture around this time, though he started as just an ardent PST attendee. “I was going [to PST] religiously because I was looking for something that catered to my musical tastes,” he says. One night, he finally decided to approach Sake to tell him he was going to be his shadow. Sake laughed, and Randolph insisted he was serious. Thus began a mentorship that helped Randolph finally pursue the art of DJing, a dream he’d had since first attempting to scratch on his Big Bird 45 record player at age four.
After a short hiatus, the Changing Same returned as a monthly series in 2010, this time migrating to the South Bay. With partner Michael Grammar, Aguilar and Universal Grammar presented LA beat scene luminaries like Flying Lotus and Gaslamp Killer in addition to Bilal and Theophilus London. However, Aguilar felt the party was moving away from its original intent, and placed the name on hiatus for a second time in 2011, opting to program under the banner Live at the Pagoda.
Then, in 2014, the Continental opened on South First Street—a new bar and performance space featuring craft cocktails, a hip ambiance, and—most importantly—an incredibly well-tuned sound system.
“It was the perfect room for what I wanted the Changing Same to be, in terms of how it was going to influence [the music scene],” says Aguilar. He soon took over the Thursday night spot, launching TCS as a weekly in January 2015.
Aguilar began assembling his roster of residents. He brought Randolph into the fold, as well as Mark Gamab and Modiri. Just as Randolph was, the two were aware of Aguilar from his work as a promoter. Both considered themselves fans.
“Tommy was bringing people that I wanted to go see, and I just wanted to be involved,” recalls Gamab. He and Modiri had become supporting fixtures for Aguilar’s shows inside the Pagoda, a makeshift performance space that was formerly an Asian fusion restaurant inside the Fairmont.
There’s an undeniable camaraderie among the four in person. Aguilar is in awe of Randolph’s wide-open musical palette, adding, “His ear is just deeper than the rest of us.” Modiri describes Randolph as “the yin to my yang.” It’s a feeling Randolph shares “without question,” adding, “We are kindred spirits. I’m always hearing something I’ve never heard before, and I DJ with him at least once a week.” The other three credit Gamab’s ability to stress the electronic component of the night.
“Everybody’s pushing each other,” notes Randolph. “We’re like knives. We sharpen each other. That’s what good friends do.”
Essentially, the format is not to follow one, giving the residents as much creative space as possible to share the sounds they, and their audience, love. The intent is to educate as much as it is to simply rock a crowd. That freedom remains a pleasant surprise for featured acts, even veterans like Shortkut. As Gamab remembers, “[Shortkut] said it’s one of the only parties where he’s been able to play whatever he wants and the crowd responds to it.”
“The crowds we produce in San Jose, whether they’re coming from the East Bay or San Francisco to join us for those special nights, the energy’s there, man,” adds Aguilar.
The cultivation of TCS as a home for hearing innovative, soulful sounds isn’t simply an outgrowth of Aguilar’s many years of programming locally. As he points out, the attendees from a decade back have largely moved on and started families. TCS has found a new crowd, and that makes Aguilar hopeful for what can be accomplished in his hometown.
“Due to Tommy’s and other people’s work in San Jose, it is arguably a more music-friendly city now than San Francisco is, and equal to Oakland,” says Sake. “The work they put in opens doors for all music lovers in Northern California. They deserve our appreciation and gratitude for that.”
In time, the crew hopes to export the night to other cities. For now, they’re content to keep playing what will soon be your new favorite song.
“I see cell phones Shazaming, trying to figure out what [song] that was,” says Randolph. “That’s how I know I’m doing a good job—that’s when you know you’re in the right space.”
Sake One (Featured in issue 9.2)