There’s similar momentum behind the scenes. Two years ago, Crenshaw, 43, moved headquarters from San Francisco to Los Angeles and began to expand his roster. Among the many buzzworthy signees were producers Breach and Shiba San, both of whom drew interest from major labels (Breach’s track, “Jack,” went to Warner Music and Shiba San’s “Okay” was plucked by Ultra/Sony).
Dirtybird’s success isn’t a mystery. The label caters to an older crowd of dance music fans who have “burned out on big room EDM and are seeking something a little more laid back,” said manager Stacey Gamble. “It’s a growing demographic.” The demand is so high that Crenshaw was booked at mega-fests like Electric Daisy Carnival and Coachella as the underground outfit Get Real, a partnership between himself and Chicago house legend Green Velvet (Crenshaw, a father of two, is from Detroit).
VonStroke recently released a remix of Disclosure and Sam Smith’s “Omen,” which is currently climbing the Hot 100. Beginning Oct. 5, he’ll be supporting Disclosure on their forthcoming tour. Billboard spoke with Crenshaw to hear about Dirtybird’s humble beginnings and expansion plans.
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You’re from Detroit but moved to San Francisco in 2000, where you later founded the label. Why did you move out West?
It’s a short story. I was dating a Canadian girl who wanted to move to San Francisco. She didn’t end up getting a visa, but I loved it as a city and moved anyway.
Were you always DJing?
I had been producing music since I was a kid. I bought a four track recorder when I was 12-years-old. From about 1984 on, I only listened to hip-hop and drum and bass. I loved how dark and evil sounding it was until I noticed that there was, like, one girl at these shows. So I said, ‘I need to go where there are females.’ And the females were listening to house music. The problem was that I didn’t like house music because it was glossy and vocal-heavy and light-handed, so that’s how it starts. I wanted to bring in a heavier, dirtier sound that drew from hip-hop.
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Why did you decide to start Dirtybird Records?
There were two moments. I was working in a film production house and decided to borrow their equipment to make a DJ documentary. I interviewed tons of huge producers. That gave me the confidence to realize that I wanted to follow my own artistic dream. That was step one. Then I met my wife, who helped me get actually execute it by giving me a one-year trial where she basically helped fund it. It was a hard deadline. If I didn’t pull it off, that was it.
It seems like you pulled it off.
It was the most focused I’ve ever been in my entire life. I did everything humanly possible. Based on what I’d learned making the documentary, I was able to skip a lot of pitfalls and save a lot of money. I worked directly with distributors and did a lot of the legwork. I even shipped bundles to something like 100 DJs with handwritten notes.
Electronic music tends to evolve quickly, but Dirtybird has a distinct, consistent sound. Do you purposefully resist trends?
The best part about our label is that the theme hasn’t changed in a decade. Some trends have snuck in and out, but for the most part we stick to funky music that draws from hip hop and doesn’t take itself too seriously. We joke around. We use the word ‘booty’ a lot. That’s as trendy as we get.
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How do you see A&R? What do you look for and what do you avoid?
I’m super critical. I’m the devil. I’m hardcore. I still listen to every single demo we get. And the thing is, I limit us to 12 to 14 releases each year, so if we have seven or eight producers on our roster, that leaves a couple spots for each person. Dance music is too disposable. I’m not going to be like, ‘Hey, let’s put out 35 releases and see what sticks!’ I’d rather put out stuff we have full confidence in and really support it. If we think a song is going to be big, we go out on the road and play it every single weekend. We don’t just send an mp3 to a million promoters, we build hype in a grassroots way. If I email someone and say, ‘Look, I really think this song is going to be big,’ I feel like they take a second look at it.
Where did the concept for the BBQ series come from? Will you expand again next year?
Our first BBQ was just a free party that we did for, like, 12 years in Golden Gate Park. It had the best vibe; people making margaritas on the dance floor, people’s parents chopping salsa, people with their dogs and kids. It just got too big for that park, you know? Outside Lands pays something like a million bucks to hold their event there. So last year, we decided to bring it on the road. This year, the events got bigger, but they still felt personal. I don’t think we’ll ever be a 10,000 person party.
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So what will Dirtybird look like a year from now?
It will be a little bigger, but it’s certainly not going to be from sales. That’s something we've figured out. We’re not going to grow by selling music, because of streaming and blah-blah-blah, so we’re trying to develop the bigger picture – selling merch, doing BBQs, and so on. If we relied on our iTunes check to stay open, we’d eat it. It must be hard for a new label right now. I thought it was hard when I started, but I bet it’s 10 times harder now.
What’s something people might not know about the Dirtybird brand?
Our art is cool! Every year, I pick an undiscovered artist and have them do all of our release art for the entire year. This year it’s this guy from Rotterdam, Raoul Delio, whose stuff is totally out there. It’s like he went to the Galapagos and discovered all these cross-bred species of animals. And all our stuff is some weird interpretation of birds – eggs, feathers, you get the idea. I love it.