Campground Superstar: 48 Hours With Claude VonStroke at Dirtybird Campout 2016

Claude VonStroke at Dirtybird Campout.
Juliana Bernstein/Get Tiny

Claude VonStroke at Dirtybird Campout.

Claude VonStroke — the towering, bushy bearded founder of Dirtybird Records — is being whisked about in a golf cart, zipping on one of many trips across the bucolic nook that is the Oak Canyon Park. Seated behind him, all I see is a giant raccoon hat, its tail whipping in the breeze, and the large mound of humanity that is VonStroke. At 6’4” he’s shaped more like a club bouncer than the dude behind the turntables; his calves are the size of swollen grapefruits.

But something strange is going on. Everywhere we drive, people are cheering and waving. Festivalgoers run up to the whizzing cart, cheeks streaked with face paint, eager to catch a high-five. A blonde kid in a tie-dyed tank top runs up to VonStroke: “Dude, can you please play a drum and bass set? Please!”

With a direct POV of the proceedings, it’s sort of like being strapped into VR goggles for 'The Life of Claude VonStroke.' Or maybe it’s Santa Claus. Because Claude — born Barclay Crenshaw — is not only the founder of Dirtybird Records, but he’s also its avatar. The unofficial, avuncular mascot of these weird proceedings.

When we hit a quiet stretch between two of the Campout’s activity stages, VonStroke turns to his mate sitting to my left. “I think everyone here knows who I am,” he yells over the diesel engine, eyes hidden behind thick black glasses. “I can go anywhere in LA, maybe one person will recognize me in a week. This is a weird feeling!” He pauses, smiling from ear to ear. “But it’s also kind of fun!”

The visionary behind this Dirtybird Campout, VonStroke saw something missing in the massive, evermore corporate and sterile festival circuit and wanted to try something different. And he knows a thing or two about throwing parties. Dirtybird’s event aspirations started when one of their original crew, Christian Martin, bought a soundsystem on his credit card. Together the collective started throwing small, free and now seminal parties at Golden Gate Park in 2003 — using a picnic permit.

From the success of these fetes VonStroke decided to create the Dirtybird Records imprint. As the label's profile grew in international esteem — thanks to early hits like VonStroke’s “DeepThroat”, “Who’s Afraid Of Detroit?” and “The Whistler”, and then later Justin Martin’s “Don’t Go” and “Hello Clouds”, Shiba San's “Okay” and Breach's “Jack” — so too did the Golden Gate parties, swelling to thousands of amped up lunatics. Eventually they hit critical mass, outgrowing their dubious picnic permit.

Juliana Bernstein/Get Tiny

Dirtybird parlayed their popularity into commissions to curate signature stages at mega-festivals like HARD, Electric Zoo and TomorrowWorld. In 2014, after their Golden Gate parties had outgrown their informal location, the team transformed the concept into a series of movable feasts called the Dirtybird BBQs. This summer they drew over 3,000 people to each city they visited (San Francisco, Seattle, Brooklyn and Detroit).

“A lot of time when I go to play a festival or am booked to play somewhere it’s impersonal: just come in, play some records, shake some hands and leave. I thought, ‘Now what if we did the exact opposite of everyone else? And we were out in the festival with the fans, doing stuff?’” he recalls on Monday afternoon, the first free minute he’s seemed to find all weekend. “So basically just create a big hangout.”

The result is this weird, wonderful, and highly inclusive soiree that is the Campout. Tucked into a ranch of private land in Silverado, Calif., Oak Canyon Park is seemingly tailor-made for such an event. Naturally blessed for a festival, and located less than one hour from downtown Los Angeles, the wooded ranch is surrounded by a cabinet of mountains that blocks out sound and provides a secluded blanket of secrecy to the proceedings.

Go Dancing in the Miami Streets With Claude VonStroke & Justin Martin (360 Video)

There are activities planned for all three days, dumb fun stuff like tug of war, potato sack races, costumed boat relays and dodgeball. There’s scavenger hunts, late night bingo and a talent show that looked like a Fellini scene filmed in the Upside Down of Ibiza. And throughout it all, Dirtybird artists and headliners like Green Velvet and Sage Armstrong can be seen hanging out in the crowd, and maybe even throwing a water balloon or two. 

With no separation between artist and festivalgoer, the intimacy apparently breeds camaraderie.

All attendees camp together in one location, and then make a short walk to the festival grounds that basically look like they’re pulled from Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park. Or maybe Wet Hot American Summer. Staff all wear patch-festooned Boy Scout shirts, and the vibe is about as friendly and non hostile as you will likely find anywhere with 6,000 inebriated young Americans.

Juliana Bernstein/Get Tiny

The fact that the Dirtybird Campout was started by a label is noteworthy, because there are very few commercial entities that could pull off an event like this. Not just because of its scale or international appeal (attendees bought tickets from 13 different countries), but because it’s clear from the event's vibe and inclusiveness that people feel like they’re among their own. Even though everyone gets split up into four colors for ostensibly competitive games, the contests only engender community. 

“The vibe is important because my goal is different. My goal is not to live and die by who’s booking me, my goal is to be our own thing,” VonStroke notes. “We’re really independent. Sure we can go play everybody’s parties and it’s awesome, but we don’t have to. That’s where I wanna get to.”

Major labels hire squadrons of street teams and pay untold riches in social media activations to achieve a fraction of this level of brand loyalty and fan engagement. So how exactly do Dirtybird pull this off?

“Everything we do is based on the fans,” VonStroke answers without hesitation. Fans send in merch ideas to the label, and they listen to their feedback about music and of course the Campout. They’ve built their own message board on their Birdfeed membership service. Reddit and other communities are instrumental. “We have our own chat rooms for the fans, so we can see what the vibe is on stuff,” he continues. “See what they’re liking and what they’re not.”

And that level of dedication is reciprocal, as can be seen in VonStroke recently being voted America's Best DJ in DJ Times' 2016 poll. High-dollar Vegas knob-twisters might be shocked, as perhaps mainstream dance fans. But not those who know the scene, and have a finger on the pulse of what dedicated house and bass music fans want to hear. 

Of course, not everyone saw it coming.

“I was like whaaaat?!” says VonStroke with mock surprise when asked about first hearing the news. “You know what it is? So like when they say one of the Greek Athens soldiers could beat 25 other soldiers, because they were so trained? It’s like the Dirtybird fans — they activate. They don’t just say, ‘Oh yeah that’s cool.’ They do it.

“Maybe we don’t have as many fans as Skrillex or Steve Aoki, but all our fans dedicated, for real. They’re here trying to live it.”

Claude VonStroke is releasing his first hip-hop single “Sleepy Kids” this Friday under the alias Barclay Crenshaw — which is ironically his real name — on Dirtybird’s STX&BRX sub-label. The full-length album hits in January.