Finishing Touches: Wingtip’s Keith Griego Twiddles Beats, Styles, Shows, and Graphics

Each Sunday morning this past August, at the Legionnaire Saloon in downtown Oakland, a reunion was being forged. Foreign Legion, made up of the lounge’s proprietor Prozack Turner (above right), along with Marc Stretch (above back), and Wingtip’s own Keith Griego aka DJ Design (above left), had not performed together in a decade, but a call from one of the talent bookers at Oakland’s Hiero Day music festival set the gears in motion.

To Foreign Legion, the stage show is at least as important as the setlist. After all, this is the group that once got a management deal based on a stage stunt that involved the featherweight emcee Prozack Turner hiding in the backpack of heavyweight emcee Stretch, before the latter turned his back to the audience so the former could unzip the bag and perform a verse from the cozy confines of the backpack–still hovering three feet over the stage.

So the theme for their return is “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.” There will be costumes, naturally, but also a six-shooter duel, Ennio Morricone needle drops, and an appearance by the Men In Black, who will be played by additional Bay Area hip-hop luminaries Bas-1 and Billy Jam.

Overkill? Not at all. Anything to rock the crowd.

A couple weeks after the successful show, we’re on a lunch break a block from Wingtip at Aventine, a restaurant-cum-venue where DJ Design and fellow Wingtipper Michael “DJ Iron Mike” Alzona recently played. There, we got to talk about the good, the bad, and the downright, monstrously, planets-aligned-against-you ugly, like the time Foreign Legion had a deal in place with the Beastie Boys’ imprint Grand Royal:

“We started off with the single. They printed stickers. And then the record label folded. [laughs] That’s the record industry for you.”

Wingtip:Foreign Legion is known for costumes on stage. What was the most memorable?

Keith Griego: The most memorable was my favorite event that we ever did. We were opening for the Black Eyed Peas. [They] were known to put on a really cool set in the 90s. This was over at Justice League [a dearly departed SF hip-hop venue]. And we knew that they were gonna breakdance, and we had already done many costume introductions. So we came up with something special. The second Star Wars movies were just coming out, so I would be Han Solo as the DJ, Zack would be Anakin Skywalker, and Stretch would be Darth Vader. So they come out to the Star Wars song, the really happy bright one, and all of a sudden they get into a light saber fight. When that happened I would play another record that plays the Dark Side theme song. Then as they’re battling, when one was winning over the other I would change the music to reflect that. And then they get to the point where both of them are exhausted, and Stretch who has the Darth Vader mask on decides to take off his helmet like they do in the movie. And when he pulls the helmet off, he has on a Mexican wrestler’s mask. Zach pulls another one of these things out of his robe. And all of a sudden C-3PO (which is my friend Bryan) walks up on stage and he pulls off his shirt and he’s got a referee’s jersey on. So he’s sorta standing between them and they do this acrobatic wrestling match. I played “Eye of the Tiger” for that segment.

WT: Which drum machine is on the cover of Foreign Legion’s “Kidnapper Van” record? Could you talk about the production?

KG: That is the E-mu SP-1200, which has historically been the sampler/drum machine for East Coast hip-hop from the mid-80s to even now. At the time, I had the West Coast equivalent, which was an Ensoniq EPS. Everybody on the West Coast had one of those. So I had one of those but I also wanted something like that. When I got that sampler, I thought, This would be cool to put on the record cover, because everyone who knows hip-hop, everyone who’s a head or an aficionado is going to recognize that.

WT: And it’s a very beat-centric record.

KG: Yeah, that came from growing up listening to everybody from Diamond D, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, and, most of all, which people don’t really give credit to, the Bomb Squad. My favorite rap group in history is Public Enemy. Their beats to me are sort of discordant and angry and just sound like noise. I love young, brash, arrogant music. If you were a fan of the Sex Pistols when you were a teenager, you would understand. Public Enemy had that same sort of sound, but it was through sampling, and with the voice of hip-hop, instead of rock.

Stones, Vinyl, Construction Paper, Teletubbies

WT: Why don’t you tell us about the time you and Peanut Butter Wolf co-founded what became a hugely influential record label?

KG: This was in the early ’90s, after Charizma, who was the second half of Peanut Butter Wolf’s rap group, was murdered. Chris [Manak, Peanut Butter Wolf], for the longest time was in a depression, understandably, but we started hearing all of this great music that was still coming out and he was like, Let’s do a label. So at the time there was a friend of mine named Bryan. He had some money saved up and Peanut Butter Wolf and I convinced Bryan, Let’s start a label. So he made the first loan to Stones Throw Records to put out a Charizma 12-inch. Peanut Butter Wolf wrote a small sort of business plan and sent it to Bryan’s dad, which [he] still has to this day.

WT: So is that when you became DJ Design?

KG: I was many different names, but I would say around 1998 I became DJ Design. Before that I was Keith Beats. When I came up with the name DJ Design, this is pre-Google, so I didn’t realize how generic that name sounded. It sounded like a cool name. I was designing record covers, making music, and I was a DJ. I remember I met this guy who ran a record distribution company at Justice League, at a show, it was like Rasco and Planet Asia or something. He was like, ‘DJ Design? That’s a horrible name.’ And to this day I remember that, because I was like How could he be so wrong? Now with Google, do a Google search on my name, it’s like, How could he be so right? And have that foresight?

WT: As a designer, who are some of your inspirations?

KG: My favorite all-time artist–although it has nothing to do with how good his painting hand is, it has more to do with how I think of the Sex Pistols or Public Enemy–it’s John Baldessari. A lot of my favorite works of his would be, let’s say, a photograph of a couple people, and he’d take a circle of paint and put it right over their faces. And I just thought it was the coolest look.

When it came to designing Peanut Butter Wolf’s album cover, “My Vinyl Weighs A Ton,” Peanut Butter and I were both into doing everything that was not technological. With computers at the time, people were starting to design the most ugly album cover work we’d ever seen [so] we did everything we could to avoid that. I went to thrift shops and bought polaroid cameras. I made sure that instead of typing a font out I used an exacto knife and cut logos out of construction paper without tracing them. I used construction paper ’cause it was the 1960s thing to do. A lot of the album covers back then, when they were trying to do something psychedelic, it was with construction paper. That was on like the LP “Kites Are Fun” [by the Free Design]. There was a band called Rotary Connection that had a lot of psychedelic colors. So we were inspired by those record covers to do something that was raw and had a 1960s feel, because a lot of the records we were sampling were from the 1960s.

WT: How about designing the Quasimoto character?

KG: The first time Peanut Butter Wolf and I heard Quasimoto, Madlib [who recorded as Quasimoto] gave Chris a cassette. He said, “You might like it, whatever.” And so we drove around in Peanut Butter Wolf’s Ford Escort, like a ’92 Ford Escort–at the time Ford Escorts had pretty good stereo systems. We would drive around San Francisco listening to this cassette, and we were just blown away [by] how good it was, how good the production was, how unique the voice idea was–to have that sped-up voice–and the subject matter was just a completely new concept.

So Peanut Butter says, “Why don’t you design an album cover for it?” At the time I was designing everything for Stones Throw, So I was like, Okay, I’ll get to work on this. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I was going to do something cartoon-y, ’cause that voice doesn’t sound human. It just sounds like some cute little monster. At the time I was inspired by the Teletubbies, because

I went to London, and one night I woke up in a hotel room at 4am or something and I [had] left the TV on and I heard the Teletubbies on TV. At the time we didn’t have the Teletubbies in America, and I could not stop watching them cause I thought it was so strange but so amazing at the same time. So when I was doing the cover I wanted to do something that was a character like that, that had a children-friendly element but at the same time fit that voice. So I designed this weird creature that happened to look like an aardvark, because I wanted something that had a snout–I don’t know, it was just in my mind. I also am not a great drawer by hand, so I just kind of made it soft and easy to draw.

What I was focusing on was what techniques I would use to make that album cover. I did a lot of cutouts out of magazines, so it’s partially collage and partially drawn, and the logo I did with just a paintbrush. I remember being on the ground outside my house in San Francisco over on Vicksburg St. in Noe Valley, and I was just painting on pieces of paper until I got one that looked pretty good. I came up with these things, and when we finally showed Madlib the idea, he put his hand to his mouth, started laughing, and was like, “That’s exactly what I was thinking.”

“Finicky About Shirts”

WT: Switching gears a bit, You’re the Eton point man at Wingtip. What do Eton shirts have, quality-wise, that makes them special?

KG: The difference between, let’s say, a ____ ____ shirt and an Eton shirt is the value you get out of the price. The quality comes from a couple of different processes: One of them is their finishing process for the fabric. What the finishing process does is it tries to straighten the actual weave in the fabric, straighten those fibers, and they use a company in Switzerland to do this, which takes one month to finish the fabric. In general, a company like ____ ____ takes one week. So if you took a microscope and took a look at the difference between Eton’s fabric and ____ ____’s, it would look like the difference between your neighbor’s front lawn that hasn’t been mowed in a month and your lawn that you keep up every week. The other difference is if you ever look at the collar of an Eton shirt, they’re always finished really cleanly. There are no wrinkles. They look brand new. You never need to iron an Eton collar; it’s already firm. They also have what they call a ‘floating collar stay,’ and that collar stay is built in to the collar so it will never fall out in the wash. You never need to look for new collar stays. You don’t need to do anything. It’s already there for you. There are a lot of options you get with Eton, but it’s also the quality of the fabric that makes it, to me, the best shirt out there.

WT: What would you want a customer to know about choosing their first Eton shirt?

KG: I would want them to know that there is a price that is almost double the price of what they expect to pay for a shirt. If you go into a store, you’re thinking, ‘$125 is about the price I’d pay for a shirt.’ Well, you can do that, and it’ll be a company like ____ ____. But what people don’t realize, and I wish they would, is that once you take that ____ ____ shirt and throw it in the wash or have it dry-cleaned, a few things will happen to it that won’t happen to an Eton shirt.

One is, most of those shirts from those companies will be covered in formaldehyde in order to keep it looking pressed. That’s nothing that you really want on your skin. Unfortunately, it’s not illegal, so it happens. As a difference, Eton has as many chemicals as a cup of tea. Secondly, you will pay $125 for a mediocre shirt, which is going to last probably a quarter of the time an Eton shirt does. I have Eton shirts from 2012 that still look brand new.

One thing is, if you own an Eton shirt and you want to keep it looking new, wash the collars yourself. People notice that your shirt gets dirty on the collar. It’s because you sweat and dust attracts to the sweat and the dust mixed with the sweat attaches to your collar. What you need to do if you’re like me and you’re finicky about your shirts, is I get a nail brush and a little bit of liquid detergent and I brush the inside of my collar and the inside of my cuff sleeve to get the stains out. And it keeps them new.

With a lesser shirt, the wash itself deteriorates it so quickly, but that doesn’t happen with an Eton shirt, You can take it out of the dryer, hang it, and wear it the next day without ironing it. That’s due to the finishing process.

WT: Which Eton pieces are you excited about this fall?

KG: Besides the shirts, I really like the knit pocket squares. I think that’s such a clever idea. A lot of people wear knit ties, and they’re getting even more popular. I see them in TV shows now. Attorneys are wearing knit ties, which I think is great. A lot of people think knit ties are just something you wore in college, but they’re definitely one of the classic ties. They’re classic because they’re so simple. You get them in a solid and they go with any of your big pattern shirts or big pattern jackets. With the Eton pocket square being knit, it’s a clever play on the tie, and I think that could be a classic as well.

Hot Seat

WT: What is your go-to work outfit?

KG: Bills Khakis chinos (M3 or M4), Eton Green Ribbon shirt (untucked) or Red Ribbon Shirt (tucked).

WT: What is your DJ gear set-up?

KG: Then: Technics 1200s, Rane mixer. Now: Pioneer DDJ, laptop.

WT: Favorite fabric?

KG: Gabardine. I don’t know why.

WT: Where were you born?

KG: Texas. Fort Sam Houston. My dad was in the military. I only lived there six months of my life and then I moved to Hawaii. Then Novato, then Phoenix, then San Jose.

WT: Favorite breakbeat?

KG: “Amen, Brother.”

WT: Knot of choice?

KG: Double four-in-hand.

WT: Collar?

KG: Extreme cutaway.

WT: Favorite album?

KG: PIL Second Edition aka Metal Box.

WT: Favorite Producer–You already told me. Bomb Squad, right?

KG: Yeah.

WT: Favorite cocktail?

KG: The old-fashioned. It’s the ‘Ah’ scratch of mixology.

WT: What scratch technique has been the most influential on the form?

KG: The ‘Twiddle’ scratch, which is basically a two-fingered crab scratch, which sounds sort of like a machine gun. I remember going to Q-Bert’s house in 1997. He’s like, “You wanna come over and DJ with me?” So we went over there, and he was wanting to see how I did that scratch. I showed him what I was doing–I didn’t know what to call it or anything, and then, you know, give it a year and there was a name.

WT: And then Q-Bert took that, right?

KG: He doesn’t do the Twiddle much. There are people that do the Twiddle that are amazing. One of them’s DJ Nu-Mark.

WT: But Q-Bert turned it into, like, the three-finger right?

KG: No, actually what it was, I believe it was DJ Disk was maybe also doing something that was the Twiddle, and another DJ was trying to figure out how they were doing the twiddle–you were only hearing it, there was no YouTube video, right? Somebody came up with the crab, the ‘Four-Finger Crab,’ but it started out as the ‘Two-Fingered Twiddle.’ It’s an interesting story and it will never be completely answered, but the default is, “Oh, Q-Bert started it.” [laughs]


Eton visits Wingtip this Friday for their Fall 2015 trunk show. DJ Design plays Saturdays at Delirium in the Mission.

Foreign Legion at Hiero Day photos by David Dines.

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David is Wingtip's storyteller. In addition to editing the Modern Gentleman's Blog, he has written for Wax Poetics, The Source, SF Weekly, and the East Bay Express, and others. His inspirations include Rumble Fish, Paul's Boutique, and Balzac. He studied English at the City University of New York at Hunter College and journalism at the University of Southern California. He lives in Berzerkeley with his wife and daughter.

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