Right now, San Antonio turntablist DJ Jester (Greg Michael Pendon, AKA the Filipino Fist) is on a nationwide tour, hitting New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis. The twist is that he's traveling the by-ways of this land courtesy of Boca Burger, driving their mobile to a metropolis near you, serving their grilled food at high-profile events. Being a canny entrepreneur, he's using this cross-country opportunity to get his debut CD River Walk Riots into stores and station play lists. If Sonny Boy Williamson could hock flour on a radio show to spread the word about his raw music, then why not this 25-year-old wunderkind?
by Jason Gross (July 2001)
What exactly nurtures an artist like this? A redneck Texas town near Houston called West Columbia and later, a Catholic boarding school in Arkansas as it turns out. It was there in the early '90's that Jester found nothing to do so punk rock, hip-hop and skateboarding managed to fill the void, as he became a 'music addict.' Returning to his native Texas, he found an appreciation of country music in a San Antonio scene that was ruled by metal and tejano music with the DJ scene there pretty far behind in relation. 'In that scene, I was forced to search for like-minded individuals,' he recalls. Revelations come in the form of San Fran 'table crew Invisibl Skratch Piklz and especially Kid Koala. Jester explains that 'when I first heard him, I was just thinking that this is exactly what I had in mind. From then on, I knew that I wanted to do the scratch DJ type of thing.'
Inspired as such, Jester and friends formed Underdog Turntablists in 1998. As true Under-pooches and bedroom DJ's, the four Filipinos (like the Piklz) began playing at each other's houses before making their public debut at a punk club called the Reverb Lounge. Although house music was big in the local scene, this was something of a coup as they were the first DJ's to play out there. Not surprisingly, the crowds were dumb-founded to see six turntables hooked up along with guitar and drums, wondering 'what is this?' In addition to the DJ Battles that the group set up and Wednesday night 'Hip-Hop Buffet' shows, this led to a 'Skratch Skool' that they hosted at the local Borders Books where they would invite kids to come in to learn DJ techniques (something the Board of Education should definitely take under consideration for funding). Though the group never got to tour, they did secure an opening spot for Mixmaster Mike when he rolled through town in September '99.
Thanks to the shows and the bookstore clinic, a DJ scene began sprouting there. 'We had a monopoly on it because no one else was really doing it there,' Jester proclaims. 'The DJ scene was there but there was no structure to it- people didn't work together.' Even then, it was a tough sell to get the burgeoning scene to expand. Around Christmas-time 1999 when Christian Marclay arrived in town, he had a hard time cultivating DJ's to work with him. Sadly, there were too many people who were too set in their ways and didn't want to experiment. Jester, needless to say, was glad to take Marclay up on his offer. In addition, Jester was managing and rapping with a six-piece band called Bucketfunk. Once he dedicated that he wanted to concentrate on his DJ work with the Underdogs (which was happening simultaneously), he moved on. As if that wasn't enough, he was also playing alongside other bands like local sensations Mechanical Walking Robot Boy, DJ'ing their CD release party.
Even all of that couldn't keep a restless soul like Jester occupied. During this time in the late '90's, he was not only working at a record store (an ideal environment) and putting out a bi-weekly newsletter for the Turntablists but also attending school at the University of Texas, working at the arts director for the student newspaper. When acts rolled through town, he was there to interview them and shmooze. After getting some quotes from Ice-T, he gave him a mixtape. T liked it and Jester got him to give him a shout-out that he would later use on River Walk Riots. Similarly, Willie Nelson was also solicited after a show- before Jester could even finish his request, Ol' Willie had already recited 'I'm listening to my man DJ Jester.' Sadly, the Texas troubadour didn't get a chance to hear Jester's sample/take of his songs that appears on the debut.
Last year saw a lot of changes in Jester's life and his work. First, the Underdog Turntablists broke up when the other members decided that settling down and marrying took precedence over DJ'ing. Hardly an acrimonious break-up, the group would still reconvene every few months to put on a show or do another Skratch Skool. Nevertheless, Jester enjoyed his new found freedom: 'when I was working on my own, I realized that it was easier to work by myself than having to baby-sit three other guys.' Jester was left to take up where the group left off, appearing solo at last year's SXSW Festival in Austin.
Around this same time, as he started working with multi-cultural DJ group Supa Brotha Scientists and becoming co-ordinator for a club's poetry slam, Jester also began work on his first record for the whole first-half of last year. This album revealed a mad scientist who could stitch together Richard Simmons, Iron Butterfly, the theme from 'S.W.A.T.' and 'Night Court,' Austin Powers, Terrence Trent D'Arby, Aerosmith, Beastie Boys, James Brown and Pavement into a super-funky head-spinning brew. 'The reason why I used so many old records and odd, quirky things was because I wanted it to be like a hybrid of mixtapes but still show my spirit inside. I was going for that kind of bedroom DJ vibe like 1200 Hobos/DJ Signify,' he explains. 'Hopefully people will get the feeling of a party while they remember old jams... Kind of like the block parties that we had in San Antonio around the gallery openings' (Jester's parties got so popular that the local galleries jealously decided to shut him down citing 'noise disturbances').
How, might you ask, could he get clearances for this smorgasbord? He couldn't, of course. That's why his latest came out as a CD-R. Even the local stores in San Antonio that support him are leery of selling his disc for fear of punishment by the record industry (and the fact that they're still smarting from a decade-old bust over 2 Live Crew). The potential of ensuing fame could indeed become a mixed blessing as such. 'I'm kind of getting nervous- as the album does better, getting more airplay, then I'm wondering what's going to happen. But I'm anxious to see what's going to happen in a way because I think it's bullshit. It's an art form. There's all these legal ramifications that I just don't understand enough I guess.'
Another spoke in his wheel came from the collapse of the company that put out his album. Two-Ten Records was run by the Hated Family, a local rap group. They decided to fold the label so now Jester has been forced to put out and pay for future pressings of River Walk Riots, which ran into snags as he was forced to use his income pay off mounting cell phone bills instead.
Strangely enough, salvation came to him in the form of soy burgers. After he graduated from college last August, Jester decided to rethink his life. Though he enjoyed working at the record store, he wanted to do something else. The school's career services offices led him to a job for Boca Burgers, driving their mobile around the East Coast. Seeing what an adventure this would be, he leapt at the job and began the Boca tour this March. Traveling to all the major Northeast cities, Jester guided the Boca mobile to art festivals, jazz shows and marathons where he'd set up shop, cook up burgers and hand them out to receptive crowds.
What should have been obvious to him but wasn't initially was that he was in the middle of a great medium for pushing his artistic endeavors. Though he had put out his album last Christmas and managed to get it into the Central Texas record shops where he thought it should be, the Boca tour provided to be an amazing opportunity to spread the word about his music. In Harvard Square, he charmed the Other Music store there with his grilled sustenance and managed to get his music sold at their shop- the way that he wow'd a local crowd at an open turntable demo certainly didn't hurt him either. Similarly in San Francisco, Aquarius Records got a hold of the CD and made it their record of the week. Alternative radio mavens WFMU in New Jersey (whose Brian Turner hipped me to Jester) even made his record a 'Hot Air pick.' Jester himself is amazed at how well this burger/music promo thing is working. 'This worked out for me in a crazy, kind of surreal way. I never thought it would be the tool to help me. I guess people do care about what they put into their bodies. I'd say 'Well, if you like Boca, have you heard DJ Jester...?' and they'd listen.'
Jester is also grateful to Boca because it meant that he could hook up with one of his heroes. Kid Koala was doing a show in Boston with his band Bullfrog. Jester met him there with his press kit including articles that kept comparing the two of them. It turned out that Koala had worked with Jester's artistic cousin in Montreal. This connection led to a Canadian visit where Jester and Koala rendezvoused at a Luke Vibert show. 'We hung out and it was great to pick his brains and get some input on how he got started, where he is now, where he wants to go. We went to some junk record stores looking around. He suggested some French listening records for different scratch sounds. It was totally like a dream.'
After the Boca tour ends in September, the road leads back to San Antonio. Even while he's away, the local scene has not forgotten him- the San Antonio Current voted him Best DJ in a listener's poll even though he's hasn't played a show there in a long time, much less even been in town. Encouraged by the buzz that's generating, he plans to work on a follow-up with the studios that helped him realize his debut. Don't expect it to be re-run though. 'Maybe we'll do some more experimental live instrumentation. Do less of a mix, more towards what's on the end of the CD, like sampling Pavement and doing more vocals, almost more Ween-influenced than hip-hop,' Jester laughs. 'We'll see what happens!'
You can get in touch with Jester at firstname.lastname@example.org
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