If listening to “My Year,” the latest, infectious single by Sacramento’s very own Soosh*e!, succeeds in shooting you upward a wave of optimism about your current state in life, it should be of special note that when he wrote it, some time ago, the song’s hopeful message rang hollow in his own ears.
During a period of some financial struggle and general listlessness, he set aside the general hook and handful of lyrics: “I woke up here this morning and I told myself that this gon’ be my year,” all with a stubborn certainty of a time in the near future when he could spit those rhymes truthfully. Now, by all accounts, that time has arrived. And with a string of profile-raising shows in 2016, and the bookends this year of a triumphant appearance at Concerts in the Park in June (the highest attended in decades) and a role in the highly anticipated second annual OntheBlock party in September, we could very well be in the midst of Sactown’s summer of Soosh*e!
Soosh*e!’s role in the Sacramento scene has steadily evolved since he first joined a drumline in his early teens, up through his first stabs at recording and producing his own material, to becoming one of the faces of Hot 103.5. Through it all, he’s consistently pushed community, curation and collaboration within his hometown, whether it’s promoting local shows or using his radio platform to boost the profile of regional talent alongside national acts. While seeming to be everywhere at once due to his rapid-fire appearances and social media shout-outs, he once described himself as “not an extravagant person. Just busier than most.” This is what first strikes you about Brandon Shimabukuro, aka Soosh*e!, in person: a rare combination of ambition and perspective. Being able to look at the music scene around him from the inside and out, he has a keen understanding of how developing Sacramento’s musical wealth points the way forward to a windfall for everyone involved, versus the all-too-common “up-and-out” attitude.
These days, Soosh*e! is focused on finding a balance to his grind between culture creator and culture promoter. Below, we sit down with him to learn the origins of his “infiltration” into radio, the value of positivity, and the cultural goldmine Sac has in its hip-hop.
How did you get started in radio?
Basically, it was one of those situations where a door opens and you go running through it. 103.5 was throwing this Sage the Gemini Halloween concert at Coyote Tap House, where I was the in-house host on Fridays. The event was sold out, but none of the on-air personalities showed up, because at the time they were a pop station. When I got there, they said they didn’t have anybody to MC, so they wanted me to host the rest of the night and just do my regular thing.
So I’m hosting it, it’s going crazy, because I’m working with a DJ that I know, the atmosphere is tight. The then-program director for 103.5 is there, because they’re super short-staffed, and they had to have everybody on hand. I guess Sage said something to her along the lines of, “Yo! Who’s performing right now? It’s going crazy out there.” She was like, “He’s not even performing out there, he’s just hosting the party!” After that she saw me interact with Sage and it was a cool conversation, she could tell I wasn’t a fanboy over an artist, that I could be professional while talking to somebody. And at the end of that night, she offered me a job based on all those situations.
Did you come into 103. 5 with a mission?
When I got there, I was kind of on the fence with myself, it was one of those things where you feel like you jump ship, because this was like right after 103.5 The Bomb turned into Hot 103.5, a full-on pop station. At the time, I was almost anti-radio. And prior to that, there was the whole Sac Hates Hip-Hop campaign that was going on. But I realized it could be a big opportunity. I didn’t necessarily come in with a mission, but as I was getting in it, I realized there were a lot of eyes on me being there, and on top of that, instead of the hip-hop community shaming me like I sold out, the reaction was like, “Yo, somebody got IN. Somebody infiltrated the system!” From that point on, there was also a cultural shift. Hip-hop was becoming more of a mainstream thing. Instead of a station having to be all hip-hop or no hip-hop, you saw all of the major pop stations going hip-hop. Probably the longest-running DJ from the 103.5 The Bomb era became the program director, and decided we needed to make that shift back as well. I was pushing that agenda slightly by just changing the tone of my voice on air. I went from doing this Ryan Seacrest sounding radio host voice to really letting my roots show.
Would an exclusively local hip-hop show have a big impact on the current scene?
If we were to do an all-local show, it would cheapen the value of the local. If you were to say, “Every Saturday, this show’s for the locals,” then what’s that going to mean for the person who only gets played on the local show? If you’re a local, then you should aim to get played next to the nationals. That’s when you get a track like Lil Darrion from the north side. He has a track with Sage the Gemini that’s getting airplay from us called “Friends.” That song sits perfectly in a rotation with national records like a Lil Wayne or Drake record. We do what we can to break out of stigmas like that, but you have to do it in a way that doesn’t cheapen the value of what actually happens here. People don’t realize that there’s always a slippery slope to everything, if you put all the locals in one box. If you’re a local who gets played on one station enough that another station has to play it, that’s when you know you’re doing something big.
Apart from radio, where are you at artistically now? Bring us up to date.
Well, James Cavern started Tree Tone Records, which is a locally based record label that currently has signed me, a group called Inland—that’s a super dope indie folk group—and then Cameron Calloway out of Vegas, who actually runs with Rasar a lot—his voice is incredible. Since that happened, we’ve kinda gotten into business mode a little bit. Really trying to understand the ins and outs of what’s going on in the industry and how to actually make things work. Learning distribution is far more important than the actual signing to a label side.
At the same time, I’ve kind of taken a step back from making music. Only because I was looking for inspiration and trying to figure out where my sound is gonna go after “My Year.” I felt like if I tried to do too many things that sounded like that song, I was gonna get stuck at some point. But I’ve been tapping in with a lot of other producers, The Philharmonik is one of them; Ru AREYOU, who’s on tour with Justin Bieber right now; and I tapped in with Steeziak and some others, trying to figure out what this vibe is going to be. I’ve also decided within this time frame that I don’t want to necessarily get stuck—I’ve kind of been leaning away from hip-hop and more toward how you can infuse dance and hip-hop, because if everything I do is uplifting, then someone’s gonna dance to that. So I’ve been really intrigued by the sounds of Kaytranada, Pomo, all these super dancey producer-DJs. I got involved with DJ Drewski and John Reyes and Sean LaMarr from DLRN, and we just started Good Company Radio. They’ve showed me the ropes as to where the dance scene goes.
What role does positivity have in your music?
This past year has been tough for me. I did get a little down for a bit. You know, every now and then you hit those financial struggles, and those kinds of things can turn into “everything sucks.” But I’ve always been the type of person to be forward thinking and whenever there’s something negative that happens, there’s always something you can do to solve the problem instead of dwell on what that problem is. There’s space in music to make that happen. Especially in radio—that’s your job. You’re there to give something to people that they can take comfort in listening to. The only reason people still listen to radio is because it feels like somebody’s with them, and they know that somebody’s alive and well on the other side of that radio, there’s always somebody there. When you’re listening to Pandora, nobody’s really there. The rapture could’ve happened, but Spotify’s still gonna be there. But we’re always gonna have that voice on the other side of the radio that says “I’m here.” That’s where the positivity for me comes from—knowing that there’s something you can do to help uplift somebody.
It’s tough for me to even make deeper songs now. I’ve tried to dig deep and go really south with them, but now the emotions that I feel, sometimes even when I’m down, I’m writing music to uplift myself. I was really down when I wrote “My Year,” but by the time I released it, I was feeling the best I ever had, I’d lost 25 pounds, I was getting fit and just feeling good about the people around me, and I went in to finish that song and I finally got it done, and I was sold on it.
You’ve explained that your name, Soosh*e! originally came out of a more denigrating term about your heritage. How do you approach your identity in your work now?
I actually had a conversation with my mom the other day—you know, I’m half Mexican as well as Japanese. My mom is the Mexican side. She was super mad. She said, “When people hear your music, they can see your name, no one knows you’re Mexican!” I feel like in our current generation, we’re not bound to the cultures that we were born into, we’re creating our own right now. People don’t see me as an “Asian rapper” and they haven’t for a very long time, though they did early on. Being that we’re in a city that’s the melting pot of all those things, you know, don’t worry what nationality I am, don’t put me in that box. Put us more in the context of all the new culture we’re building upon. I think that that’s where I try to position myself.
I read an article today that really sat with me, and it almost made me feel like crap about the way that conversations have been going recently in circles that I’ve been in. It was a picture of this girl, this little Caucasian girl who had full-on geisha makeup on, wearing a kimono, and her parents were throwing a Japanese tea party for her birthday. It was surfacing on Tumblr with the caption “Parents, please teach your children that this is not OK.” It was this whole thing about cultural appropriation or whatever. So a girl from Japan responds and says “It’s not okay that what you’re doing is not considered the racist thing, to say that she’s not allowed to learn our culture.” It was crazy to me, because the one side is trying to impose this idea of cultural appropriation, while the other was saying that when you come to our country, our customary gift is to give you something like a kimono, something traditional that you can take home and embrace as part of our culture.
And it applies to music. How are we supposed to get new music out if we’re not allowed to understand it from different veins? So many genres of music are based on cultural appropriation. EDM trap, for one—it’s a new genre. Now Waka Flocka is putting out new styles because of it.
Having knowledge of radio and promotion, do you often approach things as a curator?
Absolutely. I curate things because I’m surrounded by DJs every day of my life. And my mom was very much a party planner, and in a lot of those settings, she had me help out a lot. Even my dad, at home, he’s very into cars. He loves the Japanese VIP style cars, so he has one of his own, and he loves the idea of creating and curating the look of something, so that it’s very presentable when it happens. I’ve put all those things together, so my idea of making music and creating a project is more about creating a vibe for someone to party to. I’m designing it more in a way that a DJ would play it through. If someone listens to my next album, I want it to almost be able to be played through like one ongoing party.
See Soosh*e! on Saturday, Sept. 2 at the second annual OntheBlock party on R Street alongside The Lique, DLRN, Cameron Calloway, The Philharmonik and others. More info at Treetonerecords.com. Soosh*e! will also play #HOFDAY on Saturday, Sept. 16 in Old Sacramento with Hippie Sabotage, DJ Noodles, Joyzu, DJ Amen and Kool John, plus many others. More info at Hofdayparty.com.
**This piece first appeared in print on pages 14 – 15 of issue #247 (Aug. 28 – Sept. 11, 2017)**