No label. Self-owned. Self-made.
San Jose rapper, songwriter, producer, and chess master
It’s not every day that a person can come across a song that name-checks world chess champ and eccentric recluse Bobby Fisher. It’s even more remarkable that one of them would be a hip-hop single performed by a tribally tattooed rapper from downtown San Jose.
Rey Resurreccion is a rapper, songwriter, and producer. He is also a chess master and chess teacher. Today, with seven EPs and full-length releases to his name and his first major tour behind him, supporting Oakland stars the Hieroglyphics, the 28-year-old is coming into his own as an artist.
As you might expect of a rapper and a (chess) player, Rey’s lived a life of contrasts. When he was four, his parents divorced. Weekends were spent at his mother’s house in middle class Blossom Hill. The rest of the week, he lived with his father near Monterey Road, a neighborhood Rey describes as being on “the rougher side of San Jose.”
“Yeah, I’d spend my time getting into trouble with all the bad kids,” he says, laughing.
Soft-spoken, focused, and palpably exuding a strong work ethic (coffee is his drug of choice, like a student trapped perpetually in finals week), it is difficult to imagine the man ever having the time to get into trouble now.
Monterey Road is the subject of Rey’s 2010 song, “The Hometown,” performed with DJ Cutso of The Bangerz. The backing is a Mexican banda, an almost drunkenly maudlin wailing of brass, over which Rey conjures idyllic images of urban life: ice cream trucks, cookouts, flea markets, first crushes, gang bangers. If you replace the mariachi oompah with the jangle of the music hall, “The Hometown” is uncannily similar to Madness’ “Our House”—both bittersweet and unabashedly sincere love letters to homes that many would find neither so homey nor so lovable.
In one of the fleeting shadows that cross the piece, Rey alludes to being a member of the only Filipino family in a Hispanic neighborhood. It is just another example of the artist as anomaly. But far from the alienated rock-and-roll rebel he might have become, Rey Resurreccion is more a bridge builder and cultural interpreter, someone who moves easily between the contradictions of his life and who has a knack for bringing people together. He has collaborated often with Bay Area hip-hop act The Bangerz and producer Nima Fadavi, and he has ties to local clothiers Cukui and Breezy Excursion.
Beneath his good-natured diplomacy, however, there is steel. “With the business side of music, I’m very strategic. It’s always a battle. It’s always about going to war and having that state of mind to come out on top.” So speaks the voice of a chess master.
Rey became a chess fiend at seven, when his father taught him to play. That was before he started rapping in junior high school—but not too much before. For almost ten years, Rey has taught chess to elementary school kids as a volunteer with the nonprofit organization Academic Chess.
“This is my way to connect with kids, and to keep me grounded,” he says. “It’s cool to be with kids, you can be a goofball and they still appreciate you.”
Yes, the man who boasts “I’m a killer on the beat / leave your family in anguish” just called himself a goofball.
For all its sonic experimentalism, hip-hop, like chess, is a game of restraints. It is a highly conventionalized art form, where time-tested tropes of insult and self-assertion are mixed and matched to build on familiar themes, like player hating, microphone grabbing, and good-life living.
So, the blend of rap and chess is closer than chalk and cheese after all. In the compositions of Rey Resurreccion, listeners can hear the mind of a master strategist at work, laying down rhymes like gambits on the board.
The typical Rey Resurreccion song—if there is one—has two parts in tension: smooth, understated vocals over a backing of strong electric beats with rhythms that often pull against the flow, introducing a bracing element of discord. With samples ranging from mariachis to kitschy lounge arrangements to off-kilter jazz, Rey’s compositions could easily veer off the tracks, but they never do. His voice never loses its calm measure, and the songs never escape a mood of confident control. The sign, again, of a strategic mind.
Rey grew up steeped in hip-hop, but he does cop to the influence of his father’s musical taste, which can be broadly classed as “quiet storm”: Sade, Hawaiian reggae, and even Frank Sinatra. This legacy shows in Rey’s delivery, a smooth R&B croon. It also shows in his taste for retro samples.
In the untitled first track of 2012’s To the Top, Rey raps over a threadbare foxtrot that sounds like it’s by the house band in a lounge lost somewhere in purgatory. The rapper’s honey voice purrs with a gravelly edge that, in this setting, can’t help but evoke Tom Waits’ drunken loser persona, but amped up and muscular, like the cocaine-inflected monologues from Super Fly.
Rey’s earliest public appearances were at the now-defunct Voodoo Lounge. “That was like our central hub,” he recalls. “They would have touring acts stop through there all the time.” When the lounge closed last year, he says, the hip-hop scene dispersed. “We don’t have a performance venue anymore.”
Without a steady venue for live music, the scene has had to get creative. It has been the clothing stores that have stepped into the cultural gap. Rey explains, “San Jose has gotten to the level where the streetwear companies are doing very well. That’s taken over what the music scene was doing when the Voodoo Lounge was open.”
As a longtime friend of Danny Le, aka Dandiggity, one of the forces behind Cukui Clothing & Art Gallery, Rey and Cukui have formed a sort of informal confederacy. They sync the releases of new songs and new T-shirts, which they then cross-promote online. In his videos, Rey struts the streets of San Jose togged out in Cukui designs, and he has even recorded two CDs for the shop, Old Rust, New Bang! parts 1 and 2.
“Cukui is practically my label,” he says. “Wherever they ship their clothes, they’re shipping my music.”
People of a certain age may read this and think of an infamous haberdasher named Malcolm McClaren, who used to boast that he invented something called punk rock merely to help him sell bondage T-shirts. But, while San Jose hip-hop acts may compete as fiercely as the London punk bands ever did, exploitation seems genuinely absent in this milieu.
“The scene is very supportive,” Rey says. “Cukui and I have grown together, you know? And as we grow, we help each other out. We’re very much equals.”
In Rey’s estimation, San Jose’s diffuse hip-hop scene may be on the verge of coalescing in the space they are carving out on their own. Brought together by adversity, musicians perform where and when they can, playing galleries, art festivals, and daytime parties. “We pack Cukui. We pack the warehouses.”
“This city is just not set up…” he hesitates judiciously, “in a way that’s friendly to the arts scene. So we’ve been taking it into our own hands and doing what we can.”
Rey implies—okay, more than implies—that San Jose has taken an antagonistic stance toward its hip-hop community. A hostility that it doesn’t show to rock acts. “They see how everyone is dressed, and…” he trails off. “You know that’s just how they’ve been conditioned: to be afraid of something that’s different. The city needs to understand that what we’re doing is positive.”
In support of his point, Rey cites Oakland’s Hiero Day, a free outdoor festival sponsored by local hip-hop stars the Hieroglyphics, the band he has been touring with. It took place on Labor Day.
“They shut down three city blocks, thousands of people were there, and it was an extremely peaceful event. People took their kids and everything. I was just talking to a bunch of people there, and we were all saying, ‘When will we ever see something like this in San Jose?’”
Rey starts to answer his own question: “The first thing is to be established and for people to take you seriously. But right now, who am I to be like, ‘Hey, we’re going to shut down the street and bring everybody out.’ One day, when someone has the resources and the power to do something, like, maybe it’ll happen.”
And maybe it’ll take someone with the cunning and the drive of a chess master to do it.
Written by Richard Faulk
Photography by JRG Photography