It's a Friday night in October, and local rapper and producer Michael Quiñones is setting up a projector at Headquarters Café, a coffeehouse in El Cerrito that might be the ideal new spot to showcase his music.
The walls are decorated with vibrant street art and portraits of Africans and African-Americans. Hookah smoke floats from a pipe on the counter. The projector is the last piece of the puzzle: When he turns it on, the stage area is covered with a collage of psychedelic visuals.
Through the night, Quiñones takes the audience on a ride into his surreal sonic universe. Backing three rappers, he drops dark, otherworldly beats under the name Infinity Gauntlet. As his rap alter ego, Scatter Brain the Acid Atheist, he steps up to spit trippy rhymes.
Quiñones is the youngest member of Masters of the Universe, a venerated crew that's all but defined underground hip-hop in San Diego. With his latest projects, Quiñones hopes to spread the murky, murderous aesthetic that the crew's pioneered since the early '90s.
"Even if it's not the most profitable shit, I feel it's the most pure shit from San Diego," he says. "I'm just trying to carry on with tradition and not let that die out."
In 2010, he produced Night Gallery, an album for fellow MOTU member Genghis Khan that was nominated for a San Diego Music Award. This year, he's been organizing shows, participating in rap battles regionally and taking up the mic on his album Madness & Murder Vol. 1. Most recently, he produced rapper Vernon Bridges' Wrought of Chaos, an album filled with haunting yet beautiful beats.
Fellow rappers credit Quiñones for helping develop the Masters of the Universe sound.
"Cats can't front: They gotta know [MOTU] originated a lot of that soundtrack-sounding shit with the fucking monumental-ass strings," says Frankie Quiñones, aka Odessa Kane, Michael's older brother and a MOTU rapper. "And my brother was the one who helped bring that out."
Quiñones, 28, is half-Filipino, half-Mexican, and has a mischievous grin and devilish goatee. He grew up in Paradise Hills, the youngest of three children—all creative "black sheep" in a pragmatic family, says his sister, Dita. Frankie exposed Mike to underground hip-hop during Mike's elementary-school days, bringing his sibling along to events to hang out with the MOTU crew.
Quiñones drew the attention of MOTU when he started making beats back in 2000. He told others he was using the Akai MPC—the tool of choice for most rap producers—but he was actually using the MTV Music Generator game on Playstation 2. Crew leader Orko Eloheim featured Quiñones' beats on a series of projects called Nephlim Modulation Systems, the first of which dropped in 2003.
"He turned the Playstation into a sampler!" Eloheim says. "He came up in the golden years of [MOTU]. He knows what fucking dope is."
In 2002, Quiñones met four other producers in Chula Vista when they all arrived on the wrong night of a weekly hip-hop series. They formed a collective of beatsmiths called Kilowattz, whose ranks include singer Gonjasufi (who also rolled with MOTU) and instrumental beat duo Skrapez.
The group proudly traffics in a psychedelic, horror-movie vibe. Their samples are cinematic, and they put their drums through so many filters that they have a dirty, bloodsplattered texture.
"We all had that same aesthetic, trying to come with that raw shit," Quiñones says. "To me, it branched off from Masters of the Universe."
Quiñones tried his hand at rapping in 2006. He struggled at first, but improved once he saw an interview with Rakim, in which the legendary MC and hip-hop pioneer explained his writing process.
But his rhymes take a back seat to his beats on Wrought of Chaos, which reflects his work with Kilowattz. On "Vernon Bridges," piercing strings and reverberating drum thumps announce impending doom, as if Godzilla were stomping through a crowded metropolis.
His beats also often reveal a sense of wonder. On album highlight "Jelly Fish," he layers a frail violin, crashing waves and samples going backward atop a spacious clarinet to evoke a feeling of deep-sea exploration. Similarly, the gentle harp and faint twinkling on "Beautiful Polution" seem to illuminate a mysterious cavern.
Quiñones has plans for several future releases. He's finishing up production on a project with like-minded rapper Splurgeo, and he's started producing an EP for Odessa Kane, his brother. Also, he's working out details to drop a project on Gonjasufi's fledgling A1R imprint with a member of Skrapez.
For now, Quiñones remains thoroughly dedicated to his MOTU roots. He performs in rap battles to uphold his crew's reputation for serving rappers, and has learned screenprinting to make his own merchandise, taking after Eloheim's defiantly DIY attitude. And, of course, he continues to explore that trademark, psychedelic sound.
"The SD underground is based around that," Quiñones says. "That shit sounds normal. Shit that be sounding too glossy, I don't like that shit.
"I don't even like my clothes clean like that," he jokes.
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