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May 17-23, 2006

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Baron Zen

Shopping at the Mall: Baron Zen reflects on the lazy boring days of summer.

An Ode to Eastridge

How a future middle school teacher and DJ overcame suburbia through music

By Todd Inoue

BARON Zen is the alias of Sweet Steve, which is the DJ tag of a north San Jose middle-school English teacher who would rather not let his real identity be used for this article. But if middle schoolers are reading this, know that Squarebox Sam reciting boring ass Shakespeare quatrains in fourth period may be cooler than MySpace, Hollister clothing and My Chemical Romance combined.

At age 11, Sweet Steve and his best friend, Chris Manak, started collecting records. Allowance money was wired straight to Star Records on McKee, where they'd cop the latest rap and soul 45s. One summer day, Steve and Chris set up a "human jukebox" in front of their house. The plan was to play requests for a dime a piece. Chris' sister Amy, who set up a lemonade business adjacent to the jukebox, outsold them, but they weren't mad. They were in love with hip-hop during its beautiful, nascent golden period.

Chris and Steve would collaborate again in college. They and a couple of friends would record ragged songs about being bored, shoes, going to the mall, everyday San Jose stuff. They committed these tracks to a Tascam four-track under the Baron Zen moniker, had a few laughs, spun it on KSJS and KSCU a few times and then buried them for 14 years.

With fuzz guitar and freestyled lyrics, the Baron Zen songs land somewhere between Joy Division, Triniere, Dead Milkmen and the Germs. They're rough takes on pop music propped up by primitive drum programming colored by a quaint sense of discovery, especially on standout cuts like "I Gotta Get Rid of Rick," "Shoes," "Fuckin' Bored" and the Debbie Deb cover "When I Hear Music." They weren't shooting for the Billboard charts, they were just trying to amuse themselves on those boring days of summer. It's the sound of East Side kids trapped in the suburbs, escaping through a steady diet of rap and alternative music. "Walked in Line" is a faithful Joy Division cover. "Fuckin' Bored" could be the youth anthem of San Jose. Anybody who grew up in the South Bay and exhausted all the free things to do by noon on a summer day will sympathize.

"That is San Jose," says Steve about "Bored." "It's a musical ode to San Jose. That day I was actually bored. I was a college student and one day there's nothing to do. I picked up a guitar and started to play."

In the ensuing 14 years since the tapes were recorded, Sweet Steve became a teacher, and Chris became world-famous DJ/producer and Stones Throw label founder Peanut Butter Wolf. At school, Steve introduced kids to verb tenses while at the label Wolf released acclaimed albums by Rasco, J. Dilla, Madlib among others.

In 2004, Wolf reached a milestone by releasing his 101st record. He assembled a DVD/mix CD to mark the occasion and included Baron Zen's "When I Hear Music" on the compilation. A buzz began to form. Baron Zen tapes made the rounds around the Stones Throw offices. Madlib fell in love with "Shoes." J-Rocc fell victim to the hilarious cover of "When I Hear Music." Chris invited Sweet Steve to DJ and reprise his Baron Zen role at shows in L.A. and San Francisco.

Last month, Stones Throw released a proper CD of Baron Zen's more notorious moments called At the Mall. It's akin to having pimply high school pictures open for all, says Steve. "I thought he was joking," Steve remembers. "I didn't believe it. I thought, 'I don't want you to lose money. Is it going to be a tax write-off?'"

The latest rub is that some of Stones Throw elite are remixing Baron Zen tracks for an upcoming 12-inch single. Madlib is redoing "Shoes." J-Rocc is remixing "When I Hear Music," Wolf and Koushik are fiddling with "Turn Around."

Steve says At the Mall only hints at the vault of Baron Zen tracks still taking space in the garage. He doesn't have any celebrity ambitions, but he is thinking about buying a sampler. How will he get this $1,700 vanity purchase past his wife, who he met at F/X 10 years ago?

"I'll have to buy her something in equal value," he says, "and she'll be fine with it."

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