Some know him at Flower Vato, others as D.J. Larry – still others as the minster of a percussive ‘church’
By Casey Rafter
It is exactly the kind of scene you’d find Art Lessing and Flower Vato in, the two immersed in the drone of echoes bouncing off white walls in Red Museum’s Audiowaffle 59 as they begin a performance. Anticipation builds. Resting on a drum is an instrument called the “Space Bass,” an object that Lessing – a.k.a. Dan Quillan – designed to resemble the neck of a cello, though it still looks completely unfamiliar. With eyes closed, as if in a trance, Vato methodically beats on this stringed instrument. Then the scene gets livelier. Two men enter wielding leaf blowers covered in blue plastic sleeves that slowly extend into the air. The machinery powers up, and the music starts to rise.
Known by several monikers, Larry Rodriguez – a.k.a. Flower Vato, a.k.a. DJ Larry – is a much-celebrated Sacramento musicologist with decades of experience creating, discovering and sharing his obsession. Throughout his career, he’s made countless meaningful connections with some of the most notable cultural influencers in Sacramento and, in some cases, far beyond city limits.
Rodriguez’s childhood was spent in South Stockton and then on a Native American reservation in Southern California. He was surrounded by a family of talented musicians and artists.
“There would always be a lot of music going on when [my father] and his friends were hanging out in the living room,” Rodriguez recalls. “I could hear the music coming in to my bedroom at night … Santana, War, Malo, El Chicano … jazz stuff too … Les McCann, Eddie Harris, Donald Byrd, Mongo Santamaria, Cal Tjader, Willie Bobo, Chico Hamilton — it was all over the map.”
Rodriguez found himself drawn in by the sounds he found in each record, but also in the artwork on album covers. His parents fed his obsession when they purchased him a Mickey Mouse record player in an effort to keep him out of their own records.
“I was fucking up their records since age five,” he acknowledgs. “We lived with my grandfather and he once went to a junk shop and found a box of a couple 100 45s. I remember pulling them out if I liked the color [and design] of the label. I think I even kind of learned to read by looking at the records, finding out who the artist was and knowing that that was their name and that’s how to spell it.”
Rordriguez’s family settled in Del Paso Heights in the early 1980s. Breakdancing was new then, but, according to him, it was hard to find that style of music on Sacramento radio stations. The more eclectic music format of U.C. Davis’ student and community radio station helped to expand his musical horizons.
“We tuned into KDVS because they were one of the first stations to be playing any kind of underground hip hop stuff: Grandmaster Flash and African Bambara, the Treacherous Three, Spider D. They’d also mix in The Slits, The Clash, Gang of Four, Black Flag, Flipper,” Rodriguez remembers. “They’d even play a lot of local bands like Tales of Terror.”
In the early days of El Camino High School’s student-run radio station KYDS, the broadcast ended at 5 p.m. on weekdays and was open entirely during the summer. Beginning in 1984, programming during those off-times was taken over by community radio group Remote Possibilities, broadcasting from a church that today is the midtown Burger Patch. As a teenager, Rodriguez was especially drawn to KYDS program director Majala Johnson’s affinity for spiritual jazz.
“They didn’t call it that back then: She was playing Pharoah Sanders, John Coltrane, Lonnie Liston Smith, Gil Scott Heron, Ahmad Jamal. I’d call in and ask her about music,” he observes, noting that his conversation and requests often charmed Johnson. “She invited me to come down to the station and see if I’d like to do a show myself Wednesday nights from 10-11. She [taught] me you got to get your FCC card and a sponsor for the hour.”
Thus, with the mounting of “Soul Sauce,” Rodriguez’s first radio show at the age of 16, was the birth of “DJ Larry.” In the show’s name, he’d paid tribute to jazz musician Cal Tjader. Rodriguez’s taste in funk, soul, Latin and African music had a few uninitiated classmates telling him, “‘Man, this sounds like nothin’ but Bongo music,’” which is exactly the kind of music he’d play.
“I don’t even think Afrobeat was called Afrobeat back then,” he notes. “It was just African music. It’s always been funky blue notes based in the black musical tradition.”
Through Tower Records’ music magazine “Pulse!” Rodriguez often discovered new music, studying the reader-submitted desert island picks. When asked to seek a sponsor for Soul Sauce, dialing the editor of “Pulse!” was his first choice. The response he got opened up a jaw-dropping opportunity for him: Tower Records became a lending library for the young DJ.
“Mike Farrace, the editor of Pulse!, says, ‘Yeah, we’ll do it. As a matter of fact, we’ll let you check out 10 records a week from the Watt Ave location and 10 from Broadway,’” says Rodriguez, admitting that every penny he earned went to Tower anyway. “I worked my ass off doing landscape jobs in the neighborhood just to buy a goddamn $5 record.”
Week after week, young DJ Larry weaved through the two Tower locations to feed his radio playlist with artists like Mandril, War, El Chicano, Ray Barretto, Adolfo Valdez, Mongo Santamaria, King Sunny Adé and Fela Kuti.
Tower Broadway’s manager at the time, Ray “Catfish” Copeland, took notice of the selections Rodriguez checked out and offered him a job.
“I worked there for three and a half years, until I got arrested and fired,” Rodriguez admits. “It wasn’t the same management anymore. There were a few of us that were rebelling against the new management and we ended up getting really drunk and graffiti’d the windows.”
Explaining that his relationship with Tower owner Russ Solomon withstood the test of time, he adds, “I did his wedding like 10 years ago. That was really great. It was an honor just to be at the dude’s house hanging out with them.”
Though he’s called his DJ gigs his “bread and butter,” Rodriguez has performed as a percussionist around the world. Accolades from his many collaborations suggest that, though he’s modest about his skills, his musical instincts are well-tuned not only as a listener, but as a player.
“On the side, I guess, I would consider myself a self-taught musician,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I’m proficient in any instrument at all. It’s more kind of like an instinctual style of playing. It’s shamanistic, what I do. Almost in a religious sense”
After seeing Rodriguez perform in his brother Ashwut’s Latin funk group, Los Gallos, local musicians Clark Goodloe and Harley White Jr. recruited him to join their supergroup, Black Yacht Club (which also features cosmic local phenom Spacewalker). The talented quartet performs songs that celebrate the intersection where the African experience meets ocean mythology. According to Spacewalker, Rodriguez brings instrumentation to the band in forms she’s never experienced before.
“Larry never ceases to amaze me, just how many things he does and for how long,” Spacewalker says. “In addition to being an amazing DJ, he’s also an incredible percussionist. It takes a special ear to be able to find some of the pockets that he does. I’d been playing with the band — which is full of amazing musicians — and Harley surprised us and told us Larry is gonna come jam. [I was] freaking out, ‘Are you serious? This is amazing.’ You know, a legend on the stage with us. It was magical and from that night on, he’s been in the band.”
In 2007, years before White and Goodloe had a chance to recruit him, Rodriguez attracted the attention of Al Padrok, creator of Estonian performance art troupe Non Grata. The two were connected by Sacramento artist Steve Vanoni at Horsecow, an artistic community where Rodriguez lived at the time.
“Larry’s sounds connect to his world vision perfectly!” Paldrok says. “During the last 15 years, he has played all kinds of instruments with Non Grata in Estonia, New York, San Francisco, Houston, Sacramento and so on.”
Recalling their first performance together at the Brickhouse Gallery, he mentions, “We started our house-wide performance or ‘Magic Numbers Make the Waves,’ with Non Grata and Steve Vanoni. Gene Oldfield was in the middle of our exhibition with smoke, megaphones and chaos and suddenly I heard magic sounds taking over the place — so powerful and gentle. Larry [had] arrived during our performance, set up his instruments and started to play.”
Vanoni, who spent over 30 years as an artist and performer in Sacramento, has been a friend to the Rodriguez family for most of Larry Jr.’s life. The two have collaborated on performances at Horsecow in the early 2000s, and with Non Grata all over the U.S. and Europe.
“The Church of Soul and Funk at the Press Club was a fucking institution for 17 years, but I first ran into Larry because I was a part of that generation of younger creative people in Downtown Sacramento from the 80s,” Vanoni explains, noting that Rodriguez’s record collection is awe-inspiring. “Every day, there’s more stuff coming in the mail. He’s one of the treasures of Sacramento. For me, knowing and having Larry in the community adds to the quality of life of being in Sacramento and the planet.”
January 2022 marked the 25th anniversary of DJ Larry’s Sunday Night Dance Party, a noteworthy celebration of funk and soul music. What began at Old Ironsides in 1997 moved around to Blue Lamp, the Distillery and even a few rounds at The Press Club, which hosted the show until its closure in June 2020. Now, the music guru holds his melodic sermons at Solomon’s Deli, named after the aforementioned owner of Tower Records.
For many Sacramentoans, going to “Funk and Soul Night” – or “Church” – was a weekly self-care routine. According to Spacewalker, what started as a place to practice movement meditation became a chance to be free and get creative with how she saw and presented herself.
“I just fell in love with the whole vibe; I never experienced anything like that,” Spacewalker stresses. “I made a lot of friends that way and it definitely increased my confidence, on and off stage. There was no judgment so … I started showing up in really fun outfits.”
Remembering their first time performing with DJ Larry, she adds, “One year, I opened for Church on Halloween at Press Club on Funk Night. That was the first glimpse of the [Spacewalker Annual Halloween] Spooktacular.”
Though his days as a DJ with KDVS are gone, Rodriguez puts that same energy into online streams called “Tripping with the Flower Vato,” which pairs hours of psychedelic, tribal and funky music with kaleidoscopic visuals, making for an experience that some listeners feels like is a trip to another universe.
“Tripping With the Flower Vato definitely has a different mood than what I do with Flower Bomb or the dance party,” Rodriguez details. “That’s all music for dancing, cathartic release — that good positive energy. There’s a side of my music awareness that tends to gravitate to more esoteric and dark [music]. Tripping With the Flower Vato has been a way to share that music in my collection, now that I don’t do KDVS.”
As a performer and sharer, Rodriguez seems to some a modern-day musical witch doctor. Even the most ferocious music fans tend to walk away from his DJ sets with lists of new music discoveries to enjoy. For DJ Larry, he’s passing on the knowledge he gained and still gains from those before him who helped to fill his musical cup.
“Before YouTube, the thing was to make friends that were also into music, that have things in their collection that they could turn you on to,” he recalls. “That was always a great learning experience. Have a puff, have a drink, and listen to some sides whether they were people your own age, or older dudes that had a great knowledge of music that were able to [share] artists that you never heard of and I always appreciated that.”
In addition to his Sunday brunch sets at Solomon’s, DJ Larry can be found playing groovy tunes Friday nights at the Darling Aviary, Monday nights at The Flamingo House.