By the time Wett Money hits the chorus on recent single “Ginobili,” the crowd at Liquid Lounge is ready to go. It’s Friday, not yet midnight, but the dance floor, lit by flitting lasers, has already begun to thicken as people gig and dance and a constellation of raised phones set to Instagram films the East Palo Alto rapper.
At the rear of the stage, San Jose’s Top$helf Deezy poses for a photo with DJ Rick Lee from 106.1 KMEL. Just out of frame, holding another microphone, is the man behind it all, Frank Nieto II, also known by his promoter name SJ Major Moves.
This month, SJ Major Moves has four events at Liquid Lounge—one every week. Founded in 2019, the production company is part of a wave of recent promoters and organizers holding events in San Jose, and renegotiating the city’s cultural identity in the process. While Major Moves focuses on South Bay hip hop, events like CreativiTEA highlight the work of local Asian artists; Dullahan Productions stage the newest in metal and heavy music, while OTW Presents host local DJ showcases.
“We need to be more on top of it, making major moves so people can notice us,” Nieto says. “In San Jose, we’re always low and slow, and we like it like that, but we’re always talking about, ‘why not us? Why not us?’ It’s ’cause we’re low and slow.”
Nieto came up with SJ Major Moves in late 2017 with friends DJ Raffman and rapper AOneHunnit. At the time, he had just moved back to San Jose, buzzing with energy after three years in LA.
“I had almost like this grudge, I was like, why are we not doing something? We have all this DJ equipment, man, let’s just pop up in a parking lot if these clubs won’t let us in,” he says.
In addition to his almost-grudge, he had a phrase he was repeating like a mantra.
“Let’s make a move. Let’s make a move,” he says. “It just stuck.”
SJ Major Moves held their first show in December 2019, shortly before the pandemic began its own renegotiation of San Jose. Dubbed “Full Circle,” it took place at the Elegant Pub, a breakfast spot/bar in the Evergreen neighborhood that had become popular in the San Jose hardcore scene. The show featured many up-and-comers from San Jose, like Shawn Stackz, Zae Bandz and Trauma Fresh. Though he had been sure he could make some major moves, even Nieto was surprised by the turnout at his first event.
“We had 250 people in this eatery. That just gave it more of a push,” he says.
In October of 2020, SJ Major Moves hosted one of the last performances by San Jose rapper Cutty Banks. Only three months later, he was sadly killed in a mistaken revenge plot following a road rage incident in which he had been uninvolved.
At the time, Banks (legal name Melota Lasi) had been on a notable ascent, a rarity for San Jose rappers. He featured on the first verse of Big Myke’s 2018 single “Set Trippin’,” which had become a hit online for its thizz-faced bounce and memorable chorus hook about a Backwoods “thicker than a baseball bat.”
Nieto identifies Cutty as a local rapper to do things “the right way,” someone who worked hard and tried to support others in his scene.
“I do this for San Jose,” Nieto says. “I do it for my daughter, my cousins. It’s not just mine, it’s everybody’s. We all need a shot.”
Though he was also motivated by community, there was a very specific reason that Brandon “BQ” Quintanilla decided to start the event series Culture Night Market.
“This all happened in response to COVID,” Quintanilla says.
In February 2020, Quintanilla took a space with arts nonprofit Local Color for his production company EMLN. Soon after, a few other members introduced him to the owner of a small parking lot downtown. When the pandemic hit, and Quintanilla saw that lot sitting empty for months at a time, he got an idea.
“It felt like that was a great formula for us coming together,” he says. “She was also facing some symptoms of the financial situation, so I requested an opportunity to host an event in her parking lot.”
He described his idea: an outdoor marketplace where local artists and creators could sell their wares. Having worked the Capitol Flea Market as a teenager and traveled up and down the West Coast hustling streetwear in his 20s, BQ knew the ins and outs of a pop-up market. He offered her a percentage of the event’s proceeds, and—on August 20, 2021—Culture Night Market held their first event in the Nile Parking Lot behind the YWCA downtown.
Over the past two years Culture Night Market has grown from a ragtag event in an unused parking lot to a fully sanctioned series taking place in San Jose’s malls and at least one stadium. In 2021, there were seven Culture Night Market events. Already by May of 2022 there have been 10.
“One event led to another just because the vendors and the people in the community were demanding it,” BQ says.
Clifford Hayes Jr. has tabled four different Culture Night Market events. The El Cerrito-based entrepreneur celebrated the eighth anniversary of his streetwear brand Cold World 4863 this month.
“I always had a passion for fashion,” Hayes says. “People choose a lot of different ways to express theyself. I felt like the best way for me was through fashion.”
Hayes says he appreciates the opportunity of events like Culture Night Market. Having returned multiple times, he says he’s seen the growth from its first event in the Nile parking lot.
“I’ve seen them build,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot more vendors there, the more togetherness of the community.”
However, not everyone has always been pleased with Culture Night Market. The series’ grassroots beginnings saw them staging the first few events before obtaining permits. After their third event in 2020, someone called in a complaint to the city.
“We felt like we were doing good helping people, but people didn’t feel like we were doing good,” BQ says.
When confronted with the cost of doing the festival the right way (more than twice what they had originally struggled to come up with), there were months of struggle
“At first, I was like, man I can’t afford this. But then I thought, we’re going to do this, they’re going to give us the blueprint. Now there’s a way, a path on how to make this even bigger and better.”
Reached for comment, Kerry Adams Hapner, San Jose’s director of cultural affairs, says, “we are now working with Brandon and Angie very closely and are pleased to have them as regular contributors to San Jose’s unique sense of place.”
Next month, the series returns to PayPal Park, home of the San Jose Earthquakes. Events held at the arena are officially sponsored by PayPal and include a host of local performers. Among the many local artists at the site’s first event were cumbia bands, rappers, jazz musicians, funk groups and African drummers. Even with the increased space and funding, it seems there’s always more talent in San Jose to be discovered and shared.
“That’s how I look at Culture Night Market. There’s so much potential in San Jose. It’s only a matter of time before people recognize that it’s one of those big cities where it not only has an opportunity for a good job, but you could also make it doing something else that’s not the traditional route.”