This is the time of the year for “best of” lists, and if you care about adult contemporary music (i.e. adult alternative, singer-songwriter, world music), you will want to check out the end year best of list from KCRW’s DJs Novena Carmel and Anthony Valadez who co-host that station’s signature music program Morning Becomes Eclectic. KCRW will reveal their end of year lists on Wednesday Dec 14 with a reveal on Tuesday December 13 (This event is virtual, and free with RSVP).
Morning Becomes Eclectic (MBE) is the three-hour daily morning music program from Santa Monica College’s public radio station KCRW (89.9FM) that is more than my daily music discovery habit. For thousands of listeners, it is the soundtrack of our time. For the last forty-five years, MBE has been the sonic tastemaker for the cognoscenti (and maybe even the Illuminati).
Created by Isabel Holt in 1979, MBE has had a series of decade-long stewards, each eclectic in their own way, including Tom Schnabel (1979-1990), Chris Douridas (1990-1998), Nic Harcourt (1998-2008), Jason Bentley (2008-1019), followed by Anne Litt who served as MBE host from January 2020 until February 2021 and who remains KCRW’s music director.
In February 2021, mid-Pandemic, Carmel and Valadez took to the airwaves with great enthusiasm and with what, after almost two years of broadcasting, seems to this long-time listener the most eclectic daily play list in MBE’s storied history.
It would be simplistic to attribute the present musical diversity to the fact that the majority of the previous hosts were white males and Carmel and Valadez are not – or that two minds think more eclectic than one – but that would be unfair to all the prior DJs and the wide range of music and musicians they championed. But it is testament to who Carmel and Valadez are.
Carmel spent her first 15 years growing up in the Bay area. She describes her mother as a “really solid parent,” very artistic and a dancer who was far ahead of her time as to holistic practices regarding health foods and meditating.
Carmel began taking piano lessons at six, learning to play classical pieces which have stayed with her to this day. At the same time, when Carmel’s family moved from Sausalito to the Bay area, her mother wanted to place her in a bilingual elementary school. She chose Japanese for several reasons, “I really liked sushi, I was taking Akido classes, and my grandfather who was a a genius businessperson put the idea in my mind that Japanese would be good for business.” Carmel eventually visited Japan for a few weeks in high school and then later, as an exchange student in college, she lived in Tokyo for six months, appreciation the Japanese “reverence for art and culture,” Carmel said.
Regarding her father, Sylvester Stewart, more popularly known as Sly Stone, the years Carmel was growing up he was not such a visible presence and was not really performing. Although she loves her father and cherishes his music and how legendary and great his influence is, she now says, “I’m thankful for the rest of my family for keeping me stable.”
Carmel attended UCLA and while in college began finding a place in the music world as a performer and booking music acts at LA clubs, which is where she first crossed paths with Valadez.
As for Anthony Valadez, he is very much a child of the 818 (the area code of the San Fernando Valley). Valadez, by his own account, was always all about the music. By his senior year in high school, he was already working at local college radio station KVCM. Then, when he attended Cal State Northridge, their public radio station KCSN, which had gone all classical (after being all country and before that jazz and classical) operated independently. Valadez felt that students should have shows on the station, so he lobbied the station manager; and when that failed, he appealed to the college’s Dean – end result: Valadez got his own show – Mondays from midnight to 2 AM, playing a mix of music. “That was fun… It was like a burrito of different favors, different flavors, different ingredients.”
Valadez would be DJ’ing at house parties in the valley – and occasionally, hardcore gang members would show up. “They’d threaten us and tell us to play old school music …[like] the Zapp brothers.” Sometimes, the threat of violence was so real that, Valadez recalled, “We’d call the cops on our own parties.”
Valadez’s was soon DJ’ing in a series of LA clubs. However, Valadez makes clear he was no club kid. “I would go to clubs with friends, but I’d always go watch the DJ [and ask] How do you do things?”
And it was at one such club, that Valadez and Carmel first met.
As they told me, tag-team style, there is an official version of how they met at the Temple Bar where Carmel was an assistant booker and Valadez was a DJ; but there’s actually an unofficial version as well, which is about the first time they actually crossed paths.
Carmel had gone to a party at ‘On the Rocks’, the club above the Roxy on the Sunset Strip. Searching for somewhere to sit, she saw a giant subwoofer. There was a laptop perched on it but enough space for Carmel, who is petite, to place herself. “The next thing I know, I look down and the laptop is on the floor. “She knew that whoever’s laptop that was would think she knocked it over, but Carmel said, “I definitely didn’t.” The laptop owner was – you guessed it – Valadez. Carmel apologized profusely.
Valadez jumps in, “I just remember… I was so mad. I was convinced she did it on accident [but] she was just so nice about it.” They both moved on.
Sometime later, when they were both working at the Temple Bar, Carmel adds, “Then we realized – it was you!”
For Valadez, success as a club DJ did not turn out to be an attractive career path. “I used to DJ in Vegas. Every weekend I’d fly there…. it was like crazy, you know? And then after the party, I’d see everybody just passed out on drugs. It wasn’t fun. It really sucked. I wish I could tell you some great stories, but it was just dark.”
He’d also had a series of music internships at places like Dreamworks and Interscope. ‘I was just trying to get my foot in the door,” Valadez said. “And every time I got my foot in the door, I just realized this wasn’t my environment.”
What Valadez really wanted was to be a DJ at KCRW. Anne Litt had reached out to him, but after an initial discussion, she fell off the radar, and so Valadez thought that was that. Turned out she had gone on maternity leave. “When she returned, she reached out saying, “‘I want to continue this’. And I was like: Whoa, wait, what? Okay, cool.”
Valadez picked up a late-night slot from midnight to three. “I wanted the morning show, and I knew that I had so much more to contribute,” so he hung in there. Radio was transitioning from Vinyl to today’s DJ Gear. “It was right at the bridge of these two different worlds coming together…I used to bring vinyl in and it was fun.”” he said.
Carmel’s own journey in the music world had taken her from working at Wherehouse in high school to booking venues and occasionally performing. “I’ve been on the stage at Coachella three times which is pretty incredible. Also, Lollapalooza, and the Warped Tour.”
Carmel’s becoming a DJ could be seen as a matter of chance, destiny, or even genetics – considering that her father began his career as a DJ on San Francisco’ KSOL. “I used to pretend that I was on the radio when I was [young]. I have recordings of that. But I have always loved to share music with people. That’s been my jam. And DJing was that.” Carmel already knew many of the DJs at KCRW including Valadez, Jeremy Sole, and Andrew Byrd (who Carmel knew from college).
At the time, Carmel and Valadez were already working together on a podcast for Champion City, covering cultural events in Los Angeles. “We could see that we had fun together and we would make silly videos for the internet just for fun.” Carmel asked Valadez’s help in making a demo to submit to KCRW which led to her being hired to do one of the super late-night slots; after which she got bumped up to Sunday nights. She loved it and was soon asking for all the shifts she could get. “I was new, and I was like: This is awesome. Yes, please [more]!”
Both Valadez and Carmel acknowledged the differences between being a DJ for a club audience and doing so on the radio: “When it comes to radio, you’re telling a story,” Valadez said, “I always use this analogy: You’re throwing a football into darkness, and you don’t know who catches it. Whereas [at a] club, you see who’s catching the ball. You see what works, what doesn’t.” Carmel adds: “Even the way that songs are woven together is different… when you’re on the radio, you can create more of like a mix tape.”
“It’s always nice when you’re just playing things and you get feedback from people,” Valadez added, “especially when it’s life changing — Where somebody catches your show and they’re going through something in [their] life and they’re like, man, you really helped me… it’s gratifying.”
At MBE, creating the playlist for each day is, Valadez said, “just jazz.” Although Carmel and Valadez often trade off whose song choice starts the day, sometimes their choices get derailed by current events – Presidential elections, George Floyd — the news on occasion prompts a response. “It’s unfortunate.” Valadez said, “but I have a bank of music that’s protest music.” Recently, when iconic Brazilian singer Gal Costa died, Carmel, who has a long-standing affinity for Brazilian music, played a wonderful set of her music.
Although so much of the music they play now is digital, there are occasions when they play vinyl, like that time they decided to play the entire 36-minute vinyl album version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going on?” on its 50th anniversary. “We found it in our library at KCRW,” Valadez said.
As a morning show, Valadez and Carmel see their music as setting the tone for the day. “I used to think that morning music meant something upbeat to help you wake up,” Carmel said, “But I’ve learned that it’s not always about being like fast paced and upbeat. It’s just something that has a vibration that can help transition you into the day; and that can be many things. It can be slow, calm music, it can be something upbeat. It depends on the day.”
Carmel and Valadez’s incarnation of MBE is a place where you might hear a track by Les McCann, Natalie Lafourcade, Ben Harper and Nick Hakim (as all were on a recent morning playlists) or where I first heard acts such as the Belgian duo Charlotte Adigery and Bolis Pupul. “They’re kind of like a mixture of the B52s meet Grace Jones,” said Valadez. Or current faves Say She She.
Valadez debunks the idea of KCRW as a place where artists are discovered, because in most cases, they have been performing for a while and it is only that KCRW listeners (such as me) are discovering them now. “Even if no new music was ever made, there’s tons of stuff to discover,” Valadez told me. For him, and for Carmel, it is really about the right song for the right moment, the mix and the flow.
Valadez describes what they do as being “the liner notes – the missing component to what was so important to music.” In other words, providing context for the music, or as Carmel put it: “connecting the dots.”
“I feel like this, this year we’ve been listening to our audience a little more.” Carmel said. “we’re learning that the storytellers are in our community [from] guest DJ sets, and the folks that we have that come through [the studio]. And they’re telling us why this story resonates… and we’re learning about our audience as opposed to it being a monolithic one-way conversation.”
So, in the spirit of that dialogue, we concluded our conversation with a lightning round of challenge music questions:
First musical memory?
Valadez: “Diana Ross. Theme from Mahogany. I was moved to tears and I was about six years old.”
Carmel: “Listening to a mix tape someone had made for my mom when we were in the car. And I really remember Carly Simon’s You’re so Vain. And Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega was also on that tape. Both of those were like great little stories.
Song you want played as you enter the room?
Carmel: “Pharaoh Sanders, Love is Everywhere.”
Valadez: “The Thong Song by Sisqo.” (They both start laughing)
And Final Question: Your ‘Drop the Mike’ / leave-the-room song:
Valadez: My Way.
Carmel: That’s definitely you. We’ll exit together to My Way.