In the summer of 2019, Oakland rapper Mani Draper was at a friends’ barbecue when he met Carl Brown, a local filmmaker, and co-founder of Corduroy Media, an Oakland-based video production company and boutique creative agency. They hit it off right away. Among the things they had in common was a desire to help local artists and creatives show off their talents. 

Brown invited Draper to check out Mama Dog Studios, a professional soundstage he co-founded with his wife, Pilar Zuñiga. Corduroy and Mama Dog are both housed in the same West Oakland building. When Draper took a tour, he was blown away.

“Carl was talking about this space. And I was like, ‘No, wait, it’s a real thing?’ It just sounded so Alice in Wonderland,” said Draper. “You don’t see places like Mama Dog Studios done this well.”

After visiting the soundstage, Draper envisioned how artists like himself could utilize the space for performing, networking, and cultivating new talent. A founding member of Grand Nationxl, an Oakland hip-hop collective and full-service creative agency launched in 2020. Draper and Grand Nationxl are doing locally what Wu-Tang Clan has done for New York City. The crew, who call themselves “a wild pack of lone wolves,” work on joint and solo projects, lifting one another up as they soar to new heights of success. (Draper’s new album, 33 Deluxe, comes out July 18.)

“Both from the creative avenue and from a business model, this can be brilliant to be the one platform the Bay has to break new talent and take advantage of all the talent that comes in and out of the Bay every year,” Draper said about Mama Dog Studios. “It just made sense.”

He pitched an idea to Brown. The concept was to have musicians perform at Mama Dog Studios, record the sessions, post them on YouTube, and find ways to monetize this original content. 

“I remember getting excited because I love music, and I love Oakland,” said Brown. “This sounds dope and fun to do.”

The first Live from Mama Dog Studios episode premiered on October 9, 2020, featuring Oakland bass violinist and singer Aneesa Strings. The classically trained musician recently went viral with her rendition of Too $hort’s Blow the Whistle.

“The first time we filmed, everybody was masked,” Brown said. “We did the music, and after we did, it was like, ‘we really need to interview those people.’”

After filming a few closed sessions, Zuñiga provided feedback on improving the series. She saw the potential to expand by showcasing local musicians, adding other creatives, and developing business opportunities with different brands and people. One significant change was to open their doors and invite in a live studio audience. 

Mama Dog Studios
From left: Pilar Zuñiga, Mani Draper, Courtney Payne, and Carl Brown share the desire to help emerging talent have a platform where to perform. Credit: Amir Aziz

Draper, Brown, and Zuñiga have played off each other’s strengths to improve the sessions. Draper has the arts and culture connections; Brown has the filmmaking and production expertise, and Zuñiga comes with the event planning skills. Courtney Payne, another member of the Corduroy Media team, also joined to help as the creative lead. 

“Once you combine all the things, it makes it worth it,” Brown said. 

Word quickly spread among local musicians about the unique new showcase. 

Another early performer, Oakland vocalist Jane Handcock, was preparing to move to Los Angeles when she took part in a live session at the studio. 

“Jane was like, ‘Thank you for that opportunity.’ It’s a lot of leveraging the relationships, calling in favors and all the homies were down during the pandemic,” Draper said. Handcock has since signed with Death Row Records.

A new format with a live audience and a house band

Live from Mama Dog Studios re-launched last November with a full lineup of panelists and musical guests hosted by Mani Draper and Elizabeth Boston, a producer with Cordoruy. Courtney Payne joined later as a permanent co-host. 

The new concept features a different theme each session with four panelists and three performers accompanied by a 4-piece live band. The space accommodates up to 200 guests, and people can RSVP to attend the event.

Payne described the format as “talking to people and being able to get their stories and distill that into something bite-sized for an audience to take in.” 

The live band is another element that makes each event unique. Artists get to perform a version of their songs that they wouldn’t have the opportunity to do otherwise. The band includes Julius Jarvis on the drums, Doug Jones on the keys, Aaron Tabor on the guitar, and Keith Snodgrass on bass.

“We are creating this one-of-a kind-experience from the second you walk through the gate,” Draper said. “It’s these layers of things, having the artists be treated like artists. It’s just care. And so much of that part has been removed from production in the Bay because it’s just hustle.”

The theme for the re-launch event was Building Creative Community: A Conversation with Local Storytellers. Guests included KQED’s journalist Pendarvis Harshaw. 

“People were excited, and it was a packed house,” Zuñiga said. 

YouTube video

When Draper first pitched the idea to Brown, he shared examples of YouTube creators and the footprint they have used to monetize their original content. 

“TV is changing now. the NFL is selling exclusively to YouTube—something’s happening,” he said. “If we don’t get on his game, we’ll miss out.”

While some social media creators can make money off original content, the team also understands that only a few ever become profitable. 

“There is still a part people can play if they want to see this kind of thing in Oakland,” Brown said. “It’s all the things: subscribe to the YouTube page, don’t just watch it on Instagram, leave a comment and get somebody else to watch, because those numbers actually do matter.”

The next Live from Mama Dog Studios is Saturday, July 22, at 3 p.m., and people can still RSVP to attend by emailing: The theme is Ownership is Power: A Conversation with Content Creators. Edreece Arghadiwal, co-founder of the Oakland Roots, and Alphonso “Tucky” Blunt, owner and CEO of Blunts + Moore cannabis dispensary, are among the panelists. Musical guests are rappers J. Walt, Dame Drummer, and artist Ryan Nicole.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.