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Regional Interests

Rapper and Audio Engineer Xarina Opens a Studio of Her Own in East Oakland

Earlier this month, audio engineer, rapper and singer Xarina hit a major milestone: opening the doors to Studio X Recording.

“When I walked in here, I just felt like it was already mine,” Xarina says, looking around the East Oakland loft space. “And so I let myself feel that for a second. And I was like, ‘Oh, I gotta make it happen.’”

In addition to pursuing her own music career, Xarina (real name Karina Flonnoy) has made a name for herself in hip-hop circles as the go-to engineer for Mistah F.A.B., the renowned Oakland rapper, Dope Era clothing owner and community activist. She previously worked out of Cutthroat Mode Productions in Hayward and Tooned Studios in Oakland, two destinations for up-and-coming rap talent, and she’s mixed songs for other notable Oakland artists, including rapper Capolow and singer Rayven Justice.

Though Xarina enjoyed working with the tight-knit Cutthroat Mode Production team, on quiet nights she’d sometimes find herself browsing Craigslist for a studio of her own. A few weeks ago, she stumbled on a spot that felt right. Tucked away at the end of a residential street in Jingletown, the space is located in a warehouse that already includes several other studios, including the video production house MOPIX Creative. The entire building was once owned by members of Green Day and known as JingleTown Recording, where clients included Smash Mouth and Iggy Pop.

“Good energy,” Xarina says, still taking it in.

A one-woman team, Xarina cobbled together her savings and a loan and signed the lease. (There were plenty of sacrifices along the way: It wasn’t long ago that she was living and working in her friend’s mom’s garage.) Then, it was time to get to work.

“Before we got here, all this was open space, so there was no wall here or nothin’,” she tells me during a recent visit on a Monday afternoon. With the help of some friends, she built a wall that sections off the loft into a secluded recording space, installed soundproofing in the vocal booth and loaded in her collection of microphones, audio interfaces and monitors. The space is a work in progress; Xarina says she’s still working on some cosmetic fixes and getting more equipment.

When you enter Studio X, you’re greeted with the cozy, lived-in vibe of comfy couches and the excited panting of Xarina’s boxer, Brixx. During my visit, Xarina’s friend DJ Tasi is hanging out downstairs, and CT Beats is upstairs behind the computer working on a bass-heavy beat. Although not a household name yet, CT Beats produced the hit “Why You Always Hatin’” by YG, Drake and Kamaiyah, and recently had a track featured in Beyoncé’s Ivy Park athletic wear commercial starring Hailey Bieber and Gucci Mane.

There’s clearly a lot of promise in the building—and in the Bay Area in general, Xarina will tell you with pride. Although it’s a common refrain that Bay Area rap talent often influences but gets overlooked by the mainstream music industry, Xarina is excited about Studio X becoming a place for artists to perfect their crafts and make connections.

“Everybody loves to complain about the Bay Area and what we don’t do, but like, what do we do?” says Xarina, who grew up in San Jose and has lived all over the East Bay for the last 10 years. “We are an amazing group of fucking people. I don’t care what we lack. What do we have? We have magic. We have this realness about us that you can’t really find anywhere else. So, like, forget the bullshit, what can we do? How can we connect? How can we build?”

Over the past two weeks, Xarina has had some of her first recording sessions. Mistah F.A.B. even came through on the May 15 opening day, and rising Oakland rapper Ally Cocaine booked a session a week later. Xarina envisions the studio as a free-form creative space. Her specialty is recording crisp vocals, and since she has extensive experience as an artist herself, she often works as a hands-on creative collaborator with the rappers, singers, songwriters and producers who book time with her.

“Sometimes I’ll just lay vocals for them or I’ll end up writing bars for them,” she says. “If I ever critique, I will always have a solution. If I don’t like that line, I’ll give you a better line.”

Xarina says that making her way in the male-dominated rap world prepared her for advancing in her career as an engineer. “I always knew I had to work harder and be better just to get some type of acknowledgment,” she says.

If women rappers are still treated like outliers in the industry, engineers are even more scarce. Women make up less than 5% of professional audio engineers, according to the educational and professional organization Women’s Audio Mission (WAM). WAM is based in Oakland and San Francisco, and Xarina interned there after graduating college in 2016. “I met so many dope women that wanted to do this,” she says. “The Recording Academy and WAM and a few others have advocated for women in the industry a little bit more lately. So that’s cool we’re getting kind of a spotlight and a shine, but it’s still not nearly enough.”

Xarina herself is certainly doing her part to contribute to that change. She has big dreams for Studio X, including one day hiring a team (including some of her WAM cohort) and expanding into a space that can accommodate bands and ensembles.

“I needed a headquarters to execute my ideas,” she says. “I’m excited. I finally have a thing, you know, I finally have a brand and company. So now it’s just like—let’s take it on one.”

Copyright 2021 KQED