Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Dream Day 2015 Honors Oakland Style Master’s Legacy

DJ Apollo throws down

DJ Apollo throws down

The legend of Mike “Dream” Francisco was repainted al fresco at this past Saturday’s Dream Day. An afternoon-long celebration of the aerosol arts and cultural hip-hop, the event was a heartwarming tribute to the TDK Crew member and graffiti-writing pioneer, an inspirational figure and community mainstay, tragically murdered in 2000. This year’s event marked 15 years since Dream passed, yet his memory—and legacy—seem stronger than ever. Not only was this the 5th annual Dream Day, but also the second straight year at its current location, the Greenpeace Yard on 7th St. in West Oakland. The continuity was a nice touch; several of last year’s Dream tributes, including a huge central wall, remained up, while newer pieces were worked on throughout the day.

Dream Day has become a much-anticipated event for Oakland’s cultural hip-hop community, and one which cements the important role aerosol writing plays in it. It’s a day where graf veterans and newbies alike mingle and paint openly during the daytime—a cultural, sometimes-illegal, practice usually held under cover of nightfall in clandestine locations. It’s also somewhat of a High Holy Day for the still-active TDK members, with near-religious significance. And it’s a day where OG rappers, DJs and breakers perform live and maintain their community standing, transmitting authenticity to a new generation, most of whom were drawing with crayons in preschool when Dream and his peers were putting Oakland on the aerosol art map.

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The unquestioned highlight of the afternoon was an emotional appearance by Saafir, the legendary rapper and Hobo Junction member who’s been confined to a wheelchair for the last few years due to health reasons. Saafir was originally scheduled to perform, but alas, his health didn’t permit that. Still, he snuck away from the clinic he’s undergoing treatment (for spinal cancer) for a few precious moments to address the crowd. Afterwards, he was swarmed by well-wishers and posed for a pic with Dream’s son Akil.

Besides viewing a yard full of Dream-themed murals and murals-in-progress, late-arriving attendees were treated to an amazing set by DJ Apollo (TripleThreat/Invisible Skratch Picklz), who threw down hip-hop and breakbeat classic after classic, in turn inspiring veteran Pinoy hip-hop crew Knuckle Neck Tribe (KNT) and other b-boys and b-girls, to pop, lock, strut, show off footwork, and bust headspins and freezes. When you’re watching guys in their 30s and 40s breakdance, you know it’s a good afternoon. More than one person remarked that the spectacle made them think they were in the Bronx, circa 1984 – a good look for Oakland in 2015.

Other highlights were provided by Nump and Equipto, two veteran Bay Area emcees who had nothing but love for Dream. Nump dedicated a song, “Be Like Mike,” to Dream, performed his hyphy-era classic “I Got Grapes,” and said “yadadamean” frequently, to the crowd’s delight.  He also brought out special guests J-Boog and Mac Mall during his set, who performed their hits “Let’s Do It Again” and “Sic Wit Tis,” respectively. Equipto, meanwhile, came to spit bars. The original Bored Stiff member showed why his lyrical rep has remained strong among the region’s indie rap scene for two decades. Zion-I’s Zumbi Zoom also rocked the mic, with a rendition of the now-classic “Don’t Lose Your Head.” Also spotted in the crowd: The Grouch (Living Legends/G&E), Pep Love (Hieroglyphics), and DJ Platurn (45 Sessions/Oakland Faders).

The maturation of the Bay’s hip-hop and aerosol scene was evident from the fact that many attendees brought their kids. Still, there was plenty of adult fun to be had, including a beverage stand which served up cold brews and sangria. Other nourishment was provided by lumpia and chicken from the Lucky Three Seven Filipino food truck.

Along with Hiero Day, Dream Day has become one of the most reverential days of the year for Oakland’s hip-hop community. Its significance was apparent even to those who have no personal memories of Dream, a stellar artist and style master who was an even better person in real life. The cultural ritual of honoring the ancestors who walked before us is a longstanding one, but one which happens too-infrequently in hip-hop. But to see Akil—who was only a baby when the first benefit event honoring Dream was thrown in San Francisco some fourteen years ago—grow into a tall young man, strapping with pride and confidence, not only portends hope for the next generation, but validates the efforts of event organizer Marty “Willie Maze” Aranaydo and the TDK Crew. They’ve taken up Dream’s name like a patron saint of authentic hip-hop, which of course he is. All these years, they’ve nurtured his legacy, refusing to let it fade. In the process, they’ve kept the cultural heart of Oakland hip-hop beating.


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As Development Boom Bubbles, Oakland’s Arts Scene Increasingly Troubled

Community memebrs discuss art at an Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition meeting

Community members discuss art at an Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition meeting

Last January, when Mayor Schaaf proudly preened in a Burning Man-style art car during her inauguration, hopes were high that art would become a priority. After all, Oakland’s much-ballyhooed cultural renaissance had brought national and even international attention to the city, completely remaking an image once invariably linked to crime and blight.

Libby Schaff rode in an art car during her inauguration lat January

Libby Schaaf rode in an art car during her inauguration last January

But perhaps arts advocates should have paid more attention to the fact that the onetime Skyline High cheerleader and Jerry Brown aide was driving around in a motorized snail. Just six months into the new administration, there’s been little, if any, forward progress; the arts community has slid into crisis mode, and city officials’ lack of accountability and direction where the arts are concerned is a big reason why

Two weeks ago, the news from the arts scene was that the Rock Paper Scissors Collective was looking for a new home after it was informed its rent would be rising. Last week, even more portentousness appeared: First Humanist Hall—supporter of underground film festivals, non-profit organizations, and community gatherings—was declared a nuisance due to noise complaints from new neighbors. Then the City Council chose developer Orton for the Henry J Kaiser space over a competing proposal from a group including longtime arts supporter Randolph Belle, which was focused around community benefits (including a workforce development plan, in conjunction with Laney College). Instead of a mid-size arena, hotel, and convention center, the space is now expected to hold tech offices and a brewery.

Detail from Brett Cook's

Detail from Brett Cook’s “Reflections of Healing”

Development vs. Art

But that’s not all: Last Thursday, the Building Industry Association of the Bay Area (BIA) announced it had filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, alleging the percent for public art requirement, which took effect this past February, violated the First and Fifth Amendments. In a press release, the Pacific Legal Foundation’s Tony Francois claimed the ordinance “harms the public interest,” although it’s unclear how public art, which is by definition beneficial to the community, could be detrimental. BIA’s Executive Officer Bob Glover called the ordinance “irresponsible” and claimed it would further drive up the cost of housing, even though the majority of the development projects in Oakland’s pipeline have no affordable housing component.

Ironically, news of the lawsuit came just one day after San Francisco announced it was committing $50 million to public art on Treasure Island, an initiative funded in part by SF’s own percent for art ordinance.

“Oakland’s hallmark is its diversity, and if we can create arts districts that both celebrate and differentiate the many cultures represented here, we will be successful.” – Steve Huss, former Oakland Cultural Arts Manager

“Public art is an essential community benefit,” says Anyka Barber, founder and Director/Curator of Oakland’s Betti Ono gallery, noting that Oakland is one of many major Bay Area cities that have adopted percent for art ordinances. According to Craig Watson, Executive Director of the California Arts Council, percent for art programs are common throughout the country; there are more than 300 such programs nationwide, he says. Alma Robinson, Executive Director of California Lawyers for the Arts, says lawsuits challenging public art requirements are uncommon, but when cases have been tried, “cities have prevailed.”

Developers, she added, “should be proud to support the enhancement of Oakland through public art, [which] really enriches cities.”

Besides SF, similar percent for art requirements exist in several nearby cities, including Emeryville, Richmond, San Jose, Walnut Creek, Santa Rosa, Sunnyvale, El Cerrito, and San Mateo.  Nationwide, percent for art programs exist in 27 states and territories, including Oregon, Louisiana, Connecticut, Iowa, Washington, D.C., Maine, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont,  Alaska, Maine, Utah, Montana, South Carolina, and Guam. Considering the proliferation of such programs, the lawsuit would seem to have little legal merit. However, it can be viewed as a clear message from developers to elected officials that they run the city, and not the other way around.

Zio Zieglar's recent mural commenorating the 70yh anniversary of the UN charter in downtown Oakland

Zio Zieglar’s recent mural commemorating the 70th anniversary of the UN charter in downtown Oakland

Magnet for Economic Development

As if that wasn’t enough, word is that Steven Huss, Oakland’s Cultural Arts Manager, has resigned to take a less-contentious, better-funded position in Walnut Creek – leaving the fate of an NEA grant to develop an Arts Master Plan for Oakland up in the air.

The cumulative impact of all these developments could strike a crushing blow to Oakland’s cultural arts community, confirming its worst fears about gentrification and displacement and creating a leadership void at the already short-staffed Cultural Arts Department. There’s also a leadership void at the city-funded ProArts gallery, after the forced resignation of Executive Director Margo Dunlap, so Huss’s departure adds more chaos and uncertainty to a muddled situation.

In a 2010 interview posted on the NEA’s website, Huss noted that the arts sector generated $100 million annually for Oakland—a figure which has undoubtedly grown over the past five years—and its overall importance as a “magnet” for economic development.

He went on to say, “In Oakland… the unique character of neighborhoods is best expressed through the arts, and the creation of arts districts can shine a light on the distinctive cultural heritage of these places. Oakland’s hallmark is its diversity, and if we can create arts districts that both celebrate and differentiate the many cultures represented here, we will be successful.”

Detail from Mario Chiodo's

Detail from Mario Chiodo’s “Remember Them: Champions of Humanity”

Despite Accolades, Civic Commitment to Arts Underwhelming

In truth, Oakland’s civic commitment to arts and culture has been anything but robust for years, while diversity has been the first casualty of a rapidly-shifting demographic. The Cultural Arts fund’s annual budget—slashed in the wake of the recession—is less than the amount Public Works spends on abating tag vandalism, and the loss of the redevelopment agency in 2012 eliminated a key funding source for the city’s public artists.

As reported by Bay Area News Group, only a smidgen of the $400,000 approved by the City Council in 2013 for anti-blight murals has been allocated over a two and one-half year period.

The few murals which have been produced via this fund have all but eliminated tagging and blight recidivism, yet some Councilmembers have yet to issue RFPs, even as Public Works spending on abatement has increased 50%, according to KQED.

Detail from CRP's

Detail from CRP’s “Love Arts Music”

Furthermore, city staffers have reportedly lagged in returning calls about mural fund applications, refused to pay artists on time and/or made them jump through unnecessary bureaucratic hoops, even after murals have been completed. The City Attorney’s office has also reportedly inserted new clauses into artist contracts which require them to give up federal protections known as VARA rights, with no explanation for the policy change.

The City Council’s decision to go with Orton over Belle’s group likely means the end of the line for the Kaiser auditorium, a historic venue which hosted concerts by everyone from Elvis Presley to the Grateful Dead to Bob Marley and the Wailers to Public Enemy and NWA, and reportedly was the site of a historic 1962 speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which inspired Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale.

The apparent loss of a potentially-reactivated HJK arena robs the city of a mid-sized venue whose prospective owners had a commitment to the cultural community which cannot be said of the operators of the Fox Theater – you can count on one hand the number of shows per year there featuring local artists. And the displacement of RPS, the last remaining original founding member of the Art Murmur— an organically-developed event which  saved former Mayor Jerry Brown’s 10K plan from failure and made Oakland buzzworthy after years of second-tier status—seems more than symbolic.

Attitudinal Healing connection's Amana Harris (l.) and youth perpare to cut the ribbon on AHC's

Attitudinal Healing Connection’s Amana Harris (l.) and youth prepare to cut the ribbon on AHC’s “Superheroes” mural

‘Sign of the Times’?

“I’m still reeling, wondering how a city doesn’t do everything possible to support education and jobs for low-income communities of color,” said Belle in a Facebook post after the City Council vote on the HJK property. “But then [I] realize it’s the sign of the times,” he added.

While the communities Belle mentions can certainly benefit from investment in the cultural arts, the gentrification wave is impacting everyone across the board – including artists of all ethnicities and anyone not at the upper tier of income levels.

OCNC members discuss art in Oakland

OCNC members discuss art in Oakland

On the surface, economic growth might seem like a positive thing for Oakland; however, the boom—mainly confined to real estate and tech—has been a calamity for the arts scene. A few months ago, at a city-convened arts stakeholder meeting , arts advocates speculated on the irony of Oakland’s artists making the city cool, only to find themselves priced out. Although some advocates felt the percent for art requirement didn’t go far enough, it at least offered a glimmer of hope for the city’s artists. But the announcement of the lawsuit by developers could delay or even rescind any commissions under the ordinance, and casts a pall on any future attempts to redistribute the wealth flowing into the city among the creative community.

It seems cruel to blame a newly-minted public art ordinance for the increased cost of housing, considering that last year, before the ordinance went into effect, Oakland apartments had the highest rental price hikes in the entire nation, while overall rental prices were the second fastest-rising in the country, and have ballooned as much as 300% over a three-year period.

Detail from Dan Corson's

Detail from Dan Corson’s “Shifting Topographies”

Currently, a typical one-bedroom apartment in Oakland rents for around $2000 a month, and landlords have been proactive in trying to get market rate for properties which rented for much less not long ago – putting economic pressure on art spaces, especially those in Uptown, the city’s most-visible arts district. As the RPS collective noted, “We are being priced out of our space not because of anything we have done, but simply due to the cold calculus of gentrification. There is more money to be made in this space from something other than community-driven art, and that is enough and more than enough to push us out the door.”

The one positive amidst all this bad news is that the San Francisco Foundation recently announced it was giving East Side Arts Collective $1 million to buy its building, ensuring many more years of community-oriented programming in the San Antonio district. Yet as welcome as that news is, it does nothing to help the arts community elsewhere in the city.

Keeping Oakland Creative

If ever there was a time to organize Oakland’s creative arts community, this is it. For the past several months, the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition has been attempting to do just that. Founded by Betti Ono’s Barber—recently named one of the Bay Area’s Top Ten Art Personalities—and artist, teacher, and arts administrator Katherin Canton, OCNC has coined the hashtag #KeepOaklandCreative and holds organizational meetings to try to rally the city’s culture creators around a policy platform which aims to make a sustainable future for artists, by taking a proactive stance against displacement. (Disclosure: Oakulture Editorial Director Eric Arnold is a member of OCNC’s Steering Committee.) OCNC’s stated goal is to get the city to restore the Cultural Arts Commission (CAC)—another casualty of the recession—a necessary first step in developing greater accountability at the civic level for the arts community.

Katherin Canton (l.) and Anyka Barber (c.) lead an OCNC meeting

Katherin Canton (l.) and Anyka Barber
(c.) lead an OCNC meeting

A revised CAC could bring clarity to a confusing, labyrinthine process for artists trying to work with the city. Currently, Oakland’s Cultural Arts Program is under the Economic Development and Marketing department, and its small staff is assisted by an all-volunteer Public Art Advisory Committee. There’s no designated liaison with Parks and Rec (which operates city facilities such as the Malonga Casquelourd Center) or City Council (artists are generally left to facilitate discussions over such things as applying for the anti-blight mural program on their own); almost all direct interaction with the artist community, other than open forum sessions at monthly meetings to review public art projects, is carried out by the department’s one full-time staffer, Denise Pate. Navigating the system is a bureaucratic nightmare at best, compounded by the fact that artists sometimes have to wait up to a year before being compensated for completed projects.

In the case of the percent for art ordinance, the artist community at-large was not asked for input in its drafting, perhaps by design; in the Tribune article, Schaff describes the ordinance as “pro-developer” – a notion which was reinforced during a “stakeholder meeting” also attended by members of the development community and Emeryville city staff this past February.

Fougo Na Roupa dance in front of a CRP mural honoring Brazilian samba legend Jose Lorenzo

Fogo Na Roupa dance in front of a CRP mural honoring ethnic dance legends

At the meeting, stakeholders were asked for suggestions for implementation, yet that seems to have been just a formality. When community concerns were brought up, Schaff’s staff hastily shot them down. There was no review of public art programs in cities other than Emeryville, and the developers—only one of which was based in Oakland—didn’t exactly warm to the idea of having any type of community review or oversight of proposed art projects. Developers, their representative said, don’t like to be told what to do, a statement which now seems ominous in the wake of the BIA lawsuit.

Detail from Brett Cook's

Detail from Brett Cook’s “Reflections of Healing”

OCNC’s next meeting, scheduled for this Wednesday at Betti Ono, will be “an important discussion that is not just about a Percent for Public Art program, but raises critical questions about intersectional issues adversely affecting the most vulnerable Oaklanders today- communities of color, immigrant communities, and low income communities,” explains Barber. “Policies which promote gentrification and displacement, she adds, impact “the vast and deep cultural legacies and traditions of our communities.”

The OCNC, she says, wants the city to implement arts-based initiatives which generate economic development while strengthening community. “We need to see a deeper and more expansive investment in cultural equity across the city in all neighborhoods, and we need to see this investment put into practice as a resource and key strategy for creating a better Oakland and a better Bay Area.”

Detail from AHC's

Detail from AHC’s “Superheroes”

In other words, this isn’t just about art for art’s sake, but leveraging the power of creativity for the greater benefit of the community. That’s a good thing – unless one buys the argument that promoting art is somehow harmful to the public interest.

Meeting #2 of the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition will be held at Betti Ono Gallery on Wednesday, July 29th at 6:30pm.  Betti Ono is located at 1427 Broadway in downtown Oakland.


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Anna Deavere Smith’s “Prison Pipeline” Play: Brilliant, Yet Conflicted.

Anna Deavere Smith’s “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education,” is more than a play. Part documentary, part drama, it encourages audience members to become activists against the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which connects our failed education system with the prison-industrial complex. The show’s program also contains a “toolkit” which describes the racial inequity of zero tolerance school discipline policies and presents alternative methods such as the restorative justice program currently in place in the Oakland Unified School District and other proactive behavioral approaches which address the reality of post-traumatic stress syndrome among school-age children. But the show doesn’t stop there. It devotes its intermission to interactively engaging attendees in advocacy, with Youth Speaks-trained facilitators pushing small workshop groups to make a commitment to action (more on this later).

Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith

The first part of the show effectively reveals why Deavere Smith’s one-woman shows have won many prestigious awards: her methodology, which involved interviewing 150 people on both sides of the pipeline, then honing their verbatim accounts into character studies and ultimately, monologues, is absolutely brilliant. This approach one-ups the “one-woman, many characters” style of Sarah Jones by using non-fictional source material, which is technically much more difficult to pull off. Deavere Smith uses simple stage props, varying speech patterns, and gesticulations to bring each character to life, with vocal inflections which range from the crisp articulation of a multi-degree holder, to the guttersnipe syntax of a high school dropout.

The vignettes, which feature education professionals, judges, lawyers, parents, students, and chronic truants (who have become fodder for the prison system), connect thematically, presenting a multi-faceted inquiry from almost all sides of the paradigm – we don’t specifically hear from any law enforcement professionals or correctional facility employees – and segue with musical help from acoustic bassist Marcus Shelby, who provides jazzy textures throughout. In addition to supertitles identifying each interviewee, video clips which play on screens above the stage add further context.

There is both a sense of urgency and topical relevancy, especially when Deavere Smith recounts the stories of the videographer who filmed Freddie Gray’s arrest and a man charged with a $500,000 bail for protesting Gray’s death. Another story, of a Native American man who was never enfranchised by public education and becomes a violent ex-con who is now a concern for tribal authorities, resonates with poignancy.  Though there are numerous comic moments, laughing at them felt a little awkward, since the overall tone is so serious.

Anna deavere Smith as NAACP lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill

Anna Deavere Smith as NAACP lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill

Watching the show, the connections between Oakland and Baltimore seem obvious and apparent – we’re not dealing with a unique problem faced by individual cities as much as one on a national scope, institutionalized by years of economic investment into building prisons, instead of education – which has predictably resulted, Deavere Smith tells us, in the types of outcomes we’re seeing now. 85% of incarcerated people in Maryland, it is revealed, were Special Ed students. (In California, 75% of the prison population are high-school dropouts — an even higher number than the nationwide average of 68 %. Meanwhile, the private prison industry has grown at a staggeringly exponential rate over the past 25 years.)

“Notes From the Field” is ambitious in its reach, to be sure. But these types of problems can’t be solved in a couple hours. The intermission workshop felt a little like drop-in activism for a constituency which has not had to deal personally with any of these issues, such as having an incarcerated family member, or being racially-profiled by police, in their lifetimes.

It’s counter-intuitive, to say the least, to announce —  with all the pomp and circumstance of a critically-acclaimed theater performance — that the system is broken, while simultaneously helping to promote a company complicit in the economic exploitation end of the pipeline.

The reality is a little bit thornier: Whole Foods, who has recently been all over the Internets for utilizing prison labor, is listed as a sponsor of the production.

However, when Whole Foods’ connection to prison labor was pointed out in one of the workshops, one attendee reacted with an angry glare and sputtering disbelief, and the workshop’s facilitator seemed to have difficulty grasping the implications of what that meant. It’s counter-intuitive, to say the least, to announce —  with all the pomp and circumstance of a critically-acclaimed theater performance — that the system is broken, while simultaneously helping to promote a company complicit in the economic exploitation end of the pipeline.  That may not be the fault of Deavere Smith, but it does illuminate the inherent conflicts of even doing a production of this nature. If we’re going to go there, identify the problem in no uncertain terms, and break the fourth wall to demand action be taken, as “Notes From the Field” does, we’ve got to be willing to address how deep the issue really goes, and realize that effecting substantive and meaningful change might just be incompatible with doing business as usual.

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Anna Deavere Smith portrays videographer Kevin Moore

If we were to further nitpick, we’d point out that another of Berkeley Rep’s sponsors, Wells Fargo, owns Wachovia, which was investigated and fined by the Justice Department for laundering money for Mexican drug cartels  – whose influx of illegal narcotics is reportedly a causal factor in the hundreds of annual murders in Chicago, mostly of young black men. Even worse, Wells Fargo also has invested tens of millions of dollars in private prisons , making it complicit in economic exploitation, sexual and physical assault, denial of health services, and racially-disproportionate practices.  Again, this kind of disingenuousness undercuts Deavere Smith’s message, through no fault of the messenger.

The play closed with a coda which transposed two short monologues: one drawn from Deavere Smith’s earlier work, of a Latino man expressing his feelings about race in the aftermath of the 1992 LA Uprising, and another from a 1970 interview with James Baldwin. Both hit expected gracenotes, but for different reasons. The irony of a brown person insisting he’s not racist because he has white friends while describing how he’s been racially stereotyped his entire life isn’t exactly subtle.  And Baldwin seems prescient, as if anticipating #blacklivesmatter, when he said, some 45 years ago, “The police in this country make no distinction between a Black Panther or a black lawyer or my brother or me. The cops aren’t going to ask me my name before they pull the trigger.“

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Anna Deavere Smith as West Baltimore student India Sledge

That’s not the exact quote Deavere Smith used, which came from a seven-hour conversation with Margaret Mead called “A Rap on Race,” but in this context it suggests that until we fix our fractured education system and retool our discombobulate criminal justice system, we will not, and cannot, possibly evolve into a “post-racial” society, no matter how many Confederate flags are torn from F-150 trucks.

It’s fitting that “Notes from the Field” is being presented just a few miles from Oakland, the spiritual center of the “New Civil Rights Movement” that #BLM has been called. In one of the interviews, Deavere Smith recounts how a teacher thought she missed the boat on civil rights activism by being born at the wrong time, until she realized that a new movement could happen at any moment.  That statement apparently resonated with a silver-haired white woman seated one row up, who felt compelled to comment to Oakulture about it – seeking the approval of one of the few black men in the room, perhaps.  But only time will tell whether that woman is willing to forgo prison-farmed organic tilapia and artisanal cheeses, for the movement’s sake – or whether a war on bankers would yield better results than the war on drugs.

“Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education” runs through August 2 at Berkeley Rep. For tickets, visit here or call 510-647-2949.


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The Oak Q and A: DJ Platurn On The 45 Sessions’ Remarkable Five-Year Run

45 Sessions residents

45 Sessions residents

It’s been said that all things must come to an end.  That being the case, it’s always good to go out on a high note.  The 45 Sessions, a monthly party dedicated to 45 rpm vinyl records, debuted in July 2010 at Oakland’s Layover bar – taking the vinyl-only parties curated by purist DJs to counter the increasingly software-based nature of the club DJ scene one notch higher. This Friday, the 45 Sessions celebrates both its five year anniversary and spins its final record at the Legionnaire Saloon.

The first 45 Sessions party was incredibly fun, as DJ Platurn gathered up some of the area’s best DJs to play records akin to what you might hear at a house party: that is to say, old, vintage, obscure, rare, even novelty songs, all thematically linked by the 7-inch format. The party seemed to inspire the DJ community—vinyl merchants and record traders set up shop and helped to cultivate the ad hoc analog celebration—and continued for a few more Sessions at the Layover before moving to (the since-closed) Disco Volante. Some of the memorable evenings Oakulture witnessed at DV included the three-year anniversary with West Coast turntablist icons Shortkut and Rhettmatic, and a retrospectively heartbreaking set by the late Matthew Africa—as it turns out, his final DJ set before being killed in a car accident while returning from Lake Tahoe.

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The Sessions later relocated to Legionnaire Saloon not long after that venue opened in 2013. It’s a measure of its popularity at its peak that the party’s changing venues was blamed by DV management for the restaurant/nightspot’s shuttering a short time after (although, truth be told, that may have had more to do with inconsistent booking and internal business practices).

Over the past two years, the Sessions has had some epic nights at Legionnaire, but according to Platurn, the party’s attendance has begun to falter in recent months and, perhaps more importantly, Oakland’s club-going demographic has begun to shift. The Uptown section of town, where Legionnaire is located, has become a hangout for hipsters and techbros, and a proliferation of upscale eateries, bars and clubs in the immediate area have attracted a more gentrified clientele. The latter isn’t the fault of any one DJ or party, but no matter the reason, Oakland’s nightlife scene in 2015 is vastly different from 2010.

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Love flowed freely, as did on the house shots of tequila and whiskey (courtesy of Legionnaire proprietor Zack Turner), at an Oakulture photo shoot in commemoration of the final Session. Turner repeatedly said he wanted the party to continue, while Platurn announced that the hiatus wasn’t necessarily a permanent one, but rather a well-earned break which could actually help the party’s branding in the long run – making it less susceptible to be taken for granted. It’s a measure of the family vibe among 45 Sessions residents – the crew includes E Da Boss, Enki, Mr. E, Shortkut and MC/host Jern Eye—that Platurn requested that missing member DJ Delgado be mentioned. Indeed, the camaraderie and mutual respect among Sessions residents is also a big reason why the party continued for as long as it did.

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In an exclusive interview, Platurn explained his reasons for ending the Sessions now, and walked down memory lane with a recap of some of the party’s notable accomplishments.

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Oakulture: Let’s just dive into the thicket here. Why is the 45 Sessions ending now, on its 5th anniversary?

DJ Platurn: Well ideally I’d like to think we’re going out on a high note, and although that is definitely the case, there’s quite a bit more to it. We’ve had a fantastic run and created some amazing memories, but the fact of the matter is keeping the Bay Area music scene interested in a format-based night is not an easy task. The Bay is historically finicky about their nightlife choices, and to have a party based around little records and almost entirely old school music for 5 solid years has been a bit of a struggle (crazy shout out to our die-hards that have been with us from the jump). With all that being said, it’s been a wonderful journey, and we have some exciting new things in store which we’ll be announcing in the next half a year or so.

Oakulture: How has Oakland—and the Bay Area’s DJ and nightlife scene—changed over the past 5 years?

DJ Platurn: The Bay Area as a whole has changed more rapidly than ever in the last 5 years, and the music scene is definitely a reflection of that. Over-saturation of DJs (nothing new around here), the heavy emphasis on modern club music versus simultaneously showcasing the old school, and the struggle to maintain what little of a community supported industry we have tried so hard to hold on to — that’s just the surface. Oakland, for instance, basically had a bare-bones nightlife scene for decades, and then all of a sudden things got out of control in this small area, financially and gentrification-wise, and no one really figured out how to adapt. We lost a lot of control with all this big money coming in, and a lot of old school cats got lost in the transition. We’re not against growth, but shoving the folks aside who were here before you is not what you’d call respecting the soil you’re currently living off of.

DJ Platurn at a 2012 Sessions

DJ Platurn at a 2012 Sessions

Oakulture: Do you feel like 45 Sessions accomplished its mission?

DJ Platurn: To an extent, yes. We never really had much of a mission though to be honest. This whole thing ended up with a life of its own, a totally organic growth process — I think the community was especially drawn to something like the Sessions, mainly because they wanted an alternative to the standard club scenes they were used to seeing everywhere else. I’d like to think that people in general are drawn to authenticity, and if there’s anything the Sessions provided, it was that.

Oakulture: In addition to the residents who always held it down, the list of guest DJs over the past half-decade is particularly impressive. I don’t have space to list everybody here—check the website for a better accounting—but you had famous East Coast superstar producers, West Coast skratch legends, vinyl collectors, international crate-diggers, local mainstays, cultural anthropologists, and literal groove merchants. What do you think this party meant to the DJ community?

DJ Platurn

DJ Platurn

DJ Platurn: There’s always ups and downs with throwing events, and we’ve had just as many downs as ups, but providing an outlet for cats to be creative with their records and to go back to the basics with their sets was always really important to us (and hopefully our guests as well). We’ve had some of the most amazing selectors/spinners come through the party, and most with the basic intention of getting their rocks off with their favorite 45s — you can tell when a DJ is really into what their doing, and I saw quite a bit of that. In that sense, I think it meant quite a bit to our guests (and our fans as well).

Oakulture: What are the 5 most memorable moments from the party’s five-year run?

DJ Platurn: That’s a tough one, but i’ll try…

  1. Estelle, Dan The Automator, Q-Bert, Hiero, and a whole bunch of Bay Area vinyl lovers all under one roof with Just Blaze headlining. Winter Sessions 2012 was something else boy.
  1. Matthew Africa. Can’t say much else. He played what was reportedly his last gig at the Sessions before he passed a couple of weeks later. We still miss him a great deal, not only as a staple and figurehead in our scene, but the fact that he was at the Sessions on a regular basis, hanging out and enjoying the music along with everyone else. Every Sessions since then has been dedicated to him. [*side note: Tha Alkaholiks and The Beatnuts showed up that night after an all-day studio bender and freestyled for a half an hour over strictly 45s instrumentals — yes, that actually happened.]
  1. When we inducted Shortkut into the crew by handing him a personalized Lookwright 45s crate. You can only imagine what that meant to the Sessions to put down such a legend — smiles and shit eatin’ grins all around 🙂 🙂
  1. We’ve had some amazing birthdays and even some wedding related parties come thru to celebrate at the Sessions. Tough to recall specific details, but the fact that someone getting hitched would want to celebrate at an all 45s party says quite a bit about the impression that we left on party goers. I actually recall a bouquet getting tossed during Parliament’s “Flashlight” blasting on the speakers — crazy but true.
  1. It might seem cliche, corny, or predictable to name drop, but the fact that many of our heroes actually came and played a 45 Sessions speaks volumes for the format and how much legendary DJs across the globe love and celebrate the 7 inch record. There’s been multiple times where a DJ that inspired some of our DJ careers solely based on their amazing talent was on stage performing at one of our events and we all just stared at each other buggin’ out — there’s really no greater feeling we’ve achieved at the Sessions than seeing our mentors share a stage with us. Real spit right there.
Shortkut spins at the 45 Sessions

Shortkut spins at the 45 Sessions

Oakulture: How would you describe the 45 Session’s aesthetic?

DJ Platurn: We’ve only had one rule in the last 5 years — it has to be on 7″. Doesn’t have to be 45 rpm, just as long as it exists on that size format. Other than that, it’s been a free for all the whole time. We are traditionally a dance party, so the aim has always been to attain that vibe, but we’ve also had some deeper moments where our guests get down in a much headier and heavier way. There’s no flash, no bells & whistles, and nothing stuffy about the Sessions — our message has always been all about the music.

Oakulture: Do you feel this party helped to contribute to the resurgence in vinyl we’ve been hearing about lately?

DJ Platurn: Inadvertently, undoubtedly. I’ve had folks say to me that it’s just as much my fault for promoting a movement like this and for nurturing the desire to hear DJs play records again as Whole Foods can be blamed for adding a vinyl department. Thing is when we started in 2010 the hype was entirely non-existent. We started something without knowing that people actually still cared about it. And we’ll also be here when the hype dies down, which it undoubtedly will, because vinyl resurgence(s) comes in waves — always has, always will, no matter what new media comes along (that eventually almost always fades into obscurity).

Matthew Africa's last DJ gig was at the Sessions

Matthew Africa’s last DJ gig was at the Sessions

Oakulture: Take me back to when the party began. What was the original idea, and how did that play out?

DJ Platurn: We had zero intention to do anything except start a home for playing all these 45s that we had. We didn’t have a plan, a bigger picture, or any intention or foresight to see it grow into what it became. I’m glad that it became as successful as it did, but I probably would have been just as happy to see it stay a little bar gig with 30-40 people coming out each time, hindsight being 20/20 of course. That’s not gonna last very long tho, especially in the cutthroat Bay Area DJ scene where club owners expect numbers and results. Ultimately i’m just happy and humbled that the scene actually gave a shit, even just a little bit — that was enough for me to feel like I was doing something right.

Oakulture: Tell me some behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the residents who were there every month.

DJ Platurn: No comment. Actually there’s a lot of comments, but i’d like for them to stay my friends after all is said and done 😉

Come to a Sessions and you’ll see antics galore — there hasn’t been a jam yet that didn’t have at least one good piece of fiction tied to it. Best I don’t put any of ’em in print tho 😉

Oakulture: Is there any hope the party will return at some point in the future, perhaps not as a monthly, but as a one-off?

DJ Platurn: Right now there’s thoughts and ideas but no real plans. Unless something major comes along we won’t be doing a show until sometime next year, maybe. We’ll let the public decide how much they want to see that happen.

DJ Rhettmatic, one of many DJ legends to bless the decks

DJ Rhettmatic, one of many DJ legends to bless the decks

Oakulture: If you had to do it all over again, is there anything you would have done differently?

DJ Platurn: Not at all. I’m so proud of what we were able to pull off. The crew, the family, the supporters — it was such a beautiful gathering of amazing folks who simply loved this music and got involved for all the right reasons. Wouldn’t change a thing.

Oakulture:  The big question is where do you go from here? What’s next for Platurn?

DJ Platurn: No idea. As far as the Sessions go, it’s not like it’s dying and no one is allowed to use it anymore. When touring and traveling, folks want to do the Sessions when I come to town all the time, and i’m happy to oblige. We have our Sydney (Australia) chapter that is constantly doing amazing things. Me, i’m just gonna keep working in my garden, running my ass off, buying picture cover 45s, and enjoying my wife and dog’s company while trying to pay these bills in the beautiful Bay Area. I’m not going anywhere, for now.

Oakulture: It feels a little weird to be giving a eulogy for something which hasn’t actually died yet, even though the writing is on the wall and a five-year anniversary is a perfect time to say goodbye. What would you like the 45 Sessions to be remembered for?

DJ Platurn: An outlet. A beautiful and positive outlet for people (and DJs) that still wanted something a little more out of the culture. A place where anything and everything could happen musically and you went along with it because you loved and trusted that the party was in the hands of capable and seasoned DJs that knew what the   hell they were doing. We’re simply fans of this format — the Sessions was created as a way to celebrate that sound. Nothing more, nothing less.

Th-th-th-that's all folks!

Th-th-th-that’s all folks!

Oakulture: Any last words?

DJ Platurn: Thank you Eric for the support over the years, and thanks to each and every individual that attended a 45 Sessions since 2010. We did this for you, for the Bay Area, and for lovers of DJ and vinyl culture worldwide. I’m eternally grateful that it grew into this beautiful entity, and hopefully we can figure out a way to harness what was built and see it evolve into something bigger and better down the line. Much love Oakland, much love Northern Cali, and much love to planet earth for urging us to keep it going. We’ll do our best to let it live in one form or another in the years to come.

The 45 Session’s Five Year Anniversary Finale, featuring the Butta Bros–Skeme Richards and Supreme La Rock–as well as residents Platurn, Enki, Mr. E, Delgado, E Da Boss, and Shotkut, takes place Friday, July 17 at Legionnaire, 8am-2pm, $10.

Limited edition 45 Sessions t-shirts by Mixer Friendly are available here.

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The Warriors’ Million Fan March Validates Oakland as A Championship City

This is what 1.1 million people look like

This is what 1.1 million people looks like

It’s been called, somewhat cleverly, the “Million Fan March.” Last Friday’s Warriors Parade drew an estimated 1.1 million people to Oakland to celebrate the city’s newly-minted NBA Championship trophy. The parade capped a dream season which saw the Dubs rise to legendary status, compiling one of the best records ever in NBA history, and convincingly out-Splashing four other playoff teams to earn the title.

photo by Steve Snider

photo by Steve Snider

The parade meant everything to the Dub Nation, who descended on the Eastlake lawn in a swarming sea of gold and blue, but it might have meant even more to Oakland, a perennial underdog who finally emerged from the long shadow cast by San Francisco to recast its identity as a winner. Though the Warriors’ surname says “Golden State,” this was an Oakland team, through and through, exemplified by the trash-talking, swaggering Draymond Green, a classic overachiever who backed up his lip service and attitude with on-court bravado when it mattered most.

Draymond Green

Draymond Green

Throughout the season, longtime Dubs fans traded war stories about the days of Run-TMC, and 2006’s “We Believe” squad, or even the 74-75 unit captained by Rick Barry which was the last Warriors team to win an NBA championship, some 40 years ago. Those with even longer memories might have harkened back even further, to the shortlived American Basketball Association’s Oakland Oaks.

oakland oaksBut never in the team’s history as the Bay Area’s professional basketball franchise had it had a team as talented as the 2014-15 edition. Perhaps even more important than talent, though, was the team’s unselfishness and chemistry; in a league where sniping at teammates is par for the course, the Warriors played nice with each other all year long.

To win the championship, the Dubs overcame a slew of doubters, none more prominent than TV analyst Charles Barkley, who predicted incorrectly that jump-shooting teams don’t win championships. What Barkley didn’t realize, though, was that prolific offenses who also play excellent defense have historically had a statistical advantage in winning NBA titles. (But then again, as Green pointed out,$ir Charles never won a ring, so how would he know?) In any event, it’s likely their success will alter pro basketball trends, as teams seek to match their versatility and assemble lineups which can excel in small-ball finesse.

Klay Thompson with the NBA Championship trophy

Klay Thompson with the NBA Championship trophy

The Warriors also had to overcome their own doubts. A young team, they lacked significant playoff experience, and it showed at times. But they adjusted to adversity and overcame obstacles both real and imagined, even down to the final showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Like a boss battle in a video game, the Warriors figured out a way to beat LeBron James, the self-proclaimed “best basketball player in the world.” They won, ultimately, by rising to the challenge at critical times, and by playing as a team – a message to other ego-driven, superstar-oriented NBA franchises.

Sure, there were some dazzling displays of ballhandling and shooting by league MVP Steph Curry, but it’s completely Oaklandish that renaissance man Andre Iguodala, a force at both ends of the court, won playoff MVP honors. In the final game, “Iggy” hit just as many three-pointers (three) as Curry, a testament to the emotional leadership he provided all year.

Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes

Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes

The massive turnout for the parade and rally was almost three times the size of Oakland’s population – an indication that the Dubs’ bandwagon had swelled with every thrilling victory in an 83-win season. Many in attendance had not even been born the last time the Warriors won an NBA title. While sports fans can be brutish and belligerent, especially after drinking since 5 am (which is when crowds began to arrive at the rally site), the assembled masses on Friday were generally well-behaved, even though the crush of population density threatened to flare tempers and/or result in claustrophobic episodes.

“The parade meant everything to the Dub Nation, who descended on the Eastlake lawn in a swarming sea of gold and blue, but it might have meant even more to Oakland, a perennial underdog who finally emerged from the long shadow cast by San Francisco to recast its identity as winners.”

One example of the compassion Warriors fans hold in their hearts came on the Lake Merritt Drive overpass. When the parade concluded, the overpass was packed with people, including young children and babies in strollers. There was scant elbow room. As the rally started, it became apparent that not only were the people on the bridge not going to be able to move any further forward, but only those up in the front would actually be able to see what was happening. At that moment, several hands appeared to hoist up a young wheelchair-bound fan above the heads of the crowd, so he could view the proceedings. That right there says all you need to know about the nature of the Dub Nation.

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The championship and the parade take on an even greater significance because of the very real possibility that this is the Warriors’ last season in Oakland. Talk about going out on a high note. Yet the season and the celebration will continue to live on, quite possibly in mythical terms. It’s something, as Iguodala pointed out in a post-Finals interview, that can never be taken away. This championship, it must be said, belongs to Oakland.

Oakulture has already pointed out the cultural significance of the Warriors, and their resonance has grown exponentially with them securing the trophy. It’s a measure of how exciting they were that this year’s Finals garnered the highest TV ratings in 17 years; their deeds won’t soon be forgotten.

The

The “Mac Tre” mural by Crayone and the Illuminaries

Like folkloric heroes, the Warriors have been celebrated in song—mostly rap songs, which is another Oaklandish trait—as well as in visual art, through the creation of the now-famous “Mac Tre” mural in West Oakland, painted by Crayone and the Illuminaries, which has become a must-visit location for Dubs aficionados. They’ve also made an impact on fashion, and inspired entrepreneurship from a score of independent artisans and designers – some of the various t-shirts include Hiero– and Wu-Tang-themed designs, Eesuu Orundide’s “Oaktown Splash,” and one proclaiming “East Oakland Warriors” in the old-school font they used during the 74-75 season. They even inspired the Original Scraper Bike Team to paint their rides in team colors.

Original Scraper Bike Team

Original Scraper Bike Team

No longer are the Warriors the laughingstock of professional sports, the team nobody wanted to play for. The days of wondering who the team would pick in the draft lottery—only to see that player either fail, or become a star on another team—are over.  Children will grow up with the memory of this season and be inspired to achieve great things. Heck, Curry’s daughter Riley not only already runs the world, but also inspired a cute reinterpretation of the Fairyland sign.

“Rileyland”

That’s quite fitting, because this dream season resembled nothing so much as a fairytale. As to where the story goes from here, well, there is much left to be told. If they keep winning, the Warriors could add more hardware to their trophy case. In the meantime, they have provided the most concrete proof to date that Oakland is a major-league city, one which breeds champions.


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The OAKQ&A: Judith Smith of AXIS Dance Company

AXIS dance Company. photo by David DeSilva, courtesy www.axisdance.org

AXIS Dance Company. photo by David DeSilva, courtesy http://www.axisdance.org

Since its inception back in 1987,Oakland’s AXIS Dance Company has been a pioneer in the field of physically-integrated contemporary dance. Almost 30 years later, the idea of pairing disabled and non-disabled dancers is no less revolutionary than it was when the company started.  Although tremendous strides have been made in terms of legal and civil rights in that time, not to mention societal perceptions, when we think about what a truly-inclusive society would look like, disabled people are often the last marginalized group we consider.

After Judith Smith became wheelchair-bound at the age of 17, her desire to dance turned her into an activist. She co-founded AXIS in 1987, along with Thais Mazur and Bonnie Lewkowicz, and in 1997 became its Artistic Director. In 2000, AXIS scored three Isadora Duncan Awards, signaling that physically-integrated dance was not only a legitimate art form in the dance world – but an innovative, dynamic one at that. Since then, under Smith’s leadership, the company has notched three more Izzies, performed in more than 60 cities, and been the subject of serious critical review in major publications – exceeding previous expectations and raising the bar of what cultural inclusion looks like for the disabled community.

Though they’ve earned their place in the dance world, AXIS performances aren’t just for dance aficionados, however. The strong theater elements make their shows more universal than one might think; in addition to the unique movement dynamic physically-integrated dance brings to the table, there’s a cerebral element present which causes viewers to rethink what it means to be human and how much of human expression is a kind of adaptation. Not to mention an emotional element which can lend an intense sense of poignancy and urgency in how it makes you feel. Based in the Malonga Center in downtown Oakland, AXIS opens up its home season with tonight’s premiere of “Onward,” featuring works by Sonya Delwaide, Joe Goode, Alex Ketley, and Bobbi Jene Smith.

Oakulture recently caught up with Smith during a rehearsal, and she was gracious enough to share her artistic process and wise words of wisdom with us – and you. Check it out:

Judith Smith

Judith Smith

Oakulture: What’s the least-challenging aspect of being artistic director of a physically-integrated dance company?

Judith Smith: Probably finding great choreographers and composers to work with is the least-challenging, because there’s so many great people out there. That’s the fun part, looking at other people’s work and trying to figure out how it would match AXIS and our aesthetic with our particular combination of dancers.

Oakulture: You took over as Artistic Director of AXIS in 1997. How have perceptions of the company changed over that time?

Judith Smith: Well, I think the big driver for me was increasing the artistic quality of our work and the professionalism of the company. So I would say that when we started commissioning work from really well-known choreographers and composers, that really changed how people looked at the work. Because when critics would come to review us, it was hard for them to talk about the work. When we started working with other choreographers, they could review us in the context of what they knew about that choreographer’s work. So I think also the fact that our first repertory show, our first home season, in 2000 after I took over, was Bill T. Jones, Joe Goode, Joanna Haigood, Sonya Delwaide, you know, it was a pretty impressive lineup. So, I think it gave us a stamp of validity that we didn’t really have: ‘Oh yeah, these people are really dancing, and they’re really doing dance. And they’re serious about their work. It’s not therapy.’

Oakulture: At the recent Othering and Belonging conference, you spoke about how AXIS wasn’t intended to be political, but you realized that there was an inherent realpolitik in what you’re doing. Can you elaborate on that? Why is it political? And would you consider yourself an activist?

Judith Smith: I am definitely an activist. I am an activist by default in some ways. I didn’t grow up in a politically-active family. I became disabled when I was 17 and that was a long time ago at this point. And we didn’t have the ADA, we didn’t have the 504 and we didn’t have all of these laws that we have today. So, advocating for myself, advocating for my community, had just been something Ive had to learn to do.  We didn’t start AXIS with the intention that we were going to go out and change people’s minds about disability. We really just wanted to dance. But we realized that we still, until recently, rarely saw a disabled person on TV. Or in a music video. Or in an advertisement. And, when we started dancing, it was very very rare to see a disabled person onstage, let alone collaborating with non-disabled people in a way that was equal. There are still theaters in San Francisco that we can’t get into, because they’re up a flight of stairs. We’re 25 years into the ADA. How are people even getting away with that now? They wouldn’t be in a theater where somebody that was gay couldn’t get to, or somebody that was black couldn’t get to, or someone that was Muslim couldn’t come to. So, we’re still systematically discriminated against in terms of our little small community here, our little dance community. And I think we really have done a lot of educating here, with presenters and funders. When we started writing California Arts Council grants, in the demographic breakdown, there wasn’t a box for ‘disabled.’ So I’d make a box and I’d check it and I’d write it in. So now disability is, not always, but often included in the demographics that people are collecting. And it’s, not always, but often included in the list of what multiculturalism is. I think Barack Obama was probably the first president to mention people with disabilities, as part of the multicultural part of his speech. There’s buses we can’t even get on. It’s just part of trying to have a life and be active in the world, I think you have to be an activist if you’re disabled.

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“We have dancers who use power wheelchairs in this company, we’ve had dancers who use prosthetics, and they’ve danced with and without prosthetics, or they’ve used crutches. So you necessarily expand, and inherently radically expand, the possibilities of movement. And I know that’s what excites me, that’s what excites the dancers, and that’s what excites the choreographers when they’re coming in to work with us. It’s that our movement vocabulary is much more expansive because of the physicalities that we embody.” – Judith Smith

Oakulture: AXIS productions aren’t just dance. They embody aspects of spoken word and theater, and employ both social and personal commentary. For example, Joe Goode’s “To Go Again” is about veterans, and addresses the need for resiliency in the face of life-changing events. Why is it important to you to have these kind of multifaceted productions?

Judith Smith: Well, it became important because I saw Joe Goode’s work and I really liked his work. And he’s a dance theater person, so he does like to use song, and he does like to use text. Our early works were often about disability, very directly. We made a choice to not do things specifically about disability. Our early works were [also] very narrative, so it’s kind of something… we’ve used text from our first piece, that we performed at Calvin Simmons in 1998. In the Dance Brigades dance festival, the Furious Feet Festival for Social Change. So I just feel it’s, being a contemporary dance company, doing dance theater and doing pieces that include text and narrative, it just makes sense.

AXIS Dance Company. Photo by David DeSilve, courtesy www.axisdance.org

AXIS Dance Company. Photo by David DeSilve, courtesy http://www.axisdance.org

Oakulture: In the description of one of your video clips on Vimeo, it says, “these works were chosen as examples of the movement vocabulary, virtuosity, partnering and theatricality” of AXIS.  What do each of these concepts mean to you?

Judith Smith: Well, movement vocabulary, our vocabulary is obviously very different than most contemporary dance companies, because most contemporary dance companies have dancers that are all moving relatively similarly. We have dancers who use power wheelchairs in this company, we’ve had dancers who use prosthetics, and they’ve danced with and without prosthetics, or they’ve used crutches. So you necessarily expand, and inherently radically expand, the possibilities of movement. And I know that’s what excites me, that’s what excites the dancers, and that’s what excites the choreographers when they’re coming in to work with us. It’s that our movement vocabulary is much more expansive because of the physicalities that we embody. Virtuosity, I love seeing very very virtuosic dance, you know, the dance that is at the level of San Francisco Ballet or Lines or ODC or the non-disabled dancers of AXIS. And disabled dancers’ virtuosity is often very different. It’s one of those things where you cant watch somebody walking across the stage and it can be completely  mesmerizing, because it has to do with their presence, and their intention. Virtuosity for me, its not just physical. And all of our dancers work on whatever their virtuosity is, to keep growing that and improving that.

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But it’s different for every dancer, I think. Partnering, well, again, because we have so many different ways of moving, the options for partnering and the abilities for partnering are just expansive. It never ceases to amaze me. When we first started working with outside choreographers, it was the way they would see us partnering that was so much fun and so exciting and took us to places we couldn’t see. They’d be like, I’d like to see this and you’re kinda like, ok, well, we’ll try it. The partnering is just so exciting when you’re utilizing the way a wheelchair travels, or the way a crutch handles weight, you know the architecture that a cane or a crutch makes… the partnering options are really expanded. Theatricality kind of speaks for itself. Some dance pieces are much about the movement, about the music, about the timing, whatever. And then some, like Joe’s piece, are theatrical. I think Sonya Delwaide’s work is always very theatrical, even though it’s often abstract, she brings a theatricality into her work.

Tickets for AXIS’ 2015-16 Season are here.


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Warriors’ NBA Finals Appearance Has Cultural Impact

team

It’s been exactly 40 years since the Golden State Warriors were in the NBA Finals. That’s two generations in terms of population demographics, but much longer in pop culture terms. Basketball is much more mainstream now than it was in 1975, when Rick Barry was shooting underhanded free-throws. Just check league MVP Steph Curry’s endorsement deals for confirmation of that fact. Barry didn’t even get his own signature sneaker, much less deals with insurance, fashion, and headphone companies. Curry –aka the Babyface Assassin — has all of that, plus the top-selling player jersey for 2015.

The Dubs’ ascension into the NBA elite is pure vindication for Golden State’s  long-suffering fan base, who literally endured decades of being an also-ran franchise best known for players they drafted who went on to become stars with other teams.  Remember the “Warriors Worrier” PR campaign of the late ’80s? The name sort of made sense, because the team only cracked the .500 mark three times during that decade.

Rick Barry

Rick Barry

The 90s and 2000s weren’t much better. The first Don Nelson era produced the emergence of the “Run-TMC” teams with Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin (who made it into the second round of the playoffs twice), but that period is still overshadowed by the rather-ugly enduring image of Latrell Sprewell choking coach PJ Carlesimo. Few players wanted to come to Oakland after that, and during the first half of the 2000s, our marquee guys were either underachievers like Donyell Marshall or over-the-hill journeymen like Antawn Jamison. The Warriors survived an eleven-year playoff drought covering the tenure of no less than six head coaches between 1995 and 2006. Their fortunes began to turn around in 2012, when second-year coach Mark Jackson won 47 games, but the following year, they didn’t advance past the first round despite a 51-win season, prompting ownership to bring in Steve Kerr as coach.

Curry tees up the Pelicans' Anthony Davis

Curry tees up the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis

If hindsight is 20/20, that move—questionable at the time—proved golden. Kerr acted like anything other than a rookie in winning 67 games, one of the highest totals of all time. Not only did the Splash Brothers—Steph Curry and Klay Thompson—live up to their billing as the league’s deadliest backcourt combination, but Draymond Green emerged as the heart and soul of the team, a versatile swing man who played defense and offense with equal passion. Players stifled under Jackson, like Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut, flourished under Kerr. Andre Iguodala accepted the sixth man role without complaint; another former All-Star, David Lee, graciously surrendered his job to Green with nary a peep – unselfishness on a level rarely, if ever, associated with professional sports. Role players like Shaun Livingston, Maureese Speights, Leandro Barbosa, and Festus Ezili all played their parts well. The Warriors developed the deepest roster in the league, a 10-man rotation which relied on team chemistry as much as ball movement and offensive/defensive intensity. Making up 20-point deficits was possible for this team, built on versatility and execution, yet not lacking for star power.

Steve Kerr

Steve Kerr

If there was a more exciting team in all of sports to watch than the Warriors this year, that team must play on another planet without cable TV. All season long, the Warriors seemed to be playing at a higher level than their opponents, resulting in many blowout victories, and a plethora of ESPN-worthy highlights. The Warriors of old never seemed to care much for playing defense, especially during the Don Nelson years. But this team was different. When games got tough, the Warriors got tougher. How many times did they break opponents’ resolve by drilling-down with a defensive stop resulting in a spine-snapping transition 3 or dunk? How many times did Curry hit highlight reel shots? Did we mention Klay’s 37-point quarter? Or breakout games where Green, Barnes, or Ezeli showed they can shoulder the scoring load? Speaking of Barnes, his 4th-quarter explosion after Thompson’s injury in Game Five vs. Houston is exactly the stuff championships are made of. When the chips are down, quitters quit and winners win. The game hung in the balance prior to his scoring nine straight points; afterward, it was all but academic.

“Remember the ‘Warriors Worrier’ PR campaign of the late ’80s? The name sort of made sense, because the team only cracked the .500 mark three times during that decade.”

Splash!

Splash!

Despite all the offensive fireworks, perhaps no better play illustrates the Warriors season than their defensive gem the last 11 seconds of Game Two vs. Houston at Oracle Arena. The Rockets’ best player, James Harden, had the ball. Running down the court, he spotted a double team of Steph and Klay. He passed the ball to Dwight Howard—what was he thinking?—then received it back, with even less time remaining on the clock. With the Warriors trapping him, he seemed confused and didn’t manage to get a shot off. A foul would have given the Rockets a chance to win, but that didn’t happen. It was like Harden—a bonafied MVP candidate who finished second to Curry—was psychologically crushed, overwhelmed by the pressure. The next game was a blowout win for the Dubs, and even though Harden came back to score 45 in the Rockets’ lone victory in Game Four, any momentum was deaded in Game Five, when the Black Rasputin logged an NBA record for turnovers in a Houston loss which wasn’t even close. Sure, we can blame the Lil B curse for Harden’s poor performance, but a more logical explanation is that he was simply outsmarted by players with superior court intelligence.

Klay drives to the hoop

Klay drives to the hoop

The win over the Rockets might have seemed shocking for Warriors newbies and national b-ball fans just tuning in, but the fact is, they’ve shut down potent offenses and league superstars all year with their defensive play, three-point shooting, and nimble transition game. They made adjustments in the playoffs after dropping two consecutive games to Memphis and never looked back.  Is it really any wonder they’re the consensus favorite to win it all?

As the Finals approach, Dubs fever is at an all-time high.  Warrior gear once resigned to closets is now on full display. The Alameda County Courthouse is bathed in blue and yellow lights. And Steph’s daughter, Riley Curry, has become an unlikely media superstar. It’s been a long time coming for anyone who suffered through the days of Chris Washburn, Manute Bol, Tom Tolbert, Tyrone Hill, and Mike Dunleavy.

Draymond Green

Draymond Green

Even though their name doesn’t say it explicitly, Golden State is an Oakland team. They might be moving to San Francisco next year, but in the event of a Finals win, the parade will be held right here, in Oakland. Their Townish affiliation is evident in their unpretentious identity and the loudish “Roaracle” fans who helped cheer them to a 37-2 regular season home record. Their secret weapon is DJ D-Sharp, a hip-hop veteran who isn’t hesitant to play snippets of Too Short or the Luniz during games.

A measure of the Warriors’ pop culture cachet is the numerous songs dedicated to them, the unofficial anthem (and Oakulture personal favorite) being E-40’s Dubbed-out remake of “Choices.”  The rapper known as the Bay Ambassador took an already-good song and made it great by inserting lots and lots of references to the boys in blue and yellow:

Did it happen in a day? (nope)

Came a long way? (yup)

Never know what kind of angle (nope)

Crossover, break your ankle (yup)

Sloppy with the rock? (nope)

Steph Curry with the shot (yup)

Suckers? (nope)

Splash Brothers? (yup)

Ain’t no stoppin’ (nope)

Klay Thompson (yup)

Under pressure, is he choking? (nope)

Do it big like Bogut? (yup)

Never let em tell us that we can’t (nope)

Go hard like Barnes in the paint (yup)

Never ever slowin up the pace (nope)

Shoot a three-pointer in his face (yup)

Almost as good: a reggae video featuring Morgan Heritage and Bobby Lee’s “We A Warrior” set to clips of the Dubs splashing their foes.

Harrison Barnes hi-fives Andre Iguodala

Harrison Barnes hi-fives Andre Iguodala

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Locals Zion-I and Kev Choice are reportedly working on Warriors-inspired tunes right now (edit: The Sole Brothers’ “Warriors” features Zion-I, Blackalicious and Lateef the Truthspeaker). Rapper Rich Cole also has a song, “Dub Nation,” which notes “we the best in the west and the NBA.” As do Ron Lennon & J-Wells — whose “Splash” proclaims, “in the Bay Area they say we too loud/ but we turned up, bout to turn out” —  and uno408. Expect the number of celebratory tunes to increase with every moment the team comes closer to the championship trophy.

Yes, it’s been a long time coming for Warriors fans. And the impact on Oakland is already being felt – just witness the blue/yellow gear being sported all over The Town as the team’s playoff run nears its ultimate destination.

“If there was a more exciting team in all of sports to watch than the Warriors this year, that team must play on another planet without cable TV. All season long, the Warriors seemed to be playing at a higher level than their opponents.”

Errybody say Warriors!

Errybody say Warriors!

Going from perennial scrub to potential champion is kind of a big deal, even for non-sports fans (who can conceivably bask in the afterglow even though they watched “Sex in the City” reruns instead of the games). And of course, there are all the bandwagon-hoppers who probably don’t remember when the Warriors offense was Jason Richardson and not much else. Even if the Warriors lose—which probably won’t happen—they have solidified Oakland/Bay Area pride and earned a permanent place in our region’s cultural iconography—and our hearts. They are the little team that could. And that’s why we love them.


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MC Olympics Showcases The Next Generation of Hip-Hop Performers

MC Olympics participants at Betti Ono Gallery

MC Olympics participants at Betti Ono Gallery

Live Review/ Youth Speaks MC Olympics, May 22 @ Betti Ono Gallery

Poetic language and oral tradition lie at the root of hip-hop. But in a culture that’s been turnt up and trapped-out, is there still room for innovation and creativity? Watching a qualifying round of Youth Speaks’ recent MC Olympics competition, the answer seemed to be yes.

According to Youth Speaks’ website, in the MC Olympics, participants are “required to demonstrate a diversity of lyrical skills including but not limited to free styling, ripping their best 16 bars, or writing a verse on the spot.” The objective is to emphasize skill while bridging the gap between spoken word and rap, and to bring a hip-hop edge to the organization’s youth development work.

Host D.O.D.A.T. explains the rules to contestants

Host D.O.D.A.T. explains the rules to contestants

Ten contestants, all between the ages of 14 and 19, vied for the honor of competing in a battle to determine the Bay Area champion, who will then compete in the Finals in Atlanta, along with winners from 64 other regions. The ten emcees included D-Soul, AMC, Casper, Molly (the lone female representative), A Fi Fuego, Antihero, HD, Vic Johnson, C-Mac, and REU. Unlike other rap battles, in the MC Olympics, the entrants don’t directly take on each other; there’s no dissing of competition, which introduces a totally different dynamic into the proceedings.

Casper spits bars

Casper spits bars

The first test, of Hot 16s, required the emcee’s hottest bars – delivered over beats supplied by DJ Treat U Nice. “Shots fired,” remarked host D.O.D.A.T. (of Ensemble Mik Nawooj), after a blazing start by last year’s champ AMC. Vic Johnson, meanwhile, was told to edit his content after unleashing an epithet-laced string of NSFW words.

AMC rips the mic

AMC rips the mic

For the second test, a freestyle challenge, random words (“brave”; “narrative”; “ambition”) were selected. This seemed particularly challenging, since the emcees had to incorporate the words into their rhymes mid-flow, and not all syllables matched. A couple of times, the emcee didn’t know the word in question. But when the rhymers were able to find their flows, they rode them like surfers catching breaking waves.

Molly gets swaggy with it

Molly gets swaggy with it

The final round could be freestyles, writtens, or a combination of both. “Gimme the most turnt up beat,” said Molly, before launching into a swag-filled throwdown which didn’t earn her many technical points for lyrical finesse but captivated the crowd. D-Soul, meanwhile, asked for a bass-heavy beat but “none of that trap shit.” Outsider Y, who whiffed on the previous round because he doesn’t freestyle, showed an unforeseen capability for rapid-fire triplets. A Fi Fuego, HD, and Casper all went a cappella, while Antihero delivered his most impressive rhyme to date. AMC, however, proved commanding.

The judges panel

The judges’ panel

Just before the judges announced their decision, two of them left the judges’ table and took the stage, where they delivered impromptu performances. Hailing from North Oakland, Rico G dropped a Native Tongue-worthy rhyme, then told the up-and-comers, “don’t be afraid to spit a track like this in the turnt up era.” His fellow Mind Oakland crew member Najee Amaranth followed, accompanied by backup singer Omi.

Antihero in the midst of flow

Antihero in the midst of flow

The judges then returned their scores. A Fi Fuego placed third, Vic Johnson second, and a first place tie ensued between AMC and C-Mac. The two top scores made sense, as the two had been the most consistent throughout the competition, but on Oakulture’s unofficial scoresheet, Antihero could have easily supplanted either Fuego or Johnson.

Mind Oakland's Najee Amaranth and Omi

Mind Oakland’s Najee Amaranth and Omi

After the battle was over, we asked some of the emcees their thoughts.

“I’ve really been rapping since Kindergarten. I’ve been rhyming the words, picking up the beat. Music has been my life since day one,” said Molly, who hails from “East Oakland – Fruitvale.” The MC Olympics, she says, are her first official competition. “I always come prepared. I’m a very confident person,” she said.  “Crowds, they don’t scare me. I get up there and I do what I do. In order to be original, you have to be yourself.”

The evening's winners: A Fi Fuego, C-Mat, AMC, HD

The evening’s winners: A Fi Fuego, C-Mat, AMC, Vic Johnson

Being the only woman in the competition wasn’t an issue for her, she says. “You just don’t think about it. You think about, oh, we’re all emcees. It don’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl in this competition going forward.”

For AMC, who claims the Lake Merritt area and has been rapping “seriously” for five years, the competition was his fourth. His preparation involves “listening to music, rapping every day.” To stand out from other emcees, he says, “It begins with knowing your audience.” Reading the crowd, he says, helps him decide “how to attack, how to form your lines, when to bring energy, when not to bring energy. It just depends on the venue. You walk in, you get a feeling, then you deliver based on how you feel.”

The MC Olympics Finals take place May 30, 8-10pm at Impact Hub Oakland.

May 22 2015 124

 

 


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Black Girls Rock and Rule: The Seshen, Bells Atlas, Zakiya Harris (Live review)

Live review/The Seshen, Bells Atlas, Zakiya Harris, May 8 @ New Parish

Black Vocals Matter: The Seshen's Akasha Orr

Black Vocals Matter: The Seshen’s Akasha Orr

Black women are the new rock stars.

That was the take-away from the recent triple-header bill of The Seshen, Bells Atlas, and Zakiya Harris with Elephantine. When was the last time you saw a lineup with bands all featuring black female frontpeople? The bill worked because all three acts have a similar sound; one could call it a trend, but it seems more like an unintended coincidence.

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

If we are witnessing the birth of a new genre, let’s call it Emo-Soul. That sounds much better than “Trip-Hop, take two” and avoids the awful, inorganic “neo” prefix applied to urban soul music since the late 90s. Emo-Soul is emotive and soulful; it utilizes electronic treatments and ambient soundscapes to counterbalance the plaintive yet raw emphasis on female vocals. Live instruments are a deciding factor in the Emo-Soul sound, distinguishing it from discofied electronic club music. But there’s something else which is created when it all comes together: a tribal-like sense of togetherness, of holding disparate elements together to form a cohesive whole.

It’s rare to see a show where any of the acts on the bill could have headlined, but this was that show.

An obvious reference point for the Emo-Soul sound is 90s act Morcheeba, who contrasted upfront soul diva musings with ethereal, atmospheric backgrounds. Emo-Soul revisits that period, but provides something new. Or maybe it’s just that the context has shifted, and there’s a more recent immediacy with hearing the voices of black women – call it the #blacklivesmatter effect. This show’s trifecta of women straight up handling thangs in a live context served as a reminder that social justice can extend to a cultural platform as well as a political one.

Zakiya Harris has been on a roll recently, but this might have been the best show yet for her band Elephantine. Although Harris is the featured frontwoman, Elephantine’s sound is very much an ensemble sound which relies on vocal interplay between Harris and singers Tossie Long and Solas B. Lalgee, backed up by musicians Kevin McCann, Ajayi Jackson, and Rashad Pridgen. Their Facebook page describes their music as “Afropunk/Afrobeat/Afropop,” none of which are perfect descriptors. Elephantine is too smooth to be punk, too compact a band to be Afrobeat, and too urban and Americanized to be Afropop; The Afro- part of their sound is mainly reflected in their Afrocentric attitude. With Lalgee absent due to a concurrent gig with the Oakland School for the Arts, Long got some extended stage time, which seemed apt, as it was her birthday. What was most impressive, though, about Harris and Elephantine was their ability to create a mood and set a vibe which engaged the crowd. No matter how emotive a band might want to be, it doesn’t mean diddly unless it translates into audience acceptance. Harris and Long were clearly feeling themselves—but so were the people watching them and hearing their music.

Sandra Lawson-Ndu of Bells Atlas

Sandra Lawson-Ndu of Bells Atlas

Bells Atlas came next, and delivered on all the hype surrounding them. They describe their sound as “kaleidosonic soul punch,” whatever that means. In this context, it means they picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Harris and Elephantine and raised the energy level even higher. Frontwoman Sandra Lawson-Ndu was simply divalicious, dropping poetic lyrics which came from a galaxy beyond overly-simplistic R&B, while maintaining a spellbinding stage presence. Fine-tuning the hall’s emotional resonance like aural MDMA, Bells Atlas’ sound made you want to love your neighbor, or at least give them a tight hug. It’s no easy task to make the unfamiliar seem familiar, but Lawson-Ndu was so locked into her groove, she accomplished that with ease, assisted by guitarist Derek Barber, drummer Geneva Harrison, and bassist Doug Stuart. Lawson-Ndu’s fluid voice has plenty of elasticity to twist around lyrical phrases and sounded particularly tasty when trilling the upper register. It’s a potent weapon which was thankfully the focal point of the band’s presentation. If Bells Atlas’ musical backgrounds seemed like a lush rainforest of alternative, yet not inaccessible, tones and melodies, Lawson-Ndu’s vocals were a tropical waterfall of soulful expression.

It’s rare to see a show where any of the acts on the bill could have headlined, but this was that show. The top-billed Seshen are another buzz band who have been building up a following (which extends outside of the Bay; the group has signed to UK label Tru Thoughts), and like the two acts who preceded them, fit into the category of Emo-Soul: a vocal-heavy sound with both electronic and organic elements. At the center of The Seshen’s dynamic is the interplay between vocalists Lalin St. Juste and Akasha Orr. At times, they resemble a Supreme-esque soul duo from the 60s, but with a much more modernistic, even futuristic, take on things. Then again, they could also be called retro in the sense that they do recall the high points of the Trip-Hop era, which, again, revolves around emotional resonance – and in The Seshen’s case, percussion and dub effects instead of electric guitar. On a night when black (female) voices were triumphant and reigning, St. Juste and Orr both wore “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts, emphasizing the point that soulfulness begins with compassion.

Lalin St. Juste of The Seshen

Lalin St. Juste of The Seshen


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The OakQ&A: Lyrics Born (Part 2)

Lyrics Born

Lyrics Born

In Part 1 of this interview, Lyrics Born described his new album Real People, his creative process, and what it was like to record in New Orleans. In Part 2, LB goes in even deeper on working in the studio with Galactic, the Bay Area-NoLa connection, his own quirky fashion sense (acid-washed denim, yo!) and musical evolution, and how cycles come back around. If you’re reading this today (May 15), don’t miss your chance to see LB perform tracks off the new album tonight at SF’s Independent.

***

Oakulture: tell me a little bit about the songwriting process on Real People. What did you draw inspiration from, other than the culture of New Orleans?

Lyrics Born: Right, ok, I wanted to do an album that was really earthy… I thought there was plenty in hip-hop about… I don’t know, we sort of took a narcissistic turn in hip-hop. I just didn’t really feel like that was realistic for everybody. It’s really great in a lot of ways… when you’re in an industry, in a culture that is constantly beating you down, it’s important to be able to say, I’m the best.  And that’s why hip-hop was always so awesome to me, because people had no qualms about talking about how great they were. But to people that were unfamiliar with the culture, they don’t realize, we’re a group of outsiders. We’re being told every day that we don’t have rights. We’re being told every day that our opinion doesn’t  matter. We’re being told every day we dress funny, we talk funny, we look funny. So, y’know, it’s important to answer that. With sort of an LL Cool J/Kanye, no fuck you, I’m the best. Its like positive reinforcement. I get that part. But like all other things, it became pervasive. And then it’s just kinda like, whoa. Ok. I don’t think we’re actually addressing who we really are as human beings. It’s not really a well-rounded view of who we are. If we’re all talking about us and what we own and what we spend and what we wear, that doesn’t… because I know the reality of what it’s like to be an artist.

Oakulture: Right, if there’s no other context for it.

Lyrics Born: Right, if you’re still having problems still keeping the lights on and this, that, and a third, I think that is what Real People’s about.  In my case, it’s about coming to this country at a very early age, even situations like “Holy Matrimony,”  [which is about] marriage, adulthood; “Around the Bend” is kinda hitting that stage in your life where you feel like you’re finally getting a piece of the American Dream, and then there’s also the more trivial aspects of daily life, like in confidence, people being chatty, and it’s off the cuff. And then there’s just a lot of stuff there, like “WTF,” I’m kind of talking about how the world has changed, post-Recession America. There’s also like the good-time release, and the celebration of each other, things like “All Hail the Queen” or “Rock Away.” We have to keep in mind, for me, the music at its best is also fun. It’s a fun experience.

lyrics born 1

Oakulture:  It sounds like you’re having fun on the record.

Lyrics Born: I am. I’m having a ball, because I really felt like this soundscape, this musical environment is perfect for me right now. It’s perfect for me. And just, for me as an artist and a performer, one of the things which gets me high is seeing people having a good time. I’m doing my job when people are having a good time. That’s one aspect of what I do.

Oakulture:  Is there an advantage to making a record with so much live music, when you translate that to live performance?

Lyrics Born: Yeah. There is an advantage, because it has that electricity. It has that feel. And it translates easily. People make mistakes, musicians might play a wrong note , but it’s human. And in that context, it’s much more forgiving. And it’s natural. It translates differently. But still, if you go to a club and someone throws on some trap, and you feel that bass, there’s nothing that can replicate that. That’s what special to me about trap. What’s special about live music, about what I do, is these are human beings who are working together to play this music. It’s a group, team effort. It’s that synergy and that electricity when people mesh. And hopefully, you get a feeling from that.

Oakulture:  It’s also a very sort of uptempo, active sound.  I’ve talked to Boots [Riley] in the past and he doesn’t perform anything, hardly anything, from the first two Coup records. Because the tempos are so slow, they were made for how people were listening to the music at the time, which was riding around in the car. and then, he gets to the point where he has a live band, he’s performing live, and you need uptempo stuff. You can’t play that slow stuff with a live band.

Lyrics Born: Right. It’s true. You’re talking kinda era-specific things. But you’re also talking contextual things. That was made for riding around. Music has changed. His career has changed. All of our careers have changed. I would be lying to you now if I said that what I do isn’t much more live-based. I’ve always spent a lot of time on the road, but now, it’s mandatory. So I have to make music that goes over well live. My longevity, my livelihood as an artist is dependent upon me performing in front of people. So these things have to translate well live.

“The thing that’s interesting about both the Bay and New Orleans is, they’re both these crazy, unique, places. When you talk about the Bay Area, there’s the Bay Area, and then there’s California. There’s New Orleans, and then there’s Louisiana. That’s something that those two cities really have in common.” -Lyrics Born

Oakulture:  And then there’s the other thing too, of being a Bay Area artist, which sort of stereotypes you as being a regional dude. But at the same time, throughout your whole career, you’ve built these bridges, and you’ve built these fanbases in all these different places which has allowed you to get outside the Bay. It seems like that’s somewhat attributable to, or a factor of, your longevity.

Lyrics Born: Yeah, I would agree. I would say so. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I never made mob music. I never made hyphy. I never did that. It doesn’t mean I didn’t play the shit out of it in my car or in my house. As much as I love those artists, it’s not my lane. It’s not what I do. I remember when hyphy was huge and I was working with 40, I was working with Fab, and I was working with so and so. People would ask me, because hyphy became a national phenomenon, so, LB, are you gonna make a hyphy album? I said, naw, I make Lyrics Born albums. I may work with these guys, I may incorporate some of that into what I do, which I did. But im not just gonna drop everything and move on to this sound and move on to that sound. I make Lyrics Born albums. Whatever that means. That’s what I do.

lyrics born 5

Oakulture: I think it’s been hard for Bay Area artists in the post-hyphy era, people are sort of like, what is our sound? What should we be gravitating toward? The idea that you have to have a regional sound, but then that becomes something that can also play you out, when it no longer becomes the flavor of the month. But on the other hand, someone like you, you have an eclectic sensibility in how you approach it, and that gives you a broader base to draw from. So you end up not getting played out. You can’t say, LB, we left him back in the hyphy era.

Lyrics Born: Right. Well, you know, the other thing I know though, just from being a record collector and a longtime music fan is that everything comes back around. Everything cycles. I wouldn’t be surprised if four or five years from now, suddenly there’s a hyphy resurgence. Like these sort of hyphy-infused kind of tracks. You already see it now, with 90s hip-hop and what Joey Bada$$ is doing, a lot of what Action Bronson is doing and so forth. And even in fashion too. I see, man, a lot of kids rocking 90s gear. Tommy Hilfiger jackets, Karl Kani, all the things that we used to wear. So you see it, it all comes back around.

Oakulture:  I saw a kid with like an old-school North Face Mountain Light parka. And I was like, they don’t even make those anymore!

Lyrics Born: No, they don’t. You have to seek it out. I see kids wearing Cross Colors now. Which hasn’t been made in fifteen years. Look at me, I’m wearing a 90s rayon shirt with an 80s acid wash jacket. All the shit comes back around. What I mean to say is that everything has value. You may be at a point in popular culture where it has less value, but everything comes back around.

Oakulture:  Right. But the point that I was trying to make was, by being eclectic, by saying, I’m in my lane right here, but then I’m open to all this other stuff, you sort of avoid the typecast. And it also means, from a music listener level, there’s sort of numerous on-ramps to that LB lane.

Lyrics Born: Yeah. Very well put, Eric Arnold. I agree. It’s like, the minute you start closing yourself off, and say, that’s not my thing, that’s fine. I don’t like everything I hear, but there are movements which can add value to what I do. By incorporating that, I in turn add value to the overall landscape as well. Just because I may not like a certain artist or I may not be into a certain song or whatever, when I hear things that HBK does, or I hear things that Chance the Rapper is doing, or G-Eazy, or Joey Bada$$, A$AP Rocky, there’s certain things that they do, that’s like, wow, why didn’t I think of that. That’s dope. How can I kind of adapt that to what I’m doing, in a context that works for me.  Everything from techniques, rap technique to their look to just their aesthetic, whatever it may be, lyrical, visual, musical, whatever.

Oakulture:  I was gonna ask you, lyrically, what are you doing now that wouldn’t have occurred to you back in the early 90s?

Lyrics Born: What am I doing now? I’m definitely more open. We came up in an era, a lot of what we were doing was a reaction to what was happening at that time. We don’t like this shit. We don’t like the direction that hip-hop is going. Even though we were in the Golden Era of hip-hop, who knew that then? It was a reaction to what we perceived as the commercialization of hip-hop. I’m nowhere near as intolerant of those things as I was then… When I look at myself now as an artist I see myself as a person that’s open to all kinds of stuff… I just remember those early… back when we were first starting, in the early 90, I would sit there at the college radio station, KDVS. I would literally play every fucking record that was in that library. Iron Butterfly or Jon Secada or the Turtles or Junie Morrison, just anything. I would play it all. I was trying to educate myself. And I think that gave me the basis. I learned the fundamentals of being open to music. When you’re a record collector and you’re surrounded by that broad array of music from different eras, you can kind of see all these trends that happened with these artists’ careers, and the way the music was changing… I learned to accept the fact that careers have peaks and valleys, artists go through style changes, public taste changes… So, that’s what it is. I really feel like, at the end of the day, I have to work on myself to be open. You have to discipline yourself to be open minded. You have to discipline yourself to seek out inspiration…

lyrics born 9

Oakulture:  So, with Real People, did you write lyrics first? Or did the music come first? How did that part of the creative process work?

Lyrics Born: I went down to New Orleans, I did two sessions there. It was a great experience for me. The first session, I went down, I rented a cottage in uptown New Orleans, like two blocks from the Maple Leaf, where Rebirth [Brass Band] plays every week.  I stayed there a week, I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have a computer, I had nothing. I would write in the daytime, from like 10 am to 2pm every day. Then the guys from Galactic, they would pick me up and take me to the studio, and I would be in the studio from three till about 11 every day. And they were working on demos, they were working on music. I’d sit there and we’d record ideas. So, the first session, I did that for like a week.  We knocked out probably about seven or eight demos. They were like, ok, this is a good start. And then I went home, I finished the songs, they finished the music, on their end, they had all the musicians come in. I mostly finished off all the vocals here, and then I came back for another very short session to New Orleans. We sort of finalized the direction, and then we did the same thing: I finished off the songs here, they finished off the songs there, and boom! It was done. It was like as organic process as you can have in the modern era.

Oakulture: That’s really rare, because nowadays, people aren’t even on the same continent sometimes when they’re collaborating.

Lyrics Born: Right. It’s unusual these days for me to be in the same studio with producers.

Oakulture:  How do you think that translated on record?

Lyrics Born: I think it makes a huge difference. I’m a huge proponent of, maybe I’m old-school, but I truly believe in the two people or the group of people who are working on a record together being in the same room. I think that’s one of the benefits of coming up in my era, that my generation experienced.

I remember when we did a song with El-P, we had to fly his ass out here. Because at that time, there was no, I couldn’t send him files. When I was on tour, we worked in his bedroom in New York. Then to finish up the song, we flew him out. I mean, you had to be in the same room together. The producer had an actual role. The producer actually produced, they coached vocals… now it’s, a producer these days is essentially someone who composed the track. There’s no real in-studio hands-on production, with the artist these days. Sadly. You can hear it in the music…

Oakulture:  It’s like digital vs. analog. Certain things you can only get with analog. And then you have people in the digital age who are like, we’re going to recreate that analog sound, so they sample a squeaky record.

Lyrics Born: Right. Absolutely right. And I could see, being in the studio with [Galactic], how much I was accustomed to being left to my own devices. Cause when we started recording the demos, I just went in and started doing it. And that was the first time in a long time someone said to me, you know, the shit you’re doing is not working. We need to try this differently. It’s just not working. LB, I think you need to try a different approach. I was just doing what I do! And without someone saying that, those songs wouldn’t have become what they did.  Some of the tracks that I wrote to on this album, I didn’t like at first. I didn’t see it. When I would get in there, they would be like, no, gotta do this one man. You’re gonna kill this one. You gotta do this. “Chest Wide Open” was like that, which is gonna be the next single, which is the one people like. I heard that beat, I was like, I don’t hear anything over this. They were like, dude trust me. We’re gonna get David Shaw on this record, he’s gonna sing the hook. Just trust us, just do it. And that turst was there. And I did it. And it turned out to be a great fuckin’ song.

Oakulture:  You were a one-man band.

Lyrics Born: Yes.

Oakulture:  You produced every record you’ve done [until now].

Lyrics Born: Yes.

Oakulture:  So on this one, you broke out of your comfort zone, and went into NoLa voodoo mode…

Lyrics Born: Yeah. That’s a good point. They could do an album like this better than I ever could. And I had done it my way, fifteen years. I needed to get out of my comfort zone. I needed to hand over the reigns. I needed someone to say, you know what, you’ve done it your way, let’s try it this way. I feel like, without having been in that situation, I don’t get beyond my limitations. It’s a healthy thing for artists. You have to have that trust. You have to make yourself vulnerable in those types of situations, otherwise you risk not growing.

lyrics born 2

Oakulture:  What’s interesting about Real People is, it sounds more like a New Orleans record than it does a Bay Area record.

Lyrics Born: It should. But I don’t know that I’ve ever made Bay Area records, that were in line with what you were hearing from the Bay Area at a given time. Like I said, I make Lyrics Born records. Certainly, I’m from the Bay Area, everybody knows that. I don’t think my story could have happened anywhere else. But, that doesn’t mean that I’m tied to a regional sound.

Oakulture:  So with making a record in New Orleans, you strengthen this connection between the Bay and Louisiana and New Orleans. You think about the Pointer Sisters recording with Allen Toussaint.

Lyrics Born: The thing that’s interesting about both the Bay and New Orleans is, they’re both these crazy, unique, places. When you talk about the Bay Area, there’s the Bay Area, and then there’s California. There’s New Orleans, and then there’s Louisiana. That’s something that those two cities really have in common. They’re both, especially me growing up in Berkeley, Berkeley in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, it was crazy. I’m kind of used to that kind of craziness. Some old lady dressed in velvet blowing bubbles on the street. And everybody knows her.  Im sort of used to that. Im used to having this oddball cast of characters around me at all times as part of the human landscape. I come from that … so when I go to a place like New Orleans, I’m like, perfect!

And it gets in your blood, too. There’s a reason people go down there for school and they don’t leave. In the 90s, I remember seeing how the culture of the Bay Area really drove this influx of people who were coming to the Bay, because they wanted to be around this music and they wanted to be around culture and free thought and politics. It kind of took on a life of its own.

Oakulture:  If you could describe yourself in one word, what would that be?

Lyrics Born: versatile.

Real People is out now on Mobile Home Recordings.