Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Hiero Day 2016: Strength in Numbers

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Return of the Backpack Rapper: Del the Funky Homosapien rocks Hiero’s headline set.

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years of Hiero Day already.  Originally a day-long hip-hop block party held on San Pablo St. in Oakland, the event has gotten bigger every year – in terms of both attendance and prominence – while relocating to an industrial section of West Oakland, where it now commands several city blocks and three stages worth of live music and DJs.

The members of Hieroglyphics — Oakland’s OG hip-hop pioneers, and one of the few still-active crews hailing from the early ‘90s Golden Age  — have stated on the record they started Hiero Day because it was difficult for them to book shows in their hometown (despite the fact they’ve toured all over the country for decades and their shows have never been associated with violence.) There may be some truth to that, but Hiero Day is about so much more than its eponymous founders. True, they close every show with a full crew performance, but the event has already become a cultural institution, a celebration of real hip hop which draws a multigenerational audience to hear both emerging and veteran artists.

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But Hiero Day is not just a concert, it’s a ritual of sorts – an affirmation that hip-hop culture not only still exists, but is still vital and vibrant. One might even go so far to say the day is imbued with spiritual significance; the level of appreciation from both performers and attendees is that high. Even with crowds which now number upwards of 20,000 folks, Hiero Day is overall a super-chill event whose vibe is surprisingly low-key, considering its magnitude

2016’s edition of Hiero Day may have been the best yet.  Advance tickets were available for the quite-affordable price of $19.93, and day-of tickets were a still-reasonable $40. Compare that to the price of any corporate music festival put on by a major concert promoter, and you’ll see quite a difference. We won’t name names here, but some of the larger festivals charge one hundred dollars or more for a one-day ticket for shows which might feature just one or two hip-hop/rap acts amidst a bucketload of indie rock or EDM acts. Even the few national rap fest tours which still exist can’t surpass Hiero Day’s lineup; the most-comparable event in recent memory was probably the on-hiatus Paid Dues Festival. But even that event, which did offer a showcase for underground/indie/alternative/true school hip-hop, didn’t have the grassroots flavor of a 100% artist-produced show which made no concessions whatsoever to corporatism.

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Lockmith freestyles during Just Blaze’s set

There were 43 pre-announced artists, groups, or DJs on the Hiero Day bill – which calls into question one media outlet’s assertion last year that the show was more of a self-serving platform for Hiero and veteran acts than a showcase for up-and-coming artists. That just sounds ridiculous, since roughly two-thirds of the total stage time this year was allotted to newer acts with younger followings. The actual number of performers was actually a bit higher than what was announced, to boot. For instance during Just Blaze’s DJ set, he called up Del the Funky Homosapien, Locksmith, Ras Kass, and Planet Asia to do freestyles. That’s what you call more of what you’re funkin’ for.

That said, for both Hiero fans and hip-hop OGs, it was hard to pass up the allure of the main, “Infinity,” stage for sheer hip-hop flavor. Impressively, the stage featured a solid five-hour block of quality artists leading up to Hieroglyphics closing set: Paris, X Clan, Lyrics Born, Murs, Just Blaze, Invisibl Skratch Picklz, and Too Short. Other stages were graced by the likes of Juvenile, Dilated Peoples, Blu & Exile, the Grouch, Nef the Pharaoh, Rocky Rivera and others;  however, going from stage to stage required an adventurous spirit and a willingness to navigate between crowds of considerable density and brave the late-summer sun. By late afternoon, the crowd swelled to the point where it was quite dense with bodies. Oakulture made one foray out to the “Third Eye” stage, and briefly caught a bit of Blu & Exile’s set, but quickly returned to the Infinity stage in time to catch another Bay Area legend, Lyrics Born. Add to the fact that the Infinity stage offered the best photo opps for candid backstage shots, and it was pretty much a no-brainer to post up there.

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Dan the Automator and Dante Ross

The question remains: Where else are you going to see legendary A&R Dante Ross cold chillin’ with legendary producer Dan the Automator, or such local notables as Hip Hop TV’s Shawn Granberry, Boots Riley, Mystic, Davey D, Chuy Gomez, Bijan Kazemi, DJ D-Sharp, Purple Pam the Funkstress, Councilmember Abel Guillen, and the occasional member of Hiero? Needless to say, many conversations were had, and much game was chopped.

It was difficult to feel too salty about missing Cash Money mainstay Juvenile or LA rhyme-spitters Dilated Peoples, because the Infinity stage was crack-a-lackin all day. Paris got the crowd pumped up with his Black Panther-inspired message rap; the self-proclaimed “hard truth soldier” played new material from his recent album Pistol Politics, but it was the 1990 “conscious yet hardcore” hit “Break the Grip of Shame – which samples both Malcolm X and Public Enemy – that  got the crowd to raise their fists in the Black Power salute. Shout out to DJ True Justice, by the way, who flawlessly recreated Mad Mike’s  frantic scratch solo.

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Still breaking the grip of shame: Paris

It was the pre-mainstream gangsta, pre-mumble rap era all over again when Brother J came out next to play some X Clan classics. Can we just say here that Brother J is one of the most underrated yet crucial emcees of all time? Back in the so-called Afrocentric era, he was no less inspirational and influential than Chuck D or KRS-One — some forget X Clan sold hundreds of thousands of records —  yet has been nearly forgotten as time has advanced. Listening to opuses like “Grand Verbalizer, What Time is It” played live, however, made J’s contribution to hip-hop readily apparent.

By the same token, you can’t front on Lyrics Born, who has amassed a formidable catalog of crowd-pleasing jammy-jams to go along with his crowd-pleasing persona and inimitable rhyming and singing skills. One of the defining artists of alternative hip-hop, LB’s originality shone through yet again on songs like “Don’t Change,” “Lady Don’t Tek No,” and “I Changed My Mind.”

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The inimitable Lyrics Born

It was also good to see that the Invisibl Skratch Picklz are back to playing live sets. Some people might remember how they burst on the scene in the early 90s, with amazing demonstrations of turntable techniques framed around band aesthetics. If they’re somewhat less jaw-dropping in their current incarnation of Shortkut, D-Styles, and Q Bert, it’s only because their innovations have been widely imitated by subsequent generations of turntablists. But anyway, they symbolized the original icons of hip-hop—the DJs—and stayed true to their ethos, with each member rocking a single turntable.

The best performance of the day, however, may have been Too Short’s. The pioneer of Oakland rap as well as independent hip-hop, Short’s predilection for nasty lyrics has overshadowed his undeniable skill as a live performer, as well as his penchant for dropping nuggets of wisdom into his material. He also has quite an affinity for funk, a primary influence on much of his classic material. Short was a commanding presence at Hiero Day, soaking up the proceedings with the air of an emcee claiming his cultural authenticity in a city he basically built from the ground up. And did we mention the man’s got classics? From “Blow the Whistle” to “Gettin’ It,” he played a nice selection of his catalog, rocking the crowd but barely breaking a sweat. (By the way, when was the last time anyone saw Too Short AND X Clan at the same show? Probably the 90s, when diverse bills within hip-hop shows were commonplace.)

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Gettin’ It: Too Short

It doesn’t really get any more “Oakland” in terms of hip-hop than following Too Short with Hieroglyphics. Taken together, the two have defined The Town’s hip-hop culture for three decades.  Both keep making new music, but it’s their respective track records which place them among the greats of all time.

At this point, we’re not even sure what can be said about Hiero which hasn’t already been said over the years.  Some might argue they’ve stayed relevant because they’ve continually reinvented themselves, but one could just as easily say the opposite as well: that in actuality they’ve stayed true to the style they had back in 1992, when they first appeared on the B-side of a Del record. What is undisputed is that they’ve somehow managed to continue to attract a younger audience while also maintaining appeal to longtime listeners. That creates an interesting audience dynamic which seems somewhat universal: Hiero fans cross all racial/ethnic, age, economic and class lines, a diverse bunch united by their love of hip-hop.

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Roll call: Del, Phesto and Tajai

Though Hiero didn’t do a full set, it’s always great to see a whole crew performance by them, especially because their catalog is so thick, they can pull out deep cuts at any time. While Del, the crew’s founder, perhaps gives off the most “star vibes,” sleeping on any member of the group’s lyrical skills or stage acumen would be a huge mistake. There’s not a single member of Hiero, except for maybe producer Domino and DJ Toure, who isn’’t an excellent rhymer. And they’ve all been rocking stages for so long, they’re unlikely to be fazed by much. As dope as Del is, any of the other members – Casual, Phesto, Tajai, Opio, A-Plus and Pep Love – are capable of captivating with intricate wordplay and devastatingly rhythmic tonal patterns. They are quite literally a throwback to another era, when skill and originality were cultural values. As usual, they closed their set with the anthemic Souls of Mischief hit “93 til’ Infinity,” gently bringing to an end a day which reveled in the most positive aspects hip-hop – and Oakland – have to offer. What more can be said? Not much, except there are only 360 or so days until next year’s Hiero Day.


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The Born Supremacy: Lyrics Born’s Galactic Funk Mafia Revue

Lyrics Born

Lyrics Born

Live music review/ Lyrics Born/October 9, 2015/ New Parish

When it comes to live rap performers, audience expectations tend to be on the low side. One can probably count the list of stellar live emcees with both hands. That number might drop in half if you throw in the caveat: must be able to rock with live musicians. It may come as no surprise to diligent Bay Area hip-hop fans that Lyrics Born’s recent blowout show at the New Parish exceeded expectations. What’s eye-opening, though, is just by how much.

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LB, as he’s often abbreviated, has always followed the beat of his own drummer.  (Read the Oakulture Q&A here and here.) Emerging way back in the early 90s as an original member of the Solesides (later Quannum) collective, the Berkeley High/Skyline alum went from alternative hip-hop pioneer to eccentric experimentalist to funky radio hitmaker to international sensation to cagey OG veteran status in the course of, oh, almost 25 years. Mixing tongue-twisting colloquialisms and an appreciation for both quirky individuality and funky, phat grooves, he’s ripped more guest appearances and collabs than you can shake a rhythm stick at, in addition to producing a solid catalog which includes four studio albums, two Latyrx full-lengths (with Lateef the Truthspeaker), a couple of remix albums and EPs, several mix tapes, a live album, and a few compilation albums. But as deep as his recorded history is, he’s straight-up supreme when it comes to live shows with live musicians, with whom he’s been working with since the early 2000s.

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LB released his latest album, Real People, a few months back, but hadn’t done an East Bay date until his rendezvous at the Parish last Friday night.  Wait, it gets better. Not only had LB never previously appeared at the venue, but his special guests included members of New Orleans funksters Galactic and Bay area jazzbeaux Jazz Mafia, along with musical director (and former Whitesnake bassist) Uriah Duffy, and his Latyrx spar Lateef. If that’s not a recipe for an amazing musical evening, we don’t know what is, and the show was even better in practice than it sounds on paper, er, computer monitor or mobile screen.

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Let’s just get this out front: the new album has some bangers on it, and benefits from the collaborative association with Galactic, with whom LB recorded with in New Orleans. But songs that just sounded ok on the studio disc were absolute monsters in a live context.  That’s all LB, right there: if you like his studio recordings, you’ll absolutely love his live stuff.

Oct 10 2015 136The set list contained a blend of old and new, but newer stuff like “Chest Wide Open,” “$ir Racha,” “Rockaway” and “All Hail the Queen” never struggled to keep pace with more familiar material like “Do That There,” “Top Shelf,” or “Hott 2 Deff”, and in many instances accelerated the evening’s intensity.  Another major factor in the live goodness is LB’s wife and background vocalist, Joyo Velarde. They’re just so comfortable together on stage there were no real moments of uncertainty during the 24-song set. It was more like, ‘we got this,’ throughout the entire evening. Thankfully, Joyo not only took a solo turn on “Unwind Yourself,” but also supplied the “hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo” backgrounds which take 2003’s “Bad Dreams” –one of LB’s signature tracks–into the ethereal.

Joyo Velarde

Joyo Velarde

LB’s confidence was such that his biggest hit, “Callin’ Out,” was rather casually tossed off during the last quarter of his set; the five-song encore included a James Brown cover, two new songs, and two fairly obscure yet sublime tunes: the 2013 Latryx single “Exclamation Point” and “Coulda Shoulda Woulda,” from 2010’s As U Were. It’s a given that the ‘Message’-esque bassline of “Lady Don’t Tekno” still causes convulsions after more than 20 years, but then the idea to lay the James Brown/Fred Wesley classic “The Payback” under the naughty yet urbane “I’m a Phreak” was unforeseen yet very welcomed.

Oct 10 2015 159What makes Lyrics Born so good? As was the case with the Blackalicious show at the Fillmore awhile back, he just puts on a master class in emceeing. His flows are beyond stupid fresh, and his refusal to embrace stereotypical rap cliches is always refreshing. But more to the point, besides displaying incredible technical prowess on the vocals, he adds the charismatic stage presence of a seasoned performer who is impeccable when in his element, as well as an enviable rapport with his band members which lends itself to seamless musical communication. On this evening, they appeared to be one of the best bands on the planet, locked tight into seemingly endless grooves which somehow didn’t lack for elasticity.


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Bay Area Vibez Makes the Most of Oakland’s Glow [Review/Photoset]

Nas performs at Bay Area Vibez

Nas performs at Bay Area Vibez

Concert Review/ Bay Area Vibez, Sept. 26-27, @ Middle Harbor Shoreline Park

Location, location, location. For a very long time, Middle Harbor Shoreline Park has been one of Oakland’s best-kept secrets. But after this past weekend’s inaugural Bay Area Vibez festival, that’s no longer the case: word is out about the spot, which offers stunning views of the bay and the San Francisco skyline, similar to Treasure Island, except it’s less windy. Both days, the location was a constant source of chatter. “How come no one ever held a music festival here before?” was a frequently-repeated refrain.

Picturesque views added much to the festival's user experience

Picturesque views added much to the festival’s user experience

In retrospect, the location proved perfect for such an event, and went a long way toward a user experience which was much more amenable to comfort than many music festivals we’ve covered over the years. There was plenty of room for people to lay out picnic stuffs and chairs for a day of music in the sun, and just beyond the concert grounds, plank walkways led directly to even more chill-worthy spots on the shoreline. Such stunning natural surroundings made some of the inevitable production glitches associated with a first-time festival less of a big deal than they could have been, although the overlapping of sets between the two concert stages occasionally subtracted from the artists playing on the smaller, less-loud stage.

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The music was fairly well-curated, with more than 40 artists and DJs overall, with a heavy concentration of reggae, electronic music, and hip-hop, with the occasional funk and jazz band. That made for an interesting demographic mix of millennials as well as perennials.

The audience feeling the "Vibez"

The audience feeling the “Vibez”

The unquestioned highlight was Sunday’s flawless one-hour set by Nas, who appeared to have been auditioning for a spot in the hip-hop Hall of Fame. The Queensbridge emcee, one of the last artists to emerge from hip-hop’s 90s Golden Age, delighted the crowd with a strong concentration of material from his classic 1994 debut album Illmatic, which he peppered with songs from later albums like God’s Son, Hip Hop Is Dead, It Was Written, and I Am… . Honestly, it was one of the best live rap performances Oakulture has ever seen, driven mainly by the strength of Nas’ personality and his puissant lyrics. At one point, Nas shared an anecdote about Michael Jackson allowing a then-unknown rapper to sample “Human Nature” on the remix of “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” then went into the song:

My mic check is life or death, breathing a sniper’s death
I exhale the yellow smoke of buddha through righteous steps
Deep like The Shinin’, sparkle like a diamond
Sneak a uzi on the island in my army jacket lining
Hit the Earth like a comet, invasion
Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian, half-man, half-amazing

It ain't hard to tell.

It ain’t hard to tell.

The show felt big, even though Nas was only accompanied by DJ Green Lantern. The location also contributed, as did the fact that he hit the stage right as the sun was going down, and thus had the benefit of a picturesque sunset with iridescent colors, known to locals as the “Oakland Glow.” Watching Nas perform, SF native and rap artist Sellassie Blackwell offered his own assessment of what made him so great: “he’s saying something.” Indeed, the content of his rhymes, as well as his delivery, is a big reason Nas is considered one of the best rappers ever to come out of New York.

Magical dancehall unicorn: Supercat

Magical dancehall unicorn: Supercat

The second-best highlight was unquestionably the return of an artist one observer called a “magical dancehall unicorn”: Supercat, a late 80s-early 90s hitmaker who reportedly hasn’t performed in the Bay Area since 1992. For longterm dancehall aficionados, this was a dream come true, and to top that off, Supercat still had the quick-tongued lyrical finesse  which made him a favorite in the first place. While he didn’t perform any new material, it didn’t really matter because tunes like “Vineyard Style,” “Dem No Care” and “Ghetto Red Hot” fired up the crowd with enthusiasm.

Stephen "Ragga" Marley

Stephen “Ragga” Marley

Supercat kicked off a top-ranking block of reggae programming Saturday night furthered by roots revivalists Morgan Heritage and two members of the Marley clan, Stephen and Damian, who kept the vibes simmering and the ganja clouds lifting.

Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley

Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley

Other highlights from earlier in the day included a super-tight set by the criminally-underrated Fishbone which dug deep into their catalog for songs like “Everyday Sunshine,” “Junkie’s Prayer,” and “Party At Ground Zero.” The manic energy of frontman Angelo Moore was complemented by excellent musicianship and particularly-compelling horn arrangements.

Angelo Moore of Fishbone

Angelo Moore of Fishbone

There was also an energetic main stage turn by The Grouch and Eligh, two members of the Living Legends crew (who got their start in a San Leandro St. warehouse and have grown into their moniker two decades later). Although both are veteran solo artists, they worked well as a duo on songs like “The Bay to LA.” Mid-day sets by Taurrus Riley, Cut Chemist and Aloe Blacc were pleasant but mostly unremarkable.

The Bay to LA: The Grouch and Eligh

The Bay to LA: The Grouch and Eligh

Oakulture arrived a bit later on the second day, just in time to catch a fantastic outing by the Kev Choice Ensemble which became an impromptu Bay Area Hip Hop All-Stars performance, as Choice’s already-tight band—featuring bassist Uriah Duffy, guitarist B’nai Rebelfront, and vocalist Viveca Hawkins—was accentuated by Zumbi Zoom of Zion-I, Deuce Eclipse of Bang Data, vocalist Jennifer Johns, Young Fyah and Sellassie. Their collar-popping performance, which included a blazing freestyle cipher, was almost enough to make up for the relative lack of other local artists on the celebrity-heavy bill. Almost.

Kev Choice Ensemble

Kev Choice Ensemble

It was also great to see the sublime set by Meshell Ndegeocello, a bassist and vocalist who is a bit of a musical chameleon and can play everything from abstract jazz to funky soul and R&B. Ndegeocello began her set with an amazing cover version of Ready For the World’s “Love You Down,” and also brought new life to the Whodini classic “Friends.” Her band was in perfect synch, too, but it was a little disappointing that Nas’ set started before hers was done. Unfortunately, the same thing happened to Kev Choice, whose set overlapped with a louder and much less musically-interesting set by DJ Z-Trip — whose biggest bright point was a freestyle by emcee Supernatural who was handed objects by the audience, including a baby, and worked them into his flow.

Meshell Ndegeocello

Meshell Ndegeocello

Overall, though, the experience was a positive one, and feedback from attendees were that they would not only return next year, but were looking forward to it.

 


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Blackalicious Is Back and “Blacka” Than Ever

Jumbo, Gift of Gab, and Lateef

Jumbo, Gift of Gab, and Lateef

Live Review/ Blackalicious, Zion-I, Martin Luther, Raw-G/ Sept 10, The Fillmore

A week before the release of Imani Vol. 1, their first album in 10 years, Bay Area hip-hop veterans Blackalicious blessed fans with a statement show. Their message? We’re back and “Blacka” than ever. That’s a reference to their new single, a hard-hitting lyrical banger (“blacker than a panther, blacker than Atlanta/ open like the dark starry background of Saturn”) which hints they’ve got plenty left in the tank.

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The new song was one of the highlights of a set which was pretty much a clinical demonstration of how to rock a crowd. It may have been the best Blackalicious show I’ve ever seen out of the dozens of times I’ve seen them live. Although they didn’t have the two female soul singers, Qween and Erin Anova, who toured with them during the 2000s, they made up for it with guest appearances by Fantastic Negrito, Jumbo and Vursatyl of the Lifesavas, and frequent collaborator Lateef the Truthspeaker — a constantly-animated presence whose kinetic energy helped enliven the proceedings considerably.

Lateef the Truthspeaker

Lateef the Truthspeaker

It’s easy to see why Blackalicious have been a fan favorite for three decades now. Along with their Solesides/Quannum brethren Lateef, DJ Shadow, and Lyrics Born, they were pioneers of the alternative hip-hop genre who have consistently set a high bar for innovation and creativity while maintaining a high degree of technical virtuosity and stylistic aesthetics. Emcee Gift of Gab is probably your favorite rappers’ favorite rapper, a man blessed with seemingly-infinite amounts of breath control, which he channels into amazing lyrical patterns and rhyme flows. Producer Chief Xcel is one of the most underrated beatsmiths in hip-hop history, who has evolved from the simple sample-and-loop ethos of 1993’s “Swan Lake” to create complex, nuanced soundscapes which refute the notion that “conscious” hip-hop acts have underwhelming musical tracks.

Gift of Gab

Gift of Gab

Take, for example, the “da-de-da-da-da-da-da-da” chorus from “Deception,” the classic song from the Nia album which gives the tune a hooky, accessible feel without overly pandering to mainstream sensibilities. That’s a song Blackalicious fans never get tired of hearing, along with “Rhythm Sticks” – a standout from 2005’s The Craft. Both of those songs sounded great at the Fillmore, but it was especially good to hear some new material as well. In addition to “Blacka,” the audience was treated to “That Night”— on which Gab, Jumbo and Vursatyl pass the mic like a hot potato while detailing some N’Awlins hijinks, and “Love’s Gonna Save the Day” – a simmering, soulful track which continues the meteoric rise of Fantastic Negrito, who supplies the inspirational hook.

Fantastic Negrito

Fantastic Negrito

Blackalicious’ headlining performance capped an eventful and momentous evening which seemed to forward the momentum generated for Bay Area hip-hop by Hiero Day, which took place just three days prior. Two of the artists on the undercard, in fact, were carryovers from the Hiero Day lineup: Zion-I and Martin Luther. Zion-I are another act who deliver a great live show, whether for 10s of thousands of fans or a few hundred. Joined by Bang Data’s Deuce Eclipse, emcee Zumbi Zoom showed he’s got classics for days too – the set list included “Bird’s Eye View,” “Hit Em,” “Don’t Lose Your Head” – which segued into a long freestyle session between Deuce and Zumbi – and the regional anthem “The Bay,” which seems to grow in stature with every rendition. Martin Luther is technically not a rapper, but for a soul singer, the SF native’s streetwise persona ironically contrasts his frequently emotionally-resonant material. Along with the always-beautiful “Rise” (which dates back to the neo-soul era), he pulled off a cover of Bob Marley’s “Crazy Baldheads,” to the crowd’s delight.

Chief XL

Chief XL

Early birds got a special treat: opener Raw-G, the bilingual Mexican emcee with the razor-sharp staccato delivery, performed a short but potent set highlighting songs from her new album Sangre. Whether opining about immigrant rights (“all that shit needs to change,” she said), busting a cappella flows over beatboxed rhythms, or leading a trio of backup singers (including Naima Shalhoub and Lila Rose) into an updated version of the Latin music classic “Guantanamera,” she was an engaging presence who bears further watching (and listening to). The show also featured some pretty good in-between set DJing by Davey-D and D-Sharp.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

While hip-hop shows are somewhat rare at the Fillmore, when local artists get the opportunity to rock the historic venue, they tend not to disappoint. The Blackalicious show more than upheld that maxim, and Oakulture would like to think that the group – currently wrapping up a string of Pacific Northwest tour dates before heading to France, England, Austria, and Switzerland in October – put a little something extra on it for the hometown.


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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.

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Desert Rock Oasis: Tal National’s Stripped-Down Saharan Highlife

Tal National

Tal National

Live Music Review/Tal National, May 6 @Leo’s Music Club

I have a new favorite African band. It’s Tal National, a group from the Sahara lands of Niger, a country which has been severely underrepresented in terms of Western musical exports. The relative obscurity of their homeland makes Tal National’s sound, which incorporates influences from the various tribal ethnicities of its members, a bit of a revelation: it contains elements of Tuareg trance-rock and Malian desert blues, along with the nimble fretwork and uptempo melodies commonly associated with West African highlife. Indeed, highlife’s blisteringly intricate guitar patterns can sometimes be overshadowed by the emphasis on ensemble-driven arrangements. But Tal National’s focus on the interplay between guitar and drums results in a more stripped-down sound which concentrates on the music’s essential core, while appealing to indie rock audiences as well as world music aficionados.

Guitarist/bandleader Almeida (r.)

Guitarist/bandleader Almeida (r.)

Tal National’s recent Oakland debut at Leo’s was a case in point. Their live set-up consisted of one guitarist, a bassist, a kit drummer, a talking drummer, two vocalists, and a dancer – a much more minimal crew than the Afrobeat orchestras of neighboring Nigeria, which can have as many as 20-25 musicians. The musical communication was immediate and upfront, the movement-enhancing quality of the rhythms impossible to ignore; If you weren’t dancing by the midpoint of the show, you were likely dead or paralyzed.

Tal National

Tal National

The band’s experience—one of Niger’s most popular acts, they’ve been around for a decade and have been known to play five-hour sets—showed in their relentless intensity. Every time it appeared they had reached a plateau, they upped the ante and shifted into an even more-inspired gear. Bandleader/guitarist Almeida not only handled his instrument with virtuoso-like prowess, effortlessly shifting between supplying jangly rhythmic backgrounds and jaw-dropping lead runs, but also proved an effective conductor and narrator for Tal National’s musical journey. At one point, he informed the audience it was time for a trance interlude, during which the (female) dancer took a solo turn as the band veered into a long instrumental–and likely highly-improvisational–section.

Tal National

Tal National

Tal National are only on their second US tour (in support of their most recent album Zoy Zoy), and are still building up an international fan base. But while they may be playing small halls like Leo’s this tour, their stage show is impressive enough to handle much bigger venues. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them play Coachella or Outside Lands in years to come, and I fully expect that to happen, since word of mouth on this band is going to be amazing.

Tal National

Tal National

While many African bands face an uphill battle in terms of being accessible to Western audiences, Tal National have a distinct advantage in that department. Though they don’t compromise on the traditional aspects of their music—many of which have their origins in folk songs dating back hundreds or even thousands of years—their minimalist approach should win them over converts a bit easier. Just a taste of talking drums goes a long way, especially when it’s wrapped around infectious guitar-and-drum-centered songs and expressive vocal harmonies. This is a band which must be experienced live to be believed, and it’s likely that everyone inside Leo’s that night felt lucky to have caught such an inspired performance.


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Yasiin Bey: Mos Def-initely Hip-Hop

Live review/ Yasiin Bey, sOul from the O, Antique Naked Soul, Jahi as PE2.0, April 24, 1015 Folsom

Yasiin Bey fka Mos Def

Yasiin Bey fka Mos Def

The state of hip-hop has been a topic of considerable debate for the past decade or so. But while commercial co-option and cultural devaluation abound, particularly at the corporate level, so do encouraging signs which suggest the culture is healthier than many might assume. The biggest sea change is probably that the Hip Hop Generation now occupies the position the Baby Boomers once did, a point which hasn’t been lost on advertisers like Hennessy and Google Android, whose most recent spots feature 90s classics by Nas and Pete Rock & CL Smooth, respectively. The other potentially game-changing development is the advent of the classic rap format on commercial radio, which has breathed new life (and listenership) into the medium.  Anyone who’s studied long term demographic trends knows that America is getting more multicultural, and hip-hop is a genre which has attracted a multicultural audience since the beginning.

The canonization of 90s hip-hop – a notion furthered locally by YBCA’s Clas/Sick Hip Hop series —  has led to an interesting phenomenon: its ethos has been embraced by a 20-something audience who were too young to know what was going on the first time boom bap made the rounds. This in turn has led to a growing interest in what’s often referred to as “conscious rap,” much of it indie and underground (though underexposed might be a better term) which has resulted in multigenerational audiences for shows which feature artists with classic hip-hop aesthetics, often with new creative twists.

Yaciin Bey at 1015 194_edit

Yasiin Bey’s show last Thursday night at 1015 Folsom was a good case in point. Before we get to that, a little background: Formerly known as Mos Def, Bey came to prominence during the last rays of hip-hop’s golden age. His Black on Both Sides album (1999) hit a high bar for NYC rap, both in terms of populist appeal and cultural quality, which the region has struggled to maintain. In the years since, Bey’s output has become increasingly eclectic, unlike some of his 90s peers who have either attempted to go down a radio-friendly, commercial path or doggedly refused to step outside of a formulaic box and experiment with new sounds. He’s collaborated with jazzman Robert Glasper, rockers the Black Keys, and alt-popsters Gorillaz, and has been known to infuse his live performances with improvisational singing. Although he hasn’t released an album since 2009, he’s maintained a rabid fanbase, while contributing to politically-tinged projects like the Gulf Aid All-Stars and a short film by humanitarian organization Reprieve protesting conditions in Guantanamo Bay. Currently a resident of South Africa, he’s made the Bay Area one of his home bases for his live appearances.

At 1015 Folsom, Bey appeared wearing heavily polarized sunglasses, and no less than three jackets, including two short coasts worn over a long coat. While the stereotypical rap cliché would have been to appear smoking a blunt and perhaps pour out a little liquor for the dead homies, Bey proceeded to reach into a canvas grocery bag and strew roses around the stage. Clearly he wasn’t here to just perform a concert; he was more interested in ritual – a livification ceremony for hip-hop, perhaps? Throughout the course of the evening, Bey eventually removed his shades and peeled off all his overgarment layers, until he stood there, clad in a long-sleeved black t-shirt. He also seemed to strip away the audience’s pretentions, in particular the notion that an artist with hits needs to stick to his hits to have an engaging live show.

“Rather than offer testaments to gritty urban life surrounded by broken glass everywhere, Yasiin Bey just kept vibing the crowd with affirmations of beauty, like a bohemian hippie in the body of a Brooklyn-bred cat. Instead of striking cool poses laden with exaggerated black masculinity, he was a mellow master of the microphone, an audio avatar and rhyme-spitting shaman who was confident enough in his persona to balance his Yang with Yin.”

The show was about three-quarters of the way done before Bey recited the well-worn lyrics of “Mathematics,” a lyrical tongue twister about numerology from Black on Both Sides. Before the night was done, he would revisit two more songs from the album, “Ms. Fat Booty,” and “Umi Says” – the latter a jazzy track with a sung chorus which is more spiritual chant than typical rap song. Most of his show, in fact, redefined the notions of what hip-hop was, while Bey redefined the notion of what a New York emcee was supposed to aspire to.

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Rather than offer testaments to gritty urban life surrounded by broken glass everywhere, he just kept vibing the crowd with affirmations of beauty, like a bohemian hippie in the body of a Brooklyn-bred cat. Instead of striking cool poses laden with exaggerated black masculinity, Bey was a mellow master of the microphone, an audio avatar and rhyme-spitting shaman who was confident enough in his persona to balance his Yang with Yin. At one point, he twirled around in a circle, arms outstretched, like Julie freakin’ Andrews in “The Sound of Music.” Though he went off into experimental and improvisational territory, the crowd not only stayed with him, but the vibe never wavered. He showed his appreciation for their loyalty by dropping to the floor and busting some b-boy footwork. To paraphrase the title of one of his early singles, Bey was universally magnetic.

It would be remiss, however, not to mention that the evening started out on a good note thanks to the all-Oakland undercard, three opening acts who each embodied the classic/conscious rap aesthetic without being overly retro or nostalgic. The first group, sOuL From The O, consists of Oakland emcee Mark Hopkins and beatsmith Woodstock (formerly of Crown City Rockers).  Their short set was upbeat and positive, highlighted by renditions of the single/video “Boombastic”; another song which stayed on-message with the #BlackLivesMatter meme, referencing Oscar Grant and police brutality; and a demonstration of live MPC beatmaking skills by Woodstock.

Next came Antique Naked Soul, a group which consists of lead vocalist Antique, two backup vocalists (a la the Supremes), and beatboxer extraordinaire Soulati. While not strictly a hip-hop group per se—ANS embodies a hip-hop aesthetic in its use of looped beatbox phrases, but is more of an experimental/alt. R&B act—the group got the crowd open with a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” during which Antique perfectly recreated MJ’s tone (although with a bit more power behind it). Original tunes like “Warrior”—a nod to the Golden State hoopsters, who completed an improbable 4th quarter comeback that night—went over well too, but the illest moment of ANS’ set may have been the dueling trumpets Antique and Soulati created, without the use of any instruments but their vocal chords.

The penultimate opener served for many as the SF live debut of Jahi as PE2.0, who carries a heavy mantle as the next generation of Public Enemy. Jahi, too, was on-message and on-theme: PE was, for many, the quintessential classic rap group, and standbardbearers of consciousness and political activism. Songs like “What They Need” resonated with movement politics, delivered with crowd-rocking, microphone-rumbling authenticity by the Oakland-based emcee, who grows into his new role with every successive show. If you’ve heard the PE2.0 album, you know that it does indeed update or reboot many of the same themes as the Chuck D-led outfit, and while Jahi isn’t what one would call a flashy rapper, he’s solid as a rock onstage. While not as iconic as Chuck just yet, it’s quite possible that he will be mentioned in the same hushed tones before he’s done.

When it was all said and done, the take-home message could not have been anything other than this: not only does hip-hop still live, but rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated.