Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Hiero Day VII: The Seventh Seal [Review/Photoset]

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This year’s installment of Hiero Day — which  has become one of the most significant hip-hop parties in the nation, if not the globe — may have been the most satisfying iteration to date. By the time evening rolled around and the locally-bred Hieroglyphics crew hit the instantly-recognizable opening notes of “93 Til Infinity,” the experience had become epic.

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It’s always interesting to arrive at a music festival early, when things are just starting. There was a good reason for early arrival, however: an all-to-brief set by Umar Bin Hassan, best known as one of the driving forces behind the Last Poets, the pioneering group who infused spoken word with street-level imagery, cultural nationalism, and a sociopolitical worldview. The Last Poets have been called the Godfathers of rap, and the tradition of “woke”-ness in hip-hop has a starting point in songs like “When the Revolution Comes” and “Mean Machine.” They’ve been sampled by Notorious B.I.G., and covered by Public Enemy, yet their contributions to the artform and the culture aren’t as widely-known as they should be.

Bin Hassan’s set was short but significant, in that it connected rap’s origins with its present-day manifestation.  He closed with “This Is Madness”, the title track of the classic 1971 album. Strangely enough, the song’s dystopian lyrics seemed just as relevant in the Trumpian era as they were during the Nixon presidency.

As host Mistah F.A.B. noted, at the time the Last Poets emerged, “trhey was still hanging us. Let me say that. We was still getting killed for reckless eyeballing. We were still getting locked up like we are today, at higher rates than we was in the South. So for a brother to come out with poems like that, the whole Last Poets, allof the brothers, man, to be here today, I’m honored just to share the stage with him.”

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After his set, Bin Hassan hung out for a while in VIP by the main stage, taking it all in. There was a lot to take in, indeed, Besides the main stage, there were two other stages with full lineups, vendors galore, a food truck area, a kids’ area – a sure sign hip-hop is grown—and live painting by graffiti legend Crayone.

As the day progressed, thousands of attendees began to fill up the staging area, which had a different configuration than the 2016 festival, also held in the general 3rd St. location. The main stage faced westerly, which meant that attendees were looking directly into the sun for most of the afternoon.

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As a veteran of many Hiero Days, one thing Oakulture has learned is, you can’t be everywhere at once. So while forays were made through the vending and food areas, and the two secondary stages, the place to be was around the main stage, where most of the action was – although word has it that Ryan Austin and Chinaka Hodge killed it, as did Chali 2na’s performance and Mannie Fresh’s DJ set.

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For the occasion, F.A.B.  donned a bright red hoodie-and-sweatpants combo advertising his clothing company Dope Era. Never one to under-accessorize, F.A.B. also sported a Dope Era backpack and gold chain. The charismatic host shuttled between exhorting the crowd to get loud, relaying anecdotes, and performing some of his own songs, like the hyphy era anthem,  “Super Sic Wid It”

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A major highlight was Richie Rich’s set.  Before he came on, F.A.B. again contextualized the moment, proclaiming Rich “raised” him. “This dude was one of the first dudes to really show me what it was like to be a real Oakland stunna, to represent the town all around the world… when I heard this dude was on the performance list, I was hella juiced.”

In the Bay Area pantheon, “Dubble R” occupies a rather unique roost. A founding member of 415 who later signed to Def Jam before going indie, he’s among the few OG pioneers of Bay Area rap who’s still actively recording.

Richie Rich’s Hiero Day set was heated. The soil-savvy yet lyrical mic presence he displayed was something up-and-coming artists could learn a thing or two from. The crowd’s energy level jumped significantly when he too the stage. Audible cheers of excitement ensued when he performed the classics “Ain’t Gon Do” and “Let’s Ride.” He appeared to leave the crowd wanting more, until he reappeared, flanked by F.A.B., for a rendition of the all-time Oakland anthem, “Sideshow.”

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Another bright note was Mike Relm’s video turntablism display. Relm—who started out as a member of Supernatural Turntable Artists, then shot to fame with the Blue Man Group—has mastered the art of mixing music videos, mashing up visuals as well as audio. This injects an added sense of excitement into DJ routines because of the enhanced visual component. Relm might appear to be The Nerdiest Guy on the Planet—an image he has carefully cultivated—but he is an absolute beast on the tables, so don’t ever sleep on him.

Relm was followed by a very laid-back Talib Kweli, who recounted a story of coming to Oakland in 1996 and hanging  out with members of Hiero. It was a subtle reminder that Hiero Day is built on relationships in the artist community which extend back decades, as opposed to a corporate festival where money is the only commonality. The phrase “for the culture” gets bandied about a lot, and sometimes in cliched ways, but there is absolutely nothing cliched about a grassroots event which built itself up from its own bootstraps – which could be said about the Hiero organization as well (more on that in a minute).

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Kweli’s set cruised through hits like “The Blast,””Get By,” and “Redefinition,” before the Brooklyn emcee gave way to Southern Cali’s Pharcyde. Now down to just two original members—Imani and Bootie  Brown, the group still was able to muster considerable stage command, especially on their closing tune, “Passing Me By,” which turned into a sing-along with several thousand people – indeed, the staging area had become a dense thicket of bodies.

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By now, the sun’s merciless rays had begun to ease a bit, setting the stage for an otherworldly set by Black Thought. The Roots’ headmaster made his first Hiero Day appearance one for the history books. If you think you have heard dope emcees before, you really haven’t heard anything until you’ve heard Thought do a solo set, backed by just a trumpeter and a give tapping out beats on an MPC.  Tarik Trotter simply put on a rhyme clinic, scoring high marks for subject matter, flow, breath control, vocabulary, tonality, and several other metrics which may come to mind later. He held the mic like a staff, emanating a vibe of hip-hop royalty. Fronting on Thought was simply not an option; he basically exuded greatness from every pore, as he poured on the similes and metaphors.

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The coup de gras was the special guest he brought out, none other than Sa-Roc. Though she looked graceful, even demure, she beasted the mic with an impressive  display of skills and finesse which served as dessert to Thought’s entrée. Definitely keep an eye out for her.

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At this point in the day, the show was running a bit over, which  cut into the headliner’s time. Which is also a testament to Hiero’s aesthetic . Most groups in that position, especially at their own festival, would have cut the time of one of the other acts; to cut your own set speaks to their integrity.

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Their 30-minute slot was cut down to maybe about 20 minutes. But lest anyone complain, they more then made up for it in intensity, bum-rushing the stage like they were hungry for their first taste of success.

If you’ve followed Hiero for a while, you know they function as a collective unit with distinct  personalities: Casual mixes physical and verbal aggression with subtly complex rhyme patterns and battle-rapper bravado; Tajai—who sported a black and gold African-patterned robe straight outta Wakanda—evoked the image of a high priest or wizard of some mystical Afrocentric sect;  the underrated Pep Love is a fount of lyrical dopeness and hip-hop aesthetics; Phesto Dee mixes sporty flair with a subtle sense of humor (he had on some shades with the Hiero symbol on the lenses); and A+ and Opio are deceptively laid-back cats who deliver devastating ninja strikes causing verbal lacerations.  Producer Domino and DJ Toure stoically play the background, but also serve as grounded focal points – the crew likes to move around a lot onstage. Missing in action was Hiero founded Del—a zany character if there ever was one—who is still recovering from a recent illness.

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Hiero’s energetic set went by quickly, but every moment was befitting of a prime-time performance. After seeing them live countless times, the way they complement each other never ceases to amaze. They never get in each other’s way, seeming to employ telepathic commands, or maybe just intuition born from working alongside each other for three decades.  It would have been dope to hear a full set of classics, but the songs we did hear, including two newer songs and the now 20 year-old “You Never Knew” were lapp[ed up like milk by the crowd, leading up to “93 til,” a song whose most enduring quality may be that it never gets old.

Some final thoughts: Hiero Day covers a fair amount of the hip-hop spectrum, and presents the genre as united—as opposed to subdivided by style or region. In doing so, it transcends subjective biases. The mix of up-and-coming and veteran artists not only challenges fans to be open-minded and encourages embracing of groups they may be unfamiliar with, but also means each and every Hiero Day is similar yet different.

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Unlike most rap shows—which tend to either target younger or older audiences—Hiero Day has broad, multigenerational appeal. This also helps explain Hieroglyphics’ longevity: they keep attracting younger fans while retaining longtime listeners, essentially turning over their fan base. It’s a brilliant marketing model.

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While similar festivals like Summer Jam or Rock the Bells have attracted large numbers of hip-hop aficionados over the years, neither event has ever felt truly organic. There’s a DIY mentality afoot at Hiero Day which makes mainstream or overly-commercial rap seem completely irrelevant. From an audience perspective, there may be some performers you especially want to see, but a greater sense that folks are there for the overall experience.

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Art & Soul Turns 18 (Review/Photoset)

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Over the years, Oakland’s annual Art & Soul festival has had its ups and downs. This year’s offering, however, was one of the best in recent memory, with an outstanding all-local lineup which allowed homegrown talent to shine. It’s perhaps easy to take the event for granted, with its familiar array of vendor booths and food stands, bolstered by various stages for live music and dance. It’s not the edgiest summer event, but it is one of the most multi-generational, as well as one of the most venerable festivals in Oakland. While First Fridays, Friday Nights at OMCA, and Third Thursdays at Latham Square have become popular in recent years, when Art & Soul started, there wasn’t really much of a buzz around downtown as a cultural district. All that has changed as Oakland has come into its own and become more of a destination for the rest of the Bay Area.

It seemed fitting that this year’s highlight was a Sunday headlining set by hometown heroines the Pointer Sisters. The group is best known for a string of 80’s pop hits like “Jump,” “Neutron Dance,” “Automatic,” and “I’m So Excited,” but they started out a decade earlier with an intoxicating blend of vocal harmonies and versatile arrangements which ran the gamut from R&B to funk to jazz to country to rock to disco. It would have been cool to hear deep cuts like “Yes We Can Can,” “How Long,” and “Steam Heat,” but the hour-long set concentrated on their best-known material, with a cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” thrown in for good measure. While the group is down to one original member—Ruth Pointer—it’s still a family affair, with the rest of the trio rounding out with Ruth’s daughter Issa and granddaughter Sadako. Now in her 70s, Ruth looked and sounded amazing, and she led the group through a dynamic live set which had the crowd buzzing.

 

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At the end of the show, there was a special cheerleading performance and an appearance by Mayor Schaaf, who then announced the ”Mayor of West Oakland,” Councilmember Lynette McElhaney, who proceeded to award Ruth the key to the city.  Ruth then gave a small speech bigging up the city, and shouting-out her high school, McClymonds. It was a real Oakland moment.

Earlier in the day, the main stage  featured sets by Grammy-nominated Alphabet Rockers, R&B songstress Netta Brielle, and jazz-hopsters the Kev Choice Ensemble – a strong showing of local flavor whose sets complimented each other well. The music was in the vein of Black music, but had near-universal appeal. This was a marked change from past years which sometimes featured non-local rock acts (which may have been due to former sponsor KFOG). But this year, the co-sponsor was KBLX. As a result, the main stage performances felt more organically and authentically Oakland. While the festival hasn’t always booked all-local lineups, it’s a good look when it does. That’s because doing so allows the event to really be about celebrating and appreciating The Town—in effect, marketing Oakland itself as the main attraction.

It doesn’t hurt that there is plenty of talent bred right here to go around. The Kev Choice Ensemble is a perfect example. If you’ve never seen the KCE live before, you’re missing out on some really good music, as in, actual music played by real musicians. In terms of artistic sensibilities, Choice is a 10 out of 10, and his music bears a high level of aesthetic quality. The mix of jazz, funk, R&B, and hip-hop felt perfect to groove to on a Sunday afternoon. Lyrically, Choice eschews the materialism and self-serving braggadocio common with contemporary rap artists, focusing instead on socially-conscious messages, augmented by the backing vocals of Viveca Hawkins. Choice brought out special guests Sol Development, Netta Brielle, and Jennifer Johns—even more top-shelf local talent—which made the concert seem like an extended family affair.

The previous day, Oakulture managed to catch sets by Jazz Mafia featuring Deuce Eclipse , Ryan Nicole and Martin Luther, and headliner Lyrics Born. Both sets were super-tight. Luther absolutely killed covers of Parliament’s “Stay,” and The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and Eclipse ripped dos rap en Espanol numbers, “Ragga Cantor” and “Knock Knock,” which allowed the Mafia to show of their Latin jazz chops

Lyrics Born, meanwhile, continues to put on a hell of a live show. Now on his 10th album, the man has lots of catalog to pull from. Too much, in fact, for a one-hour set. Oakulture was hoping LB would pull out the 2003 gem “Bad Dreams,” but really couldn’t complain about material like “I Like It, I Love It,” “Chest Wide Open,” and the just-released single “Is It Worth It?” The crowd also heard the Latyrx classic “Lady Don’t Tek No,” which never gets old. Another highlight were the b-boy breaking moves of LB’s son, Teo—reppping the next generation of Bay flavor.

There was, as always, a lot going on at Art & Soul. In addition to the main stage, there were dedicated jazz and blues stages, and a turf dance competition. It’s pretty cool that turfin’ has become enshrined into the festival repertoire, as something which primarily appeals to youth. It’s also cool that hip-hop artists are being embraced—almost a decade after Hieroglyphics became the first rap act to play the festival. While rap isn’t always the most appropriate music choice at family-oriented events, rappers  with positive lyrical content who play with live bands makes it a non-issue.

All in all, Art & Soul was an enjoyable and fun time which one hopes will continue to evolve into a world-class showcase for local music. There was also an underlying sense of the need to maintain cultural identity in the face of a rapidly-changing city. One of Choice’s songs, “Never Give You Up”—which personifies Oakland similar to how Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” personifies hip-hop—spoke directly to that. The song  was later referenced by McElhaney. With that being said, having a place where Black cultural forms such as blues, jazz, hip-hop and turfin’ are all visible and audible, where food stands still sell BBQ, and local vendors sell t-shirts with slogans like “I (Heart) Being Black” reinforces Oakland’s longstanding identity against the onslaught of culture and population shift. Perhaps that makes Art & Soul the cultural equivalent of comfort food, but comfort food is comforting for a reason.


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Sizzla Dazzles as Oakland Sizzles

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I’ve been blessed enough to see Sizzla Kalonji a bunch of times, over the years. There was an amazing set at Reggae Rising – the short-lived offshoot of Reggae on the River – up in Humboldt; a fiery, defiant show at the Independent in San Francisco; and a steamy throwdown at Venue (now called Complex) in Oakland—which may have been the artist’s first time in the East Bay. Those were all special shows in their own way. To that list, I can now add Sizzla’s performance at the inaugural Oaktown Reggae Festival this past weekend.

 

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Temperatures soared into the upper 80s for Saturday’s event. In actuality, it felt much hotter, in part due to the urban heat island effect, whereby surface temperatures can be as much 20-30 degrees warmer than air temperatures, due to heat reflecting off of concrete and asphalt. However, I’m not complaining: this was perfect reggae weather, sort of urban tropical, if you know what I’m saying.

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The festival was inside of Level 13, the former Shadow Lounge and Maxwell’s, now owned by Richard Ali of New Karribean City, a longtime supporter of both reggae and hip-hop live music. The show was co-promoted by Ali and Jonathan Mack, a Trinidadian native and also a longtime supporter of reggae and Caribbean culture whom many Bay Area music fans might remember for his production company Angel Magik (which has been active for more than a decade).

Inside the expansive club, a rotation of DJs spun dancehall classics (always nice to hear Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam”), as bartenders poured beers and mixed cocktails. The performance stage was in the back, a graffiti-ied-up alley in-between Franklin and Harrison Streets. This proved to be a perfect location for this event.

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It’s one thing to see a major artist at a huge concert venue or a fancy club. At Reggae Rising, huge video monitors projected a live music feed so that the 30,000 people in attendance could see. At the Independent and Complex, the shows weren’t quite as mega, but there’s still a feeling of the artist being somewhat out of their environment. The Level 13 show was easily the most-accessible and intimate Sizzla performance I’ve yet seen, and the locale was perhaps the most authentic. The tag-saturated alley resonated with “yard” vibes – making it almost seem as if it was happening in the Caribbean, not Oakland. I’m not sure whether is had any effect on Sizzla, but he seemed perfectly in his element and extremely comfortable.

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The show itself was pretty off the hook. Sporting the trademark turban of the Bobo Ashanti, a yellow shirt, and various accoutrements, including a silver bracelet and a beaded necklace, Sizzla looked every bit the cultural icon he has become – a symbol of liberation for the ghetto youth. There was little in-between-song patter; evidently the artist just wanted to get right to it. The set list included many of Sizzla’s classic, well-known songs—I think I heard “Praise Ye Jah” and “Babylon Ah Listen”—which went over well with the reggae-loving audience. (I’ve seen shows where artists have concentrated on more recent material and Jamaican singles which audiences may not know, and then be miffed the songs didn’t get the response they expected. Thankfully, that didn’t happen here).

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The set built on earlier performances by Shiloh, Pressure, and Los Rakas, which were also top-notch. Toward the end, which extended past the listed 9pm closing time (are you listening, BottleRock?), Sizzla opened up the stage for some combination tunes with Ras Shiloh, which then evolved into a full-blown reggae cipher, with numerous emcees touching the mic, before returning to take center stage and voice a few more lyrics. Sizzla’s dynamic stage presence oth engaged and excited the crowd, and the overall vibe was one of niceness and irie iration.

 

Sizzla has always presented a fascinating mix of militant stridency and heartfelt compassion — a dichotomy he has leveraged into a long career, which began in the mid-90s. He’s not a pop artist out to make a quick buck off a trendy dance move, but a force of culture who has withstood the test of time, in an industry with a high turnover rate.

On top of that, he’s always been a rebel, unafraid to name exactly what’s wrong with the system, and what the solution should be. It did not go unnoticed that the alley which contained the stage was directly behind the Tribune Tower, the iconic symbol of Oakland. The tower could actually be seen from the stage, and, in this context, it took on a deeper metaphorical significance, as the stand-in for the tower of Babel, the symbol of Babylon (a Rastafarian term for systemic oppression and non-conscious thought). It’s quite possible this also occurred to Sizzla, although it’s equally unclear if this would have made a difference, either way. As long as people showed up, Sizzla was going to do his thing, regardless.

 

Overall, the show was a success. It could have been better-attended, but that would have also meant more crowd density and less personal space (and comfort) for each guest. The crowd was just big enough, without being overstuffed, and one would have to say, that’s pretty good, considering that much of the Bay Area reggae massive was at the Sierra Nevada World Music festival happening the same day.

 

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All in all, it’s good for reggae to have a home in Oakland, and when I say reggae, I mean real, culturally–authentic reggae. The Oaktown Reggae Festival definitely has the potential to become an annual event, and I hope that happens. I don’t know if the niceness of the vibes was connected to the fact that both Ali and Mack are from the Caribbean themselves (and not just a typical Western promoter), but those vibes were very much appreciated in this age of Trumpism.

 

The show also brought back fond memories of day parties at Oasis at nearby 12th St., a longtime sanctuary for reggae and world music, which has now become the gentrified Mad Oak bar. And, the festival also hinted at the possibilities of many more such culturally-themed events within the Black Arts Movement Business District which is just beginning to emerge. (Full disclosure: the author is the Co-Director of BAMBD CDC,a  community development corporation working to promote cultural and economic development within the district, and part of a group working with Councilmember McElhaney’s office to promote BAMBD, along with Ali, the Malonga Advisory Committee, 310 gallery, and others.)

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(Editor’s note: this post has been updated to reflect the contributions of Jonathan Mack, who was inadvertently omitted. Oakulture sincerely apologizes for any misunderstanding or inconvenience caused by this, and wants to further add, “Big Up” to both Ali and Mack for keeping reggae music alive and sizzling in Oakland).

 

 

 


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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.