Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Fantastic Negrito’s Voyage into Voodoo Soul

Fantastic Negrito

Fantastic Negrito

Live music review/Fantastic Negrito, April 17th @ New Parish.

If Nina Simone was the “high priestess of Voodoo Soul,” who was the high priest? Some may point to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, he of the wailing baritone, bugged-out eyes, and bones-through-the-nose gris gris shtick, complete with skulls for accoutrements. Others might mention Jimi Hendrix, the self-appointed “voodoo chile” of the psychedelic era, whose mellow hippie vibe contrasted his aggressive infusion of the blues with lysergic mojo. Still others might say D’Angelo, the falsetto crooner whose 2000 post-neosoul opus Voodoo is equally suitable for making love, sweaty juke joint boogie sessions, or sacrificing goats to. Miles Davis might even get a nod for “running the voodoo down” on his Bitches Brew album, a potent stew of experimental jazz-funk fusion. But the current title-holder may be none other than Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito, who has seemingly come out of nowhere to captivate audiences with his reloaded take on bluesy rock-n-roll, delivered with a hefty helping of N’Awlins-style boogie-woogie piano.

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Only a few months ago, Fantastic Negrito, aka Xavier Dphrepaulezz, was performing in small rooms like Oakland’s Legionnaire Saloon (as part of the Town Futurist Sessions). Prior to that, he busked in front of Colonial Donuts and at Broadway and 25th and could be found regularly hosting informal jam sessions at his Blackball Universe gallery-headquarters in the jack London Square warehouse district. But after beating out thousands of other unsigned, indie entrants to win NPR’s Tiny Desk contest, which led to a much-hyped SXSW appearance and an SF Chronicle Datebook cover story, the 46-year old Dphrepaulezz now finds himself headlining sold-out shows at the New Parish, attracting a crossover audience who had never heard of him until very recently.

Although nowhere near as dramatic as Hawkins (or Simone for that matter), Dphrepaulezz has more than a little bit of voodoo in him. He describes his music as “black roots,” and “blues with a punk attitude,” and his bio talks about his creative rebirth after failed record deals and near-death experiences (he spent several months in a coma after a car accident and had to teach himself how to play instruments again) which catalyzed into a cathartic transformation following the birth of his son. The concept of resurrection is a central one in African-based spiritual traditions like voodoo, as is the notion of cyclical time and ancestor worship. Dphrepaulezz’s drawing of inspiration from field hollars, Delta blues and early rock & roll is as much as a tribute to the pioneers of American black music as it is a refutation of the superficiality of modern R&B. Fantastic Negrito’s sound is all about going as deep as possible into the soul-affirming paradigm of these music forms, creating original blues without being derivative.

During Friday night’s show, even Dphrepaulezz seemed a little surprised at the recent turn of events which revived his dreams of music industry fame. At times, he seemed to be wondering if someone was going to pinch him and wake him up. Mainly, though, he was content to take his blessings in stride and just roll with his current situation.

There was quite a contrast between Mara Hruby’s somewhat restrained performance at the same venue the previous evening and Dphrepaulezz’ engaging stage presence Friday evening. He cut a strikingly dapper figure in a silk shirt, silk tie, and red vest, a nappy, spikey Afro crowning his head. Like a classic soul man, he was in constant motion, striking frequent poses, turning to all corners of the stage, and doing his own dances when he wasn’t singing, pleading, testifying, or cajoling. He rapped with the crowd in-between numbers in a way which seemed more sincere than slick. Though not as raw or profane as Hawkins, he belted out vocals with a similarly intense urgency, albeit a much smoother delivery. There was an improvisational quality to his performance, like, what is he going to do next? Having finally gained our attention, he seemed determined to earn it.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Fantastic Negrito’s sound would be embraced by a wider – and whiter – audience than was imaginable six months ago. After all, African American music and pale hipsters go together like bread and butter – Hawkins once released an album called Black Music for White People – and the New Parish’s robust ticket sales were a testament to Dphrepaulezz’ current buzzworthiness.

What was interesting, though, was that the NPR crowd was multi-generational, if not terribly multicultural, encompassing both youthful 20-somethings and grey-haired aficionados. There’s also a certain irony in the fact that here, we have a black man as the frontman of a black rock & roll and modern blues outfit, genres in which legitimate voices are unfortunately infrequently found in this day and age. At the end of the day, though, what matters is the music, and on tracks like “Night Has Turned to Day,” “An Honest Man,” and “Lost in a Crowd,” Dphrepaulezz not only sounded authentic, but made his retro stylings seem relevant.

Though Dphrepaulezz is mining a rich vein of gospel-soaked handclaps, talking blues, and workman chants, there’s no cliché in his songs, which balance their throwback framework with brilliantly postmodernist lyrics which blend evocative imagery with self-referential humility. One need look no further than “An Honest Man” – a song which grapples with the realities of dependence and addiction –  to see what all the hype’s about:

Now I’m in love again
No this time it’s not with my hand
Wandering murdering
Every time that I get the chance
I’m a human but remember first I’m a man
You painted pictures for me
that I refuse to understand
Cause I want everything for no reason
Cause yesterday it felt so good
But today it feels so bad

Afterwards, Dphrepaulezz held court at an after-party at Blackball Universe, as he mingled with fans and friends, winding down from the show. The chances that sudden fame might go to his head seemed slight; for all his spectacular freakiness under the stage lights, he’s a laid-back cat offstage who appeared grounded in his renewed purpose. The same might not be said of someone who wasn’t on their third act, who hadn’t been spiritually and physically reborn, who hadn’t learned not to take the adulation of an enrapt audience for granted.

A final comment: while Fantastic Negrito might seem like an anomaly, the reality is the talent level of Oakland’s underground indie music scene is quite high. What artists lack isn’t skill or originality, but exposure. When given a chance to be heard and seen, they tend to win people over, if not blow their minds outright. A case in point was the bro in the New Parish courtyard who couldn’t stop raving about opener Antique Naked Soul’s innovative mix of a cappella vocals and looped beatbox rhythms.  Suffice to say that Dphrepaulezz is just the tip of the iceberg; one hopes NPR and similar outlets will discover other Oakland artists, just as they have Fantastic Negrito.

For more info, visit http://www.fantasticnegrito.com/ ; Purchase Fantastic Negrito’s EP here


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A Triumphant Tribute to Marley’s “Exodus”

Empress Unification

Empress Unification

Exodus is arguably Bob Marley’s best solo album, track-for-track. Every song on the album is a classic, and its worst song (“One Love”) is a certified anthem with enough populist appeal it was used by the Jamaican tourist board. But even more than a collection of strong songs, the tunes on Exodus play well together. Like the best albums from the vinyl era, Exodus has a song cycle: the opener, “Natural Mystic,” perfectly segues into “So Much Things to Say”; “Guiltiness” and “The Heathen” pair up like Siamese twins; “Exodus” and “Jamming” go together like salt fish and ackee; “Waiting in Vain” and “Turn Your Lights Down Low” present a potent 1-2 combination of lover’s rock; and the closing duo, “Three Little Birds” and “One Love,” both go big with sing-a-long hooks. The songwriting is Marley at his best, ranging from introspective lyrics to extroverted projections of joy, happiness, and feeling irie. While not as raw politically as some of Marley’s earlier material, Exodus more than makes up for it with heartfelt expressions of love and humanism – which in of itself could be considered a political statement.

Femi Andrades and the Broun Fellinis

Femi Andrades and the Broun Fellinis

Like the approximately 1800 other people who attended the three performances of Exodus commissioned by UnderCover Presents at the Independent this past weekend, Oakulture was curious to hear what Marley’s 1977 masterpiece would sound like reinterpreted by 10 local bands, encompassing a diverse stylistic range.

Silk-E

Silk-E

The result broadened the album beyond the reggae genre and affirmed the universality of Marley’s message. Simply put, great material is great material, and it’s hard to go wrong with any of the tunes on Exodus. The fact that none of the performances presented by-the-numbers tributes allowed the performers to put their own touches on the songs, and keep things loose and somewhat quirky. This was no slick, Vegas-style production, but more of a representative sampling of the Bay Area music community—a funky, ad hoc bunch of talented weirdos. The show – and a companion album recorded at Fantasy Studios – were curated by Guest Music Director Rupa Marya of Rupa and the April Fishes, a world beat/alt.reggae band from SF. Marya clearly wanted to take the proceedings down an eclectic road, without getting too far away from the message of Marley’s music.

Rupa and the April Fishes

Rupa and the April Fishes

The standouts, from Oakulture’s perspective anyway, just happened to be Oakland-identified artists who infused their tunes with large doses of Afrofuturism. If you’ve ever wanted to hear the avant-jazz outfit the Broun Fellinis, a group known for their improvisational jams, tackle conventional song structure and feature a female vocalist, this was your lucky night. Femi Andrades, of the Punk Funk Mob, sang like she was possessed by a jazzy duppy on “Natural Mystic,” as original Fellinis Kevin Carnes (drums) and David Boyce (saxophone) and bassist Kirk Peterson raised a wailing ruckus.

Boots Riley

Boots Riley

Another highlight was the surprise appearance of an unbilled Silk-E, who bum-rushed the stage along with the Coup’s Boots Riley and the Quartet San Francisco for a transcendent version of “Turn your Lights Down Low.” Sporting an enormous mane like a black lioness, Silk-E’s stage presence was just as big as her hair, to the point where Riley’s raps and the instrumental backing almost seemed like an afterthought.

Silk- E

Silk- E

A nice touch was Empress Unification’s version of “Exodus.” The all-female vocal group, backed by the Fyah Squad Band, offered a refreshing take on the album’s titular track, with soaring harmonies which emphasized gender balance (reggae tends to be a male-dominated genre), while their all-white outfits suggested spiritual purity. Marley’s back-up singers, the I-Threes, were always a huge part of his sound, and Empress Unification not only reminded listeners of that, but added two more voices to the mix.

Sean Hayes

Sean Hayes

Dressed in a multihued outfit which seemed to be a tribute to global solidarity, Marya herself tackled “The Heathen” along with the April Fishes. The song subtly supports resistance to Babylon without the overt  name-checking of “Rat Race” or the fiery militancy of “Slave Driver,” yet it’s one of Marley’s most sublimely subversive songs:

As a man sow so shall he reap

And I know that talk is cheap

But the hotter the battle

Is the sweeter the victory

Empress Unification

Empress Unification

Sierra Leone Refugees All-Stars member Black Nature’s version of “Jamming” was probably the closest to traditional reggae out of all the performers, while vocal trio T Sisters put a doo wop spin on “Three Little Birds” and Brass Band Mission closed out the show with a NOLA-style second line rendition of “One Love.”  Other participants included alt. Latin band Shake Your Peace (“So Much Things to Say”), singer-songwriter Sean Hayes (“Waiting in Vain”) , and prog-reggae outfit FogDub (“Guiltiness”).

Shake Your Peace

Shake Your Peace

Overall, Exodus added another feather to UnderCover Presents’ cap. By offering musicians an opportunity to play some of their favorite tunes from one of their favorite albums, the show also helped expose those artists to audiences who may not otherwise have heard of them, and built community in the process. But perhaps the biggest testament to the production’s viability was the fact that the energy in the room started out high and just kept rising throughout.  With SF’s music scene facing displacement of artists and the closing of venues, UnderCover Presents’ principal Lyz Luke isn’t just booking shows, she’s affirming cultural resiliency through creative placemaking. That’s something to appreciate in an age when the bus to Babylon is chartered by Google.


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KRS – One Brings Boom Bap to Yoshis

Live review/ KRS-One, March 22, Yoshis.

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Blastmaster KRS, a synonym for fresh

Hip-hop legend KRS-One should have a spot in any purist’s Top Ten list of greatest emcees. In the list of greatest emcees at live performance, the “Blastmaster” is probably a Top 5 finisher. His greatest weaknesses offstage—bluster, arrogance, and an ego which probably gets its own seat on airplanes—are indeed his greatest strengths when the mic’s in his hand.

How many other almost-50-year-old hip-hoppers could rock a jazz-identified venue with just a DJ for over an hour and one half and make it seem like an event?

And how many artists could effortlessly rip off string after string of classic hits, peppering them with lesser known yet slept-on material, while keeping the intensity level high, throughout?

Because it was a KRS-One show, Sunday night’s live performance at Yoshi’s—his first time at the Oakland location—also included, gratis, a long section where KRS engaged the audience with an a cappella monologue like a motivational speaker. That was the “edu-“ part of “edutainment,” the term KRS coined during the Afrocentric 90s to describe his style. There was plenty of “–tainment,” however, especially in the last 20 minutes of the set, when a flurry of greatest hits had grey-haired 40 somethings reliving the glory days of their hip-hop youth, reciting lyrics along with the Blastmaster.

Mar 22 2015 093KRS’ accomplishments are many, as are his contradictions.  The leading force behind the Stop the Violence movement, which called attention to Black on Black crime, he committed a major PR blunder by opening up a can of whoop-ass on PM Dawn’s Prince Be – which Afrocentric rap, once a legit commercial force and cultural tastemaker, never quite recovered from. He once opened up for Nelson Mandela and crossed over to MTV via R.E.M., and may have been the first Bronx emcee to work the college and lecture circuit – despite being a vocal critic of academia. He decried the corporate commodification of rap, but once made a Nike commercial.

In more recent years, KRS has battled scholarly types over whether hip-hop is a religion and put out an uneven smattering of releases, as the boom bap style of hip-hop he championed has been almost completely overshadowed by simplistic and/or nihilistic rap — seemingly as unconnected to the genre’s late 80s-early 90s golden age as inner-city African Americans are to the history of African kingdoms like Kush and Nubia.

But his legacy should include the right to say “I told you so.” KRS was right to address such topics as the correlation between the dirty money of the drug economy and the wave of violence in the streets of America’s urban cities on tracks like “Love’s Gonna Get Ya” and “Illegal Business.” He outlined the dichotomy between culture and commodity in “Hip-Hop vs. Rap.” He stressed the value of black self-education in songs like “You Must Learn.” He examined the correlation of animal rights and diet on “Beef.” And he unwrapped police brutality and the historical role of the slave overseer in “Sound of Da Police” – a song which, in the wake of current events, has recently become an anthem for Oakland youth a cappella singing group YGB.

Through it all, one thing has remained certain: KRS is hip-hop incarnate; when he’s in the building, so is hip-hop—the real hip-hop, not the culturally-appropriated version. That was very much the case Sunday night, as KRS—wearing a hand-painted shirt with his emcee name under a plain black hoodie—turned Yoshis’ swank environment into a temple of boom bap.

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Hearing “Sound of Da Police” live was worth the price of admission alone. He followed that with his breakthrough single/history lesson  “South Bronx”—a minor hit at the time which has become an endearing classic: way back in the day when hip-hop began/ with Coke La Rock, Kool Herc and then Bam/ b-boys ran to the latest jams. The hits kept coming: “(Who Am I?) The MC,” “(Step Into a World) Rapture’s Delight,” as did lots of ad-libbing and freestyling; on several occasions, KRS directly addressed a random audience member and made an impromptu rhyme about them – creating an instant hip-hop memory.

Having warmed up the audience, he then switched into lecture mode, dropping a flurry of sound bites:

“This is KRS, not a bullshit rapper on stage.”

“It’s not Egypt, it’s Kush.”

“Don’t expect rappers to be responsible for what comes out of their mouths because they got no soul.”

“The government you’re angry with is you”

“Nothing in the US Constitution says you deserve education.”

“No one guarantees you knowledge, and if you don’t have it, you’re a slave.”

“I don’t attract bullshit people to me, because I love you all.”

“I can’t police the culture.”

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Love it or hate it, it was vintage KRS. He prefaced a new song, “Enter the Boom Bap,” by remarking on the endearing popularity of 90s hip-hop (of which the sold-out crowd was a testament to). He showed his solidarity for immigration issues on another recent song, “The Invaders,” which continues his almost 30-year tradition of fusing hip-hop lyrics with reggae beats.

He juxtaposed the Criminal Minded oldie “9mm Goes Bang” with 2013’s more emphatically anti-gun answer track, “Nina.” He rapped over the melody from Pachelbel’s Canon.  And he sandwiched the Return of the Boom Bap track “Higher Level” around a track exploring America’s failed drug policy (“they declared a war on drugs but drugs won”) and another oldie, “A Friend,” whose looping strings make it one of the most emo hardcore hip-hop songs ever.

KRS entered the home stretch with a speed round incorporating “My Philosophy,” “The Bridge is Over,” “Hip Hop vs. Rap,” “Love’s Gonna Get Ya,” “Jimmy,” and “Mad Izm,” all of which had the audience verbalizing and fist-pumping along with the Blastmaster. The finish line sprint saw Oakland’s Jahi take the stage for yet another freestyle session, before the crowd exited into the night with a renewed appreciation for KRS’ artistry, his longevity, and his gumption.

Jahi and KRS

Jahi and KRS

Well-played, Blastmaster.


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Oakland Mardi Gras Celebration [Photoset]

 

mardi gras parade and katdelic 275

Live Music Review/ Oakland Mardi Gras Celebration, Feb. 17, New Parish.

The tradition of Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is one of New Orleans’ most enduring. But it’s also taken up residence in the Bay Area, as evidenced by Mardi Gras parades and celebration concerts on both sides of the Bay Bridge last week. Both parades were curated by the Parish Entertainment Group, owners of the New Parish and Leo’s in Oakland, and Brick and Mortar and Place Pigalle in San Francisco. The Oakland parade featured a Grand Marshal, several brass bands, and dozens of costumed revelers with the signature colored beads which are a symbol of Mardi Gras. Oakland isn’t a city which misses many chances for dancing in the streets, and who doesn’t love a good second line?  While local Mardi Gras festivities can’t rival New Orleans’, they still offer an opportunity to bring out one’s inner spirit of joyous revelry, as well as make the OAK-NOLA bond even tighter.

The parade began in front of Awaken Café at 15th and Broadway, and slowly marched its way down to San Pablo, in front of the New Parish, where it became a full-fledged street party. The celebration continued on into the night, as the party moved indoors to the New Parish. There, two brass bands continued to horn in on the groove, setting the stage for headliner Katdelic, a funk-rock outfit in the P-Funk mold. After all that brass, the change of musical style sounded refreshing, and frontman Ronkat was on a mission to funk up the venue (which proved successful). Ronkat showed his groovalliegance to the funk with a killer set, including a rendition of Parliament’s “Funkentelechy,” then brought MJ’s Brass Boppers to the stage for the final few numbers. The show ended with the Brass Boppers descending to the dancefloor level, which in turn encouraged the booty-shakers to work it out even more seismically.

Check out the pics from Oakulture shutterbug EKAphotography, which offer some visual clues as to how much fun was being had:

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Kev Choice’s Revolutionary Record Release Party

Live review/ Kev Choice @ Yoshis, February 5, 2015.

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“Can we have five more minutes? We sold out the place tonight,” Oakland’s own Kev Choice pleaded to Yoshis management. It was a few ticks of the clock past 9:45pm. For the past hour and forty-five minutes, Choice and his ridiculously-talented band had been playing selections from the pianist/composer/producer/emcee’s new album, Love and Revolution – the first public performance of this material (available for online purchase Feburary 10 at Choice’s Bandcamp site). Alongide Choice’s top-notch backing band, a succession of guest artists lent an all-star feel to the proceedings, making the show seem as eventful as, well, an event.

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Jennifer Johns, Antique, Andrew Levin

All night, there had been a significant procession of co-signers to Choice’s aesthetic, beginning with young people’s vocal chorus Young Oakland, continuing with frequent co-collaborators Viveca Hawkins and Jennifer Johns, then extending through cameo spots by HNRL, Lockmith, Jeff Turner, Chris Turner, Antique Soul, Zumbi Zoom, and, finally, Jaguar Wright.

It had all gone by rather quickly. The momentum was still building, but the allotted performance time had run out. For a minute, there was a sense of, who’s gonna come out next?  If the show were to continue, would the stage door conjure yet another amazing vocal talent?

 

Viveca Hawkins, 1-O.A.K., Trackademicks

Viveca Hawkins, 1-O.A.K., Trackademicks

A Kev Choice concert is like getting two shows for the price of one. Not only do you get a conscious hip-hop throwdown, but you also get a memorable jazz-funk-soul vaccination.  Choice handles the dual roles of pianist and emcee with ridiculous amounts of skill at each, and his stage presence has grown over the years, honed by international touring experience. The special guests garnered most of the attention, but Choice’s backing band was tighter than a vise and funkier than a mosquito’s tweeter. Guitarist Andrew Levin and bassist Uriah Duffy shone in particular—easily handling the rapid mood swings of Choice’s material, which incorporated classical orchestration, jazz-fusion progressions, funky hip-hop breakdowns, and soulful R&B vocal stylings–sometimes on the same song. There was a string and a horn section, as well. Choice had clearly pulled out all the stops.

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Jeff Turner, Zumbi Zoom, Locksmith, Chris Turner

It’s a bit of a gamble to play a live show featuring all-new material which has never been publicly-performed before, but that’s just what Choice did. The enthusiastic, standing-room only, crowd embraced the new songs warmly, so the gamble paid off. The album’s title ran like an undercurrent through the music, connecting Love and Revolution‘s songs thematically, to the point where it almost seemed like a concept album. The opening triad – beginning with the optimistic, romantic “Feel the Love,” which segued into the hard-hitting sociopolitical commentary “Gone Too Far,” which in turn became the jazz-laden instrumental “Oscar’s Revenge” – felt like a musically-cohesive movement in three parts. Johns  joined Hawkins for “So High,” whose lyrics traced a continuum “from the black Egyptians to the Black Panthers” before presenting the couplet “love is coming for me/ who can stand against me?”

“Compatible”— a piano-driven instrumental composition – was perfectly followed by “My Cause,” a song about commitment/monogamy, delivered with a broken-beat rhythm and tribal-sounding drums, which contains the hook, “I’ll ride for you like you was my cause.” kev choice love and revolution rr 058

Oakulture’s notes scribbled during this time read, “music theory gives Kev an advantage” – a nod to the composing, arranging, technical finesse and musicianship which goes into his songs – something you might expect from a jazz player, but considerably rare within the hip-hop spectrum. Even hip-hop’s most celebrated producers weren’t technically composers, with the notable exception of RZA (in his later years).

“Movement Music”—inspired by Johns’ activism, Choice related – was next, also featuring Antique on vocals. Introducing the song, Choice declared, “This is the home of the movement. Oakland is where they started the movement,” he reminded the crowd.  The next few minutes of the set essentially transformed the respectable, upscale environs of Yoshis into an activist staging ground, as the two powerful soul voices of Johns and Antique joined Choice in urging for positive social change. “Can’t have revolution without evolution,” Antique sang.

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Jennifer Johns, Andrew Levin, Antique, Kev Choice

Oakulture’s field notes say: “why listen to anything else? Comparing Choice and what he brings to the musical/lyrical equation with say, commercial urban radio, is like comparing a Pharaoh to a crackhead.”

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Zumbi Zoom, Locksmith, Chris Turner, Kev Choice

The vibe only got thicker from that point on, as the HNRL crew (vocalist 1-O.A.K and emcee Trackademics) were next to grace the stage, for the forward-thinking “Another World,” a track which pushes the envelope of progressivity.  A dapper 1-O.A.K. sang the song’s resonant hook: “When it all sets on fire/ it brings truth to the light.”

Guest vocalist Chris Turner took the show into rarified air with a falsetto-driven version of “People Make the World Go Round,” which the Yoshi’s crowd lapped up like hot butter. Turner remained on stage while even more guest emcees – Locksmith, Jeff Turner, and Zumbi Zoom – joined in on “Noose,” another reflection of what it means to be a black man in America. The illmatic posse cut raised the thermostat accordingly with sick rhyme flows. The expert pacing continued with “Meet Me at the March,” an ode to activist rallies which nicely continued the album’s theme.

Jaguar Wright

Jaguar Wright

Time was almost running out, yet it seemed to stand still as Philly neo-soul diva Jaguar Wright took the stage and showed off some impressive vocal chops. Following her star turn, Choice made his aforementioned plea to extend the time, so he could play “Daddy,” a song about fatherhood written for his 12 year-old daughter, Anya, dedicated to her and all the fathers in attendance. The song spoke to hip-hop’s evolving intergenerationality, as well as Choice’s own maturity.

Musically, not a lot of people are touching Kev Choice right now; his potential seems limitless. Lyrically as well, his content  and delivery puts him far out in front of most of the rap pack. Some of Choice’s flows are downright un-be-lievable, content-wise, and he switched off between frontman and bandleader roles effortlessly.

While the evening certainly showcased Choice’s talents, it also shone an equally-bright light on his collaborators. In some ways, Choice’s live band seemed reminiscent of the great Gil Scott-Heron-Brian Jackson bands of the 70s, who effortlessly mixed jazz, funk, soul, poetry and R&B into an infectious musical stew – the perfect complement to Scot-Heron’s sometimes-sung, sometimes-rapped, vocals.

kev choice love and revolution rr 272But Choice is far from retro in his approach. Though at times his sound is reminiscent of mid-70s jazz fusion, he ups the ante by incorporating hip-hop rhymes and prominently featuring female vocalists, as well as classical music-inspired melodies. Watching the show, you felt very much like you were witnessing a statement performance which spoke to the collective talent level of Oakland’s urban artist community.

All in all, it was one of the most engaging shows Oakulture has ever seen at Yoshis, one which was anything but by-the-numbers smooth jazz (chair seating notwithstanding). The legacy of community activism and the current vibe in the streets converged with incredible musicianship, conscious lyricism, and a slew of killer vocal performances to make the event one which will long be remembered in The Town.


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DJ Q-Bert’s Extraterrestrial Scratch Session

Live music review/DJ Q Bert, January 29, @ New Parish

Is DJ Q-Bert human ?!?!?!? We’re not sure.

Jan 30 2015 036After witnessing his killer solo DJ performance at the New Parish, it’s quite possible that “Q” is an alien extraterrestrial being. No other scratch DJ has skills like him. No one even comes close, really. Whether crabbing, transforming, beat-juggling, flaring, or power-scratching, Q-Bert has all the techniques down. Which is unsurprising, since he invented many of them. His scratch factor is well above 100%, possibly over 200%. It’s hard to think of a more capable scratchmaster, or one who could make all that tricky wikki-wikki-wikki stuff seem as easy.

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A founding member of legendary turntable crew Invisibl Skratch Picklz and three-time DMC World Champion, QBert has had a remarkable career. His 1997 solo album Wave Twisters is widely regarded as the Kind of Blue of turntablist albums, and his contributions to the Doctor Octagon project with Dan the Automator and Kool Keith helped to create a new model for alternative hip-hop. Over the years, he’s made animated movies, put out a series of breakbeat albums specifically designed for turntablists, been featured in the documentaries “Scratch” and “Hang the DJ,” contributed to video game soundtracks, established an online “skratch” university, collaborated with artists such as Run the Jewels and Bambu, and recently released his crowdfunded second (double) album, Extraterrestria/GalaXXXian — Kickstarter’s most-successful hip-hop project ever, according to Q’s website.

The coolest thing about  watching Q rock a club live is just how innovative and creative he is. His set didn’t depend on predetermined routines, but rather was mostly improvisational, with a difficulty factor higher than 10.0 on some of the things he tried. He didn’t have an excess amount of gear and add-ons, like some of the “superstar” DJs you’ll hear today, who rely a lot on electronic gimmickry and cue-pointed loops.  Remaining true to his b-boy heritage, Q keeps it old-school and relies on his hands, mostly.

 

About the only concession to contemporary technology he made was the use of vinyl emulation software and a laptop computer. Q’s aesthetic essentially revolved around the same core principles as it did in the early 90s, when he first burst on the scene:  turntables, mixer, and a whole lot of scratching over break records.

 

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One standout moment came when Q took a break made up entirely of two tonal notes from the Art of Noise’s “Moments in Love” and made an entire musical composition out of deconstructing those tones and flipping them in interesting ways, with ever-changing scratch patterns. And boy, does he have his scratch patterns dialed up. Watching Q scratch is like watching Picasso paint.

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That’s another thing about Q. For such an accomplished scratch soloist, he’s also quite good at party-rocking. He’s not so technical that his sets are boring, like some turntablists out there. Or, rather, he’s extremely technical but also skilled at evoking a feel and creating an emotionally-resonant vibe with what he plays. In other words, he’s funky as hell and knows how to rock, rock on.

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Frequently, Q changed the tempo and pitch of the rhythm, adapting his scratch technique accordingly, and keeping things interesting from an audience perspective. On the fader, he’s got killer crossovers like Steph Curry or Tim Hardaway. And even when he ventured into techno/electro mode, he kept his aesthetic pure and minimalist. He didn’t go for clichéd, contrived “builds” like some of the EDM wankers out there, but rather maintained a more organic vibe throughout his set, which had plenty of “thudrumble” (to paraphrase the name of Q’s management company).

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The bass was so loud, beer bottles were shaking fiercely on the tables in the upstairs VIP room. It was that kind of night.

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The crowd was fortunate to get to witness one of the true masters of the DJ art form, a man who has done as much as anyone to advance the turntablist cause, and hasn’t sold out by becoming a festival circuit act or a resident at a Vegas casino. About the only downside to the show was that it wasn’t filled to capacity. While it would have been nice if a larger crowd had attended, I’m not sure if that’s because of a lack of promotion, or just the fact that Q, who never played out much, even in his 90s heyday, is somewhat unknown to today’s fans of DJ music. Still, those lucky enough to see the show essentially witnessed an onstage dissertation/deconstruction of DJing and demonstration of hip-hop turntablism at its finest by one of the acknowledged icons of the genre. It doesn’t get much better than that.

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The Coup Stay Relevant with Lyrical, Musical Bad-Assery

Live Review/ The Coup, January 23, 2015 @ The Independent

Got Boots?

Got Boots?

If you live in the Bay Area, it’s easy to take The Coup for granted. But the simple fact is, no other region can boast a group like this. Six classic albums over a two-decade span which range from underground, sample-based hip-hop, to avant-garde, Afro-futurist post-funk. A canon of lyrical expression incorporating punchline after punchline. Radical politics combined with narrative storytelling in a non-preachy way. A killer live show which has evolved to the point where it’s now an outlandish hip-hop/funk/rock & roll circus. And, above all, a classic rapper who cares more about the substance and content of his raps than getting props for being a classic rapper.

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Prior to The Coup’s sold-out Independent show last Friday, it has been a few months since these guys had played a Bay Area date—their last local gig was the premiere of their performance art piece, “The Coup’s Shadowbox” last September—but Boots Riley and company were anything but rusty. Their nearly two-hour set touched on every Coup album (save their debut, 1993’s Kill My Landlord), highlighting a catalog which has yielded ‘nuff fan favorites, despite a lack of corresponding radio and video play.

Silk-E  and Boots Riley

Silk-E and Boots Riley

The show itself was bananas—kick yourself if you missed it—showing just how tight The Coup have become as a live outfit. They’ve subtly transformed themselves into the most subversive band on the planet, and that can’t be a bad thing. Because we need subversion through sonic insistence and lyrical deliverance, and The Coup supply that, in spades. Riley’s seemingly endless on-stage energy—he’s one of the more kinetic frontmen you’ll find, in any genre—is matched by vocalist Silk-E, a total bad-ass who appears to be channeling Tina Turner in her prime.  Silk-E plays Riley’s foil to the hilt, offering the audience another focal point for their viewing pleasure, and ensuring there’s never a dull moment. Keyboardist Kev Choice is always a solid musical maestro who makes the genre and tempo swings seem effortless. Drummer Hassan Hurd kept steady time, and bassist JJ Jungle mainly kept to the background, but guitarist Grego lapped up some spotlight for himself during a couple of extended vamp segments, during which it occurred to Oakulture that the Coup had reclaimed rock as a black music form (in an Afro-punkish kind of way). Indeed, this is a black rock band masquerading as a hip-hop outfit. Instead of being hit over the head with tired rap clichés, you will be rocked. And hit over the head with intelligent, witty lines which openly oppose capitalism for capitalism’s sake.

Silk-E

Silk-E

From Oakulture’s perspective, the highlights of the show were energetic renditions of “The Magic Clap” and a sped-up, balls-out version of the oldie “Fat Cats, Bigger Fish,” which ground out the refrain “get down get down get down” like a chant at a political rally. Interspersing newer material like “Gods of Science” and “The Guillotine” with classics like “Nowahlaters,” the band injected a formidable live presence into their set which spoke to their continued relevance, just as much as Riley’s lyrics did.

Grego rocks the house

Grego rocks the house

There aren’t too many groups from hip-hop’s classic early 90’s period which are still touring, and fewer still who are still making compelling new music which pushes their envelope in unexplored creative directions. And while their sound has evolved considerably from the Kill My Landlord days, Riley hasn’t changed much at all. Sure, he’s gotten older, wiser, and grown comfortably into his frontman/ringleader role. But who he is as a person has remained constant the whole time. He’s still that guy you’ll see onstage raising a ruckus one day, and run into in the neighborhood with his kids the next.

The Coup: Fierce 'n' Fonky

The Coup: Fierce ‘n’ Fonky

Simply put, there’s not another act in all of music like The Coup. And no matter whether it’s your first time seeing them or your 20th, they never fail to bring the funk, bring the noise, and bring the lyrical substance. Did we mention, they’re from Oakland?


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Sly Stone Tribute Show Takes the Musical Legend’s Legacy Higher

This is what 175 local musicians onstage at the same time looks like

This is what 175 local musicians onstage at the same time looks like

Reportedly, some 175 local musicians were involved in UnderCover Presents’ production of “Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand,” a tribute to the Bay Area band’s classic album, released in 1969. Seemingly all of them were on the Fox Theater’s spacious stage simultaneously during Saturday night’s encore of “Thank You Fallettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin.” Having already tacked all nine proper songs on the Stand album, not to mention sneaking in snippets of other Family Stone hits, it seemed only natural to end what had been a monumental undertaking with yet another of Sly’s eternal  classics.

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The wide expanse of humanity onstage resembled nothing so much as the personification of “Everyday People,” Stand’s biggest hit, and one which had been performed earlier in the evening by rock & roll act Tumbleweed Wanderers. From left to right, the stage was awash in colorful, vibrant folks of several ethnicities singing, dancing, and playing instruments together – MLK’s dream rendered in stage lights for all to see. At the time of its release, “Everyday People” was a manifesto of social acceptance, an urging for “different strokes for different folks.” Despite our cultural, political, and ideological differences, Stone pleaded, “We got to live together.” The statement remains as true now as it was then.

Marcus Shelby (l.) and Tiffany Austin (r.)

Marcus Shelby (l.) and Tiffany Austin (r.)

More triumphant celebration than nostalgic remembrance, “Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand” at once upheld and advanced Stone’s musical vision. Groundbreaking at the time, there was nothing on the musical landscape quite like Stand, an album which infused the revolutionary activism of the late 60s into a wide-reaching blend of progressive musical influences, mixing R&B, soul, funk, psychedelic rock, and pop in a way even Motown had yet to imagine – it would be years before Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye incorporated social consciousness into their music. Saturday’s show added jazz, orchestral strings, vocal choirs, salsa, and hip-hop to an already-bubbling musical melting pot. The result was pure alchemy.

Freddie Stone

Freddie Stone

Unfortunately, Oakulture arrived one-third of the way in, after the Awesome Orchestra Collective, Ensemble Mik Nawooj, and Zakiya Harris featuring Elephantine had already warmed up the large-capacity venue with “Stand,” “Don’t Call Me N*gger, Whitey,” and “I Want to Take You Higher,” respectively.

Bayonics

Bayonics

The vibe was indeed elevated as we made our way through the art deco doors into the auditorium hall.  Fortunately, the Marcus Shelby Quintet didn’t let the energy dip. Their take on “Somebody’s Watching You” gave the song an entirely different musical context while reaffirming the power of the lyrics (which are ostensibly about the conscious mind, but could just as easily be about the surveillance state). The MSQ wrapped the song in resonant jazz chordings which allowed the melodies space to breathe freely, highlighted by some impressive vocal work by Tiffany Austin. Bayonics’ version of “Sing a Simple Song” expanded the tune’s territory into funky salsa grooves, overlaid with rap verses, and the aforementioned Tumbleweed Wanderers offered a slightly folksy version of the ubiquitous “Everyday People.”

Con Brio's Ziek McCarter

Con Brio’s Ziek McCarter

Earlier, many former members of the Family Stone, including bassist Rustee Allen, saxophonist Jerry Martini, trumpeter Cynthia Robinson, drummer Greg Errico, and guitarist Freddie Stone, were introduced, to wide applause. But something was missing: Sly himself, who reportedly appeared on a panel at an afternoon convention held in the Fox’s Den bar. A press release hinted that he might take the stage, but that never happened.

Ricky Vincent

Ricky Vincent

All was not lost, however, as Con Brio frontman Ziek McCarter’s serpentine-like dance moves and channeling of kundalini energy put the sex in “A Sex Supreme,” a reimagining of Stand’s lengthiest number, “Sex Machine.”

Bassist Allen, who replaced Larry Graham in the Family Stone, joined Will Magid & Everyday People for “My Brain (Zig-Zag)”—an instrumental recorded around the same time as Stand which appeared on 20007’s reissue version of the album—which segued into “If You Want Me to Stay” (from 1973’s Fresh, which featured Allen on bass). The Jazz Mafia & Crossroads Collective closed out the set with “You Can Make It If You Try,” another of Stone’s message-laden tracks, which mixed horns and strings with vocals from Trance Thompson, Nataly Michelle Wright and Tym Brown.

Rustee Allen

Rustee Allen

All of which led up to the all-hands-on-deck encore, which riffed on what  for many is the quintessential Stone song (just as Stand is probably his best album track-for-track), and one evidently  infused with deep personal meaning: We don’t know exactly who Sly is thanking for letting him be himself again, but the appreciation seems soul-deep and heartfelt. Speaking of heartfelt, the work that went into coordinating the show (an earlier incarnation of which played at the Independent in 2013) had to be considerable, yet the product of all that work was undoubtedly a labor of love.

Awesome Orchestra Collective

Awesome Orchestra Collective

This was easily the biggest splash yet by UnderCover Presents, which has been assembling local bands for remakes of songs from classic albums since 2011, so it wasn’t surprising to see Executive Director Lyz Luke dancing with overflowing joy during the encore. Props also go out to co-producer Yosh! Haraguchi and music director David Moschler, as well as emcee Ricky Vincent, author of “Funk” and “Party Music,” who dressed for the occasion in a multihued tuxedo jacket, topped with an Afro wig and John Lennon shades.

Rickey Vincent (l.) and Lyz Luke

Rickey Vincent (l.) and Lyz Luke

Look for an upcoming airing of the performance on KQED (who videotaped the proceedings), as well as CDs and digital downloads of the live show. And mark your calendar for the next installment of UnderCover (at  the Independent April 3-5), which tackles Bob Marley’s Exodus. Performers reportedly include Boots Riley, Black Nature Band, Rupa & the April Fishes, Sean Hayes, Almas Frontierizas, the Broun Fellinis, T Sisters, Quartet San Francisco and more. That’s a great lineup which should build on all the momentum—and positive energy—generated by the Sly tribute.

Thank You Fa Lettin Me Be Mic Elf Agin

Thank You Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin

Lastly, Oakulture would just like to note how great it is to have the doors of the Fox open, finally, to local musicians—even if just for one night. It always seemed a little unfair to have this beautiful, restored venue right in the middle of the downtown do major shows which rarely offered local folks opportunities  to perform on that big stage, in front of big crowds. Here’s hoping that “Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand” not only broke that mold, but sets a new, welcoming, trend for the future.

Stand!

Stand!


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It’s Going Down at Berkeley Underground

Berkeley Underground's ubiquitous disco ball

On the down low: Berkeley Underground

For East Bay music fans, the reopening of a favorite destination as a new club is a good thing. Especially because it could signal a resurgence for Berkeley nightlife, of which quite frankly there hasn’t been much of in the past few years, especially since the Birdland Jazzista Social Club relocated to Oakland.

Afro-Cuban grooves in Berkeley?

Afro-Cuban grooves in Berkeley?

Berkeley Underground, the latest iteration of a location which has housed, at various times, such nightclubs as Mr. E’s, the Pasand Lounge, and the Shattuck DownLow Lounge, opened earlier this month to some fanfare. The spot had been vacant since October 2012, when the DownLow shuttered its doors after 11 years, when its landlord rescinded the month to month lease it had been on, reportedly at the behest of a new upstairs tenant, a pizzeria.

Jose diaz y QBA

Jesus Diaz y Su QBA

The club’s closure greatly impacted the area’s nightlife scene.  In addition to being a go-to spot for Cal Berkeley students, it was home to an established Wednesday salsa night. And it was one of the few venues which regularly featured live hip-hop of the non-mainstream variety, as well as frequently hosting live reggae shows and DJ nights (Sunday night’s popular King of Kings dancehall night has since moved to Oakland’s New Parish).

shaking up the salsa scene

Shaking up the salsa scene

Two recent visits to the newly-remodeled venue brought back years of memories of the old DownLow, a funky joint with a low stage, an even lower ceiling, and a sound system which never quite sounded great, but frequently sounded quite loud.

Jose Diaz

Jesus Diaz

From the outside, little had changed, except maybe the new face-recognition ID scanner at the front entrance. Inside, there was a world of difference. Gone were the colorful couches and art-deco murals painted by local artist Erin Crawford. The newly remodeled room underwent an extreme makeover, getting nipped, tucked, boosted—the stage now rises a bit, and there’s a  prominent lip which makes for separation between live performers and audience, but still offers the close-up intimacy of artist-fan proximity which made many a DownLow night seem special—and dressed up in expensive trappings. A simpler black/white color scheme pervades, and the VIP Lounge areas are more clearly demarcated with three-step rises and attendant stanchions. The fine art which now hangs on the wall is less retro-70s love child, more starkly post-modern. The club clearly has been supercharged, from the brand new sound system, to the running array of disco lights which now crown the dancefloor.

DJ Lex Level

DJ Lex Level

And what a dancefloor it is. Always the DownLow’s best feature, it’s now certifiably sleeker and sexier, and still topped off by a classic mirror ball which might evoke a “Miami Vice”/”Scarface” vibe, especially with the new VIP sections and emphasis on linear design. The decor is definitely more corporate, more slick, and more Ultra Lounge-y. The overall look is classier and trends upscale, but DownLow veterans might miss the down-home funkiness of the old club, warts and all.

The disco ball.

The disco ball

The Wednesday night “Sonido Baylando” party was a perfect test for the new space. A full-on salsa throwdown in full swing will challenge any dancefloor, and it passed with pretty much flying colors. The new lighting scheme seemed to follow the dancers, illuminating every twirl, twist, and dip in a wash of luminescent hues. From the looks of things, many of the Wednesday night salsa faithful had returned; combined with Baylando’s local following, the resultant crowd filled up pretty much the entire space without being uncomfortable or lacking room to gyrate freely.

host Selassie spitting bars

Selassie spitting bars

“Sonido Baylando” also proved an apt test for the Underground as a live performance space. Jesus Diaz Y Su QBA are easily among the Bay Area’s top Afro-Cuban groups, with a vibrant, super-rhythmic sound which resonates with gritty authenticity and fervent passion. Su QBA, which this night featured percussionist Javier Navarette and vocalist Orlando Torriente, are like mob hitters when it comes to nailing the tricky syncopated grooves. And Diaz, who may be the best Afro-Cuban vocalist currently in the local Latin scene, brought the room’s vibe up to fever pitch and kept it there for the duration of the set we watched.


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As a transcendant song of praise to the West African orisha Yemaya by Diaz y su QBA filled the room with ashe, the bass seemed punchier, the highs crisper, and the overall system clearer and less muddied than in the DownLow days. The salsa vibe, which puts a heavy emphasis on dancing, works well in that room, as does the “Sonido Baylando” format, in which a rotation of live Latin acts are featured each week, along with resident DJs El Kool Kyle and Santero. After just its second week, the night looks like a cracking party which could be settling in for a long run.

A rap battle contenstant

A rap battle contestant

Another potential winner is the Monday night hip-hop open mic. Hosted by local rapper Sellassie, who has been putting on similar competitions all over the country for the past few years, it offers backpack rappers and battle nerds a place to spit their hot 16s and hone their alliterative skills. It’s also offered a showcase for up-and-coming and veteran emcees to have a live performance venue. Past performers include legendary West Coast emcee Aceyalone (Freestyle Fellowship); upcoming features include Oakland’s own RyanNicole (a multi-talented artist whose also starring in an upcoming adaption of “Antigone,” called “Xtigone,” for the stage).

Jose Diaz y QBA

Monica Fimbrez, Orlando Torriente y Jesus Diaz

The night Oakulture was there briefly turned into backpack rap heaven, with an inspired, if slightly intoxicated, headlining set by A-Plus (Hieroglyphics, Souls of Mischief) and Knobody, producer for Big Pun, Jay-Z, and Akon, and a devastating emcee in his own right. A veteran of numerous international and national tours, A-Plus has come a long way since the Telegraph Ave. freestyle ciphers of the early 90s. And yet, there he was, playing live perhaps less than a half-mile from the corner of Durant and Telegraph, where it all started for him. At the entire other end of the spectrum were the rhyme battle contestants, some of whom may have been performing live for the first time.

Knowbody (l.) and A-Plus (r.)

A-Plus

Though the overall demographic skewed much younger than the salsa crowd—the audience was 18+—it’s a true sign of how far the hip-hop generation has come that at least one of the contestants was accompanied by their parental unit. Can a “Hot Hip Hop Moms” night be far behind?

I <3 underground hip-hop

Knobody and A-Plus

Since opening, Berkeley Underground has hired popular DJ and webmaster Renoir “Ren the Vinyl Archaeologist” Salgado as its booker, and instituted a weekly schedule which includes the hip-hop Mondays and salsa/Latin Wednesdays, as well as a funk-flavored Tuesday, and college and EDM-themed nights on Thursday and Sunday. Featured weekend entertainment thusfar has concentrated on DJ nights encompassing some of the East Bay’s upper echelon, veteran party-rockers (including J-Boogie, D-Sharp, Malachi, Cecil, Dedan, KOK selecta Smoky and Green B, encompassing a range from hip-hop to downtempo to deep house to reggae); the inaugural January calendar ends with the one-two punch of world beatniks Afrolicious Soundsystem  and Pinoy turntablist icons Triple Threat DJs. Future plans include more live acts and special events, Ren says.  After such an auspicious start for the reopened venue, it appears that with the Underground’s emergence, Berkeley nightlife is back on the map.

Berkeley Underground is located at 2284 Shattuck Ave (@ Bancroft), Berkeley.  More info: www.berkeley-underground.com


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“Clas/sick Hip-Hop”: Female Emcees Show “U.N.I.T.Y” In Landmark Live Performance

Live review/ “Clas/sick Hip-Hop: 1993 Edition,” Nov. 7 & 8, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

The "Clas/Sick" Crew chilling after the show

The “Clas/Sick” Crew chilling after the show

In a two-night run filled with memorable moments, “Clas/sick Hip-Hop: 1993 Edition”’s biggest flashpoint came about halfway through the second night. A remarkable set of canonical hip-hop, played live by the Kev Choice Ensemble, segued from Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” to the Conscious Daughters’ “Fonky Expedition,” to Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” The first song, performed by Aima the Dreamer and Sayknowledge, sent shivers through the sold-out crowd, as Aima channeled Ladybug Mecca’s cool breeziness over an acoustic bassline originally played by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. The second, performed by Coco Peila and Ryan Nicole, brought back memories of a time when good local rap regularly earned rotation on commercial stations. And the third, which featured a strident, commanding Zakiya Harris, flanked by Aima, Peila, Nicole and vocalist Viveca Hawkins, evoked a sea of epiphanies, none greater than the notion that Harris and Co. had tapped into hip-hop’s elemental womb and stuck a chord of long-overdue gender balance, releasing a flood of amniotic lyrical fluid which coated the audience’s ears with sticky bliss. Hip-hop may be a mostly male-dominated art form, but in keeping with YBCA’s Left Coast ideology, the Bay Area’s female emcees reigned like queens.

Do the ladies run this mother____er?

Do the ladies run this mother____er?

As if to underline the point, Coco Peila followed with a jaw-dropping cover of 2Pac’s “Keep Ya Head Up.” The song—one of the rap icon’s most positive and uplifting—took on an even deeper meaning with a woman rapping its words: And since we all came from a woman/ Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman/ I wonder why we take from our women/ Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?/ I think it’s time to kill for our women/ Time to heal our women, be real to our women/ And if we don’t we’ll have a race of babies/ That will hate the ladies, that make the babies/ And since a man can’t make one/ He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one/So will the real men get up/ I know you’re fed up ladies, but you gotta keep your head up.

It Ain't Hard to Tell: Musical Director Kev Choice

It Ain’t Hard to Tell: Musical Director Kev Choice

Hawkins killed it on the hook— an interpolation of the Five Heartbeats’ “Ooh Child”—then, after 1-O.A.K. responded with a dead-on Mayfield-esque falsetto during HNRL’s take on Outkast’s “Player’s Ball,” she returned to tackle SWV’s underrated yet seminal R&B hit “Right Here,” completely nailing the high notes of the hook. As if that wasn’t enough, bandleader Kev Choice crept out from behind his array of keyboards to rap a verse from Nas’ “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” – whose remix sampled the same Michael Jackson “Human Nature” melody as the SWV song. It was that kind of night.

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If social media chatter is to be believed, “Clas/sick Hip-Hop: 1993 Edition” is already being talked about as being legendary. It’s difficult to disagree with that assessment, although the word “epic” might work equally as well. The brainchild of YBCA’s Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the impetus for the production was simple but brilliant: revisit 1993, a particularly great year for hip-hop albums, with not one but two live bands and a gaggle of local emcees – all doing music which came out that year. Into that mix, add an a cappella youth chorus, some of the best local deejays and hip-hop dancers, montages of music videos of the songs performed by artists, and interviews with local culturati explaining the significance of ’93 in a cultural, social, political, and personal sense.

DJ Fuze on the 1 and 2's

DJ Fuze on the 1 and 2’s

Both nights started out with a DJ set – Kevvy Kev on Friday; DJ Fuze on Saturday – which was punctuated by a flash mob consisting of the YGB Gold a cappella singers, who performed a medley of KRS-One’s “Black Cop” and “Sound of Da Police.” The medley underscored the relevance and timelessness of the ‘93 hip-hop canon (though it’s somewhat dubious to note both songs address police misconduct, of which the latest flashpoint is #Ferguson).

Howard Wiley and Geechi Taylor

Howard Wiley and Geechi Taylor

The set list flowed like a mix tape; Calafia Zulu member K-Swift followed with Black Moon’s “How Many Emcees,” a song based around a KRS sample, then jumped into “I Got Cha Opin,” which afforded the musicians the opportunity to wrap their instruments around the Barry White sample which informs the song. Hornsmen Geechi Taylor and Howard Wiley were up to the challenge.

Coco Peila and Ryan Nicole

Coco Peila and Ryan Nicole

Two braggadoccious epochs of masculine bravado, Masta Ace’s “Born to Roll” and Dr. Dre’s “Ain’t Nothing But a G Thing” were sandwiched around Del’s lyrical sucker punch, “Catch a Bad One” (performed by Wonway Posibul of the Latin Soul Brothers). Not that the Del track lacks for boastfulness, but it’s decidedly less commercial and contrived, and built around a sublime Eric Dolphy sample – replayed with aplomb by the KCE, who had the daunting task of having to learn 20 songs in a short period.

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

The other live band performing was Ensemble Mik Nawooj. The hip-hop/classical fusion outfit performed songs by Wu-Tang and Snoop Dogg, and emcees Do D.A.T. and Sandman were energetic and animated. However, an opera singer notwithstanding, the static nature of their set (and, perhaps, the absence of a bass player) couldn’t compare to the vibrant dynamic laid down by Choice, his band, and their guests at the other stage. By the second night, the differences were painfully apparent; some people walked out during Mik Nawooj’s second set. Which was unfortunate, because they missed the Tribe Called Quest medley which vamped around the bassline from Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” and brought the show to a groovy simmer, as well as the closing free-for-all freestyle rhyme cipher. Which was ridiculous on both nights.

Conscious curation: Marc Bamuthi Joseph

Conscious curation: Marc Bamuthi Joseph

The female emcees brought the spark which ignited the show’s flame. But credit must be given to Choice as a musical director for the way things turned out. The KCE flipped samples inside-out, returning breakbeats to their jazzy essence and reminding folks that the ‘93 flavor was as musical as it was lyrical. Choice himself spent most of the night behind the keyboards, paying tribute to the Bay Area’s contribution to the year by rapping on Saafir’s “Light Sleeper” and Souls of Mischief’s “93 til Infinity.” There were other subtle nods to the Bay, like the melodies from Mac Mall’s “Sick Wit Tis” and Too $hort’s “Getting It” the band played during the freestyle cipher.

A young hip-hop dancer at YBCA

A young hip-hop dancer at YBCA

The night was billed as one which gave long overdue props to the poets of one of the most remarkable years in hip-hop’s Golden Era. But it ended up being much more than that. True, ’93 was a year when hip-hop’s creative expression was at its peak and the music industry hadn’t yet figured out what parts of the culture it wanted to emphasize and what parts it wanted to suppress. Yet in retrospect, the beats emcees rapped on back then were at least as much a part of the era’s greatness as the rhymes. We’ll never see those days again, not just because rap has changed, but also because the sampling aesthetic no longer plays such a central part in hip-hop.

Trackademics in the cipher

Trackademics in the cipher

“Clas/sick Hip-Hop: 1993 Edition” reveled in nostalgia for a bygone era, but that’s not all it did. It brought an appreciation of hip-hop culture to an institutional space without killing the jazzy, funky, lyrical vibe of that culture. And it did so through live instrumentation, in effect going above and beyond how the music was presented at the time of its emergence. By raising the musical bar, the production ushered in another refutation of space and time, to paraphrase Digable Planets, which shone a bright spotlight on the current generation of Bay Area hip-hop artists (most of whom hailed from Oakland). But the brightest lights blazed on the local female emcee contingent. So often an afterthought on hip-hop bills, or consigned to a segregated performance space, in “Clas/sick Hip-Hop’s” re-envisioning of ‘93’s cultural legacy, the women of hip-hop not only played a central role, but manifested a sisterhood of solidarity while showing that they indeed had the props.