Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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

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

Black Vocals Matter: The Seshen's Akasha Orr

Black Vocals Matter: The Seshen’s Akasha Orr

Black women are the new rock stars.

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

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

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

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

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

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

Sandra Lawson-Ndu of Bells Atlas

Sandra Lawson-Ndu of Bells Atlas

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

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

Lalin St. Juste of The Seshen

Lalin St. Juste of The Seshen

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

Tal National

Tal National

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

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

Guitarist/bandleader Almeida (r.)

Guitarist/bandleader Almeida (r.)

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

Tal National

Tal National

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

Tal National

Tal National

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

Tal National

Tal National

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


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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.

Mar 22 2015 013

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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Kev Choice: Love and Revolution (album review)

Kev Choice

Revolutionary: Kev Choice

Everyone’s talking about how K.Dot (Kendrick Lamar, for the unhip) just reinvented the hip-hop wheel with his new album, which drops the same day (today) as Kev Choice’s latest, Love and Revolution. It says here, however, that an equal amount of praise is due to the Oakland pianist/bandleader/composer/emcee, whose third full-length album is destined to be a classic, although it’s doubtful Choice will be trending on FB or sell platinum units.

Choice comes through with a solid effort which is topical, relevant, conscious, highly musical, adventurous, fearless, groovy, intelligent, mature and community-oriented (maybe even family-friendly, if your family enjoys shutting down 580 as much as BBQing at the Lake). While K.Dot can afford to enlist the services of pianist Robert Glasper, it’s worth mentioning Choice can play any note on the piano Glasper can play. No, there’s no gimmicky dialogue with a dead rapper to get tongues wagging, but Choice is far from a lyrical slouch. His musical skills were already beyond reproach—he holds a masters degree in jazz, is a bonafied classical pianist, and digs deep into funk and R&B—but it took him awhile to hone his rapping technique to perfection.

On earlier efforts, like the single “Definition of a Star,” Choice seemed to be aiming for KMEL airplay which never came, while holding back his musical gifts. But last year’s excellent Oakland Rivera broke that mold with forward-thinking tracks which raised the bar for hip-hop musicianship. Oakland Rivera also hinted at the lyrical butterfly Choice was cocooning into, particularly on the Gil Scott Heron-esque “Crazy Illusion,” which eschewed me-first braggadocio for poignant sociopolitical observations on gentrification and the changing nature of Oakland, and the hooky yet substantive “That Life” (recently treated to a club-melting remix by DJ D-Sharp).

With Love and Revolution, Choice doubles down on the conscious content, using today’s murky racial politics and growing community response to perceived systemic injustice as inspirational fodder for some ridiculous lyrical fusillades, which sounded unbelievable a couple of months back, when he debuted the album one memorable night at Yoshis. He might not be as quotable as Kendrick, but he’s not all that far behind.

It’s a testament to how well Choice has developed its themes that Love and Revolution feels like a concept album at times. Instead of tracks just slapped together willy-nilly, we get an honest-to-God song cycle, something which has been increasingly rare since the advent of the compact disc.

Choice’s “Revolution” refers to flashpoints like Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin, which have resonated nationwide, resulting in DOJ investigations and counter-resistant viral movements like #BlackLivesMatter. However resonant the response to Ferguson, the fire this time really began with Oscar Grant five years ago. Given that context, it’s only natural for Choice to address those topics, in an extremely Oakland kind of way. How Oakland is the album? There are instrumentals named “Oscar’s Revenge” and “Blues for (Alan) Blueford.”  Most of Choice’s supporting cast is local; there are zero throwaway cameo tracks featuring big-name artists for the sake of featuring big-name artists. But rather than a minus, that becomes a plus, allowing Choice to concentrate on substance, not superficiality. The result is a sense of cohesiveness and collaboration missing from many of today’s celebrity-studded albums – Love and Revolution is perhaps best described as a family affair which furthers Choice’s individual musical vision.

Jennifer Johns, Antique, and Kev Choice

Movement Music: Jennifer Johns, Antique, and Kev Choice

Content-wise, Love and Revolution is arguably a “street” album, albeit an extremely jazzy, soulful and progressive one which imparts its messages without being overly ghetto  — one hopes it will be played in the ‘hood as well as at non-profit organizing rallies. But while protests, marches and rallies have informed Love and Revolution’s content, the album’s righteous indignation—anger might be too strong a word for it—is well-tempered by a drive for innovation, creative juice-tapping, and a need to create beauty, even in an uncertain, unfair world. Choice is mature enough to realize that revolutionary militancy must be balanced by passionate love, and smart enough to figure out the two together are unstoppable.

It’s a testament to how well Choice has developed its themes that Love and Revolution feels like a concept album at times. Instead of tracks just slapped together willy-nilly, we get an honest-to-God song cycle, something which has been increasingly rare since the advent of the compact disc. Well-placed instrumental interludes help to pace the album without bogging it down, giving the vocal-heavy tracks “Room to Breathe” – to paraphrase the title of one of the interludes.

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The album opener, “Feel the Love” (featuring Viveca Hawkins) bookends the track it segues into, “Gone Too Far,” setting up the love/revolution dichotomy which underscores the remainder of the disc. The combination of Choice and Hawkins is a potent one; a simple piano riff anchors the song, which swerves between soaring neo-soul expressions, down-to earth lines (“As long as justice escapes us, we live for the struggle/we keep holding on”), and a near-symphonic arrangement complete with crashing cymbals. Sampled TV news soundbites introduce an element of tense realism on “Gone Too Far,” which finds Choice commenting on police brutality and community protests “from Oakland to Ferguson, New York to Palestine” over a guitar-driven melody. “Fist up, hands up, stand up,” Choice repeats, adding, “we ain’t gon’ take it no more.”

Choice’s outrage is channeled into a jazz-fusion eulogy on the aforementioned “Oscar’s Revenge,” which sandwiches the energy-lifting “So High” (featuring Netta Brielle) around another instrumental, “Compatible,” which in turn segues into the single “My Cause” – whose lyrics fuse the love/revolution dichotomy into a single purpose (“ride for you like you was my cause”).

Lyric heads get treated to a showcase of verbal dexterity on “Noose”, which continues the social commentary and includes a blistering verse by Locksmith, as well as the super-duper soul vocals of C Holiday. A sampled monologue from the sci-fi classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still” goes on a bit too long – one of Choice’s few missteps – before giving way to “Another World,” which features HNRL’s Trackademicks and 1-O.A.K. (who supplies the mind-elevating hook, “when it all sets on fire/ for tonight brings truth to the light”).

1-O.A.K.

1-O.A.K. brings truth to the light

Perhaps the album’s best song, though, is “Movement Music,” another posse cut which showcases some of Oakland’s finest talents: Jennifer Johns, Ryan Nicole, Antique, K.E.V., and Aisha Fukushima. The uptempo pace goes well with the song’s lyrical themes of rhythmic uprising. Each guest slays when it’s their turn, while Choice takes a swipe at commercial radio: “they say we’re not hot in the streets/ but every time I’m there, you are not in the streets.”  Ouch. An exclamation point is added on the following track, “Young Oakland Interlude,” which literally features the voices of the next generation, chanting “jobs, peace and justice, if we want the dream, it’s up to us.”

After another instrumental, “Meet Me At The March,” Choice returns with “Daddy,” a heartfelt dedication to his daughter, Anya, which solidifies the “love” theme. The album closes with the melancholy solo piano track “Ballad for Blueford,” whose sad notes spotlight Choice’s composing skills.

When it’s all said and done, Love and Revolution accomplishes what every album’s objective should be: to be a soundtrack for our lives. Undoubtedly contemporary, there’s nothing especially trendy or faddish on the entire disc, which means it will remain relevant, as long as its themes continue to resonate. And while this album loudly screams “Oakland,” it’s worldly, sophisticated and nuanced enough to escape the trap of regional limitations – providing one has a chance to hear it.

Love and Revolution is available for digital download here.


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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.