Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance

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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.

kev choice love and revolution rr 058

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. 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.

©2014 Eric K. Arnold

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Califas Champions: Bang Data’s Mucho Poco

Music Review/ Bang Data, Mucho Poco. Photos shot at the Independent, SF, 8/15/14. All photos ©2014 by Eric K. Arnold

It’s easy enough to explain the growing popularity of Latin Fusion acts in California simply by looking at demographic trends; according to figures recently released by the governor’s office, Latinos are no longer a minority group as of March 2014, and presently account for 39 percent of California’s population overall, effectively making them an ethnic majority.

©2014 Eric K. Arnold

Bang Data

As a musical genre, Latin Fusion has been a staple of the Bay Area sound since Santana’s 1969 debut album. But while Santana mixed psychedelic rock, R&B, and blues with Latin musical elements, things have changed since then, most notably the rise of hip-hop and its Espanol-speaking cousin reggaeton, as well as the onset of electronic music and EDM. In 2014, Bang Data—a group best known for being featured during the infamous poison tequila scene in “Breaking Bad”—stands at the forefront of a new generation of Latin Fusion artists coming straight from the calles of Califas.

As a band, Bang Data has been around since 2008. Originally a trio featuring bilingual vocalist-emcee Deuce Eclipse, guitarist Dave Lopez, and percussionist/producer Juan Manuel Caipo, their early material was a fairly straight-ahead mix of rock, rap, and traditional Latin rhythms. But after Lopez’ departure, they added bassist Marco Guzman and guitarist Michael Cavaseno and further evolved their sound, like an antojera might mash different ingredients into a flavorful salsa. Their title of their first full-length album, 2012’s La Sopa, was a reference to the soup-like qualities of their music, which takes a little from here, a little from there, and mixes it together into a spicy stylistic blend.

With their second full-length release, Mucho Poco, Bang Data refine their style even further, aiming for an accessible (but not over-the-top commercial) sound which falls right in with the new wave of contemporary Latin Fusion acts in the Bay (a short list of which might include Alta California, La Gente, Locura—whose last album was also produced by Caipo—and Candelaria.) The album starts out on an upbeat note, with “Bailalo,” a club-ready banger whose lyrics namecheck Cesar Chavez and Emiliano Zapata.

bang Data record release party at the Independent 228Mucho Poco’s first single “Amor Califas,” updates the 2Pac/Roger Troutman/Dr. Dre hit “California Love” with Spanish vocals, congas and turntable scratches. The song loses the vocoder vocals, adds “whoa-oh-oah” choruses, some incendiary guitar riffage, and a percussive breakdown section, yet retains the anthemic, party-friendly vibe of the original. It also shouts out the huelga bird of the United Farm Workers, along with California cities with notable Latino populations: Oakland, San Pancho, El Cerrito, Vallejo, San Diego, Fresno, Modesto, and Sacramento. With its instantly recognizable hook, yet unmistakably altered lyrical and musical content, it’s a good choice for the lead single, one which can resonate with urban audiences as well as native Spanish speakers.

“Amor Califas” is followed by “Si Te Gusta,” an innovative track which can be described as “cumbiaton,” with an accordion-like synth and guest vocals by Alguacil and Binghi Fyah. The song features an English chorus for the gringos: if you feel the motion let us know/ We plant the seeds so they can grow/ We heal when you come to the show/ So here we go, here we go.

bang Data record release party at the Independent 041“Candela,” the next song, chugs along at a fast tempo, accentuated by handclaps, more cumbia-style accordion melodies, various percussive instruments, and a trace of dubby, ska-inflected guitar. The song starts with Deuce rapping in English, then switches over to him singing in Spanish for the second verse. Despite, or maybe because of, all the ingredients in the mix, the song comes together well, standing as a highly-representative example of Bang Data’s talent and versatility.

The album’s title track returns to the more minimalist-flavored songs of Bang Data’s earlier material. Deuce’s growing skills as a singer are highlighted over a track which is mainly acoustic guitars, a bit of female backing vocals and some light melodic shading. It’s a good change of pace after the busier, sonically-dense songs which preceded it.

“Calavera Life,” sung and rapped entirely in English, aims for mainstreamish pop perfection, yet lacks the nuance of Bang Data’s more traditionally-influenced material. It’s easily Mucho Poco’s most contrived song, right down to the Miley Cyrus-like couplet, we don’t stop no no/ we on top fa sho. A saving grace is the remainder of the song’s lyrics (this life’s gonna be a better place/ and I’m a live it so I have a better face), which ring with positivity and inspiration.

bang Data record release party at the Independent 268Bang Data are at their best when they’re firmly in their element and not trying too hard to be everything to everybody. That ends up being pretty much the case for the album’s last third, which finishes strongly. “Volar” (featuring Ozomatli’s Wil-Dog and Chico Trujillo) pushes ahead as a fairly straight-forward Latin rhythm with a rock edge, which easily bridges the traditional and the contemporary. So does “Tierra,” featuring guest vocalist Hector Guerra, which melds a slinky electro-cumbia feel over a sample of the Latin standard “Cancion y Huayno.” “Mal y Bien” is a future classic, pulling in mariachi guitars, field-laborer flute snippets, rapid-fire cadences and impassioned singing over a bouncy, electro-fied beat. The closer, “Suena,” again harks back to traditional field-hollers for its strident chorus, while Morricone-esque guitar adds a cinematic soundscape to Deuce’s bilingual slang-slanging.

Overall, Mucho Poco is an in-your-face, upfront, album which sometimes seems to be in a hurry to cover as much musical ground within the pan-American Diaspora as possible. It conveys much of the energy of the band’s raucous live show, and the endless layers of grooves, hooky choruses, and constantly alternating iterations of Latin rhythms are great if you’re trying to dance, party or both. Thankfully, Mucho Poco’s lyrical content is substantial enough that it can also hang after the dance, while you’re cleaning up empty cerveza and mezcal bottles and trying to figure out how to get lime juice off a linen guyabera. But at just ten tracks, the album feels a little short; the addition of one or two more midtempo ballads would have been the perfect complement to your morning-after hangover.  -EKA