Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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

Lyrics Born

Lyrics Born

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joyo Velarde

Joyo Velarde

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

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


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

Nas performs at Bay Area Vibez

Nas performs at Bay Area Vibez

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

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

Picturesque views added much to the festival's user experience

Picturesque views added much to the festival’s user experience

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

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

The audience feeling the "Vibez"

The audience feeling the “Vibez”

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

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

It ain't hard to tell.

It ain’t hard to tell.

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

Magical dancehall unicorn: Supercat

Magical dancehall unicorn: Supercat

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

Stephen "Ragga" Marley

Stephen “Ragga” Marley

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

Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley

Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley

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

Angelo Moore of Fishbone

Angelo Moore of Fishbone

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

The Bay to LA: The Grouch and Eligh

The Bay to LA: The Grouch and Eligh

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

Kev Choice Ensemble

Kev Choice Ensemble

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

Meshell Ndegeocello

Meshell Ndegeocello

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

 


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Matatu 2015 Packs A Year’s Worth of Culture Into a Week

Still from "Asni"

Still from “Asni”

Ever wonder what youth in Richmond, CA and youth in Johannesburg, South Africa have in common, as well as what separates them? Or what Ethiopian Afro-futurist sci-fi looks like? How about a Senegalese political uprising which received scant media coverage in the US? What about an underground NY hip-hop radio show which became a cultural institution?

These questions and more will be answered by the 2015 Matatu Festival of Stories, the third installment in founder and director Michael Orange’s mission to bring easily-overlooked independent films and documentaries, many of them addressing Afrocentric themes or relating to black culture. This time out, the Matatu—an East African Swahili slang word meaning passenger taxi or minibus, similar to the jeepneys of the Philippines—makes its rounds through the Diaspora, touching the West and East Coast of America, the Netherlands and its former colony Suriname, as well as East, West, and Southern Africa. The ride is rife with adventure and rich in cultural capital, and this year, the festival’s cinematic selections are enhanced by live performances, meet-ups, special guest performers, and a Matatu-inspired art show.

The Opening Night selection, “Necktie Youth,” examines a fast-emerging post-apartheid South Africa, as seen through the eyes of wealthy, suburban, Jo’Burg youth who struggle to find themselves within a newly-open society which still grapples with issues of race and class. “Necktie Youth” is a coming-of-age story which sometimes plays like the African version of “Kids” – there are graphic descriptions of sex and of drug and alcohol consumption. Viewing contemporary Johannesburg through the lens of privileged yet haunted young adults, the film has a semi-documentary feel—nearly all of it is shot in black and white. It is in some ways a perfect bookend to “Dear Mandela,” a 2013 Matatu selection, which examined the bittersweet legacy of Nelson Mandela through the eyes of the poor and politically-unfortunate.

Still from "Necktie Youth"

Still from “Necktie Youth”

But this is a South Africa we haven’t seen before. In “Necktie Youth,” there are no overt politics at play, and interracialism has become a natural course of events, yet the grip of the past hasn’t completely loosened. Promiscuous white women from Pretoria fetishize their black lovers while drawing boundaries between their lustful trysts and their conservative Afrikaaner parents. It’s interesting to see African youth adopt black American slang to their own, and observe their mannerisms, which speaks to the universality of youth culture as well as its regional variations.

“Romeo is Bleeding” also focuses on youth, in this case the young black people of Richmond, CA, who struggle with their own issues—a multi-generational turf war from which there seems to be no escape, the inevitable reality of violence which has become recidivist, and their abandonment by an older generation who fell prey to incarceration and/or substance abuse. The documentary ‘s narrative arc tells the story of Donte Clark, a product of Richmond’s streets whose family members are feared soldiers in the conflict between North and Central Richmond. Clark turns to spoken word poetry as a way of expressing emotions threatened with permanent numbing by losing friends to jail or bullets. He becomes a teacher and mentor to young adults, even though he’s not much older himself in calendar years. When a white friend starts a theater company, they decide to adapt Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” into a Richmond-centered tale, with the town’s two warring factions substituting for the Capulets and the Montagues.

The movie reveals the oft-held belief that the black community is unconcerned with stopping intra-hood violence to be a glaring misconception. Clark’s commitment to being a positive, shining example in the face of adversity is tested by the cyclic nature of violence itself; still he pushes forward, on a mission to prove that “love in Richmond is possible.”

Speaking of love, it’s the central theme of “Crumbs,” a wonderfully-realized story set in a post-apocalyptic future which employs elements of magical realism, like Octavia Butler and Guillermo Del Toro’s progeny. A scavenging dwarf, his love interest, Santa Claus, a shifty pawn shop owner, plastic children’s toys and Michael Jackson album covers highly valued as mystical artifacts, second-generation Nazis, and a mysterious UFO populate this madcap tale, shot in Ethiopia. The film has much to say, even if some of it is cryptic. Like most heroes, the dwarf takes a journey. But instead of achieving the stated goal of his quest, in the end, he finds something far more precious was in his possession all along. A surreal comedy, “Crumbs” is ultimately an affirmation of human compassion and emotion which posits that the future is only as bleak as we allow it to be.

Meanwhile in Senegal, reverberations from the Egyptian uprising which saw the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak echo throughout “Incorruptible,” a documentary tracing the 2012 election which toppled the government of Abdoulaye Wade. The conditions are similar; Wade’s administration, once revered by the Senegalese people, has become a hotbed of corruption and nepotism, falling out of touch with the demands of the long-suffering underclass for better living conditions. After Wade changes the constitution to run for a third term, a protest movement begins to gather steam. Efforts by the government to quell the insurgency using tear gas and even live bullets backfire as the Senegalese take to the streets to demand regime change. Even as mosques are targeted and tanks brought in, the opposition insists it is not seeking violent confrontation with the government, but a democratic election process. After a field of candidates, including singer Youssou N’Dour, whittles down to a run-off between Wade and challenger Malky Sall, state-backed militias engage in political violence as the government tries to tighten its grip on power – “the truth is under attack,” N’Dour says. A Wade speech where he insists the dissent is unimportant is effectively contrasted by footage of protesters throwing rocks at a billboard of the President. Y’en a Marre, a youth activism group which uses rap music as a consciousness-raising tool, helps propel Sall to victory, but warns him that their loyalty is to Senegal, not to any one politician.

Still from "Marga Weinans"

Still from “Marga Weinans”

“Incorruptible” offers an eye-opening view into an African Muslim population which is more interested in dialogue than terrorism – a revelation to an American mindset inundated with Islamophobic propaganda. It effectively captures a historical moment in time which may be seen as a turning point for African democracy. A sense of urgency is conveyed through handheld footage of protesters being tear-gassed; there are many poignant looks at of the faces of the Senegalese people, while a beautiful score by Akon (who also executive-produced the film) and Mark Batson captures the emotion, idealism and dignity of a revolutionary movement all but unknown to the West.

Other highlights of the festival include “Stretch and Bobbito,” a documentary about the long-running hip-hop radio show notable for breaking major hip-hop artists like Nas, Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Eminem, and Wu-Tang Clan; “Fashion House: Marga Weimans,” a black designer who makes waves in both the Netherlands and Suriname; “Asni: Courage, Passion and Glamor in Ethiopia,” a documentary about Asnaketch Worku, a trailblazing female vocalist who became an East African pop culture icon; and “Red Leaves,” an Ethiopian/Israeli film which addresses immigration and cultural assimilation and retention, as seen through the eyes of a 74-year old falasha, Meseganio Tadela.

As if a whole program of inspired films wasn’t enough, the Matatu concept also manifests through an equally-rich schedule of festival-related events to engage your brain, your mouth, and your body. These include a dinner at Miss Ollie’s featuring a book reading by Saul Williams, artist talks with Mahader Tesfai and Donte Clark,  and jazz records spun by chef Bryant Terry; a happy hour hosted by Souls of Society, followed by performances by Williams and avant-garde outfit Black Spirituals; an evening of experimental music with Shafiq Husayn and Mark de Clive-Lowe; an excursion into “four-part communication” with Afro-jazz group Democratics; kora music by Zéna ft. Amaranth String Quartet;  a live set by emerging Eritrean-American artist Eden Hagos; and a dance performance by Alonzo King Lines Ballet.

Shafiq Husayn

Shafiq Husayn

Not only is this the most action-packed Matatu to date, but the level of programming is beyond ambitious, and borders on the insane: a full week’s worth of visceral, intellectual and visual stimuli which may test your stamina. It’s almost as if Orange and festival producer Maria Judice tried to make up for the relative lack of access to Afro-futuristic culture the other 51 weeks of the year, by overstuffing the Matatu to an extreme capacity. Fasten your seat belts, Oakland, and enjoy the ride.

The Matatu Festival runs September 22-26 at various locations, including Miss Ollie’s, Flight Deck, and Starline Social Club.

A complete list of Matatu 2015 films is here

A complete guide to Matatu events is here

For more information about Matatu, visit here


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“East Side Sushi”: A Tasty Film About Female Empowerment

Diana Elizabeth Torres plays aspiring sushi chef Juana

Diana Elizabeth Torres plays aspiring sushi chef Juana. Photo courtesy Anthony Lucero

Great films are often a collection of little moments which form a larger gestalt. A case in point: The sushi chef competition scene in “East Side Sushi.” It’s one of the best sequences you’ll see in any film this year. Like the rest of the movie, it’s a smart scene, played with equal parts comedy and drama, as four sushi chefs, three of them Japanese, vie for the title of “Sushi Champion.” The fourth chef is our heroine, Juana, a single mom of Mexican ancestry who has improbably yet amazingly ingratiated herself into the male-dominated, highly-traditional, world of sushi chefs.

Watching the scene unfold, there’s an emotional investment in Juana’s character and the outcome of the competition. It’s the movie’s defining moment; We’ve followed the journey of Juana, played by Diana Elizabeth Torres, from abandoning her father’s Fruitvale fruit cart business after a violent robbery, to working at jobs which offer no possibility of advancement – or health benefits – to being hired as an assistant prep cook at a fictional Japanese sushi restaurant, Osaka (a stand-in for the real-life Coach Sushi, on Grand Ave.). Despite being told, “we don’t usually hire women,” she gets the job.

Juana’s a quick learner, and the knife skills she developed peeling fruit and working in Mexican restaurants serve her well in cutting sashimi and ngiri. She’s taken under the wing of Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi), an amiable sushi chef, and practices her craft on her family — substituting poblano for nori, using chile relleno, pico de gallo, and Tapatio hot sauce as ingredients — but runs afoul of Mr. Yoshida (Roji Oyama), the restaurant’s traditional-minded boss, who’s worried Osaka’s authenticity will suffer if he allows Juana to join the other chefs at the front of the restaurant.

Yukata Takeuchi and Diana Elizabeth Torres in a scene from "East Side Sushi." photo courtesy of Anthony Lucero

Yukata Takeuchi and Diana Elizabeth Torres in a scene from “East Side Sushi.” Photo courtesy of Anthony Lucero

The larger subtext—of a patriarchal man afraid of female empowerment – is evident. Yet Juana is not only determined, she’s the fastest, most inventive sushi chef at the restaurant. With Aki’s encouragement, she sets her sights on her goal, and enters the competition as a way to prove her worthiness. She also earns the support of her initially-skeptical father (Rodrigo Duarte Clark), the film’s other patriarchal figure.

Stories like the one “East Side Sushi” tells are the reason why people love indie films. The storyline is refreshingly non-Hollywood, and non-cliché, the characters are personable and realistic, and the writing and direction of Oakland native Anthony Lucero (making his directorial debut) never hits a false note.

Juana is a feminist heroine without an academic background, a real-seeming person who embraces an adopted culture without diluting her own. Her passing resemblance to Frida Kahlo makes it easy to imagine her as a rebel and visionary. Her ideology, however, comes down to one of social inclusion: “in every great restaurant, there are great Latinos in the back, prepping the food… I don’t want to be in the back,” she says at one point.

Stories like the one “East Side Sushi” tells are the reason why people love indie films. The storyline is refreshingly non-Hollywood and non-cliché, the characters are personable and realistic, and the writing and direction of Oakland native Anthony Lucero (making his directorial debut) never hits a false note. Amazingly, the film was made for less than $35,000, yet it feels rich in storytelling, unlike films with exponentially-higher budgets and empty souls.

The other main theme of the movie is one of cultural intersectionality and embracing diversity, for which Oakland proves the perfect backdrop. Mexican sushi may seem like an oxymoron, but Juana’s “Mayan Sun roll” is a hit with customers, and her signature roll, the poblano-infused “Green Diablo,” plays with the idea that traditional culture can and should be updated and innovated upon.

Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) works at a Fruitvale fruit cart. Photo courtesy Anthony Lucero

Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) works at a Fruitvale fruit cart. Photo courtesy Anthony Lucero

Part of the fun for local audiences will be in identifying all the Oakland locations referenced in the film, which include KTOP, Tacos Sinaloa, the Main Library, Aztek dancers, the salsa dancers at the Lake Merritt pillars, and cultural murals in the Fruitvale District. Foodies, especially sushi aficionados, will also enjoy all the focus on the behind-the-scenes food prep, such as the correct ratio of rice, vinegar, sugar, and salt to make sticky rice. Be forewarned, though, that watching this movie can stir a powerful craving for sushi which may cause a post-film run to your favorite spot.

“East Side Sushi” opens today (September 18) at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, the Elmwood in Berkeley, and the Kabuki in San Francisco. For more information, visit www.eastsidesushifilm.com.

 

 

 


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Blackalicious Is Back and “Blacka” Than Ever

Jumbo, Gift of Gab, and Lateef

Jumbo, Gift of Gab, and Lateef

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

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

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

Lateef the Truthspeaker

Lateef the Truthspeaker

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

Gift of Gab

Gift of Gab

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

Fantastic Negrito

Fantastic Negrito

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

Chief XL

Chief XL

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

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

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


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Hiero Day 2015: Bay Area Hip Hop’s High Holy Day Was Hot AF

Sep 07 2015 084

An excited Hiero Day crowd

The Bay Area’s Indian Summer was in full swing, as temperatures hit a high of 90 degrees for Monday’s Hiero Day. Now in its fourth year, the annual Labor Day hip-hop extravaganza was both a celebration of an indie hip-hop aesthetic, and the ongoing legacy of the Hieroglyphics, the veteran Oakland crew the event is named for. To a certain extent, the two are interchangeable; over the past 20-plus years, Hiero have branded themselves as indie hip-hop incarnate – when you see their “third eye” logo, it brings to mind not only dedication to the art of rhyming and sub-mainstream stylistic sensibilities, but a cultural lifestyle which doesn’t revolve around materialist bling nor sensationalized violence and misogyny.

With Hiero Day, the collective’s members not only pay tribute to themselves and their hard-to-define-but-tangible impact over the decades, but also to like-minded groups with similar sensibilities – many of them either from the Bay or Southern California. It’s a smart piece of marketing, and one that ensures Hiero’s freshness and relevancy, since every Hiero Day offers an opportunity to connect with younger audience, some of whom were not yet born when the crew made its first appearance, on “Burnt,” the flip side of Del’s “Sleeping On My Couch” single back in 1991.

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Hiero Day furthers the sense of being and belonging so important to a relatively isolated region like the Bay. It’s a day when hip-hop truly lives, one that not only validates artists who may be underrepresented through traditional channels like commercial radio, but also validates fans who follow the culture, and not the trends.

What was especially cool about this year’s lineup was the proliferation of indie hip-hop reunions by onetime local favorites: Cali Agents, Foreign Legion, Crown City Rockers, the Luniz, and Native Guns all made appearances, reminding listeners why the late 90s and 2000s were about more than hyphy for the Bay’s hip-hop scene. Joining them were still-active Bay standard-bearers The Coup, Zion-I, and Martin Luther, and SoCal legends the Alkaholiks, and Compton’s Most Wanted (featuring MC Eiht). All in all, there were almost 50 live acts and DJs, not including guest appearances and cameos (from Deuce Eclipse, Dru Down, Kimiko Joy, King Tee, Kev Choice and others).

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Deuce Eclipse and Zumbi Zoom of Zion-I

With short live sets, the actual performances took a bit of a backseat to the magnitude of the event itself: there were moments of elevation here and there, but mostly it was about being there, holding space and being surrounded by folks who shared the same cultural tastes as you – whether you were 18 or 38. The population density was not as thick as the previous year, when admission was free (this year’s advance tickets were $19.93), but that led to a slightly less-congested experience overall. It says something about Hiero Day’s audience that in an era where big festivals with high ticket prices and/or only a handful of rap or urban acts often don’t turn out truly diverse demographics, the folks who showed up Monday ran completely counter to this trend. The many-hued, intergenerational, and reasonably gender-balanced crowd represented the oft-mythologized, rarely realized, American “melting pot.”

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Silk-E of the Coup

Strolling through the festival grounds, one could dip into any of three stages to catch live acts or DJs, witness b-boy ciphers, turf dancers and live graffiti painting, browse wares ranging from vape pens to t-shirts to food trucks, or espy a shady spot for a brief respite from the sweltering heat. Backstage, the mood—enhanced by Elation hemp-flavored vodka and numerous spliffs being passed around—was one of peacefulness and joy, two words rarely heard in conjunction with hip-hop these days. Despite the heat, everyone was chill. The wall separating artist and fan was frequently broken down, as well-known local celebs gathered for group photos or cheesed for candid shots with CMW’s Eiht, Heltah Skeltah’s Rockness, or Hip-Hop TV’s Ed Lover.

There was a lot of networking going on, which lends credence to the notion that Hiero Day’s greatest impact might be that it provides the Bay Area hip-hop scene with a modicum of industry infrastructure not seen since the heyday of the Gavin Convention some twenty years ago. Hiero Day furthers the sense of being and belonging so important to a relatively isolated region like the Bay. It’s a day when hip-hop truly lives, one that not only validates artists who may be underrepresented through traditional channels like commercial radio, but also validates fans who follow the culture, and not the trends. The fact that it’s become a cultural institution in just a few short years – evolving organically and from a place of integrity – speaks to just how much something like this was needed to counterbalance the corporate commodification of hip-hop which has become the rule and not the exception. And from all appearances, Hiero Day appears to be structurally solid and poised to remain a High Holy Day for hip-hop disciples for the foreseeable future.

photo by Rod Campbell

photo by Rod Campbell

 


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15 Reasons to Go to Hiero Day This Year

Hiero Day 2014

Hiero Day 2014

The 2015 Hiero Day lineup looks formidable indeed, especially for fans of West Coast underground hip-hop. With almost 50 live acts and DJs performing, the event—which drew more than 20,000 fans last year—appears to have broken through the stratosphere to major event-status, and is certainly the biggest independent hip-hop festival in the Northern California region. That’s a major plus for folks tired of attending mega-hyped music festivals with a dearth of rap or hip-hop artists, and for underground aficionados who have been underserved by mainstream/commercial-oriented rap tours. Best of all, tickets are less than $20—$19.93, to be exact—which portends a high boom-bap for the buck ratio. Oakulture is pretty hyped about the number of underrated/slept-on fan favorites—several of whom are doing reunion shows—scheduled for this year’s event, which cover a full spectrum of stylistic diversity within the underground hip-hop subgenre. We’re also not mad at the emphasis on Bay Area and Los Angeles groups, nor the inclusion of a few representatives from the Midwest and East Coast for balance.

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With so many groups on the bill, it’s unlikely you’ll see every single act, unless you can be in two places at one time, so we’ve prepared a special guide for the artists we think will make Hiero Day extra-fresh.

  1. Psalm One

With eight albums and a handful of mixtapes released over the past 12 years, Chicago’s Psalm One is one of the most-prolific indie-label female emcees in the industry today. Affiliated with Minnesota’s Rhymesayers crew, she’s also worked with Hiero’s A-Plus. Her recent video, “Free Hug Life” shows her to be an original, creative spirit with an engaging staccato delivery, and topics which offer an intelligent alternative to rachetry.

  1. Phat Kat & Guilty Simpson

This veteran Detroit emcee duo have long collaborated with California’s hip-hop scene – Kat was once signed to SF’s Look Records, while Simpson has released several albums on Stones Throw. Both are authentic Dilla disciples, having cut their teeth working with the legendary producer, and both boast gritty flows which swerve between backpack and hardcore hip-hop flavors.

  1. Foreign Legion

First emerging into the Bay Area’s underground hip-hop scene in the late 90s, the terrific trio of emcees Marc Stretch and Prozack Turner and producer DJ Design built a reputation for notable live shows while releasing several full-length albums (and one short film); Their return to active duty promises to be one of the feel-good stories of this year’s Hiero Day. FL maintain a classic underground hip-hop aesthetic, complete with sampled loops and scratching, but flip the script by balancing braggadocio with honesty and humor.

  1. Cali Agents

Another West Coast group some might remember from back in the day, the duo of Rasco and Planet Asia released three well-received full-length albums between 2000-2006. Each has had solo success: Rasco is remembered for the Bay Area classic “The Unassisted,” while Asia has collaborated with everyone from Grandmaster Muggs to Bun B to Evidence to Ghostface Killah.  As Cali Agents, their remarkable chemistry elevates their individual lyrical deliveries to a higher level.

11. Otayo Dubb & Equipto

Don’t look now, but this SF-to-the-O hook-up is swiftly creeping on an indie hip-hop come up. The pairing of the Bored Stiff lyrical wonder with the versatile Co-Deez emcee/producer is one of the bright surprises of the current Bay Area scene. Their current single “Baby Steps” addresses maturity and growing up, with an arrangement which subtly recalls classic West Coast soul and R&B. The album of the same name features similarly-sublime production and features from the likes of L’Roneous, Pep Love, and Mars Today.

  1. Aceyalone

An original member of Freestyle Fellowship and a prolific solo artist in his own right, Los Angeles hip-hop veteran Aceyalone should need no introduction. The fact that he does lends credence to the oft-cited complaint that lyrical (read: non-gangsta) emcees from the West tend to get slept-on – except by hip-hop nerds who appreciate Acey’s jazz-tinged, highly vocabulistic delivery. Here’s a chance for him to expand beyond his core audience of diehards and reach the ears of a younger generation.

  1. Native Guns

Possibly the closest thing Pinoy hip-hop has come to a supergroup is Native Guns, a trio comprised of emcees Bambu and Kiwi and DJ Phatrick who became celebrated multicultural ambassadors during their heyday in the 2000s. Mixing dexterous lyrics and slapping tracks with a fair amount of political and social commentary, they also dropped science on the Filipino-American struggle, and what it means to be an indigenous immigrant. Though both Bambu and Kiwi have remained active as solo artists, their timing of their breakup always seemed unfortunate, coming so soon after the release of their 2006 album Barrel Men – rightfully hailed as a West Coast classic, one which shows the Bay Area was about so much more than hyphy even during the “hyphy era.”

  1. The Team

Speaking of the hyphy era, Oakland trio The Team were one of the most buzzworthiest groups of that period, helping to define the region’s then-emergent sound as uptempo, party-friendly, and club-ready, with hooks for days. We haven’t heard from them since 2013’s “Slow Down,” so it should be interesting to see them drop classics like “It’s Getting Hot” and “Bottles Up” and hopefully some new material. Added bonus: Clyde Carson, Kaz Kyzah, and Mayne Mannish are some of the best rapper names ever.

  1. Tha Alkaholiks

West Coast OGs since the early 90s, Tha Liks’ 1993 debut album, 21 & Over, is a high-octane hip-hop classic which set a high bar for both lyrics and production. Four subsequent albums followed, the last being 2006’s Firewater, all of which mix hardcore hip-hop with party-oriented themes. One-time disciples of King Tee, they’ve always been a force to be reckoned with in a live context, and there’s no reason to expect anything different from their Hiero Day appearance.

  1. The Luniz

Best known for the all-time cannabis anthem/ Bay Area rallying call, “I Got Five On It,” Yukmouth and Numskull are inner-city griots who’ve lived a wilder life than most of us, and put much of it down on record. It’s somewhat gratifying to see them on a bill so saturated with underground and alternative hip-hop – a confirmation of their lyrical finesse, as well as a shout-out to the streets of East Oakland, where Hiero is from.

  1. Compton’s Most Wanted

This classic Compton gangsta rap group, possibly second only to NWA in terms of influence and reputation, never enjoyed the mainstream success of their Ruthless peers. But their street-level stories had a louder ring of authenticity to them, and it’s safe to call them some of the originators of “reality rap.” Though they didn’t have an overt political agenda, the sociopolitics and socioeconomic content of songs like “One Time Gaffled Em Up” was omnipresent, and often sublime.

  1. Zion-I

Zion-I have held the Bay Area down for 15 years, being one of the most-consistent underground groups in the region, establishing a national and international fanbase, and collaborating with everyone from Deuce Eclipse to Talib Kweli to Too Short. Their long list of classics ranges from “Inner Light” to “The Bay” to “Warrior Dance” to “Don’t Lose Your Head.” Though they’ve experimented with their sound, incorporating everything from EDM to folk, they’ve always maintained strong hip-hop roots. Their latest release, The Rapture: Live From Oaklandia, follows the departure of producer Amp Live, and finds emcee Zumbi Zoom taking things in a more musical direction by featuring a live band led by the incomparable Kev Choice.

  1. Crown City Rockers

In the mid 90s to early 2000s, hip-hop band Crown City Rockers were often called the Bay Area’s version of the Roots – mainly for their uncanny ability to swing jazzy, funky musical elements played on real instruments with the cultural b-boy witticisms of frontman Raashaan Ahmad. They boast a solid, if criminally-underrated, catalog of recordings too, from 2001’s One (recorded as Mission) to 2004’s Earthtones to 2009’s The Day After Forever. Their live shows are legendary, if infrequent these days: the last time they performed as a unit in Oakland, at an Old Oakland Farmer’s Market gig, Levende had not yet become District, so prepare to be blown away.

  1. The Coup

It was only a matter of time before Boots Riley’s subversive funk/rock/rap band the Coup played Hiero Day, and this is the year. That’s an underground hip-hop lover’s fantasy come true. While we are, once again, in-between new Coup albums, Riley has been highly visible of late with a new book of his lyrics and high-profile media appearances discussing activist issues. Though the Coup’s sound—and personnel—has evolved since 1993’s Kill My Landlord, they are one of the few continuously-active groups from hip-hop’s  90s Golden Age on any coast, and thus did not need to be coaxed out of retirement to do this gig. If you’ve never seen The Coup, expect to be revolutionized and entertained.

  1. Hieroglyphics

A member of Hiero recently tweeted that their independent label, Hiero Imperium, has now outlasted the major record label which signed and then dropped them back in the 90s. That’s poetic justice for Oakland’s lyrical laureates, an octagon of obtuse emceeing  and sick beat-making skills, who have given more back to the community from which they came than any other hip-hop artist or group in Bay Area history, while continuing to make more history with each new release and annual iteration of the event bearing their name. Not only do they have more catalog than J. Peterman and Victoria’s Secret combined, but their signature tune, “93 Til Infinity,” never gets old.