Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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The OAKQ&A: Judith Smith of AXIS Dance Company

AXIS dance Company. photo by David DeSilva, courtesy www.axisdance.org

AXIS Dance Company. photo by David DeSilva, courtesy http://www.axisdance.org

Since its inception back in 1987,Oakland’s AXIS Dance Company has been a pioneer in the field of physically-integrated contemporary dance. Almost 30 years later, the idea of pairing disabled and non-disabled dancers is no less revolutionary than it was when the company started.  Although tremendous strides have been made in terms of legal and civil rights in that time, not to mention societal perceptions, when we think about what a truly-inclusive society would look like, disabled people are often the last marginalized group we consider.

After Judith Smith became wheelchair-bound at the age of 17, her desire to dance turned her into an activist. She co-founded AXIS in 1987, along with Thais Mazur and Bonnie Lewkowicz, and in 1997 became its Artistic Director. In 2000, AXIS scored three Isadora Duncan Awards, signaling that physically-integrated dance was not only a legitimate art form in the dance world – but an innovative, dynamic one at that. Since then, under Smith’s leadership, the company has notched three more Izzies, performed in more than 60 cities, and been the subject of serious critical review in major publications – exceeding previous expectations and raising the bar of what cultural inclusion looks like for the disabled community.

Though they’ve earned their place in the dance world, AXIS performances aren’t just for dance aficionados, however. The strong theater elements make their shows more universal than one might think; in addition to the unique movement dynamic physically-integrated dance brings to the table, there’s a cerebral element present which causes viewers to rethink what it means to be human and how much of human expression is a kind of adaptation. Not to mention an emotional element which can lend an intense sense of poignancy and urgency in how it makes you feel. Based in the Malonga Center in downtown Oakland, AXIS opens up its home season with tonight’s premiere of “Onward,” featuring works by Sonya Delwaide, Joe Goode, Alex Ketley, and Bobbi Jene Smith.

Oakulture recently caught up with Smith during a rehearsal, and she was gracious enough to share her artistic process and wise words of wisdom with us – and you. Check it out:

Judith Smith

Judith Smith

Oakulture: What’s the least-challenging aspect of being artistic director of a physically-integrated dance company?

Judith Smith: Probably finding great choreographers and composers to work with is the least-challenging, because there’s so many great people out there. That’s the fun part, looking at other people’s work and trying to figure out how it would match AXIS and our aesthetic with our particular combination of dancers.

Oakulture: You took over as Artistic Director of AXIS in 1997. How have perceptions of the company changed over that time?

Judith Smith: Well, I think the big driver for me was increasing the artistic quality of our work and the professionalism of the company. So I would say that when we started commissioning work from really well-known choreographers and composers, that really changed how people looked at the work. Because when critics would come to review us, it was hard for them to talk about the work. When we started working with other choreographers, they could review us in the context of what they knew about that choreographer’s work. So I think also the fact that our first repertory show, our first home season, in 2000 after I took over, was Bill T. Jones, Joe Goode, Joanna Haigood, Sonya Delwaide, you know, it was a pretty impressive lineup. So, I think it gave us a stamp of validity that we didn’t really have: ‘Oh yeah, these people are really dancing, and they’re really doing dance. And they’re serious about their work. It’s not therapy.’

Oakulture: At the recent Othering and Belonging conference, you spoke about how AXIS wasn’t intended to be political, but you realized that there was an inherent realpolitik in what you’re doing. Can you elaborate on that? Why is it political? And would you consider yourself an activist?

Judith Smith: I am definitely an activist. I am an activist by default in some ways. I didn’t grow up in a politically-active family. I became disabled when I was 17 and that was a long time ago at this point. And we didn’t have the ADA, we didn’t have the 504 and we didn’t have all of these laws that we have today. So, advocating for myself, advocating for my community, had just been something Ive had to learn to do.  We didn’t start AXIS with the intention that we were going to go out and change people’s minds about disability. We really just wanted to dance. But we realized that we still, until recently, rarely saw a disabled person on TV. Or in a music video. Or in an advertisement. And, when we started dancing, it was very very rare to see a disabled person onstage, let alone collaborating with non-disabled people in a way that was equal. There are still theaters in San Francisco that we can’t get into, because they’re up a flight of stairs. We’re 25 years into the ADA. How are people even getting away with that now? They wouldn’t be in a theater where somebody that was gay couldn’t get to, or somebody that was black couldn’t get to, or someone that was Muslim couldn’t come to. So, we’re still systematically discriminated against in terms of our little small community here, our little dance community. And I think we really have done a lot of educating here, with presenters and funders. When we started writing California Arts Council grants, in the demographic breakdown, there wasn’t a box for ‘disabled.’ So I’d make a box and I’d check it and I’d write it in. So now disability is, not always, but often included in the demographics that people are collecting. And it’s, not always, but often included in the list of what multiculturalism is. I think Barack Obama was probably the first president to mention people with disabilities, as part of the multicultural part of his speech. There’s buses we can’t even get on. It’s just part of trying to have a life and be active in the world, I think you have to be an activist if you’re disabled.

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“We have dancers who use power wheelchairs in this company, we’ve had dancers who use prosthetics, and they’ve danced with and without prosthetics, or they’ve used crutches. So you necessarily expand, and inherently radically expand, the possibilities of movement. And I know that’s what excites me, that’s what excites the dancers, and that’s what excites the choreographers when they’re coming in to work with us. It’s that our movement vocabulary is much more expansive because of the physicalities that we embody.” – Judith Smith

Oakulture: AXIS productions aren’t just dance. They embody aspects of spoken word and theater, and employ both social and personal commentary. For example, Joe Goode’s “To Go Again” is about veterans, and addresses the need for resiliency in the face of life-changing events. Why is it important to you to have these kind of multifaceted productions?

Judith Smith: Well, it became important because I saw Joe Goode’s work and I really liked his work. And he’s a dance theater person, so he does like to use song, and he does like to use text. Our early works were often about disability, very directly. We made a choice to not do things specifically about disability. Our early works were [also] very narrative, so it’s kind of something… we’ve used text from our first piece, that we performed at Calvin Simmons in 1998. In the Dance Brigades dance festival, the Furious Feet Festival for Social Change. So I just feel it’s, being a contemporary dance company, doing dance theater and doing pieces that include text and narrative, it just makes sense.

AXIS Dance Company. Photo by David DeSilve, courtesy www.axisdance.org

AXIS Dance Company. Photo by David DeSilve, courtesy http://www.axisdance.org

Oakulture: In the description of one of your video clips on Vimeo, it says, “these works were chosen as examples of the movement vocabulary, virtuosity, partnering and theatricality” of AXIS.  What do each of these concepts mean to you?

Judith Smith: Well, movement vocabulary, our vocabulary is obviously very different than most contemporary dance companies, because most contemporary dance companies have dancers that are all moving relatively similarly. We have dancers who use power wheelchairs in this company, we’ve had dancers who use prosthetics, and they’ve danced with and without prosthetics, or they’ve used crutches. So you necessarily expand, and inherently radically expand, the possibilities of movement. And I know that’s what excites me, that’s what excites the dancers, and that’s what excites the choreographers when they’re coming in to work with us. It’s that our movement vocabulary is much more expansive because of the physicalities that we embody. Virtuosity, I love seeing very very virtuosic dance, you know, the dance that is at the level of San Francisco Ballet or Lines or ODC or the non-disabled dancers of AXIS. And disabled dancers’ virtuosity is often very different. It’s one of those things where you cant watch somebody walking across the stage and it can be completely  mesmerizing, because it has to do with their presence, and their intention. Virtuosity for me, its not just physical. And all of our dancers work on whatever their virtuosity is, to keep growing that and improving that.

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But it’s different for every dancer, I think. Partnering, well, again, because we have so many different ways of moving, the options for partnering and the abilities for partnering are just expansive. It never ceases to amaze me. When we first started working with outside choreographers, it was the way they would see us partnering that was so much fun and so exciting and took us to places we couldn’t see. They’d be like, I’d like to see this and you’re kinda like, ok, well, we’ll try it. The partnering is just so exciting when you’re utilizing the way a wheelchair travels, or the way a crutch handles weight, you know the architecture that a cane or a crutch makes… the partnering options are really expanded. Theatricality kind of speaks for itself. Some dance pieces are much about the movement, about the music, about the timing, whatever. And then some, like Joe’s piece, are theatrical. I think Sonya Delwaide’s work is always very theatrical, even though it’s often abstract, she brings a theatricality into her work.

Tickets for AXIS’ 2015-16 Season are here.


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Women Runnin It: Interview with Sarah Sexton

“Women Runnin It” features women in dynamic positions of cultural leadership in Oakland. Our first focus in this series brought a spotlight to Oakland female producers and promoters. Usually behind the scenes, these women are the ones bringing your favorite concerts, shows and nights for you to soak in and live the culture of Oakland. How do they build community and social arts networks? How do they curate a meaningful event or a club party?

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This installment of the “Women Runnin It” series features Sarah Sexton, owner and creative director of Oaktown Indie Mayhem Productions. Ambitious and hard-working, Sarah has forged a noticeable steam train as a promoter in the last five years. She produces concerts and events, co-founded the Mayhem Fest along with Awaken Cafe’s Courtt Dunlap (an online song and video contest exclusively for Oakland-based bands), and most recently held down a monthly residency at Leo’s and co-founded a new record label out of Oakland, OIM Records. Currently the booker for both Awaken Cafe and Legionnaire, the eclectic diversity of Sexton’s programming displays a commitment to community strength, engagement, and capacity-building.

A Texan-born Southerner, Sarah grew up in Alabama and Florida and spent time in Seattle before eventually moving to the Bay in 2005. She has been producing events here since 2009. She says her drive to share the resiliency of the cultural arts of Oakland was a motivating factor in her work. “Art, music, & nature are the only things that could ever express both the beauties & the atrocities I felt on the inside about life,” she explains. “[It’s] like a secret moment between the artist & myself. Some things are too hard to voice without a vessel, but art can be that vessel. That is why I created Oaktown Indie Mayhem.”

Her newly established OIM Records, focusing on the indie rock scene in the Bay Area, is a collaboration with producer and engineer Jeff Saltzman and Angelica Tavella, the founder of Oakland Drops Beats. Their debut release, set to be released June 23rd, is a compilation album featuring tracks from thirteen Bay Area bands; the first video release “Frayed” has already received positive reviews for its use of dance and 40,000 still photographs. A special limited edition run of vinyl will be pressed and free cassette tapes are offered at OIM’s June residency tonight at Leo’s with Lila Rose.

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Sarah Sexton

Oakulture: What’s exciting to you about Oakland culture right now?

Sarah Sexton: The collaboration factor seems pretty amazing to me right now. There seems to be this overwhelming feeling of musical camaraderie, rather than competition, that seems to be boiling over in this ever glorious puddle of creativity. Artists here genuinely seem excited and inspired by other musicians. I think thats pretty exciting.

Oakulture: What relationship is there between your artistic work and your promotional and production work?

Sarah Sexton: If you mean, my own creative craft, it’s been an interesting path. I have found that although my passion growing up was painting, writing, and performing. I hit a wall several years ago and got a kind of artist’s block. I had started booking and promoting music and for a while blamed my work for sucking the energy out of my art . . . but in time I realized that the way that I express myself artistically has always changed throughout the years. I hadn’t lost my passion, my medium had just changed. I’m currently learning piano and it’s the perfect accompaniment to my career. It can totally mellow me out after a long day of deadlines and emails and scheduling, which I’m really grateful for.

Oakulture: What approach or strategies do you use for creating and maintaining an inclusive space?

Sarah Sexton: It definitely has always been important to me to be conscious in my booking so that i offer a wide array of artists opportunity to express themselves. However, it’s not something that is always easy. It takes breaking out of comfort zones to approach new communities, and taking risks on bands that you don’t necessarily have personal connections to or the inside scoop on. There’s also the whole factor of stepping on toes…I don’t believe I can cover everything on my own . . . it’s not possible. So I might be really strong at promoting/booking indie rock and world music lineups, but that doesn’t mean I know the local hip hop or electronic communities. And if I did, what a boring world it would be if Sarah Sexton thought she had enough taste to book everything. So I prefer to try my hand at an array of styles, but also invite others in to curate their own shows, highlight their communities, and make the venues i work with feel like their home for a night too! I believe diversity is what keeps art forever evolving and blossoming in new incarnations, and hope to support that.

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Oakulture: What do you wish people knew or understood more about the behind-the-scenes?

Sarah Sexton: It’s all out of love. Love for the music and how it makes me feel inside. Love for the community that deserves a platform for expression. Love for the venues that understand the impact art & creativity has on people and how desperately we need it to heal. There are a lot of other careers that would guarantee a lot more security, but I follow my heart, and my heart says Oakland.

Oakulture: Role models? Who do you admire artistically and why?

Sarah Sexton: This may sound kinda cheesy, but i’m really enamored by Bill Graham. How people associate him today in some ways is neither here nor there for me, anytime someone gets big enough there is bound to be the ups + downs of their contributions to society I suppose. But it’s what he helped to build that blows my mind every time i think on it. As a young kid separated from his family in Europe, and coming to America post-Holocaust, he managed to grow up to play a pivotal role in a movement that drastically changed the entire world of rock n roll. That’s pretty epic in my opinion.

May 28 2015 053Oakulture: Oakland heroines?

Sarah Sexton: I have a few Oakland femme fatales that keep me ever striving upward and forward in the hopes of bringing their level of ferocity and classiness to the game. Women like Jennifer Johns, Antique (Naked Soul), and Zakiya Harris all have inspired me endlessly in their undying commitment to both their music and their community. Strong minds, hearts, and drive show that you can reach great heights if you allow yourself to be the glorious you.

Oakulture: Words to live by?

Sarah Sexton: There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; my philosophy is kindness. -The Dalai Lama

‘Frayed’ by Waterstrider from OIM Records on Vimeo.

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OIM Records Residency at Leo’s TONIGHT!
June 4th
Lila Rose, Emily Afton, Yassou Benedict, + El Elle
$12 DOS / $8 ADV

Doors 8pm, Show 9pm 18+

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Oaktown Indie Mayhem Productions
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Twitter @HellaOIM

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Get to know the women previously highlighted in the series, including Candi Martinez, Chaney Turner, Nina Menendez, Gina Madrid aka Raw-G, DJ Zitathe Soulovely crew Lady Ryan, Aima the Dreamer and DJ EMancipacion and Ramona Webb.

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Warriors’ NBA Finals Appearance Has Cultural Impact

team

It’s been exactly 40 years since the Golden State Warriors were in the NBA Finals. That’s two generations in terms of population demographics, but much longer in pop culture terms. Basketball is much more mainstream now than it was in 1975, when Rick Barry was shooting underhanded free-throws. Just check league MVP Steph Curry’s endorsement deals for confirmation of that fact. Barry didn’t even get his own signature sneaker, much less deals with insurance, fashion, and headphone companies. Curry –aka the Babyface Assassin — has all of that, plus the top-selling player jersey for 2015.

The Dubs’ ascension into the NBA elite is pure vindication for Golden State’s  long-suffering fan base, who literally endured decades of being an also-ran franchise best known for players they drafted who went on to become stars with other teams.  Remember the “Warriors Worrier” PR campaign of the late ’80s? The name sort of made sense, because the team only cracked the .500 mark three times during that decade.

Rick Barry

Rick Barry

The 90s and 2000s weren’t much better. The first Don Nelson era produced the emergence of the “Run-TMC” teams with Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin (who made it into the second round of the playoffs twice), but that period is still overshadowed by the rather-ugly enduring image of Latrell Sprewell choking coach PJ Carlesimo. Few players wanted to come to Oakland after that, and during the first half of the 2000s, our marquee guys were either underachievers like Donyell Marshall or over-the-hill journeymen like Antawn Jamison. The Warriors survived an eleven-year playoff drought covering the tenure of no less than six head coaches between 1995 and 2006. Their fortunes began to turn around in 2012, when second-year coach Mark Jackson won 47 games, but the following year, they didn’t advance past the first round despite a 51-win season, prompting ownership to bring in Steve Kerr as coach.

Curry tees up the Pelicans' Anthony Davis

Curry tees up the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis

If hindsight is 20/20, that move—questionable at the time—proved golden. Kerr acted like anything other than a rookie in winning 67 games, one of the highest totals of all time. Not only did the Splash Brothers—Steph Curry and Klay Thompson—live up to their billing as the league’s deadliest backcourt combination, but Draymond Green emerged as the heart and soul of the team, a versatile swing man who played defense and offense with equal passion. Players stifled under Jackson, like Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut, flourished under Kerr. Andre Iguodala accepted the sixth man role without complaint; another former All-Star, David Lee, graciously surrendered his job to Green with nary a peep – unselfishness on a level rarely, if ever, associated with professional sports. Role players like Shaun Livingston, Maureese Speights, Leandro Barbosa, and Festus Ezili all played their parts well. The Warriors developed the deepest roster in the league, a 10-man rotation which relied on team chemistry as much as ball movement and offensive/defensive intensity. Making up 20-point deficits was possible for this team, built on versatility and execution, yet not lacking for star power.

Steve Kerr

Steve Kerr

If there was a more exciting team in all of sports to watch than the Warriors this year, that team must play on another planet without cable TV. All season long, the Warriors seemed to be playing at a higher level than their opponents, resulting in many blowout victories, and a plethora of ESPN-worthy highlights. The Warriors of old never seemed to care much for playing defense, especially during the Don Nelson years. But this team was different. When games got tough, the Warriors got tougher. How many times did they break opponents’ resolve by drilling-down with a defensive stop resulting in a spine-snapping transition 3 or dunk? How many times did Curry hit highlight reel shots? Did we mention Klay’s 37-point quarter? Or breakout games where Green, Barnes, or Ezeli showed they can shoulder the scoring load? Speaking of Barnes, his 4th-quarter explosion after Thompson’s injury in Game Five vs. Houston is exactly the stuff championships are made of. When the chips are down, quitters quit and winners win. The game hung in the balance prior to his scoring nine straight points; afterward, it was all but academic.

“Remember the ‘Warriors Worrier’ PR campaign of the late ’80s? The name sort of made sense, because the team only cracked the .500 mark three times during that decade.”

Splash!

Splash!

Despite all the offensive fireworks, perhaps no better play illustrates the Warriors season than their defensive gem the last 11 seconds of Game Two vs. Houston at Oracle Arena. The Rockets’ best player, James Harden, had the ball. Running down the court, he spotted a double team of Steph and Klay. He passed the ball to Dwight Howard—what was he thinking?—then received it back, with even less time remaining on the clock. With the Warriors trapping him, he seemed confused and didn’t manage to get a shot off. A foul would have given the Rockets a chance to win, but that didn’t happen. It was like Harden—a bonafied MVP candidate who finished second to Curry—was psychologically crushed, overwhelmed by the pressure. The next game was a blowout win for the Dubs, and even though Harden came back to score 45 in the Rockets’ lone victory in Game Four, any momentum was deaded in Game Five, when the Black Rasputin logged an NBA record for turnovers in a Houston loss which wasn’t even close. Sure, we can blame the Lil B curse for Harden’s poor performance, but a more logical explanation is that he was simply outsmarted by players with superior court intelligence.

Klay drives to the hoop

Klay drives to the hoop

The win over the Rockets might have seemed shocking for Warriors newbies and national b-ball fans just tuning in, but the fact is, they’ve shut down potent offenses and league superstars all year with their defensive play, three-point shooting, and nimble transition game. They made adjustments in the playoffs after dropping two consecutive games to Memphis and never looked back.  Is it really any wonder they’re the consensus favorite to win it all?

As the Finals approach, Dubs fever is at an all-time high.  Warrior gear once resigned to closets is now on full display. The Alameda County Courthouse is bathed in blue and yellow lights. And Steph’s daughter, Riley Curry, has become an unlikely media superstar. It’s been a long time coming for anyone who suffered through the days of Chris Washburn, Manute Bol, Tom Tolbert, Tyrone Hill, and Mike Dunleavy.

Draymond Green

Draymond Green

Even though their name doesn’t say it explicitly, Golden State is an Oakland team. They might be moving to San Francisco next year, but in the event of a Finals win, the parade will be held right here, in Oakland. Their Townish affiliation is evident in their unpretentious identity and the loudish “Roaracle” fans who helped cheer them to a 37-2 regular season home record. Their secret weapon is DJ D-Sharp, a hip-hop veteran who isn’t hesitant to play snippets of Too Short or the Luniz during games.

A measure of the Warriors’ pop culture cachet is the numerous songs dedicated to them, the unofficial anthem (and Oakulture personal favorite) being E-40’s Dubbed-out remake of “Choices.”  The rapper known as the Bay Ambassador took an already-good song and made it great by inserting lots and lots of references to the boys in blue and yellow:

Did it happen in a day? (nope)

Came a long way? (yup)

Never know what kind of angle (nope)

Crossover, break your ankle (yup)

Sloppy with the rock? (nope)

Steph Curry with the shot (yup)

Suckers? (nope)

Splash Brothers? (yup)

Ain’t no stoppin’ (nope)

Klay Thompson (yup)

Under pressure, is he choking? (nope)

Do it big like Bogut? (yup)

Never let em tell us that we can’t (nope)

Go hard like Barnes in the paint (yup)

Never ever slowin up the pace (nope)

Shoot a three-pointer in his face (yup)

Almost as good: a reggae video featuring Morgan Heritage and Bobby Lee’s “We A Warrior” set to clips of the Dubs splashing their foes.

Harrison Barnes hi-fives Andre Iguodala

Harrison Barnes hi-fives Andre Iguodala

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Locals Zion-I and Kev Choice are reportedly working on Warriors-inspired tunes right now (edit: The Sole Brothers’ “Warriors” features Zion-I, Blackalicious and Lateef the Truthspeaker). Rapper Rich Cole also has a song, “Dub Nation,” which notes “we the best in the west and the NBA.” As do Ron Lennon & J-Wells — whose “Splash” proclaims, “in the Bay Area they say we too loud/ but we turned up, bout to turn out” —  and uno408. Expect the number of celebratory tunes to increase with every moment the team comes closer to the championship trophy.

Yes, it’s been a long time coming for Warriors fans. And the impact on Oakland is already being felt – just witness the blue/yellow gear being sported all over The Town as the team’s playoff run nears its ultimate destination.

“If there was a more exciting team in all of sports to watch than the Warriors this year, that team must play on another planet without cable TV. All season long, the Warriors seemed to be playing at a higher level than their opponents.”

Errybody say Warriors!

Errybody say Warriors!

Going from perennial scrub to potential champion is kind of a big deal, even for non-sports fans (who can conceivably bask in the afterglow even though they watched “Sex in the City” reruns instead of the games). And of course, there are all the bandwagon-hoppers who probably don’t remember when the Warriors offense was Jason Richardson and not much else. Even if the Warriors lose—which probably won’t happen—they have solidified Oakland/Bay Area pride and earned a permanent place in our region’s cultural iconography—and our hearts. They are the little team that could. And that’s why we love them.


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MC Olympics Showcases The Next Generation of Hip-Hop Performers

MC Olympics participants at Betti Ono Gallery

MC Olympics participants at Betti Ono Gallery

Live Review/ Youth Speaks MC Olympics, May 22 @ Betti Ono Gallery

Poetic language and oral tradition lie at the root of hip-hop. But in a culture that’s been turnt up and trapped-out, is there still room for innovation and creativity? Watching a qualifying round of Youth Speaks’ recent MC Olympics competition, the answer seemed to be yes.

According to Youth Speaks’ website, in the MC Olympics, participants are “required to demonstrate a diversity of lyrical skills including but not limited to free styling, ripping their best 16 bars, or writing a verse on the spot.” The objective is to emphasize skill while bridging the gap between spoken word and rap, and to bring a hip-hop edge to the organization’s youth development work.

Host D.O.D.A.T. explains the rules to contestants

Host D.O.D.A.T. explains the rules to contestants

Ten contestants, all between the ages of 14 and 19, vied for the honor of competing in a battle to determine the Bay Area champion, who will then compete in the Finals in Atlanta, along with winners from 64 other regions. The ten emcees included D-Soul, AMC, Casper, Molly (the lone female representative), A Fi Fuego, Antihero, HD, Vic Johnson, C-Mac, and REU. Unlike other rap battles, in the MC Olympics, the entrants don’t directly take on each other; there’s no dissing of competition, which introduces a totally different dynamic into the proceedings.

Casper spits bars

Casper spits bars

The first test, of Hot 16s, required the emcee’s hottest bars – delivered over beats supplied by DJ Treat U Nice. “Shots fired,” remarked host D.O.D.A.T. (of Ensemble Mik Nawooj), after a blazing start by last year’s champ AMC. Vic Johnson, meanwhile, was told to edit his content after unleashing an epithet-laced string of NSFW words.

AMC rips the mic

AMC rips the mic

For the second test, a freestyle challenge, random words (“brave”; “narrative”; “ambition”) were selected. This seemed particularly challenging, since the emcees had to incorporate the words into their rhymes mid-flow, and not all syllables matched. A couple of times, the emcee didn’t know the word in question. But when the rhymers were able to find their flows, they rode them like surfers catching breaking waves.

Molly gets swaggy with it

Molly gets swaggy with it

The final round could be freestyles, writtens, or a combination of both. “Gimme the most turnt up beat,” said Molly, before launching into a swag-filled throwdown which didn’t earn her many technical points for lyrical finesse but captivated the crowd. D-Soul, meanwhile, asked for a bass-heavy beat but “none of that trap shit.” Outsider Y, who whiffed on the previous round because he doesn’t freestyle, showed an unforeseen capability for rapid-fire triplets. A Fi Fuego, HD, and Casper all went a cappella, while Antihero delivered his most impressive rhyme to date. AMC, however, proved commanding.

The judges panel

The judges’ panel

Just before the judges announced their decision, two of them left the judges’ table and took the stage, where they delivered impromptu performances. Hailing from North Oakland, Rico G dropped a Native Tongue-worthy rhyme, then told the up-and-comers, “don’t be afraid to spit a track like this in the turnt up era.” His fellow Mind Oakland crew member Najee Amaranth followed, accompanied by backup singer Omi.

Antihero in the midst of flow

Antihero in the midst of flow

The judges then returned their scores. A Fi Fuego placed third, Vic Johnson second, and a first place tie ensued between AMC and C-Mac. The two top scores made sense, as the two had been the most consistent throughout the competition, but on Oakulture’s unofficial scoresheet, Antihero could have easily supplanted either Fuego or Johnson.

Mind Oakland's Najee Amaranth and Omi

Mind Oakland’s Najee Amaranth and Omi

After the battle was over, we asked some of the emcees their thoughts.

“I’ve really been rapping since Kindergarten. I’ve been rhyming the words, picking up the beat. Music has been my life since day one,” said Molly, who hails from “East Oakland – Fruitvale.” The MC Olympics, she says, are her first official competition. “I always come prepared. I’m a very confident person,” she said.  “Crowds, they don’t scare me. I get up there and I do what I do. In order to be original, you have to be yourself.”

The evening's winners: A Fi Fuego, C-Mat, AMC, HD

The evening’s winners: A Fi Fuego, C-Mat, AMC, Vic Johnson

Being the only woman in the competition wasn’t an issue for her, she says. “You just don’t think about it. You think about, oh, we’re all emcees. It don’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl in this competition going forward.”

For AMC, who claims the Lake Merritt area and has been rapping “seriously” for five years, the competition was his fourth. His preparation involves “listening to music, rapping every day.” To stand out from other emcees, he says, “It begins with knowing your audience.” Reading the crowd, he says, helps him decide “how to attack, how to form your lines, when to bring energy, when not to bring energy. It just depends on the venue. You walk in, you get a feeling, then you deliver based on how you feel.”

The MC Olympics Finals take place May 30, 8-10pm at Impact Hub Oakland.

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Women Runnin It: Interview with Ramona Webb

“Women Runnin It” features women in dynamic positions of cultural leadership in Oakland. This installment features Ramona Webb, director of the much-anticipated performance “The State of Black Bodies” which runs tonight (May 23). Ramona Webb has had her hands in many pots of cultural stewardship and leadership contributing to the shaping of slam poetry artistic community as well as the Bay Area queer community. We are thrilled to have the chance to converse and learn a little more about Ramona’s approach to theatre in this production committed to uplifting and loving Black truth.

Originally from Baton Rouge, Ramona co-founded and was President of The Baton Rouge Poetry Alliance for seven years before moving to the Bay. She has competed on the National Poetry Slam circuit for fifteen years and is the host, organizer, coach and official Slammaster of San Francisco’s The City Poetry Slam as well as the San Francisco National Poetry Slam Team, which won third in the nation in 2009. This year she will continue to hold it down as a contributing organizer, Slammaster, and event host for National Poetry Slam (returning to Oakland in 2015). Ramona’s community service includes her role as Artistic Director of Lyrical Minded415 and Project ABLE, an art-based learning for equity curriculum implemented in Title I Neglected school sites in the Bay Area. She is also the Executive Director of Eden LGBTQ Youth Foundation, whose mission is “to serve as a community, cultural and funding source for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer youth in the Greater Bay Area through grants, scholarships and initiatives.”

“The State of Black Bodies” stands as the first full-length poetic and artistic stage play by Pr3ssPlay Poets, an all-female poetry, spoken word and production company founded in Oakland by writers Audacious IAM, Chanel Timmons and Shampale. Saturday’s performance will be hosted by Sonya Renee Taylor and feature guest artists Micah Domingo (MC/Producer), Fourfamily Sam Sneak Fletcher (Poet/Performer/Host), and Valerie Troutt’s MoonCandy Ensemble.

***

Ramona Webb

Ramona Webb

Oakulture: Please tell us about the screenplay and what is unique about this production.

Ramona Webb: “The State of Black Bodies” is written to engage and encourage the discussion of the current state of affairs in the African American community. The show will explore issues regarding the current state of blackness in America, and will trace the shifting nature of blackness throughout history. It will explore the intersections of the “black body” as a target, and as triumph, the conditioning of black male, female, and queer bodies in service of white supremacy, and the collective desire to be freed from its talons.

This performance feels like a staged canvas of brilliant colorful stories born through authenticity and hope.

Oakulture: “The State of Black Bodies” is named for the annual presidential address, The State of the Union. Why do Black Bodies matter and how are they related with our nation’s progress report?

Ramona Webb: Black Bodies matter in our current state of social justice affairs as we watch the gross mistreatment of African American’s spackled across the news as headliners and measurements of our value.

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Oakulture: You have had and continue to play a strong role in facilitating poetry community through national poetry slams, including SF’s poetry slam team and working with youth in the school districts, your new role as Executive Director of the Eden Foundation committed to supporting the queer community in the Bay Area, as well as event production and conducting women-centered scholarship. How does any or all of this feed into your decisions and approach as Director of this production?

Ramona Webb: My art informs my work and my work is steeped in the experiences of community collaboration, artistry and engagement. I pull from the metronome my life experience provides to fuel my passion for the great art that reflects authentic depictions of the minority experience. As a poet I understand the burning need to communicate a vision through the lens of performance. I enjoy engaging the work of performance artists and encouraging them to grow their aesthetic and curate the voice of their work with intention. As a director, I feel that the foundation of encouragement, love, artistry, support, affirmation, honesty and disciplined action that is built by a NPS (National Poetry Slam) Team coach is also required of a director encouraging the life of a new scripted theater piece. As a conservatory trained artist I personally enjoy the layering of various art forms and avenues of artistic expression. This particular show speaks to the heart of my personal investment in a just and sustainable world, which makes my investment in the work cellular.

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Oakulture: What is the connection between sacred ritual space and the space you create in the theater or at a poetry slam? How does that translate in this production?

Ramona Webb: The creation of sacred space for me speaks to my investment in honoring the art and the platform that is prepared to hold it.

Oakulture: Rather than a traditional play in which the actors are acting out characters, the performers in this production are a collective of spoken word poets. How does that make for a different theatre experience?

Ramona Webb: The experience of this performance in the context of poetry allows us to expand our vision of metaphors being rooted on stage. When poetry takes the stage in theater work we are allowed to breath new life into the language of expression on stage.

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Oakulture: As the #BlackLivesMatter movement evolves with each day, how has this affected both the production of the play and the experience for the actors, stage crew and yourself if at all?

Ramona Webb: We continue to hold the work’s mission at the forefront and expand our vision of what needs to be reinforced in the story of black communities.

Oakulture: Though often in the media the #BlackLivesMatter movement is framed as focusing on black men, three queer women of color from the Bay were at the start of this movement, as are the primary players in this production. Why is it important that we hear queer women of color’s perspectives on race and politics right now?

Ramona Webb: Often the voices of queer women of color are excluded, devalued or unheard. At this time it is especially important to expose our community to a vision of us that is honest, courageous, inclusive and recognized as necessary. We hold a stake in the conversations about race, gender and politics as well.

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Oakulture:
What is exciting to you
about Oakland’s culture
right now?
Any current collaborations
or projects you are particularly
interested in?

Ramona Webb:
The National Poetry Slam 2015
is coming back to Oakland
for another amazing week long festival
and competition with workshops and activities
for youth and adults you don’t want to miss it.

 

 

***

“The State of Black Bodies”
Saturday, May 23rd, 2015
8pm
Tix $12
La Pena Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley

Follow Pr3ssPlay Poets & Productions:
FB: www.facebook.com/pr3ssplay poets & productions

Get to know the women previously highlighted in the series, including Candi Martinez, Chaney Turner, Nina Menendez, Gina Madrid aka Raw-G, DJ Zita and the Soulovely crew Lady Ryan, Aima the Dreamer and DJ EMancipacion.

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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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The OakQ&A: Lyrics Born (Part 2)

Lyrics Born

Lyrics Born

In Part 1 of this interview, Lyrics Born described his new album Real People, his creative process, and what it was like to record in New Orleans. In Part 2, LB goes in even deeper on working in the studio with Galactic, the Bay Area-NoLa connection, his own quirky fashion sense (acid-washed denim, yo!) and musical evolution, and how cycles come back around. If you’re reading this today (May 15), don’t miss your chance to see LB perform tracks off the new album tonight at SF’s Independent.

***

Oakulture: tell me a little bit about the songwriting process on Real People. What did you draw inspiration from, other than the culture of New Orleans?

Lyrics Born: Right, ok, I wanted to do an album that was really earthy… I thought there was plenty in hip-hop about… I don’t know, we sort of took a narcissistic turn in hip-hop. I just didn’t really feel like that was realistic for everybody. It’s really great in a lot of ways… when you’re in an industry, in a culture that is constantly beating you down, it’s important to be able to say, I’m the best.  And that’s why hip-hop was always so awesome to me, because people had no qualms about talking about how great they were. But to people that were unfamiliar with the culture, they don’t realize, we’re a group of outsiders. We’re being told every day that we don’t have rights. We’re being told every day that our opinion doesn’t  matter. We’re being told every day we dress funny, we talk funny, we look funny. So, y’know, it’s important to answer that. With sort of an LL Cool J/Kanye, no fuck you, I’m the best. Its like positive reinforcement. I get that part. But like all other things, it became pervasive. And then it’s just kinda like, whoa. Ok. I don’t think we’re actually addressing who we really are as human beings. It’s not really a well-rounded view of who we are. If we’re all talking about us and what we own and what we spend and what we wear, that doesn’t… because I know the reality of what it’s like to be an artist.

Oakulture: Right, if there’s no other context for it.

Lyrics Born: Right, if you’re still having problems still keeping the lights on and this, that, and a third, I think that is what Real People’s about.  In my case, it’s about coming to this country at a very early age, even situations like “Holy Matrimony,”  [which is about] marriage, adulthood; “Around the Bend” is kinda hitting that stage in your life where you feel like you’re finally getting a piece of the American Dream, and then there’s also the more trivial aspects of daily life, like in confidence, people being chatty, and it’s off the cuff. And then there’s just a lot of stuff there, like “WTF,” I’m kind of talking about how the world has changed, post-Recession America. There’s also like the good-time release, and the celebration of each other, things like “All Hail the Queen” or “Rock Away.” We have to keep in mind, for me, the music at its best is also fun. It’s a fun experience.

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Oakulture:  It sounds like you’re having fun on the record.

Lyrics Born: I am. I’m having a ball, because I really felt like this soundscape, this musical environment is perfect for me right now. It’s perfect for me. And just, for me as an artist and a performer, one of the things which gets me high is seeing people having a good time. I’m doing my job when people are having a good time. That’s one aspect of what I do.

Oakulture:  Is there an advantage to making a record with so much live music, when you translate that to live performance?

Lyrics Born: Yeah. There is an advantage, because it has that electricity. It has that feel. And it translates easily. People make mistakes, musicians might play a wrong note , but it’s human. And in that context, it’s much more forgiving. And it’s natural. It translates differently. But still, if you go to a club and someone throws on some trap, and you feel that bass, there’s nothing that can replicate that. That’s what special to me about trap. What’s special about live music, about what I do, is these are human beings who are working together to play this music. It’s a group, team effort. It’s that synergy and that electricity when people mesh. And hopefully, you get a feeling from that.

Oakulture:  It’s also a very sort of uptempo, active sound.  I’ve talked to Boots [Riley] in the past and he doesn’t perform anything, hardly anything, from the first two Coup records. Because the tempos are so slow, they were made for how people were listening to the music at the time, which was riding around in the car. and then, he gets to the point where he has a live band, he’s performing live, and you need uptempo stuff. You can’t play that slow stuff with a live band.

Lyrics Born: Right. It’s true. You’re talking kinda era-specific things. But you’re also talking contextual things. That was made for riding around. Music has changed. His career has changed. All of our careers have changed. I would be lying to you now if I said that what I do isn’t much more live-based. I’ve always spent a lot of time on the road, but now, it’s mandatory. So I have to make music that goes over well live. My longevity, my livelihood as an artist is dependent upon me performing in front of people. So these things have to translate well live.

“The thing that’s interesting about both the Bay and New Orleans is, they’re both these crazy, unique, places. When you talk about the Bay Area, there’s the Bay Area, and then there’s California. There’s New Orleans, and then there’s Louisiana. That’s something that those two cities really have in common.” -Lyrics Born

Oakulture:  And then there’s the other thing too, of being a Bay Area artist, which sort of stereotypes you as being a regional dude. But at the same time, throughout your whole career, you’ve built these bridges, and you’ve built these fanbases in all these different places which has allowed you to get outside the Bay. It seems like that’s somewhat attributable to, or a factor of, your longevity.

Lyrics Born: Yeah, I would agree. I would say so. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I never made mob music. I never made hyphy. I never did that. It doesn’t mean I didn’t play the shit out of it in my car or in my house. As much as I love those artists, it’s not my lane. It’s not what I do. I remember when hyphy was huge and I was working with 40, I was working with Fab, and I was working with so and so. People would ask me, because hyphy became a national phenomenon, so, LB, are you gonna make a hyphy album? I said, naw, I make Lyrics Born albums. I may work with these guys, I may incorporate some of that into what I do, which I did. But im not just gonna drop everything and move on to this sound and move on to that sound. I make Lyrics Born albums. Whatever that means. That’s what I do.

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Oakulture: I think it’s been hard for Bay Area artists in the post-hyphy era, people are sort of like, what is our sound? What should we be gravitating toward? The idea that you have to have a regional sound, but then that becomes something that can also play you out, when it no longer becomes the flavor of the month. But on the other hand, someone like you, you have an eclectic sensibility in how you approach it, and that gives you a broader base to draw from. So you end up not getting played out. You can’t say, LB, we left him back in the hyphy era.

Lyrics Born: Right. Well, you know, the other thing I know though, just from being a record collector and a longtime music fan is that everything comes back around. Everything cycles. I wouldn’t be surprised if four or five years from now, suddenly there’s a hyphy resurgence. Like these sort of hyphy-infused kind of tracks. You already see it now, with 90s hip-hop and what Joey Bada$$ is doing, a lot of what Action Bronson is doing and so forth. And even in fashion too. I see, man, a lot of kids rocking 90s gear. Tommy Hilfiger jackets, Karl Kani, all the things that we used to wear. So you see it, it all comes back around.

Oakulture:  I saw a kid with like an old-school North Face Mountain Light parka. And I was like, they don’t even make those anymore!

Lyrics Born: No, they don’t. You have to seek it out. I see kids wearing Cross Colors now. Which hasn’t been made in fifteen years. Look at me, I’m wearing a 90s rayon shirt with an 80s acid wash jacket. All the shit comes back around. What I mean to say is that everything has value. You may be at a point in popular culture where it has less value, but everything comes back around.

Oakulture:  Right. But the point that I was trying to make was, by being eclectic, by saying, I’m in my lane right here, but then I’m open to all this other stuff, you sort of avoid the typecast. And it also means, from a music listener level, there’s sort of numerous on-ramps to that LB lane.

Lyrics Born: Yeah. Very well put, Eric Arnold. I agree. It’s like, the minute you start closing yourself off, and say, that’s not my thing, that’s fine. I don’t like everything I hear, but there are movements which can add value to what I do. By incorporating that, I in turn add value to the overall landscape as well. Just because I may not like a certain artist or I may not be into a certain song or whatever, when I hear things that HBK does, or I hear things that Chance the Rapper is doing, or G-Eazy, or Joey Bada$$, A$AP Rocky, there’s certain things that they do, that’s like, wow, why didn’t I think of that. That’s dope. How can I kind of adapt that to what I’m doing, in a context that works for me.  Everything from techniques, rap technique to their look to just their aesthetic, whatever it may be, lyrical, visual, musical, whatever.

Oakulture:  I was gonna ask you, lyrically, what are you doing now that wouldn’t have occurred to you back in the early 90s?

Lyrics Born: What am I doing now? I’m definitely more open. We came up in an era, a lot of what we were doing was a reaction to what was happening at that time. We don’t like this shit. We don’t like the direction that hip-hop is going. Even though we were in the Golden Era of hip-hop, who knew that then? It was a reaction to what we perceived as the commercialization of hip-hop. I’m nowhere near as intolerant of those things as I was then… When I look at myself now as an artist I see myself as a person that’s open to all kinds of stuff… I just remember those early… back when we were first starting, in the early 90, I would sit there at the college radio station, KDVS. I would literally play every fucking record that was in that library. Iron Butterfly or Jon Secada or the Turtles or Junie Morrison, just anything. I would play it all. I was trying to educate myself. And I think that gave me the basis. I learned the fundamentals of being open to music. When you’re a record collector and you’re surrounded by that broad array of music from different eras, you can kind of see all these trends that happened with these artists’ careers, and the way the music was changing… I learned to accept the fact that careers have peaks and valleys, artists go through style changes, public taste changes… So, that’s what it is. I really feel like, at the end of the day, I have to work on myself to be open. You have to discipline yourself to be open minded. You have to discipline yourself to seek out inspiration…

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Oakulture:  So, with Real People, did you write lyrics first? Or did the music come first? How did that part of the creative process work?

Lyrics Born: I went down to New Orleans, I did two sessions there. It was a great experience for me. The first session, I went down, I rented a cottage in uptown New Orleans, like two blocks from the Maple Leaf, where Rebirth [Brass Band] plays every week.  I stayed there a week, I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have a computer, I had nothing. I would write in the daytime, from like 10 am to 2pm every day. Then the guys from Galactic, they would pick me up and take me to the studio, and I would be in the studio from three till about 11 every day. And they were working on demos, they were working on music. I’d sit there and we’d record ideas. So, the first session, I did that for like a week.  We knocked out probably about seven or eight demos. They were like, ok, this is a good start. And then I went home, I finished the songs, they finished the music, on their end, they had all the musicians come in. I mostly finished off all the vocals here, and then I came back for another very short session to New Orleans. We sort of finalized the direction, and then we did the same thing: I finished off the songs here, they finished off the songs there, and boom! It was done. It was like as organic process as you can have in the modern era.

Oakulture: That’s really rare, because nowadays, people aren’t even on the same continent sometimes when they’re collaborating.

Lyrics Born: Right. It’s unusual these days for me to be in the same studio with producers.

Oakulture:  How do you think that translated on record?

Lyrics Born: I think it makes a huge difference. I’m a huge proponent of, maybe I’m old-school, but I truly believe in the two people or the group of people who are working on a record together being in the same room. I think that’s one of the benefits of coming up in my era, that my generation experienced.

I remember when we did a song with El-P, we had to fly his ass out here. Because at that time, there was no, I couldn’t send him files. When I was on tour, we worked in his bedroom in New York. Then to finish up the song, we flew him out. I mean, you had to be in the same room together. The producer had an actual role. The producer actually produced, they coached vocals… now it’s, a producer these days is essentially someone who composed the track. There’s no real in-studio hands-on production, with the artist these days. Sadly. You can hear it in the music…

Oakulture:  It’s like digital vs. analog. Certain things you can only get with analog. And then you have people in the digital age who are like, we’re going to recreate that analog sound, so they sample a squeaky record.

Lyrics Born: Right. Absolutely right. And I could see, being in the studio with [Galactic], how much I was accustomed to being left to my own devices. Cause when we started recording the demos, I just went in and started doing it. And that was the first time in a long time someone said to me, you know, the shit you’re doing is not working. We need to try this differently. It’s just not working. LB, I think you need to try a different approach. I was just doing what I do! And without someone saying that, those songs wouldn’t have become what they did.  Some of the tracks that I wrote to on this album, I didn’t like at first. I didn’t see it. When I would get in there, they would be like, no, gotta do this one man. You’re gonna kill this one. You gotta do this. “Chest Wide Open” was like that, which is gonna be the next single, which is the one people like. I heard that beat, I was like, I don’t hear anything over this. They were like, dude trust me. We’re gonna get David Shaw on this record, he’s gonna sing the hook. Just trust us, just do it. And that turst was there. And I did it. And it turned out to be a great fuckin’ song.

Oakulture:  You were a one-man band.

Lyrics Born: Yes.

Oakulture:  You produced every record you’ve done [until now].

Lyrics Born: Yes.

Oakulture:  So on this one, you broke out of your comfort zone, and went into NoLa voodoo mode…

Lyrics Born: Yeah. That’s a good point. They could do an album like this better than I ever could. And I had done it my way, fifteen years. I needed to get out of my comfort zone. I needed to hand over the reigns. I needed someone to say, you know what, you’ve done it your way, let’s try it this way. I feel like, without having been in that situation, I don’t get beyond my limitations. It’s a healthy thing for artists. You have to have that trust. You have to make yourself vulnerable in those types of situations, otherwise you risk not growing.

lyrics born 2

Oakulture:  What’s interesting about Real People is, it sounds more like a New Orleans record than it does a Bay Area record.

Lyrics Born: It should. But I don’t know that I’ve ever made Bay Area records, that were in line with what you were hearing from the Bay Area at a given time. Like I said, I make Lyrics Born records. Certainly, I’m from the Bay Area, everybody knows that. I don’t think my story could have happened anywhere else. But, that doesn’t mean that I’m tied to a regional sound.

Oakulture:  So with making a record in New Orleans, you strengthen this connection between the Bay and Louisiana and New Orleans. You think about the Pointer Sisters recording with Allen Toussaint.

Lyrics Born: The thing that’s interesting about both the Bay and New Orleans is, they’re both these crazy, unique, places. When you talk about the Bay Area, there’s the Bay Area, and then there’s California. There’s New Orleans, and then there’s Louisiana. That’s something that those two cities really have in common. They’re both, especially me growing up in Berkeley, Berkeley in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, it was crazy. I’m kind of used to that kind of craziness. Some old lady dressed in velvet blowing bubbles on the street. And everybody knows her.  Im sort of used to that. Im used to having this oddball cast of characters around me at all times as part of the human landscape. I come from that … so when I go to a place like New Orleans, I’m like, perfect!

And it gets in your blood, too. There’s a reason people go down there for school and they don’t leave. In the 90s, I remember seeing how the culture of the Bay Area really drove this influx of people who were coming to the Bay, because they wanted to be around this music and they wanted to be around culture and free thought and politics. It kind of took on a life of its own.

Oakulture:  If you could describe yourself in one word, what would that be?

Lyrics Born: versatile.

Real People is out now on Mobile Home Recordings.


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The OakQ&A: Lyrics Born (Part 1)

Hip-hop's David Byrne: Lyrics Born

Hip-hop’s David Byrne: Lyrics Born

There’s a very short list of Bay Area hip-hop artists active in the mythologized year of 1993 who are still releasing quality new material in 2015. 1993’s “Send Them” – the first appearance on wax of the dude y’all know as Lyrics Born (then named Asia Born) is a long way from 2015’s “Rock Rock Away,” from LB’s fresh-off-the-presses album, Real People.

It’s mind-blowing, in fact, to realize both songs were made by the same artist, although upon close inspection, one can hear traces of what LB has evolved into in his 20+plus year career on his very first recording: never lacking for confidence or at a loss for words, on “Send Them,” LB displays a fast delivery over a DJ Shadow beat built around a looped sample.  But “Rock Rock Away” shows a polished, veteran rapper who has matured into his voice and become comfortable with both live musicians and a more conventional song structure.

Real People represents the latest evolution of LB, a pioneer of what has been termed alternative hip-hop, and an artist who has continually rebooted his musical persona with every release. Like a gemstone with many facets, LB has never been content to make the same album twice. A core member of the Solesides/Quannum collective, he’s explored the outer regions of experimental hip-hop as a member of the duo Latyrx, contributed to albums by labelmates Blackalicious, and released an impressive catalog of solo records which have delved into influences ranging from the neo-funk of his 2003 breakthrough album Later That Day, to old-school R&B/soul leanings of 2008’s Everywhere at Once and the electro-boogie bounce of 2010’s As U Were.

On his new album, he drew inspiration from the musical culture of New Orleans, where he recorded with old friends Galactic. That would seem like a huge stylistic leap for almost any other emcee, but for LB, it makes perfect sense. We wouldn’t think twice about an R&B, rock, or country artist soaking up NoLa flavor, but the idea of a Bay Area rapper doing it seems cringe-worthy, until we remember that a) LB was one of the first emcees in the region to work with live musicians; and b) N’Awlins is the source of many of the musical forms he has invoked over the years.

Recently, LB sat down with Oakulture’s Eric Arnold for what ended up being a long-ass interview. So long, in fact, that it must be presented in two parts. In the initial segment, LB—who plays May 15 at the Independent; tickets are here—discusses his opinions on the hip-hop artform, his evolution as an artist, his creative process, and why he chose New Orleans to record his new album. Stay tuned for Part Two, which further explores the making of Real People (and promises much more witty banter). (Editor’s note: Part Two is here.)

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Oakulture: Feelings about the state of hip-hop? Is it in a good place?

Lyrics Born: That question is so hard for me to answer now. At this point there’s generational differences in hip–hop listeners, there’s stylistic differences in hip–hop listeners, there’s independent vs. major label, that gap is wider than ever now. If you’re asking me, it’s probably the most diverse that it’s ever been. That goes without saying, because of all those factors that I just mentioned.  On the other hand, it’s probably the most intense than its ever been if you are an artist. Your output has to be high, your album cycles, if you do albums, they’re much shorter, the quote-unquote traditional press major label machine, even as an independent, is a lot different now. I think you need to be prepared these days as an artist who wears many many many many hats.  How’s the music? I think the music sounds very immediate to my ears. And that’s all I can say. It sounds like people are making music in the moment. Its good and bad, depending on what you’re into. I like sort of the stream of consciousness, off the cuff, let’s make it, put it on Soundcloud, not think about it too much. I like that aspect. But I also like classic recordings. That’s just a different way of recording music, in my experience. I like it both ways. For me, for my generation of artists, yes, it’s about gaining new fans, but it’s also about really being tight with the fans that you’ve developed, in my case over the past 20+ years. I’m not necessarily–at this stage in my career—looking for a platinum hit. Im just looking to connect with my fans each and every single time I make a record. It’s just different. My career aspirations now are not necessarily to be #1 at radio, as they once were. I wanna continue to make good music for the people that support me. It’s just me and them at this point.

LB aka Sir Racha

LB aka Sir Racha

Oakulture: The new record is NOT a very immediate record. You obviously took some time to craft it and make it a very musical record, as opposed to, let’s throw on some Fruity Loops and make a trap hit in ten minutes.

Lyrics Born: There’s nothing wrong with that. I can do that too. 2010, As U Were was kind of an electro-boogie, electro-funk-inspired album, Latyrx’s second album was a very diverse, very experimental hip-hop album. This album, I got all that out of my system,  I wanted to go back to something really funky and organic, and music and very live-sounding. To me, there’s no other place to do that in the world at this point, than perhaps the first and last music town, which is New Orleans. You talk about resiliency, I mean, Katrina couldn’t stop New Orleans. One of the biggest natural and human disasters in American history, and yet, there New Orleans is, still with its sound. The musicians all came back, for the most part. Most of the locals came back… and that to me is really inspiring, to believe in your culture so much that you will return to a place that’s just been decimated. It really speaks to the fortitude of the music and the strength of the culture… for me as a lifelong musician that still wants to learn, where else do I go?

This is my 8th album. I’ve done well over 125 guest features. I’ve done literally what, 1200-1500 gigs in my life,  but I still want to grow, and I still want to learn things as an artist. Where else do you do that, but in a city that’s playing music 24 hours a day? What city can you really say that about? That there’s live music happening… that has a native indigenous sound to it. Where else can you say you can see this seven days a week?

Oakulture:  Let me just pull this back for a second. When you get into the process of a new album, do you feel it’s necessary to reinvent yourself with every album, or is it, here’s another side to me that I haven’t fully explored yet?

Lyrics Born: It’s that. The second part. But ultimately, to people’s ears, it ends up sounding like oh he’s reinventing himself again. He’s rebranding. But really, when I make an album, I’m like, what have I not done yet? That’s really it, what haven’t I done yet?

Oakulture: Balkan.

Lyrics Born: (laughs).  Right. Klezmer? That’s next.

Oakulture:  It’s interesting, too, because you’ve positioned yourself to be able to do that, from a very long time ago. You didn’t place yourself in a box. Do your attribute your longevity to that?

Lyrics Born: Yeah, of course. You know Karen Dere, from Giant Peach? She told me I was the ‘David Byrne of hip-hop.’ And then I kind of thought about David Byrne’s career and I could see where she would say that. Maybe, maybe. For better or worse, this is the path that I’m on. Until I decide to stop…

Oakulture: Especially looking at Bay Area hip-hop, where there’s now sort of a division between eras. There’s really only a few artists which have transcended stylistic limitations and been active in every era. I’m thinking about you, and I’m thinking about Boots from the Coup. You guys are two guys who have not done the same album over and over again.

LB in deep concentration

LB in deep concentration

Lyrics Born: For better or for worse… and I think for a lot of people, some people wish I would keep doing Latyrx albums or Later That Day or Everywhere At Once. But I think, honestly, Real People is the closest I’ve gotten to revisiting Later That Day and some of the earlier Lyrics Born stuff. Even though it’s definitely not the same. But it’s probably the closest I’ve done, because it is so organic feeling. In that sense… you talk about Boots, you talk about me, I feel like it is our cast in life to be artists, whether I got a million dollars in the bank or five dollars in the bank. That’s just how I’m wired, and I accept that. I accept it’s gonna be difficult at times. I also accept that it’s going to be very fulfilling at times. I don’t know, I look at a lot of artists, and I don’t know that there’s a lot of artists who have very long careers doing the same thing over and over again. You have to grow.  Even if you’re just growing with in your lane… you don’t necessarily have to make albums with different genres every time, but you do have to grow.

Oakulture: That’s really interesting when we get to hip-hop and start looking at that as a genre, because there’s sort of this unspoken rule that you have to stop doing hip-hop once you get around that 40 year-old mark. When, actually, you might just be reaching your peak—as a lyricist, as a writer, as a stage performer, you have all this experience that you didn’t have when you were 20 or 25.

“When I make an album, I’m like, what have I not done yet? That’s really it, what haven’t I done yet?” -Lyrics Born

Lyrics Born: Right. I think that’s psychological. I think the whole, I’m gonna go X amount of years and then quit. I think that’s all psychological. I remember when we first started, we would read interviews with like the Pharcyde and I would think to myself… because at that time, in the 90s, hip-hop was still a pretty young artform. It was only about 15-20 (years old). It was growing pretty fast, but it was still a pretty young artform. Because it was so young, and because it changed so fast, you didn’t see a lot of artists with multiple albums. Artists at that time would kind of top out at around two or three albums.

But, see, me, being a record collector, being a guy that’s making sample-based music, I would see records by John Coltrane, this guy had 15-20 albums. 30 albums, y’know.  I would see these reggae singers with 40,50,60, who knows?… but you see Miles making 2-3 albums in a year. And hip-hop is a genre that has more commercial viability then those genres did at that time. Why not? Why can’t I? Someone like Art Tatum or Lou Donaldson, one of these jazz guys, they’re making records in their 70s. why cant I if I choose to do so? I’m not speaking to how much they sold or how commercially successful those artists were, but it’s right there… So, that changed my idea, and then when I started to hear guys say, oh I’m gonna quit at 40, how’s that gonna look? That’s all psychological. It looks how you want it to look. Certainly when you hit 60, 70, it becomes physically difficult, you might have other priorities in life, your body changes, but … as long as I have that spark and that desire, I’m gonna keep going.

Real People is out now on Mobile Home Recordings. For more info, visit the Lyrics Born website.


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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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La Cultura Cura Cultural Arts Café Opening Adds Flavor to San Antonio District

Aztec dancers outside La Cultura Cura Cafe

Aztec dancers outside La Cultura Cura Cafe

To many Americans, Cinco de Mayo is a drinking holiday, an excuse to imbibe tequila shots, drink Corona and Dos Equis beers, and maybe wear a sombrero if you get tipsy enough. But for people of ethnic Mexican descent, the 5th day of May is a day to celebrate cultural resilience and victory over colonialism (the date denotes the anniversary of the defeat of the French army at the battle of Puebla, not Mexican Independence Day, which its often mistaken for).

This past May 5th marked the grand opening of La Cultura Cura Cultural Arts café, a new economic and cultural initiative of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ), a non-profit organization dedicated to disrupting cycles of violence and poverty which impact youth by taking a restorative justice approach. The event was also an official celebration marking the repeal of Oakland’s gang injunctions, the issue CURYJ originally organized around back in 2011. Many of the defendants placed under gang injunction by the Oakland City Attorney’s office in the highly-publicized, now-abandoned effort now work with CURYJ, who raised $15,000 with a successful kickstarter campaign to open the café, situated next door to East Side Arts Alliance in the San Antonio district. In addition to employing youth—including those formerly incarcerated—La Cultura Cura claims to be empowering communities, promoting positive economic development and offering an alternative to gentrification by reopening indigenous trade routes; their free trade organic coffee is reportedly grown by Zapatista Mayan descendants in the state of Chiapas.

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The café’s grand opening event was a joyous occasion, featuring a full performance by Aztec dancers in full regalia on the sidewalk and street in front of the café. It was a little surreal to see the juxtaposition of the Aztecs in their colorful traditional garb against a backdrop of cars and AC transit buses, symbolizing the dichotomy between modern civilization and ritual culture. The traffic flowed in both directions, marking a type of unintended urban dance which contrasted the purposeful movements of the native dancers – who sought to bless the space by honoring the ancestors.

the La Cultura Cura logo

the La Cultura Cura logo

Inside the café, every wall was decorated with political art posters by Dignidad Rebelde’s Melanie Cervantes and Jesus Barraza, which spoke to the cultural resistance of Hispanic and Chicano peoples, as well as their solidarity with other liberation struggles – Steven Biko and Angela Davis were among those featured, along with Zapatista women, Arizona immigration activists, and musicians depicted with accordions or guitars. Tamales la Oaxaquena served yummy plates of rice, beans, salsa and cooked chicken, washed down with mint-infused ice water. A full house of community members, many of them parents with young children, attended, and there were live performances from local hip-hop artists as well as a short speech by CURYJ’s George Galvis. It was an auspicious opening for a much-needed space in one of Oakland’s most ethnically-diverse districts, one facing increasing encroachment from the forces of gentrification.

Dignidad Rebelde’s exhibit, “La Cultura Cura,” runs until June 30th, at 2289 Int’l Ave., Oakland.