Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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

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

The "Clas/Sick" Crew chilling after the show

The “Clas/Sick” Crew chilling after the show

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

Do the ladies run this mother____er?

Do the ladies run this mother____er?

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

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

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

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

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

DJ Fuze on the 1 and 2's

DJ Fuze on the 1 and 2’s

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

Howard Wiley and Geechi Taylor

Howard Wiley and Geechi Taylor

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

Coco Peila and Ryan Nicole

Coco Peila and Ryan Nicole

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

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

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

Conscious curation: Marc Bamuthi Joseph

Conscious curation: Marc Bamuthi Joseph

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

A young hip-hop dancer at YBCA

A young hip-hop dancer at YBCA

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

Trackademics in the cipher

Trackademics in the cipher

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

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The Oak Q & A: Jahi as PE2.0 (Part II)

 

Jahi performing at the New Parish, August 2014

Jahi performing at the New Parish, August 2014

In Part One of this interview, Oakland-based educator and rapper Jahi talked about how he became the lead emcee in PE2.0, a musical and cultural initiative created by Chuck D, Professor Griff, and the Public Enemy organization, which aims to revisit the group’s legacy while pushing forward for a new generation of listeners searching for consciousness, sanity, and dignity in rap music. In this continuation of the discussion, Jahi breaks down some of the specific songs on the new album People Get Ready, and the connection between himself, Public Enemy, Tupac Shakur, the Black Panther Party, and the city of Oakland.

Oakulture: Let’s talk about some of the original PE2.0 songs, like “Mind For Malcolm.” What are you dealing with on that song?

Jahi: “Mind for Malcolm” is actually not on the album, “Mind for Malcolm” is kinda like how you shoot a flare, send a signal. The fact is, if you know Public Enemy’s history, I believe it was Chuck or maybe Keith or Hank, they were out promoting, and they put up a poster of Malcolm, and somebody said, ‘who is the dude with the glasses?’ Or something to that effect. I’m paraphrasing.  What Chuck realized is, wow, not only could we make music, but we also could lift up some messages and really say something that matters.

"Mind for Malcolm" single

“Mind for Malcolm” single

So when Malcolm [X]’s birthday was approaching, I reached out to Chuck and asked if it was okay, if I took that track, name the song “Mind For Malcolm,” and use it as a signal to let people know that PE2.0 was coming. So that’s where “Mind For Malcolm” came from. So that was really like, one of the first, you know, I had recorded maybe 7 or 8 records, and none of those records ended up on the final cut of the album, but “Mind For Malcolm” stuck so we sent it out as a signal on Malcolm’s birthday.

Oakulture: What inspired “People Get Ready”?

Jahi: Ah, man. “People Get Ready” is not a song. It’s not a song. What it is, is a call to action to save the people. Get ready, ‘cause you might have to physically fight for your freedom. We were trying to decide on some album titles, and Chuck hit me with “People Get Ready,” and I was like, I mean, number one, Curtis Mayfield, he’s probably in my top ten of all time. And just thinking about Mike Brown, thinking about Marlene Pennock, thinking about Eric Garner, thinking about all these things, and not just current events, but historical events. And, it just feels like, it needs to be said that sometimes, we slip.  Sometimes we so social with having good times, partying and kicking it, that we not ready, we be getting blindsided, and the idea of… my grandfather used to say,’ it’s time to get ready.’ That means you organize yourself, you prepare yourself, you get things in order.  So you’re able to handle the task, and right now, the task of freedom, justice, and equality, we need to be ready.  And, the more we are not ready, the more we put ourselves at risk of losing our lives at this point.

People Get Ready album cover

People Get Ready album cover

So, “People Get Ready,” once we diagrammed the album and just be thinking about… here’s where I’m at: if you think about it, I’m really not rhyming, it’s really a mantra, it’s really a chant, it’s really a meditation. Chuck comes with the rhyme. I’m not busting bars at all. But Chuck is. And then there was also a little play on that and Chuck said it.

Oakulture: “Panther Power” obviously references the legacy of the Black Panther Party. As an Oakland resident, how do you see that legacy shaping up in 2014?

Jahi: Well, “Panther Power” really first is a tribute and ode to Tupac Shakur, because on his first record, 2Pacalypse Now, he did a song called “Panther Power,” and in the chorus, he was actually cutting part of Chuck’s voice. So, the first part of it really was for him, for ‘Pac. Which connects to Oakland. I mean, the reality of it is, that in 2014, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, their beliefs, in terms of what they wanted for the community, in terms of the community services they wanted to provide, the cultural unity and pride, those are things that I feel like are as much alive now as they were then. I don’t look at the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense like they in a museum or something like that. I feel like it is very active in our lives and part of my job, as an emcee, is to attach to that. So, you know, I also got to say Rickey Vincent had a lot to do with it too, I gotta shout out to Rickey Vincent, because he wrote that book…

Oakulture: Party Music …

Party Music, by Ricky Vincent

Party Music, by Ricky Vincent

Jahi: Party Music, where he talked about the Lumpen band. So if you hear my second verse, We talking 1968, Jah called on Tommie Smith, the band in Oakland, giving the soul mix. I mean, that comes directly from Rickey Vincent. Once I got turned on to the Lumpen band, it was like, yeah, it really informed the rest of that record. And then, originally Griff was supposed to be on that record, but he wasn’t able to get on it. But we had this concept of taking songs, and putting speeches inside the song. I got plenty of quotes at the beginning and end. But in “Panther Power” in particular, Kwame Ture, when he first said Black Power, I took that whole clip and put it in there. To give a context of just that spirit. It wasn’t about freedom, he said, we’re not talking about freedom, we’re talking about power. And right now, as much as we need freedom, justice and equality, black people, we need power.  And when you say Black Power or Panther Power, there’s a certain energy that comes with that. So I wanted not so much to resurrect that, but to continue it in 2014, to inspire a 9 year-old or 8 year-old, as well as a 40 year-old.

Oakulture: There’s some cultural authenticity there too. It’s not like you live somewhere else. I mean, you’ve been an Oakland resident for 15 years, right?

Jahi: That’s right, that’s right. I live here. When I said, writing rhymes late night in the home of the Panthers, I was in Oakland, California when I said that right there. When I felt like I had a first draft, I actually was watching sunsets at Merritt College. Like, these are facts. We in a time when most people’s rhymes are so fantasy. Sometimes, we be getting in metaphorical and lyrical exercises, nah, this is like right in your face. I mean, I’m in Oakland, and I’m thankful that I’m in Oakland. I lived a lot of places, I moved around a lot of places. But I’m thankful to be in Oakland, I’m thankful of the history here. I know that I’m standing on shoulders of ancestors. I don’t take it for granted. You know, just being in Public Enemy stands on the shoulders of the Panthers. You know what, I couldn’t have been in a better place anywhere else in the world to be able to do this first project.

Oakulture: “What They Need” is another strong one. What are you addressing with that one?

Jahi on the set of "What They Need"

Jahi on the set of “What They Need”

Jahi: Mmmn. “What They Need” is a revisit, give the people what they need was [an] original lyric by Public Enemy. So I really like how they did the chorus, cameras, lights, action, look out, human rights, whiplash, po-po, Fed killers, killing kids. I mean, we are experiencing that right now. So, I think about kids, if you say here’s some ice cream, or here’s a home-cooked mean, you know, beans and rice and all of that. All of the kids will go pick what they want, they’ll pick the ice cream. But the reality is what we need is more wholesome and important for us. So “What They Need” was really kinda diving in to say that, you know, there’s a certain level of lyricism with emcees that are around the world, and represent a particular lane. And that lane is socially-conscious. It is aware. It is forward-thinking, and it is life-affirming, it is revolutionary. And I wanted to send a signal that, I’m not dissing nobody in nobody else’s lane, but I’m in my lane. And my lane is just as valid as anybody else. And when you look at it from a world perspective, you realize that. So, in mentioning “What They Need,” don’t just be social, be committed and vocal. It’s some ancient context. I said, we giants, we not just talking baseball, we talking ancient scrolls that was left on the wall, that best represent the renaissance people. We are still those renaissance people. It’s almost like a reminder back and a push forward at the same time.