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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Wu-Tang Clan, Souls of Mischief Revisit Hip Hop’s Classic Era

Live review: Wu-Tang Clan, Souls of Mischief, Sept. 27, the Warfield.

Phesto Dee of Souls of Mischief

Phesto Dee of Souls of Mischief

1993 will go down in history as perhaps the greatest year ever for hip-hop albums. Among the classic releases that year: The Coup’s Kill My Landlord, Freestyle Fellowship’s Innercity Griots, KRS-One’s Return of the Boom Bap, Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage, Digable Planets’ Reachin’, A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders, De La Soul’s Buhloone Mindstate, Cypress Hill’s Black Sunday, 2Pac’s Strictly For My N.I.G.G.A.Z, Del the Funky Homosapien’s No Need For Alarm, Masta Ace’s Slaughtahouse, Onyx’ Bacdafucup, Spice 1’s 187 He Wrote, Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle, Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and Souls of Mischief’s 93 Til’ Infinity.

That’s quite a list, and one that shows a wide range of expression: from gangsta-minded to consciousness-raising; from jazz-inflected to funk-infused; from rock-tinged to kung fu-influenced. It’s no wonder that this period is referred to as a Golden Age, a time when rap’s creative expression, lyrical inventiveness, and musical innovation were all at a peak, setting a high-water mark for the genre which has yet to be surpassed.

Clan in da front, let your feet stomp

Clan in da front, let your feet stomp

More than 20 years later, the impact of that seminal annum is still being felt.  Even though there’s (somewhat puzzlingly) still no classic hip-hop radio format, Golden Age-era rap is still cherished by fans now in their late 30s and early 40s, who now occupy the position once held by the Baby Boomer generation. But even more interestingly, a new generation of listeners has discovered and embraced this music, which in and of itself is a testament to its continued relevance and staying power.

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A case in point: Saturday night’s concert at the Warfield by two groups whose debut albums dropped in ’93, the Wu Tang Clan and (Oakland’s own) Souls of Mischief. Though there were some folks in attendance who might have first seen those acts two decades ago, the majority of the crowd at the sold-out show were teenagers and twentysomethings, who have gravitated toward Golden Age boom-bap which in some cases is older than they are. That’s pretty amazing, when you consider that back in ’93, it wasn’t clear whether hip-hop was destined to be a passing fad, and the notion of a classic rap album wasn’t something the pop culturati were willing to entertain.

Raw i'ma give it to ya, with no trivia

Raw i’ma give it to ya, with no trivia

Though both the Wu and Souls have a fairly deep catalog at this point—Souls have just released a new album, There Is Only Now, and Wu-Tang’s fifth group album, A Better Tomorrow, should drop before the end of the year—both drew heavily from their first releases, like a mythical touchstone generating hip-hop manna.

Though they hail from different coasts, audiences love the Souls and the Wu for the same reason: their music is dope and their live shows are hype. 20 years of rocking microphones hasn’t been for naught; and many of today’s performers, especially the Internet sensations who didn’t cut their teeth in front of audiences, could stand to learn a thing or two about crowd motivation from studying their performances. Both groups have the live dynamic down pat, expertly and seemingly effortlessly trading between verses like relay runners passing the baton, and infusing their rhymes with energetic gesticulations. Even if you’ve seen one or both groups several times before, as Oakulture has, there’s something magical about being in a large concert hall and seeing almost every single person recite their song lyrics word-for-word, as if they’ve memorized them long ago.

Opio shows how he chills from 93 til'

Opio shows how he chills from 93 til’

There are, of course, key difference between the two groups. The Souls are much more of a tight-knit, cohesive unit, whose witty wordplay is more ‘hood nerd’ than ‘ghetto soldier.’ The Hiero crew foursome’s comraderie is evident, onstage and off. Even though each of them have released solo albums, they’re at their best when they rock mics together.

The Wu, on the other hand, are a larger group and contain much more volatile elements. They have more distinct personalities and rhyme styles, and they’ve have had some well-publicized internal conflict which has reputedly led to some polarized relationships. Yet there’s no denying their status as super emcees who will go down as among the best to ever have done it.

Souls were an excellent choice for an opening act for Wu-Tang, and not only because both are from the same era. Their styles complement each other like ying and yang, with the Souls’ mischievous yet technical approach to rhyming balancing out some of the Clan’s rougher, grimier edges. Fittingly, both closed their sets with their most anthemic crowd favorites – Souls’ “93 Til’ Infinity” and the Wu’s “C.R.E.A.M.” – songs which have become foundations in the classic hip-hop canon. It doesn’t get much better than that for diehard hip-hop aficionados, who were in beats and rhymes heaven Saturday night.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014


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Third Eye Visionaries: Hiero Day 2014

Live music review/ Linden St. Brewery, 9/1/14. All photos © Eric K. Arnold/EKAphotography

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

A-Plus raises his hands in tribute to 22,000+ Hiero Day attendees

Late Monday afternoon, after watching an unannounced surprise set by Deltron 3030, the alt-rap supergroup featuring Del the Funky Homosapien and Dan the Automator, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan read an official proclamation declaring “Hiero Day” on stage at the event of the same name, in front of a crowd of more than 22,000 hip-hop lovers and diehard fans of the Hieroglyphics. Quan’s reading of the proclamation may have been one of the few, if not only, times in recent memory when a major city’s top elected official embraced hip-hop culture as part of a community engagement strategy.

All eight members of the Hiero crew—founder Del, emcees Casual, Phesto Dee, Tajai, A-Plus, Opio, DJ Toure, and producer/ road manager Domino—beamed as Quan handed Domino a piece of paper, upon which, one imagines, suitably puissant and laudatory words were written. The gesture may have been symbolic, yet its meaning was magnified by the fact that 2,000 miles away, in Ferguson, Missouri, the aftermath of the Mike Brown police shooting had created a level of civil unrest which threatened to set the clock back to South Central Los Angeles, circa 1992, or perhaps Detroit, 1967 – an uncertain, volatile mix of racially-tinged cries for justice and equally racially-tinged clamors against looting, curfew-breaking, and civil disobedience.

Mayor Jean Quan poses with Hieroglyphics, after handing them an official proclamation

Mayor Jean Quan poses with Hieroglyphics, after handing them an official proclamation

Meanwhile, Oakland—a city not immune to protests against police hostility toward unarmed black men, a city which had marched for Trayvon Martin, as well as its own martyrs Alan Blueford, Oscar Grant, Derrick Jones, and Gary King—remained calm, if that word can be used to describe a boisterous yet well-mannered crowd who thrust 20,000+ three-fingered salutes into the air and smoked enough ganja to give the Mayor’s entire entourage a contact high.

For the mayor to co-sign on Hiero’s accomplishments was major; Politicians generally don’t openly acknowledge the positive contributions of hip-hop, or align themselves with rappers, since such approaches could be perceived as not being tough on crime. Yet crime is down in Oakland, without the mayor or local government resorting to such draconian measures as instituting a youth curfew.

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©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Hieroglyphics/Souls of Mischief emcee Phesto Dee

Hip-hop often gets a bad rap because its practitioners tend to be young and black, even though its audience crosses all racial and ethnic lines. Historically, hip-hop concerts have been linked to violence ever since the infamous Run-DMC Long Beach show in 1986, and Oakland itself once declared a yearlong moratorium on rap shows after violent incidents at the Oakland Coliseum and the HJK Auditorium in 1989. The threat of riots breaking out has been used to justify cancellation of shows and tours, high insurance and security costs, and exorbitant ticket prices, and rap shows which do turn bad are sure to get extra media attention. Just a week prior, a local promoter had been murdered backstage at a Wiz Khalifa show in Mountain View, and a high-profile warrant served on rapper Young Jeezy and his entourage. Yet there was no heavy-handed police presence at Hiero Day, despite a crowd which had swelled by 50% since last year’s installment.

The Grouch addresses the Hiero Day massive

The Grouch addresses the Hiero Day massive

That there were no fights, no scuffles, no drama and no violence at an event attended by so many is a testament to Oakland’s native sons, whose three-eye logo is synonymous with authentic West Coast underground hip-hop. Hieroglyphics have always represented conscious hip-hop, albeit with gritty urban overtones which never quite sink into clichéd gangsterdom.

Hiero came up at a time when a tongue-twisting lyrical couplet was enough to confer cultural elite status, and for the past two decades, they’ve outlasted hundreds, if not thousands, of less high-brow rappers with a more simplistic focus on ghetto storytelling—without the conceptual narratives Hiero spin.

©Eric K. Arnold

Hieroglyphics founder Del The Funky Homosapien

They’ve obviously remained relevant, as the hundreds of t-shirts emblazoned with their logo visible from the stage Monday afternoon attested; Many of Hiero Day’s attendees weren’t out of preschool when Hieroglyphics made their first appearance in 1992, on “Burnt,” a B-side of a Del tha Funkee Homosapien record. In fact, it’s difficult to name another non-mainstream hip-hop act whose fanbase spans such a wide demographic spectrum of listeners.

On Monday, Hiero performed several classics, among them “You Never Knew”  and “Oakland Blackouts” from 1998’s Full Circle, and a mini-spotlight on Casual (in honor of the 20th anniversary of his 1993 debut Fear Itself), who tore through “I Didn’t Mean To Do It,” “Me-O-Mi-O” and “That’s How It Is.” Newer songs like “Gun Fever,” however, emphasized the fact that Hiero is no mere hip-hop oldies act.

The highlight of Hieroglyphics set, however, was another unannounced cameo appearance, this time by Goapele, whose regal presence all but confirmed her as the reigning queen of Oakland Soul.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Got Goap?

Up until then, the male-dominated bill had been somewhat of a sword fight—a fact that didn’t go unnoticed in online forums in the days leading up to the event. While a valid case can be made that Oakland’s resident female emcees should have been represented in the festival’s lineup, there’s no taking away from the inspirational upliftment Goapele blessed the crowd with, appearing with Hiero on “Make Your Move,” then segueing into “Milk and Honey,” followed by her signature song, “Closer.”

That provided a high note which was only surpassed by the show-closing rendition of Souls of Mischief’s eternal classic, “93 Til infinity.” The chorus, “this is how we chill from 93 til…,” has become not just a mantra, but a truism for Hiero and their fans; no matter how many times one has heard it, the song never fails to take listeners to their happy place.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

it’s like that, and-a, the Hieroglyphics, yeah!

Hiero’s performance, overall, was like watching a well-oiled machine being revved up to maximum capacity. 20 years of rocking together onstage has created some tight-knit bonds between group members, and the show never felt like any one emcee wasn’t completely in sync with the rest of the crew; even Del’s streak of blonde hair in his natural—a la Wesley Snipes in “Demolition Man”l— didn’t prove too much of a distraction during other emcees’ verses. Up and coming artists would do well to study Hiero’s stage show as a textbook example of how it’s done.

Speaking of up and coming artists, Hiero Day offered a potpourri of flavors, from the intricate battle-raps and supreme fluidity of Locksmith and Planet Asia to Los Rakas’ vibrant Town variant on reggaeton to the Mystik Journeymen’s “underground as fuck” credo, to the Hydra-like mini-supergroup of Zion-I, the Grouch and Eligh – and dozens more I didn’t get to see because there were three stages, a high level of crowd density, and the laws of physics say you can only be in one place at one time.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Raka Rich of Los Rakas fires up one of Hiero Day’s multiple stages

The best part of Hiero Day was that it remained a free event. That’s right, free. While traffic flow could be improved, beer lines were reportedly horrendous, and there was a shortage of water (promoters only expected about 15,000-18,000 people), that’s just a tremendous achievement any way you slice it. Attendees came from as far as Los Angeles, Sacramento and Tahoe, and any destination event helps a city’s financial bottom line.

Furthermore, when you consider the high prices of music festival tickets, Hiero Day not only has the most bang for the buck of any local event, but leaves festival-goers more room in their wallets to buy merch, which in turn supports artists, musicians, small clothing companies, food vendors, entrepreneurs, and the list goes on.

In other words, Hiero Day is a huge win-win for the hip-hop community, but also, as the mayor made plain, for the city of Oakland.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014