Last Saturday night at the UC Theater, Sizzla Kalonji reigned supreme. With the US democracy continuing to crumble under the weight of Trumpski–a soap opera replete with tabloid-worthy state visits, kangaroo-court government hearings, flip-flops on election-hacking, and general unrest seemingly everywhere, there couldn’t have been a better time for the fiery roots dancehall artist to make a Bay Area appearance.
Babylon, or at least the present-day version of it, appeared to be (finally) falling. Amidst the chaos of an unstable and uncertain future, Sizzla presented himself as a diplomatic spokesman for the ghetto youth platform and everyone down with it. It wasn’t hard to catch a contact high from all the spliffs raised in tribute to the music–and the message.
Sizzla’s kinetic live show is not for the faint of heart or slow of foot. For 90 minutes, he let of contagious, infectious flurries of energy, punctuating vocals which were at times sung, screamed, delivered in rapid-fire multi-syllabic bursts. His lyrical gymnastics were accentuated with wild gyrations and raised-fist poses. Performing a mix of deep catalog cuts— among them, “Azanido,” “Show Us the Way,”“Be Strong,” “Like Mountains,” “Praise Ye Jah” and ”Dem A Wonder”—along with less-celebrated (but no less intense) cuts (and a cover of The Wailers'”Rastaman Chant”), Sizzla left no doubt as to why he’s remained at the top of the dancehall bunch for more than 20 years.
The seemingly-ageless Boboshanti dread emerged dressed nattily in a suit jacket, button-down shirt, and signature turban — looking every bit a dignified yardie. His pace was relentless, and bereft of any sense he was biding for time at any point during the show. At times jumping into the air, at others cocking his turban to the side as if receiving a personal message from the Almighty Jah, Sizzla seemed like an artist who was very much still in his prime.
At an age when many of his peers from the late 90s and early 2000s have hung up their microphones or slowed down their artistic output, Sizzla has remained both prolific and relevant. Recent singles include a blazing, roots-revivalist duet with singer Jr. Kelly, “All I See Is War,” and a capable excursion on a JonFX-produced trap beat, “My Girl.” Although Sizzla hasn’t appeared on as many remixes as, say, Junior Reid or Bounty Killer, his ability to genre-stretch speaks to both his versatility and longevity.
The UC Theater show, though, was all roots-dancehall, and there was absolutely no cause for complaint from the crowd. The backing band, equally-steeped in reggae aesthetics, made nary a misstep, filling the large hall with the slightly off-kilter rriddims, contrasting melodic guitar runs with pulsating drum-and-bass intersections. Sizzla was preceded by warm-up artists Marlon Asher, Orlando Octave, Meleku Izac King, Zyanigh, and DJs Green B and Young Fyah. Following the lion’s share of the headline set, A gaggle of guest vocalists–including–Oakland emcee Ras Ceylon, who has a current single, “Gunz R Killing Dem,” with Kalonji– took the stage for the final legs of the show, before Sizzla returned to seal the deal. The crowd was mostly well-satisfied, but seemed like they could have gone for a few encores. The playfulness of the show was evident. Yet it was also apparent Sizzla is d(r)ead serious about being a flagbearer for a rebel culture, a de facto leader of a resistance movement which relies on joyful noise, not drone strikes.
Live Music Review/ UnderCover Presents: A Tribute to Green Day’s Dookie. February 19, 2016, Fox Theater, Oakland.
Green Day’s Mike Dirnt, Tre Cool, and Billie Joe Armstrong
It was something unpredictable, but when it happened, it was right. Fittingly, Billie Joe Armstrong got off perhaps the best line of the night: “It’s like a beautiful feeling and totally awkward at the same time. I don’t know if I was late for my funeral, or early to it.” The statement made perfect sense; the Green Day frontman, along with a couple thousand of rabid, hardcore fans and admirers crammed into Oakland’s Fox Theater, had just witnessed a pretty surreal experience. It’s not hard to imagine that for Armstrong, the scene felt like something he might experience in the afterlife. Ten locally-based bands had just performed cover versions of songs from Green Day’s 1994 breakthrough album Dookie, a certified power-pop or mainstream punk classic which has sold about, oh, approximately 20 million albums to date – making it one of the biggest-selling albums ever in Bay Area music history.
Music Director Brian Adam McCune and UnderCover Presents’ Lyz Luke
That in and of itself wasn’t surreal. What was surreal, however, were the various interpretations and extremely creative arrangements of the by now well-worn album, which reimagined Dookie’s source material as so much more than three chords, poppy melodies, introspective yet rebellious lyrics, furious drums, wraparound basslines, and a cloud of pot smoke.
La Plebe’s Lupe Bravo
Only one band—Love Songs—performed what came close to a “traditional” or straight-ahead version of their selection, in this case “Pulling Teeth” – which was still infused with nuanced touches, although not too far from the original. The others twisted, pulled, reshaped, mutated and otherwise transmogrified the material, turning the proverbially pop-punkish album into a many-faceted musical amoeba. “Burnout” became an emo-indie rock testament to Grrrl Power in the hands of Marston. “Having a Blast,” as envisioned by La Plebe, affixed Éspañol vocals and skanking uptempo horns to a breakneck tempo. Sal’s Greenhouse sashayed through a soulful, funky take on “Chump” which sounded absolutely nothing like the original, highlighted by vocalist/saxophonist Sally Green’s powerhouse vocal chops and staccato horn riffs.
Sally Green of Sal’s Greenhouse
Jazz Mafia Choral Syndicate’s “Longview” proved praiseworthy with a sanctified gospel arrangement which was as transcendent as it was mind-blowing, as soloists Trance Thompson, Tym Brown, Gabriela Welch, Joe Bagale, and Felecia Walker and a 35-member chorus took the entire house to church. Vocalist Moorea Dickson of MoeTar brushed up “Welcome to Paradise”—a song about squatting in a punk house in Oakland—with layers of glossy prog-rock sheen.
Soloist Trance Thompson performs with Jazz Mafia’s Choral Syndicate
By far the lengthiest and most twisted Dookie cover played on this night was The Fuxedo’s wonderfully insane “Basket Case,” which took an already good song and made it into punk performance art, complete with shifting tempos and musical styles, multiple costume changes from Fuxedo frontman “Diabolical” Danny Shorago, and even dueling soliloquies about the pros and cons of prescription drugs — which may or may not allow one to see through squids.
Diabolical Danny Shorago donned a mask for “Basket Case”
“She,” as played by Goodnight, Texas, imagined the American Idiots as Punk Americana, toning down the distorted fuzztones of the original in favor of Appalachian banjo and baritone guitar. It was back to way-out land after that, as Tunisian vocalist MC Rai sang “Sassafras Roots” in Arabic, complete with a belly-dancing interlude courtesy of Aimee Zawitz and Cora Hubbert. Which led up to “When I Come Around,” one of Green Day’s most-loved songs and a sonic template for what their career blossomed into. The version featured at the Fox was a contemporary and super-urban one by live electronic beatsmiths NVO which spotlighted former E-40 collaborator Bosko on talk box.
Goodnight, Texas perform “She”
All of that preceded the mid-show interlude, wherein Green Day were ever so lightly roasted by their first manager, and then given a proclamation by Oakland’s mic-dropping mayor Libby Schaaf – who thus decreed that February 19th is now the wonderfully-redundant-sounding “Green Day Day.” Schaaf also said, “never let it be said that Oakland doesn’t know how to rock” – to which Oakulture agrees.
The proclamation went on to note that Green Day “has a cultural impact which spans generations,” which is certainly true. Many musicians (and even UnderCover Presents maven Lyz Luke) that night noted that Dookie was the first album they bought, yet the audience was packed with twentysomethings who might have been one or two years old in 1994, as well as grizzled, mohawked, and tattooed punk rock veterans.
Bosko’s talk box vocals were a highlight of “When I Come Around”
The three Green Day dudes (vocalist/guitarist Armstrong, bassist Mike Dirnt, and drummer Tre Cool) looked out at the audience, often in what seemed like stunned amazement, mixed with churlish in-joke humor. Which was understandable. After all, they’ve played festivals for hundreds of thousands of people in Europe, yet been branded sellouts in their own home region, banished from their veritable point of origin — legendary East Bay punk mecca 924 Gilman – until very recently, when they played a secret show which eclipsed the venue’s no-major-label-artists ban enacted in 1994 in response to the release of Dookie.
Throughout that episode, one thing was clear: Armstrong and the boys had come full circle. They seemed to be into letting the moment sink in, not saying too much, showing no obvious signs of outward emotion (or unsobriety), yet evidently deeply touched by the outpouring of pure Dookie love. Armstrong then hung around for a minute to introduce the next band, Skank Bank, a young, energetic ska outfit who tackled the confessional “Coming Clean.” The Awesome Orchestra then set up for the next three songs: “Emenius Sleepus,” featuring Casey Crescendo, “In the End,” featuring Martin Luther, and “F.O.D.” featuring Tilt.
MoeTar performed “Welcome to Paradise”
Can we just pause for a minute here to consider the implications of Green Day songs being played by an actual orchestra? On a sociocultural level, it elevates punk way past a basic black leather aesthetic, and places it—almost—in the pocket of “high art.” Or at least conceptualized art. Yet the songs themselves remain in the punk canon, no matter how much eyeshadow or window dressing is applied to them. That is to say, Green Day’s music is still quite subversive when applied in this context.
The show was a fund-raiser for 924 Gilman
I’m sure other tributes could have been more by-the-numbers. But this was not that. This was a pop culture production which treated Dookie with the same reverence as the alien monolith from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” if somewhat more humorously. An iconic piece of music worthy of reflection, yes, but also a template for further evolution. It’s hard to imagine anything more frivolous than more than 2,000 people singing along to the masturbation anthem “All By Myself” which closed the show, yet the Dookie tribute wasn’t strictly played for laughs and chortles.
MC Rai sang “Sassafras Roots” in Arabic
On a more serious note, the event feted one of the Bay Area’s most celebrated and groundbreaking bands, welcoming them as conquering heroes of the pop culture wars, while spotlighting local acts soon to garnish your personal affirmation of Bay Area bad-assery. The Dookie-fest may have been the most “official” thing to happen thus far for the East Bay punk scene, an underground factor since the mid-80s. Yet its reverberations went far beyond the sonic and cultural limitations of punk. What other recent Oakland event has resulted in a mic-dropping mayor? Or a LED-lit piece of poo (identified as “El Duque”) playing the mascot role to the hilt? Can we mention the freakin’ belly dancers again? Or the orchestra and choirs?
Cora Hubbert performed with MC Rai
At the end of the day, the care, attention, and love UnderCover Presents put into the show – a benefit for 924 Gilman, who are attempting to buy their space and stave off the scythe of the gentrification reaper—was its silver lining and saving grace. There may never again be a local punk group honored at the Fox in this way.
Tre Cool holds up the Mayor’s Proclamation of “Green Day Day”
But that matters little, in the wake of all the hoopla. The point was that this happened, on a scale equally as grand as 2015’s UnderCover Presents’ tribute to Sly & the Family Stone, “Stand!” It will go down in history as a night neither Green Day nor the audience will ever forget, as well as a show which could propel some deserving local acts to wider and greater recognition. If you missed the show, or just want to relive it, the studio recordings are available in CD and MP3 format, so you can get your Dookie on forever more, and perhaps even more importantly, support local artists and Bay Area music.
Live music review/Fantastic Negrito, April 17th @ New Parish.
If Nina Simone was the “high priestess of Voodoo Soul,” who was the high priest? Some may point to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, he of the wailing baritone, bugged-out eyes, and bones-through-the-nose gris gris shtick, complete with skulls for accoutrements. Others might mention Jimi Hendrix, the self-appointed “voodoo chile” of the psychedelic era, whose mellow hippie vibe contrasted his aggressive infusion of the blues with lysergic mojo. Still others might say D’Angelo, the falsetto crooner whose 2000 post-neosoul opus Voodoo is equally suitable for making love, sweaty juke joint boogie sessions, or sacrificing goats to. Miles Davis might even get a nod for “running the voodoo down” on his Bitches Brew album, a potent stew of experimental jazz-funk fusion. But the current title-holder may be none other than Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito, who has seemingly come out of nowhere to captivate audiences with his reloaded take on bluesy rock-n-roll, delivered with a hefty helping of N’Awlins-style boogie-woogie piano.
Only a few months ago, Fantastic Negrito, aka Xavier Dphrepaulezz, was performing in small rooms like Oakland’s Legionnaire Saloon (as part of the Town Futurist Sessions). Prior to that, he busked in front of Colonial Donuts and at Broadway and 25th and could be found regularly hosting informal jam sessions at his Blackball Universe gallery-headquarters in the jack London Square warehouse district. But after beating out thousands of other unsigned, indie entrants to win NPR’s Tiny Desk contest, which led to a much-hyped SXSW appearance and an SF Chronicle Datebook cover story, the 46-year old Dphrepaulezz now finds himself headlining sold-out shows at the New Parish, attracting a crossover audience who had never heard of him until very recently.
Although nowhere near as dramatic as Hawkins (or Simone for that matter), Dphrepaulezz has more than a little bit of voodoo in him. He describes his music as “black roots,” and “blues with a punk attitude,” and his bio talks about his creative rebirth after failed record deals and near-death experiences (he spent several months in a coma after a car accident and had to teach himself how to play instruments again) which catalyzed into a cathartic transformation following the birth of his son. The concept of resurrection is a central one in African-based spiritual traditions like voodoo, as is the notion of cyclical time and ancestor worship. Dphrepaulezz’s drawing of inspiration from field hollars, Delta blues and early rock & roll is as much as a tribute to the pioneers of American black music as it is a refutation of the superficiality of modern R&B. Fantastic Negrito’s sound is all about going as deep as possible into the soul-affirming paradigm of these music forms, creating original blues without being derivative.
During Friday night’s show, even Dphrepaulezz seemed a little surprised at the recent turn of events which revived his dreams of music industry fame. At times, he seemed to be wondering if someone was going to pinch him and wake him up. Mainly, though, he was content to take his blessings in stride and just roll with his current situation.
There was quite a contrast between Mara Hruby’s somewhat restrained performance at the same venue the previous evening and Dphrepaulezz’ engaging stage presence Friday evening. He cut a strikingly dapper figure in a silk shirt, silk tie, and red vest, a nappy, spikey Afro crowning his head. Like a classic soul man, he was in constant motion, striking frequent poses, turning to all corners of the stage, and doing his own dances when he wasn’t singing, pleading, testifying, or cajoling. He rapped with the crowd in-between numbers in a way which seemed more sincere than slick. Though not as raw or profane as Hawkins, he belted out vocals with a similarly intense urgency, albeit a much smoother delivery. There was an improvisational quality to his performance, like, what is he going to do next? Having finally gained our attention, he seemed determined to earn it.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Fantastic Negrito’s sound would be embraced by a wider – and whiter – audience than was imaginable six months ago. After all, African American music and pale hipsters go together like bread and butter – Hawkins once released an album called Black Music for White People – and the New Parish’s robust ticket sales were a testament to Dphrepaulezz’ current buzzworthiness.
What was interesting, though, was that the NPR crowd was multi-generational, if not terribly multicultural, encompassing both youthful 20-somethings and grey-haired aficionados. There’s also a certain irony in the fact that here, we have a black man as the frontman of a black rock & roll and modern blues outfit, genres in which legitimate voices are unfortunately infrequently found in this day and age. At the end of the day, though, what matters is the music, and on tracks like “Night Has Turned to Day,” “An Honest Man,” and “Lost in a Crowd,” Dphrepaulezz not only sounded authentic, but made his retro stylings seem relevant.
Though Dphrepaulezz is mining a rich vein of gospel-soaked handclaps, talking blues, and workman chants, there’s no cliché in his songs, which balance their throwback framework with brilliantly postmodernist lyrics which blend evocative imagery with self-referential humility. One need look no further than “An Honest Man” – a song which grapples with the realities of dependence and addiction – to see what all the hype’s about:
Now I’m in love again No this time it’s not with my hand Wandering murdering Every time that I get the chance I’m a human but remember first I’m a man You painted pictures for me that I refuse to understand Cause I want everything for no reason Cause yesterday it felt so good But today it feels so bad
Afterwards, Dphrepaulezz held court at an after-party at Blackball Universe, as he mingled with fans and friends, winding down from the show. The chances that sudden fame might go to his head seemed slight; for all his spectacular freakiness under the stage lights, he’s a laid-back cat offstage who appeared grounded in his renewed purpose. The same might not be said of someone who wasn’t on their third act, who hadn’t been spiritually and physically reborn, who hadn’t learned not to take the adulation of an enrapt audience for granted.
A final comment: while Fantastic Negrito might seem like an anomaly, the reality is the talent level of Oakland’s underground indie music scene is quite high. What artists lack isn’t skill or originality, but exposure. When given a chance to be heard and seen, they tend to win people over, if not blow their minds outright. A case in point was the bro in the New Parish courtyard who couldn’t stop raving about opener Antique Naked Soul’s innovative mix of a cappella vocals and looped beatbox rhythms. Suffice to say that Dphrepaulezz is just the tip of the iceberg; one hopes NPR and similar outlets will discover other Oakland artists, just as they have Fantastic Negrito.
Live Music Review/Oakland Mardi Gras Celebration, Feb. 17, New Parish.
The tradition of Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is one of New Orleans’ most enduring. But it’s also taken up residence in the Bay Area, as evidenced by Mardi Gras parades and celebration concerts on both sides of the Bay Bridge last week. Both parades were curated by the Parish Entertainment Group, owners of the New Parish and Leo’s in Oakland, and Brick and Mortar and Place Pigalle in San Francisco. The Oakland parade featured a Grand Marshal, several brass bands, and dozens of costumed revelers with the signature colored beads which are a symbol of Mardi Gras. Oakland isn’t a city which misses many chances for dancing in the streets, and who doesn’t love a good second line? While local Mardi Gras festivities can’t rival New Orleans’, they still offer an opportunity to bring out one’s inner spirit of joyous revelry, as well as make the OAK-NOLA bond even tighter.
The parade began in front of Awaken Café at 15th and Broadway, and slowly marched its way down to San Pablo, in front of the New Parish, where it became a full-fledged street party. The celebration continued on into the night, as the party moved indoors to the New Parish. There, two brass bands continued to horn in on the groove, setting the stage for headliner Katdelic, a funk-rock outfit in the P-Funk mold. After all that brass, the change of musical style sounded refreshing, and frontman Ronkat was on a mission to funk up the venue (which proved successful). Ronkat showed his groovalliegance to the funk with a killer set, including a rendition of Parliament’s “Funkentelechy,” then brought MJ’s Brass Boppers to the stage for the final few numbers. The show ended with the Brass Boppers descending to the dancefloor level, which in turn encouraged the booty-shakers to work it out even more seismically.
Check out the pics from Oakulture shutterbug EKAphotography, which offer some visual clues as to how much fun was being had:
Live review/ Kev Choice @ Yoshis, February 5, 2015.
“Can we have five more minutes? We sold out the place tonight,” Oakland’s own Kev Choice pleaded to Yoshis management. It was a few ticks of the clock past 9:45pm. For the past hour and forty-five minutes, Choice and his ridiculously-talented band had been playing selections from the pianist/composer/producer/emcee’s new album, Love and Revolution – the first public performance of this material (available for online purchase Feburary 10 at Choice’s Bandcamp site). Alongide Choice’s top-notch backing band, a succession of guest artists lent an all-star feel to the proceedings, making the show seem as eventful as, well, an event.
Jennifer Johns, Antique, Andrew Levin
All night, there had been a significant procession of co-signers to Choice’s aesthetic, beginning with young people’s vocal chorus Young Oakland, continuing with frequent co-collaborators Viveca Hawkins and Jennifer Johns, then extending through cameo spots by HNRL, Lockmith, Jeff Turner, Chris Turner, Antique Soul, Zumbi Zoom, and, finally, Jaguar Wright.
It had all gone by rather quickly. The momentum was still building, but the allotted performance time had run out. For a minute, there was a sense of, who’s gonna come out next? If the show were to continue, would the stage door conjure yet another amazing vocal talent?
Viveca Hawkins, 1-O.A.K., Trackademicks
A Kev Choice concert is like getting two shows for the price of one. Not only do you get a conscious hip-hop throwdown, but you also get a memorable jazz-funk-soul vaccination. Choice handles the dual roles of pianist and emcee with ridiculous amounts of skill at each, and his stage presence has grown over the years, honed by international touring experience. The special guests garnered most of the attention, but Choice’s backing band was tighter than a vise and funkier than a mosquito’s tweeter. Guitarist Andrew Levin and bassist Uriah Duffy shone in particular—easily handling the rapid mood swings of Choice’s material, which incorporated classical orchestration, jazz-fusion progressions, funky hip-hop breakdowns, and soulful R&B vocal stylings–sometimes on the same song. There was a string and a horn section, as well. Choice had clearly pulled out all the stops.
Jeff Turner, Zumbi Zoom, Locksmith, Chris Turner
It’s a bit of a gamble to play a live show featuring all-new material which has never been publicly-performed before, but that’s just what Choice did. The enthusiastic, standing-room only, crowd embraced the new songs warmly, so the gamble paid off. The album’s title ran like an undercurrent through the music, connecting Love and Revolution‘s songs thematically, to the point where it almost seemed like a concept album. The opening triad – beginning with the optimistic, romantic “Feel the Love,” which segued into the hard-hitting sociopolitical commentary “Gone Too Far,” which in turn became the jazz-laden instrumental “Oscar’s Revenge” – felt like a musically-cohesive movement in three parts. Johns joined Hawkins for “So High,” whose lyrics traced a continuum “from the black Egyptians to the Black Panthers” before presenting the couplet “love is coming for me/ who can stand against me?”
“Compatible”— a piano-driven instrumental composition – was perfectly followed by “My Cause,” a song about commitment/monogamy, delivered with a broken-beat rhythm and tribal-sounding drums, which contains the hook, “I’ll ride for you like you was my cause.”
Oakulture’s notes scribbled during this time read, “music theory gives Kev an advantage” – a nod to the composing, arranging, technical finesse and musicianship which goes into his songs – something you might expect from a jazz player, but considerably rare within the hip-hop spectrum. Even hip-hop’s most celebrated producers weren’t technically composers, with the notable exception of RZA (in his later years).
“Movement Music”—inspired by Johns’ activism, Choice related – was next, also featuring Antique on vocals. Introducing the song, Choice declared, “This is the home of the movement. Oakland is where they started the movement,” he reminded the crowd. The next few minutes of the set essentially transformed the respectable, upscale environs of Yoshis into an activist staging ground, as the two powerful soul voices of Johns and Antique joined Choice in urging for positive social change. “Can’t have revolution without evolution,” Antique sang.
Jennifer Johns, Andrew Levin, Antique, Kev Choice
Oakulture’s field notes say: “why listen to anything else? Comparing Choice and what he brings to the musical/lyrical equation with say, commercial urban radio, is like comparing a Pharaoh to a crackhead.”
Zumbi Zoom, Locksmith, Chris Turner, Kev Choice
The vibe only got thicker from that point on, as the HNRL crew (vocalist 1-O.A.K and emcee Trackademics) were next to grace the stage, for the forward-thinking “Another World,” a track which pushes the envelope of progressivity. A dapper 1-O.A.K. sang the song’s resonant hook: “When it all sets on fire/ it brings truth to the light.”
Guest vocalist Chris Turner took the show into rarified air with a falsetto-driven version of “People Make the World Go Round,” which the Yoshi’s crowd lapped up like hot butter. Turner remained on stage while even more guest emcees – Locksmith, Jeff Turner, and Zumbi Zoom – joined in on “Noose,” another reflection of what it means to be a black man in America. The illmatic posse cut raised the thermostat accordingly with sick rhyme flows. The expert pacing continued with “Meet Me at the March,” an ode to activist rallies which nicely continued the album’s theme.
Time was almost running out, yet it seemed to stand still as Philly neo-soul diva Jaguar Wright took the stage and showed off some impressive vocal chops. Following her star turn, Choice made his aforementioned plea to extend the time, so he could play “Daddy,” a song about fatherhood written for his 12 year-old daughter, Anya, dedicated to her and all the fathers in attendance. The song spoke to hip-hop’s evolving intergenerationality, as well as Choice’s own maturity.
Musically, not a lot of people are touching Kev Choice right now; his potential seems limitless. Lyrically as well, his content and delivery puts him far out in front of most of the rap pack. Some of Choice’s flows are downright un-be-lievable, content-wise, and he switched off between frontman and bandleader roles effortlessly.
While the evening certainly showcased Choice’s talents, it also shone an equally-bright light on his collaborators. In some ways, Choice’s live band seemed reminiscent of the great Gil Scott-Heron-Brian Jackson bands of the 70s, who effortlessly mixed jazz, funk, soul, poetry and R&B into an infectious musical stew – the perfect complement to Scot-Heron’s sometimes-sung, sometimes-rapped, vocals.
But Choice is far from retro in his approach. Though at times his sound is reminiscent of mid-70s jazz fusion, he ups the ante by incorporating hip-hop rhymes and prominently featuring female vocalists, as well as classical music-inspired melodies. Watching the show, you felt very much like you were witnessing a statement performance which spoke to the collective talent level of Oakland’s urban artist community.
All in all, it was one of the most engaging shows Oakulture has ever seen at Yoshis, one which was anything but by-the-numbers smooth jazz (chair seating notwithstanding). The legacy of community activism and the current vibe in the streets converged with incredible musicianship, conscious lyricism, and a slew of killer vocal performances to make the event one which will long be remembered in The Town.
Live review: Wu-Tang Clan, Souls of Mischief, Sept. 27, the Warfield.
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
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.
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
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’
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.
When it comes to contemporary male vocalists, one has to consider Jose James as a superstar-in-the making. Trained in jazz phrasing, James’ music encompasses a wide stylistic range—everything from soulful R&B to hip-hop inflections to grungey indie-rock accents—which adds nuance and artistic depth to a guy who could easily be typecast as a pretty-boy pop chameleon.
James remains rooted in soul idioms, however. Like many of the great soul singers who have preceded him, he’s turned emotional vulnerability into a strength. His willingness to confess his weaknesses and limitations, as well as his desires, has gained him a sizeable female fan base over the years. His albums have the same effect as Marvin Gaye or Sade’s recordings: if you play them on a first date, you’re pretty much guaranteed a second. What James truly excels at is transferring his moodiness into a feeling of shared intimacy. Sure, his phrasing and jazz-friendly delivery helps, but if he didn’t have substance behind it, it wouldn’t be nearly as resonant.
Like many men (I’m sure), I was introduced to Jose James through a female friend. Now personally, I could care less about his appearance, but I will grant that his boyish yet mischievous face is eye candy for those who like those sort of things. Heartthrob status aside, I’ve found that his music holds up to extended listenings. Which is appreciated, in an era of all-looks, no-talent, male vocalists.
It’s been about six years since James first emerged. He appeared on German beatmeisters Jazzanova’s“Little Bird” around the same time he released his debut album, which featured a cover of Freestyle Fellowship’s “Park Bench People” – which has since become one of his signature songs. The song is notable for many reasons. First off, it’s a slept-on classic from hip-hop’s Golden Era. Second, it addresses social conditions (homelessness) without being preachy. Third, it always affords an opportunity for James to vibe out, vamp, and throw down some improvised live jazz-scatting,
James performed “Park Bench People” both nights during his recent two-evening residency at the New Parish. Each time it was different, as far as the particular vocal passages he chose to emphasize. Each time, it was transcendent, sending the audience over the edge and giving the band suitable time to improvise and stretch out the groove. For many other artists, such a feat would have been the highlight of the show.
Not so with James. He seemed determined to show his stylistic diversity, but also to show that his melodic multiplicity was grounded in emotional honesty. On Friday night, he tackled Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful”—one of the lesser-known songs from Green’s seminal 1972 disc, I’m Still in Love With You—and turned it into an extended, show-stopping groove-a-thon, as the band highlighted the “duh-dun-dun-dah” riff which anchors the song.
James was simply okay Thursday, but Friday night, he was on fire. His comfort level between the first and second shows seemed to increase exponentially: On Thursday, he seemed a bit reserved; On Friday, he strongly connected with the crowd, a fired-up Oakland audience primed and ready to throw down. He could seemingly do no wrong onstage; each tune brought on warm fuzzies and audience appreciation levels which approached unbridled joy, as James traveled further into the zone. He succeeded in projecting an element of soul which resonated even through his more experimental material – which sounded far less flat than it did the previous night. (One reason for the difference may have been that James could hear himself better; early on in Friday’s show, he told the audience his monitor, which apparently had been troubling him the previous evening, had been fixed.)
A highlight of the Thursday show was “Come to My Door,” sung with Emily King, who appears on the album, No Beginning No End. On Friday, James performed his version solo, which lost little lustre, if at all.
Other James originals went over equally well. He dedicated “U R the 1” to the “highest person in the house” – an interesting choice, since just about everyone in the audience was probably a bit intoxicated. The song propelled itself along on a silky, sultry minimalist groove, laced with lyrics which were both poetic and romantic. The quiet intimacy of the album version became something altogether more dynamic in a live setting, yet retained its intimate feeling. It was like listening to a person’s innermost thoughts during a moment of blissful realization, a shared catharsis which connected everyone in the room through their heart chakras. New Age soul can be a bit difficult to pull off earnestly, yet James’ crooning sounded more sincere than contrived.
Now is the time for lovers to embrace
Now is the time when bodies burn
It’s only desire we’re longing for a taste
In darkness we wait for love’s return
“Bodhisattva” outpaced the album version with a more organic rendering of the tune, an emo-soul banger which alternates between mellow verses and an expressive chorus.
“Trouble” lived up to its title, as James milked the song for all it was worth, repeating the words trouble trouble trouble and struggle struggle struggle like a mantra.
James’ cover medley of classic soul artist Bill Withers isn’t a new thing – he’s been doing it for a while. Withers, as we know, wrote the book on straddling the line between blues, R&B, soul, funk and jazz. But James doesn’t cover Withers unless he’s really feeling it. And he was feeling it on Friday night. We got a very full version of “Grandma’s Hands,” wrapped around “Who Is He (and What Is He To You)” and a bit of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” For James, the medley offered another chance to loosen up even further, riffing on the line “if I get to heaven,” before diving back into “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
Feeling sufficiently warmed up, it was then that he tackled the aforementioned “Park Bench People,” which also featured an extended intro section. He closed the night with “Do You Feel,” yet another love song, which he dedicated to Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.
Do you feel what I feel?
Do you know what I know?
Do you see what I see?
Wanna go where I wanna go
When you know I’m feeling
Like a long time awaiting for someone divine and maybe it’s you
Making real music isn’t easy in an age where hype often outpaces talent. But James has somehow managed to carve out an oeuvre which looks to tradition as a touchstone for moving the envelope forward. With his hybrid sound, he can’t be pigeonholed as a modern jazz artist, but bringing jazz phrasing and soulful feeling to a mash-up of genres makes him a modernist, as well as a fitting 21st century representative of the classic jazz label Blue Note, whom he records for. Along with labelmate Robert Glasper, James has succeeded in bringing the spirit of jazz to a younger audience. That’s a hopeful sign in a time when new albums by overhyped pop acts are foisted upon us through computerized content delivery systems, whether we want them or not. -EKA
It’s easy enough to explain the growing popularity of Latin Fusion acts in California simply by looking at demographic trends; according to figures recently released by the governor’s office, Latinos are no longer a minority group as of March 2014, and presently account for 39 percent of California’s population overall, effectively making them an ethnic majority.
As a musical genre, Latin Fusion has been a staple of the Bay Area sound since Santana’s 1969 debut album. But while Santana mixed psychedelic rock, R&B, and blues with Latin musical elements, things have changed since then, most notably the rise of hip-hop and its Espanol-speaking cousin reggaeton, as well as the onset of electronic music and EDM. In 2014, Bang Data—a group best known for being featured during the infamous poison tequila scene in “Breaking Bad”—stands at the forefront of a new generation of Latin Fusion artists coming straight from the calles of Califas.
As a band, Bang Data has been around since 2008. Originally a trio featuring bilingual vocalist-emcee Deuce Eclipse, guitarist Dave Lopez, and percussionist/producer Juan Manuel Caipo, their early material was a fairly straight-ahead mix of rock, rap, and traditional Latin rhythms. But after Lopez’ departure, they added bassist Marco Guzman and guitarist Michael Cavaseno and further evolved their sound, like an antojera might mash different ingredients into a flavorful salsa. Their title of their first full-length album, 2012’s La Sopa, was a reference to the soup-like qualities of their music, which takes a little from here, a little from there, and mixes it together into a spicy stylistic blend.
With their second full-length release, Mucho Poco, Bang Data refine their style even further, aiming for an accessible (but not over-the-top commercial) sound which falls right in with the new wave of contemporary Latin Fusion acts in the Bay (a short list of which might include Alta California, La Gente, Locura—whose last album was also produced by Caipo—and Candelaria.) The album starts out on an upbeat note, with “Bailalo,” a club-ready banger whose lyrics namecheck Cesar Chavez and Emiliano Zapata.
Mucho Poco’s first single “Amor Califas,” updates the 2Pac/Roger Troutman/Dr. Dre hit “California Love” with Spanish vocals, congas and turntable scratches. The song loses the vocoder vocals, adds “whoa-oh-oah” choruses, some incendiary guitar riffage, and a percussive breakdown section, yet retains the anthemic, party-friendly vibe of the original. It also shouts out the huelga bird of the United Farm Workers, along with California cities with notable Latino populations: Oakland, San Pancho, El Cerrito, Vallejo, San Diego, Fresno, Modesto, and Sacramento. With its instantly recognizable hook, yet unmistakably altered lyrical and musical content, it’s a good choice for the lead single, one which can resonate with urban audiences as well as native Spanish speakers.
“Amor Califas” is followed by “Si Te Gusta,” an innovative track which can be described as “cumbiaton,” with an accordion-like synth and guest vocals by Alguacil and Binghi Fyah. The song features an English chorus for the gringos: if you feel the motion let us know/ We plant the seeds so they can grow/ We heal when you come to the show/ So here we go, here we go.
“Candela,” the next song, chugs along at a fast tempo, accentuated by handclaps, more cumbia-style accordion melodies, various percussive instruments, and a trace of dubby, ska-inflected guitar. The song starts with Deuce rapping in English, then switches over to him singing in Spanish for the second verse. Despite, or maybe because of, all the ingredients in the mix, the song comes together well, standing as a highly-representative example of Bang Data’s talent and versatility.
The album’s title track returns to the more minimalist-flavored songs of Bang Data’s earlier material. Deuce’s growing skills as a singer are highlighted over a track which is mainly acoustic guitars, a bit of female backing vocals and some light melodic shading. It’s a good change of pace after the busier, sonically-dense songs which preceded it.
“Calavera Life,” sung and rapped entirely in English, aims for mainstreamish pop perfection, yet lacks the nuance of Bang Data’s more traditionally-influenced material. It’s easily Mucho Poco’s most contrived song, right down to the Miley Cyrus-like couplet, we don’t stop no no/ we on top fa sho. A saving grace is the remainder of the song’s lyrics (this life’s gonna be a better place/ and I’m a live it so I have a better face), which ring with positivity and inspiration.
Bang Data are at their best when they’re firmly in their element and not trying too hard to be everything to everybody. That ends up being pretty much the case for the album’s last third, which finishes strongly. “Volar” (featuring Ozomatli’s Wil-Dog and Chico Trujillo) pushes ahead as a fairly straight-forward Latin rhythm with a rock edge, which easily bridges the traditional and the contemporary. So does “Tierra,” featuring guest vocalist Hector Guerra, which melds a slinky electro-cumbia feel over a sample of the Latin standard “Cancion y Huayno.” “Mal y Bien” is a future classic, pulling in mariachi guitars, field-laborer flute snippets, rapid-fire cadences and impassioned singing over a bouncy, electro-fied beat. The closer, “Suena,” again harks back to traditional field-hollers for its strident chorus, while Morricone-esque guitar adds a cinematic soundscape to Deuce’s bilingual slang-slanging.
Overall, Mucho Poco is an in-your-face, upfront, album which sometimes seems to be in a hurry to cover as much musical ground within the pan-American Diaspora as possible. It conveys much of the energy of the band’s raucous live show, and the endless layers of grooves, hooky choruses, and constantly alternating iterations of Latin rhythms are great if you’re trying to dance, party or both. Thankfully, Mucho Poco’s lyrical content is substantial enough that it can also hang after the dance, while you’re cleaning up empty cerveza and mezcal bottles and trying to figure out how to get lime juice off a linen guyabera. But at just ten tracks, the album feels a little short; the addition of one or two more midtempo ballads would have been the perfect complement to your morning-after hangover. -EKA
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.