Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Dance of the Displaced

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Prince tribute party at Lake Merritt.

A current Oakland Museum of California exhibit, “Oakland, I Want You to Know,” comes off very much as a love letter to The Town. But it’s a weird kind of  love letter, one filled with reminiscence for a paramour you dumped because they weren’t rich enough. The exhibit, which runs until Oct. 30, wants to evoke feel-good memories of a blue-collar city which is unfortunately disappearing right before our eyes – replaced by metrosexual techbros, designer ramen, specialty cocktails, high-rise condos, and spiraling rents. It also wants to weigh in on the ongoing conversation about gentrification. But it does so in a way which is both sanitized and awkward.

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Esther’s Orbit Room sign at OMCA

There’s a recreation of the famed sign from Esther’s Orbit Room, the last holdout of the legendary  7th St. strip in West Oakland – a jumping-off spot for blues, jazz, and R&B, once known as the “Harlem of the West.” But the replica doesn’t replicate the energy or grit of that infamous watering hole. It seems out of place in the brightly-lit OMCA exhibition room.  One archival photo taken outside the venue featuring local music-scene luminaries, hints at the Orbit Room’s significance as a cultural institution of Black Oakland, but can’t make up for the loss of the venue, much less the erasure of the once-thriving strip itself. Over the last decade, West Oakland, though still predominantly-African-American, has absorbed an influx of tens of thousands of urban professionals, creating an uneasy juxtaposition of income disparity and cultural disassociation between new and old residents.

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Mock-up of West Oakland BART at OMCA

In another section of the exhibit, the West Oakland BART station is feted. It’s a strange choice, since the station—just 12 minutes from downtown San Francisco, through the Transbay Tube—is itself a symbol of displacement; its construction caused the forced relocation of thousands of mostly African American residents by the time it opened, in 1974. That fact is briefly noted, as is the station’s current attraction to commuters. Also among the artifacts depicting “Oakland flavor” are two recent posters advocating for affordable housing and tenants’ rights. The allusion to community activism, however, feels more like lip service than actual solidarity with Oakland’s liberation struggles. There’s little of the vibrancy which has fused social justice and cultural expression in Oakland for decades – a vibrancy which is very much a part of the current resistance to displacement and the encroachment of gentrifiers. It’s also telling that a photo collage of an Oakland neighborhood – easily the most poignant piece in the entire exhibition – honors the past, not the present. An OMCA staffer told Oakulture that the photographer no longer lives in the neighborhood; doubtless, many of the residents depicted have moved away as well. And despite the homages to local mainstays like Town Park , Youth Radio, and City Slicker Farms , seemingly thrown together at random, “Oakland, I Want You to Know” feels like it’s intended more for tourists, visitors, and new arrivals than for longtime residents.

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Community activism posters at OMCA.

There’s an attempt at cultural continuity with a wall celebrating classic Oakland artists’ album covers juxtaposed with an audio-visual presentation of retro-futuristic bluesman Fantastic Negrito. But it too misses the mark. An LP by Oakland blues singer Faye Carole is a welcome sight. But Negrito’s connection to the tradition of an earlier era isn’t satisfactorily explained, and the neon logo (borrowed from his studio/gallery, Blackball Universe) looks like a promotional display you might have seen at Tower Records in the 80s or 90s, complete with a looped audio stream of songs from his new album, The Last Days of Oakland. It’s oddly commercial for a museum piece; if the point was to infer that Oakland is still producing great artists, that point could have been made much more pointedly.

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LP cover of a Faye Carol album.

“Oakland, I Want You to Know” might be Town-centric, but ultimately fails for its inability to effectively translate the immediacy of street-level movements into an institutional space. Revolution is never quite that simplified, and though OMCA tried, their Oakland love letter dilutes the heartbreak of displacement and doesn’t present a cohesive narrative. It feels thrown together in places it should be fluid, and errs by attempting to placate both the gentrifiers and those fighting against them.

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Fantastic Negrito.

Thankfully, like a growing number of local artists, Fantastic Negrito can solidly be placed in the latter category. The Last Days of Oakland is fire, but not just because Negrito has the whole blues revivalist schtick down to the cufflinks on his thrift-store blazer. It’s a hot album because the singer-songwriter extracts the essence of blues and African American rock & roll from its dark, skeletal roots, but also because he injects that paradigm with a timely relevancy, much of it inspired by Oakland’s changing landscape and demographic. Another inspirational touchstone is the new push for civil rights, social justice, and police accountability echoing across the country through the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In a new, as-yet-unreleased, video which plays like a short film, Negrito updates the Leadbelly classic “In the Pines” by flipping the lyrics to address black mothers whose children are being killed by cops. Elsewhere on the album, there are skits about the changes Oakland is experiencing, a through-line which also works its way into “Working Poor,” wherein Negrito sings about gentrifiers who step over bodies to “sip fancy coffee.” While many of the classic, pre-civil rights era, blues tunes signified cryptically about social inequality, here Negrito articulates exactly what he means.

I feel like it’s over

Him clean my city

Me sell my soul

Him evil genius

Turns working people to the working poor

–Fantastic Negrito, “Working Poor”

The song goes on to address displacement directly (he moved to Stockton, one lyric casually reveals) while maintaining its retro-roots aesthetic. Social commentary, along with autobiographical testimonials, run through most of the songs on The Last Days of Oakland. Many of Negrito’s laments are about struggling against seemingly-invisible barriers to equity; I been knocking on the door since ’94, but they still won’t let me in, he declares on “Humpin’ Through the Winter.” On “The Worst,” he castigates those watching all the suffering, hiding on a hill. But like all good blues albums, there are also heavy doses of dubious temptation (“Scary Woman”) and self-loathing (“Rant Rushmore”) – which occasionally transform into conscious enlightenment (“Nigga Song”). What makes the entire album so current, though, is its framing around Oakland – which codifies it as a historical document, just as Bobby Seale’s “Seize the Time” stands as a testament to the Panther era.

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Jam session at Lake Merritt.

Negrito’s album could be a soundtrack for music-minded social justice activists – visible this summer in everything from festivals at the Lake Merritt Amphitheater and San Antonio Park to musical protests against anti-drumming NIMBYS to dance-happy Prince tributes – but he’s not the only local artist making socially-conscious music. On his last two albums, Oakland Riviera and Love and Revolution, pianist-composer-emcee Kev Choice offered a highly musical alternative to mind-numbing “mumble rap.”

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African drumming at the Malcolm X Jazz Festival.

On his latest release, 88 Steps to Eternity, Choice delivers an all-instrumental album which gives a name to the struggle: “Dance of the Displaced.” The track recalls late 70s/early 80s jazz fusion, giving credence to Choice’s credo of “real music that will last forever,” with flurry upon flurry of piano and keyboard runs, alternating forward-pushing tempos with somewhat-melancholy moods.

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Kev Choice.

Which seems appropriate. Because nobody, except maybe developers, is too happy about all the displacement going on in Oakland these days. There’s a bit of a contradiction as well, in some of the rhetorical language being put forth by elected officials and some of the actions of city staff. A recent SF Business Times article  on the departure of Planning Dept. head Rachel Flynn confirms she was one of the prime movers behind the acceleration of development in Oakland, which may have come without a full realization of the consequences for the existing population. Mayor Schaaf has convened an Affordable Housing Task Force and City Council President Lynnette McElhaney has officially designated the 14th St. corridor a black arts district. Yet artists and families are getting pushed out of Oakland as the Planning Commission fast-tracks project after project, while neglecting to fight harder for community benefits and affordable housing units.

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A pre-displacement Oakland neighborhood at OMCA.

How that plays out in the community is one of the salient points of “Alice Street Short,” a rough cut preview of the upcoming documentary “Alice Street”  which recently screened at the All Oakland Mini Film Festival. (full disclosure: Oakulture Editorial Director Eric Arnold assisted with research for the documentary.) The short features insightful interviews with members of the Afro-Diasporic community centered around the Malonga Casquelourd Center, as well as cultural practitioners and historians associated with the Hotel Oakland, a sanctuary of sorts for the Chinese and Chinese-American community. If you missed the screening, a slightly different cut will screen October 13 during the Matatu Festival of Stories, along with a panel discussion moderated by Arnold, a dance performance, and audience Q&A. The idea is to continue the conversation around displacement, gentrification, and cultural resistance, and to engage Oakland residents further in what could be the defining issue of this time in the Town’s history. Will the dance of the displaced turn into a funeral dirge or a victory march? That part is still to be decided.
 

 

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Blackalicious Is Back and “Blacka” Than Ever

Jumbo, Gift of Gab, and Lateef

Jumbo, Gift of Gab, and Lateef

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

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

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

Lateef the Truthspeaker

Lateef the Truthspeaker

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

Gift of Gab

Gift of Gab

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

Fantastic Negrito

Fantastic Negrito

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

Chief XL

Chief XL

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

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

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


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Fantastic Negrito’s Voyage into Voodoo Soul

Fantastic Negrito

Fantastic Negrito

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.

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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.

For more info, visit http://www.fantasticnegrito.com/ ; Purchase Fantastic Negrito’s EP here


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Oakulture NYE Picks 2015

It’s been a fantastic year for Oakland, which is one of the most vibrant cities, culturally speaking, in the world!!!  If you’re still wondering what to do for NYE (your last chance to go out this year!), scroll down for our curated list.

There’s something for every taste and age group happening at a diverse range of venues: a world music-themed boat cruise on the bay; a free admission option with art and black roots music at Blackball Universe; bass and electronic sounds at The New Parish; Top Ten Social’s annual NYE extravaganza happening at three different venues; and funk heroes Con Funk Shun at Yoshi’s.

We’re excited to announce that in the new year, Oakulture will bring you our weekly list of hand-picked, music, arts and cultural events, starting January 6th. From the Oakulture crew, we wish you a happy new year!

“Destino: Nuevo” New Year’s Eve 2015 Boat Party

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“Destino: Nuevo” New Year’s Eve 2015 Boat Party featuring music by DJs Jose Marquez, Cecil, Emancipacion and special guests, 12/31, 8:30 p.m. – 1:00 a.m. (Boarding begins at 8:30 p.m., boat departs at 9:30 p.m., and returns at 1 a.m.), $70.00, 21+, “Bay Celebrations” (Vessel), Jack London Square’s Webster St. Pier (base of Webster St.), near Il Pescatore Restaurant, Oakland. www.skinworldwide.net. » Buy Tickets.

Blackball Universe “YouTag” New Years Party 

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Blackball Universe “YouTag” New Years Party with Fantastic Negrito, food, drinks, and art, 12/31, 7 p.m. – 3 a.m., Free Admission (donations encouraged), All Ages, Blackball Universe, 230 Madison St., Jack London Square, Oakland. www.blackballuniverse.com.

Top Ten Social’s OAK NYE 2015

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Lungomare party with DJs Hector, Manny Black, Nina Sol, and Platurn, hosted by Kev Choice, Kola & Sayre Piotrkowski, 12/31, 7:30 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. (dinner), 9:00 p.m. – 2:00 a.m. (party), $30.00, $66.00 with dinner, 21+, Lungomare, 1 Broadway, Oakland. www.oaknye.com. » Buy Tickets.

Ozumo party with DJs heyLove* and Sake One, hosted by Bryant Terry, Sterling James and Tyranny, 12/31, 9 p.m. – 2 a.m., $20.00, 21+, Ozumo, 2251 Broadway, Oakland. www.oaknye.com. » Buy Tickets.

Parliament party with DJs Davey D, Dion Decibels, and Lady Ryan, hosted by Chaney, 12/31, 8 p.m. – 2 a.m., $20.00, 21+, Parliament, 811 Washington St., Oakland. www.oaknye.com. » Buy Tickets.

Con Funk Shun NYE Throwdown

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Con Funk Shun NYE Throwdown, 12/31, 8:00 p.m., 11:00 p.m., $69-$99, All Ages, Yoshi’s Oakland, 510 Embarcadero West, Jack London Square, Oakland. www.yoshis.com. » Buy Tickets.

Wormhole NYE with Haywyre, Freddy Todd and Kool A.D. & More

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Haywyre, Freddy Todd and Kool A.D. and more, 12/31, 9:00 p.m.-4:00 a.m., $27.00-$35.00 (limited $20.00 family discount tickets are available here), 21 and over, The New Parish, 1743 San Pablo Ave., Oakland. www.thenewparish.com. » Buy Tickets.

Oakulture’s Event List is compiled by Zsa-Zsa Rensch. Connect with her on Twitter at @zsazsa.

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I, the Jury: Critiquing Musical Mayhem

The Seshen

The Seshen

Sitting in on a juried panel,  trying to rate the best in local music is a pretty interesting experience. The occasion? The upcoming Oakland Mayhem (formerly Oaktown Music Fest, not to be confused with Oakland Music Festival), which takes place November 13, 14 and 15  at Awaken Café.  A whole host of local acts competed for some great prizes , including studio time, paid shows, free beer, flyers, hoodies, gift certificates from local bars, and swag bags.  Clearly, the organizers know what musicians need. Unfortunately, I missed the first night of critical reasoning, which decided the Best Song by a Local Solo Artist. The second night, however, pitted 25 local videos against each other.

Rating videos, especially those by independent or indie-label artists, means deciding on some sort of universal criteria. I quickly determined that my process would be weighted by how well the visuals went with the song, not how good the song was on its own, or how good the video was on its own. Production values, as it turned out, varied widely. So did the stylistic range, although the videos chosen perhaps leaned more toward indie rock, with a few urban-cred vids thrown in for good measure.

On to the videos. First, some overall thoughts: It seems there are some serious quirks getting worked out in the local music scene, creating a normative metric which rests squarely left of the mainstream center. That said, the utter avoidance of cliché is difficult to achieve, even for the most innovative video treatment. At the other end of the spectrum is weirdness for weirdness’ sake, of which there was plenty. Watching some of the videos, I got the feeling some of the directors watched a lot of “Twin Peaks”-era David Lynch. The best videos tended to be the most conceptual, and closer to short films.

Looking back on what scored high on my list, I liked Art Elliot’s “Days Like This” for its unpretentious home video aesthetic and for the shots which matched the lyrics practically word-for-word. The song itself didn’t do much for me, but the video clearly made it better. OTOH, Fantastic Negrito’s “Night Has Turned to Day” resonated strongly on both an aural and visceral level. The song is a foot-stomping, hand-clapping, piano, guitar and harmonica-laced tune with a retro juke joint/voodoo soul feel, which was complemented by live performance shots, B-roll of local locations (always a plus), and montages of the artist singing, playing piano, and walking down the street. The video jump-cuts between black and white, red and blue-filtered, and “normal” lighting, striking an effective balance without getting boring. Kate Lamont’s “Birds of Brooklyn” was super-artsy, with still animation on a chalkboard—which must have been a meticulous task—providing the visual accompaniment to Lamont’s dreamy vocals and stuttering electronic drums. I also liked the use of Oakland’s inner-city streets and scraper bikes on Los Rakas’ “We Dem Rakas,” but the song, a mixtape version of a Wiz Khalifa beat with different vocals, lacked the originality to take it over the top.

Kill Freeman’s “You Wanted” was one of the more innovative videos in the competition, alternating white-screen backgrounds with jarring juxtapositions of dark-toned imagery, from butterfly fingerprints to (simulated) blood splatter. Like Fantastic Negrito, the video enhanced the song, but its austere vocals with minimal backgrounds didn’t quite move me the same way. I liked how the treatment for Saything’s “Mason Jar” used a fisheye lens to emphasize distortion and stop-motion animation for a lo-tech effect. Though it was done well, the visual treatment took on a ultra-violent tone, showing band members hung, decapitated, and self-disemboweled. A lighter feel was recovered by sOul from the O’s jazzy rap cut “Boombastic,” whose video treatment used archival footage of classic analog audio equipment and studios for backgrounds over green-screened foregrounds.

Which brings us to “the Jellybean Song” by the Fuxedos, as seen in the short film “Mimsy.” This was unquestionably the weirdest, most over-the-top video of the bunch, whose visuals could have been the love child of Dr. Demento and Devo. This one also featured violence: another ripped-out heart and a toilet smashed by a hammer, though much of the carnage was thankfully implied. Great visual effects, but in the end, I couldn’t give something that strange and disturbing my highest rating.

Totonko’s “Overgrown” eschewed literalism for abstraction, with a black and white video which emphasized out of focus shots and postmodernist pastoral backgrounds. The video was well done, but took away from the song it was attached to—an inspired mix of nu-folk, indie rock and dubsteppy percussion fills—rather than adding to it. Speaking of Devo, they may be the spiritual forefathers of the Phenomenauts, whose “Broken Robot Jerk” featured sci-fi costumes, postpunk guitar riffage, and lyrics describing a new dance. Very conceptual—and points for the life-size Rock ‘Em Sock’Em Robots—but the song got repetitive and tiring way before its endpoint.

Two of my highest rankings went to the Seshen and Zakiya Harris, who appealed to my judicial sensibilities with songs whose video treatment fit well with the music they highlighted. The Seshen’s “Unravel” is a return to the trip-hop era and everything that made it so great: expansive moodiness and downtempo beats. The “Unravel” video picked up on those themes, cutting between foreground shots of singer Lalin St. Juste and slo-mo interior shots of a house which emphasized the sense of loss and emptiness the song evokes. There’s a slight nod to “The Shining,” although the hallucinatory psychic terror is only briefly implied – just long enough to metaphorically link a haunted house with a broken heart. With lesser source material, the treatment might have seemed pretentious or disjointed, but luckily, “Unravel” is a killer song. The other judges agreed with my ruling; “Unravel” won Best in Show. (A complete list of winners is here.)

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

Harris’ “Shapeshifter,” OTOH, is much more uptempo, a future-soul banger which features amazingly-voiced, layered vocals and lots of costume changes and fancy dance moves. The video lends the rooftops and sidewalks of Oakland a cosmopolitan, almost Parisian, feel, and Harris’ makeup and hair is absolutely perfect.

Unfortunately, we’re running out of space to talk about the other jury panel session I attended, for Best Song by a Group, so I’ll quickly run down the songs I liked, beginning with Antique Naked Soul’s “Money.” The beatboxed backgrounds, blended with neo-Motownish female vocals and Candice Antique Davis’ powerful leads and “real talk” lyrics make this a strong, original tune – although another song from their album, “Lay Low,” was even better IMO.

Candice Antique Davis of Antique Naked Soul

Candice Antique Davis of Antique Naked Soul

Candelaria’s “La Cumbia Cienaguera” has an appealing mix of cumbia rhythms and dub effects, but the studio recording lacks the urgency of their live show. “Ghost in the City”’s “Smaller Every Day” was another thrilling discovery: anchored by killer female lead vocals, the song falls nicely into the funky alt.soul category. And the Jennifer Johns/Ryan Nicole/Kev Choice posse cut “Town’d Out” caused one jurist to remark they could visualize the song blasting out of bassy car systems; I liked it because it works as a rap anthem without dumbing down one’s intelligence. La Misa Nigra’s “Por La Bahia” is another find in the Bay’s ongoing cumbia resurgence, a traditionally-oriented tune with lovely interplay between vocals, horns, and accordion that’s ready to fiesta when you are. Maria Jose Montijo’s “Estrella” features a hauntingly beautiful, sparse melody which can send chills up your spine. I also fancied Waterstrider’s “Redwood,” which blended rockish riffs and midtempo EDM grooves nicely.

Overall, it’s a far different experience critiquing music and videos in a room with other esteemed local tastemakers than from the privacy of your own home. There’s the option of bouncing your opinion off of other folks, or hearing their reactions. Jurists were encouraged to be social and even advocate for their favorites, and some did more than others. The best part of the experience, though, was being able to hear (and view) such a wide-ranging spectrum of local artists – and to venture outside of my personal music comfort zone. The Mayhem jury offered a great opportunity to digest tunes I might not have otherwise heard, and not only widened my ears, but also expanded my appreciation for Oakland’s music scene. Shouts out to Awaken Café’s Cortt Dunlap and Oakland Indie Mayhem’s Sarah Sexton for what must have been a tremendous amount of hard work in putting the Mayhem Fest together, and make sure you stop by the Awaken for the Awards presentation.