Live review/ Yasiin Bey, sOul from the O, Antique Naked Soul, Jahi as PE2.0, April 24, 1015 Folsom
The state of hip-hop has been a topic of considerable debate for the past decade or so. But while commercial co-option and cultural devaluation abound, particularly at the corporate level, so do encouraging signs which suggest the culture is healthier than many might assume. The biggest sea change is probably that the Hip Hop Generation now occupies the position the Baby Boomers once did, a point which hasn’t been lost on advertisers like Hennessy and Google Android, whose most recent spots feature 90s classics by Nas and Pete Rock & CL Smooth, respectively. The other potentially game-changing development is the advent of the classic rap format on commercial radio, which has breathed new life (and listenership) into the medium. Anyone who’s studied long term demographic trends knows that America is getting more multicultural, and hip-hop is a genre which has attracted a multicultural audience since the beginning.
The canonization of 90s hip-hop – a notion furthered locally by YBCA’s Clas/Sick Hip Hop series — has led to an interesting phenomenon: its ethos has been embraced by a 20-something audience who were too young to know what was going on the first time boom bap made the rounds. This in turn has led to a growing interest in what’s often referred to as “conscious rap,” much of it indie and underground (though underexposed might be a better term) which has resulted in multigenerational audiences for shows which feature artists with classic hip-hop aesthetics, often with new creative twists.
Yasiin Bey’s show last Thursday night at 1015 Folsom was a good case in point. Before we get to that, a little background: Formerly known as Mos Def, Bey came to prominence during the last rays of hip-hop’s golden age. His Black on Both Sides album (1999) hit a high bar for NYC rap, both in terms of populist appeal and cultural quality, which the region has struggled to maintain. In the years since, Bey’s output has become increasingly eclectic, unlike some of his 90s peers who have either attempted to go down a radio-friendly, commercial path or doggedly refused to step outside of a formulaic box and experiment with new sounds. He’s collaborated with jazzman Robert Glasper, rockers the Black Keys, and alt-popsters Gorillaz, and has been known to infuse his live performances with improvisational singing. Although he hasn’t released an album since 2009, he’s maintained a rabid fanbase, while contributing to politically-tinged projects like the Gulf Aid All-Stars and a short film by humanitarian organization Reprieve protesting conditions in Guantanamo Bay. Currently a resident of South Africa, he’s made the Bay Area one of his home bases for his live appearances.
At 1015 Folsom, Bey appeared wearing heavily polarized sunglasses, and no less than three jackets, including two short coasts worn over a long coat. While the stereotypical rap cliché would have been to appear smoking a blunt and perhaps pour out a little liquor for the dead homies, Bey proceeded to reach into a canvas grocery bag and strew roses around the stage. Clearly he wasn’t here to just perform a concert; he was more interested in ritual – a livification ceremony for hip-hop, perhaps? Throughout the course of the evening, Bey eventually removed his shades and peeled off all his overgarment layers, until he stood there, clad in a long-sleeved black t-shirt. He also seemed to strip away the audience’s pretentions, in particular the notion that an artist with hits needs to stick to his hits to have an engaging live show.
“Rather than offer testaments to gritty urban life surrounded by broken glass everywhere, Yasiin Bey just kept vibing the crowd with affirmations of beauty, like a bohemian hippie in the body of a Brooklyn-bred cat. Instead of striking cool poses laden with exaggerated black masculinity, he was a mellow master of the microphone, an audio avatar and rhyme-spitting shaman who was confident enough in his persona to balance his Yang with Yin.”
The show was about three-quarters of the way done before Bey recited the well-worn lyrics of “Mathematics,” a lyrical tongue twister about numerology from Black on Both Sides. Before the night was done, he would revisit two more songs from the album, “Ms. Fat Booty,” and “Umi Says” – the latter a jazzy track with a sung chorus which is more spiritual chant than typical rap song. Most of his show, in fact, redefined the notions of what hip-hop was, while Bey redefined the notion of what a New York emcee was supposed to aspire to.
Rather than offer testaments to gritty urban life surrounded by broken glass everywhere, he just kept vibing the crowd with affirmations of beauty, like a bohemian hippie in the body of a Brooklyn-bred cat. Instead of striking cool poses laden with exaggerated black masculinity, Bey was a mellow master of the microphone, an audio avatar and rhyme-spitting shaman who was confident enough in his persona to balance his Yang with Yin. At one point, he twirled around in a circle, arms outstretched, like Julie freakin’ Andrews in “The Sound of Music.” Though he went off into experimental and improvisational territory, the crowd not only stayed with him, but the vibe never wavered. He showed his appreciation for their loyalty by dropping to the floor and busting some b-boy footwork. To paraphrase the title of one of his early singles, Bey was universally magnetic.
It would be remiss, however, not to mention that the evening started out on a good note thanks to the all-Oakland undercard, three opening acts who each embodied the classic/conscious rap aesthetic without being overly retro or nostalgic. The first group, sOuL From The O, consists of Oakland emcee Mark Hopkins and beatsmith Woodstock (formerly of Crown City Rockers). Their short set was upbeat and positive, highlighted by renditions of the single/video “Boombastic”; another song which stayed on-message with the #BlackLivesMatter meme, referencing Oscar Grant and police brutality; and a demonstration of live MPC beatmaking skills by Woodstock.
Next came Antique Naked Soul, a group which consists of lead vocalist Antique, two backup vocalists (a la the Supremes), and beatboxer extraordinaire Soulati. While not strictly a hip-hop group per se—ANS embodies a hip-hop aesthetic in its use of looped beatbox phrases, but is more of an experimental/alt. R&B act—the group got the crowd open with a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” during which Antique perfectly recreated MJ’s tone (although with a bit more power behind it). Original tunes like “Warrior”—a nod to the Golden State hoopsters, who completed an improbable 4th quarter comeback that night—went over well too, but the illest moment of ANS’ set may have been the dueling trumpets Antique and Soulati created, without the use of any instruments but their vocal chords.
The penultimate opener served for many as the SF live debut of Jahi as PE2.0, who carries a heavy mantle as the next generation of Public Enemy. Jahi, too, was on-message and on-theme: PE was, for many, the quintessential classic rap group, and standbardbearers of consciousness and political activism. Songs like “What They Need” resonated with movement politics, delivered with crowd-rocking, microphone-rumbling authenticity by the Oakland-based emcee, who grows into his new role with every successive show. If you’ve heard the PE2.0 album, you know that it does indeed update or reboot many of the same themes as the Chuck D-led outfit, and while Jahi isn’t what one would call a flashy rapper, he’s solid as a rock onstage. While not as iconic as Chuck just yet, it’s quite possible that he will be mentioned in the same hushed tones before he’s done.
When it was all said and done, the take-home message could not have been anything other than this: not only does hip-hop still live, but rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated.