Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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

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

The "Clas/Sick" Crew chilling after the show

The “Clas/Sick” Crew chilling after the show

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

Do the ladies run this mother____er?

Do the ladies run this mother____er?

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

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

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

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

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

DJ Fuze on the 1 and 2's

DJ Fuze on the 1 and 2’s

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

Howard Wiley and Geechi Taylor

Howard Wiley and Geechi Taylor

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

Coco Peila and Ryan Nicole

Coco Peila and Ryan Nicole

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

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

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

Conscious curation: Marc Bamuthi Joseph

Conscious curation: Marc Bamuthi Joseph

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

A young hip-hop dancer at YBCA

A young hip-hop dancer at YBCA

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

Trackademics in the cipher

Trackademics in the cipher

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


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Life is Living 2014: Keeping it Beautiful

Live review: Life is Living Festival, Oct. 11, DeFremery Park.

Trying to describe Oakland’s Life is Living Festival is like trying to describe life itself. On a sunny, warm day, with every part of West Oakland’s DeFremery park activated—with people everywhere, listening to live hip-hop music well past dusk, sitting on the grass in front of Brett Cook’s large paintings of inspirational Oakland folks, skating or BMXing at Town Park, participating in kids’ activities with the little ones, perusing the wares of local artisans and artists, standing in line for a plate of yummy jollof rice and ndole from A Taste of Africa, or just having a parkside picnic with family members or loved ones—it seems absolutely perfect.

Candice Antique Davis and Kev Choice get open at the Soul Sessions

Candice Antique Davis and Kev Choice get open at the Soul Sessions

To call Life is Living a much-anticipated event would be an understatement. Every year since its inception, the Youth Speaks-produced festival is something to look forward to, a day of being surrounded by community, friends old and new, of being outside on what usually amounts to the last days of Indian Summer, just before the weather shifts and Fall begins in earnest. It’s also no exaggeration to call Life is Living a cultural institution, one which honors and celebrates local artists, musicians, and the community itself, in a completely sincere, open, and non-elitist way. Along with Oakland’s other open-air, music-filled community gatherings (among them Art & Soul, Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival, Umoja Festival and Hiero Day), Life is Living has become part of the cultural fabric which holds the Town together, an event where the intersectionality of the city’s fabled diversity is on full display.

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There’s always spoken word poetry, music and plenty of art at Life is Living, and this year was more of the same. Each year the lineup is a little different—last year, headliners dead prez rocked the main stage with revolutionary rap; the year before that, Pete Escovedo, Los Rakas and DJ Questlove threw down—but it always showcases and spotlights the cream of local talent.

Life is Living 2014 483

Netta Brielle

New this year was a reggae sound system stage, with yard-style exposed speaker grills and a succession of dancehall-inclined emcees chanting down Babylon all afternoon. Progressive hip-hop collective Town Futurists also held down a main stage slot, offering up conscious, lyrical beats and rhymes and forward-looking soul grooves. The “Front Porch” stage hosted spoken word, an “MC Olympics” freestyle rhyme cipher, and various local emcees—including the Beats Rhymes and Life crew, Madlines and the Queen Emcees, former Lunar Heights mic-slanger Spear of the Nation, and longstanding socio-politically-aware rhymer Jahi, who recently joined the Public Enemy family as PE2.0.  Meanwhile, the kids’ stage featured performers Emily Butterfly, Theobekile “Thobs” Mbanda, and Young, Gifted & Black, along with gymnastics, tumbling and Zumba. While the absence of female performers from this year’s Hiero Day was a valid gripe among the artist community, no such complaint could be made about Life is Living: there was hardly any gender imbalance, if at all, at any of the stages.

Jennifer Johns

Jennifer Johns

The highlight of this years’ event, hands-down, was the “Soul Sessions” all-star revue assembled by pianist/composer/emcee Kev Choice.  Choice and his band remained on stage while a succession of uber-talented singers and rappers passed through to swap spit and channel soulful emotions. These included Candice Antique Davis of Antique Naked Soul, who murdered a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “For You,” which had the crowd singing along to the “na na na na na na na” chorus; Erk tha Jerk, who dueted with Choice on “Forever Again” (one of the favorites from Choice’s latest solo release, Oakland Riviera); Netta Brielle, a homegrown contemporary R&B songstress who’s been living in Atlanta after signing to Atlantic Records; soul powerhouse Jennifer Johns (who brought up Ryan Nicole of Nu Dekades for a spirited run-through of “Town’d Out,” a song from Johns’ long-rumored,yet-to-materialize, third album; surprise cameos from Phesto Dee of Souls of Mischief/Hieroglyphics, and 1-O.A.K.; and a set-closing posse jam with Johns, Nicole, Kev Omoaghe Akhidenor, and Jahi which left the stage smoking. Credit must be given to Choice’s band— drummer John Omayga Adams, guitarist Bnai Rebelfront, keyboardist Doug Jones, bassist Drew, and sax players Ranzell Merritt and Roger Cox, who made the wide-ranging stylistic shifts seem easy and effortless—something they couldn’t possibly have actually been. While it’s great to see such talent play locally—especially in a space which holds as much memory as DeFremery (the onetime stomping ground of the Black Panthers)—the onstage energy was so combustible, it would be a shame for Choice not to take this revue on the road, so folks living outside of Oakland can see how it really goes down here.

Shock G

Shock G

Another first this year was the extension of the live performances past the daylight hours. This portion of the event featured Digital Underground frontman and hip-hop legend Shock G—yes, the one who put the satin on your panties—who seemed to be trying his best to channel his fallen friend and onetime bandmate Tupac Shakur. Shock switched between microphone and piano during his set, assisted by just a bassist and a DJ, and alternated between telling ‘Pac anecdotes, segueing into ‘Pac songs like “So Many Tears” and “I Get Around,” and lyrically referencing the formerly Oakland-based rap icon on “Keep It Beautiful”: His special special gift was his love side/ So many try’na be Pac but only cop the thug side/ How come yall don’t wanna be Shock? I survived/ And I ride for everyone/ It’s what you make it, so I made mine fun/ Yeah it’s bad now, don’t make it worse/ You wanna be happy? set that energy in motion and offer a smile first/ They don’t get it? try it again, breathe baby, breathe/ You really wanna be like Pac? read shorty, read.

There’s a lot which could be said about how the commercial rap industry has gone straight downhill since Tupac’s death 18 years ago. And to be honest, there’s little that’s appealing about commercial rap nowadays to those who identify as hip-hop generationers. But if Life is Living is anything, it’s a testament to the fact that good hip-hop is still being made, and that some of the best hip-hop being made is being made by community-oriented artists on a grassroots level who welcome the chance to take their show to the people in the park.

Marc Bamuthi Joeseph and Chinaka Hodge

Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Chinaka Hodge

It’s no mistake that the organizers of Life is Living include Hodari Davis and Marc Bamuthi Joseph, both of whom are card-carrying members of the hip-hop generation who present this festival like an offering to the orishas, with ritualistic purpose and complete integrity. These past few years, they’ve not only put on an enthralling annual event, but created a cultural legacy which uplifts community. Life is Living not only gives hope to future generations that hip-hop—and other urban genres—can stay positive and inspirational, but just might keep old heads who witnessed hip-hop’s evolution back in the day from becoming jaded and bitter about where the artform is at these days.