Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Bay Area Vibez Makes the Most of Oakland’s Glow [Review/Photoset]

Nas performs at Bay Area Vibez

Nas performs at Bay Area Vibez

Concert Review/ Bay Area Vibez, Sept. 26-27, @ Middle Harbor Shoreline Park

Location, location, location. For a very long time, Middle Harbor Shoreline Park has been one of Oakland’s best-kept secrets. But after this past weekend’s inaugural Bay Area Vibez festival, that’s no longer the case: word is out about the spot, which offers stunning views of the bay and the San Francisco skyline, similar to Treasure Island, except it’s less windy. Both days, the location was a constant source of chatter. “How come no one ever held a music festival here before?” was a frequently-repeated refrain.

Picturesque views added much to the festival's user experience

Picturesque views added much to the festival’s user experience

In retrospect, the location proved perfect for such an event, and went a long way toward a user experience which was much more amenable to comfort than many music festivals we’ve covered over the years. There was plenty of room for people to lay out picnic stuffs and chairs for a day of music in the sun, and just beyond the concert grounds, plank walkways led directly to even more chill-worthy spots on the shoreline. Such stunning natural surroundings made some of the inevitable production glitches associated with a first-time festival less of a big deal than they could have been, although the overlapping of sets between the two concert stages occasionally subtracted from the artists playing on the smaller, less-loud stage.

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The music was fairly well-curated, with more than 40 artists and DJs overall, with a heavy concentration of reggae, electronic music, and hip-hop, with the occasional funk and jazz band. That made for an interesting demographic mix of millennials as well as perennials.

The audience feeling the "Vibez"

The audience feeling the “Vibez”

The unquestioned highlight was Sunday’s flawless one-hour set by Nas, who appeared to have been auditioning for a spot in the hip-hop Hall of Fame. The Queensbridge emcee, one of the last artists to emerge from hip-hop’s 90s Golden Age, delighted the crowd with a strong concentration of material from his classic 1994 debut album Illmatic, which he peppered with songs from later albums like God’s Son, Hip Hop Is Dead, It Was Written, and I Am… . Honestly, it was one of the best live rap performances Oakulture has ever seen, driven mainly by the strength of Nas’ personality and his puissant lyrics. At one point, Nas shared an anecdote about Michael Jackson allowing a then-unknown rapper to sample “Human Nature” on the remix of “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” then went into the song:

My mic check is life or death, breathing a sniper’s death
I exhale the yellow smoke of buddha through righteous steps
Deep like The Shinin’, sparkle like a diamond
Sneak a uzi on the island in my army jacket lining
Hit the Earth like a comet, invasion
Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian, half-man, half-amazing

It ain't hard to tell.

It ain’t hard to tell.

The show felt big, even though Nas was only accompanied by DJ Green Lantern. The location also contributed, as did the fact that he hit the stage right as the sun was going down, and thus had the benefit of a picturesque sunset with iridescent colors, known to locals as the “Oakland Glow.” Watching Nas perform, SF native and rap artist Sellassie Blackwell offered his own assessment of what made him so great: “he’s saying something.” Indeed, the content of his rhymes, as well as his delivery, is a big reason Nas is considered one of the best rappers ever to come out of New York.

Magical dancehall unicorn: Supercat

Magical dancehall unicorn: Supercat

The second-best highlight was unquestionably the return of an artist one observer called a “magical dancehall unicorn”: Supercat, a late 80s-early 90s hitmaker who reportedly hasn’t performed in the Bay Area since 1992. For longterm dancehall aficionados, this was a dream come true, and to top that off, Supercat still had the quick-tongued lyrical finesse  which made him a favorite in the first place. While he didn’t perform any new material, it didn’t really matter because tunes like “Vineyard Style,” “Dem No Care” and “Ghetto Red Hot” fired up the crowd with enthusiasm.

Stephen "Ragga" Marley

Stephen “Ragga” Marley

Supercat kicked off a top-ranking block of reggae programming Saturday night furthered by roots revivalists Morgan Heritage and two members of the Marley clan, Stephen and Damian, who kept the vibes simmering and the ganja clouds lifting.

Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley

Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley

Other highlights from earlier in the day included a super-tight set by the criminally-underrated Fishbone which dug deep into their catalog for songs like “Everyday Sunshine,” “Junkie’s Prayer,” and “Party At Ground Zero.” The manic energy of frontman Angelo Moore was complemented by excellent musicianship and particularly-compelling horn arrangements.

Angelo Moore of Fishbone

Angelo Moore of Fishbone

There was also an energetic main stage turn by The Grouch and Eligh, two members of the Living Legends crew (who got their start in a San Leandro St. warehouse and have grown into their moniker two decades later). Although both are veteran solo artists, they worked well as a duo on songs like “The Bay to LA.” Mid-day sets by Taurrus Riley, Cut Chemist and Aloe Blacc were pleasant but mostly unremarkable.

The Bay to LA: The Grouch and Eligh

The Bay to LA: The Grouch and Eligh

Oakulture arrived a bit later on the second day, just in time to catch a fantastic outing by the Kev Choice Ensemble which became an impromptu Bay Area Hip Hop All-Stars performance, as Choice’s already-tight band—featuring bassist Uriah Duffy, guitarist B’nai Rebelfront, and vocalist Viveca Hawkins—was accentuated by Zumbi Zoom of Zion-I, Deuce Eclipse of Bang Data, vocalist Jennifer Johns, Young Fyah and Sellassie. Their collar-popping performance, which included a blazing freestyle cipher, was almost enough to make up for the relative lack of other local artists on the celebrity-heavy bill. Almost.

Kev Choice Ensemble

Kev Choice Ensemble

It was also great to see the sublime set by Meshell Ndegeocello, a bassist and vocalist who is a bit of a musical chameleon and can play everything from abstract jazz to funky soul and R&B. Ndegeocello began her set with an amazing cover version of Ready For the World’s “Love You Down,” and also brought new life to the Whodini classic “Friends.” Her band was in perfect synch, too, but it was a little disappointing that Nas’ set started before hers was done. Unfortunately, the same thing happened to Kev Choice, whose set overlapped with a louder and much less musically-interesting set by DJ Z-Trip — whose biggest bright point was a freestyle by emcee Supernatural who was handed objects by the audience, including a baby, and worked them into his flow.

Meshell Ndegeocello

Meshell Ndegeocello

Overall, though, the experience was a positive one, and feedback from attendees were that they would not only return next year, but were looking forward to it.

 


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Yasiin Bey: Mos Def-initely Hip-Hop

Live review/ Yasiin Bey, sOul from the O, Antique Naked Soul, Jahi as PE2.0, April 24, 1015 Folsom

Yasiin Bey fka Mos Def

Yasiin Bey fka Mos Def

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.

Yaciin Bey at 1015 194_edit

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.

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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.