Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Sly Stone Tribute Show Takes the Musical Legend’s Legacy Higher

This is what 175 local musicians onstage at the same time looks like

This is what 175 local musicians onstage at the same time looks like

Reportedly, some 175 local musicians were involved in UnderCover Presents’ production of “Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand,” a tribute to the Bay Area band’s classic album, released in 1969. Seemingly all of them were on the Fox Theater’s spacious stage simultaneously during Saturday night’s encore of “Thank You Fallettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin.” Having already tacked all nine proper songs on the Stand album, not to mention sneaking in snippets of other Family Stone hits, it seemed only natural to end what had been a monumental undertaking with yet another of Sly’s eternal  classics.

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The wide expanse of humanity onstage resembled nothing so much as the personification of “Everyday People,” Stand’s biggest hit, and one which had been performed earlier in the evening by rock & roll act Tumbleweed Wanderers. From left to right, the stage was awash in colorful, vibrant folks of several ethnicities singing, dancing, and playing instruments together – MLK’s dream rendered in stage lights for all to see. At the time of its release, “Everyday People” was a manifesto of social acceptance, an urging for “different strokes for different folks.” Despite our cultural, political, and ideological differences, Stone pleaded, “We got to live together.” The statement remains as true now as it was then.

Marcus Shelby (l.) and Tiffany Austin (r.)

Marcus Shelby (l.) and Tiffany Austin (r.)

More triumphant celebration than nostalgic remembrance, “Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand” at once upheld and advanced Stone’s musical vision. Groundbreaking at the time, there was nothing on the musical landscape quite like Stand, an album which infused the revolutionary activism of the late 60s into a wide-reaching blend of progressive musical influences, mixing R&B, soul, funk, psychedelic rock, and pop in a way even Motown had yet to imagine – it would be years before Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye incorporated social consciousness into their music. Saturday’s show added jazz, orchestral strings, vocal choirs, salsa, and hip-hop to an already-bubbling musical melting pot. The result was pure alchemy.

Freddie Stone

Freddie Stone

Unfortunately, Oakulture arrived one-third of the way in, after the Awesome Orchestra Collective, Ensemble Mik Nawooj, and Zakiya Harris featuring Elephantine had already warmed up the large-capacity venue with “Stand,” “Don’t Call Me N*gger, Whitey,” and “I Want to Take You Higher,” respectively.

Bayonics

Bayonics

The vibe was indeed elevated as we made our way through the art deco doors into the auditorium hall.  Fortunately, the Marcus Shelby Quintet didn’t let the energy dip. Their take on “Somebody’s Watching You” gave the song an entirely different musical context while reaffirming the power of the lyrics (which are ostensibly about the conscious mind, but could just as easily be about the surveillance state). The MSQ wrapped the song in resonant jazz chordings which allowed the melodies space to breathe freely, highlighted by some impressive vocal work by Tiffany Austin. Bayonics’ version of “Sing a Simple Song” expanded the tune’s territory into funky salsa grooves, overlaid with rap verses, and the aforementioned Tumbleweed Wanderers offered a slightly folksy version of the ubiquitous “Everyday People.”

Con Brio's Ziek McCarter

Con Brio’s Ziek McCarter

Earlier, many former members of the Family Stone, including bassist Rustee Allen, saxophonist Jerry Martini, trumpeter Cynthia Robinson, drummer Greg Errico, and guitarist Freddie Stone, were introduced, to wide applause. But something was missing: Sly himself, who reportedly appeared on a panel at an afternoon convention held in the Fox’s Den bar. A press release hinted that he might take the stage, but that never happened.

Ricky Vincent

Ricky Vincent

All was not lost, however, as Con Brio frontman Ziek McCarter’s serpentine-like dance moves and channeling of kundalini energy put the sex in “A Sex Supreme,” a reimagining of Stand’s lengthiest number, “Sex Machine.”

Bassist Allen, who replaced Larry Graham in the Family Stone, joined Will Magid & Everyday People for “My Brain (Zig-Zag)”—an instrumental recorded around the same time as Stand which appeared on 20007’s reissue version of the album—which segued into “If You Want Me to Stay” (from 1973’s Fresh, which featured Allen on bass). The Jazz Mafia & Crossroads Collective closed out the set with “You Can Make It If You Try,” another of Stone’s message-laden tracks, which mixed horns and strings with vocals from Trance Thompson, Nataly Michelle Wright and Tym Brown.

Rustee Allen

Rustee Allen

All of which led up to the all-hands-on-deck encore, which riffed on what  for many is the quintessential Stone song (just as Stand is probably his best album track-for-track), and one evidently  infused with deep personal meaning: We don’t know exactly who Sly is thanking for letting him be himself again, but the appreciation seems soul-deep and heartfelt. Speaking of heartfelt, the work that went into coordinating the show (an earlier incarnation of which played at the Independent in 2013) had to be considerable, yet the product of all that work was undoubtedly a labor of love.

Awesome Orchestra Collective

Awesome Orchestra Collective

This was easily the biggest splash yet by UnderCover Presents, which has been assembling local bands for remakes of songs from classic albums since 2011, so it wasn’t surprising to see Executive Director Lyz Luke dancing with overflowing joy during the encore. Props also go out to co-producer Yosh! Haraguchi and music director David Moschler, as well as emcee Ricky Vincent, author of “Funk” and “Party Music,” who dressed for the occasion in a multihued tuxedo jacket, topped with an Afro wig and John Lennon shades.

Rickey Vincent (l.) and Lyz Luke

Rickey Vincent (l.) and Lyz Luke

Look for an upcoming airing of the performance on KQED (who videotaped the proceedings), as well as CDs and digital downloads of the live show. And mark your calendar for the next installment of UnderCover (at  the Independent April 3-5), which tackles Bob Marley’s Exodus. Performers reportedly include Boots Riley, Black Nature Band, Rupa & the April Fishes, Sean Hayes, Almas Frontierizas, the Broun Fellinis, T Sisters, Quartet San Francisco and more. That’s a great lineup which should build on all the momentum—and positive energy—generated by the Sly tribute.

Thank You Fa Lettin Me Be Mic Elf Agin

Thank You Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin

Lastly, Oakulture would just like to note how great it is to have the doors of the Fox open, finally, to local musicians—even if just for one night. It always seemed a little unfair to have this beautiful, restored venue right in the middle of the downtown do major shows which rarely offered local folks opportunities  to perform on that big stage, in front of big crowds. Here’s hoping that “Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand” not only broke that mold, but sets a new, welcoming, trend for the future.

Stand!

Stand!

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The Oak Q & A: Jahi as PE2.0 (Part II)

 

Jahi performing at the New Parish, August 2014

Jahi performing at the New Parish, August 2014

In Part One of this interview, Oakland-based educator and rapper Jahi talked about how he became the lead emcee in PE2.0, a musical and cultural initiative created by Chuck D, Professor Griff, and the Public Enemy organization, which aims to revisit the group’s legacy while pushing forward for a new generation of listeners searching for consciousness, sanity, and dignity in rap music. In this continuation of the discussion, Jahi breaks down some of the specific songs on the new album People Get Ready, and the connection between himself, Public Enemy, Tupac Shakur, the Black Panther Party, and the city of Oakland.

Oakulture: Let’s talk about some of the original PE2.0 songs, like “Mind For Malcolm.” What are you dealing with on that song?

Jahi: “Mind for Malcolm” is actually not on the album, “Mind for Malcolm” is kinda like how you shoot a flare, send a signal. The fact is, if you know Public Enemy’s history, I believe it was Chuck or maybe Keith or Hank, they were out promoting, and they put up a poster of Malcolm, and somebody said, ‘who is the dude with the glasses?’ Or something to that effect. I’m paraphrasing.  What Chuck realized is, wow, not only could we make music, but we also could lift up some messages and really say something that matters.

"Mind for Malcolm" single

“Mind for Malcolm” single

So when Malcolm [X]’s birthday was approaching, I reached out to Chuck and asked if it was okay, if I took that track, name the song “Mind For Malcolm,” and use it as a signal to let people know that PE2.0 was coming. So that’s where “Mind For Malcolm” came from. So that was really like, one of the first, you know, I had recorded maybe 7 or 8 records, and none of those records ended up on the final cut of the album, but “Mind For Malcolm” stuck so we sent it out as a signal on Malcolm’s birthday.

Oakulture: What inspired “People Get Ready”?

Jahi: Ah, man. “People Get Ready” is not a song. It’s not a song. What it is, is a call to action to save the people. Get ready, ‘cause you might have to physically fight for your freedom. We were trying to decide on some album titles, and Chuck hit me with “People Get Ready,” and I was like, I mean, number one, Curtis Mayfield, he’s probably in my top ten of all time. And just thinking about Mike Brown, thinking about Marlene Pennock, thinking about Eric Garner, thinking about all these things, and not just current events, but historical events. And, it just feels like, it needs to be said that sometimes, we slip.  Sometimes we so social with having good times, partying and kicking it, that we not ready, we be getting blindsided, and the idea of… my grandfather used to say,’ it’s time to get ready.’ That means you organize yourself, you prepare yourself, you get things in order.  So you’re able to handle the task, and right now, the task of freedom, justice, and equality, we need to be ready.  And, the more we are not ready, the more we put ourselves at risk of losing our lives at this point.

People Get Ready album cover

People Get Ready album cover

So, “People Get Ready,” once we diagrammed the album and just be thinking about… here’s where I’m at: if you think about it, I’m really not rhyming, it’s really a mantra, it’s really a chant, it’s really a meditation. Chuck comes with the rhyme. I’m not busting bars at all. But Chuck is. And then there was also a little play on that and Chuck said it.

Oakulture: “Panther Power” obviously references the legacy of the Black Panther Party. As an Oakland resident, how do you see that legacy shaping up in 2014?

Jahi: Well, “Panther Power” really first is a tribute and ode to Tupac Shakur, because on his first record, 2Pacalypse Now, he did a song called “Panther Power,” and in the chorus, he was actually cutting part of Chuck’s voice. So, the first part of it really was for him, for ‘Pac. Which connects to Oakland. I mean, the reality of it is, that in 2014, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, their beliefs, in terms of what they wanted for the community, in terms of the community services they wanted to provide, the cultural unity and pride, those are things that I feel like are as much alive now as they were then. I don’t look at the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense like they in a museum or something like that. I feel like it is very active in our lives and part of my job, as an emcee, is to attach to that. So, you know, I also got to say Rickey Vincent had a lot to do with it too, I gotta shout out to Rickey Vincent, because he wrote that book…

Oakulture: Party Music …

Party Music, by Ricky Vincent

Party Music, by Ricky Vincent

Jahi: Party Music, where he talked about the Lumpen band. So if you hear my second verse, We talking 1968, Jah called on Tommie Smith, the band in Oakland, giving the soul mix. I mean, that comes directly from Rickey Vincent. Once I got turned on to the Lumpen band, it was like, yeah, it really informed the rest of that record. And then, originally Griff was supposed to be on that record, but he wasn’t able to get on it. But we had this concept of taking songs, and putting speeches inside the song. I got plenty of quotes at the beginning and end. But in “Panther Power” in particular, Kwame Ture, when he first said Black Power, I took that whole clip and put it in there. To give a context of just that spirit. It wasn’t about freedom, he said, we’re not talking about freedom, we’re talking about power. And right now, as much as we need freedom, justice and equality, black people, we need power.  And when you say Black Power or Panther Power, there’s a certain energy that comes with that. So I wanted not so much to resurrect that, but to continue it in 2014, to inspire a 9 year-old or 8 year-old, as well as a 40 year-old.

Oakulture: There’s some cultural authenticity there too. It’s not like you live somewhere else. I mean, you’ve been an Oakland resident for 15 years, right?

Jahi: That’s right, that’s right. I live here. When I said, writing rhymes late night in the home of the Panthers, I was in Oakland, California when I said that right there. When I felt like I had a first draft, I actually was watching sunsets at Merritt College. Like, these are facts. We in a time when most people’s rhymes are so fantasy. Sometimes, we be getting in metaphorical and lyrical exercises, nah, this is like right in your face. I mean, I’m in Oakland, and I’m thankful that I’m in Oakland. I lived a lot of places, I moved around a lot of places. But I’m thankful to be in Oakland, I’m thankful of the history here. I know that I’m standing on shoulders of ancestors. I don’t take it for granted. You know, just being in Public Enemy stands on the shoulders of the Panthers. You know what, I couldn’t have been in a better place anywhere else in the world to be able to do this first project.

Oakulture: “What They Need” is another strong one. What are you addressing with that one?

Jahi on the set of "What They Need"

Jahi on the set of “What They Need”

Jahi: Mmmn. “What They Need” is a revisit, give the people what they need was [an] original lyric by Public Enemy. So I really like how they did the chorus, cameras, lights, action, look out, human rights, whiplash, po-po, Fed killers, killing kids. I mean, we are experiencing that right now. So, I think about kids, if you say here’s some ice cream, or here’s a home-cooked mean, you know, beans and rice and all of that. All of the kids will go pick what they want, they’ll pick the ice cream. But the reality is what we need is more wholesome and important for us. So “What They Need” was really kinda diving in to say that, you know, there’s a certain level of lyricism with emcees that are around the world, and represent a particular lane. And that lane is socially-conscious. It is aware. It is forward-thinking, and it is life-affirming, it is revolutionary. And I wanted to send a signal that, I’m not dissing nobody in nobody else’s lane, but I’m in my lane. And my lane is just as valid as anybody else. And when you look at it from a world perspective, you realize that. So, in mentioning “What They Need,” don’t just be social, be committed and vocal. It’s some ancient context. I said, we giants, we not just talking baseball, we talking ancient scrolls that was left on the wall, that best represent the renaissance people. We are still those renaissance people. It’s almost like a reminder back and a push forward at the same time.