Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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A Triumphant Tribute to Marley’s “Exodus”

Empress Unification

Empress Unification

Exodus is arguably Bob Marley’s best solo album, track-for-track. Every song on the album is a classic, and its worst song (“One Love”) is a certified anthem with enough populist appeal it was used by the Jamaican tourist board. But even more than a collection of strong songs, the tunes on Exodus play well together. Like the best albums from the vinyl era, Exodus has a song cycle: the opener, “Natural Mystic,” perfectly segues into “So Much Things to Say”; “Guiltiness” and “The Heathen” pair up like Siamese twins; “Exodus” and “Jamming” go together like salt fish and ackee; “Waiting in Vain” and “Turn Your Lights Down Low” present a potent 1-2 combination of lover’s rock; and the closing duo, “Three Little Birds” and “One Love,” both go big with sing-a-long hooks. The songwriting is Marley at his best, ranging from introspective lyrics to extroverted projections of joy, happiness, and feeling irie. While not as raw politically as some of Marley’s earlier material, Exodus more than makes up for it with heartfelt expressions of love and humanism – which in of itself could be considered a political statement.

Femi Andrades and the Broun Fellinis

Femi Andrades and the Broun Fellinis

Like the approximately 1800 other people who attended the three performances of Exodus commissioned by UnderCover Presents at the Independent this past weekend, Oakulture was curious to hear what Marley’s 1977 masterpiece would sound like reinterpreted by 10 local bands, encompassing a diverse stylistic range.

Silk-E

Silk-E

The result broadened the album beyond the reggae genre and affirmed the universality of Marley’s message. Simply put, great material is great material, and it’s hard to go wrong with any of the tunes on Exodus. The fact that none of the performances presented by-the-numbers tributes allowed the performers to put their own touches on the songs, and keep things loose and somewhat quirky. This was no slick, Vegas-style production, but more of a representative sampling of the Bay Area music community—a funky, ad hoc bunch of talented weirdos. The show – and a companion album recorded at Fantasy Studios – were curated by Guest Music Director Rupa Marya of Rupa and the April Fishes, a world beat/alt.reggae band from SF. Marya clearly wanted to take the proceedings down an eclectic road, without getting too far away from the message of Marley’s music.

Rupa and the April Fishes

Rupa and the April Fishes

The standouts, from Oakulture’s perspective anyway, just happened to be Oakland-identified artists who infused their tunes with large doses of Afrofuturism. If you’ve ever wanted to hear the avant-jazz outfit the Broun Fellinis, a group known for their improvisational jams, tackle conventional song structure and feature a female vocalist, this was your lucky night. Femi Andrades, of the Punk Funk Mob, sang like she was possessed by a jazzy duppy on “Natural Mystic,” as original Fellinis Kevin Carnes (drums) and David Boyce (saxophone) and bassist Kirk Peterson raised a wailing ruckus.

Boots Riley

Boots Riley

Another highlight was the surprise appearance of an unbilled Silk-E, who bum-rushed the stage along with the Coup’s Boots Riley and the Quartet San Francisco for a transcendent version of “Turn your Lights Down Low.” Sporting an enormous mane like a black lioness, Silk-E’s stage presence was just as big as her hair, to the point where Riley’s raps and the instrumental backing almost seemed like an afterthought.

Silk- E

Silk- E

A nice touch was Empress Unification’s version of “Exodus.” The all-female vocal group, backed by the Fyah Squad Band, offered a refreshing take on the album’s titular track, with soaring harmonies which emphasized gender balance (reggae tends to be a male-dominated genre), while their all-white outfits suggested spiritual purity. Marley’s back-up singers, the I-Threes, were always a huge part of his sound, and Empress Unification not only reminded listeners of that, but added two more voices to the mix.

Sean Hayes

Sean Hayes

Dressed in a multihued outfit which seemed to be a tribute to global solidarity, Marya herself tackled “The Heathen” along with the April Fishes. The song subtly supports resistance to Babylon without the overt  name-checking of “Rat Race” or the fiery militancy of “Slave Driver,” yet it’s one of Marley’s most sublimely subversive songs:

As a man sow so shall he reap

And I know that talk is cheap

But the hotter the battle

Is the sweeter the victory

Empress Unification

Empress Unification

Sierra Leone Refugees All-Stars member Black Nature’s version of “Jamming” was probably the closest to traditional reggae out of all the performers, while vocal trio T Sisters put a doo wop spin on “Three Little Birds” and Brass Band Mission closed out the show with a NOLA-style second line rendition of “One Love.”  Other participants included alt. Latin band Shake Your Peace (“So Much Things to Say”), singer-songwriter Sean Hayes (“Waiting in Vain”) , and prog-reggae outfit FogDub (“Guiltiness”).

Shake Your Peace

Shake Your Peace

Overall, Exodus added another feather to UnderCover Presents’ cap. By offering musicians an opportunity to play some of their favorite tunes from one of their favorite albums, the show also helped expose those artists to audiences who may not otherwise have heard of them, and built community in the process. But perhaps the biggest testament to the production’s viability was the fact that the energy in the room started out high and just kept rising throughout.  With SF’s music scene facing displacement of artists and the closing of venues, UnderCover Presents’ principal Lyz Luke isn’t just booking shows, she’s affirming cultural resiliency through creative placemaking. That’s something to appreciate in an age when the bus to Babylon is chartered by Google.

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The Coup Stay Relevant with Lyrical, Musical Bad-Assery

Live Review/ The Coup, January 23, 2015 @ The Independent

Got Boots?

Got Boots?

If you live in the Bay Area, it’s easy to take The Coup for granted. But the simple fact is, no other region can boast a group like this. Six classic albums over a two-decade span which range from underground, sample-based hip-hop, to avant-garde, Afro-futurist post-funk. A canon of lyrical expression incorporating punchline after punchline. Radical politics combined with narrative storytelling in a non-preachy way. A killer live show which has evolved to the point where it’s now an outlandish hip-hop/funk/rock & roll circus. And, above all, a classic rapper who cares more about the substance and content of his raps than getting props for being a classic rapper.

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Prior to The Coup’s sold-out Independent show last Friday, it has been a few months since these guys had played a Bay Area date—their last local gig was the premiere of their performance art piece, “The Coup’s Shadowbox” last September—but Boots Riley and company were anything but rusty. Their nearly two-hour set touched on every Coup album (save their debut, 1993’s Kill My Landlord), highlighting a catalog which has yielded ‘nuff fan favorites, despite a lack of corresponding radio and video play.

Silk-E  and Boots Riley

Silk-E and Boots Riley

The show itself was bananas—kick yourself if you missed it—showing just how tight The Coup have become as a live outfit. They’ve subtly transformed themselves into the most subversive band on the planet, and that can’t be a bad thing. Because we need subversion through sonic insistence and lyrical deliverance, and The Coup supply that, in spades. Riley’s seemingly endless on-stage energy—he’s one of the more kinetic frontmen you’ll find, in any genre—is matched by vocalist Silk-E, a total bad-ass who appears to be channeling Tina Turner in her prime.  Silk-E plays Riley’s foil to the hilt, offering the audience another focal point for their viewing pleasure, and ensuring there’s never a dull moment. Keyboardist Kev Choice is always a solid musical maestro who makes the genre and tempo swings seem effortless. Drummer Hassan Hurd kept steady time, and bassist JJ Jungle mainly kept to the background, but guitarist Grego lapped up some spotlight for himself during a couple of extended vamp segments, during which it occurred to Oakulture that the Coup had reclaimed rock as a black music form (in an Afro-punkish kind of way). Indeed, this is a black rock band masquerading as a hip-hop outfit. Instead of being hit over the head with tired rap clichés, you will be rocked. And hit over the head with intelligent, witty lines which openly oppose capitalism for capitalism’s sake.

Silk-E

Silk-E

From Oakulture’s perspective, the highlights of the show were energetic renditions of “The Magic Clap” and a sped-up, balls-out version of the oldie “Fat Cats, Bigger Fish,” which ground out the refrain “get down get down get down” like a chant at a political rally. Interspersing newer material like “Gods of Science” and “The Guillotine” with classics like “Nowahlaters,” the band injected a formidable live presence into their set which spoke to their continued relevance, just as much as Riley’s lyrics did.

Grego rocks the house

Grego rocks the house

There aren’t too many groups from hip-hop’s classic early 90’s period which are still touring, and fewer still who are still making compelling new music which pushes their envelope in unexplored creative directions. And while their sound has evolved considerably from the Kill My Landlord days, Riley hasn’t changed much at all. Sure, he’s gotten older, wiser, and grown comfortably into his frontman/ringleader role. But who he is as a person has remained constant the whole time. He’s still that guy you’ll see onstage raising a ruckus one day, and run into in the neighborhood with his kids the next.

The Coup: Fierce 'n' Fonky

The Coup: Fierce ‘n’ Fonky

Simply put, there’s not another act in all of music like The Coup. And no matter whether it’s your first time seeing them or your 20th, they never fail to bring the funk, bring the noise, and bring the lyrical substance. Did we mention, they’re from Oakland?

© Eric K. Arnold 2014


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Never A Dull Moment: The Coup’s Shadowbox

Live Review/ Yerba Buena Center for the Arts,  8/16/14

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

The Shadowbox opens

Billed as a haunted-house/funhouse/live concert/performance art piece, “The Coup’s Shadowbox” delivered on all fronts. The show, whose world premiere took place August 16 at SF‘s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, was an immersive aural and visual experience, built around a live Coup performance, which never let up for even a minute.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Jon-Paul Bail’s dystopian cityscape

Upon entering the YBCA auditorium, attendees were greeted by dystopian cityscapes drawn by John-Paul Bail, a printmaker and radical artist known for making and distributing thousands of free posters during the Occupy Oakland movement. Bail’s art, which embraces a low-tech, simplistic aesthetic, was a hyperrealistic, incredibly-detailed depiction of present-day San Francisco and contemporary America with all its glitz, glamour and makeup stripped away, revealing a society dominated by corporate interests and the military-industrial complex. Every panel told a story of greed prioritized over human need, from the bulldozers ripping up old Victorians to make way for overpriced techie condos, to the sign advertising “Bank of Apartheid – since 1904.” Though the panels had sort of a “Metropolis”-esque/cyberpunk thing going for them, there was nothing futuristic about Bail’s message, which seemed to say, these are the times we’re living in NOW, whether we realize it or not. Ramming that message home were cut-outs of drones and Stealth bombers which casually dangled from the ceiling.

Coup Shadowbox world premiere 011In front of the main stage, on whose background Bail had illustrated a large panel, a large, cube-like white monolith stood. As every eye looked on, a driving funk/rock groove started to emanate from the cube, which receded to reveal The Coup, dressed in white jumpsuits like astronauts – or, in frontman Boots Riley’s case, an Afronaut. The gesture was an obvious nod to Parliament-Funkadelic’s mothership, and suggested that the band had come from the far reaches of the galaxy to help us get a clue before all hope was lost.

Things only got more surreal from there.

The band shod their jumpsuits for street clothes, or in Riley’s case, a dapper brown plaid suit with light brown leather boots. Riley stands under six feet, even with his signature Afro, but he might as well have been the tallest man in the room, based on his stage presence. He strutted, swaggered, shimmied, shook, and gesticulated with the magnetic charisma of a chitlin circuit soulman who’d finally made it to the Apollo.

“We came to fonk,” he announced at one point, with a dead-serious look in his eye.

Boots elevates @YBCA

Boots elevates @YBCA

And fonk the Coup did, tearing through a fair portion of their six-album catalog with boisterous upswing. Each band member seemed on point as old songs were given new arrangements, extended jams segued into entirely different tunes, and Riley the ringleader was matched in his intensity level by the sidemen.

20 years ago, when the Coup were just starting out, Riley was a rapper with a message in an era defined by an underground hip-hop spectrum which ranged from ghetto gangsta to Afrocentric revolutionary. Two decades later, hip-hop is far less revolutionary as a genre overall, yet he still carries the same message. Riley has become an icon of radical social activism who also happens to be entertainer; he can no longer be considered ‘just a rapper.’ He’s more of a messenger who conveys his statements through rapping, over a musical template which has evolved from basic sample-and-loop aesthetics to incorporate more live instrumentation and amalgamate more  genre influences, from new wave to indie rock to both James Brown and Prince-style funk.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

going to a Gitmo go-go

For longtime fans, the set list must have seemed like manna from heaven. It included mostly uptempo numbers, among them “Gods of Science,” “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO,” “Gunsmoke,” “My Favorite Mutiny,” Everythang,” “Strange Arithmetic.” “We Are the Ones,” “Magic Clap,” “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish,” and covers of Talking Heads and Lou Reed songs –all performed like the countdown to Armageddon had sounded, and there was no tomorrow.

But this was no ordinary Coup concert, as Bail’s art and video projections by David Slaza made clear. After bringing Bail to the stage and introducing him, Riley pointed to his left, where two “Guantanemo Bay go-go dancers” struck strangely erotic poses while dressed in orange jumpsuits, their faces covered by hoods. The dancers remained for the rest of the show, making effective social commentary without saying a word.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Mortar and Pestle

A few minutes later, Riley pointed to his right. Lights went up, illuminating a side stage where electronic music trio Mortar and Pestle had set up. Shifting the audiences’ attention like that was a clever move; it forced attendees to consider the space they were in, and perhaps to absorb Bail’s installation art more carefully. Following that interlude, Riley kept the energy level high by introducing vocalist Silk-E, who led the crowd through a raucous version of “Show Yo Ass.”

Like most of The Coup’s songs, the lyrics are still relevant:

You’re voting which you’re hoping
will stop the guns from smoking – is someone fucking joking?
They’re bankers in sheep’s clothing
I know places where the kids keep croaking
Lacking the essential vitamins and protein
Hustlin and hyphy are eloping
I’m the best man bustin shots and toasting

 The song’s chorus is, like much of The Coup’s catalog, a call to action:

Now’s the time for you to show yo’ ass
They ain’t handin out no mo’ cash
Mommas imitate my logo fast
Daddies take the safety off and blast

 

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Laugh, Love, Fuck

The audience’s eyes were again directed away from the main stage, as a four-piece string section (members of Classical Revolution), bathed in red lighting, added violins and cello to “Laugh, Live, Fuck” as the video projection superimposed a heart against the main stage.

That was followed by the puppeteers of Eat the Fish, who pantomimed with figurines of the band members and a Guantanemo go-go dancer as Riley and the band hit with the recent single and video, “Your Parents’ Cocaine.” Kazoos were distributed throughout the crowd, and some guy threw fake money and bindles into the audience, as Riley related an ironic tale of white powder and white privilege:

Your daddy gon’ make you VP of sales
Don’t mix good shit with the ginger ale
Pacific Heights ain’t Sunnydale
You could murder somebody and be out on bail
Your mom’s Amtrak- she’s on the rails
So many bumps thought it was Braille
One day, we’re all gonna tip the scales
Cuz me and my crew are too big to fail

 

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Eat the Fish’s Coup puppets added comic releif

The puppets were hard to top; just about the only thing which could have done so was… a N’Awlins-style second line, courtesy of Extra Action Marching Band, who made their way through the audience, tuba blaring at full bleat. The surprises kept on coming; the side stage again lit up, and Snow Angel, a folk/power-pop outfit distinguished by electric sitar player Gabby La La, stole the spotlight.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

That’s M-1 of dead prez in the panda suit

Pick a Bigger Weapon faves “Monkey Off Your Back” and “Ass-Breath Killers” followed,  but before anyone could catch their breath, a man in a panda suit appeared on stage and took off his mask to reveal… M-1 of dead prez, who performed his best-known song, the anthemic “Hip-Hop”:

In the real world, these just people with ideas

They just like me and you when the smoke and camera disappear

Again the real world, it’s bigger than all these fake-ass records

Where poor folks got the millions and my woman’s disrespected

Just when you thought you’d seen it all, singer-songwriter Bhi Bhiman popped up amidst some scaffolding on the back wall opposite the main stage with an acoustic guitar. Bhiman performed “Up in Arms,” a poignant song about the death of Huey Newton, which imagined Newton’s thoughts at seeing the reversal of the social justice gains he fought so hard for.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

Bhi Bhiman

Not long after that, Riley appeared in the same scaffolding nook, wearing a fedora. A strategically-placed front grille of an old American muscle car became a prop. Aided by more strings from Classical Revolution, he closed the night with a rendition of the classic “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ‘79 Grenada Last Night,” working his way through the crowd before returning back to the stage to take the band through the grand finale.

©Eric K. Arnold 2014

The audience looked pleased

Suffice to say, The Coup’s Shadowbox was an engaging, entertaining, thought-provoking show. Riley went so far as to say it was his “favorite Coup show yet”, while YCBA’s Marc Bamuthi Jacobs noted the show was the first to use every single plug on the venue’s soundboard. It was less than a theater piece or a performance art work than it was a concert with elements of both, but it worked. It’s easy to recommend it as something to keep audiences enrapt in this age of short attention spans, and one hopes it will play more, and possibly national, stages at some future point in time. -EKA