Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


Leave a comment

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.


1 Comment

I, the Jury: Critiquing Musical Mayhem

The Seshen

The Seshen

Sitting in on a juried panel,  trying to rate the best in local music is a pretty interesting experience. The occasion? The upcoming Oakland Mayhem (formerly Oaktown Music Fest, not to be confused with Oakland Music Festival), which takes place November 13, 14 and 15  at Awaken Café.  A whole host of local acts competed for some great prizes , including studio time, paid shows, free beer, flyers, hoodies, gift certificates from local bars, and swag bags.  Clearly, the organizers know what musicians need. Unfortunately, I missed the first night of critical reasoning, which decided the Best Song by a Local Solo Artist. The second night, however, pitted 25 local videos against each other.

Rating videos, especially those by independent or indie-label artists, means deciding on some sort of universal criteria. I quickly determined that my process would be weighted by how well the visuals went with the song, not how good the song was on its own, or how good the video was on its own. Production values, as it turned out, varied widely. So did the stylistic range, although the videos chosen perhaps leaned more toward indie rock, with a few urban-cred vids thrown in for good measure.

On to the videos. First, some overall thoughts: It seems there are some serious quirks getting worked out in the local music scene, creating a normative metric which rests squarely left of the mainstream center. That said, the utter avoidance of cliché is difficult to achieve, even for the most innovative video treatment. At the other end of the spectrum is weirdness for weirdness’ sake, of which there was plenty. Watching some of the videos, I got the feeling some of the directors watched a lot of “Twin Peaks”-era David Lynch. The best videos tended to be the most conceptual, and closer to short films.

Looking back on what scored high on my list, I liked Art Elliot’s “Days Like This” for its unpretentious home video aesthetic and for the shots which matched the lyrics practically word-for-word. The song itself didn’t do much for me, but the video clearly made it better. OTOH, Fantastic Negrito’s “Night Has Turned to Day” resonated strongly on both an aural and visceral level. The song is a foot-stomping, hand-clapping, piano, guitar and harmonica-laced tune with a retro juke joint/voodoo soul feel, which was complemented by live performance shots, B-roll of local locations (always a plus), and montages of the artist singing, playing piano, and walking down the street. The video jump-cuts between black and white, red and blue-filtered, and “normal” lighting, striking an effective balance without getting boring. Kate Lamont’s “Birds of Brooklyn” was super-artsy, with still animation on a chalkboard—which must have been a meticulous task—providing the visual accompaniment to Lamont’s dreamy vocals and stuttering electronic drums. I also liked the use of Oakland’s inner-city streets and scraper bikes on Los Rakas’ “We Dem Rakas,” but the song, a mixtape version of a Wiz Khalifa beat with different vocals, lacked the originality to take it over the top.

Kill Freeman’s “You Wanted” was one of the more innovative videos in the competition, alternating white-screen backgrounds with jarring juxtapositions of dark-toned imagery, from butterfly fingerprints to (simulated) blood splatter. Like Fantastic Negrito, the video enhanced the song, but its austere vocals with minimal backgrounds didn’t quite move me the same way. I liked how the treatment for Saything’s “Mason Jar” used a fisheye lens to emphasize distortion and stop-motion animation for a lo-tech effect. Though it was done well, the visual treatment took on a ultra-violent tone, showing band members hung, decapitated, and self-disemboweled. A lighter feel was recovered by sOul from the O’s jazzy rap cut “Boombastic,” whose video treatment used archival footage of classic analog audio equipment and studios for backgrounds over green-screened foregrounds.

Which brings us to “the Jellybean Song” by the Fuxedos, as seen in the short film “Mimsy.” This was unquestionably the weirdest, most over-the-top video of the bunch, whose visuals could have been the love child of Dr. Demento and Devo. This one also featured violence: another ripped-out heart and a toilet smashed by a hammer, though much of the carnage was thankfully implied. Great visual effects, but in the end, I couldn’t give something that strange and disturbing my highest rating.

Totonko’s “Overgrown” eschewed literalism for abstraction, with a black and white video which emphasized out of focus shots and postmodernist pastoral backgrounds. The video was well done, but took away from the song it was attached to—an inspired mix of nu-folk, indie rock and dubsteppy percussion fills—rather than adding to it. Speaking of Devo, they may be the spiritual forefathers of the Phenomenauts, whose “Broken Robot Jerk” featured sci-fi costumes, postpunk guitar riffage, and lyrics describing a new dance. Very conceptual—and points for the life-size Rock ‘Em Sock’Em Robots—but the song got repetitive and tiring way before its endpoint.

Two of my highest rankings went to the Seshen and Zakiya Harris, who appealed to my judicial sensibilities with songs whose video treatment fit well with the music they highlighted. The Seshen’s “Unravel” is a return to the trip-hop era and everything that made it so great: expansive moodiness and downtempo beats. The “Unravel” video picked up on those themes, cutting between foreground shots of singer Lalin St. Juste and slo-mo interior shots of a house which emphasized the sense of loss and emptiness the song evokes. There’s a slight nod to “The Shining,” although the hallucinatory psychic terror is only briefly implied – just long enough to metaphorically link a haunted house with a broken heart. With lesser source material, the treatment might have seemed pretentious or disjointed, but luckily, “Unravel” is a killer song. The other judges agreed with my ruling; “Unravel” won Best in Show. (A complete list of winners is here.)

Zakiya Harris

Zakiya Harris

Harris’ “Shapeshifter,” OTOH, is much more uptempo, a future-soul banger which features amazingly-voiced, layered vocals and lots of costume changes and fancy dance moves. The video lends the rooftops and sidewalks of Oakland a cosmopolitan, almost Parisian, feel, and Harris’ makeup and hair is absolutely perfect.

Unfortunately, we’re running out of space to talk about the other jury panel session I attended, for Best Song by a Group, so I’ll quickly run down the songs I liked, beginning with Antique Naked Soul’s “Money.” The beatboxed backgrounds, blended with neo-Motownish female vocals and Candice Antique Davis’ powerful leads and “real talk” lyrics make this a strong, original tune – although another song from their album, “Lay Low,” was even better IMO.

Candice Antique Davis of Antique Naked Soul

Candice Antique Davis of Antique Naked Soul

Candelaria’s “La Cumbia Cienaguera” has an appealing mix of cumbia rhythms and dub effects, but the studio recording lacks the urgency of their live show. “Ghost in the City”’s “Smaller Every Day” was another thrilling discovery: anchored by killer female lead vocals, the song falls nicely into the funky alt.soul category. And the Jennifer Johns/Ryan Nicole/Kev Choice posse cut “Town’d Out” caused one jurist to remark they could visualize the song blasting out of bassy car systems; I liked it because it works as a rap anthem without dumbing down one’s intelligence. La Misa Nigra’s “Por La Bahia” is another find in the Bay’s ongoing cumbia resurgence, a traditionally-oriented tune with lovely interplay between vocals, horns, and accordion that’s ready to fiesta when you are. Maria Jose Montijo’s “Estrella” features a hauntingly beautiful, sparse melody which can send chills up your spine. I also fancied Waterstrider’s “Redwood,” which blended rockish riffs and midtempo EDM grooves nicely.

Overall, it’s a far different experience critiquing music and videos in a room with other esteemed local tastemakers than from the privacy of your own home. There’s the option of bouncing your opinion off of other folks, or hearing their reactions. Jurists were encouraged to be social and even advocate for their favorites, and some did more than others. The best part of the experience, though, was being able to hear (and view) such a wide-ranging spectrum of local artists – and to venture outside of my personal music comfort zone. The Mayhem jury offered a great opportunity to digest tunes I might not have otherwise heard, and not only widened my ears, but also expanded my appreciation for Oakland’s music scene. Shouts out to Awaken Café’s Cortt Dunlap and Oakland Indie Mayhem’s Sarah Sexton for what must have been a tremendous amount of hard work in putting the Mayhem Fest together, and make sure you stop by the Awaken for the Awards presentation.