Live Review/ Blackalicious, Zion-I, Martin Luther, Raw-G/ Sept 10, The Fillmore
A week before the release of Imani Vol. 1, their first album in 10 years, Bay Area hip-hop veterans Blackalicious blessed fans with a statement show. Their message? We’re back and “Blacka” than ever. That’s a reference to their new single, a hard-hitting lyrical banger (“blacker than a panther, blacker than Atlanta/ open like the dark starry background of Saturn”) which hints they’ve got plenty left in the tank.
The new song was one of the highlights of a set which was pretty much a clinical demonstration of how to rock a crowd. It may have been the best Blackalicious show I’ve ever seen out of the dozens of times I’ve seen them live. Although they didn’t have the two female soul singers, Qween and Erin Anova, who toured with them during the 2000s, they made up for it with guest appearances by Fantastic Negrito, Jumbo and Vursatyl of the Lifesavas, and frequent collaborator Lateef the Truthspeaker — a constantly-animated presence whose kinetic energy helped enliven the proceedings considerably.
Lateef the Truthspeaker
It’s easy to see why Blackalicious have been a fan favorite for three decades now. Along with their Solesides/Quannum brethren Lateef, DJ Shadow, and Lyrics Born, they were pioneers of the alternative hip-hop genre who have consistently set a high bar for innovation and creativity while maintaining a high degree of technical virtuosity and stylistic aesthetics. Emcee Gift of Gab is probably your favorite rappers’ favorite rapper, a man blessed with seemingly-infinite amounts of breath control, which he channels into amazing lyrical patterns and rhyme flows. Producer Chief Xcel is one of the most underrated beatsmiths in hip-hop history, who has evolved from the simple sample-and-loop ethos of 1993’s “Swan Lake” to create complex, nuanced soundscapes which refute the notion that “conscious” hip-hop acts have underwhelming musical tracks.
Gift of Gab
Take, for example, the “da-de-da-da-da-da-da-da” chorus from “Deception,” the classic song from the Nia album which gives the tune a hooky, accessible feel without overly pandering to mainstream sensibilities. That’s a song Blackalicious fans never get tired of hearing, along with “Rhythm Sticks” – a standout from 2005’s The Craft. Both of those songs sounded great at the Fillmore, but it was especially good to hear some new material as well. In addition to “Blacka,” the audience was treated to “That Night”— on which Gab, Jumbo and Vursatyl pass the mic like a hot potato while detailing some N’Awlins hijinks, and “Love’s Gonna Save the Day” – a simmering, soulful track which continues the meteoric rise of Fantastic Negrito, who supplies the inspirational hook.
Blackalicious’ headlining performance capped an eventful and momentous evening which seemed to forward the momentum generated for Bay Area hip-hop by Hiero Day, which took place just three days prior. Two of the artists on the undercard, in fact, were carryovers from the Hiero Day lineup: Zion-I and Martin Luther. Zion-I are another act who deliver a great live show, whether for 10s of thousands of fans or a few hundred. Joined by Bang Data’s Deuce Eclipse, emcee Zumbi Zoom showed he’s got classics for days too – the set list included “Bird’s Eye View,” “Hit Em,” “Don’t Lose Your Head” – which segued into a long freestyle session between Deuce and Zumbi – and the regional anthem “The Bay,” which seems to grow in stature with every rendition. Martin Luther is technically not a rapper, but for a soul singer, the SF native’s streetwise persona ironically contrasts his frequently emotionally-resonant material. Along with the always-beautiful “Rise” (which dates back to the neo-soul era), he pulled off a cover of Bob Marley’s “Crazy Baldheads,” to the crowd’s delight.
Early birds got a special treat: opener Raw-G, the bilingual Mexican emcee with the razor-sharp staccato delivery, performed a short but potent set highlighting songs from her new album Sangre. Whether opining about immigrant rights (“all that shit needs to change,” she said), busting a cappella flows over beatboxed rhythms, or leading a trio of backup singers (including Naima Shalhoub and Lila Rose) into an updated version of the Latin music classic “Guantanamera,” she was an engaging presence who bears further watching (and listening to). The show also featured some pretty good in-between set DJing by Davey-D and D-Sharp.
While hip-hop shows are somewhat rare at the Fillmore, when local artists get the opportunity to rock the historic venue, they tend not to disappoint. The Blackalicious show more than upheld that maxim, and Oakulture would like to think that the group – currently wrapping up a string of Pacific Northwest tour dates before heading to France, England, Austria, and Switzerland in October – put a little something extra on it for the hometown.
The Bay Area’s Indian Summer was in full swing, as temperatures hit a high of 90 degrees for Monday’s Hiero Day. Now in its fourth year, the annual Labor Day hip-hop extravaganza was both a celebration of an indie hip-hop aesthetic, and the ongoing legacy of the Hieroglyphics, the veteran Oakland crew the event is named for. To a certain extent, the two are interchangeable; over the past 20-plus years, Hiero have branded themselves as indie hip-hop incarnate – when you see their “third eye” logo, it brings to mind not only dedication to the art of rhyming and sub-mainstream stylistic sensibilities, but a cultural lifestyle which doesn’t revolve around materialist bling nor sensationalized violence and misogyny.
With Hiero Day, the collective’s members not only pay tribute to themselves and their hard-to-define-but-tangible impact over the decades, but also to like-minded groups with similar sensibilities – many of them either from the Bay or Southern California. It’s a smart piece of marketing, and one that ensures Hiero’s freshness and relevancy, since every Hiero Day offers an opportunity to connect with younger audience, some of whom were not yet born when the crew made its first appearance, on “Burnt,” the flip side of Del’s “Sleeping On My Couch” single back in 1991.
Hiero Day furthers the sense of being and belonging so important to a relatively isolated region like the Bay. It’s a day when hip-hop truly lives, one that not only validates artists who may be underrepresented through traditional channels like commercial radio, but also validates fans who follow the culture, and not the trends.
What was especially cool about this year’s lineup was the proliferation of indie hip-hop reunions by onetime local favorites: Cali Agents, Foreign Legion, Crown City Rockers, the Luniz, and Native Guns all made appearances, reminding listeners why the late 90s and 2000s were about more than hyphy for the Bay’s hip-hop scene. Joining them were still-active Bay standard-bearers The Coup, Zion-I, and Martin Luther, and SoCal legends the Alkaholiks, and Compton’s Most Wanted (featuring MC Eiht). All in all, there were almost 50 live acts and DJs, not including guest appearances and cameos (from Deuce Eclipse, Dru Down, Kimiko Joy, King Tee, Kev Choice and others).
Deuce Eclipse and Zumbi Zoom of Zion-I
With short live sets, the actual performances took a bit of a backseat to the magnitude of the event itself: there were moments of elevation here and there, but mostly it was about being there, holding space and being surrounded by folks who shared the same cultural tastes as you – whether you were 18 or 38. The population density was not as thick as the previous year, when admission was free (this year’s advance tickets were $19.93), but that led to a slightly less-congested experience overall. It says something about Hiero Day’s audience that in an era where big festivals with high ticket prices and/or only a handful of rap or urban acts often don’t turn out truly diverse demographics, the folks who showed up Monday ran completely counter to this trend. The many-hued, intergenerational, and reasonably gender-balanced crowd represented the oft-mythologized, rarely realized, American “melting pot.”
Silk-E of the Coup
Strolling through the festival grounds, one could dip into any of three stages to catch live acts or DJs, witness b-boy ciphers, turf dancers and live graffiti painting, browse wares ranging from vape pens to t-shirts to food trucks, or espy a shady spot for a brief respite from the sweltering heat. Backstage, the mood—enhanced by Elation hemp-flavored vodka and numerous spliffs being passed around—was one of peacefulness and joy, two words rarely heard in conjunction with hip-hop these days. Despite the heat, everyone was chill. The wall separating artist and fan was frequently broken down, as well-known local celebs gathered for group photos or cheesed for candid shots with CMW’s Eiht, Heltah Skeltah’s Rockness, or Hip-Hop TV’s Ed Lover.
There was a lot of networking going on, which lends credence to the notion that Hiero Day’s greatest impact might be that it provides the Bay Area hip-hop scene with a modicum of industry infrastructure not seen since the heyday of the Gavin Convention some twenty years ago. Hiero Day furthers the sense of being and belonging so important to a relatively isolated region like the Bay. It’s a day when hip-hop truly lives, one that not only validates artists who may be underrepresented through traditional channels like commercial radio, but also validates fans who follow the culture, and not the trends. The fact that it’s become a cultural institution in just a few short years – evolving organically and from a place of integrity – speaks to just how much something like this was needed to counterbalance the corporate commodification of hip-hop which has become the rule and not the exception. And from all appearances, Hiero Day appears to be structurally solid and poised to remain a High Holy Day for hip-hop disciples for the foreseeable future.
The 2015 Hiero Day lineup looks formidable indeed, especially for fans of West Coast underground hip-hop. With almost 50 live acts and DJs performing, the event—which drew more than 20,000 fans last year—appears to have broken through the stratosphere to major event-status, and is certainly the biggest independent hip-hop festival in the Northern California region. That’s a major plus for folks tired of attending mega-hyped music festivals with a dearth of rap or hip-hop artists, and for underground aficionados who have been underserved by mainstream/commercial-oriented rap tours. Best of all, tickets are less than $20—$19.93, to be exact—which portends a high boom-bap for the buck ratio. Oakulture is pretty hyped about the number of underrated/slept-on fan favorites—several of whom are doing reunion shows—scheduled for this year’s event, which cover a full spectrum of stylistic diversity within the underground hip-hop subgenre. We’re also not mad at the emphasis on Bay Area and Los Angeles groups, nor the inclusion of a few representatives from the Midwest and East Coast for balance.
With so many groups on the bill, it’s unlikely you’ll see every single act, unless you can be in two places at one time, so we’ve prepared a special guide for the artists we think will make Hiero Day extra-fresh.
With eight albums and a handful of mixtapes released over the past 12 years, Chicago’s Psalm One is one of the most-prolific indie-label female emcees in the industry today. Affiliated with Minnesota’s Rhymesayers crew, she’s also worked with Hiero’s A-Plus. Her recent video, “Free Hug Life” shows her to be an original, creative spirit with an engaging staccato delivery, and topics which offer an intelligent alternative to rachetry.
Phat Kat & Guilty Simpson
This veteran Detroit emcee duo have long collaborated with California’s hip-hop scene – Kat was once signed to SF’s Look Records, while Simpson has released several albums on Stones Throw. Both are authentic Dilla disciples, having cut their teeth working with the legendary producer, and both boast gritty flows which swerve between backpack and hardcore hip-hop flavors.
First emerging into the Bay Area’s underground hip-hop scene in the late 90s, the terrific trio of emcees Marc Stretch and Prozack Turner and producer DJ Design built a reputation for notable live shows while releasing several full-length albums (and one short film); Their return to active duty promises to be one of the feel-good stories of this year’s Hiero Day. FL maintain a classic underground hip-hop aesthetic, complete with sampled loops and scratching, but flip the script by balancing braggadocio with honesty and humor.
Another West Coast group some might remember from back in the day, the duo of Rasco and Planet Asia released three well-received full-length albums between 2000-2006. Each has had solo success: Rasco is remembered for the Bay Area classic “The Unassisted,” while Asia has collaborated with everyone from Grandmaster Muggs to Bun B to Evidence to Ghostface Killah. As Cali Agents, their remarkable chemistry elevates their individual lyrical deliveries to a higher level.
11. Otayo Dubb & Equipto
Don’t look now, but this SF-to-the-O hook-up is swiftly creeping on an indie hip-hop come up. The pairing of the Bored Stiff lyrical wonder with the versatile Co-Deez emcee/producer is one of the bright surprises of the current Bay Area scene. Their current single “Baby Steps” addresses maturity and growing up, with an arrangement which subtly recalls classic West Coast soul and R&B. The album of the same name features similarly-sublime production and features from the likes of L’Roneous, Pep Love, and Mars Today.
An original member of Freestyle Fellowship and a prolific solo artist in his own right, Los Angeles hip-hop veteran Aceyalone should need no introduction. The fact that he does lends credence to the oft-cited complaint that lyrical (read: non-gangsta) emcees from the West tend to get slept-on – except by hip-hop nerds who appreciate Acey’s jazz-tinged, highly vocabulistic delivery. Here’s a chance for him to expand beyond his core audience of diehards and reach the ears of a younger generation.
Possibly the closest thing Pinoy hip-hop has come to a supergroup is Native Guns, a trio comprised of emcees Bambu and Kiwi and DJ Phatrick who became celebrated multicultural ambassadors during their heyday in the 2000s. Mixing dexterous lyrics and slapping tracks with a fair amount of political and social commentary, they also dropped science on the Filipino-American struggle, and what it means to be an indigenous immigrant. Though both Bambu and Kiwi have remained active as solo artists, their timing of their breakup always seemed unfortunate, coming so soon after the release of their 2006 album Barrel Men – rightfully hailed as a West Coast classic, one which shows the Bay Area was about so much more than hyphy even during the “hyphy era.”
Speaking of the hyphy era, Oakland trio The Team were one of the most buzzworthiest groups of that period, helping to define the region’s then-emergent sound as uptempo, party-friendly, and club-ready, with hooks for days. We haven’t heard from them since 2013’s “Slow Down,” so it should be interesting to see them drop classics like “It’s Getting Hot” and “Bottles Up” and hopefully some new material. Added bonus: Clyde Carson, Kaz Kyzah, and Mayne Mannish are some of the best rapper names ever.
West Coast OGs since the early 90s, Tha Liks’ 1993 debut album, 21 & Over, is a high-octane hip-hop classic which set a high bar for both lyrics and production. Four subsequent albums followed, the last being 2006’s Firewater, all of which mix hardcore hip-hop with party-oriented themes. One-time disciples of King Tee, they’ve always been a force to be reckoned with in a live context, and there’s no reason to expect anything different from their Hiero Day appearance.
Best known for the all-time cannabis anthem/ Bay Area rallying call, “I Got Five On It,” Yukmouth and Numskull are inner-city griots who’ve lived a wilder life than most of us, and put much of it down on record. It’s somewhat gratifying to see them on a bill so saturated with underground and alternative hip-hop – a confirmation of their lyrical finesse, as well as a shout-out to the streets of East Oakland, where Hiero is from.
Compton’s Most Wanted
This classic Compton gangsta rap group, possibly second only to NWA in terms of influence and reputation, never enjoyed the mainstream success of their Ruthless peers. But their street-level stories had a louder ring of authenticity to them, and it’s safe to call them some of the originators of “reality rap.” Though they didn’t have an overt political agenda, the sociopolitics and socioeconomic content of songs like “One Time Gaffled Em Up” was omnipresent, and often sublime.
Zion-I have held the Bay Area down for 15 years, being one of the most-consistent underground groups in the region, establishing a national and international fanbase, and collaborating with everyone from Deuce Eclipse to Talib Kweli to Too Short. Their long list of classics ranges from “Inner Light” to “The Bay” to “Warrior Dance” to “Don’t Lose Your Head.” Though they’ve experimented with their sound, incorporating everything from EDM to folk, they’ve always maintained strong hip-hop roots. Their latest release, The Rapture: Live From Oaklandia, follows the departure of producer Amp Live, and finds emcee Zumbi Zoom taking things in a more musical direction by featuring a live band led by the incomparable Kev Choice.
Crown City Rockers
In the mid 90s to early 2000s, hip-hop band Crown City Rockers were often called the Bay Area’s version of the Roots – mainly for their uncanny ability to swing jazzy, funky musical elements played on real instruments with the cultural b-boy witticisms of frontman Raashaan Ahmad. They boast a solid, if criminally-underrated, catalog of recordings too, from 2001’s One (recorded as Mission) to 2004’s Earthtones to 2009’s The Day After Forever. Their live shows are legendary, if infrequent these days: the last time they performed as a unit in Oakland, at an Old Oakland Farmer’s Market gig, Levende had not yet become District, so prepare to be blown away.
It was only a matter of time before Boots Riley’s subversive funk/rock/rap band the Coup played Hiero Day, and this is the year. That’s an underground hip-hop lover’s fantasy come true. While we are, once again, in-between new Coup albums, Riley has been highly visible of late with a new book of his lyrics and high-profile media appearances discussing activist issues. Though the Coup’s sound—and personnel—has evolved since 1993’s Kill My Landlord, they are one of the few continuously-active groups from hip-hop’s 90s Golden Age on any coast, and thus did not need to be coaxed out of retirement to do this gig. If you’ve never seen The Coup, expect to be revolutionized and entertained.
A member of Hiero recently tweeted that their independent label, Hiero Imperium, has now outlasted the major record label which signed and then dropped them back in the 90s. That’s poetic justice for Oakland’s lyrical laureates, an octagon of obtuse emceeing and sick beat-making skills, who have given more back to the community from which they came than any other hip-hop artist or group in Bay Area history, while continuing to make more history with each new release and annual iteration of the event bearing their name. Not only do they have more catalog than J. Peterman and Victoria’s Secret combined, but their signature tune, “93 Til Infinity,” never gets old.