Posts Tagged 'San Francisco'

First Ever Live Music Festival Webcast on YouTube: San Francisco’s Outside Lands

Outside+Lands

There has been a lot of talk lately about live music. Some of us have noted that concert sales are thriving despite the recession, and there seems to be almost a revival of festival-going going on. The Taking Woodstock movie is coming out, which is sure to conjure up some nostalgia and fuel some fires that have been laying dormant. One of the more notable festivals on the West coast is definitely San Francisco’s Outside Lands, which is taking place this weekend.

For those of you who live in or have ever been near the Bay Area in August you know it’s a big deal. The historic Sunset District of San Francisco plays host to this 3 day festival in Golden Gate park, which includes an incredible lineup spanning just about every genre and showcasing both big names and lesser known gems.

Fans who were looking forward to the Beastie Boys headlining will have to shake it off and get excited about Tenacious D jumping in instead. Hopefully, M.I.A. will be able to do the same. She was none too pleased about the change.

In addition to being highly interactive and social media friendly, Outside Lands has taken it a step further and is going where no concert has gone before. It is being broadcast live on YouTube! While we’re doling out the accolades, let us also mention that they are doing their part to keep it green.

Planning on going? Have you seen all the tools out there to help you get organized? First of all, you can stay up-to-date via twitter. (Please note that it’s a “twitterbot for people going to Outside Lands Fest. Send tweet to @osl to broadcast back to everyone following osl.”) Also, you might want to download the iPhone app, try using Ranger Dave’s Magic Scheduler, or hop on to CrowdFire (a place to add your photos, videos, and tweets.)

Kero One – Early Believers Review

Early Believers

When Kero One released his debut album Windmills of the Soul, he had no backing and no name recognition to speak of. The album’s success came about through his persistent work to get it heard which resulted in it becoming a hit in Japan first, a humorous twist for a Korean DIY hip-hopper born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Through this success, he has managed to remain independent, starting Plug Label, releasing The Tones’ debut album and doing end-to-end production on his sophomore release Early Believers.

It is this spirit and energy that infuses Early Believers with an unfettered sense of optimism and musical joy. From the instrumentation to the lyrics, the album is unmistakably a complete work by a focused artist. The music is consistent and full, utilizing both hip-hop and jazz influences, while the lyrics are often personal and focused on a specific story. The marriage between Kero’s thoughts and his beats serve to offer an album that never feels forced or out of place. Unlike some current hip-hop albums that feel like the goal is musical shock for shock’s sake, Kero One never tries to do too much or move too far out of his range. On the opening track “Welcome to the Bay,” Kero raps about the pros and cons of the area where he grew up over an easy synth and fresh beat produced by King Most. Jacqueline Marie provides the chorus about the mentality of never leaving the bay for a piece that is heartfelt and unmistakably San Francisco.

“When the Sunshine Comes” is an easy, sunny day melody. The pace and mood of this song seem to be the best fit for Kero’s vocals, letting him sit back and rap without tempo pressure. The smooth delivery of tongue twisters is unhurried enough that it doesn’t make the listener feel stressed that the words won’t come out. This track gives way to “Keep Pushin’,” a much more up-tempo track that lyrically resembles something Kanye might have produced, with a little more pop to it. The fusion of jazz and a glitchy stop-and-go guitar/handclap back and forth brought to mind edIT’s “Crunk de Gaulle” off Certified Air Raid material. On his “I’m better off single” track, “Let’s Just Be Friends,” Kero brings a sing-along melody to the chorus (performed by Tuomo) and manages to make his desire to stay single sound happy and upbeat. The album then moves into Latin Jazz influences on “Bossa Soundcheck,” where Kero displays the keyboard and piano education he was brought up on. Sounding like it would be best heard in a dimly lit lounge atmosphere, Kero manages to make a hip-hop song that would fool non-hip-hop fans into listening and enjoying.

A solid feature of Kero One’s music is that he doesn’t sacrifice his choruses like most contemporary hip-hop and rap acts have done to get radio air-play. There’s no, “she made us drinks to drink, we drunk them, got drunk” fillers here. The choruses are integral parts of the overall whole, demonstrated again through Tuomo’s easy delivery on “Love and Happiness,” bringing to mind some of the better work done with Codany Holiday on Zion I’s latest album. This is the second King Most produced track on the album, and together they make the only two not produced by Kero himself. In “Stay on the Grind” Kero raps about the difficulties and rewards of choosing the DIY route, and just when you thought the whole album would be hip-hop, “A Song for Sabrina” shows off the instrumental prowess in a hip-hop/jazz/funk fusion track that includes Vince Czekus on bass and electric guitar.

In the most poignant and introspective track on the album, “This Life Ain’t Mine,” Kero uses an easy and straight-forward hip-hop track to back an autobiographical story about his life and entry into the hip-hop career, looking at his choices in friends and religion. The easy keys sprinkle melodies over “I Never Thought That We” as Kero looks at his unlikely and unpredictable path from his parents’ wishes to his chosen career. And, without missing a step, the album ends on a Kero One exclusive instrumental, “On and On,” which lets the album fade out in a jazzy way, reminding the listener of the progression of the album as a whole, and that it wasn’t just rap or hip-hop you were listening to.

An easy listen, Kero One’s Early Believers takes chill to the next level at every step. Gone from this album are the stereotypes that you need raps about money and women, pop-induced repetitive hooks and coarse language to produce a solid hip-hop outing. Instead, Kero relies on excellent production, live instrumentation and honest lyrics from his point of view to make an album that flows from start to finish and will most likely end the year in more than a few top ten lists. While it isn’t edgy or controversial, and some listeners will harp on a lack of perceived street credibility, Early Believers reminds us that hip-hop doesn’t need to be any of those things to be fun. Early Believers will be available from Plug Label on April 7th. Check back here for our exclusive interview with Kero One.

Part 2: Opio and Tajai Interview (Souls of Mischief)

Opio and Tajai of Souls of Mischief/Hieroglyphics

Opio and Tajai (right) of Souls of Mischief/Hieroglyphics

For Part 1 of this interview, click here. In Part 2 of my interview with Opio and Tajai, we discussed Bay Area Hip-hop, fan remixes, greatest albums of all time and the life lessons taught by their genre.

ACtual: I think that the Bay Area has some of the best Hip-Hop. There’s always people coming out from the Bay, the Hiero crew, E-40, Nickatina, Zion-I, lot of good groups. What do you think it is about this area that you think produces such good Hip-Hop?

Tajai: We’ve got diverse backgrounds, the port, especially Oakland and San Francisco, we’re the coast. If you look at the array of blue vs. red states, you’ll see that the coasts, where they have more than one type of person, or more than two types of people are places that embrace new and fresh ideas. Beyond that, there’s nothing to do out here. This is the worst place to try to start your career once you’ve made your move, so people are just bored so they make stuff. I could see in LA or New York, you can dress like a rapper, and look like one and hit the clubs and get that whole like, “I’m in the scene” thing. There’s no scene here, so you have to really be who you say you with regards to music. You have to do things yourself to achieve it rather than just looking the part. In other places you could look the part and try to get over like, “you know me…” and try to get in the clubs free, there aren’t any clubs out here. Because the scene is so wack, people are more creative and because we have a diverse background. This isn’t just the place where hella dope Hip-Hop is from. This is the place where the Panthers are from, where the hippies are from, where you look at San Francisco and gay rights, we’re on some other shit out here, we’re on some next level shit.

Opio: We’re trying to have equality out here. So in other places, in order to distinguish yourself and make yourself be something special to make people respect you like, “You’re doing something good, cool!” We ain’t really about that out here. It’s more about everyone is on the same level, so when in the Bay Area people lift you up and say, “Your shit is dope” that’s saying something because they have to see you and hear you and see it for themselves and know it’s true. Cause if not, you’re not going to get it. You might get it if you’re coming from somewhere else because it takes a lot to get on the scene and get heard. But if you come up from the grass roots out here, people are always like, “You’re never gonna do it.” Not that people are negative in general, but we ain’t really starstruck out here. You don’t see a lot of Bentleys and Lamborghinis and all that, and I don’t think it’s cause people can’t have it.

T: There’s a lot of money here. Per capita we’re probably one of the more wealthy cities in America.

O: That’s just not our stilo out here. You’re gonna stand out and make people get mad at you like, “What are you doing all that for? What do you need a Bentley and Lamborghini and all that for?” There’s something wrong with that out here, almost inherently so. People like to see you shine but they want you to be humble, you have to be a real person out here in order to maintain. So I feel blessed that we’re able to get respected out here, in this city in particular, especially being from here in all the years that we’ve been here, it’s a good feeling when we go to the Art and Soul festival or something like that. It’s a community gathering and there’s people from everywhere, but we still get love just like people paid to come see us at a show.

AC: A lot of groups are letting fans remix their work, putting stems up on the internet, doing remix work. Can you see getting into that and letting your fans work with your music like that?

T: We’ve got a whole album of fan remixes out. It’s called Over Time. So we’ve been doing that. So we might do it on this next record where we might put our ProTools files up and let people who are really serious about pushing the envelope and taking our music to the next level, do it. Because why not? We put our take on it, let them put their take on it. It’s not going to make less of what we have done. Once you’ve created something, like a record, it stands the test of time. All of our singles, we put up a capella so people can remix it, that’s the whole point. We sell a capella, we put it up on the internet so people can remix it.

O: We let people remix a single from my album Stop the Press, put that out there. We like that sort of stuff. The whole inspiration for us being independent was the show aspect, the whole interactive style, even if it’s over the internet or whatever. We want to maintain that where people can interact with our music and do whatever they want to do with it, manipulate it, that’s cool to me. Because I think eventually something really dope could come out of that. I’ve heard some shit that’s pretty tight, but I mean like if someone is out there just looking for an opportunity to do something with it and they just need the right sound or whatever and we could be a part of that, that would be dope.

AC: What are the current projects you guys are working on?

T: We’ve got Vulture’s Wisdom Vol. 2, probably going to start off the next year. We’ve got a new album by Souls of Mischief, we haven’t figured out the title but it’s done, produced by Prince Paul. New Casual album, Pep Love’s album called The Reconstruction, Del’s coming out with the LED EP, I’ve got an EP called THC 7. Opio came up with this idea, we’re gonna smash fools. Every week in 2009 we’re going to come out with a new song. Not a new freestyle, not a new rap over somebody else’s beat, a new song every week. So we’ll have 52 new Hiero songs plus about 5 or 6 new albums in 2009.

AC: Are you going to put all of those on iTunes?

T: Yea, they’ll all be out digital.

AC: A song every week?

T: We’ve got so much music, why not put it out? There’s no point in hoarding it because what good is music doing in the vault? Music is made to play, it’s not like money.

O: One thing is that it’s for our fans. For the people that supported us, they’re always looking for us, like, “What’s up with you guys? You guys ain’t coming out with this that and the other,” and they always want to hear something new. We have music done, but we’ll think we have to save it or whatever. But at this point in time, the way things are, people just want to hear it, they can’t stand it anymore, we just feel like now’s the time to let people get an inside look at whatever we’re doing, right then and there. We’ve never been the type of cats to just record a song and slap it on the internet or put it out. Everything we ever did came out 2-3 years after it was done, literally, I’m not even joking. Anything you ever heard was a long time ago by the time it came out. So as artists it’s something we’ve always struggled with because we’re always like, “We got some shit that’s hot, we want it out right now,” and we just never really had that vehicle. I kinda feel like now’s the time. The internet is such a community where people come together. I go there myself to listen to new music, do my YouTube thing, peep out all the underground shit that you can’t hear on the radio or you don’t see on television or whatever. There’s a large community of people out there where if we could let people that love Hieroglyphics know that you come to this one place and listen to all of our music, it’s hear for you, I think it would do a lot to re-energize our fans that have been supporting us. We got it for them.

T: We’ve got fans that are so loyal that they’ve stuck with us for the past 15, really 17, 18 years. Del’s first record came out in ’91, so some people have literally been waiting a lifetime for a lot of this shit and it never comes out. Most records when they come out, they’re finished two years or a year before they hit the mainstream, and we’re independent, we can’t do that.

O: We want to give people that, like we said, try and keep it interactive. We want people to have the experience and share it with us, like, “This is a hot song, listen!” I love that, I’m excited as an artist. I mean, we’re all owners of the label and we always have to make smart business decisions in terms of how we release our music because that’s our thing, we gotta make sure it’s right, everything’s gotta be cool. That’s still the Hieroglyphics thing, we always want quality product, that’s why we ain’t just throwing a bunch of shit out there. This is real music that we’re giving to people. For me, I want to thank the people out there that have basically been sticking with us for all these years. I can really say, with all honesty that they’ve been waiting on certain things that they just haven’t been able to get. The music is there, they just aren’t able to be exposed to it, so we’re kinda changing our philosophy about that a little. We want to expose people to our music and give them an opportunity to come in. There’s so much of it that it’s almost a crime to not let people just hear it.

AC: What are you guys looking at in terms of target release dates for the Hiero album and the Souls album?

T: Souls, at the earliest April, the Hiero by the end of the year. Because downloading has basically destroyed the concept of the album, everything on your album can be a single now, there’s no album cut. So let’s drop a song every week so people can buy that single and pick up a Hiero song if they want a Hiero song, an Opio or Tajai song, Souls song whatever. The records will then come out for people who liked what they heard in the single format.

O: We always have albums available for people at our shows, and those albums obviously have bonus materials that you’re only able to get when you buy that specific thing. Just the way that it is right now, I don’t know if people really sit down and listen to an album in the same manner, actually I know they don’t. I’m just different in my philosophy of how I listen to records, and I look for certain things, but that’s not how it’s going forward at this particular moment. People ain’t necessarily throwing on a CD, sitting down and listening to the whole thing. They’re skipping through a bunch of songs, whatever whatever, oh that was kinda cool, and that’s about it. So this way you can sit back and enjoy these songs for a week or whatever, then get a new one.

AC: Favorite conversation in Hip-Hop: Greatest album of all time. Where do you two stand? A couple that stand out?

O: It Takes a Nation of Millions comes to mind, right off the top. AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Ice Cube.

T: And even that is great because of It Takes a Nation

O: Low End Theory is almost perfection, The Chronic, 3 Feet High and Rising. 3 Feet High and Rising is different because there’s so much material on there, it’s like a carnival, I love that album, that album is crazy. Then there’s other albums for us, Funky Technician, Stunts, Blunts and Hip-Hop.

T: The Main Source first record.

O: CMW, Music to Driveby.

T: I’d say Nation of Millions.

O: There’s so many albums but the gold standard of all of that I would have to say is It Takes a Nation of Millions, cause that album –

T: Had everything.

O: Has all the elements, it was saying something as well. It was educating me on a lot of stuff as a young kid.

T: A lot of these records, that’s the one thing they’re probably missing is that educational content that damn near every album we mentioned did have, Main Source, The Funky Technician. I think a lot of rappers are OK just being rap.

O: It was about their mind power. All of those albums that we mentioned, it was all about what they brought to the table. They were mental giants. Now, that doesn’t even matter, you can be a straight mental molecule and as long as you have enough money and material –

T: Swagger.

O: It’s not even about swagger, because I give credit to swagger. Swagger everybody doesn’t have and everybody can’t get. Money is nothing, anyone can get that, it’s material things, you didn’t do anything by your own, there’s nothing that you created there. People will give a lot of credit, I’ve heard people say, “He’s wack, he sucks, but he’s got a lot of money and I respect that about that dude that he got his paper.” Who doesn’t want it? We all watch the TV shows, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and we all want that, but to me, that’s not where Hip-Hop needs to be, Hip-Hop needs to be back to Takes a Nation of Millions level.

T: And it wasn’t like they were just un-positive. They were talking about all the shit that was hot in the streets, they had banging beats, they had scratches on their songs, it was connected in a way that you had to listen to from beginning to end, there aren’t any records like that any more. Fools don’t even take the time to craft albums anymore, they’re trying to craft songs.

AC: What has Hip-Hop taught you about life and what has life taught you to make you better at Hip-Hop?

O: The life experience of growing up here in the Bay Area, the diversity of thought that exists here, all the things we were exposed to, there’s so many levels that you have to understand and juggle at once. You have to be real perceptive out here to be good in your descriptions with words, but then you have to humble so when we went out, even though we had a lot of confidence in our skill and were ready to battle cats, we always paid respect and homage to all the cats who came before us. How Hip-Hop helped my life, artists like KRS-One, songs like “Why Is That?” that really helped me get a grasp on world history and these are large concepts that were coming from rap artists. Ways to live, knowledge of self, know your history, these kinds of things. There was a lot of misinformation that was going on and Hip-Hop was helping bring that to light. There is a lost past that doesn’t get talked about and this is something we need to be educated about, and that definitely influenced me in my life, through Hip-Hop, that was a vessel that helped me learn and get on the path to taking on those types of concepts. Also questioning the mainstream, like whatever I see on Fox News I’m not just going to take at face value and part of the reason I’m not going to do that and not be bamboozled or manipulated is because of Hip-Hop.

T: For me, Hip-Hop taught me about life that you have to complete what you started. Making songs, if you don’t think about it from beginning to end, it’s not going to be complete, so that’s probably the biggest lesson. That goes for business or whatever endeavor, you have to do it from beginning to end and if you don’t see it through to the end somebody else will. As far as what life taught me about Hip-Hop, it’s probably that it ain’t everything. I love Hip-Hop, it’s my favorite thing in the world, but it ain’t more important than my kid or taking a shit or something. You see what I’m saying? There are mundane things and other more important things that are more important than Hip-Hop, so you have to take it with a grain of salt. I love this, and I’ve given my life to this, but it’s not the only thing to live for.

Zion I Interview

Zion I

Zion I

From their initial release, 2000‘s Mind Over Matter, to last year’s collaboration album with The Grouch, Heroes in the City of Dope, the Bay Area based duo of MC Zumbi and AmpLive known as Zion I has been making incredible music that incorporates hip-hop, world rhythms, hyphy, electronica and jazz sensibilities with intelligent lyrics looking at economic situations, social situations and meditative introspection. They’ve released an album in Japan (Break A Dawn) and have put out mix tape’s like Curb Servin‘ and remixes in the form of AmpLive’s re-working of Radiohead’s In Rainbows release. After their show at the Grand Ballroom in San Francisco on Saturday night, I got a chance to sit down with these two and ask them about their upcoming album, The Take Over, making hip-hop in the Bay Area and their favorite Zion I song.

AC: How do you determine your setlists?

Amp: For a tour, we practice before we go out, but basically our set lists have been the same the last couple of years and just changes slightly with the albums.

AC: The last album you did with The Grouch, Heroes in the City of Dope, what was it like working on The Take Over with just the two of you again?

Z: It was different because Grouch brings a whole different element, a whole different mind pattern. When we were working on Heroes, I remember sitting down and talking over each song really in depth, cause he’s a real insightful person, so we’d just talk out everything, so by the time the pen hit the paper, everything was already laid out. When it’s just Zion I, we talk about it, but my process is more about figuring it out as I go, like I feel something from the beat, and I have something but I have to remember to stay on topic. Grouch is just focused. Plus, Grouch writes half the verses too, when it’s Zion I, I have to write everything, so in that way it’s different. And I think with the beats, on Zion I stuff Amp is able to just go off more on his own. Zion I is just a more eclectic vibe, so we push a little bit harder and go off in different experimental ways.

AC: As you guys have progressed through your albums from Mind Over Matter to Deep Water Slang and the ones that have followed, what has become easier about making hip-hop for you, and what has become harder for you?

Z: Good question.

Amp: To me it’s never easy, because you don’t know if people are going to like it, and you just want it to be tight. Sometimes it’s hard knowing what to do, honestly, you have the way you feel, but sometimes it’s hard deciding what direction you want to go.

Z: For me, as a writer, it’s easier to know what I feel when I hear music because I’ve been doing it longer now as opposed to in ’95. I’ve been doing it 13 more years now, so I know what I feel. But still, like he said, you can’t get too cocky to the music or the culture, you have to be humble and a fan, you have to stay a fan. You don’t want to get old school, like you’re retro now on purpose, you have to have your ears to the street and just be open to the music. Sometimes it’s easy to get like, “Oh man, we used to do it like that back then and the new cats are doing it like this and that ain’t tight.” But you have to, as a fan of the culture, you have to have an open lingo to everything to stay fresh and relevant.

AC: That brings me to my next question. What are you guys listening to right now?

Z: In the van, we were listening to a lot of Santogold mixtapes, weren’t we? Cats just kept rotating that shit back to back. I listen to a lot of beat tapes recently, I get in my car and I’m looking for music and I’m just feeling the beat tapes. I’ve got some beat tapes from Bedrock, I’ve got this shit called Congotronics it’s club music, from Africa, it’s not even new, it’s kinda old, but it’s just really interesting. It’s hella rhythmic, with this bass sound and they take these calimbos, these thumb pianos and then they hook them up to these amplifiers so it sounds electronic, but it’s really traditional instruments, so I’ve been bumping them a lot.

AC: Zion I, E-40, Hiero are just three names in what makes up the Bay Area’s very rich hip-hop culture, I think in comparison to the rest of the United States. What is it about this scene that you think creates that?

Amp: It’s just such a big place with lots of variety, historically. The music that’s come up here, there’s a fan base that’s implanted here. There’s always a crowd for different types of music. I think there’s big energy.

Z: It’s California. People on the West Coast, we get a lot of ideas, just like the East Coast gets ideas, New York, Atlanta. On the West Coast we get ideas from a different angle, but it’s a place where people are very open to processing different perspectives, in the Bay Area especially. It has to be one of the most diverse places in the country, so I think it’s only right that our music showcases that.

A: What can people expect stylistically from The Take Over?

Amp: It’s all over the place, there’s a lot of different stuff on there. It’s definitely straight to the point in a lot of places.

Z: It’s eclectic, but there’s definitely a boom element, and there’s definitely soul, I think it’s a soulful record. Even though we go in a lot of different directions in the production, I think there’s a link through everything that’s very soulful, whether it’s the content or the singing or the way Amp produced the beat, it’s got heart to it.

AC: How many songs is Mr. Holiday going to be on on the album?

Amp: Codany Holiday. On the album, he’s on two tracks where he’s up front and then he does a lot of background vocals on a lot of stuff. You like Codany?

AC: I do. My exposure to him was through your Rainydayz Remixes.

Amp: You should go on my Myspace and download the Jamie Lidell, he did a Jamie Lidell remix.

AC: Last question here…favorite Zion I song for each of you.

Amp: From The Take Over?

AC: No, whenever. Through all of your albums, there’s a lot of music to choose from. What really stands out for you?

Z: That’s hard man.

Amp: We did a new song called “DJ DJ” that I like a lot. It’s a very DJ ready song that I think is really tight.

Z: Man, that’s really tough. What comes to my mind is either “Silly Putty” or “Innerlight,” because I remember when I wrote “Innerlight” I had just come home from meditating really tough and Amp was playing the beat already, and it just matched my state of mind so perfectly. When I wrote it, it was one of the easiest songs I wrote, ever. It just came off the pen, and it was just so easy, it just felt good. Same with “Silly Putty.”

Amp: It seems like “The Bay” was like that.

Z: Yea, but it’s just captured something different, it’s more inside, “The Bay” is more of an external thing, whereas “Innerlight” and “Silly Putty,” those were internal. “Silly Putty” I just wrote it and when Grouch got it and he just kept with it automatically and he just enhanced it. So probably those two songs because of the way they came about.

For a review of the Zion I show at the Grand Ballroom Saturday night, click here.

Zion I and The Mighty Underdogs at The Grand Ballroom

Gift of Gab of Blackalicious and Mighty Underdogs
Gift of Gab of Blackalicious and Mighty Underdogs

Zumbi of Zion I
Zumbi of Zion I

{to read Evolving Music’s interview with AmpLive, click here}
{to read Evolving Music’s interview with Zion I from after the show Saturday night, click here}

Hip-Hop shows, at their base, are usually only going to be as good as their crowds. With rock bands and other performers who play in large venues, just the sheer numbers will create an energetic atmosphere, and with pop songs, sing-a-longs easily get fans into the performance. With hip-hop, however, there are few performers who truly know all the words to their own rhymes. Often, performers will cut songs short in order to do just snippets of more popular songs. And the music is such that it requires energy from what is usually a smaller crowd, and the smaller the crowd, the harder it is to convince people to really sell out and get into it.

By these standards, the shows I have seen of Zion I have been some of the most varied in terms of audience enthusiasm and demographics of crowds. I’ve seen an incredible Zion I performance at the Fillmore where a truly live hip-hop crowd that knew their work was into it and the concert was amazing. But then I saw them a few years ago doing a back to school concert at UCLA. The venue was too large, there weren’t enough people there and the stage was set up in a way that allowed for almost no fan interaction. The people who were there mostly didn’t know the music, so what was an amazing set list got very little in the way of crowd appreciation.

On Saturday night at the Grand Ballroom, The Mighty Underdogs opened, and considering they’re made up of Gift of Gab from Blackalicious and Lateef the Truth Speaker from Latryx, they got short attention from most of the crowd. They were excellent though, bringing a speed of delivery that is difficult for most to imagine, and Gift of Gab’s ability to increase speed while maintaining a level of coherency in his diction was showcased in my second opportunity to see him do “Alphabet Aerobics” live.

And when they got to the stage, Zion I got another odd turnout in the form of what looked more like a high school dance than a hip-hop show. The majority of the people there were girls between the ages of 14 and 17. Watching them run enthusiastically during set changes to find a cigarette they could puff on was hilarious in and of itself. And what can you expect from this group other than that they’ll know the singles and their favorite songs, but won’t have the depth of knowledge of Zion I’s catalog to truly appreciate and buy into the set.

And that’s unfortunate considering that I view Zion I to be one of the hardest working live acts in hip-hop and true masters of their craft. AmpLive and Zumbi consistently work in both old favorites and new tracks, while also remembering the art of the true freestyle, with both of them taking turns improvising on either lyrics or beats. On stage, Amp becomes a grand marshal, moving the set seamlessly from one track to the next, and adding flairs through the use of a live sample and drum machine.

Zumbi (formerly Zion) is lyrically on point in all of his songs, never skipping a lyric or word, demonstrating just how well-prepared he is. Not two songs into the set he’s already worked up a sweat from interacting with the crowd, bouncing to Amp’s work and delivering the verses with an intensity and accuracy often missing in live shows. Furthermore, the performance never sounds like a canned delivery of studio albums. Zumbi’s expressions and tempo changes accentuate portions of the lyrics he finds to be important and each live show I’ve seen brings that feeling of song alteration.

In this show, the group was joined on stage by Codany Holiday, the soul singer who has crossed genres to work with AmpLive on his Rainydayz Remixes album of Radiohead’s In Rainbows. In concert, Holiday brings an energy and passion to his singing that fits right in with Zion I’s delivery and adds a soulful and musical depth to the songs. In some parts taking chorus and in other parts just adding background vocals, Holiday showed an impressive range in his pitches and was so obviously into the performance that his vocals soared and provided an excellent balance between Amp’s steady and polished hand and Zumbi’s raw energy.

For any hip-hop fan, Zion I is not a group to be missed in their studio albums or live performances, especially when the quality of the audience matches the quality of their music. Set list standouts from Saturday night included “The Drill,” “City of Dope,” “Fingerpaint,” “Silly Putty,” and three tracks off of their January release The Take Over, “Juicy Juice,” “Feel Brand New” and “Antenna.” They also mentioned onstage that the new album will include Brother Ali and Devin the Dude. It drops January 27th, 2009.

Rock the Bells at Shoreline Amphitheater, 8/16

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Saturday, Gavroche and myself got out for SanDisk‘s Rock the Bells tour at Shoreline. If you’re in Denver on 8/23 or Washington on 9/6, don’t miss this show. Rock the Bells continues to set the standard in terms of large scale festivals bringing together a fantastic line-up that often doesn’t happen with hip-hop. Whereas some tours or shows will have one or two big names with a bunch of unheard of artists (not that they’re bad!), Rock the Bells this year features one of the most star-studded hip-hop line-ups I’ve ever seen. Even if you’re not a huge fan of hip-hop, this show features enough classics that it can serve as a tasty introduction to some music you haven’t heard and might enjoy.

Furthermore, one of the major plagues of festival shows, the lengthy and crowd-angering set changes between acts, was completely eradicated by the crew of this show. Utilizing a simple stage set up with a DJ above a large black screen with the name of the act, it took very little to get in and out of sets, and towards the end of the show it was 10-15 minutes between every performer. When you look at the Kanye fiasco (no matter who’s fault that was) at Bonnaroo and some of the problems that always come with numerous acts, the artists and the crew of this show have a lot to be proud of in their speedy set changes.

The event started with SanDisk’s royal treatment in their VIP lounge. They had an open bar and food served all day, as well as scheduling meet and greets with Supernatural, Dead Prez, Murs and De La Soul. The event is sponsored by them along with their new product, the Mobile Ultra Mini SD card, which gives your phone 2 gigs of memory. Seems to me the type of thing anyone with a love of music or movies needs. All I can say is that I hope the fans appreciate what SanDisk did in compiling this artist line-up and sponsoring the show.

The show kicked off around 11 with a short set from Wale, who is gearing up to release an album off Interscope. He was followed by MURS, who, despite being a kick-ass rapper, somehow got stuck with a mostly empty amphitheatre. But he brought energy to the stage in his quest to promote not only the free internet release of Sweet Lord, but also his upcoming Murs for President. With shorts, a concert promoted t-shirt and his signature dreads, MURS carried with him less pretension and more of a laidback aura than you might expect from a rapper of his caliber, but he’s truly about the music and the fans. At the meet and greet after his set, he not only posed for pictures with fans, but I even saw him take a girl’s cell phone and talk to her friend to convince the friend that this girl was actually backstage with him. Seeing him chat it up with some girl’s friend on the cell phone, just to help her verify she was there was one of those fan friendly moments that most artists will never get involved in. Murs seemed happy to.

MURS for President

MURS gives a fan's friend some proof (and continues his Presidential campaign)

Following Murs, it was a surprise to see Blackalicious released so early in the show. Between Chief XCel and Gift of Gab, they’re one of the truly gifted hip-hop groups that can take difficult songs straight off the album and reproduce them flawlessly live. More than that though, Gift of Gab is just plain fast. When you hear a song like “Alphabet Aerobics,” you don’t think there’s any way it could be performed live. It’s just too fast with too many tongue twisters. Gift of Gab makes it sound easy. At one point in the set, he did a fantastic mixmatch, using an old Puff Daddy beat to rap “To Know You” from 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up. To close the set, they freestyled at a frenetic pace, just to prove it wasn’t all just a stage show.

M-1 of Dead Prez

M-1 of Dead Prez

After Blackalicious, Dead Prez took the stage and put together a set that got the steadily growing crowd energized. They played about 6 songs, finishing with “Bigger Than Hip-Hop” which pumped life into the stage just as they were leaving it. One of the great things about Dead Prez was that they, like Murs, were extremely accessible to the fans backstage. M-1 set up shop on a couch with a bottle of Patron and stic.man spent most of his time talking to people. They’d pose for anyone that came up with a camera for them. Very friendly.

stic.man of Dead Prez

stic.man of Dead Prez

Immortal Technique followed Dead Prez with a set that I think pleased every Tech fan in the crowd, and shocked everyone else. I’ll start with a thank you to Immortal Technique and his crew over at Public Wizard as they set up the interview with Tech and put us in touch with the press department for this festival. For people who don’t know Immortal Technique’s music or message, hearing him on stage for the first time could have a very jarring effect on someone chilling on the grass drinking and smoking at a hip-hop festival. But as anyone who’s a listener knows, and as he told everyone at the show, he really doesn’t give a fuck what you think.

Immortal Technique

Immortal Technique

He’s far more politically oriented than any other rapper at the show, and he delivers his lyrics with an uncompromising style that doesn’t care if the audience likes it or not. He played a great set with “Industrial Revolution,” “The 3rd World,” “Harlem Streets,” “Point of No Return,” and “Peruvian Cocaine.” More than any rapper I’ve seen in concert, he never truncates his lyrics or songs, which makes sense for someone with that kind of power in the message. If Tech is in your town, check out the show. He’s intense.

In between Immortal Technique and Raekwon and Ghostface, Supernatural took the stage and ripped one of the longest and most interesting freestyles I’ve ever heard live. With people at the edge of the stage, he freestyled solo for about 5 minutes, rhyming about whatever random objects the people in front of him handed to him. He talked about the San Francisco Giants, Trident gum, a bracelet, anything. It was like watching an extremely gifted improv actor who knew how to rap. I hadn’t seen Supernatural before this concert, and I was blown away by the depth and length of his freestyle.

Following Supernatural came, in my opinion, the weak link of the show. Raekwon and Ghostface took the stage and fell flat. Despite having a large bottle of orange juice and a blunt on stage with them, Raekwon and Ghostface just don’t deliver live like other members of the Wu-Tang Clan that I’ve seen.

Raekwon and his OJ

Raekwon and his OJ

It’s not that they’re not solid rappers in their own right, major contributors to the Wu-Tang crew, and fantastic studio rappers, but live they just don’t perform like GZA and Method Man. While other artists at the show were able to engage me with songs I hadn’t heard before, I couldn’t get into any part of the set. I also took some issue that these guys forgot where they were, thanking Los Angeles at the end of the set. Some people thought they said, “The Bay,” but I know I heard them say, “L.A.”

Next up was Rakim who unleashed solid song after solid song. The crowd was heavily invested in this one as a rapper so old school that he’s referenced in an old school 2Pac song called “Old School” ripped through an energetic set in which he rapped with enthusiasm, skill and what seemed like an urge to have everyone in the crowd feel what he was feeling when he let it out.

Rakim enjoying the music

Rakim enjoying the music

I hadn’t heard any Rakim other than his work with Eric B., and I was thoroughly impressed with how natural he sounded even removed from the sound of the ’80s. What’s more is that you can see in his reactions to the music and his delivery how much he loves the genre. This was one part of the show I wasn’t sure about going in and was very pleased with coming out.

When De La Soul took the stage, the passion from the crowd poured out. Posdnuous went off stage and into the crowd and was immediately surrounded by the fans. The entire set was upbeat and very strong for a group who has been dealing with numerous release and record label issues over the past 8 years. Along with Murs and Dead Prez, this group was the most accessible backstage, taking time to joke around and take pictures with Pharcyde.

Dave of De La Soul

Dave of De La Soul

De La Soul’s grind was followed by the rowdy duo of Method Man and Redman. From the minute they ran on stage to the time they left it, these two brought the show and the crowd to a new level. While some people not too versed in hip-hop may have thought The Wire‘s Cheese was trying his hand at rapping, there was no question to a listener that Method Man showed up.

Redman opened up a shook can of Coke on stage and then did an interesting dance trying to avoid the spray. But the cameras in the photo pit had no such luck as the box of bottled water on stage quickly became projectiles for Meth and Red to chuck into the crowd. There’s usually a 5-6 foot space between the photo pit and the seats near the stage. Method Man invites the crowd to come up and they quickly fill in the gap, providing him a place to dive off the stage and into them. These two slammed through their set of well rehearsed fan favorites such as “Y.O.U.” and “Mad Crew” with incredible precision despite the crowd surfing and water hurling antics. There were several excellent moments throughout every artist’s set, but for the passion of performance and raw energy, no set rivaled Method Man and Redman.

The Pharcyde took the stage next. The DJ gave them a little flak for the length of time since their last album, and they got the “with special guest” billing from the tour. The set was good, and of course closed with “Passin Me By” and included “Runnin” which had the crowd enthused. For a group who hasn’t been together in years, it didn’t show in their on-stage chemistry. The set was well done and while most know Slimkid3 and Fatlip, there wasn’t any sense of animosity between them or competition for stage time.

Tre of Pharcyde

Tre of Pharcyde

The always eclectic Mos Def followed, coming on stage in a shirt from a Louisiana coffee/beignet shop, sunglasses, a trucker hat and an 80s windbreaker style jacket.

Mos Def

Mos Def

This changed throughout the set as he lost the jacket and hat, traded them for a bandanna and gradually got more relaxed with the crowd as the set went on. Up to this point in the concert, the sun had been on the other side of the stage, so it fit perfectly as the sun started raining down on the front side of the stage for Mos to perform “Sunshine.” Although it’s still hard for me to separate Mos Def the rapper from Mos Def the Def Jam Poet and Poetry MC, he carries a stage presence and swagger that just works.

Nas was next. While Method Man and Redman put on the performance with the most juice, Nas had the best set of every artist at the show. He started with “Sly Fox” off his new album (we’ll leave it to other outlets to decide whether to call this one Untitled or the N-word Nas originally wanted to slap it with), and then went on an all-out retrospective of his work with varied length pieces of “New York State of Mind,” “The World is Yours,” “Life’s a Bitch,” “Street Dreams,” “If I Ruled the World,” “Nas is Like,” “Got Yourself a Gun” (complete with an interlude featuring Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.”) and then doing a heartfelt rendition of “One Mic.” One problem with all the favorites is that rappers will drop out and let the crowd do some of the work…they paid to see YOU rap it! If they wanted to listen to themselves rap, they’d do it in their car or at home or at a karaoke bar.

Nas

Nas

Regardless of this fact, Nas’ set was more complete than any other in that he gave a taste of his new music but threw out all the favorites to remind the audience of his lyrical supremacy, and sometimes more importantly in rap, his longevity and ability to continue evolving while maintaining a quality of lyrics that rarely suffers from repetition even eight albums later.

To close the show, Q-Tip did three songs with Mos Def before he was joined by the rest of A Tribe Called Quest to finish out an excellent afternoon of hip-hop. Q-Tip initially seemed very agitated, angry almost that the crowd volume was not what he expected. He yelled “LOUDER” several times and was obviously frustrated. He of course performed “Vivrant Thing.” As for Tribe’s set, it was a throwback worthy of the concert, playing a host of fan favorites that had everyone dancing and rapping along. But why go through the setlist when I can simply show you?

A Tribe Called Quest Set List

A Tribe Called Quest Set List

So that was that, 2008’s Rock the Bells. With 2 more shows left, there’s still a chance for people to get out and see it, and if you don’t, don’t forget it when it comes around next year.

Immortal Technique at The Fillmore

When word of underground revolutionary rapper Immortal Technique‘s visit to the Fillmore in San Francisco reached me, I knew it had to be first on my list of concerts for the year. Having never seen live footage of him, I had no idea what to expect from a rapper that brings a huge variety of social, political, economic and musical issues to his songs. Considering the detail and complexity in his lyrics, I was a bit concerned with how it would translate to concert where numerous MCs have failed due to an unfamiliarity with their own lyrics, or a habit to truncate songs for a live setting. And I can say that while there are only a handful of artists that could share a stage with Immortal Technique based on their lyrical complexity and stage intensity, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate the tenacity and focus Tech brings to his issues. From opening song to his finale, Immortal Technique’s show was a textbook demonstration of a rapper using an unreal level of energy, an extreme amount of intelligence coupled with social consciousness, and an uncompromising approach to his own music to put on a show that was incredible from start to finish.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the crowd at this show…IT is only slightly well known, even among people into underground hip-hop, but at the same time has built up a huge following from the grassroots level. His subject matter attacks various issues from several perspectives, and I was interested to see if there would be one overriding demographic to his live audience. There wasn’t. The crowd was incredibly diverse both in ethnicity and style. It ranged from serious hip-hoppers wearing hoods to bikers with neck tattoos. It seems the social aspects of rap that Tech represents hit home and help to unify a large and disparate group of people.

When he arrives on stage he goes into an almost a cappella version of “The 4th Branch,” and I can hear people all over the audience join him as he spits out, “Jesus is the most quoted prophet in the Qur’an/and bombed innocent people trying to murder Saddam when you gave them those chemical weapons to go to war with Iran.” It’s clear from this early point that not only does the crowd know his songs, but the anger and identification they share with him over views of the systems in place within our social infrastructure is what brought a good number of them out. Following this, he drops the cricket sounds of “Industrial Revolution” and at the first beat the crowd is already moving with the beat. Tech’s delivery is crisp and clear. Unlike other live rappers, there aren’t any muddled lyrics or incomprehensible words here, just viciously deployed sentences with a staccato tempo that makes it feel like every word and sentence is waiting to explode from him into the mic. And the energy is contagious throughout the crowd.

When he slows it down with “Harlem Streets,” he still manages to keep the crowd engaged with a call and response of “Homicide Harlem/ blaow what’s the problem?” In a lot of hip-hop shows, the MCs will keep a call and response segregated throughout the audience, pitting the left against the center and the right. While he addresses the different segments of the audience on this call and response, the entire crowd is asking what’s the problem on every call, uniting the entire venue, not caring if it wasn’t for their section. Following these three well rehearsed openers, Tech rips into freestyles addressing revolutionary practice and rapping about the conditions on the streets where he’s from. Following this, he turns it over for a song to DJ GI Joe who blisters through a turntable set centered around samples from NWA‘s “Fuck the Police.” His scratches and record matching here are astounding as he juggles two records seamlessly, even going so far as to switch the crossfade with his nose at one point, mix one table while reaching behind his back for the other one, and even at two separate points spinning around, flipping records and the crossfader with his elbows.

When DJ GI Joe finishes the track, Tech informs the crowd that as serious as his lyrics are, as intentionally angry as he can come across sometimes, that on this particular evening he happens to be in a “jovial happy good mood.” He shares this good mood with the crowd when the next track he drops is “Point of No Return.” As the opening notes drop, the crowd starts moving in anticipation before starting to slam as the beat comes in and Tech starts ripping the lyrics. One of the things you notice in his live performances is that there is no halfway with any of his delivery. It feels like every word and sentence that comes out of his mouth is incendiary, and he’s going to catch fire if he doesn’t get them out hard enough. It’s an intensity of delivery that even in the best shows is rare, and Technique manages to keep that level up throughout the entirety of the show. When “Point of No Return” gives way to “Peruvian Cocaine,” the crowd starts bouncing with the Scarface/South American style sample. They do a great job of this live, as each rapper on stage takes on a different verse of this song that examines the various levels of employment within drug production and distribution.

After this, Tech talks for a few minutes about the future of our system and the way religion and politics intertwine in the distribution of economic resources and media attention. He goes on to explain that the revolutionary ideals he carries through his music extends to creating changes on a community level, and proves his dedication to this ideal by handing over the stage at separate points in the concert to two different groups…one a revolutionary faction based in Watsonville called the Brown Berets, concerned with the unification of races and religions to overcome the division fostered by political initiatives, and the second a group called Omeid International, that is focused on rebuilding the war ravaged streets and communities of Afghanistan (thanks to Empire-81 for the correction). While other rappers spend concert time hyping their newest release or exhorting their audience to go buy more merchandise, Immortal Technique makes it a point to give up the stage to groups that work on a social level to address the problems and injustice he raps about in his music. This supports his idea of a true revolution started through the community and brought to a much larger focus by concentrated efforts of those involved in making change. Then he goes into “Dance with the Devil.”

Heading up to the concert, I had thought throughout the day about how I would feel if he played this song in concert. It’s a graphic song that describes the rise of a young man on the street, who, through efforts to be recognized and respected, ends up engaging in a particularly violent sequence that eventually leads to his death. It’s an intense and emotional song that focuses in large part on the violence perpetrated on innocent people by those attempting to look good in a gang related lifestyle, as well as the global and individual issue of rape. Its lyrics are haunting and deliberate, and Tech delivers it at once in both a method of warning and horror. Most of all, his emotion throughout and emphasis on the subject matter makes the song disturbing and powerful in concert, especially when he finishes and talks for a few moments on rape and how it needs to be viewed by everyone on a personal level, rather than a hypothetical one.

Following this very direct and personal monologue about rape, Tech talks about how a large number of rap songs focus on time spent in jail, or going to jail, but you rarely hear a song about leaving jail. This opens “Parole,” a song about never going back to jail. As the song ends, he rips into another piece that ends with the poignant statement, “When the terrorists come back again, they’ll either say, ‘draft them,’ or send us back again.” I know the end of the concert is getting near, and when he brings up a song that some people haven’t heard, a bonus track that he doesn’t often play in concert, I start to get excited. I’m hoping that he means none other than my favorite Tech song, “Caught in the Hustle,” and I’m not disappointed.

As the first unmistakable notes come out, the song lifts me in the same way it did when I heard the album version for the first time. This song, in its tempo, guitar sample and lyrics, is a fantastic summation of a lot of Tech’s philosophies. It’s one of the first songs by him I’ll play for a new listener as it evokes a sense of hope mixed with a fleeting melancholy that’s eerie to listen to. When he moves through lines like, “Even though we survived through the struggle that made us/we still look at ourselves through the eyes of people that hate us” and “The cold war’s over, but the world is still getting colder/Atlas walking through the projects with the hood on my shoulders,” you feel the mixture of promise and desperation that fuels Tech’s music. This dichotomy is brought out as he laments that he’d like his “children to grow up to be soldiers, but then a general will decide when their life’ll be over,” and you can feel his conflict between the things he knows must be done, and the consequences that he knows may follow. And despite all of this, he’s willing to overcome as he knows it must be done to serve his philosophy of social change.

He closes the concert with a call to political uprising delivered in Spanish before he jumps into the upbeat and energetic “Obnoxious” which has everyone in the venue dancing. The hands and fists are in the air as the entire crowd seems to dance as one. When he’s finished, he invites everyone to come talk to him, once more demonstrating his dedication to a community action approach and his willingness to interact with the fans. I believe at this point that he has to be absolutely exhausted from the show he just put on.

If you get a chance to see Immortal Technique in concert, even if you’re not a huge hip-hop fan, do it. Never have I seen a performer more in tune with the audience while at the same time being so incredibly focused on a message of activism and change. His faithfulness to his music and lyrics, his unparalleled intensity during the set, and his well rounded inclusion of groups supporting the causes he cares about made for an amazing concert. Only once or twice have I seen an artist bring that kind of energy and perfection to a performance, and the fact that he centers all of this focus on important social causes rather than women, money, guns and drugs as MCs usually portray them that elevates Immortal Technique beyond the standard rapper and into a performance category of his own.


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