Oakland music in 2014 is at an interesting crossroads. On one hand, there’s the Town’s storied history of gritty funk bands, underground hip-hop hustlers, talented jazzbos and soulful singers. On the other, there’s the newer trends toward turfed-out urban swagger , multi-ethnic fusion, and alternative-minded indie rockers, emerging at a time when the Town’s dynamic cultural arts scene is suddenly on the radar of a lot of folks who weren’t paying attention before.

For an Oakland native like Kev Choice, the narrative that’s playing out now, of a blue-collar city’s metamorphic transformation into a hipster’s paradise, strikes him as a little odd – and a little off. “I’ve been in Oakland for 30 years.  It’s not like it’s just now [become] this great place that people are starting to appreciate,” says the talented musician.

Kev Choice and Uriah Duffy“A lot of people are like, oh, Oakland is the place to be now, and it’s cool and this and that. But I be like, we’ve always had these cool cultural things going on, and there’s always been a diversity here, but now it’s kind of like, a trendy destination or trendy place to hang out. We’ve always had those cool elements and cool people and community of creative people doing great things.”

The changes Choice has seen in Oakland over the years are one of the lyrical themes running through his new album of all-original music, Oakland Riviera. According to the pianist/composer/emcee/producer, the album addresses “some of the different things going on in Oakland in certain songs, things going on in our community or just the difference from then and now. Like when I was growing up in East Oakland, or when I moved over by the lake and seeing how that had changed, or just seeing how different neighborhoods have changed and other influences are coming in, and it also means tryin’ to move myself and my life.”

mxjf 2012 166Since first emerging on the local music scene as the musical director for Lauryn Hill in the mid-2000s, the classically-trained, jazz-educated hip-hop head has balanced a prolific career as a sideman with his own emergence as a solo artist and bandleader (with the Kev Choice Ensemble). Choice’s eminent musicality infuses his style of hip-hop, which contains much more lyrical and musical substance than most rap these days.

“A lot of hip-hop stuff is basic, it has synthesized keyboards, drum machines, computers, whatever,” Choice shrugs.  “I’m taking some of those elements and just adding my compositional flair to it.  An extended intro or an extended outro, or a coda, a reprise, just stuff like that.”

While he says it’s still cool to see a DJ and emcee making traditional hip-hop, he thinks hip-hop live bands are underrepresented. “I know there’s a lot of people who like hip-hop who appreciate all styles of music,“ he adds.

kev choice porkpie hatHis new album, he says, represents his first “official official” release, after a series of mixtapes and a debut effort, The Power of Choice, which was a compilation of different songs he had recorded at different times. Oakland Riviera, he says, incorporates much more of the vibe from the KCE’s eclectic live shows and feels more like an album, with many of the tunes being recorded over the same time period.

“It’s definitely the best representation of me as a bandleader” to date, Choice says.  On the album, “I have a lot of musicians that play with me, from John Adams, to Howard Wiley to Marcus Phillips. I’ve even got special guest musicians, [like] Marcus Shelby and violinists… people who know me from the live show know how I get down live, but they never quite heard [that sound] recorded.”

Asked to name three favorites from the album, he ticks off “That’s Life”: “I got Marcus Shelby to play acoustic bass on it, I got flutes and violins, bringing these live elements together, to make a dope hip hop track.”

Another tune, “Can’t Be Free,” features another Oakland representative, Mistah FAB: “I’ve appreciated him and his grind and his hustle for years.”

kev choice_betti onoThe third song he mentions is an instrumental—he has several such interludes on the album, all of which are named after streets in Oakland—called “E14 International,” which “kind of has an international vibe to it.”

Choice can’t resist adding a fourth favorite, “Crazy Illusion,” on which his vocal cadences emulate the sung/spoken-word flavor of one of his inspirations, the late Gil Scott-Heron. “The first verse is, ‘what happens to our soul/ I cant feel it no more,’” he explains. “Sometimes we’re all caught up in a crazy illusion of what we feel should be happiness or how we should be living, it’s like, really, the things we chase really ain’t making us happy anyway.”

hiero day 2013 d300s 144“Crazy Illusion” was one of the songs Choice recently previewed for a First Friday crowd at at the Betti Ono Gallery, during what was announced as a “pop-up show.” The brief, three-song performance was a tune-up for Choice’s headlining gig at Yoshis January 16, during which he’ll be playing a considerable amount of new material.

The album’s title, he explains, was inspired by his experiences on tour with the Coup overseas, “being in beautiful places… exotic places,” and then returning home.

“There’s no specific place called Oakland Riviera, but it kind of grew as a concept in my mind and I started thinking how could i express that. With me being a musician from Oakland and traveling around the world and also, me being an emcee and being a pianist and a composer, it’s almost like bringing different elements together to make one world.”

first friday aug 2013 274Choice describes the music he makes as “grown folks’ hip-hop” – an interesting paradigm. While there’s an entire generation of hip-hop listeners who grew up during the classic hip-hop era of the ‘90s, that demographic is entirely under-served by today’s commercial mainstream fare. There’s no radio format which occupies a niche in-between KBLX’s mix of R&B and neo-soul and KMEL’s minimalist, bleating trap raps.

“I feel I could make a KMEL song,” Choice says, but instead he’s chosen to take a different musical approach, partially due to his background in jazz and classical, and partially due to his experiences playing with underground or alternative artists. “I have had the opportunity to work with so many phenomenal artists that tour the world, that don’t even get played on their own little radio station, so, I realize that you could have success as an artist without being a so-called commercial artist, like me rocking with Souls of Mischief or me rocking with Zion-I, or me rocking with Michael Franti and Spearhead. I’ve seen that over the years, that you don’t have to have that commercial success to be a successful artist or musician.”

blackalicious raw g kev choice 134Choice envisions himself making music for decades to come, and he’s not concerned about the perception of hip-hop as a genre tilted toward the youthful end of the spectrum. “I just saw Pharaoh Sanders, he’s still doing it… You look at some of the elders in hip hop, some of them are still doing things,” he says, noting that Jay-Z, Wu-Tang, and Hieroglyphics are all still active. “Even though I’m kind of older in the game, and I been around, I feel like I have a lot to say. Whether it be hip-hop, jazz, other genres or [as] a producer, I feel like I have a lot more to offer.”

What else can be said, except that Kev Choice offers hip-hop listeners a clear option beyond repetitive hooks and unimaginative rhymes? As Black Sheep once said, the choice is yours.


This week’s picks:

Kev Choice Oakland Riviera album release party, 1/16, 8pm,  $17-$20, Yoshis, 510 Embarcadero

Alta California presents Hour of the Wolf, 1/16, 8pm, $15, Cloud 9, 1320 9th St., Berkeley

Broun Fellinis, 1/18, 9:30pm, Lungomare, 1 Broadway

Monday Soul feat. Raevyn Justice, Eric Bellinger and DJ D-Sharp, 1/20, 9pm, $10-$25, New Parish, 579 18th

Stand! An UnderCover Tribute to Sly and the Family Stone, featuring Awesöme Orchestra Collective feat. The Bengsons, Bayonics, Ensemble Mik Nawooj, Marcus Shelby, Jazz Mafiz feat. Crossroads, Tumbleweed Wanderers, Will Magid & Friends, Zakiya Harris, Con Brio, 1/17-1/19, $25-$30, The Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF.







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