The Coup may just be Oakland’s greatest hip-hop group. Active since the mid-‘90s, they’ve amassed an enviable catalog of five very good-to-excellent albums, while growing musically and creatively during their progression from the sample-and-loop aesthetics of early material like Kill My Landlord and Genocide and Juice all the way through the neo-funk and urban new wave of later albums like Pick a Bigger Weapon and Sorry to Bother You.

The Couop's Boots Riley at Pandora's Whiteboard Sessions

The Coup’s Boots Riley at Pandora’s Whiteboard Sessions

The Coup are underrated musically, in large part due to their political lyrics – something which hasn’t changed since the ‘90s. Their agitprop reached an apotheosis with 2001’s Party Music, whose controversial, never-released cover seemed to predict the Twin Towers blowing up. Since then, their radical activist/non-conformist sense has only gotten more defined, as has Coup front man Boots Riley’s storytelling ability.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that their recent single “The Guillotine” rates high in Pandora’s “offensive” category, although not for the reasons you might think. The song seems to advocate for a people’s rebellion on the level of the French Revolution, but political content isn’t what earned it that rating – the use of profanity on a couple lines red-flagged it in the Oakland music tech firm’s music genome algorithm.

5 million ways to kill a CEO: The Coup

5 million ways to kill a CEO: The Coup

“The Guillotine” was one of the songs The Coup played during a recent “whiteboard” live performance at Pandora HQ – a monthly happening for Pandora employees which will eventually migrate to YouTube and later be made available for the band’s use. The five song set—which several Pandorites called the best whiteboard show yet—also included the newish tunes “Strange Arithmetic” and “Magic Clap,” and two oldies: “5 Million Ways to Kill A CEO” and “Gunsmoke.” It was ironic hearing a song excoriating corporatism in a corporate office, but Riley’s anti-1% diatribe didn’t seem to bother any of the employees; to the contrary, they loved it.

Oakulture was lucky to be a fly on the wall as Pandora’s music analysts broke down their genome categories to Riley and the band, following the performance. The Pandorites meticulously explained all the categories which go into a musical analysis – something they do for every song that streams on their online meta-jukebox.

Riley seemed intrigued by the breakdown of the Pandora genome formula, which allows them to match songs to listener preferences in a much more detailed way than what radio is currently using. For example, vocal delivery can be “light or breathy,” “smooth or silky,” “gritty or gravelly,” or “nasal”; other categories include “presence/personality,” “emotional intensity,” and “trippiness.” Each category is rated on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being the highest.  In case you’re wondering, “Guillotine” scored a 4 in the “vernacular to refined” category relating to lyrical content—showing a tendency toward the verbose, as opposed to slang-heavy—and also skewed toward “abstract.”

Gods of Science: The Coup at Pandora

Gods of Science: The Coup at Pandora

“Why is it abstract?,” the emcee wondered, and was told that there was some ambiguity in his rhymes.

When showed a chart showing that the Coup’s music was most often matched up with underground/backpack hip-hop (The Roots, dead prez, Talib Kweli, Dilated Peoples),” he differed somewhat. “A lot of our songs would go in multiple genres,” he insisted.

Afterwards, Riley had a few words to say about the experience: “I think there are definitely some other elements to how people like music, I don’t know if they are unquantifiable, maybe they are, or maybe they’re just not part of the formula yet.”

No matter how good an algorithm, Riley said, it doesn’t completely replicate the human element in music appreciation. He gave the example of a DJ, who might base a playlist “on their knowledge of the people, the scene, what’s happening at the time… none of those genomes are like, what the song talks about. Not even political [content], but something on the finger of the pulse of what people are thinking about …  you can’t analyze that with those numbers.”


Sarah Filley and Ashara Ekundayo at Impact Hub Oakland

Sarah Filley and Ashara Ekundayo at Impact Hub Oakland

The intersection of culture and tech makes for interesting bedfellows, and clearly, Pandora’s success has opened up new pathways in how music is presented in a digital age (even if their formula still has room for refinement).  That the juxtaposition of those themes is part of the Oakland zeitgeist right now is also evidenced by the recent openings of two new co-working venues, located with blocks of each other, in the Uptown area.

Impact Hub Oakland and OakStop  both fit the co-working model: work spaces geared for professionals, entrepreneurs and freelancers which offer more interactivity than telecommuting from home and more connectivity and support services than a wi-fi-enabled café. They both envision themselves as multi-use venues, offering members everything from office suites to presentation or exhibition space. Their emergence adds a point of emphasis for the culture/tech dynamic which is one of the biggest reasons for Oakland’s current “hotness” as a destination, incubator, and media darling.

Jennifer Johns christens OakStop with a live performance

Jennifer Johns christens OakStop with a live performance

Where they differ, however, is in focus. Impact Hub tilts more toward the tech end of the spectrum: on a recent visit, a number of coders and app-developers peered over their laptops as PopUpHood’s Sarah Filley lectured about micro-entrepreneurs, although New Age healers, tai chi practitioners, and a breakfast talk series called “Grits and Greens” are also part of the mix.

“Impact Hub Oakland is a container where people in the community who may or may not have been traditionally invited into a conversation around entrepreneurship, have the opportunity to bring to fruition what makes them come alive,” says co-founder Ashara Ekundayo. More than just being a workspace, she adds, “you get to have these serendipitous encounters with people, you get to expand your idea of what Oakland’s identity really is about.”

OakSpot's Trevor Partham

OakStop’s Trevor Parham

Meanwhile, OakStop gravitates toward the cultural end of the spectrum, by appealing specifically to creatives:  artists, graphic designers, photographers, etc. The space’s soft opening on Feb. 20 was punctuated by a live performance by singer Jennifer Johns (featuring DJ Aebl Dee and pianist Kev Choice), live painting by James Gayles, and a pop-up portrait studio conducted by Blk Pxls.

Though OakStop is a creative space, its clean look reflects a conscious decision: “The idea was to create an environment reminiscent of a tech startup workplace that would also provide a professional and stylish environment for creatives and artists,” says founder Trevor Parham. Johns is another partner; she and Parham have launched an awareness campaign called Creating Sustainability and a mobile app, GO LIV, the first in a planned series of co-branded products incubated through OakStop.

“Overall, our mission is to bolster the creative businesses here in Oakland and try to create a little bit more economic sustainability for those creatives,” Parham says. In addition to providing a home base for creative types, OakStop will also be hosting events; an art gallery is also planned for the space, which is scheduled to debut at March’s First Friday, with the introduction of a monthly event called “Funk Murmur,” featuring live music curated by Liquid Funk Sound Lab.

Co-working for a living: Impact Hub Oakland

Co-working for a living: Impact Hub Oakland

Sustainability remains the bottom line for co-working spaces, just as it does for Oakland as a whole. As the tech industry inevitably expands into Oakland, the hope is that the area’s cultural sensibilities and commitment to community-oriented ideals will balance out the influx of the new-moneyed, suits-and-hoodies crowd.

“Oakland has always been the heartbeat of the country when it comes to humanity, social justice, equity,” says Impact Hub co-founder Konda Mason. “That heartbeat, mixed with technology, mixed with the intention of having an equitable, sustainable, socially just world, is underneath all that you’re seeing in the intersection of technology and culture.”


Town Futurist Sessions with Kev Choice, Antique, The Genie, Do DAT, Wolfhawkjaguar, Sunru, Mike Smithstonian, Cole, Davu Flint, Yaquelin Laporte, Ka Ra Kersey, Haji Basim, Haji Basim, Jern Eye, March 5, 9pm, Legionnaire Saloon, 2272 Telegraph

Teatro Flamenco, March 7, 9:30pm, $15, Duende, 468 19th St.

1st Annual Betti Ono My Art, My Culture Awards, March 8, 6pm, $20, Betti Ono, 1427 Broadway

Alika (Queen of Latin Reggae), March 9, 6pm, $10-$13, the New Parish,  579 18th St.

Punk Funk Mob, NighTraiN, City of Women, March 9, 9pm, $7, the Night Light, 311 Broadway





2 Responses

  1. Eric K Arnold

    @ Michelle: The promoters are billing Alika as “the queen of Latin reggae,” so it may be different from reggaeton, which is a spin-off genre that has evolved on its own, and draws from other influences than reggae, such as hip-hop, cumbia, salsa, indigenous music, and EDM. This is a matter of some debate, but it is a fact that reggaeton didnt exist when El General first started issuing dancehall songs en Espanol in the late 80s.


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