The Last Poets are rightly called the godfathers of hip-hop. Formed in the late ‘60s and still very active today, the spoken word group first put rhythm to their politically-charged poems in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, inspiring a generation to use their voice and their words as tools of social justice.
This weekend, the Last Poets appear in a daylong spoken word workshop, showcase and performance at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma, as a fundraiser for local radio station KWTF. In the Bohemian this week, we profiled the group and spoke with founding member Abiodun Oyewole by phone from his home in Harlem. Here is our full interview.
Bohemian: How did you first get into poetry and form the Last Poets?
Abiodun Oyewole: I got into poetry because when I was a teenager in high school, I had a liking for older girls, and when I was 15 I started getting into writing poetry to win the favors of some of these ladies.
I remember my teacher had given us an assignment to write sentences with new vocabulary words. I went to my teacher, Mrs Carpenter, and I said, ‘If put these words into a poem, can I get an extra credit?’ and she looked at the words and said, ‘If you can put these words in a poem together and make sense, I’ll give you two extra credits.’ So that was the time I wrote a poem seriously. When my teacher read the poem, she looked at me and ‘You are a poet, I don’t know what you’re going to do with it, but you have quite a gift.’
I started getting into poetry seriously when they killed Dr King. Dr King was killed April 4, 1968. And when King was killed I really kind of lost my mind, because I felt it was such an insult to black people. He was representing us, and he was nonviolent. I just felt totally offended by that.
I had a friend named David Nelson, and he made mention of the idea of starting a group of poets that would be from different walks of life, and would be an example to black people as to how much we need to come together. No matter what our particular persuasions in life are, we have the same foot on our necks, and we need to unify to get the foot off.
Artists include Southern boy Big K.R.I.T., Kendrick Lamar’s crew Black Hippy, Bone Thugs N Harmony, Common, Curren$y, Tyler the Creator, rap’s most prolific socio-political commentator Immortal Technique, Talib Kweli, Tech N9NE, and of course Wu-Tang Clan.
Unfortunately, some of the really great artists like Kid Cudi, Common, Jhene Aiko and E-40/Too $hort will only perform certain dates, but for a baseline price of $89 (top ticket prices go up as high as $240, and that’s not including VIP) we can’t get too greedy. My guess, and I got five on it, is E-40 will hold down the Bay Area show. But I’m still hoping for a Kid Cudi appearance.
Check this week’s live announcement with Indiana-born, NYC-bred Supernatural (also performing), who set the world record in 2006 for the longest continuous freestyle rap at the Rock The Bells Festival in San Bernardino, CA. He rapped for 9 hours and 15 minutes. Holy shiiiit.
The year is 2043, America has split into two countries, Chinese is the most-spoken language on the planet and music is made almost entirely on computers. A grizzled old man sits next to the holographic Yule log fireplace steaming from Netflix 3D and beckons the children from their video game contact lenses to listen to his story.
Gather round here, kids, I have a story for you. It takes place in a time before holograms were commonplace, when we had to use our own hands and feet to drive our cars, when there only one United States of America and one man sought to bring us together before this country was torn apart. That man’s name was Snoop Dogg.
Now, this man was a musician, and of course his real name wasn’t Snoop. He wasn’t really a dog, either. He had a simple message: smoke as much weed as you possibly can and have a good time. He spoke through the language of hip-hop, and his quest began 60 years ago when he made an album–that’s uh, it’s like a whole bunch of songs in one, uh, CD, which is like a disc with music, oh never mind–called Doggystyle, which was a pun on his name by referencing, well, you’ll find that out later when you grow up. But the point is it was clever. He used clever rhymes and catchy beats and hooks to become a superstar in the music world, and his primary message later in his career became about smoking weed and having a good time, back when it was illegal.
Snoop Dogg, AKA Snoop Lion recently did a Q&A session on social networking Internet aggregator site Reddit.com (they’re called AMA–Ask Me Anything–and President Obama did one just before the election), answering hundreds of questions, far more than other celebrities, with 10-words-or-less answers. What catches my eye is the answer to “How weed do you smoke in a week?” with a simple “81 blunts a day x 7.”
This is why I love the Internet. The ensuing discussion includes calculations of just how much weed that actually is. One person says 22 pounds per year, and is promptly reprimanded for calculating “matchstick-sized blunts.” The actual amount for Snoop-sized blunts, assuming two grams per blizzle, is 130 pounds a year. The post is then corrected further to equate to 131.98 pounds.
This breaks down to one blunt every 12 minutes, assuming eight hours of sleep per 24 hours. But obviously, Snoop does not smoke all of those on his own, Snoop is a giver and has a large crew. He might take just one hit of any given blunt, but that still counts.
Sure, the rap legend changed his persona and made a record of reggae with no rapping whatsoever on it, which just dropped a single on Youtube. But the questions didn’t really focus on this, and Snoop, to his credit, didn’t really push it that much. He just answered questions, no matter how obscure, for hours.
Other vital Snoop-formation:
– Snoop-approved munchies include: pistachios, Fritos BBQ Twists and Red Vines
– The only people to smoke HIM out are Willie Nelson, Wiz Khalifa and B-Real
– Snoop’s favorite stoned album is Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly”
– OG Kush is Snoop’s favorite strain of marijuana
– He prefers Cadillacs to trains
– Snoops’ favorite performance was on the Arsenio Hall show.
– Snoop enjoys soccer and plays FIFA 2012
– He was weed-free about five years ago for 164 days straight.
– Snoop enjoys kung-fu movies.
– His guilty musical pleasure is K-POP
By the way, Mr. Dogg/Lion is playing at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma on Dec. 15 ($70) and the Uptown Theater in Napa in Dec. 14 ($60). Bring some BBQ Twist Fritos and see if he wants to chill after the show.
“Like a Tumblr blog in which each photo, scrap of text, or embedded video is posted without context, contributing a single point to the overall aesthetic, the swag life encourages you to take cultural artifacts that speak to you — be they punk rock or crunk rap, secondhand sweaters or designer shoes — and fit them like novel bricks into the multicolored wall of your own image.”
I write this week about the new hip-hop compilation released by teenagers in San Rafael, Many Thoughts, One Myc, which is as pure a representation as possible of what kids are thinking, hoping, wishing for, copying, creating, decrying and delineating in Marin County. Not everyone wants to grow up to drive their PT Cruiser to yoga class, it turns out. Even intellaFLOW’s track “GoodLife”—he’s the focus of the article—puts a realistic bent on what defines success: “A little bit material,” he raps, “and a little bit spiritual.”
I wasn’t able to talk up the rest of the CD in the paper’s limited space, but Many Thoughts, One Myc reflects a post-Hyphy Bay Area, where stunna shades might be dead but the beat goes on. Consider it a gas, brake, and dip—with a left turn added. Characteristic of the album is Bay S.L.A.M.’s “We From the Bay,” which preaches unity among all races, and H-Block’s piano-driven scraper anthem “Fast and Furious,” which makes me wish I didn’t drive a clunky 1989 Ford van.
Two tracks in particular stick out: the dark instrumental “Flatline’s Slap,” by quiet, 15-year-old producer Flatline. He loops a didgeridoo sound over perfectly synched bass and drums, and when the hi-hats come in, it kills. The flipside is “Taste My Rainbow,” an incredible spoken-word piece from Chinita, which stresses maintaining mentality, showing confidence and staying true to oneself in the face of haters. I’m not sure the BPMs match up, but the two are begging to be mixed together.
Many Thoughts, One Myc can be ordered here.
Last night, the City of San Francisco belonged to Adam Theis.
At 8:06pm, the lobby of the Palace of Fine Arts was full, over a hundred people, with two lines for will call and another line for ticket purchases. Inside the theatre, all seats were occupied; standing-room overflow lined the aisles. Onstage, the orchestra had already begun playing, trying to fit as much music as possible into the tiny time frame allowed.
At the front was the man of the hour, Adam Theis, conducting this impossibly huge ensemble after a year of nonstop writing. San Francisco’s own Theis—of the Jazz Mafia, the Realistic Orchestra, the Shotgun Wedding Quintet and an upbringing in Santa Rosa—stood casually in sneakers and a hooded sweatshirt, overseeing the premiere of his magnum opus and life’s work thus far.
This is no local-boy-makes-good story. After the incredible composition unveiled last night, it’s time to stop with the hometown platitudes and officially herald Adam Theis as a major talent.
Brass, Bows & Beats is a work on par with Miles Davis & Gil Evans’ Live at Carnegie Hall or Charles Mingus’ Epitaph—visionary in scope, staggering in depth. Rarely have I heard live music of greater variety without the variety itself taking center stage. If there is a dominant theme to the work, it is that we are all one, and it makes its case with dizzying arrangements, evocative poetry and an impossible-to-resist urge to get down.
In the great jazz tradition, Adam Theis has spent ten years playing virtually nonstop in San Francisco’s small nightclubs. Sometimes he’ll play a whole set of loose, free-form funk songs. Sometimes he’ll stick to strictly jazz. Lately he’s been showcasing special sets of instrumentals sampled by De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, bringing attention back to the sources of classic hip-hop songs. Beats, Bows and Brass combines all of this activity with cerebral aplomb and an unerring personality that widely circumvents the rudimentary hokum of early jazz/hip-hop hybrids like Jazzmatazz or Hand on the Torch.
Theis conducted his 48-piece orchestra, played trombone and bass, spoke humbly between segments and animatedly tossed his charts to the stage floor throughout the performance. He allowed his players, and particularly his vocalists, to take the limelight. He stepped aside when violinists Anthony Blea and Mads Tolling went head-to-head in the dual jazz improvisation “Blea vs. Tolling”; when rappers Lyrics Born, Aima, Dublin, Seneca and Karyn Paige evoked the Mission District in “Community 2.0”; and when DJ Aspect McCarthy scratched along to beatbox breakdowns while the brass section swelled and ebbed dramatically.
On the surface, Brass, Bows & Beats is akin to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in that it brings a genre associated with black music into the symphonic realm. Theis does the same for hip-hop with Brass, Bows and Beats, but a closer cousin is Gordon Jenkins’ 1949 vignette Manhattan Tower, in which a great city is realized through a work of music that feels as alive as the city itself. Without a doubt, Brass, Bows & Beats is the sound of San Francisco in 2009; intelligent, soulful and diverse.
Once the official symphony was over, a second, looser set opened with an Astor Piazzolla song featuring Colin Hogan on the accordion. Joe Bagale brought the house down with his soul cry “Love Song,” and Jon Monahan conducted Eric Garland’s “Arc Line.” Those awaiting a party-rocking amalgam—in line with the Jazz Mafia’s many nights at Bruno’s—were rewarded near the end when the intensity level was raised markedly by Lyrics Born, who had been a small accessory to the first set.
Working the front of the stage, Lyrics Born brought the entire Palace of Fine Arts to its feet with full-orchestra versions of his own album tracks. A slow, sultry “Over You” and the hands-in-the-air “Hott 2 Deff” balanced the serious nature of the first set; the veteran Bay Area rapper then joined a full-frontal freestyle by all six vocalists for a television crime drama “Streets of San Francisco / Theme from S.W.A.T.” medley, arranged by Jeanne Geiger, that thrillingly increased in tempo toward the euphoric finish of a great night.
Attention, rest of the world outside the Bay Area! Adam Theis and the Jazz Mafia: Recognize!
No one who lives locally and goes to hip hop shows—that is to say, thousands of people in Sonoma County—could have escaped the shocking headline in last week’s local newspaper. “Phoenix Theater Bans Rap Concerts,” it declared, in a mystifying statement that was as bold as it was hard to believe.
That’s because it wasn’t true. The Phoenix Theater has not banned rap concerts.
Here’s what happened: in a letter sent out early last week, the Phoenix Board addressed the lingering issue of a 17 year-old from Concord who was found during a police dispatch after a Super Hyphy show starring Keak da Sneak and Mistah F.A.B.; while the kid was being tackled by police across the street, he allegedly tossed a loaded 9mm pistol through the doors of Pazzo, a nearby nightclub. In the letter, the Phoenix stressed that it would continue to do everything in its power to ensure the safety of its patrons, and noted that it had postponed three upcoming hip hop shows while its security measures were reviewed.
Nowhere in the letter did the word “ban” appear. If anything, the Phoenix’s dedication to future safety and promise of heightened security pointed directly to a continuation of, and a commitment to, presenting live hip hop.
When I first saw the headline I was mortified. Then, as I read the article, I realized that the people at the Phoenix probably just felt like they needed to address the complicated workload of the Petaluma Police Department, the concerns of parents, and the irate comments posted online by blatant racists. So they said they’d lay low for a while, reassess a few things, and wait until the whole thing cooled off.
I talked with a member of the Phoenix board that night, and a letter to the editor showed up two days later from the Board president clarifying things; it turned out that my hunch was more or less right, and the Phoenix already has some hip hop shows booked again. But why, then, the completely incorrect headline?
As a writer, I should understand how media works. I don’t, exactly, but I do know of the propensity for criticizing what you don’t understand and wanting it to go away. Wanting so much for it to go away, in fact, that you might tell everyone that it actually had gone away in the hopes that it will follow suit and leave you alone.
Naturally, accusations of racism have been raised about the general attitude towards hip hop in Sonoma County, and while there’s no doubt that that’s an active element, I don’t think it’s entirely accurate per se, or, at least, that simple. What I think is at the core of racism, however, is the same thing that’s at the core of most denunciation of hip hop: making an uninformed choice to hate something based purely on surface elements.
You can say, and you’d be right, that a lot of balled-out, gun-toting, hoe-slapping rap stars bring condemnation upon themselves (you could also make a case for the obviously over-the-top, unserious extravagance of such poses, but that’s a different story). But to be honest, I believe that most hostility towards hip hop comes from recoiling in disgust at the actual sound of the music itself. 30 years after its inception, an opinion still prevails among older people—and especially the large population of older, rich, white people in Sonoma County—that hip hop isn’t “real music.” It instantly annoys.
If they did give rap music a try, they might discover some that they actually liked. Like evaluating a bottle of wine, subtle nuances either make or break a rap song, and finding the good artists only means ascertaining these idiosyncrasies. To your grandma, say, Talib Kweli sounds just like 50 Cent, but if she actually trained her palate and listened—listened!—she might say, “know what, mu’fucka, this Kweli cat is on some other shit!” (Or, you know, the grandmotherly equivalent thereof.) But is she ever going to do that? Hell no, because people get old and closed-minded and see numbskulls like Kanye West blathering away on television and make up their minds that rap music is a scourge on humanity and that’s that.
Growing up in the 1980s, listening to rap music for me was revelatory. Albums like Raising Hell, Paid in Full and Paul’s Boutique made me feel, at 12 years old, like everything in the world was within my grasp. I assume that kids these days feel the same way too.
In fact, I know for a fact that they feel the same way. I’ve gone to lots of hip hop shows at the Phoenix. And I haven’t seen as much empowerment, positivity and unity in one room in the last five years as I have at some of those Super Hyphy shows, crazy to say. Whatever your take on the style performed, there’s no denying that those shows provide a face-to-face opportunity for teenagers to relate to each other in a positive way with music that is distinctly theirs. If you strip kids of that opportunity, you’re not only erasing from their lives some of the most important memories they’ll have of coming of age, but also saying that you don’t trust them to feel like individuals or to form their own opinions. What kinda shit is that?
Ultimately, anyone trying to ban or acquiescing to media pressure to ban hip hop—clubs that change their DJs, radio stations that change their format—they’re all just gonna look like total fools in the end. Hip hop is the most alive and popular form of music in the world. It has been for years and years. You could say, harking back to the same damn thing that happened 50 years ago, that it’s here to stay.
A few final things: I actually feel for the writer of the newspaper article; not a lot of people are aware that staff writers don’t come up with the headlines for their own articles. Blame the editor. And also, the first show that the Phoenix postponed was an Andre Nickatina appearance scheduled for the incredibly inconvenient hour of 3:00 in the afternoon, put on by Nickatina himself, which for some stupid reason cost an astronomical $35. No big loss.