It’s a scorching Saturday in July and the sun seems oily and cruel. Fresh off a tour with the Coup, premier spoken-word poet Ise Lyfe fills a plastic 24-ounce cup with Pepsi at a gas station in East Oakland. Ise doesn’t usually drink sugary soft drinks, but today he’ll make an exception.
“This is the only way I’ll make it through the interview,” says the East Bay native, who spent most of the night recording new tracks at the local Soundwave Studios. Wearing a straw visor to hide his sunken orbs, Ise says he clocked about three hours of sleep before waking up early to pick up a check in San Francisco. He has loose plans to hit up a talent show at Berkeley’s Black Repertory Theatre this evening, but first he has to buy a white shirt for tomorrow’s family photo shoot at Sears. To top it all off, he can’t find the CD he was rhyming over the night before — a compilation of beats by Korise Jubert from the local rap duo Boogie Shack (it eventually turns up in a hard-to-reach place under the passenger seat of his 2006 Chevrolet Classic).
Such a hectic schedule affords little fun time for Ise. He had planned to blow off some steam this afternoon at the batting cages by McAfee Coliseum, or at the shooting range in San Leandro. Now he wants to do both.
The poet doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who enjoys baseball bats and shooting stuff on his free time. It turns out to be a secret pleasure. “I guess I have no vices,” he says. “I don’t smoke weed. I don’t drink. People think I’m Joe Cool.” He’s right.
The 23-year-old has already shared the stage with Dave Chappelle and E-40, and is probably the only guy in Oakland who can rap about community improvement and healthy eating habits without sounding like a hip-hop schoolmarm. When he took the stage at Rasputin’s Berkeley store to celebrate the national release of his debut album SpreadtheWORD, women made cow eyes at him while guys bobbed their heads in approval. The poet takes himself so seriously that SpreadtheWORD comes with a flier for the “Save Our Children” initiative. Not a ballot initiative, but a pledge to “take initiative.” It’s followed by a bullet-point list of everything from which children need to be saved: juvenile detention facilities, prostitution, “miseducation,” kidnapping, drugs, abandonment, alcohol, and the media.
Yet when you meet Ise in person, he is surprisingly cool and aloof. “I’m relatively private, and sometimes it bothers folks,” the artist explains. He lives with his brother in West Oakland, but says he also has a “hideout” (actually an apartment, he admits) about twenty minutes outside of Oakland — that’s as much as he’ll disclose.
Driving to the batting cages, Ise points out some of his old East Oakland haunts. There used to be a Century 8 movie theater over by the Coliseum, he says, in what’s now a strip mall with a Panda Express, Wal-Mart, and T-Mobile store. He remembers seeing Juice there in 1992, and watching someone shoot up the screen. No cops came. He saw Schindler’s List at the same theater a year later, while on a school field trip. His classmates started laughing during one of the scenes, prompting someone to call the police. “They sent eight cops to the theater,” Ise recalls. “They yelled at us and made our class leave.”
Ise says he used to ride his bike along the estuary in East Oakland, down by all the broken-down airport hangars. That’s how he discovered the batting cages. “It’s really a place for white kids to come with their dads,” he says.
There are, indeed, a couple white kids with their dads at the batting cages, and Ise turns out to be a slugger. He uses an aluminum hard ball bat and hits 55 mph pitches. Swinging the bat puts him in a good mood, so after one round he’s ready to move on to the shooting range in San Leandro.
In the car, he bumps a compilation of beats by Will Bracy, a senior at McClymonds High in West Oakland, where Ise teaches a writing class with YouthSpeaks. Ise says Bracy stood apart from the other kids: “He had kind of a cocky swagger to his self. He gave me these beats last night, and said, ‘All of my kicks are right on time.'”
At the end of a gravelly cul-de-sac lined with eucalyptus trees lies the San ‘ro shooting range. A few muscle-bound guys strut around the place in wifebeaters while their slinky girlfriends look on. The sharp crackle of gunfire cuts through the air. “It’s kind of unnerving, huh?” says Ise with a mischievous grin.
He keeps an ear pressed to his cell phone as he walks toward the range’s office and returns five minutes later, looking frustrated. The place doesn’t rent guns out, and Ise has left all of his at home. The peace poet owns guns? Witnessing a homicide at age fifteen put him on a path to poetry, but he says he still fears the Man enough to collect firearms. His favorites are a .38-caliber handgun and a paintball gun that can load up to twenty balls at a time.
He shoots for the same reason he bats — to relieve stress and keep his aim intact. “It’s an unfortunate part of my reality.”