In May 2003, a thousand hip-hop MCs converged on MTV’s New York offices for a televised freestyle battle, vying for a $25,000 cash prize and a recording contract with Def Jam. Most competitors were walk-ups, but five rappers had guaranteed themselves a place in the qualifying round of 32 by winning on-air contests sponsored by their local radio stations.
Of that elite group, exactly one hailed from the West Coast: the Bay Area’s own Locksmith, who earned his slot by besting about a hundred competitors in an event sponsored by SF radio juggernaut KMEL. The MC officially represented his hometown of Richmond, a city so lacking in name recognition, New York hip-hop luminaries such as DJ Clue confused it with Los Angeles or San Francisco.
In New York City, many of the East Coast artists showed up with flashy entourages, but Locksmith arrived accompanied only by Left, his partner in the hip-hop duo known as the Frontline. Unknown and unheralded, Locksmith was paid little attention, much less considered a threat. “Me being from the West Coast, I was kinda like the one estranged, kinda different cat,” he recalls. “I just tried to stay focused.”
Yet being low-profile may have worked in his favor: “Nobody had time to prepare for me,” he adds. Impressing a panel of judges that included ten-time Grammy nominee Kanye West and platinum producer Just Blaze, Locksmith easily breezed through the round of 32 to make it to the “elite eight” finalists, who’d battle it out live on-camera at MTV’s famed TRL studio overlooking Times Square. In addition to the hundreds of people literally in the house, hundreds more watched from the sidewalks via the station’s myriad big-screen TVs.
Locksmith recalls that some of his wannabe rap-star adversaries exulted in naive optimism about instant fame, but “My insight was a little bit different,” he says. “I knew this would be a stepping stone.” He and Left, who are both in their twenties, planned to use any momentum generated by their MTV exposure to establish themselves as independent artists, “and hopefully take it to that next level.” Nor did the bright lights of the big city go to Locksmith’s head. Although “Some people froze up” when they saw the glitzy set and rows of cameras, “I was mentally prepared,” he maintains. He blew easily through the first two rounds.
The championship battle, pitting Locksmith against NYC rapper Reignman, took place in a mock boxing ring, complete with hooded robes for the contestants and Angelo Dundee-esque corner men played by rappers Keith Murray and Noreaga. Locksmith won the coin flip and elected to go second. He remembers that his opponent “had excellent presence, but none of his rhymes were really disabling.”
So when Locksmith’s turn came, “I just went straight at him.” With the crowd’s excitement adding to his adrenaline, “from beginning to end, it was just like attack after attack. I felt like I was on point.” When he finished, “The crowd was in hysteria. Even the judges, you could see the look on their faces: it was like, ‘Oh my God.'”
But to decide the victor, MTV turned not to the judges, but to phone and Internet voters. And though Locksmith felt he had clearly won, Reignman was announced as the winner, although the polling numbers and percentages were never shown.
“I was a little surprised, but actually I expected it,” Locksmith says. “Everybody kinda felt like there was a bias, which there was.”
Still, that experience didn’t deter the MC, who was more determined than ever to bring glory and honor to his region. “I just felt like, ‘This ain’t about me no more, this is about the Bay Area, repping the Bay, and letting people know that we got all facets of this music down.'”
So, after returning to Richmond, Locksmith and Left wasted no time, hooking up with veteran Oakland producer Ea-Ski and recording what would become the Frontline’s breakout signal, “What Is It,” which became an anthemic call to arms for what the upstart underdogs had optimistically called the “New Bay” movement.
A year and a half later, that movement is huge, and they’re on top of it.
Locksmith’s MTV success foreshadowed the remarkable renaissance the Bay Area enjoyed over the next eighteen months, as a once-underdeveloped underground scene gathered momentum and catapulted back into the national spotlight after years of drought and suffering. Indeed, 2004 was a great year for urban music in the Bay Area — easily on par with the golden age of the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Too $hort, Digital Underground, MC Hammer, Souls of Mischief, and Paris all scored gold or platinum records.
The Frontline spearheaded this resurgence. The duo’s full-length, self-released debut, Who R U, humanized and redefined hardcore rap upon its October 2004 release, providing a realistic urban perspective without tilting into over-the-top thug clichés. Instead of glorifying the dope game or the street hustle, Left and Locksmith address in no uncertain terms the consequences of that life, something rarely heard in turf rap.
Meanwhile, myriad other local artists were hitting on all cylinders, from more thuggish rappers (Vallejo’s Turf Talk and the inimitable E-40) to alt.hip-hop-heads (Quannum Projects star attraction Lyrics Born and his ubiquitous hit “Callin’ Out”) to neo-soul crooners (enigmatic genius Raphael Saadiq and Prince-worshipping loverman Baby Jaymes, not to mention buzzworthy singer Goapele). From a national publicity perspective, perhaps no one inspired more ink than the Federation, who turned an Oakland dance called “hyphy” (a combination of “hyper” and “fly”) into a monster single and national catchphrase similar to “pop ya collar” and “fa sheezy.” The group’s raucous tunes “Hyphy” and “Go Dumb” joined the Frontline’s “What Is It” and “Uh Huh” as the hottest records around this past summer, with mix-tape gurus, club DJs and, for a refreshing change of pace, commercial radio titans like KMEL and the short-lived Power 92 all solidly behind them.
A “New Bay” bandwagon quickly developed, and national media outlets — particularly East Coast entities infamous for ignoring and/or marginalizing West Coast innovation — stumbled all over themselves to jump aboard. XXL, The Source, Murder Dog, Blender, XLR8R, The Fader, and Newsweek.com all covered the emerging trend. Ea-Ski was even profiled in the normally stuffy Oakland Tribune. The buzz extended retroactively to already-established local artists such as Keak da Sneak, Bullys wit Fullys, and San Quinn, whose records suddenly commanded commercial radio spins as well, leading long-suffering Bay Area fans to declare that the drought brought on by Tupac Shakur’s 1996 murder was now over. Some “Old Bay-ers” have even jumped on the New Bay train; in addition to Ea-Ski’s work with the Frontline, E-40 (never one to slack in his work ethic) appeared on both “Hyphy” and Turf Talk’s “Slumper,” and Federation producer Rick Rock — the man behind both “Hyphy” and “Slumper” — cut his teeth on Bay Area mobb music in the ’90s before going on to make tracks for artists like Tupac and Jay-Z.
As with any regional sound that attracts national interest — whether it’s grunge in Seattle, two-step in England, or crunk in Atlanta — a ridiculous amount of hype was involved here, proving once again that music journalists looking for trend-based coverage will jump on any bandwagon that builds up steam. Even the Frontline’s publicist, Nicole Balin, admitted she didn’t know why national publications have taken such a sudden interest in the Bay Area after years of ignoring it altogether. But regardless of the motive, it worked. In the Federation’s Murder Dog cover story, editor and publisher Black Dog Bone noted that the Feds were the first Bay Area rap group to get signed to a major label (Virgin) in many a moon. “We should all be celebrating,” he crowed, although Rick Rock cautioned, “We ain’t celebrating that hard yet, because the mission’s not complete.” As the Federation’s Q&A in The Source indicated, part of that mission is overcoming the perception that the Bay is nothing more than “E-40 and slang dictionaries,” as the interviewer lamely put it.
Still, while the differences between this resurgent New Bay and the Old Bay may be more subtle than the East Coast media realizes, the Frontline represents the real deal: Who R U stands alone as a completely original take on the Bay Area hip-hop sound, upholding the region’s independent tradition while pushing it into heretofore-unexplored territories.
And it doesn’t get much more unexplored than Left and Locksmith’s hometown. “The thing that’s distinctive about Frontline is we’re from Richmond, so we’ve never had one artist to break into the mainstream,” Locksmith says. Other Bay Area cities like Oakland and Vallejo have frequently attracted wider recognition, “but as far as Richmond, we never really got that chance. So we can’t emulate. All we could do is just feed off each other and come up with our own sound.” <p
To understand how the “New Bay” came to be, a little background is first required on the “Old Bay,” itself an awkward term that reeks of obsolescence. It conjures up images of old-school diehards still listening to muddy-sounding Too $hort, 415, and Celly Cel cassettes in dented Regals and Impalas in dire need of new paint jobs, doing doughnuts at inner-city intersections until the wheels fall off. Which they almost did.
The Old Bay certainly had its day: From 1985, when Oakland’s original playa Too $hort released his first single, “Girl (That’s Your Life),” on the 75 Girls label, up until 1996 (when Tupac Shakur was gunned down on the Las Vegas Strip), the Bay Area rap scene was ballin’ outta control. Almost every nook and cranny of the region, from San Jose to Vallejo, developed its own variant on the “mobb music” sound — generally slow-rolling, bass-heavy “knocks” or “slumps” primarily designed for car stereos, usually accompanied by gangsta lyrics. However, the majority of these songs — like E-40’s “Tired of Being Stepped On,” the Whoridas’ “Town Shit,” and RBL Posse’s “(Don’t Give Me No) Bammer Weed” — weren’t fast or catchy enough to be club hits; furthermore, as the late Vallejo icon Mac Dre (himself gunned down in Kansas City late last year) once put it, those tunes were Too hard for the fuckin’ radio.
Still, independent labels such as Strictly Business, Sick Wid It, Young Black Brotha, and In-a-Minute routinely sold hundreds of thousands of units, attracting a considerable amount of major-label interest. At one time it was considered de rigueur for the majors to have at least one Bay Area rap artist on their rosters; several invested heavily and signed entire cliques and crews. In addition to the vast number of turf-identified, game-related, thugged-out pimps and playas, more mainstream-friendly Bay acts such as the Digital Underground, Del tha Funky Homosapien, and Souls of Mischief scored gold and platinum national hits. Last but not least, the Bay could also claim the first megasuccessful pop-rap crossover artist, MC Hammer, who moved ten million units of his 1988 album Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em.
But Tupac’s death didn’t just deprive the Bay Area (‘Pac got his start as a roadie with the still-active Digital Underground) of its most famous, controversial, and influential artist — it also signaled a shift in the rap zeitgeist. The spotlight Bay rappers had enjoyed shifted down south, where former Richmond resident Master P and Oakland pioneer Too $hort had both relocated. The same independent-to-major phenomenon repeated itself on a much more expansive level, as labels like Cash Money, Suave House, Big Tyme, and P’s No Limit amassed loyal national followings.
As E-40 put it in a 2000 interview, “The South developed its own representatives,” and the Midwest soon followed suit. Markets that once scooped up Bay Area product by the bucketload now supported their own artists, leaving this region increasingly more isolated from the rest of the country. The Federation described this phenomenon bluntly on “Hyphy”: Ever since ‘Pac died/Forgot about the West Coast.
During that post-‘Pac malaise, almost every Bay Area rapper signed to a major label (with the notable exception of E-40, who just completed a ten-year stint on Jive and is now signed to Lil’ Jon’s BME label) got dropped. Making matters worse, the market for homegrown indie music became flooded with subpar compilations and fly-by-night drug-dealers-turned-rap-entrepreneurs, more concerned with money than artistry. Tupac’s influence was felt strongly in the bay, just as it was around the world. But few, if any, of the newfangled Thug Lifers shared Shakur’s complex worldview, often more thoughtful and emotionally deep than detractors and devotees alike give him credit for. As Digital Underground frontman Shock G commented on Fear of a Mixed Planet, his excellent 2004 solo album, Everybody wants to be ‘Pac, but only copped the thug side.
So what changed, and when? While Locksmith’s second-place finish at the MTV battle catalyzed the New Bay movement, it actually started at least a year earlier. In 2002, the Frontline (who first formed in 1996) teamed up with battle-hardened, turf-affiliated Oakland MC Balance (formerly of the group Tango + Kash) and a bunch of other artists, including the Federation’s Goldie Gold, SF’s Mr. Kee, Oakland’s Mistah F.A.B., and Sacramento’s Zac Wood for the Watch Out Now and New Bay mix tapes. Back then, this confederacy of fresh-faced artists called themselves the New Bay to signify their new way of thinking. Early Frontline material such as “Califoolya” and “Workout” fused the hard-nosed attitude of mobb music with discernibly more agile lyrical dexterity; the term’s branding started during appearances by Left, Locksmith, and Balance on freestyle shows on SF commercial urban stations KMEL and WYLD, as well as LA’s Power 106.
In part, Balance says, the movement was born out of necessity — appearing on freestyle shows was “probably the only way we could get on the radio at that time,” he says. “We didn’t have any connections. I’m not talking about payola and shit like that, but just who you know. ‘Do you know the DJ, does the DJ know your music?'” Although “Nice Girl,” his duet with Baby Jaymes, is currently clocking morning drive-time spins on KMEL, Balance recalls that “At that time, we weren’t even thinking about radio.”
“I never heard of the New Bay until Balance and those guys started yelling ‘The New Bay,'” says Sean Kennedy, CEO of Ill Trendz, an Oakland-based record pool and urban marketing firm whose clients include national major-label artists and local indie hustlers alike — Kennedy boasts that he personally took the Bullys wit Fullys album to Jazzy Jim Archer at KMEL and got it approved for airplay. “The first time I heard of the New Bay was during the freestyle sessions at KMEL in February of 2003,” Kennedy recalls. “They were saying it on the radio. I never heard of it before, because they never had a platform before to promote that way.”
Given the opportunity, the Frontline ran with it. According to TheFrontlineOnline.com, “What Is It” averaged sixty to seventy spins a week at its peak, clocking more than a thousand plays on WYLD, KMEL, and Power 92 — which emerged in 2004 as a major local hip-hop champion and KMEL rival before abruptly switching formats from urban to electronic dance and party music this past fall. Left and Locksmith followed that success with two more mix tapes and an underground album, The Bootleg 2.1, which included freestyles from their radio appearances as well as original material. The MCs also set up the New Bay forum at Raptalk.net, a brilliant stroke of guerrilla marketing and promotions that allowed them to interact directly with their growing fanbase.
Not long after appearing at KMEL’s annual Summer Jam concert (headlined by LL Cool J, the event marked Left and Locksmith as the first rap act from Richmond ever to appear at the annual fete), the Frontline released its official debut, Who R U, which charted in the Bay Area Billboard Top 20 and has sold almost ten thousand copies in the Bay alone in a mere three months.
As its title suggests, Who R U is a statement record, with sixteen songs not only establishing the Frontline as the New Bay standard-bearers, but comprising one of the most original and innovative rap releases of 2004. Yet Left and Locksmith aren’t the kind of guys to rest on their laurels for a minute. They’ve secured distribution through Ryko, and are currently at work, with Ea-Ski again behind the boards, on a new single, which will appear on their rereleased, remixed, and retitled album, tentatively called Now You Know (slated for a national release this spring). The newest version of their album, Locksmith says, will contain at least 50 percent new material, as well as “more polished” versions of some of their older songs. They’re also planning to drop a DVD around the same time.
That runaway success coincided with “Hyphy,” both the song and the sonic lifestyle. The emergence of the New Bay gave rap fans everywhere a reason to care about the region again: Tempos became faster, beats more multilayered and urgent, hooks and choruses catchier and more suited for both radio and club play. Club and radio DJs, perhaps tired of requests for codeine-paced tunes by local artists, eagerly embraced this new style.
“There’s definitely a different sound in the New Bay,” says DJ Backside of the Untouchables crew, a mix-tape maven who spins several nights a week at various clubs and also holds down a weekly two-hour slot on KMEL. The biggest difference between the Old and New Bay, she feels, is in the production style, which has created a more party-friendly vibe: “A lot of the New Bay stuff is more hyphy, more get-you-on-the-dancefloor in the clubs.”
Big Von Johnson, KMEL’s music director, has also noticed the stylistic change. When he first started at the station in 2001, he says he often played records by Old Bay artists like Chunk or 5150 that didn’t get anywhere near the response the Federation and the Frontline now generate. “These records have been across-the-board good,” Johnson says, noting that many of the current New Bay hits didn’t start on the radio, but in the streets via mix tapes and online buzz.
Yet not everyone has accepted the New Bay scene with open arms. Some anonymous Internet posters and a few out-in-the-open local artists have taken offense. Sean Kennedy, for one, admits he is somewhat ambivalent about the phrase, noting there has been a lot of behind-the-scenes grumbling, even by some artists affiliated with the New Bay, as well as a couple “diss” records aimed at New Bay cats. Yet some of that can surely be attributed to envy. Almost as an afterthought, Numbskull of the Luniz — an Oakland group best known for the 1995 weed anthem “I Got 5 on It” — yelled out Fuck Frontline too on “Lights Out,” a mix-tape track whose epithets were mainly directed at G-Unit crew member and early-’05 buzz rapper the Game. And on the just-released Dope Game compilation, East Oakland rapper Verstyle (who is a little too young to be considered Old Bay) has a song titled “Locksmith,” which doesn’t specifically refer to the Richmond MC, but does contain some fairly graphic descriptions of violent threats:
Who’s next to get ripped by Vers?
Speak my name
Our streets don’t speak the same
How you claim to be a thug?
I extorted your style
Murdered you in your hood
in front of your crowd.
Any new movement or bandwagon creates friction with both newer and older artists who feel overlooked and underappreciated, especially in a culture as historically rich as the Bay Area’s. “The fact is, the New Bay is misunderstood,” Locksmith says. “It’s not like we want to move beyond it, because that’s what this resurgence of the Bay Area coming back to the forefront is all about.” To him, the New Bay represents a fresh attitude more than a generation gap per se. “People say, ‘Oh, it’s these new artists, it’s Frontline.’ But that’s not what it’s about. It’s actually a mindstate. It’s a movement, saying that the Bay Area is demanding the spotlight, we’re demanding respect on a global scale.”
Locksmith insists he isn’t trying to take anything away from the Bay’s pioneers — he just wants to put his own stamp on the region’s established sound. “Not like people hadn’t been repping the Bay, like E-40 and Too $hort,” he notes. “But to see a new face, it kinda gets you pumping. … 40 and them got so many years in the game, they solid in the game. You can’t just make that up in one day.”
“The problem, I think, is with a lot of people, they’re making up beefs,” Left says. “We talk with 40, we work with Ski. We were gonna do some songs with Mac Dre before he got murdered. We did some work with [Oakland OG rapper and onetime Def Jam recording artist] Richie Rich — I’m actually gonna do some tracks for him on his next album. We work with [San] Quinn. So what are you talking about?
“How ridiculous would it be if we never grew?” Left concludes. “If we just said, ‘You know what? The spotlight left us in ’96, and we gon’ stay the same until it comes back.'”
So, if Old Bay artists are involved to such a degree, is the New Bay really that new? It’s easy enough to debunk the hype on “Hyphy” — self-parodying comedy routines aside, the Federation would be garden-variety mobb music were it not for Rick Rock’s “slaps,” an innovative production style that has earned comparisons to the Southern crunk sound. As DJ Backside notes, the group’s rappers are “still talking about a lot of the same subjects,” just over more energetic tracks.
Overall, when directly comparing the Federation and Frontline’s albums, a huge difference is immediately evident, not just in terms of vibe and atmosphere, but especially with the lyrical content. Bolstered by Rick Rock’s beats, the Feds might have the ability to make a bucket feel like a Benz on the block, but they have nowhere near the verbal finesse of the Frontline, who stretch metaphors like a Chinese jump-rope. The Federation’s numerous references to “gats,” “clips,” “choppers,” and “hoodrats” with “donkeys” (large derrieres) are certainly ghetto fabulous, but nothing we haven’t heard before.
Yet while there’s definitely a streetwise edge to the Frontline’s sound, Left and Locksmith aren’t afraid to venture into uncharted territory. Who R U uses rock guitar riffs as well as exotic Moroccan gimbri samples, and the rappers eschew ignorance in their rhymes while still coming off “hard.” “We can’t continue to make music that the industry dictates,” Locksmith explains. “We have to make music that reflects us and our environment.”
Particularly notable is “The Rich,” the rap anthem Richmond never had, a celebration of civic pride for a city remembered mainly for negative headlines about murdered taxi drivers and high-school football stars, not to mention administrative corruption scandals and environmental catastrophes. Other tracks like “Don’t Push Me” and “That Ain’t You” make it clear that while the Frontline duo don’t claim to be killers, they won’t back down easily. They speak on both the superficiality of fake thug rappers and the inherent racism in the disparity of sentencing guidelines for powdered and crack cocaine. But the album’s truest, most conscious statement is the ironically titled “Gangsta,” on which Locksmith spits a verse of what is referred to on the streets as “real talk”:
I’m supposed to be a gangsta,
but I don’t manufacture the guns
I’m not the one that grows coke or puts crack in the slum
I don’t mediate the way the drug traffic is run
Or sell cigarettes to kids until it blackens their lungs
Make it so they’re backwards and dumb
Make it so their blackness is numbed
Use foreign countries to cultivate tobacco and guns
Use little children to manufacture fabric for crumbs
And imprison my niggas just for selling smack to some bums
You gave us money to flaunt, then turn around and toss us in a cell
Turned the streets into a passage from hell
Where every nigga with dreams has got a package to sell
And every other country I seen the upper classes are pale
You gotta lotta nerve, pointing your finger like your shit don’t smell
You probably praying that my shit don’t sell
You probably plotting to make sure my clique don’t gel
But I’m a make sure my shit don’t fail
Now who’s the motherfucking gangsta?
Killing innocent people — “Doing shit just to do shit,” as Locksmith puts it — isn’t what he considers gangsta. “To us, it’s gangsta to fight for your survival,” he explains. “Gangsta could be a good thing, like ‘That dude’s talking care of his kids, that’s gangsta.’ Then you got Bush and them dudes. When you can go around and get another people out of their country and have them living in tents and huts, you a gangsta.”
Including socially conscious lyrics in their material, Locksmith says, is “just who we are.” He notes that both he and Left were raised in Richmond’s “poverty-stricken” turfs, yet both attended college at UC Berkeley — Locksmith graduated from the African American Studies Department, while Left is still enrolled there. They both also chose to become Muslim, and remain very aware of their environment. “In our community, we see the stuff that’s going on,” Locksmith notes. “We see the dope fiends, and we’ve seen our relatives go through shit.”
As a youngster, Left was influenced by his uncle J. Jonah, a member of pioneering Richtown group C.I.N. (pronounced “sin”) who unfortunately got himself locked up — on Who R U, Frontline shouts Free J. Jonah — before he was able to realize his full potential as a rapper. Nevertheless, J. Jonah taught his nephew that the rap game was far more than just a hobby. “I got to see him coming home late at night with the reel-to-reels under his arm,” Left recalls. “Putting his posters up and pressing CD singles on cassettes. Coming home with hella vinyl. I used to ask him, ‘Why are you doing all this stuff? You’re wasting money.’ And he was like, ‘Naw, you gotta get the product out there, cause it’ll support the bigger picture.’ He showed me shit about the music that I needed to see. That was my biggest influence, to be honest with you.”
Another important factor in the Frontline’s artistic development was Locksmith’s older sister, MC Spice, from whom they picked up the nuances of live performance. “She was doing shows overseas and rocking crowds of like twenty thousand people,” Left remembers. “Those two together showed us the building blocks of the music game, the business, instead of being just rappers.”
Another reason the Frontline keeps it realer than most so-called “reality rappers” is the fact that both Left and Locksmith work part-time mentoring at-risk junior high and high-school-age kids — many of whom are in foster care — at the West Contra Costa Youth Center. “Basically, kids need that extra attention,” Locksmith says, “whether it be academics or a boys’ group.” Some of the kids they mentor are also interested in doing music, he adds, and when they heard the Frontline album, Locksmith feels it affected them in a positive way. “They’re like, ‘I’m not bound to do a certain thing. I can do what I feel. And I ain’t got to be out there talking about hitting somebody over the head.'” The lesson to be learned, he continues, is “It’s okay to experiment, ’cause they see that we did it. And it’s okay to go to college too; we both went to college. It’s okay to further your education and do this music, and work.”
“And be from the hood,” adds Left, who notes he was raised by his grandmother, something he shares with many of the kids he mentors. “It’s like, she’s old, and you gotta come to the reality that she has to go one day. That’s life. Now be prepared for that. Learn how to fill out a job application, learn how to balance your bankbook, learn how to manage going to school and working, as opposed to just thinking you got that silver spoon.”
A year and a half after that now-legendary MTV battle, the Frontline’s career appears to be going just the way the two planned, and their vision, unlike a lot of local artists, isn’t limited to just neighborhood fame or regional recognition. But while the New Bay phenomenon is cause for celebration, what Left and Locksmith are perhaps proudest of is the peaceful turnout by their Richmond fans at the Who R U record release parties, held at the Ambassador in San Jose and Mission Rock in San Francisco last October. It says something about Richmond’s fearsome reputation that the threat of violence is so great that few rap shows actually occur there for fear of fistfights (or worse) breaking out, which is why the Frontline booked those parties in other cities.
Yet at both shows, the two happily point out that not only was there no violence, but a harmonious vibe prevailed, even though some of what Left calls the “hood niggas” who attended were known to have beefs with each other. “If we can bring Richmond together, we don’t have to make another album,” Left says, flashing a rare smile.
A look at some of the New Bay artists.
They call him: Humpty-Hump
He calls himself: Humpty-Hump, but also Piano Man, the Crazy One, the Digital Lover, and the Son of the P (Funk)
For more evidence of Bay Area hip-hop’s evolution, look no further than Digital Underground frontman Greg Jacobs, aka Shock G. His recent solo album Fear of a Mixed Planet — which, though recorded in Los Angeles, features a bevy of Bay Area artists, from Ray Luv to Q-Bert — stands as a mature, poignant statement by the guy best known for his alter ego Humpty Hump and for introducing Tupac to the rap game.
The impact of DU’s onetime roadie on mainstream pop culture isn’t lost on Shock, who produced two of ‘Pac’s biggest hits, “I Get Around” and “So Many Tears.” The dichotomy between Tupac’s thug persona and his more thoughtful, positive side is explored now on Shock’s “Keep It Beautiful.” “I’m not trying to say cover shit up, sweep shit up under the rug,” he explains; nevertheless, he feels there is just too much negativity in rap these days. “We’re all just focusing on the bad right now. And it seems like the worse you had it, the more valid you are to rhyme. That shouldn’t be the case.” After Tupac’s death, hip-hop was overtaken by wannabe thug-lifers: “Pain became the popular tool to write from. I prefer to write from joy. Stevie Wonder was an artist who wrote from joy. Marvin Gaye often wrote from joy. … Artists that write from happy moods, from optimistic moods, from positive moods, shouldn’t be canceled out.”
As Shock notes, he has been in the game fifteen years, and thus has the freedom to say what he wants to say — “The last thing I should do with this platform I have is just perpetuate more of what’s already being said.” And at the end of the day, “I go to sleep good at night, knowing I said something relative to the problems of the world, even though it wasn’t so popular to say so.”
For example, Fear of a Mixed Planet‘s title track deals with the “simple and obvious” ways racism is perpetuated, even through something as innocuous-seeming as color identification. “Any time you refer to somebody as a color, you’ve added your brick to the fence between us,” Shock says — sage wisdom indeed, especially from the man who once boasted he Put the satin on your panties.
They call him: Neo-soul
He calls himself: Gospel-delic
While the indie-label model for hip-hop is a long-established Bay tradition, the DIY precedent didn’t really exist for contemporary R&B (or so-called neo-soul) until fairly recently. Not only has the music moved away from the artistry of classic soul artists such as Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, but it has become overly concerned with attracting the Lindsay Lohan/Britney Spears audience, even at the expense of older listeners.
“R&B has been so watered down for so long,” concurs Saadiq, a founding member of Oakland’s Tony Toni Tone who has become both an independent-label entrepreneur and a solo artist after years of major-label servitude. Currently touring behind his second solo album, Raphael Saadiq as Ray Ray (released on his own label, Pookie), the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has been grouped with the likes of Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott, and Bilal as part of the vaunted neo-soul movement. Yet Saadiq actually hates the term: In Ray Ray‘s fold-out booklet there’s a picture of a wreath bearing the words “RIP neo-soul.”
“It was never brought to life by any musician,” Saadiq says of the played-out racket. “It was more of a concept for a corporation, for marketing black music, to give it a face it didn’t have since the soul records back in the day. With all the boy bands being out, people forgot about R&B.”
His role, therefore, is not only to jog people’s memories, but to serve the 25-and-older crowd, who want more from their music than what’s being offered by teenyboppers like Mario Winans and O’Bryan. The whole concept behind Ray Ray, Saadiq says, “is being really grimy with R&B, ’cause a lot of R&B cats don’t really want to get that grimy with promotions or with their concepts.”
A product of East Oakland, Saadiq was influenced by local drug kingpins like Anthony Flowers — who once owned the old-school Cougar Saadiq poses with on Ray Ray — as well as native bands who became national acts, like Tower of Power and the Pointer Sisters. Oakland’s environment (both its good and bad elements) also factored into who Saadiq is today: He points to the dichotomy between the Union Baptist Church on 71st Avenue and the infamous 6-9 Ville hood, representing the moral extremes of heaven and hell, yet separated by only a few blocks.
Compared to San Francisco, “Oakland doesn’t get that much recognition,” Saadiq says. Still, the city is known as “a real soulful place” — Parliament and Earth, Wind and Fire recorded live albums in Oakland, while everyone from Marvin Gaye to Prince recruited from the local talent pool for their touring bands. Saadiq says the O had “a hundred percent everything to do with everything,” as far as influencing his artistic development. “I didn’t grow up some neo-soul type of cat with a headwrap,” he insists. “People got that kinda confused. That ain’t even me by a long shot.”
They call him: Oakland’s answer to Prince
He calls himself: Ghetto retro
There’s more to the new sound of the Bay Area urban music scene than New Bay rap. Consider 27-year-old Baby Jaymes from East Oakland’s “Rolling 100s” neighborhood, who released Ghetto Retro, one of the hyphy-est R&B albums of 2004, on his own label (Ghetto Retro Recordings), starting his own cultural movement in the process.
So what’s the movement? Ghetto Retro represents “The fusion of the past, the future, and the present,” explains Jaymes, who indeed has drawn myriad comparisons to the Artist Formerly Known as the Artist. It’s an “urban state of mind” that encompasses all of his experiences and influences — everything from Curtis Mayfield and Aretha Franklin to Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra, all delivered with a unique Oaktown twist.
An only child, Jaymes recalls being fascinated with music and listening to old-school funk and soul almost exclusively, spending hour after hour immersed in his mother’s voluminous vinyl collection. “I dig deep, deep,” he recalls. “It’s like, my ears just encompass so many different things, man. I don’t really wanna be put into a neo-soul bag.” Ghetto Retro, therefore, “is just my way of creating a box of my own.”
His debut album, which features production and original instrumentation by a group of local musicians known as the Ret’ Network, has been selling like hotcakes — Jaymes, who is acting as his own distributor, is constantly running around to local retail outlets to restock. Word, apparently, is out about the East Bay’s best-kept secret: Ghetto Retro got more of a rise out of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Little Man than records by John Lennon and the Rolling Stones reviewed that same issue.
Upholding the Bay’s indie tradition comes naturally to Jaymes: “There was a time when there were independent labels up and down East 14th Street and in West Oakland,” he recalls. He cites Raphael Saadiq and Goapele as examples of that independent spirit today, along with entrepreneurial-minded rappers like E-40, Too $hort, and the late Mac Dre.
He isn’t mad at the New Bay movement, either. “It’s a fresh approach,” Jaymes says, adding that there’s a sense that local artists are currently making records “that could be national hits.” Feel free to add him to that list: the unavailable-on-LP track “Nice Girl,” featuring New Bay rapper Balance, has been receiving love from DJ Chuy Gomez on KMEL’s morning show and, in all likelihood, 2005 could be a breakout year for the guy who swears he’s “not just another little nasty R&B singer.”
They call her: The Bay’s best-kept secret
She calls herself: A singer-songwriter
One of the most obvious new talents to emerge from the Bay Area recently is Oakland songstress Goapele, who has been a catalyst for the resurgence of local artists as well as a connecting link between the various genres of urban music. Her independently released 2002 album Even Closer, which has sold more than a hundred thousand copies, covered the stylistic bases of neo-soul and R&B, as well as containing elements of gospel, jazz, and hip-hop. The title track, produced by Amp Live from the Bay Area rap duo Zion-I, became so requested by local audiences, it was added to KMEL’s playlist, and a remix by East Coast tastemaker DJ Spinna became a national club hit. Since then, she has collaborated with rappers Aceyalone, E-40, Zion-I, and Planet Asia, and toured nationally with India.Arie. Her name is frequently cited by locals and outsiders alike as a shining example of indie success.
“The opportunity to see how far you can go pushes you to go further,” she says, recalling that it all started for her three years ago when she pressed up two thousand copies of Even Closer, which seemed like a lot at the time, but in retrospect wasn’t nearly enough to meet the demand. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music who got her start singing in the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Chorus, she admits what she’s accomplished probably wouldn’t have been possible at a major label, who most likely would have attempted to mold her into the next Beyoncé or Alicia Keys, rather than allow her to develop her own unique style.
Goapele doesn’t see the New Bay movement as an entirely new thing at all, noting that “there have always been artists who put out music independently” on a local level. Just as her example proved inspirational for artists like Baby Jaymes, she says a self-released project by SF native Martin Luther, a member of the Roots’ extended family, inspired her to release her own album. Currently signed to Columbia, and awaiting a planned spring release date for her major-label debut (she’ll be previewing her new material at Yoshi’s in late February), she is pleased her peers have been holding it down while she has been busy working on new material. “I’m happy that we have something strong going on in the Bay Area,” she says.
Noting that local singers Ledisi, Keyshia Cole, and La Toya London have earned national props for their vocal skills — and that producers Rick Rock, Amp Live, and Mike Tiger have been upping the region’s musical ante on the production side — Goapele adds that the Bay Area hip-hop scene is particularly potent right now. “E-40, the Federation, Hieroglyphics, Zion-I, Blackalicious, the Attik … two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to name that many people.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story stated the MTV freestyle battle took place in June 2003. It actually took place in May 2003.