.What’s the Rap in Oakland?

Meet The Town’s emerging rap innovators 

It’s a Saturday afternoon, and I’m walking to meet rapper and producer Ovrkast. at Part 2 Gallery in downtown Oakland. We’re looking for his friends and fellow rappers and producers, Michael Sneed and Demahjiae. After peeking into Minto’s Jamaican Restaurant & Bar and looking at the menu, we soon realize they are close by at Minto’s Jamaican Market.

Sneed and Demahjiae are ordering smoothies, and tell me some of their favorite items on the menu. Next we head to p2. Gallery, also in downtown Oakland, which acts as their recording studio. It is on our walk to the gallery where I observe the camaraderie that has formed between these three individual artists.

The contributions Oakland, and the Bay Area rap scene in general, have made to hip-hop cannot be disputed. However, the challenge many artists from the region face when choosing to enter the rap game is staying true to Bay Area roots, but also carving out their own lane and pushing The Town’s sound and culture forward. However, a challenge that some hip-hop artists face across the world is when their musical style does not fit within the box that the music industry all too often places on hip-hop artists, particularly those from the Bay Area.

“Even if I don’t get as big, just having an impact on my city, and letting the kids know that they don’t have to conform to what we’re known for. They can do whatever they want. Even past music—drawing, fashion…things that aren’t really known for coming from the Bay,” Demahjiae shared.

So how does one gain a local following while choosing a musical style that may not extend from the Bay Area rap titans of the past? What if one feels one’s impact as a Bay Area artist is for young kids in the Bay Area to feel like they should have no sonic limitation?

In a sense, East Oakland hip-hop artists Michael Sneed, Ovrkast. and Demahjiae represent a wave of Bay Area artists who come around every 10-15 years. That is, artists who aesthetically align with the northern California lifestyle; however, sonically when listening to their music, it is hard to trace Oakland influences in it. Ovrkast. is both a rapper and producer. His production often has sped up low-fi beats, disjointed timing, sprinkled in with stellar instrumentation and soul samples. For many listeners, they may hear the spirit of J. Dilla throughout his production.

Ovrkast.’s journey in the rap game began like many artists across the country. In 2016, he began posting beats on Bandcamp, and over time was able to gain the attention of Earl Sweatshirt. In 2019, he received  a producer credit on Earl’s EP, Feet of Clay, on the song, “EL TORO COMBO MEAL.” In 2020, he released his debut mixtape, Try Again, displaying his monotone and quiet, yet somehow self-assured lyrics.The project was able to capitalize on his prior exposure from the Earl Sweatshirt collaboration to generate over 1 million streams on Spotify.

In 2022, he released Try Again (Deluxe), featuring an additional three songs to his debut mixtape.

On the Try Again project, one of the many standout songs is “Church,” featuring Demahjiae. The two effortlessly share bars over the nearly two minute track, touching on topics such as police brutality, the realities of growing up in East Oakland and perseverance. Their collaborative partnership goes all the way back to grammar school.

Among the three, Dehmahjiae and Ovrkast. have known each other the longest. Their story starts in seventh grade at the now closed E.C Reems Charter School.

“I was trying to pick out friends and seen he’s playing with tape decks, and figured I’d tried to hangout with him,” Dehmajie reflected on his first impression of Ovrkast.

In 2017, they were both affiliated with the rap collective, Lo-Fiction, and in 2019 they formed the group, do more.

For Demahjiae, who raps and produces as well, his passion for music started in the church, where he was able to learn how to play the organ and the drums.

“I was always worried about the rhythms and what I could do with a rhythm,” Demahjiae shared.

As a solo artist, Demahjiae introduced himself to Bay Area rap fans with the EP, Ghetto Blessings, in 2018. In 2020, he released his follow up project, And, Such is Life, which included guest features from Pink Siifu and Michael Sneed. It was through early collaborations and the release of his first two projects that Demahjiae began to develop a reputation as an artist heavily influenced by jazz, and sonically similar to Flying Lotus.

More recently, in November, he released his third full length solo project, Angels Wear Black. The nine track EP provides listeners with a lo-fi jazz beats experience, coupled with unpredictable rhyme patterns that require full attention. He used the COVID pandemic to rededicate himself as a producer as well.

“I ended up going back to my roots and buying an actual physical drum kit. I ended up getting piano lessons from a family friend, and then I ended up just starting to make my own samples, and then I stepped away from samples for a few months,” Demahjiae said.

He also used this time to learn other instruments as well.

“I picked up other percussion instruments like the conga. I was using all these different formats to see what other aspects of myself I could find myself in instruments,” he shared.

“From a.m. to p.m. /Serving outside the ampm/Every dealer I know is genius/Doing numbers math class could never teach us.”

Those are lyrics from Michael Sneed’s 2021 breakout single and accompanying video, “Paw Patrol.” The video, directed by Dakota Lim, shows Sneed and his friends freely driving around East Oakland on a beautiful sunny day, as he artfully reaffirms his peaceful allegiance to his friends turned brothers.

During my conversation with Sneed, Dehmahjiae and Ovrkast., it was revealed that Sneed is originally from West Oakland, and later moved to East Oakland as a teen. It was this move to East Oakland, where he began to reflect on the differences between himself and his neighborhood friends, and the divergent paths their lives would take.

“I’m the guy that likes comic books and musical theater,” Sneed said.

“I would like to think that there’s people like me who grew up different from their peers. They had a mother or father that kind of sheltered them. So I like to think I’m speaking to them. I also like to think I’m speaking for my friends too, who also had to do certain things just to survive and get by,” he explained.

In 2019, he released his first mixtape, Days We Lost, two years after he graduated from Howard University in Washington, DC and moved back to Oakland. The debut project was fused with jazz, gospel and witty lyrics sprinkled with odes to Sneed’s love of his hometown.

Since 2019, Sneed has released a steady stream of songs. Last summer, he released the song, “Fill Time Job II,” which was again accompanied by another stellar video, this time directed by Erik Saevi and Emilio Miguel Diaz. He was also featured on the song, “All Day,” off of Dehmajiae’s Angel’s Wear Black project.

In addition to the singles, Sneed was a prominent guest star on P-Lo’s album, STUNNA, providing three features to the 13 song record. In December of 2022, there was the EP, “Catalytic Converters Under the Christmas Tree.” The five song Christmas EP not only serves as another display of Sneed’s lyrical prowess, but also his continued growth as a producer. After key performance on STUNNA, and a developing reputation as an artist, one can rely on well produced music videos.

When it comes to Sneed’s goal, he’s focused on making sure future artists from the region do not feel bound to following the formula already concocted from past rap acts.

“You can be a staple artist; you can change music without doing what the rest of the city does. If we could just influence artists that way, I’ll be good,” he said.

My afternoon with Sneed, Demahjiae and Ovrkast. ends with them preparing for a show at Commune Bar in downtown Oakland. All three are working on their soundcheck while moving their equipment from the basement to the performance stage. Their beginnings may be humble at the moment, but the progress these three have made over the last two years in developing their artistry has catapulted them to the top of the list as artists to watch in the city coming into the new year.

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