As block-length corrugated structures in West Oakland go, American Steel warehouse feels too legitimately industrial to host any officially ordained event. And yet this past November, hundreds of people stalked through an unlit alley and into the cavernous space for Feels IV, the latest installment of culture blog Wine & Bowties’ recurring hip-hop and art event -- in essence, an underground party masquerading as a mini-music festival.
Inside, photographers shot stylish urbanites staring at pictures of stylish urbanites on the walls. Rappers such as Antwon and Iamsu! stood on stage in front of images of themselves on stage—projected ad infinitum, as if caught between two mirrors. All of the frenzied, compulsive production of images, rather than smacking of the zeitgeist's so-called millennial vapidity, reflected Bay Area hip-hop’s urgent need to document itself. If the past is any indication, outsiders probably won’t. Or if they do, they’ll get it wrong.
In the event that national critics wished to approximate the current iteration of a local sound in 2015, they most often settled for “post-hyphy.” To say the least, the category’s usefulness is limited, based as it is on events from a decade ago. Traxamillion’s definitive mid-aughts production -- slinky percussion, aqueous keys, and negative space -- does endure, most prominently and rewarding in the work of HBK Gang fixture P-Lo. (His Moovie! collaboration with Kool John affirms P-Lo as a peerless, svelte local producer deserving of more distinctive rappers to work with.) But “post-hyphy,” beyond reflecting hesitance to relinquish buzz of the distant past, is exclusive and reductive; in truth, a survey of the best rap released by local artists in 2015 reveals little stylistic unity. And if the consensus of regional sound is eroding, that’s just fine; the rubble yields gems.
Indeed, the year’s reigning song was in part an homage to the golden era of Southern label Cash Money. “Big Tymin’,” released with a video late last year and in constant ascendance throughout 2015, crystallizes the creakily indelible flow of Nef the Pharaoh, a Vallejo emcee not yet 21 years old. There’s some precedent in his earlier catalog -- the clever kiss-off to teachers in “Old School Hyphy,” the Mac Dre tribute "M.A.C," and confident gait in “Bitch, I’m From Vallejo” -- but “Big Tymin’” warrants Nef’s privileged position as a protégé of E-40, if not the heir to Mac Dre. At Thizzler Jam -- a first-time festival thrown in downtown Oakland by Thizzler on the Roof, the foremost online source of local rap -- Nef concluded his headlining set with “Big Tymin’,” by that point a KMEL staple. Then he played it again.
Other local artists in 2015 excelled when they pilfered: Larry June luxuriated in the skeletal trap beats and zany ad-libs associated with Atlanta on his goofily menacing #GoodJobLarry. Meanwhile, Jay Stone alternately evoked MF Doom’s leaden murk and quotidian scenery atop Monster Rally’s effervescent loops on Foreign Pedestrians. And on 808s & Dark Grapes III, Main Attrakionz’s mesh-like, diffuse production proved substantial even in a post-vaporwave climate, especially coupled with the seemingly incongruous, chittering flow of affiliated emcees such as Shady Blaze.
The year’s very most assured full-length, however, belonged to Berkeley’s Caleborate. The young rapper’s debut Hella Good teems with arresting hooks, charming humblebrags, and dexterous delivery. Wonderlust productions stand out: “From the East Bay with Love” finds a silken soul sample colliding with Caleborate’s trenchant chorus; on “SMH,” the young vocal stylist smoothly unfurls atop little more than a spare, nocturnal pulse; and “$aggin Par” feels spontaneous and freewheeling, yet Caleborate connects every missive to a boast. His flow is preternaturally sophisticated, rhythmically accommodating and exacerbating every lyrical subtlety.
The year’s inarguable lowpoint precipitated another one of its best titles. On Feb. 2, an unknown assailant gunned down the Jacka in East Oakland, snuffing out the life of one of the Bay Area’s most celebrated figures months after his full-length What Happened to the World? A few months later, Drought Season 3 appeared, posthumously completed by frequent Jacka collaborator and Cookies brand ambassador Berner. It’s somber throughout, rife with typically singsong, somewhat wheezy Jacka verses about treachery and empathy. On “Die Young,” Berner celebrates his own chart feats, rap radio be damned, while Richie Rich guests with a raspy verse about shunning the mainstream music industry back in the 1990s. Jacka, meanwhile, opens the unintentionally devastating track with a declaration: "Listen, time never phase me."
The Jacka’s longevity is unparalleled; his earliest statements as a member of Mob Figaz helped define gangsta rap specifically for the Bay Area and his posthumous material ranks among this year’s best. And though the tragedy of his death guarantees a particular tenor of tribute from the area -- enshrinement in the style of Mac Dre's is underway -- it also underscores the issue of credit and popular justice; Jacka’s merely regional profile speaks to the great disadvantage of Bay Area rappers.
Indeed, the Oakland singer Kehlani’s breakout, which culminated this month in a Grammy nomination, apparently required a move to Los Angeles. Her crowning Fader cover feature this year made little mention of the Bay Area, despite her HBK Gang membership and industry connections formed through the D’Wayne Wiggins-managed teen group PopLyfe. Kehlani’s ascension even invited speculation that she’s something of an “industry plant”; only a major label conspiracy, the assumption goes, could propel a Bay Area artist.
Indeed, the Bay Area rap injustice narrative usually involves hyphy’s untimely proliferation, which narrowly preceded a new era of internet-assisted viral fame and gatekeeper bypassing. And yet social media saturation hardly provides autonomy. As the writer Doreen St. Felix recently illuminated, viral reach doesn’t guarantee innovators credit or compensation, especially not for young people of color. In other words, though many Bay Area artists double as mini-marketing mavens, recognition remains just as elusive. The old impediments -- a lack of infrastructure and media -- remain, perhaps exacerbated by the shrinking major labels’ intensifying risk-aversion.
Consider Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” -- to many critics, the song of the year. Its seductively ambiguous message about hope in the face of police repression resonates with mainstream audiences and protestors alike. And the song's award-winning video is in many ways a grand gesture to the Bay Area: director Colin Tilley grew up in Berkeley; the primary set is Treasure Island; Bay Area rappers Ezale and Los Rakas appear in the crowd; and local turf dancing features prominently. Further, its thematic resonance with post-Ferguson protestors evokes Oakland, where the rhetoric and scope of outrage in the wake of Oscar Grant’s 2009 killing prefigured the Black Lives Matter movement. And yet, to prominent commentators, “Alright” is a Los Angeles production.
In that spirit, local authorities prove enduringly hostile to rap: In March, a cabal of San Francisco police officers detained 19 men shooting a Yung Lott music video in Hunters Point, citing the proximity of an armed suspect as probable cause for the mass handcuffing, photographing, and confiscation of personal belongings. An ensuing Federal Civil Rights Lawsuit argued that the cops deliberately “created a scenario where if these young African-American men had moved out of innocent fear, the SFPD officers would have gunned down the entire group.”
In Oakland, local law enforcement preemptively meddled in live hip-hop lineups and, at promoters’ expense, required oversight at concerts -- burdens spared from other genres. And county prosecutors’ practice of admitting rap lyrics and videos as evidence in criminal trials -- often as efforts to exploit juror prejudice against young black men -- emerged as a distinct pattern. (Beleaguering homespun cultural exports is something of a civic tradition: in 1989, the City of Oakland formally banned live hip-hop for a year, just in time for the popular explosion of Too $hort and Digital Underground.)
Fortunately, the Bay Area is also home to contemporary hip-hop’s most singular figure, Lil B. And in 2015, the rapper whose outsized influence remains least appreciated enacted retribution. It was the NBA playoffs. James Harden, shooting guard of the Houston Rockets, poached Lil B’s cooking dance. The rapper, vocally displeased, cast a hex against the player, whose cursed on-court performance sharply declined. The "Lil B curse" garnered more media attention than any musical release by a local artist in 2015.
And though few extrapolated on the news peg, its symbolism couldn’t be more potent. Lil B’s supernatural gesture punished not only the celebrity who stole his intellectual property, but the pirating benefactors at large, too many to name, that have stolen Bay Area hip-hop innovations throughout history.