How can you tell when a hip-hop crew is from the Bay Area?
It’s not the free-spirited yet politically aware vibe baked into each and every track, whether it’s a party jam or a love song. And -- speaking of baked -- it’s not the joint-smoking before and/or during an interview (that’s hardly region-specific, though the quality of the marijuana might be).
No, you know a trio of young rappers grew up in the Bay Area when they keep bringing up astrology. And they’re kind of kidding, but they’re also really not.
“We just had good chemistry really organically, and there were all these signs,” Dayvid Michael tells me of Down 2 Earth, the hip-hop group whose sophomore release, Fair Share, dropped April 4. He leans forward, scoots to the edge of the couch at his Oakland apartment, and ponders this. “Azure’s an Aquarius, which is an air sign, Clyde is a Virgo, which is an earth sign, and I’m a Sagittarius, which is a fire sign.
“Earth, wind and fire,” he concludes with a mischievous grin. Kinda kidding. But also really not.
Whether the stars literally aligned in order for these three young men to meet in 2013 and start making music is up for debate. But to Dayvid Michael, Azure and Clyde Shankle, at least, there’s something that feels fated about the songs they create together, and the effect is contagious.
In an era when skittish trap beats, Autotune and cold industrial sounds rule the rap landscape, Down 2 Earth (D2E for short) are harkening back to a hip-hop that's warm, charming and, at turns, goofy. Sampling old-school funk and soul horn lines one moment and Beck guitar riffs the next, the trio play off each other, taking turns rapping on tracks like they take turns making each other bust out laughing. Three of the tracks on their new 14-track record are actually skits. This album sounds like the summer after high school; like reclining the passenger seat way back in your best friend’s car as you head out to cruise around on a balmy night, with nowhere in particular to go.
Which is not to say it’s unpolished: Azure, at 29 the senior member of the crew, came to the group with a solid following from his four solo albums. He’s also spent the last few years as the go-to DJ for the HBK Gang, the hip-hop collective founded by Iamsu! and Sage the Gemini that’s spent the last few years steadily blowing up -- in terms of national attention, a crew regarded by many as the heir to the hyphy movement.
Dayvid Michael, 24, and Clyde Shankle, 23, both honed their emcee skills on solo recordings, and as members of the hip-hop collective Calimade. Their individual experiences as solo artists, they find, has only helped make the collaborative effort that much sweeter -- they each know their strengths (loosely, Azure on beats; Clyde on samples; Dayvid is the hookmaster) and are happy to take turns in the spotlight.
Acknowledging that some might find collaborative rap "cheesy," the trio also don't mind that their configuration helps them stick out in the current landscape of Bay Area rap, where solo artists are a dime a dozen: "Everyone wants the shine for themselves," says David.
"[But] there's nothing quite like the energy that you get when you're collaborating on a common idea," he says. "And performing with more than one person on stage is just so much more of a rush, a thrill, and I think a more exciting experience for the viewer."
Live shows aside, the listening experience with Fair Share -- its title another nod to the ease with which the three share the spotlight -- calls to mind early Hieroglyphics records, with a combination of laid-back samples, pride in Oakland, and a community-oriented social consciousness just barely under the lyrics' surface.
Down 2 Earth are wary of the pitfalls of getting pigeonholed as "conscious" rap, and this record is shorter on the positive platitudes than their 2015 debut Wildfire. But they're Bay Area natives after all: Azure's from Pinole, Dayvid's from Oakland, and Clyde from Berkeley. They have no shortage of political opinions.
"I wanted to be an activist originally," says Clyde, who works as a counselor at a substance abuse nonprofit. "But being a musician allows you to be both, right?"
Growing up, he says, he doesn't recall a time when not being socially aware was an option -- he remembers watching the news on TV in the mornings before school as opposed to cartoons -- and even he is sometimes taken by surprise at how that comes out in his writing: "I'll be like, alright, I'm just gas. I'll just rap. And then it ends up being like 'Save the animals, love the planet...'" He laughs. "Every time."
Gentrification -- "the g-word" as Dayvid says -- weighs heavily on the trio as well, though they're hesitant to contribute to that being the only story ever written about Bay Area artists.
"I worry about San Francisco's future a lot," says Azure. "I grew up wanting to live there, maybe even have a family there. But it's crazy, especially as a DJ, to see the way the crowds have transformed. It's not just a [race thing], it's not 'Look at these white people' -- it's the type of people. It's what do you for a living, where you're from."
Playing a show to Bay Area natives, he says, feels like a rarity; meanwhile, artists he's looked up to are getting pushed out, heading for Sacramento or farther, LA or New York. It makes D2E's budding acclaim and professionalism -- they're spending the hours after this interview moving equipment into a new studio space at Jingletown in East Oakland — feel that much more like they've stumbled on a secret recipe, a precarious but unmistakable bright spot on an increasingly hard-to-find map to music industry success.
Wherever they wind up, they'll be repping where they're from — though, despite track titles like "Divisadero," D2E say they'd rather represent the Bay through their sound than overt lyrics. There's a groove, a sonic undercurrent, they say, and if you know it, you know they couldn't have grown up anywhere else.
"The groove is always the first stop, more so than the topic," says Azure. "It needs to feel a certain way. That, to me, is synonymous with the Bay."
And if you can't pick up on that? It's possible you haven't been in the Bay Area long enough. Or, hey: check the charts. Maybe Mercury is in retrograde.