Smartbomb, Oakland's Favorite Experimental Hip-Hop Party, Continues its Perpetual Reinvention

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Two young men in knit caps perform hip-hop on stage in a darkly lit room.
Demahjiae and Ovrkast perform at Smartbomb on Dec. 21, 2019 at The Legionnaire in Oakland. (Sarah Arnold)

Picture it: On the sweaty, intimate top floor of the Legionnaire Saloon in downtown Oakland, hip-hop producers, jazz musicians and electronic artists mingle and dance. From its founding in 2013 through the months just before the pandemic, Smartbomb was where the Town’s experimental creatives could meet each other and check out new acts. So when everything went awry in 2020, the crew had to figure out how to keep the party going.

That’s where Smartbomb’s livestreamed artist showcase, Video Home System (VHS), came in. Rather than simply performing on Zoom, the crew made it a whole production, with digital visual elements accenting footage of stripped-down home concerts: Think NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, but with special effects, and in the corner of the artist’s bedroom.

“The Video Home System project was our beacon of light. We hung onto it,” says Asonic Garcia, who founded Smartbomb alongside his then-band members from the experimental hip-hop group Secret Sidewalk. (He left the group in 2015.)

“As the world started to open up, we looked back, like, damn. We were very thankful that we all banded together during that time instead of getting more divided.”


Since their first stream in May of 2020, they’ve turned the VHS into a well-oiled machine. For that first episode, they had Oakland artist Flatspot_. produce live visuals with a grainy disposition that looked like videos shot on handheld cameras, in the style of ’90s home movies. Smartbomb member Tony Jarone took phone calls and questions from Instagram, telling the secrets of the universe like a TV fortune teller.

Five episodes later, in March 2022, the project’s following had grown enough to be featured in a live performance at San Francisco’s Institute of Contemporary Art.

On Wednesday, April 13, Smartbomb returns to Oakland for its first live performance since the start of the pandemic, set in the new downtown venue Crybaby. The show will feature rapper and producer Ovrkast; Xyla, a French horn player who makes dance music by night; and the genre-bending R&B artist Astu, among others.

Also on hand will be regular Smartbomb crew members like Flatspot_., who’ll be doing live special effects; Mejiwahn, who runs the Oakland record label Hot Records Societe; and Oakland music producer Pass Doo. Together, they’ll celebrate what Smartbomb has always been about: building a community of interdisciplinary artists who appreciate each other’s craft.

“The Crybaby show will be our opportunity to reconnect on those special levels of experience with our community, feeling unified in space and sound again,” Garcia explains. Pre-pandemic, there were plans to move to this same venue when it was still called The Uptown, so it also feels like a full-circle moment for the crew.

smiling audience members enjoy a show in a darkly lit music venue
Audience members at a Smartbomb show at The Legionnaire on Dec. 21, 2019. (Sarah Arnold)

“Everyone has two years of energy stored up to let go,” he says. “Everyone’s been releasing themselves a little bit by a little bit, but there’s still a lot of energy that everyone needs to collectively release. I feel like dancefloors and shared community music events are these ultimate places for that.”

Last month at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Smartbomb curated a program combining all live music, short films, performances, and visual arts they showcased with VHS. After Crybaby, they’re booked to spin records at Oakland’s Bar Shiru on April 27, and they have a VHS episode scheduled to arrive sometime in May or June. The goal, as always, is to create new opportunities for artists all over the Bay.

“It’s only going to be the beginning of a new, post-pandemic musical movement that’s going to happen in Oakland,” Garcia says. “It’s going to be a lot of artists, a lot of collectives, a lot of events, a lot of groups, that are all going to be a part of it. I’m lucky to be in existence with all these people.”

Smartbomb takes place at 8pm on Wednesday, April 13, at Crybaby in Oakland. Details here