No one will save you in the Oakland rap game
on May 3, 2016
23-year-old Oakland rapper Dayvid Michael is waiting for his roommate to come home from work. His roommate is also his producer, who goes by the professional name Wax Roof, and their studio is set up in the extra room of their Central East Oakland apartment.
Michael and Wax Roof are about to start one of their many evening sessions in the studio. Wax Roof creates the beat from scratch, switching from one instrument to another, stopping at his laptop every once in a while. Michael, a solo artist as well as a member of a local rap group Down2Earth, is sitting on the floor humming to the beat and typing lyrics on his phone. “I’m going against the grain and creating my own lane,” Michael says about his take on music, in the midst of song creation.
In 1993, around the time Michael was born, rap legend Tupac Shakur announced in a video interview that he “claims Oakland.” Tupac was born in New York, moved to Baltimore as a teenager and was living in Los Angeles at the time of the video interview. He lived in Oakland for only two years of his short life. But to the son of a Black Panther, Oakland was the city that stuck. The reason behind that, Tupac said in the interview, was that he got his “game” from Oakland.
For Michael, as a young rapper hoping to create a rap movement of his own, the idea of an “Oakland game” is something that pushes him forward everyday. “It is an unspoken thing. But to me the game means that you are either working for somebody or employing someone. And the game breaks it down into every single situation in your life. So I’m assuming, what Tupac learned [in Oakland] is, ‘I want to work for me,’” Michael says.
Tim House, an Oakland rap scene veteran and the curator of the popular street culture event Hiero Day, agrees. He says the game is all about “doing you.”
“I can speak for myself. It was the same thing. I didn’t know [the game] until I got here. I was able to learn and do what I wanted. And like he [Tupac] said, ‘Oakland will wake your game up,’ because it is real out here,” says House, who was born in Oakland and moved back in 1999 after a long stint in Los Angeles.
House, who has worked with numerous local rap acts over the past almost 20 years in roles such as manager, event organizer and tour manager, uses the word “real” a lot when he talks about Oakland. But, in this case, “real” is not merely a filler word. “When it comes to music, you just have to listen to what people talk about—9.9 times out of ten, someone from Oakland raps about real stuff as opposed to rapping just to be rapping, or fantasy raps, like ‘I got big cars’ and all that stuff,” says House.
It is a hard to say to which category Michael belongs—probably neither. He is currently working on an EP called “Folkland” that will come out this May. In his second solo release, Michael is addressing gentrification, a controversial issue that his hometown, and the Oakland rap scene, is facing. Oakland rental prices have been increasing over the past few years as wealthier people who work in the tech industry have moved to town. “It is a sad sight to see. A lot of my peers have moved to other, more affordable places,” Michael says.
But Michael does not think that music should be “preachy.” His lyrics are more abstract than political. “The creation itself is the statement, similar to dance,” he says. His mission is telling people that he and his community can’t be ignored. “One of the reasons I call my project Folkland is to simply ask the question: What is a piece of land, or place, without the folks that provide the culture and the ways of lives of that place?” he says.
Gentrification is a double-ended sword for the rap community. Rap, being predominantly an African-American form of culture, is in the line of fire as most of the newcomers come from different backgrounds. When talking about the people moving in, “gentrifiers,” as he calls them, Michael pauses; the topic is personal to him. “It’s almost like … almost like they don’t even see, that they are unaware of what it is they are doing, what it is that they are destroying,” he says.
On the other hand, more money and opportunities are coming in, too. “Ten years ago, we didn’t have the Fox Theatre” serving as a concert venue, House says. He feels that the renovation that transformed the old movie theater into a music venue was an example of the good that the new money and people bring to Oakland.
House says that small cities like Oakland don’t attract record labels like their bigger counterparts, which means fewer opportunities to get signed by a major label. According to House, that has led to a lack of professional support in the Oakland rap scene, which is “going crazy without the infrastructure and any systems in place to help artist development,” he says.
When Michael was getting into music, in the mid-2000s, Oakland rappers had come up with their own answer to being overlooked by the mainstream rap industry. The answer was the “hyphy” movement that is still an essential part of the Oakland rap scene. Hyphy—slang for hyperactive—is all about partying and “going dumb,” letting yourself go. Musically, hyphy incorporated with aggressive delivery and robust rhythm, and is closer to mainstream rap than the more laid-back indie hip-hop that Michael and, for example, the Oakland-based Hieroglyphics crew represent.
Hyphy goes with what House calls “town shit,” or ideas that emerge from towns rather than big cities. “Town shit is having sideshows; town shit is doing doughnuts; town shit is having gold grill in your mouth; town shit is scraper automobiles, big tires, big rims on your car. Black hoodie, white t-shirt and blue jeans. That is the town uniform,” House says.
Part of the “town shit,” House says, is that all the different styles and rappers “blend in.” He emphasizes that rappers in Oakland have historically closely interacted with each other regardless of their approach to rap— for example, he says, Digital Underground is the link between many legendary Oakland rap acts like Del The Funky Homosapien of Hieroglyphics, Tupac, Saafir, da Luniz and Mystic.
Oakland game represents to House not only the freedom to do what you want but also the freedom to like what you want. He points out Too $hort as an example of a local favorite among Oakland rappers. “Somebody who is not from here wouldn’t even understand that,” House says, because Too $hort is famous for his somewhat one-dimensional lyrics about sex, which doesn’t reflect the style of many Oakland rappers today. “People think that people like the same stuff that they do. That’s not the case in Oakland,” he says.
Michael says that hyphy rap was something that he was musically “going up against” when he started rapping. “I’ve never identified myself as a ‘standard rapper,’” he says, adding that he gets his inspiration from variety of music genres, “geeking out” over artists like Kanye West, Radiohead and N.E.R.D. “I’m trying to give them [Bay Area rap fans] some fresh, new ideas instead of ideas they are used to,” he says.
On that evening in Central East Oakland, Michael’s lyrics are slowly coming together, merging with the waves of the beat. One of the opening lines of the freshly recorded vocals makes Michael and Wax Roof laugh: “Look at the mess you made, man.” But other than that—and a few smiles and short remarks—the two don’t show much reaction to the song as they are intently listening to it. The tune goes on, rhymes flowing over a catchy guitar riff: “Only getting started and I started from the bottom, really ain’t a problem, get it one way or another.”
Michael says he once had the idea of moving to New York or Los Angeles after high school to pursue his music career but he says he stayed, because he wants to give Oakland “the beginnings” of his career – even if it means extra work. “It goes to back to what Tupac said: The game,” he says. “I have to to put myself in that position to be able to make money off of it. I can’t concern myself with if somebody somewhere is going to save me.”
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