Whether or not the spoken word scene has real longevity remains a point of contention. But in the three decades since it started catching on, spoken word has produced some truly compelling young artists, all of whom bring their own slangy, street-wise, hip-hop slant on the literary canon. Some have gone on to be novelists. Some have advanced from slam poetry to staged monologues or solo shows (in the Danny Hoch or Sarah Jones vein). And some, like celebrated Oakland poet Ise Lyfe, have found their voice in hip-hop.
At this point, Lyfe's closest analogue in mainstream rap would be Nas. Lyfe has the same elaborate, wordy phrasing and weird intonation (he might clip the last consonant off a word, or put his accents where you wouldn't expect them: I go becomes I go). He's detail-oriented; he makes rich descriptions; he might rap over a straight-ahead 4/4 beat but he's constantly trying to free up the time. He uses hip-hop slang but retains the formal qualities of spoken word (the repetitions, the vivid metaphors, the poetic enjambment, the occasional lapses into straight, unmetric prose). Lyfe's 2006 release SpreadtheWORD was an ambitious crossover album, but this year's The Prince Cometh with its melodic, horn-laden beats and R&B hooks is even more daring, since it ventures much farther into hip-hop territory.
Lyfe performs tonight at Shattuck Down Low alongside the Kev Choice Ensemble, another band that is changing the face of hip-hop by incorporating live instrumentation. Led by infectious Oakland emcee (and Skyline High School alum) Kev Choice, this ten-piece band features two of the best jazz horn players in the East Bay (saxophonist Howard Wiley and trumpeter Geechi Taylor), supported by a gritty funk rhythm section and by rising vocalist (and Berklee School of Music alum) Viveca Hawkins. Kev Choice is a charismatic rapper with a gift for political oratory (his Obama song, "A Change Is Gonna Come" features a series of rhyming couplets about how Obama will overhaul the current health care system). He's coming up at exactly the right time for his choice of material: hip-hop is getting nostalgic for its political past, and fans are starting to demand musical sophistication in addition to substantive content. Luckily, Kev Choice is also a trained jazz pianist. 9 p.m. $10
Ise Lyfe music video for "Beautiful":