Go to a Common, Talib Kweli, Coup, or other such "conscious" hip-hop show in the Bay Area, and you're likely to witness a peculiar strain of segregation: Everyone performing will be black, while nearly the entire audience will be white. This isn't so much the case at one of those Monsters of Rap $56-a-pop KMEL arena expos, but by some perverse twist of marketing logic, when hip-hop "for the heads" comes to town, those heads are rarely of African descent.
So what, then, are we to make of the once mighty, now mothballed Slow Gin weekly party at Kingman's Lucky Lounge in Oakland, which drew a mostly black crowd but was helmed by two very white DJs, one of whom spoke the Queen's English, for God's sake?
"It was a bit of a switch-up, really," offers Charlie Tate, the Brit in question, over beers at Heinold's First and Last Chance in Jack London Square. Sitting at this historic maritime disembarking spot, he comes off much like a salty sea dog waiting for his ship to unload and take him back to ol' King George, but at six feet eight, with a shaved head and stubbly square jaw, he looks more like the guy holding the anchor chain than the one with the captain's log.
"We weren't sure how that was going to go, actually," admits Tate's Slow Gin partner, Gunnar Hissam, of the race inversion. The event, which ran from late 2002 to early 2004, was an anachronism really, a time machine ride back to SF's early-'90s rare groove scene, which itself was a wormhole to numerous lost decades of jazz and funk. Tate and Hissam sidestepped the oddly dividing effect hip-hop has on local venue patronage by instead mining the genre's precursors -- in a single night they could jump from early-'60s hard bop to Latin jazz to Chaka Khan. "You'd be surprised how many people in Oakland grew up with [bop trumpeter] Donald Byrd in their homes," Hissam adds. "Dudes would come up to us and say, 'What's this one? My mom used to play this when I was a kid! I haven't heard that for twenty years!'"
Some nights, after blazing a trail through four hours of what Tate calls a "chronological catalogue" of soul jazz and funk, the Slow Gin braintrust would segue into hip-hop instrumentals, and a freestyle rap session would follow. Tate, who was on hiatus from well-regarded British downtempo production duo King Kooba, began making custom backing tracks out of samples lifted from the obscure secondhand jazz records he'd played earlier in the evening. He christened the ensuing project Colossus, and its debut album, West Oaktown (OM Records), breathes and flexes turntablist chops like a studio session of a living band, although the rhythm section is entirely programmed by Tate, and the bass and guitars are played by him alone. Weaving organic-sounding jazz and funk under relaxed rapping isn't a new idea -- early Roots and Guru's Jazzmatazz outings are obvious reference points -- but there's a certain timelessness to the formula, and it makes for refreshing listening in this age of squelchy, overdriven crunk.
"I used the same limited number of instruments my favorite artists did -- Roy Ayers and the Headhunters," Tate says. "Just drums, bass, Rhodes [electric piano], and maybe a mono synth. That's it. You can get away with so few if you get the right energy between them."
West Oaktown strives for the casual ambience that defines the cream of Tate's record collection. "In a lot of those old live recordings, especially jazz recordings, there's this presence, this space in the room you can feel," he explains. "It's very evocative -- you're listening, thinking, 'Jesus, there's some guy tapping his fingers in the left corner, a squeaky drum pedal going on in back, and someone not even in the session just spilled some tea over in that corner.' That sort of soundscape you can just get lost in, and that's the sort of intrigue I was looking for."
King Kooba, which sprouted out of the late-'90s UK compost heap of hip-hop and moldering drum 'n' bass and carries on in a more house-leaning form on OM, also blurred the live/Memorex line. But Tate found that the outfit's early dependence on a rigid sample-reliant backbone made it difficult to achieve anything dynamic live -- the tempo was locked for good before he and his partner got onstage. Thus, with Colossus, he intentionally knit West Oaktown's fabric loosely so he could muss around a bit after the fact. And in recruiting actual humans to play the parts for gigs, he unintentionally formed a band that will write and record together under the name on subsequent releases. The fact that Hissam (a silent partner until Slow Gin is resurrected) is an OM staffer means Tate will have more support than many rare groove-inspired projects can muster these days -- the label propelled Mark Farina's Mushroom Jazz series to unusual success.
Ultimately, moving here from England in 2002 was a pilgrimage of sorts for Tate. "All the stuff that were always big, big influences on me -- the Headhunters, Tower of Power, and a lot of the hip-hop as well -- is at my doorstep now, it's from here," he says. "Is this a homage to Oakland or something? I'm not really sure yet."
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