Putting Down Roots in Oakland 

A mobile music crew teaches how to make a living off art.

DJ Nicholas Basta isn't interested in holding down a residency at a club, though it would be lucrative. The 24-year-old Bay Area-based artist and activist would much rather be in the streets.

The founder of Roots and Branches, a community-based youth arts and music collaborative in Oakland, Basta and his artist collective have put on free block parties since 2005. Like Robin Hood and his Merry Men equipped with two turntables, speakers, and microphones instead of bows and arrows, Roots and Branches takes art and music out of the hands of commercial interests and puts it in the hands of the people.

"Hip-hop has been contorted by commerce, but it's still a youth culture," Basta said. "In the Bay Area, we have an incredible arts and culture scene, but people under 21 are excluded from that. Also, if you don't have the money, you're not part of the cultural melting pot we have here."

Starting as a car battery-powered mobile sound system on a shopping cart, Basta and his crew would play music in different Oakland neighborhoods and hand out cups of free-trade coffee. A year later, they acquired a retired ambulance and started throwing full-fledged block parties, with live music, free food, and a freshly painted mural on the side of the ambulance for each event.

Beyond throwing events, Roots and Branches is a resource for the young people involved. More than 25 youth artists have graced Roots and Branches stages, many of whom are mentees of Basta and members of the Roots and Branches collective. The core team consists of Basta, rappers Be-naiah "VT" Williams, and Tyrone "Baby Champ" Stevenson along with visual artist Keith Magruder. A DJ since fifteen, Basta teaches his artists how to properly control a sound system, hold a mic, and engage an audience. He's also brought in professionals to teach production and media arts skills.

"A big part of why I'm so embedded in community work is that there are so many people trying to get on and live off of producing art and music, even people trying to do community events, that it's a crab-in-the-barrel mentality," Basta said. "Instead of helping each other out, it's more like, 'I gotta get on first.'"

To showcase Oakland's youth talent, Basta and his cohort recently released Roots and Branches Sound System Vol. 3, a compilation featuring 15 thumping tracks from Roots and Branches artists, along with Bay Area veterans such as Jern Eye, Deuce Eclipse, and Crown City Rockers. Roots and Branches member and Oakland emcee Willie Beamin sums up best what they're all about on "Sound System": Everybody having a good time, enjoying the community/Got food, got plates so the whole ' hood can eat/Healthy and aware, communicatin'/Now let's all stand for something positive and innovatin'.

Unfortunately, Roots and Branches can't hold events as often as they'd like to, Basta laments. With the grant economy taking a major hit, it's been harder for organizations to secure funds. Rather than folding after having lost its primary grant, Roots and Branches is using merchandising in hopes to stay afloat.

Recently, Roots and Branches started a quarterly series, "Up from the Underground," at San Francisco clothing boutique D-Structure. For the show, Basta produced a book documenting the first three years of their work. The event featured hand screen-printed T-shirts, hoodies, and tote bags for sale, along with the Sound System Vol. 3 CD. Except for "Up from the Underground," all Roots and Branches events are held in the day, safe and sober. "We don't need to promote [alcohol] in our community," Basta said.

When not holding their own events, Roots and Branches collaborate with likeminded organizations. Last year, they partnered with Oakland's Lakefest, providing a youth stage to showcase the talents of Roots and Branches artists Baby Champ, VT, and Young Naughdy, along with youth talent from Youth Movement Records and African drum and dance group Bumpity Thump (also featured on Sound System Vol. 3).

Despite the financial hurdles, Basta has high hopes for 2010. Roots and Branches is partnering with Ralph Bunche High School, a continuation school in Oakland, for a monthly dinner and youth event with music, art, and food to be held at the DeFremery Park Recreation Center.

Currently, the collective is working to produce scraper bike inventor Baby Champ's debut album. The twenty-year-old rapper and trendsetter — creator of recycled and customized "scraper bikes" — is organizing group rides across Oakland. Seeing the growth of artists within the collective such as Baby Champ and VT, who first stepped on a Roots and Branches stage in 2006 and is now enrolled in college, is what keeps Basta motivated.

"I've got youth going to college trying to be leaders," Basta said. "To me, that's the greatest success: to see the people that have been a part of it, owned it, and taken it into their own realm and put it to work in their own lives."

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