Kev Choice is a little less reserved about the drama with Lauryn Hill than he was last year, but it's still kind of a sore point. At least now he's consolidated his own career and will not be remembered, exclusively, as the music director who recruited ten of the Bay Area's best musicians for one year of boot camp with the world's most erratic pop diva. Now he's known, alternately, as the East Bay's "most multi-talented" — or, barring that, a signifier of a bizarre turn in hip-hop: The rapping instrumentalist. Kev Choice isn't just any rapping instrumentalist, either. He's a classical piano player who raps.
Thirty-two-year-old Kev Choice (whose government name is, indeed, Kevin Choice) grew up making beats and rapping with Oakland emcees Numskull and Yukmouth, but also played Chopin and Mozart at piano recitals. Today he's is a well-established gun-for-hire in the jazz and R&B scene who gigs regularly with Martin Luther, and gets spot dates whenever DJ Quik or Amel Larrieux comes to town. Choice somehow managed to keep his foot in both scenes for more than twenty years. Now he's got a new mixtape and several beats in the pipeline, plus a formidable ten-piece ensemble. He's using his rap career to nurture his parallel jazz career, and vice versa.
Choice didn't invent the hip-hop-jazz band phenomenon — artists like Lyrics Born, Crown City Rockers, and the Coup had already been doing it long before he came on the scene. But he is the only Bay Area artist to cultivate separate identities as an impeccably cool Oakland emcee and a brooding jazz pianist and merge them together in a way that seems believable. In person, Kev Choice is polite and chivalrous, a meticulous follower of backpacker fashion trends (these days he wears Coke bottle glasses and a Palestinian keffiyeh) and an enthusiastic user of contemporary slang. He teaches with Khalil Shaheed in the Oaktown Jazz Workshop and plays three-hour lounge piano sets at Vo's Restaurant in downtown Oakland. He's a striver who keeps his fingers in many different pots. And granted, it's a tricky balancing act.
"If I was a jazz pianist who just started trying to be a rapper then I guess people would look at me funny. Or if I was a rapper who tried to get in the jazz world and didn't have the chops to do it then it wouldn't really work," said Choice, admitting that he straddles the fence a little.
As a composer, Choice is distinctly modern and technological: He might start off at the piano, but everything he writes gets filtered through the programs Reasons or ProTools, produced as a beat, and later reinterpreted for live instruments. As a rapper and producer, he's more of a traditionalist: Choice's new downloadable album, The Bailout, is a return to the classical mixtape format — it has three sampled tracks and eighteen original beats, all blended seamlessly together by DJ D-Sharp, all available for free. It's a strange convergence of genres and creative processes, but the result is fascinating: Choice's beats sound more melodic than those of other hip-hop producers, and his band sounds more sample-driven than most of its counterparts in jazz or funk. His ensemble is anchored by strong drums and electric bass, and most of the songs have a funky, crowd-pleasing breakdown — though Choice is also prone to do something asymmetrical with the rhythm, or add a sprawling, expressionist piano solo that betrays his classical upbringing. Choice's aesthetic mirrors his music, combining jazz sophistication, left-wing politics, and contemporary urban fashion. From this pastiche he's created a cult of personality that verges on being a brand identity.
The genesis of Oakland's first rapping piano player happened in 1987, when then-eleven-year-old Choice enrolled in piano class at West Lake Junior High. His first bona fide piece was a Clementi Sonata, followed by Beethoven's Für Elise and other canonical works. He later played in the jazz band at Skyline High School and joined UC Berkeley's Young Musicians Program, then got a full scholarship to study piano performance at Xavier University in Louisiana. He went on to get a master's degree in piano at Southern Illinois University.
All the while, Choice was rapping. His original rap group — called Brothas Wit Potential (BWP) — featured Luniz emcees Yukmouth and Numskull, along with DJ D-Sharp. He made beats for other rappers, applying his knowledge of piano to an MPC sampler, and later to ProTools. He battled, he freestyled, he took the mic at rallies, and, for a time, he tried to keep the piano lessons under wraps. "I was a rapper to certain people. To other people, yeah, I play piano," Choice recalled. "Like in high school nobody really cares that you know how to play Chopin. ... I got a scholarship to go to college and nobody was really trippin."
That whole code-switching business changed in graduate school, when Choice joined a hip-hop band called Andromeda Sequence (he played keys and got to rap in one song). In 2004 Choice debuted his signature technique of rapping at the piano while playing in a jazz band called Baby Daddy, led by trumpter Geechi Taylor. During those years he kept steady gigs as a sideman: Michael Franti recruited him to play with Spearhead in 2001; he backed local soul singer Goapele in the two years that followed; he later wound up in the band for Lyrics Born. Choice's biggest break happened in 2006, when he got a call from another well-connected industry person, Papa Pretty, the former tour manager for Spearhead. Lauryn Hill was in town rehearsing at Emeryville's Ex'pression College for Digital Arts, Papa Pretty said. She wanted to form a new band.
"So I went to the studio and there was a couple guys in there — some guitar players. She started playing some chords... I had my MPC there, and I started making a beat along with her. We were vibing for like, thirty minutes. And then she got up and walked out the room. You know what I'm sayin? I didn't know what happened."
The next day Ms. Hill came back — more accurately, she had a rep call Choice and ask him to put a band together, pronto. She helped officiate over the process, deciding which of Choice's recruits would make the final cut. The resulting band rehearsed eight to ten hours a day for the next month. The following year they suffered through a three-month world tour with a fading pop singer who appeared, in the eyes of most of her fans, to be on the verge of a catastrophic meltdown. (Performing at Oakland's Paramount Theatre she fell down at least once — twice in some people's recollection.) Choice acted as music director, programmer, arranger, consultant, emissary to the band, and sometimes the de facto tour manager. He never slept. "After that experience, nothing could shake me," he said.
The best thing to come out of Lauryn Hill boot camp was the Kev Choice Ensemble, which was culled, almost entirely, from the singer's touring band. Kev, who raps and plays piano, is gradually acclimating to his role as a bandleader. Last year he premiered the ensemble in a monthly residency at West Oakland's Black New World Gallery, billed as "The Junction: Sidemen Coming to the Front." For Black History Month he performed a tribute to the Masters, opening with a trio set of compositions by Bud Powell and Andrew Hill. Between songs Choice would go to the mic, give the exegesis of each jazzman's career, and then sit back down at his piano.
"People playing be-bop in the clubs, man, that was like gangsta rap back in the day," Choice explained. "I think it's a natural progression of urban black music. And I happen to have respect for that lineage."
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