Mo' Drama 

Felonious brings Beatbox to the Black Box.

The moniker "Felonious" suggests a criminally-minded jazz genius, which isn't that far off the truth. Since its formation in 1997, the multicultural five-member outfit has bridged the gap between the acid jazz, urban funk, and progressive hip-hop eras in the Bay Area's famed indie music scene. While its recorded output has thus far been limited to two full-length albums, it's helped to keep live hip-hop going strong locally with its long-running weekly gig at the Last Day Saloon and frequent appearances at True Skool and Blake's.

Felonious has been on a roll lately. It recently completed a European tour, which proved quite eye-opening. Performing in front of hardcore hip-hop fans in Germany, members saw with their own eyes the respect international audiences have for the art form's traditional elements. According to beatboxer/MC/drummer Tommy Shepard, aka Soulati, "hip-hop in Europe is the closest thing to what I imagined it used to be like in the old school."

Not long after returning from overseas, Felonious got the opportunity of a lifetime, opening up for hip-hop legend LL Cool J at SF's equally storied Fillmore Auditorium. Though LL could only muster a slightly-above-half-capacity crowd, word of mouth after the show was that Felonious killed it.

Perhaps the most impressive thing Felonious has accomplished, however, is the theatrical production Beatbox: A Raparetta. The production, brainchild of Shepard and Dan Wolf, aka MC Euripides, has been a work-in-progress since the mid-'90s, during which it has been presented in various incarnations. A lengthy run at the Last Day Saloon in 2000 led to last year's Theater Artaud presentation, a fully choreographed ninety-minute show that played to rave reviews and garnered some national press.

The concept of a "raparetta," or rap opera, is one that transcends the narrow mainstream view of hip-hop, which has become more disposable entertainment than a living, breathing culture. Not only is Beatbox told entirely in rhyme, but it also highlights hip-hop's often-overlooked fifth element -- human percussion. "I think it's ill," says Shepard, "that beatboxing has evolved and transformed to what it is today, and yet the form still contains and relies on the very thing it originated with: the voice and the breath."

A stripped-down, touring version of Beatbox comes to Oakland's Black Box (1928 Telegraph Ave., 510-451-1932) beginning tonight for a limited, four-performance run through September 18. All performances (8 p.m.) are all-ages and will be followed by Felonious concerts (9 p.m.), giving audiences even more bang for their $7. "From the beginning, the challenge has been to create a show both theatrical and true to hip-hop culture," says Wolf. "What we produced at Theater Artaud in 2001 was the "big dream' vision; now we need to take the show on the road and still maintain the spirit and integrity of what we are saying."

Wolf speaks with admiration of the efforts of Danny Hoch and others to bring hip-hop culture into playhouses, noting that NYC's Hip-Hop Theater Festival had over eighty submissions this past year. The success of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Broadway production Topdog/Underdog (featuring backpack rap icon Mos Def) is another encouraging sign that, as Wolf states, "Hip-hop theater is gaining momentum worldwide." His feeling is that its long-term prognosis is positive. "I think that in ten years every major theater company in the world will be producing some type of hip-hop theater."

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