“I want to be a mainstream artist,” says East Oakland rapper and spoken word poet Ise Lyfe, discussing his rejection of the label “conscious rap.” “I’m not trying to be some backpack cat performing in Davis. I want to be …”
The 23-year-old trails off thoughtfully. “I think the only way to do it harder than Jay-Z is to have a real movement, something tangible that will effect change in the world through music. I’d like to be that big but at the same time put a dent in the Earth.”
At first glance, it’s hard to imagine a rapper less like Jay-Z than Ise Lyfe, whose 2004 self-released debut, SpreadtheWord, is devoid of the big pimpin’, cheese-spending exploits that have endeared Jiggaman to millions. But like James Baldwin — who once said he didn’t want to be the best black novelist in America, he wanted to be Henry James — Ise isn’t talking about betraying his identity for success. He’s simply saying he wants to be the best, period. If there’s anything common to all four of these artists, it’s the awareness that in order to be the best you must change the game. With the rerelease of SpreadtheWord, complete with new artwork, a bonus DVD, and a mildly retooled track list, on fledgling independent Hard Knock Records, in addition to his recently concluded nationwide tour with the Coup, Ise Lyfe is hoping to do just that.
Born in 1982, Ise was raised in Brookfield, deep in East Oakland next to the notorious Sobrante Park. “I grew up as a young kid right when the crack epidemic was flourishing and having a real effect on our families,” he says. “My father had been affected by drugs. For me, growing up in a single-parent home was the manifestation of that existing in our community. But I also came up amongst a large level of social justice activity and youth organizing. That influences my music. I think Oakland has a history that unconsciously bleeds into everyone from here.”
The legacy of this history — which includes a spoken word scene at least as old as Gil Scott Heron’s mid-’70s albums for underground label Strata East — endures in Oakland, where Ise first made a name for himself as a teen slam poet. “I would be three years deep into performing spoken word before there was any place I could go and perform hip-hop,” he says. “Hip-hop was all 21-and-up venues, where I was the number one slam poet in the country when I was 19.” Repping the Bay in 2001 at the Youth Speaks National Poetry Slam, Ise would achieve a modicum of fame through appearances on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam.
“When I started recording,” he confesses, “folks didn’t even know I was making a hip-hop record. They thought it was a spoken word record, but I fused both in there.” The success of this fusion of art forms is all the more apparent on the rereleased SpreadtheWord, the continuity of which has been improved by a few judicious edits. Ise’s flow is so dexterous that the moments of purely a cappella poetry enhance rather than disrupt the musical experience. In fact, musicality underscores an important difference between SpreadtheWord and most conscious hip-hop recordings, for most of the beats on even otherwise impressive efforts sound like they were made sometime in 1993. The lack of curiosity about the sound of contemporary hip-hop gives such music a perfunctory air, while the tracks on SpreadtheWord are infinitely fresher even after two years. While it’s not exactly hyphy, a tune like “Reasons” still sounds like a Bay Area slap that would work on a mixtape with other new tunes.
“My fan base is predominantly young people of color,” Ise says, articuutf8g his other major difference from most rappers who fall under the conscious rubric. “I think it’s all good. The music is for everybody. But I’m proud of seeing the music connect with who it’s really written to, directly from, and for. I don’t want to be distant from the community.” In the face of the failure of so many conscious rappers to continue to appeal to their original listeners, it’s hard not to attribute Ise’s own success to his closeness to both his audience and hip-hop.
“It’s important for me to have real community work behind what I say,” he explains, commenting on a busy schedule that includes everything from teaching classes to street sweeping to performing at the Youth UpRising community center on the bill with Keak Da Sneak on Aug. 25.
Moreover, his refusal to place himself in opposition to the hyphy movement despite his very different approach to hip-hop lends him a credibility unavailable to others.
“I consider myself just the other side of hyphy,” he concludes. “I don’t think there’s anything different in what I’m saying than what they’re saying. Those cats is positive — they’re talking about uniting the Bay. I just think it’s important that we set a standard for what’s acceptable. When we calling a 13-year-old girl a ripper, it’s just abusive music. But even in its industrial prepackaged form hip-hop comes from the hood, and I think that going dumb or getting hyphy is revolutionary in principle. I’m-a jump on this car, I’m-a shake these dreads, I’m-a be me. I think that it’s a positive energy.” SFBG
Youth UpRising’s “Lyrical Warfare”
with Keak Da Sneak
Fri/25, 4–7 p.m.
8711 MacArthur, Oakl.