MUSIC/STAGE/LIT When I meet Ise Lyfe in downtown Oakland, the 28-year-old MC is sporting a button-down shirt, slacks, cardigan, and a purple and pink tie. Put a Wall Street Journal under his arm and he might blend in with the lunchtime business crowd. He’s fresh from a meeting with one of the distributors of his company, Lyfe Productives, hence rocking business casual.
Seeing Ise “in character” is appropriate, given his latest endeavor: a theatrical show, Pistols & Prayers, and the book of the same title (available on iUniverse) on which it’s based. After a successful one-off performance at Berkeley Rep — and a tour involving the show, book signings, and rap gigs — Pistols returns for a three-night run at Oakland’s Fox Black Box Theater benefiting nonprofit Youth Movement Records. According to Ise, his pitches of the book to African American studies departments have resulted in 21 course adoptions.
“You have good books in universities, like Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, but not contemporary texts from a hip-hop artist,” he says . “My book’s a collection of prayers, poems, journal entries, essays, anecdotes. But it’s also palatable for hip-hop heads. You can sit down and blaze through it.”
As Ise suggests, Pistols is an eclectic affair. Its unity comes from the author’s political sensibility. The poems recall the late-1960s explosion of African American poetry documented in anthologies like 1972’s New Black Voices, even as Ise updates the frame of reference. Most compelling are the nonfiction prose meditations, recounting, for example, his visit to Ghana, the murder of Oscar Grant, and his ambivalence about Barack Obama.
Such material might easily prove resistant to dramatic presentation, but Ise is no stranger to the stage; he has performed spoken word since age 17 and rocked HBO’s Def Poetry Jam in 2006. While loosely following the book, the stage version of Pistols is a genuine theatrical experience. Using a minimalist set, spotlights, and a video screen, Ise brings Pistols to life with support from DC of KMEL, folksinger Melanie Demore (who punctuates the proceedings with African pounding sticks) and celloist Michael Fecskes.
“It’s a collage,” Ise says. “We bring together hip-hop, folklore, spirituals, and [Fecskes] playing the cello brings in this Americanized background. You’re able to see the clash of it onstage.”
At many rap-related theatre shows, the cast members are actors who fail miserably at hip-hop. But Ise is a real rapper. When comparing the state of contemporary hip-hop with its golden age, he can rip a verse from KRS-One’s “Ah Yeah” with all the furious swagger of the original before dropping into a comically tepid rendition of Drake’s “Best I Ever Had.” He also has acting chops. Seeing Ise transform into one of his characters, a dope fiend named Uncle Randy based on addicts he knew as a kid in Oakland’s Brookfield neighborhood, is impressive: his eyes go glassy, his face and body contort with tics and twitches as Randy delivers his satirical, cracked-out observations on America.
Artistic ambitions aside, Ise has turned to theatre and books as a way of getting more exposure in the overcrowded, blinged-out rap landscape. Make no mistake: Ise Lyfe gets around. He tours nationally, is a commissioner of arts and cultural Affairs in Oakland, and counts among his fanbase luminaries like Alice Walker and Dave Chappelle. He has two nationally-distributed albums under his belt, spreadtheWord (Hard Knock, 2006) and The Prince Cometh (7even89ine, 2008), which has moved more than 30,000 units. Still, he admits, “We have a hard time getting the same coverage as my counterparts.”
“Normally I’d be recording my next record,” he says when asked about the two years since Prince Cometh. “But I want to put that money and energy into expanding our audience then dropping a record that changes everything.”
“There’s no one here who sells more records, fills more shows, or does anything more provocative than us,” he says. “I keep hearing, ‘Nobody’s trying to hear that shit you’re talking about.’ But the numbers say somebody is. It’s interesting that Ise Lyfe is an afterthought when I run this shit. And I mean that humbly.”
PISTOLS & PRAYERS
Fri/21–Sat/22, 7:30 p.m.; Sun/23, 4 p.m.; $10–$20
530 19th St., Oakl.
(510) 832-4212 www.iselyfe.com