“I think the kind of people in the scene have changed. The biggest people in Bay Area hip-hop ever are Mac Dre and Mac Dre. He brought a sense of weirdness and quirkiness to the rap game, that has stuck even twenty years later.”
Do kids nowadays even remember the early days of hip-hop? I know I barely do, primarily because I was roughly -11 years old. When I watch videos of what hip-hop meant back in 1979 though, I know I wish I was there. When I was in college, we watched a video in my History of Rock class about the birth of hip-hop and how it changed everything and yeah, you get the point. Suddenly, music went from being something that necessitated a large group of people, to something one dude could (in theory) make in his basement with a crate of records and some clever rhymes. People have roughly the same views on EDM, a music that has somehow eliminated both those things out of the equation and simply replaced it with your iMac.
The fascinating part about this “educational video” we watched though, was the original venues for hip-hop in the late 70s and early 80s. Hip-hop was put on public display (usually in New York) at massive block parties complete with synchronized dance routines, break dancing, MCs, and a DJ with an eclectic funk and soul record collection. Hip-hop at this point was not about selling Gucci or even an arms race for that matter, it was about bringing the people together from the community together in an art form that was both positive and creative. Hence, this is why the Oakland Mind, for lack of a better term, is FUCKING KILLING IT.
Nowadays, rap crews are big, but this is the first time I have been able to see a big crew at the grassroots level. What I mean by that is this: every time some giant rap crew comes along (Odd Future Wolf Pack Krank The Volume, Wu-Tang Clan, ASAP Mob, etc.), eventually (more accurately, in my opinion) the crew gets overrun by a bunch of bozos who have absolutely nothing to do with the creative process. The Oakland Mind proudly has 14 members (!!!!), and a small entourage that supports their message (not their money). Just about every person involved with the group dons an Oakland Mind t-shirt (which I need to cop); a aesthetically pleasing face which has the Oakland tree growing out of its head. Everyone contributes, which is exactly what Oakland Mind head honcho Najee Amaranth wants to do: harbor community.
Every Thursday, the Oakland Mind rendezvouses at Mary Weather apparel (although this week’s edition met at Show and Tell for the drop of a new clothing design) for a cypher, the modern day equivalent of the aforementioned block party. MCs and musicians are permitted to gather in the store, and take turns playing instruments, or rapping. This is not like the final 10 minutes if 8 Mile; this is more like jamming in the Grateful Dead’s garage. The vibe is friendly, but you can tell this is how members of the Oakland Mind are able to keep their A Game on at all times. There were also vegan treats made by the friendliest dude on Earth named “Steez” (real name unknown, but if his parents named him that, that is some cool shit). The group also has a few mix tapes out, featuring fantastic songs from the likes of 2nd Nature, Najee Amaranth, Taharka, Ale-Jhay, and MDF.
I stood there at this week’s cypher, wanting to rap, but being ultimately intimidated by the amount of talent being displayed. People took turns rapping over beats like “Gin N’ Juice” and “Lemonade,” but also, original material was played. It’s not just a chance to get up their and practice, it’s a free Oakland Mind show! The dudes all still have that energy and passion, making even a small rap show in a clothing store, a full-blown spectacle.
Speaking of shows, let’s talk about that one time I saw the Oakland Mind absolutely blow the roof off Neck of the Woods. You know how some times you walk into a room, and you just know whatever is about to happen will be off the hook? That energy was so thick, I could have swum in it. To be fair, the group was opening for DMC (as in the dude who sang half of “It’s Tricky”), and in hip-hop world that’s like your buddy’s band opening for Paul McCartney. The group delivered one of the most high powered rap shows I have ever seen, which says a lot because a lot of underground rappers just don’t have that kind of hype on stage. You could have stage dived at this show, and that’s where the majority of these photographs have come from. It was amazing to literally watch a bunch of people’s dreams come true, as they blew everyone’s mind in the entire place.
But when you actually sit down with Najee Amaranth, he doesn’t sound like a dude who is trying to break barriers in hip-hop. He’s simply just trying to bring the people together under one roof. “We just want to make this a better place to live, and a way for us to get sustainable wealth,” he tells me outside of Mary Weather last week. His humility is absolutely unreal, I mean, this is a dude who kicks off a song by saying “I was born naked/Still am.”
Naturally, I was inclined to ask him, “What is the Oakland Mind?” Just to try and get some sort of basic answer. With Najee though (and assumedly the entire group), it is never that simple. “The Oakland Mind is a mind state that you find here in Oakland,” which at first, sounds like some ridiculous word play, “You may come from a dark place, or you may come from a light place, but no matter where you come from, you come for the right reasons…and you come here to work hard. And at the end of the day, the Oakland Mind is a bunch of people who are ready to work hard to get everything they want, and help the community they live in.”
With quotes like this, it is easy to see what separates the Oakland Mind from their contemporary peers. Every single modern rapper has taken that Gucci chain route. Every rapper seems to think commercialism will get them far, because it worked for people like Lil’ Wayne, Jay-Z and (dare I say it) Cassidy. The Oakland Mind’s humility and sense of togetherness will get them even further. They have the image, the merch, the talent, the support, and the proper shows to send them off into the stratosphere. They aren’t trying to sell liquor, or guns, or a hardened image; they are just trying to sell themselves and their community…and in hip-hop, that’s all we can ever hope for. Because with the Oakland Mind, the game is irrelevant.
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