February 5, 2003

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Local Live

Conscious Daughters
Storyville, Jan. 24

THE YEAR 1993 was a breakthrough for Oakland turf-hop. Having just unleashed Ear to the Street, the Conscious Daughters were vying with local mogul Too $hort for play on TV's California Music Channel, and while guys in gold neck chains were struttin' to $hort's "I'm a Playa" anthem, girls in backward Raiders caps were rewinding their cassettes until they could spit the riffs of "Somethin' to Ride To (Fonky Expedition)" verbatim. Bawdy, aggressive, and sexually provocative, the Conscious Daughters were the hip-hop offspring of boss ladies Mae West and Big Mama Thornton, and despite allegations of "man hating" and "female machismo," they continued toeing the line for gangsta girl power.

Fast-forward to the next track: with Ear to the Street and Gamers (1996) under their belts, the Conscious Daughters' CMG, a.k.a. Carla Green, and Special One, or Karryl Smith, are now emerging from a six-year hibernation, which they spent raising children and working in their studio. These days they're hitting the local club scene more often and raising money for an upcoming album.

By a quarter to midnight at a recent True Skool performance, the heat was rising in Storyville's red-and-black, lava-lit cavern, and the crowd could have been transplanted directly from California Peace Action across the Bay – the "activist chic" crew was multicultural, mixed gender, and decked out in Etnies sweatshirts and knit Kangol caps. The audience was fully cranked after performances by Dream Nefra and Siren's Echo, representing Sisterz of the Underground, when CMG and Special One swaggered onstage. Even this surly nerd journalist started fist pumping.

Clad in baseball jackets and baggy jeans, the two MCs hit the stage and shouted "Do the Ladies Run This Motherfucker?!" – in case we had any doubts. Working the crowd with a call-and-response number as Pam the Funkstress deftly scratched at her turntables, they plunged headlong into a remix of "We Roll Deep." For those who remember the moody synths on the album version, the remix was grittier, with a grinding, atonal bass. Heads bobbed and bodies swayed, but it was the Daughters' two-fisted "Boss Bitch," a new song about striking back against domestic violence, that brought down the house.

When CMG and Special One rapped about turning the tables on abusers at Slim's a few months ago, they elicited a similar response. The ladies in the audience cheered and waved their fists to the hook "Cuz it's nothing to a boss bitch / To a boss bitch / I'm a motherfuckin' gangsta," while the beleaguered guys glanced at one another, dumbfounded. Men turn into flinchers and women become fighters when the Conscious Daughters are in the house, but it's a role reversal most guys can tolerate for the set's duration. The Conscious Daughters' audience may be more progressive than most – or they just may be more complacent – but in any case, the group feel like they have their male fans' respect. "Men like to see us step up like homies, not hang back like sex objects," Special One explained after the show.

Another factor may be the duo's laid-back style. The Daughters are known for their lyrical militancy, yet onstage they look pretty chilled out. Unlike novice rappers who are too tense to make eye contact with one another or the audience, the pair rhyme and riff off of each other with ease. You feel like you're eavesdropping on a conversation between old friends. Trading fours over Sean Paul's "Just Gimme da Light" and Missy E's crowd-pleasing "Is It Worth It?" these two princesses of poetry proved that, after 22 years of friendship, they could flow easier than most married couples. If there is such thing as the gift o' gab, the Conscious Daughters have got it in spades. (Rachel Swan)