Garrett Caples

Tears of a thug

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The first time I interviewed Shaheed Akbar, a.k.a. the Jacka — in December of 2007, during a midnight session for Tear Gas (Artist Records/SMC), due June 16 — he was rolling purple and green weeds plus two types of hash into a Sharpie-sized blunt. I felt like Paul Bowles interviewing Bob Marley. Having known him three years, I can assure you that even in the Bay's smoky atmosphere, Jacka blazes like a forest fire.

I dwell on this because it's one facet of the Tear Gas concept, beyond the title's literal meaning. Read more »

Black man in the cosmos

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AFRO-SURREAL "The Black Man in the Cosmos" wasn't among the course offerings when I attended the University of California-Berkeley. The class was taught once, in 1971, by musician/composer Sun Ra (1914-93), whose lectures might include topics like the outer space origins of ancient Egypt, conceptualized as a black African culture. This cosmic tradition has a long history, particularly in Chicago, where Ra lived from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, and where Elijah Muhammad used it as the founding mythos of the Nation of Islam. Read more »

Fill 'er up

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An anthology of poets who allegedly combine mainstream and avant-garde aesthetics, American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry (WW. Norton and Co., 512 pages, $25.95) — edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John — is an idea whose time hasn't come. The word "hybrid" is suspect, its trendiness invented by the auto industry to delay real electric cars, hence the cover's Prius-green font. Read more »

The color purp

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G-Stack and Dotrix4000 of the Mekanix arrive for our interview clad in Oakland's signature purple. The color looms large among the town's dread-locked youth, owing to the purple weed so popular here: in local slang, assorted leafy greens become "grapes," and references to "Urkel" proliferate for rhyming purposes. Forget Dipset's Harlem and OutKast's Atlanta — Oakland is Purple City. Read more »

"Brad Noble: Chaotic Resolve"

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The recent Washington Post obituary of Andrew Wyeth reveals that the figurative painter considered himself an abstract artist, because he didn't depict but rather evoked a metaphysical vision. This idea is at least as old as 1907, when antimodernist Max Nordau hurled it as an accusation at French symbolist Puvis de Chavannes, and while few use the word abstract with this meaning, I find the conception sympathetic rather than pejorative. If we can call it a lineage, then Brad Noble is part of it. Read more »

Herself redefined

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although I don't enjoy real lakes

Barbara Guest, Biography

Barbara Guest (1920-2006) once told me she shared a taxi in Manhattan with Marianne Moore. Seeing Guest unsuccessfully hail a cab, Moore impulsively instructed the driver of the one she was in to pull over and pick up the young poet. Moore didn't know Guest was a poet, and Guest was too intimidated to confess it, though they had a pleasant chat before Moore dropped her off at her destination.

There's something fitting about this encounter. Read more »

Purple canon

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One of the hot discs in Oakland back in 2004 was In Thugz We Trust (Rap-A-Lot/Asylum) by Thug Lordz, a duo of mob music veterans Yukmouth and C-Bo. It was dope but it underscored a problem: all the big Bay-associated artists established careers in the '90s, before radio play and major label action dried up. During the pre-hyphy drought, it was tough to achieve any fame outside the hood.

Fast-forward to post-hyphy 2008: the canonical list of Bay Area rappers has expanded considerably. Read more »

Boys to men

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Longevity in rap is the exception, not the rule, but those exceptions are glorious: witness E-40, who dates his career from his 1988 self-released 12-inch as a member of MVP. After 11 years with Jive Records, 40 signed to Lil Jon's Warner Bros.-distributed BME for his 2006 Gold-certified album, My Ghetto Report Card. Now the 41-year-old Vallejo veteran has returned with The Ball Street Journal, which dropped Nov. Read more »

Trackademics

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"You have different buzzes in different circles," Trackademicks says. "But when everyone's talking, it sounds like one big noise."

Few know this better than the 27-year-old rapper and producer born Jason Valerio. In San Francisco and Berkeley, the Alameda native is known as a conscious hip-hop performer whose sound embraces electronica,'80s R&B, and new wave. Read more »

Surrealism's island

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REVIEW Since his death in 1966, André Breton has received more than his fair share of knocks. I've heard both critics and poets call him "fascist," though if pressed, they can only cite Breton's sometimes dogmatic leadership of the surrealist movement. Such loose talk is tiresome and ahistorical. A staunch Communist, Breton was nonetheless the first to denounce the totalitarian Stalin when the rest of the French Left turned a blind eye. He never went for Mao like the Tel Quel crowd. Read more »