With a musical love letter to his rapidly changing hometown, Oakland's favorite sideman takes center stage
"I knew how to focus on education, because my mother stressed that was important," he says. "I caught a little bit of a hard time for that — I was short, and I was smart. But I just knew what I was supposed to do, and I did things fast."
In seventh grade at Westlake Middle School, an 11-year-old Choice picked piano class as his elective, and within a few months had learned a Muzio Clementi sonata, practicing rigorously and constantly at home, entirely of his own volition. "I think my family was kind of shocked," he says. "My mom always had music around the house. She liked early Prince, Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross...but here I was playing Bach, Beethoven. Like, where did this come from?"
Still, all he listened to was hip-hop: Run DMC, A Tribe Called Quest, LL Cool J. He started rhyming around age 13, an art form he quickly found brought him a little more respect from his peers than classical piano. He kept them separate, but he kept at both: He was accepted into the competitive Young Musicians Program for teens at UC Berkeley, and joined the jazz band at Skyline High — all of which led to a full scholarship to study piano at Xavier University in New Orleans, where he moved on his own at 17, and where, at his professors' urging, he dug into jazz history for the first time. "They kind of politely said 'You suck,'" he recalls. "'Now go listen to this Thelonious Monk. Really listen.' And I did. I'd practice eight, 10 hours a day back then. That's what gave me the foundation I still stand on today."
After getting his master's in piano at Southern Illinois University, he landed back in Oakland in 2000, with seven years of rigorous musical education behind him — and zero job prospects. So he started playing cafe and restaurant gigs with a jazz trio here and there. It was at the Java House in Oakland that the bassist from Spearhead first noticed him and suggested he come audition. Shortly afterward, Choice found himself leaving the US for the first time on tour with Michael Franti, playing for stadiums of 10,000 people. Aside from the basics of how to be a touring musician — "pacing yourself, sleeping on a bus" — Choice watched how Franti dedicated himself to causes, how seamlessly he infused his music with activism.
"He inspired people," says Choice. "That was the first time I saw that you could be socially conscious, be involved in the community, and be a successful artist. You gotta stand behind what you say — you can't just say shit and not be willing to live it on the day-to-day basis."
The tour with Spearhead led to a tour with Goapele; the tour with Goapele led to putting together a band for Lyrics Born, after Lyrics Born decided he wanted to rap with a full band in 2006. And the day after he got fired by Lyrics Born (final straw: missing a flight to Hawaii when they were opening for the Black Eyed Peas), Choice got a call from a producer friend, who informed him he was one of three guys who would be auditioning for Lauryn Hill the following afternoon at a studio in Emeryville.