As it turned out, he was the only one of said guys who could keep up with Hill — who entered and exited the audition without saying a word to any of the musicians — when she started playing guitar in an odd time signature. From that point on, Choice was her bandleader for a year and a half, putting together a live band under her orders out of his musician friends around the Bay. She would text him music to learn in the middle of the night, he says. "Go download this, teach the band this by tomorrow." Once, she flew him to LA, and sent him to a hotel room where there was a box full of studio equipment waiting. Her instructions: Put together a studio, then go to a record store and buy every Bob Marley CD he could find — she wanted to him to re-create the instrumentals for the bulk of Marley's catalog.
"Which, on the one hand, why am I in this hotel room trying to remake 30 Bob Marley songs?" he says, laughing. "On the other hand, it felt like a mystical guidance kind of test — 'Once you do this, I know you're ready.'" This was 2007, and despite overseeing her band during a tour that would make headlines largely for Hill's antics (some would say meltdowns), Choice maintains she was crucial to his growth, pushing him and exposing him to Ethiopian and other world music.
"She was hard, but she was also really encouraging," he says. "She'd say, 'You have what it takes, but you gotta be sharp at all times. And if you wanna be one of the best, you can't conform to what other people you think you should do.'"
In the years between leaving Hill's band and putting out this new record, Choice has been taking steps toward center stage: At the helm of the Kev Choice Ensemble, a jazz-funk-hip-hop band he created with the idea of a modern Duke Ellington in mind, on a handful of solo mixtapes, and on a 2009 record, The Power of Choice, a compilation of his recorded work from the previous five years. But Oakland Riviera represents a true premiere for the musician — an unmistakable coming-out by someone who's been hustling for a solid decade and a half.
"He has an unstoppable work ethic," says the Coup's Boots Riley, of his experiences with Choice. "On tour, he'll have a keyboard and a laptop in his lap, recording music while we drive in the van. And I don't know when he sleeps, because then he'll be up 'til five in the morning in the hotel room fiddling away on the keys, nodding off, waking back up a second before his head is going to fall into the desk, blinking his eyes while waking up, rewinding the recording he was working on, and playing for a few more minutes before nodding off again...and sure enough, each day he'll have posted a new song on Facebook or wherever, often based on whatever's been happening."
"I've written maybe 100 songs in my career," adds Riley. "I'm sure Kev Choice has made 100 songs since October."
If early reviews are any indication, the 15 that made the cut for this album have the potential to take Choice, as an emcee and as a solo artist, to a new level in the public eye. "This album was, I feel like I could be one of the dopest artists out of the Bay Area, so why not just show people?" he says. His personal life was one driving force. Over the last couple years, both his mother and his best friend/former girlfriend passed away — the latter from cancer, at age 34 — and he realized something. "When you lose the closest people to you, you got nothing really left to lose. Why not get this out? Why not go for it all?"
Part of the story he's apparently been waiting to tell: a loving portrait of a city whose profile is similarly, if problematically, on the rise.