It's 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon in East Oakland, and on stage in the amphitheater at Castlemont High School, Kev Choice  is trying to keep a straight face. Seated behind a keyboard in jeans, a button-down shirt, purple sneakers, and a baseball cap, the musician — who's been Lauryn Hill's bandleader, and the go-to keyboard player and sideman for Lyrics Born , Goapele, Michael Franti, Too $hort, and the Coup , among others — is serving as accompaniment today for a slightly different type of artist than usual: There are about 20 of them, for one, performing solo or in small, nervous groups, and they're all at various stages of puberty.
One young lady sings a respectable SWV cover. Two boys rip wordless electric guitar riffs. Then a young man scream-raps a song about hoes and twerking, to the delight of a dozen or so girls in the front row, and punctuates it by ripping his shirt off — much to the chagrin of his teachers and school administrators (one of whom runs on stage to try to cover him, unsuccessfully, just as the song is coming to a close). In other words, just your average high school talent show.
"I was actually surprised he did that bit," Choice says of the teenager, laughing, a few hours later. The musician began mentoring at Castlemont just a couple months ago, but he already knows some students pretty well. "He can do other things. He came into class singing one of my songs at me last week. But I think he was maybe trying to impress a certain, you know...demographic."
As someone who grew up rapping for his friends in the schoolyard, then going home to study Beethoven's piano sonatas, the pitfalls of trying to appeal to a certain demographic — and the difficulty of not fitting neatly into a given category — is a somewhat familiar topic for Choice. He's an Oakland native who's always had one foot firmly in the hip-hop world, and one in the world of academia, classical music, and jazz; it's a balancing act made all the more delicate by the fact that, regardless of his chops as an emcee or producer, no matter what instruments he plays (and he plays a lot of them), he's always been known predominantly as a sideman. A talented, hard-working, and in-demand sideman, to be sure, but a sideman nonetheless.
It's from the side, then, that he's watched as Oakland has changed around him these past few years. He's seen First Fridays come and blow up, has quietly observed as rent has nearly doubled around Lake Merritt — where he spent his teenage years, and where he currently lives again — and working-class people move elsewhere. He was there at the Oscar Grant protests, he was in the streets for Trayvon Martin, but he's not generally one to get on a bullhorn.
All of which is to say that, when Choice's solo record Oakland Riviera dropped in late January — a warm, lush, ambitious album that swerves fluidly between genres, weaving jazz instrumental interludes named for Oakland streets between tracks of Choice's dynamic, live-band hip-hop — it sounded distinctly like the work of a man with something to prove. Boasting a guest roster that reads like a who's who in East Bay music, with rappers from Zion I 's Zumbi to Mistah F.A.B . to local R&B and jazz greats, the album is a determined step into the limelight, drawing a sprawling yet cohesive map and love letter to the town where Choice grew up — a town that's changing very quickly or not quickly enough, depending on whom and where you're asking.
"There's a lot on this album that I'd been thinking about for a long time, but hadn't really had the chance to say," Choice explains during an interview back in his neighborhood, at a shiny new burger joint on Lakeshore Avenue, when I ask about the first track that stood out to me, the upbeat anthem "Shed Light." It's built around a John Coltrane tune, with Choice rapping lyrics about the development of Oakland's Uptown District: "No matter how many fancy restaurants sprout up/the menus don't cater to the issues around us...tale of two cities, the pretty and the gritty/the welcome and neglected, the prosperous and profitless/we got some issues to address, can't build up part of the city and neglect the rest."
"I wanted to showcase the beauty of Oakland, and talk about all the possibilities here, but also the struggles," he says, noting that the record's name was inspired by traveling to the south of France recently and, upon returning home, wanting to "take people on a trip here, remind people that Oakland is just as beautiful as some of the most beautiful places in the world."
"The social activism on the album is just a reflection of what I see going on in my city, things I've been hearing about for a long time," he says. "What does gentrification mean? How do we address the crime rate? How does a black man succeed here, or even just escape the violence, escape police harassment? And what can I say and do as an Oakland native to be a positive influence on that?"
At the moment, what he's not doing very much of is sleeping. Today he has a two-hour break between mentoring at Castlemont (in one of Oakland's poorest neighborhoods) and a birthday party downtown for the soul singer Jennifer Johns (whom he's produced, and who guests on his album) that doubles as a fundraiser for the Creating Sustainability campaign, a new project to help build an economic stability plan for the city. When he gets home sometime after 2 am, he'll do some work on a record a singer just emailed him about producing, practice some lightning-quick Herbie Hancock licks on the piano, and maybe prep for the Black History Month event he's part of at Laney College the next day.
Last week he was in Atlanta for a Lauryn Hill show; next week he'll be in the Pacific Northwest on a quick Coup tour. And 10 minutes ago, an elderly woman with glasses interrupted him while he was eating a turkey burger to chastise him for not returning a CD she loaned him a few weeks back.
"I'm so sorry, I've been out of town. I promise!" he says, as she smiles and waves him off. "Reverend E — it's music she wants me to learn for church," he explains sheepishly after she's gone. "I need to do that." Two other neighbors, a middle-aged man with a little boy, and a 20-something kid with a buzz cut, stop to say hi within the span of half an hour. This section of Lakeshore is basically his living room, he admits; he always winds up stopping to talk to folks: "My daughter doesn't even like walking down the street with me here on a Saturday."
Of course, should you ever find yourself needing directions in Oakland, he'd be a good person to run into. Kev Choice — real name: Kevin Choice — has spent roughly 30 of his 38 years in this town. One of two boys raised by a single mother, a secretary, in three different Oakland neighborhoods, he was a precocious kid, he says. At Brookfield Elementary in East Oakland, he skipped the first grade after blowing through the workbooks for the year in a month or so.
"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.
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.
"When people talk about Oakland as the new, hip place to be — it's always been that," he says. "Aside from LA, Oakland is the cultural center of the West Coast. There is so much art here. The music, the history, the politics...but when you start seeing Oakland on lists of top destination spots, why are they saying that? Because there's a certain amount of five-star restaurants now, or cool little hipster bars?" he says, in the few minutes before he has to leave to head toward Uptown, into the heart of them. "That's starting to get away from the essence of what Oakland really is, which is about the people."
"At the same time, there are people within 20-mile radius of us right now who are literally scared to come here. 'Oh, they'll shoot you over there, they'll rob you.' Look, there is a possibility that will happen," he says. "There's also a very real possibility that you'll meet a very intellectual person and have a great conversation, or go to a club and hear some great music, or walk up the street and see people doing capoeira, doing some crazy, creative shit.
"People block out what Oakland is because of their perception, and perception is everything. If you never spend time here, believe me — it's something entirely different from what you'd expect."