An intimate evening with Immortal Technique

I was glad I wore my Coup sweatshirt to the Immortal Technique show at the New Parish, because while I was standing on the corner of 18th St and San Pablo Ave looking for my friends, Boots Riley called me on it. I had just locked my bike up to a stop sign and and I was looking up San Pablo, halfheartedly saving my friends a parking spot. A man with an afro peeked from behind a lamp post to call out to me, “Nice sweatshirt!” I recognized him instantly, I’d only seen him perform at the same club three months prior.

Boots looked like he was on a date, a pretty dark haired girl was by his side, and I asked him if he was heading to the Technique show around the corner, but it was only coincidence he was passing through the neighborhood. He did let me know that he’d be playing a show in Richmond for 4/20, though it’s actually on the following Saturday. I’ve seen The Coup perform all over the Bay Area: At Rock the Bells, at the Independent, at the Shattuck Down Low, but my favorite place to see them has been at the New Parish, right in downtown Oakland, their home and mine.

The New Parish is a great club. It can fit a lot of people, but with two levels and a two-sided stage, there’s plenty of places to stand for a clear view of the performers. There’s also a large outdoor smoking area, which is a perfect escape if the blaring speakers inside have got your head spinning, or you’re just exhausted from dancing in the warm, thick atmosphere inside and need a breath of mostly fresh air.

I parked outside with my friends while the club filled up, and once we heard the bass thumping, we rushed inside for the first band: Vomito Liriko, two rappers, Raw-G and Steelo, born in Mexico but based in Oakland. They performed with both a DJ and a live drummer; it’s amazing what a difference a live drummer makes to punch up the beats, no matter how phat the DJ’s sound system is.

Raw-G is a smiling, bespectacled, high energy lady rapper, who swings her dreadlocks and spits rapid fire Spanish verses ferociously over a range of production styles, some with wailing guitars and fast tempos and some slower more atmospheric tracks with rich harmonies and steady breakbeats. Steelo is a good enough partner, but works better as a hype man behind Raw-G than delivering his own verses. They alternated verses, with Raw-G taking most of the lead time, except when they brought out special guest emcees like the Japanese rapper Kensho Kuma, who stunned the crowd with his take on an old Ghostface Killah cut.

While most of the crowd expected Immortal Technique next, we were introduced to Swave Sevah, the first in a quick succession of opening acts, each lasting three or four songs before passing the mic to the next. Some of the highlights included Diabolic, who performed a passionate track called “12 Shots,” which was not about guns but about the pain of life and drinking to ease that pain, and later Mohammad Dangerfield (or Mo Danger) who preferred faster, almost 80s sounding beats, and used the quick tempo to create a frantic stage presence.

Immortal Technique finally took the stage, he wore a bright yellow “Rebel Armz” t-shirt that contrasted sharply with the black and grey t-shirts on the rest of the performers. His head was shaved clean and he surveyed the audience with seriousness and intensity. He immediately said that this was “a special occasion,” He had just come from the Paid Dues tour, a large hip-hop festival with lots of different acts, and the atmosphere at the New Parish was much more intimate. He said he was just going to have fun, bring out different guests, and take a more relaxed attitude than rigidly following a set list.

And that’s what he did: this wasn’t a concert where an opening act left the stage for a headliner, but where they all shared the stage: towards the end of the show there was no less than a dozen emcees lining the back wall of the stage. Technique would pass the mic off to his friends, demanding the audience show them the same love they’d show Technique himself, and for the most part the crowd obliged. Technique’s set of his own material was interspersed with performances by The Circle, ChinoXL, and Akir, although however good these other performances were, they paled when Immortal Technique took the mic.

Technique is a remarkably talented rapper. In every aspect he was far and away superior to the other rappers that took the stage that night: in mic control, breath control, flow, beats, rhymes, lyrics, and energy. Of course it was a venue full of his fans, so of course they listened to his music most attentively, but his booming, dominating presence would demand that kind of attention regardless.

Towards the end, Technique asked for a show of hands, “Who’s been with me since Revolution Volume 3?” He asked, and most of the hands in the audience went up. “Who’s been with me since Revolution Volume 2?” A few hands went down, most stayed up. “Now who’s been with me since Revolution Volume 1?” A few more hands went down, and Technique announced that for the next cut, he was digging deep into his catalogue back to that early album to tell a story, a fucked up story, one that people ask him if it really happened all the time, and he answers, “In every city, every day.” He did a perfect, moving rendition of “Dance With the Devil,” which rung in my ears and rattled in my brain for the rest of the evening.

After the performance the whole crew stepped over to the merch table, and the crowd moved towards them blocking the door of the club with people waiting for a chance to snap a picture with ChinoXL, pick up a Rebel Armz t-shirt, or just to shake hands with Immortal Technique and tell him, “fuck yeah.”