Poetic emcee Ise Lyfe coulda been a gangsta

If you crossed the social awareness of '70s jazzy wordsmith Gil Scott-Heron with the slick-tongued slang of Too $hort, you might end up with someone like Ise Lyfe. Unabashedly conscious, yet as identified with the 'hood as any "G," at 25, the MC is already a veteran of the streets.

Lyfe grew up fast in Oakland, where he says being hard "was always a necessity, it wasn't an accessory." He spent his youth listening to $hort's dope fiend beats and NWA's unrepentant fuck-yous while engaging in the ghetto version of supply-side economics (aka hustling). Despite his streetwise education, when Lyfe became an artist, he made a decision to spit conscious lyrics instead of dumbing down his message. "In America, you're forced to choose a side, even in hip-hop," he says.

While he identifies with the hyphy generation, he's been highly critical of the genre and the so-called movement, which he calls "a rebellion without direction. ... The culture hasn't progressed forward at all." His main complaint? Hyphy's wild antics never evolved into a community-oriented agenda à la the Black Panthers: "We haven't created a platform."

On "Oakland Stand Up" — one of the most poignant and pointed songs on his recently released second album, Prince Cometh — he puts hyphy on blast, running down a list of popular slang before declaring, "These are the words of a people gone wrong."

It's one thing to hear such a denunciation coming from an outsider, and quite another to hear it from hyphy's core demographic. Yet his observations come from not only watching scrapers and white-Ts in the turfs of the "O," but also from his work as a counselor at Oakland's juvenile hall. While it's become fashionable to talk about pimpin' hos, "the reality is I've worked with [teenage prostitutes] with AIDS," he says. "14-year-old girls walking by with their asses hanging out ... there's no way to make that sound good."

To him, hyphy's birthplace — Oakland — represents a source of both frustration and inspiration. He calls the city his canvas, and the picture he paints is of an environment ripe for revolution, or at least conscious activism.

Though the beats on Prince Cometh resemble hyphy's "slaps," lyrically and stylistically, Lyfe recalls such inner-city griots as Scott-Heron and the Last Poets. As he explains, "The generation of hip-hop before me, the forefront was the MC. By the time I was coming up, a lot of emphasis was on the beat."

He nails Scott-Heron's measured meter in "Whitey in Iraq," an antiwar update of "Whitey on the Moon," while underage trick-turners and female crack dealers are addressed on "Get Off the Corner." Lyfe's expressive descriptions contrast starkly with the scenario he describes on the latter track: "She pretty brown honeysuckle miniskirt bottom booty cheek/All trouble, concrete cold hustle/Sharp in the street, hop in a strange man Jeep and run him his fees/She only fifteen, and love her gorilla pimp taking the cheese."

The myth-vs.-reality dichotomy of African-American machismo becomes the subject of "Gangsta, Gangster?," which questions the seemingly pathological need to be thugged-out at all times. The song was inspired by a visit to the UCLA campus, Lyfe says. "I was watching everybody be hard. When do we get to stop being hard?" he wonders. "You're at a four-year university ... "

Lyfe doesn't easily fit into the same paradigm as peers like the Jacka or Mistah F.A.B., and there isn't yet a genre called "conscious scraper music." Yet with hyphy's industry momentum having faltered, and the socioenvironmental conditions in the 'hood more treacherously tragic than ever, Prince Cometh offers listeners a clear choice: Lyfe or death.

 
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