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At a time when most rappers appeal to passions below the belt, Azeem strives to create art that feeds the mind. He's spent 2008 bending brain matter as an MC, poet, and performer. With his new album, Air Cartoons, he altered preconceived notions of Bay Area hip-hop and life in secret societies. His stage presence isn't limited to music: This year Azeem took his one-man stage show, Rude Boy, on the road, performing in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York.
Founded in 2001 by singer and rhymer Adam "Doseone" Drucker and multi-instrumentalist Dax Pierson, Subtle is typically filed as underground hip-hop, but the esoteric Oakland sextet stretches far beyond that categorization. Blending beats and samples with live instrumentation (including woodwinds and cellos), the group incorporates elements of experimental indie-rock, IDM, and trippy psych-pop in its strange, occasionally abstract, and often engrossing sonic landscape. Like Subtle's two previous full-lengths, this year's ExitingARM is a concept album of sorts that follows the labyrinthine travails of central character Hour Hero Yes; it's baffling and entrancing in equal measures.
Despite the sputtering of hyphy, a genre he helped define, Oakland rapper Mistah F.A.B. actually had a pretty good year. He raised his national profile by being featured on Snoop Dogg's hit single and video, "Life of da Party," alongside Too $hort, and completed a successful U.S. tour with Zion-I. Fans are still anxiously awaiting his major-label debut — which may or may not drop in '08 — but one thing's for sure: It's far too soon to count out "Fabby Davis Jr." After all, to paraphrase Snoop, when you diss F.A.B., you diss yourself.
A decade into the game, Kirby Dominant is continuing his path toward, well, domination of the Bay Area music scene. Over the course of half a dozen albums, the MC and producer has delved into everything from the inherent savagery of the human race to his love for white women. He has also created a sound that's based at least as much on 1980s pop and electro as it is on hip-hop. Dominant has spent the year on tour while maintaining his imprint, Rapitalism Records. His new EP, Prostitute, drops Nov. 1.
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Traveling internationally with a Reason-loaded laptop, dirtybird records producer and labelhead Claude VonStroke can assemble crimped tech-funk on a whim, meting out cheeky filters over a 4/4 beat. Coinciding with a dubbier turn in his sound (as evidenced on recent tracks "Groundhog Day" and "Scarlet Macaw"), he spent much of the last year nurturing his long-form label, Mothership, which acts as a home for celebrating the slow build. VonStroke will never be as minimal as he is mental, however, and always brings the swing as he drops the bass.
Not to be confused with the K Records band of the same name, Wallpaper is the brainchild of Eric Frederic (aka Ricky Reed), who crafts appropriately shiny valentines to gold chains, money, and other clichés of excess. With the sweet, thumping T. Rex EP on Eenie Meenie Records leading him toward some mean remix opportunities and a gig at CMJ, the Vocoder-and-sunglasses–loving maestro is currently targeting hips from coast to coast. It's one thing to make people dance; Wallpaper wants to make them laugh, sweat, and sing along, too.
David Y. Wang, best known under the alias Mochipet, tackles everything from electro to flamenco — sometimes while wearing an adorable fuzzy dinosaur outfit. This year, the imaginative producer has remixed the Flaming Lips, worked on a new album, and thrown his hat into the design arena with his "Girls Heart Breakcore" T-shirts. Wang is also the founder of Daly City Records, a label celebrating the "gateway to the Peninsula" while displaying a diverse and international roster of artists, including Broker/Dealer, Ellen Allien, and EDit.
Under the moniker Arp, Alexis Georgo-poulos' pulsing analog synthesizer work exemplifies the best of kosmiche musik, the spacier electronic strain of early-'70s Krautrock. He established Arp in the sonic avant-garde with debut In Light late last year, and is hard at work on the follow-up. Rather than flogging Arp on tour, this former Tussle member has pulled off a limited amount of appearances, including an evening at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur with kosmiche godfathers Cluster.
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Rupa and the April Fishes
Rupa and the April Fishes are really four bands in one: a Mexican folk outfit, an Indian classical act, a French chanson group, and a Gypsy jazz combo. That's another way of saying that S.F. physician Rupa Marya and her pals have a way with words and styles, agilely jumping from smoky Indian jazz to jaunty Balkan oompah. This year, the band's debut CD, eXtraordinary Rendition, made it into the top 10 for national world music sales, alongside Manu Chao. Since then, the quintet has played Outside Lands, the Montreal Jazz Festival, and venues throughout Europe.
Boca do Rio
Brazilian music is sexier than Sonia Braga in Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. But while South American acts only occasionally come our way, Boca do Rio brings the thriving Amazonian music scene to San Francisco, adding considerably to our local level of hotness. Led by Kevin Welch (formerly of Vivendo de Pão), this sextet of Brazilian and American musicians regularly turns its Tuesday night residency at the Elbo Room into a sambafied funk-fest. The group's self-titled CD is filled with lushly syncopated dance grooves that pulse with tropical flavor.
It's hard to match Argentine tango for its combination of sophistication and sensuality, so it's no small feat that locally based Trio Garufa has made such impressive waves in the field. This year, the band members — accordionist Adrian Jost, guitarist Guillermo Garcia, and bassist Sascha Jacobsen — traveled to their musical heartland for several gigs at high-profile milongas (tango dance parties) in Buenos Aires. With a sparkling new CD, La Segunda Tradición, released this year as well, the group looks to be hitting its stride.