Pianist. Emcee. Producer. Bandleader. Sideman. Music historian. Kev Choice wears many hats, and all of them fit. Blessed with prodigious talent, plus the skill and dedication to his craft to pull it off, the Oakland-based artist is redefining what it means to be a musician in this day and age. Not too many classically-trained pianists who hold Master’s degrees in jazz can rock microphones with blazing-hot 16s.
Yet such versatility comes natural to Choice, whose diverse array of influences ranges from Prince to Rakim to A Tribe Called Quest to Stevie Wonder to McCoy Tyner to Chopin and Ravel.
“I grew up in the Hip-Hop era,” he explains. “I had love for Hip-Hop before I even knew what classical music really was.” Hip-Hop, he says, “was always the music that helped me express myself the most,” while “Classical music gave me a broader understanding and appreciation for music beyond Hip-Hop.”
Choice remembers being “heavily into vinyl” as a young child, which helped him to develop his ear for music. He began playing piano at age 11, and was soon recognized as a prodigy. As a teenager, Choice played in classical and jazz ensembles as part of the UC Berkeley Young Musicians Program, and continued his studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (New Orleans)–where he graduated with a (BM) in music– and Southern Illinois University (Carbondale)–where he graduated with a (MM) in music.
Post-grad school, Choice became an in-demand sideman, recording and touring with the likes of Michael Franti and Spearhead, Lyrics Born, Too $hort, Ledisi and Goapele. In 2007, Lauryn Hill asked him to be her musical director, a gig which took him to 12 countries. Hill, he says, “was very influential in my musical development as an artist ” – exposing him to Ethiopian and world music, rock and reggae.
Working with L-Boogie, Choice reflects, “showed me that I was capable of anything and that I should always be pushing myself musically, never get comfortable in your abilities, and always speak and say what you feel in your music without compromise.” He’s since added to his international resume by touring Europe with The Coup, and has also worked with Dwele, Martin Luther, Amel Larrieux, Omar, Joi, and Souls of Mischief.
But Choice isn’t just a sideman. As a solo artist, he’s opened for Robert Glasper, Mos Def, Digable Planets, DJ Quik, and J Davey. He leads a jazz-hip-hop-funk big band, the Kev Choice Ensemble, in addition to producing and performing his own material, which includes original jazz and classical compositions as well as classical- , jazz-, and funk-inspired hip-hop.
Choice has composed hip-hop sonatas and recorded rhymes to classical melodies, recorded a new song per day for an online series called The Daily Dosage, and has recorded several solo projects, including The Bailout and The Inauguration mixtapes, which highlighted his lyrical skills as well as his musical talents.
Being able to read and play music gives Choice an advantage over average emcees and producers, he says. “I can communicate my musical ideas in multiple ways… I can take a beat that I make, and write it out for a band or an orchestra, or any configuration of instruments.”
As an emcee, Choice has superb flows, and consistently conscious, intelligent subject matter– reminiscent of a West Coast version of Talib Kweli or Nas. It’s tempting to sleep on his vocal abilities, given his musical excellence – until you’ve seen him freestyle on stage, nonchalantly ripping verse after jaw-dropping verse.
Performing live, he says, is “a way to take people on a journey. I want people to feel highs and lows, experience emotions, and relate to the things I’m saying in the music. I want people to see the amazing musicians in my band play at a high level and have us touch them with our musical gifts individually as well as collectively. I definitely always look to reflect my diverse musical influences in a show. I try to combine classical, jazz, soul, funk, rock, drum & bass, electro, and all types of music, in a Hip-Hop context. I like to stay current with my show, constantly adding new elements, trying new things, and trying to take it to a higher level.”
Music is what fuels Choice’s aspirations. Like a jazzman of old, he’s known for a rigorous work ethic which places him in a constant cycle of rehearsal to show to studio. Rarely is he not involved in multiple projects concurrently – his current endeavors include a live KCE album; a studio EP of all-original material; a hip-hop opera; and independent film and TV scoring. As a bonafied composer with hip-hop chops, entering such Quincy Jones-like territory would seem like more of a natural evolution than a stretch for Choice.
Currently based in his hometown of Oakland, Choice has also spent considerable amount of time in the South and Midwest, attending college in Louisiana and Illinois and living for awhile in Atlanta. “I may travel and dip to different places from time to time, but The Town will always be home,” he says. “I grew up in Oakland so I definitely have a strong connection to the city and community.“
Today’s state of black music, particularly mainstream rap, is a concern for many, including Choice, who imparts, “the subject matter is often very offensive, and centered around money, sex, drugs, and other subjects that aren’t positive… I definitely feel we need more of a balance again.”
Choice aims to not only return hip-hop to the cultural standards it once had, but surpass the genre’s creative peak by adding new layers of musical nuance into beats, rhymes, and swaggadoccio. His artistic vision, he says, is to be “an artist that combined Hip-Hop with a type of musicality that has never been done” and to “make conscious Hip-Hop music that is also accepted on a mainstream level.”
The absolute truth is that hip-hop in particular and black music in general, desperately needs a Kev Choice: a true musician, cultural historian, and urban griot dedicated to cultural expression and the art of making quality music. Sometimes, the most unique, original Choice is the best Choice one can make.