There's always that single defining moment when a kid sets his sights on a dream. And it's usually something far less profound than what he's willing to divulge in an interview years later. For Davin Anthony Thompson, known to his followers as Oakland rapper Do D.A.T., it wasn't 2Pac's death or a powerful Public Enemy line that made him want to rap and perform in front of an audience — it was the 1992 hip-hop comedy House Party.
The scene where Kid 'N Play fired insult-laced rhymes at one another inspired Thompson to write some of his own. "The punch lines clicked with me," said Thompson, whose rap alias incorporates his initials and serves as a nod to A Tribe Called Quest.
But Thompson is far from a battle rapper, nor is he one for the goofball antics of the aforementioned rapper-actor duo. A veteran of Oakland's underground, the 29-year-old emcee has rocked rallies and festivals alike with his former group, The Attik, and its socially aware raps. As an artist development instructor at the Bay Unity Music Project in Oakland, he mentors aspiring young musicians, pushing their creative boundaries in the studio and prepping them for the stage. He's a leader with a keen vision. If you only know The Town for its turf tales, Thompson is about to open your ears to a city and sound that embodies so much more.
In today's mixtape and iTunes era where hip-hop albums are not so much albums as compilations of stray $0.99 downloads, Thompson's debut solo LP, Oakland in Blue, is a cohesive work that pairs hip-hop with the sounds of jazz legend Duke Ellington. Just as critically acclaimed artists Raphael Saadiq and Mayer Hawthorne recently rejuvenated soul, Thompson and a team of local producers are making jazz resonate with a younger audience. Thompson and his contemporaries, such as the Honor Roll, League510, and Nu Dekades, are part of a creative and collaborative network, helping to break Oakland free of turf rap's clutches.
"It's different now than when The Attik was coming up," Thompson said. "There wasn't the same type of support system. People weren't running in the same circle. If they were, they weren't working as hard. I feel like cats are really on the grind right now."
To that extent, Oakland in Blue's credits reads like the Most Likely to Succeed list from Oakland's hip-hop yearbook. Will Bracey, 1-O.A.K., Sean Bo, and several other producers reinvent Ellington's works while Melina Jones, Mic G, Zumbi of Zion I, and The Sand'man assist Thompson with his narrative. The record hits local and digital retailers May 20, and will be celebrated with a release party at Club Anton featuring many of the artists who contributed to the album.
Even with a central theme, the sounds on Oakland in Blue morph and moods shift. The laidback cool of "Color Scheme" puts listeners at ease while he tips his hat to his hometown: Oakland in blue, here's hoping that you/Never overdose in this city of dope soaking in truth/We ain't broken but bruised/My words wrap wounds. Then there's "Dat Dat Dat," a bouncy 1-O.A.K.-produced big band banger that conjures images of a juke joint in a frenzy.
"When Attik broke up, I was lost and not sure what direction to take," Thompson recalled. He had a conversation with friend and co-worker Robert Collins, former manager of Zion I, about his music. Collins suggested he focus an album on one artist's work. A jazz fan, Thompson chose Ellington because of his expansive body of work, which includes more than 2,000 compositions from a fifty-year career. Thompson's got about 200 of Ellington's works in his record collection, from which he selected samples to send to producers.
"It's not easy to flip a swing sample," Thompson said. "It's not like it's on a metronome. To really do that, you have to be on point with your game. Whatever they made was cool, but I told them to keep it jazzy. Don't stray too far from that sound. "
Venturing into jazz was natural for Thompson. "That jazz, that swing — that's how I rap," Thompson said. Anyone who's seen him live can attest to his almost scat-like flow. He plays with his words like a free-jazz musician, experimenting with tempo and cadence to create versatile rhyme patterns and turn each verse into an intricate work of art.
You can also hear how Thompson's aged on Oakland in Blue. "I'm more vulnerable," Thomspon said. "A lot of my stuff was braggadocio, fuck-the-system, 'America the ugly.' I'm definitely affected by America, but I see the part that I play in the system now. I'm more about deconstructing myself than going head-on against the government."
Thompson hopes to hit it big, but for now, he just wants to get his music out. "I'm hoping that this will be something that people will want to talk about," he said. "Who flips swing samples? I don't think anybody in my neck of the woods is doing stuff that sounds like this."