The look on the face of Will Bundy, cofounder of the arts blog and party-throwing enterprise Wine & Bowties, was a mix of apprehension and delight at last Saturday's event, Feels II. Early in the evening, Bundy stood outside of two West Oakland warehouses — where an art exhibit and micro-music festival featuring a group of Oakland's most interesting upstart local hip-hop artists — was beginning to teeter from quaint multi-disciplinary gathering to bacchanalian splendor.
Merging party and art show is always a noble endeavor — one digitally rendered on Wine & Bowties' website by a mix of sober gallery analyses and zealous praise for select local hip-hop and electronic artists — but the party usually supplants the visual art (Imagine the unlikelihood of the reverse: The dance floor disperses to vet the composition of prints.) And if the measure of success is how quickly gallery ambience gives way to club atmosphere, Feels II shifted swiftly and without apology.
In the first warehouse, a massive wall text displayed the text "FEELS II," in italics leaning toward a wall-length stretch of mounted artwork. Prints of photos depicting the sort of scene that Feels II was about to resemble were on display, as well as Campbell's soup prints emblazoned with graffiti tags, ink-splotched illustrations, and a little nook with a video game console that elsewhere might've passed for an installation. A busy display of shifting kaleidoscopic visuals were projected across an entire wall at the room's farthest end.
In the second warehouse, this one outfitted with a proper stage, the local emcee Queens D.Light said, "Let me just drink my tea," and then swapped her steaming jar for a mic. Queens was adept both in a querulous rap role and as a more sensuous, languid orator, such as on "Love Pistol," a track in which lines traipse over the usual confines of a musical measure to rhyme unexpectedly. Though highly engaging alone, local rapper Jay Stone joined Queens for an anecdotal joint number and another guest helped close the set with particularly frantic gesticulating, which foreshadowed the wholly uninhibited late-night scene with appearances by Kreayshawn and Kool A.D.
For a joint set by Honor Roll Crew representatives Trackademicks, 1-O.A.K., and Drew Basso, pastel lighting colored a smoky haze on stage while the outfit regaled a swelling crowd with cuts from this year's full-length release, The Champagne Room. The production was especially dynamic and considered: Tuned kick-drum thuds created anticipation and varying amounts of bass augmented the mood of each track, amounting to a refreshingly melodious instrumental backdrop for the rappers. Basso capped plainspoken verses with impressive melodic steps, teetering between newfangled soft-rap and traditional R&B, and then vigorously prodding a drum-machine while someone else commanded the mic.
With keyboards and drum machines played live, Honor Roll Crew was especially engaging to watch. Of course, one asset of hip-hop and electronic music is that few moving parts are required to put on a show; at an event like Feels II, performers aspire less to be an interesting sight and more to inspire a churning dance floor. It doesn't matter how little the sound corresponds to motions on stage, as long as the sounds are on point. Still, it was noticeable that Trackademicks and 1-O.A.K., who communed quite intimately with their gear, delivered more nuanced and balanced tracks than artists with more predetermined elements.
But nuance isn't necessarily part of the recipe for senseless abandon. As the night wore on, it became hard to tell exactly who was DJing. Samples were chopped to the cadence of power drills and single-syllable vocal loops uncoiled for minutes at a time — the prevailing mixing sensibility privileged the reduce-and-repeat technique found in footwork and bounce.
Given the tendency among producers to use the same software in a prescribed way, it's often hard to distinguish one artist's work from another. But at least one DJ at Feels II, a southern Californian who goes by Teebs, delivered an unmistakable set. Teebs opened with gauzy sheets of pleasing tonality, arranged in such a way that simulated a shifting spatial presence, with a sprinkling of electro-confetti blips on top. It was a buoyant, flowing track, the artistry of which persevered through passages of understated beats with twinkling keys and their more austere percussive foil.
Feels II was fraught with place-to-be hallmarks: an impeccably stylish crowd; someone with a clipboard at the front entrance apologizing for being sold-out (and a frowning crowd waiting to plead its case anyway); and organizers donning "ALL ACCESS" badges, looking a little frazzled by the critical mass of their party but thrilled nonetheless.