This is the first year I’ve traveled to Outside Lands from more than an hour outside the Bay Area, having relocated to the East Coast last year for my inaugural experience “living away from California.” Among the adjustments from the move, including needing to buy a gradient of new coats and trying to understand what humidity is, was having to fly in for my fifth appearance at the festival. Over that half-decade of attendance, I’ve seen the three-day event level up from a slower man’s Bonnaroo to its own exhausting behemoth of some seven stages and a dozen exhibitions, becoming a major industry player itself all while retaining its status as independently owned.
And throughout my whole life living adjacent to San Francisco, I’ve seen the city Outside Lands so affectionately calls home change dramatically. Largely, the pair of cultural institutions have mirrored one another in their development, in that each is pulling a unique style of internal gentrification different than what is taking place across the rest of the country. Specifically, whereby gentrification usually erodes one community to serve the interests of another, both OSL and San Francisco are developing in ways that are ultimately proving to make space for no one.
In the former’s case, this is a result of ever-rising ticket prices that restrict access from the hometown demographics the organizers always boast about representing on stage, leading to a conflict of identity whereby the festival’s attendance leans ever closer to the Wine Country nostalgia boomers of the nearby BottleRock Festival despite the bookers trying to remain as forward looking as their desired competitors in Coachella and Lollapalooza. For the latter, that means displacing the original populations that helped define the city’s unique cultural cachet while remaining locked in a housing crisis that leaves the newly young, educated, mostly white transplants paying more than their peers across the country without the same laminated-over streets they typically inspire in their wake.
And yet the Bay Area, for all its stubborn gridlock, is still home to one of the most dynamic music scenes in the country, and it’s been that way for much of the last 50 years — from the Grateful Dead’s singular self-contained ecosystem to the Dead Kennedys’ reactionary ’80s punk to the idiosyncratic hyphy movement of the ’90s and early 2000s to Lil B’s internet-warping contemporary presence. This is not in spite of the ever-present development threats, but in artists actively trying to spite the identities constantly imposed on their backyard. What makes this region both one of the most exciting and frustrating areas to reside is how the population is constantly at war with both the national consensus and their internal identity. San Francisco is as much a playground as it is a battlefield, and that drives a rebellious sense of creativity expressed outward in all directions.
But the affronts aren’t taking place solely on the Pacific shore. Despite cultivating one of the most creative dialects of rap music in the country, Bay Area MCs in particular have historically been redlined from airplay beyond their regional radius, breeding an antagonized insularity that’s furthered the scene’s unspoken reputation for iconoclasm largely unrecognized. This is in spite of the Bay having long cast a vast shadow over the sounds and styles of hip-hop, both at its origin points and on contemporary culture, from slang to streetwear to the next generation of “hyphy” epitomized by DJ Mustard’s reimagining of mainstream party music as bleary uptempo club.
And yet the should-be singular stars of the genre in Kamaiyah, Nef The Pharoah, and Mozzy (what up Sacramento) are relegated to niche status as yet another viral teen from Atlanta comes to dominate the collective consciousness at the drop of a cheap keyboard loop over tinny 808s. Each of these artists adopt their own distinct sonic palette, but they all share the same struggle in breaking through to the widespread acclaim they deserve. Still, whatever chip should exist on these artists’ shoulders fails to materialize, because their hometown love runs so deep that they can experience the sensational of national stardom at their local level.
What makes Outside Lands an especially attractive festival to attend is how the organizers always maintain space on their lineup for top-quality artists whose names haven’t significantly broken outside of the Bay’s bubble. This helps the festival maintain a sense of identity that other national outlets often fail to covet in their pursuit of booking only streaming services’ most stat-racking ear candy. You can get a sense of the area Outside Lands takes place in while you’re inside the venue (San Francisco’s blissful Golden Gate Park), not only from stages that brandish city landmarks as their namesake (as opposed to car companies) and attractions emphasizing the specialties (this year including an entire little outcove dedicated to bubble tea), but from the music actually taking place on the grounds too.
This year’s attendees get to enjoy their favorite sponsored-playlist hits from Børns and Elohim alongside rare festival performances from community staples like Dick Stusso and Monophonics, who both embody the region’s history of joyriding individualism. Friday, the first day of the festival, enjoyed hometown sets by the ubiquitous vintage rockers Shannon And The Clams and Brooklyn 99 comedian Chelsea Peretti, but there was one performance in particular that best displayed the Bay’s distinct ideological imprint. Caleborate, a young rapper from Berkeley who’s been cutting his teeth in both school and music these last few years, is a paragon of the type of full-bodied artists the Bay Area fosters better than anywhere else. A disciple of the early Kanye gospel-hop sound, with a reverence for the work ethic of mixtape-era Wayne, Caleb Parker has carved his own musical path in parallel with his hyphy-descendent peers.
His sound is closer to the smoother edged work of Kehlani and Rex Life Raj, working with Bay Area beatsmiths like P-Lo and 1-O.A.K. to mark a style that’s cross-regional while distinctly local. He’s done the circuit around the city, growing from college showcases to incrementally larger Bay venues to now a mid-day slot at his first ever Outside Lands, a rite of passage for neighborhood artists who suddenly garner a jump in attention with their latest projects. Armed with his DJ and trademark orange beanie, Caleborate delivered a set of his loyally beloved cuts for what he said aloud was “the first time I’ve been in front of this many people here exclusively for me.”
The album that’s finally secured him this timeslot is last year’s reflective Real Person, a self-reverential collection of open-hearted autobiography set to twinkling boom bap. Caleb is an expressive writer, a quality he’s had on display since his earliest days penning rhymes both charismatic and disarming, humble but not without plenty of optimistic flexing. But his most recent songs have found him locking into a level of introspection commanding in its clarity. It’s the type of release with immediate singles but a strong center of gravity that got national coverage with influential outlets, showing just how far Caleb’s come since promoting his first full-length back in 2015 via YouTube comments on Chance The Rapper and J. Cole videos.
Caleb was born and raised in Sacramento, but he’s been living in the East Bay for a while now. His anecdotes are cut from his surroundings, with references to AC Transit and Trans-Bay “long-distance” relationships, and his story is distinctly of his age, hustling at the intersection of his passions and his education and the tension that can exist between the two. His experience is what’s formed him such a tight contingent of college-aged fans, many of whom turned out for the set rocking pointedly cuffed jeans (Caleb’s an avid advocate for #freeingtheankle on Twitter). A list of the things that won’t stop Caleborate: student loans from Sallie Mae, expectations of remaining broke, the fear of getting stuck in the town you were raised. These are obstacles many late-generation millennials can distinctly relate to, and the ones in attendance turned Caleb’s personal observations and mantras into natural anthems.
Unspoken, but implicit in his perspective is the resiliency that comes with trying to shine in the periphery of a city that doesn’t see you. Bay artists fight their whole lives in a city that gets harder to live in with each year. The tech-rent racket has driven many artists out of the location entirely, infamously the icons of the city’s once thriving garage rock scene Ty Segall and John Dwyer. But while it’s undoubtedly cheaper to live and work almost anywhere else (literally, SF has the highest average rent in the country second only to Manhattan), the pride in the lineage that has descended through the land leads many to continue struggling to keep contributing. The Bay Area may be making less space for kids like Caleborate, but it’s presences like his that give the region its soul.
If Caleborate is the Bay Area’s soul, then SOBxRBE are its instinct. The group, the junction of Yhung T.O. and DaBoii’s Real Boi Entertainment and Slimmy B and Lul G’s Strictly Only Brothas, make warm, frenetic street-race music. The Vallejo foursome operate like a rap collective in miniature, swapping members in and out from song to song on a need basis, including a wide spectrum of extended family. Each of the four has different strengths they bring together to form their multifaceted style, which is equally hard-hitting as it is mellifluous.
Slimmy B’s raps are the smoothest, but also often of the greatest consequence, his solo cut “God” being the most head-spinning moment from the group’s 2018 firestorm GANGIN. Yhung T.O. is more front-and-center as the primary hooksmith, adopting the Kevin Abstract role as not the best of the group, but the most central force. DaBoii is the most rambunctious, always going at full throttle with a throaty delivery that hits you like gravel to the chest. Lul G’s the lowkey wildcard, sounding the most youthful but with a considerable versatility to his style.
While they got their start putting songs together on their PlayStation, the group has since made a groundswell with their distinct and irreplicable energy. Their momentum seemed potent enough to finally break through the infamous Bay Area bubble, and do so without sanding down any of the region’s eccentricities they crucially represent. If you were reading about the group for the first time, all signs would orient your impression to be that of a major force in mainstream hip-hop: They opened for 21 Savage and Post Malone on a cross country tour, they had the best song on Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther: The Album (affixed to one of the biggest films of the year), and basketball’s most visible ensemble have surrounded themselves with their music. Yet if you live anywhere outside the Bay Area, the group still feels like a niche interest with limited popular appeal.
When I saw them perform in DC earlier this year, at a point when I was supremely homesick and missing any taste of a local flavor that a transient city like the District can’t really offer, only two members of the group were present. Worse yet, only 30 people or so showed up to the venue, a sobering expression of the limiting ceiling that I thought SOBxRBE had finally burst through. And every single one of those 30 attendees were from California; I talked to the dude next to me before they went on about our respective educations in the UC system.
To that end, finally seeing the group in the Bay Area felt like a long-anticipated shot in the arm. The four members bounced around the festival’s second largest stage for a crowd bursting at the seams along the length of Hellman Hollow. While SOBxRBE have plenty of room to grow as performers — they still rap alongside a full backing track, and their stage presence is a bit more low-key than their music deserves — they carry themselves with a distinctly West Coast swagger, one that made the set feel like a huge house party, which was a welcome atmosphere to exist in for about an hour in beautiful California sun.
The air was electric as they burned through local hits that felt like national ones — songs like “Anti” and “Calvin Cambridge” that are slotted on party mixes in the Bay at the same frequency as “Nice For What” or “HUMBLE.” They backed up and animated each other’s lines, and brought out their friends (most notably Nef The Pharaoh and Lil Shiek) to share the space they’ve carved for themselves, one ready to be celebrated. When “Paramedic!” dropped to close the set, it felt like a coronation — a moment of recognition for the group that’s blasted the Bay’s sound outside of NorCal.
But the performance was also a reminder of an experience that’s increasingly becoming an antiquity. Outside of the rest of the country, the Bay needs SOBxRBE more than anyone. These cities have become largely a shell of what they’ve been mythologized to be, and are working through considerable outsider overreach and municipal inaction pushing against the vibrant arts and community culture that was initially their calling card. At one point the most understated but exciting place to be, the Bay is risking becoming as inaccessible and uninteresting as any other highly publicized urban area.
Among all the qualities that make the Bay Area effortless to love, the reality is that it’s now a region where the black population is dwindling rapidly, and those who remain have been queued up in the margins on their way out. A region that’s always had voracious pride in its self-sustainable rap scene despite a national disinterest, but with that pride now rooted in a need to affirm the value of their own voices as their cities swallow them into silence. A region where while living my life within arm’s reach I saw the already threatened corners of embedded culture succumb to the hands of an unchecked, exclusionary industry.
SOBxRBE aren’t going to change any of that, but they are recapturing an excitement that has long been the Bay’s signature. The group is carrying on a tradition akin to what comes out of Chicago’s vibrant hip-hop renaissance, making space for essential art that undermines any efforts to write off the identities actively being left behind. Alongside Caleborate, they are affirming an experience that a majority no longer consider when they imagine the Bay Area. They are preserving history, as well as an urgent present in real time.