photos by Chad Syme
Middle school is a time during most people’s lives that they would never want to revisit once it has passed. Filled with awkwardness and uncomfortable situations for most young teenagers, it is a constant quest to simply fit in and co-exist. Now join us and travel back in time to meet twelve-year-old Duke Johnson. An East Oakland native, he spends his recesses with his friends free styling instead of playing basketball. His closest friend and constant supporter and hypeman is HD, aka Chief. Their first chance to perform for their classmates and friends came one day as part of a local high school talent show. The two were armed with only their fast lyrics, their confidence, and their trusty CD player, or so they thought. When it started skipping, the two were booed and hissed off stage. While many children would have been scarred and turned their backs on stage performances for life, these two plucky youngsters grew up to become Oaklands’ The High Decibels, earning critical acclaim and one of CMJ’s highest awards, a top five position on their Hip Hop chart with their debut release.
Duke and Chief hooked up with guitarist KC Booker, who spotted Duke at a local poetry slam. As a solo artist and with his former group Big Soul, KC had already developed a successful blend of blues, rock, and hip hop, and filled out the group with Deane Jenkins (drums) and Aaron Taunton (bass). The resulting rhythms of The High Decibels are sharp and innovative, catchy enough for the rock and roll crowd and funky enough for the blues and rap fans. Yet their most formidable strength lies in the heart of Duke’s affection and understanding of poetry. Highly influenced by the community he and Chief grew up in and by the difficulties they experienced (shootings, violence and economic strife), Duke turned the rhymes that led him to the top ranks of Bay Area poetry slam competitions into his moving yet ultimately uplifting lyrics. Armed with such pure, The High Decibels are only getting started.