From an Oakland street corner to San Francisco’s “Tenderloin” district to San Quentin State Prison, the music of freestyle collective Curb Service screams of power, truth, harmony and love—lots of love.
They arrived at the prison on Feb. 22, six men and one woman who would soon erupt from their quiet demeanors to become superstars for an hour and a half in SQ’s Chapel B.
“I could feel the energy when I walked through the gate,” said Kalin Freeman, who goes by the stage name “KJ Focus.” He’s the high-voltage saxophonist.
During the band’s warm-up and mic check, everyone stopped what they were doing to listen while Freeman went off on drums and Curb Service’s young “Drummer-boy” Aaron Davis riffed an impromptu bass line.
David Chapman, one of their two managers, smiled and said, “See that right there—that’s the freestyle vibe we all try and emulate. Everyone in Curb Service gets down like that.”
Freeman, Davis and frontman Rob Woods started performing together on a neighborhood street corner near Lake Merritt. “We started on the curb,” Chapman said. “That’s why we go by ‘Curb Service.’”
Woods, the creative force behind the lyrics, found his true voice while serving a prison sentence at Terminal Island Federal Penitentiary. He put performing at SQ on the top of his bucket list after reading about the great musicians that have played here in the past, like Johnny Cash, Santana and Metallica.
“I want people to see that no matter what the situation is, whatever the problem— even if you think it’s the lowest point in your life—just channel your energy into good intentions,” Woods told SQ News. “More doors will open for you as soon as you leave these gates—be prepared.
“Guys talk about wanting to get out of here, but you gotta use these times as the motivation. Make a mental picture of these moments so you know to never return to them.”
Besides its core three members, Chapman explained how Curb Service incorporates other artists into the mix, like vocalist Ama, keyboardist Jelani, bass player Chris Balderas and guitarist Joshua Parada. Depending on their individual schedules, the line- up flips and evolves from day to day and venue to venue.
Ama moved to California recently, collaborating with Curb Service for the last six months. She entered the SQ chapel with a rich smile of warmth and compassion. “It’s all about love,” she said. “I don’t care what situation we in—always love.”
Before the set began, Woods talked about the playlist and about the two songs he wrote while incarcerated, “Long Gone” and “That’ll Be Cool”.
“You’ll be able to hear and feel that fire, that good energy,” he said about those songs. “My mind was at its sharpest during that time.”
Rodney Rederford popped into the chapel to peep the scene before running late to his college class. As soon as he and Woods made eye contact, Woods stopped the interview for a brief moment.
“Hold up real quick,” Woods said as he turned to a photographer. “Can I get a shot with my boy right here?” Rederford and Woods quickly stood together.
“Just from right here right now,” Woods said later, when asked how he knew Rederford. “I felt that connection.”
Rederford agreed. “I didn’t give it too much thought,” he said. “It was probably the energy or something.” After listening to the first half-hour of the show, Rederford reluctantly hurried off down the hill to his class.
“I ain’t gonna lie,” he said on his way out the door. “Dude be tearin’ that mic down, for real.”
Before his first song, “Real Love,” Woods told the crowd, “I feel like I’m back home. It wasn’t too long ago I was inside.”
“Time is more than just a word,” he said. “It’s years… It’s summers…It’s missed phone calls.”
Woods called SQ’s music director and sponsor, Raphaele Casale, onstage to thank her for inviting Curb Service into the prison.
Casale shared her first experience with their sound. “I was in the Tenderloin off Market Street. I literally just came out of Macy’s with bags in my hands, and I heard this music.”
“I never stop, but as soon as I heard these guys, I thought, ‘I gotta go talk to them.’ I never do that. I introduced myself to Ama, then Rob, and right away I knew I had to ask, ‘Do you wanna play San Quentin?’
“With them, it’s all heart. They’re here tonight because they want to play for you.”
Curb Service immediately captured the SQ crowd with an undefinable sound of their own. Was it Hip Hop or NeoSoul? Rock ’n’ Roll, or maybe Jazz Fusion? These elements were all in play, yet the dynamic hybrid proved far greater than the sum of its parts.
About one hundred onlookers sat spread throughout the chapel at the start of the show. After each song, more and more of the crowd stood in appreciation and cheered, while men from North Block and H-Unit filled the space to its 373-seat capacity.
“I feel y’all standing up for me,” Woods said between songs. “You better watch out—I’m going to have to start actin’ up.”
A man of his word, Woods fed off the growing crowd’s energy, strutting up and down the aisle while unabashedly spitting his lyrics left and right and putting his vocal arsenal on full display.
Near the end of the first set, Woods took a break while KJ Focus blasted through a saxophone solo. The riff-filled rollercoaster ride had everyone pumped up and on their feet. Balderas, Davis and Parada all got individual turns to show off as well.
When Woods returned, he slowed the tempo down to strike a more serious note. “I want y’all to understand: I couldn’t have done these things without the time,” he said. “I know that’s hard to hear.”
After Woods’ eight songs, vocalist Ama rose from the choir side area to perform three songs of her own. Casale came onstage with her to give a quick shout out to Big Giant Lighting, the San Francisco-based stagelighting crew that came into SQ with Curb Service.
“I’m gonna smooth it out for y’all now,”Ama said, smiling at the crowd and Casale. “See, with women, we love—that’s what we do.”
Ama’s resonant voice got most of the crowd dancing up from their seats during her first song, “Fool Over Love.” Some guys bounced into the aisles so they’d have more space to really get down.
Hamisi X. Spears has been incarcerated since 1995, the last four years at SQ. He became overwhelmed by the infectious rhythms and Ama’s vocals.
“They say music calms the savage beast, and that’s what this music did,” said Spears. “I enjoyed myself so much that I had to get up and dance.”
Feeling the vibe herself, Ama grooved her way down from the stage and continued singing from amongst the men.
Surrounded by blue shirts and happy faces, she let the crowd know: “I met some amazing men here today. You guys are powerful.
“Don’t ever forget, my brothers, wherever your mind goes—you go. Let your mind go to prosperity…to the light…to the truth… That’s where you’re gonna be. “No matter where you are, where you’re going is gonna be so much greater. Trust me, I’ve been down before. When you’re down, you can only go up.” Woods rejoined the band to close the show and encourage the audience about life beyond incarceration: “If you do nothing but think good, talk good, look good—smell good, then you are good.”
He pointed to his father, T.L. Woods, who made the trip to SQ.
“My dad’s the one that showed me: You may be in the dark, but you’re never in the shadows,” Rob Woods said.
It was the very first time T.L. Woods had ever seen Curb Service perform. “Music sure can take your mind away,” the proud father told SQ News. “You see how positive it is in here? Outstanding.”
A retired officer for the California Department of Corrections, T.L. Woods worked most of those 22 years at Folsom. “My first day coming to work, that’s when it was still CDC, before it be- came CDCR,” he said. “Even back then, I always looked at the men for who they are. Prison is made up of people’s families—my family, your family—not bad people, just people who made mistakes.”
“There are more people in CDCR that think the way I do than those that think the negative “guard versus inmate” mentality thing.”
After it was over, Curb Service had all the lights turned on in the chapel, and Woods asked all the men to gather up front to take a panoramic photo to commemorate the event.