Stakes Is High

Bay Area hip-hop artists and the art of the hustle

If the mainstream record industry has taught the Bay Area's sprawling hip-hop community one lesson, it's that the rap game is a hustle easily lost if you play by somebody else's rules. Just ask one of the local acts who won themselves national attention, only to have their opinions and music silenced by fidgety record executives caught up in the Catch-22 of ineffective marketing and sliding record sales.

Veteran contributors Digital Underground -- the Berkeley rap group that rushed the national scene in 1990 with a series of burlesque, funk-laden sides ("The Humpty Dance," "Freaks of the Industry," "All Around the World") -- were left for dead by Tommy Boy after their 1993 record Body Hat Syndrome. Or recall the Souls of Mischief, the talented Oakland quartet affiliated with the Hieroglyphics crew. Their first EP, '93 'Til Infinity, and the 1995 album No Man's Land quickly won them national respect and a loyal international following. But this couldn't stop Jive/Zomba Records from splitting with the group over a year ago. So goes the story.

But there's a lesson here. In the past few years, the Bay Area's scene has not only prospered, it's flourished. The rappers and the producers have kept their creative license and control of publishing and distribution; the majors have gotten the finger. The underground successes of East Oakland's Living Legends or Hunters Point's 11/5 suggest that local hip hop is stronger, more powerful, filled with greater amounts of integrity, when the practicing group is not dependent on major-label sponsorship.

To understand Bay Area hip hop, you have to understand the conceptual split between two competing factions. (Other scenes have a similar split, of course, but few are so dramatic.) On the one hand stand rappers, producers, and distributors who perpetuate the old-school but still-potent gangster mystique. On the other hand, a group of so-called progressive DJs and MCs ignores perfunctory street-life tales in a struggle to transcend the details of day-to-day living through rare sounds and challenging, esoteric beats.

With rare exceptions, critics prefer the latter. Their argument: By never deviating from three themes -- guns, hos, and shout-outs to dead homies -- gangster rap lost the immediacy that once made it relevant, valid; in its wake, progressive hip hop elevates rap as a music and a culture. Unfortunately, listeners have their own agenda, eschewing arbitrary distinctions in favor of quality, variety, and in some cases quantity. The artists also reject the critics: Both the gangstas and the progressives are too busy hustling for survival.

Two independently produced compilations released late last year provide a nice snapshot of the local scene as 1998 breaks. Oakland-based label Dogday's Million Dollar Dream features hard artists and tough groups, derivative -- but always savvy -- production, and masterfully explicit rhymes. The second album, Beats & Lyrics, from Industry Records, compiles progressive artists, atypical arrangements, and dexterous lyrical delivery. Together, these compilations capture the Bay Area's major minor (unsigned) players. But Beats & Lyrics and Million Dollar Dream are also fuck-yous to the fickle major labels. Hip hop is where the underground is, they say, not on commercial radio, not on the Billboard 200, or MTV, or even BET.

With a reproachful eye on the mainstream and an indifference to musical and lyrical niceties, Million Dollar Dream producers Nick Peace and Black Diamond unapologetically harvest beats and rhymes. The resulting bounty is 36 tracks of old-school gangsta beats that revel in the same musical aesthetics that made Oakland's Too $hort a rap legend, Tupac Shakur a household name, and E-40's Vallejo-based Sik Wid It label a cottage industry.

Like Shakur in the early days, and Too $hort and E-40, who both stayed independent as record sales gushed, the self-proclaimed pimps, playas, hustlers, and big ballers featured on Million Dollar Dream are making their mark surreptitiously, going for what plays on the streets -- not the radio. Million Dollar Dream contributes to the Bay Area's rich tradition of

trunk funk, that deliberately obnoxious expression of heavy rhythms, melody, and urban slang. For an audience that considers hip hop to be a form of musical expression as much as a way of negotiating a harsh urban landscape, gangsta rap is a symphony of percussion, words, and melody. Yes, it's vulgar, hyperviolent, confrontational, and abrasive, but base condemnation ignores the music's status as one of the few forms of remunerative creative expression available to a disenfranchised, mostly black, mostly urban population without many options for social betterment.

If there is a new, booming economy in the Bay Area, no one bothered to tell these players. Here, rap music is a new blues -- familiar, candid, affecting -- for a generation raised on the hustle. Producers Peace and Diamond know the rules of this game. Local heads will blast J-Mack's "Fuck Makin' Deals," Mac Shawn's "Boss Playa," or 11/5's "187-304" from their rides, because these are unpretentious, honest songs; because the beats pump and bump rather than herk and jerk with difficult rhythm and obscure samples.

Take, for instance, "Boss Playa." Here, Shawn's Southern-flavored delivery struts around a lazy funk arrangement -- heavy on keyboard distortion and 808 bass -- like a blaxploitation hero oozing self-confidence and spitting viper venom. The second verse, a gruff, posthumous broadside lobbed at Notorious B.I.G., is scathing, but not sorry or angry: "When you in this muthafuckin' rap game/ You better treat it like the muthafuckin' dope game." The subject matter -- a fallen rapper -- is less than original, but Shawn's take is fresh because he makes Biggie's death a parable: The dope game and the rap game are a serious hustle; stakes is high.

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