So the Mountain Brothers, a Philadelphia-based trio who've overcome years of major-label woes to independently release their debut album, Self Volume 1, are something of a novelty, though not a novelty act. Out of step with much of the hip-hop community, they've combined clever wordplay, stellar organic production, and -- freshly rescued from hip hop's endangered species list -- a sense of humor.
It was Public Enemy who set the standard for blending humor and intelligence in rap. Often misunderstood as a strictly serious ensemble, their undeniable genius on albums like 1990's Fear of a Black Planet wasn't the pumping, apocalyptic Bomb Squad-produced soundscapes, or even the influential verses from Chuck D. Rather, it was the teaming of the unflappable Chuck with his comical, hyped-up partner in rhyme, Flavor Flav. It's hard to picture Public Enemy without him, or imagine their medicine-flavored lyrics without that spoonful of sugar to ease them down.
In recent years, humor has been the key to top-selling releases from the Beastie Boys and the Pharcyde, but few others have so skillfully utilized comedy as a form of expression. And far too small a number have done so while bringing forth a genuine lyrical acumen. That's exactly what makes the Mountain Brothers' debut so noteworthy. To play off an album title by A Tribe Called Quest, the Brothers represent a hip-hop triple threat: beats, rhymes, and laughs.
Comprised of two Chinese-Americans and a Taiwanese-American (Scott Jung, aka Chops; Chris Wang, aka Peril-L; and Steve Wei, aka Styles), the trio's music is a mesh of harmonious Bob James- and Pete Rock-influenced grooves, courtesy of the baritone-voiced Chops, who handles a third of the rapping duties, most of the punch lines, and also plays a multitude of instruments to single-handedly craft the group's sound without samples. Additional vocals are in the deft hands of Peril-L, while one-liners like "I got 10 times the ends/ But only half the real friends" come from Styles, the group's most potent freestyle rapper.
Scheduled for a February release on the trio's own Pimpstrut label, the album combines mix-tape favorites like "Paperchase" with songs like "Galaxies: The Next Level," which bears the imprint of electro-funk pioneer Roger Troutman. The group comments on record industry complexities and familiar 9-to-5 headaches on "Day Jobs" and delivers tongue-in-cheek pieces like "Love Poetry," which parodies the much-maligned rap love song. Their sources for joke material seem to come from anywhere: "Super Saturday" pokes fun at overblown commercials for monster truck events, while "Oh, Oh, Oh" honors Miami Bass booty-shaking.
"We're big fans of punch line MCs, like from Big Daddy Kane, Lord Finesse, to Common, Redman, Ras Kass," explains Chops from his home studio in Philadelphia. "Various cats that are about rhyming for the sake of rhyming, and having lines that are funny or have twists in meaning to them."
Coming off a victory in Sprite's national "Rhymes From the Mind" contest in the summer of 1996, the trio was awarded an invaluable prize: instant radio airplay. Heard on urban frequencies throughout the nation, its 60-second commercial spot for the soda was a bouncy track filled with keyboard stabs that professed their love for the soft drink and whipped major-label A&Rs into a frenzy.
In 1996, Pennsylvania-based Ruffhouse inked a deal with the Mountain Brothers. It made them the first Asian-American hip-hop act signed to a major label, but was also the official beginning of an arduous relationship that legally ended only a few months ago.
Unwilling to release the Mountain Brothers' completed album (one vinyl-only promotional single was issued across two years), Ruffhouse seemed to have its hands full with its stable of superstars, including the Fugees and Cypress Hill. The Mountain Brothers were apparently a difficult act to sell. "As time went by, they couldn't find a place to easily put us in terms of marketing and so they wanted to push us in a direction that was more easier to sell," explains Styles.
The group found itself at odds with the label. "It was certain creative things," says Chops, sounding uneasy. "We had an album recorded and we were happy with it at the time ... and there were suggestions made to have certain producers come in and remix stuff. Like certain people that happened to be hot at that particular second."
Ruffhouse maintains that its own relationship with its corporate parent was partly to blame. "We're a joint venture with Sony," says Ruffhouse President Joe "The Butcher" Nicolo, who has also engineered and produced records by Cypress Hill, Spearhead, and others. "When I brought [the Mountain Brothers record] to the Sony Records radio and urban department, they didn't salute it. It took the wind out of my sails. I let [the band] go with its masters and did not charge a cent, nothing."
Nicolo also claims the group's lack of experience with labels and recording played a role. "I will take as much blame as the band for what happened," he says. "They will continuously get better. At the time, they were still in the process of learning."
To compensate for Sony's reluctance, Ruffhouse made several musical suggestions to the group, which the Mountain Brothers found unacceptable. The label intimated that the band's music -- more specifically Chops' jazzy, organic production -- wouldn't meet Ruffhouse's multiplatinum sales expectations.
The band's refusal to compromise was born even before it signed with Ruffhouse. During that time, labels were displaying a remarkable amount of ignorance about the trio. One major-label executive, says Chops, wanted to use their ethnic backgrounds as a warped marketing vehicle and suggested they perform onstage wearing karate outfits and wielding gongs. Another, after complimenting their music, explained that, "There's only one problem. You're Asian."
All of which only inspires the Mountain Brothers to change what they don't like about the guns-and-glamour image of modern commercial hip hop. "We're making the music that we want to hear and putting it out there," says Styles, an enormous fan of Biz Markie -- rap's clown prince. "We're not happy with the music that's out there now, for the most part, so we're putting out stuff that we are happy with."
Still, that stuff has grown older during the group's struggle to release it. The album's newest track, "Whiplash," is already a year old, while "Paperchase," a standout track about the pursuit of the almighty dollar in which Chops' soulful keys provide a lush, hypnotic melody, was recorded over three years ago -- an eternity in the rap world. Most acts choose not to release music this "old," but when listeners have yet to hear such a sound, it remains fresh. "There's a song called 'Brand Name' that we made about two years ago when the commercialization of hip hop was just starting," says Styles of the name-brand craze popularized by Puff Daddy. "It was kind of cool that it applies even more today."
"Brand Name" also gives fans a taste of the Brothers' humor. Instead of hip hop's customary Versace or Gucci references, Styles, with a wink, rhymes about brand names for the rest of us: "Don't player-hate me or my Trader Bay henleys/ We stay at Super 8's and break fast at Denny's." Some rap critics, however, don't seem to get the joke. "What really struck me is that when we sent out album dubs to various reviewers, a few would be, like, 'I liked everything on the album except "Love Poetry" and "Oh, Oh, Oh," ' " says Styles. "They didn't realize those were joke songs. And I thought that was odd, until I realized that people don't really make humorous-type songs anymore, and so it didn't even occur to the reviewer that we were not being serious."
But overall, the Mountain Brothers rely less on humor than on bread-and-butter microphone skills. "Fluids" finds Styles ingeniously summing up their experience in major-label purgatory: "Record companies are just like Weight Watchers/ They take your loot/ They make you less fat but more popular."
Fresh from well-received tour dates opening for A Tribe Called Quest, and on the eve of Self's release, the band remains mindful of its beginning -- the three artists began rhyming seven years ago, while attending Penn State.
The reason they came together? Just for fun.