Notes From Underground

For two years, Beni B and Oakland's ABB Records have taken on the hip-hop establishment one vinyl single at a time

Beni B is spooning ice cream into his mouth as he talks about ABB Records, the Oakland-based independent hip-hop label he founded in 1997. The empty calorie intake is ironic: A graduate of UC Berkeley, he holds a bachelor's degree in nutrition and food science, as well as a master's in physical education.

He was also seriously considering pursuing a Ph.D., but hip hop changed his plans. Since moving from Los Angeles to the Bay Area in 1983, Beni B has spent 15 years hosting his own show at UC Berkeley radio station KALX-FM (90.7), which gave him an opportunity to explore hip hop, meet artists in the mainstream and underground, and make the connections that ultimately led him to start ABB.

And in just over two years, the label -- the acronym stands for "Always Bigger and Better" -- has claimed some impressive successes. The second 12-inch release from Los Angeles' Dilated Peoples has sold 20,000 copies, and the recent release of "Re-work the Angles," Dilated's remix of their "Work the Angles" single (which appeared on last year's Orgazmo soundtrack) has moved 18,000 copies -- all vinyl-only releases. Other artists on the roster include Joey Chavez, Foreign Legion, Barbershop MCs, and Defari -- an L.A.-based rapper, UC Berkeley graduate, and high school teacher who recently signed with Tommy Boy and released his first album, Focused Daily, on the strength of his 1997 ABB-released single.

Production work by Evidence, producer of ABB's two Defari singles as well as a rapper and producer in Dilated Peoples, helped set the standard for the ABB sound. Driving beats, backed by a clean and serious piano loop enhanced by robotic emanations, seamlessly support Defari's steady, pulsing lyrics on "Bionic," the label's first release. On Dilated Peoples' "Work the Angles," Evidence layers faraway chimes and guitars over a bouncing, relentless beat while second MC Rakaa (aka Iriscience) laces the rhythm with lyrics like, "It's about communication, not a rapper's ego/ Messages sneak in, they seem to seep in."

More important than sales numbers, however, is Beni B's focus on nurturing artists. "I have a conscience," he says. "I see how, when you get to a certain level, the music business can be ruthless."

Rakaa observes that Beni "loves doing what he does. It's not just product and distribution. He's like, 'Yo! Let's get these records out. These are hot!' He's excited too."

ABB's relationships with its artists are based on personal relationships -- no contracts are signed. Evidence, producer of ABB's two Defari releases, as well as the second rapper and producer in Dilated Peoples, says that with Beni, "it's a friend relationship. It's my label too. Outside of Dilated Peoples, it's up to Ben to do whatever he likes, and I trust his decisions."

Producer Joey Chavez also enjoys the easy, straightforward relationship with Beni. "When anything is going on I can talk directly to Ben," he says. "Ben's a very real person so it's easy to get along with him."

Years of working as a DJ gave Beni B access to the hip-hop underground -- and the ability to recognize good artists when he heard them. "I know what it's like to be a DJ and get record packages and have all these wack records and then you have one or two records that are really, really good," he explains.

Domino, who runs Heiro Imperium, the independent label for the Heiroglyphics crew (including Souls of Mischief and Del the Funkee Homosapien) in Oakland, says that Beni "has a good ear for talent and good music and that's all he needs to go forward with a project." He adds: "Most of the people in the industry, when putting out records, it's not just based on talent. They say, 'Do we have a single? Does he have the charisma to come off in the video?' That's the major [label] mentality."

Beni B has seen the inner workings of the hip-hop world enough to avoid the common mishaps that many hip-hop artists and labels encounter, and has advice for aspiring hip-hop musicians. "Don't be so quick to look at a label as a way to take care of you," he advises. "They are not [offering a contract] because they like you, they are doing that because they want to exploit you."

Too many naive rappers get swallowed up by the major label monster, he adds. "It all comes down to money," he says. "You put money in their face, they'll sign their soul to the devil. I've seen it happen. The bottom line is power is not what the record company gives you, it's what you negotiate, because they won't give you shit."

Iriscience concurs. "There's no business needed to write a record, and that's what a lot of these industry people have to understand," he says. "I don't need your money to sit down and create this. I supply whatever it is that makes the thing burn. I'm the fuel. Dilated isn't so much signed to ABB as we work with ABB."

Unlike many of the West Coast's hip-hop acts, artists on the ABB roster have a hard-edged and aggressive sound. Beni B sees himself as a competitor with East Coast hip hop. "New York is the big brother, everyone else are the little brothers," he says. "You want to shine in the light of your big brother, but now that hip hop is growing up and each region has its own distinct style and flavor [artists should be saying], 'Rather than be like you, we are gonna go out and do our own thing' and find their own niche."

"A lot of people say we have an East Coast sound," says Evidence. "I don't think that's true, but I would say our style is more conventional."

Some artists feel that ABB's more straight-ahead sound is a large part of the reason for its success, regardless of airplay. "Commercial radio stations are just looking for one type of sound," says the Grouch, rapper in Oakland's Livin' Legends crew. "The ABB sound is more East Coast, more likely to be played on The Wake-Up Show [a syndicated radio show, broadcast on KMEL-FM (106.1) in the Bay Area]." The Wake-Up Show broadcasts live in the Bay Area once a month, but is usually pre-recorded in L.A. a week before it airs. KMEL music director Glen Aure notes that ABB artists have had their records played there, "but sometimes it's kind of hard to play most of the stuff because of the style. [ABB] is more for the real hip-hop fan, who's into it more deeply, and amongst the culture. We play more of the mass-appeal hits, stuff that MTV will play."

Beni B understands, though he feels the time is ripe for a hip-hop mix show on Bay Area commercial radio. Still, he's a firm believer that the truth outs. "It comes down to the people," he says. "If the people are calling up and requesting records, they can't deny it." College radio, meanwhile, has reacted enthusiastically. "The tension is definitely building," says Evidence. "Sooner or later [commercial radio] is going to have no choice but to deal with it because it's going to be right in their face.

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