Rhyme Schemes

With an acclaimed single and album behind him, San Mateo rapper Rasco remains underground -- which is just fine with him

There's no mainstream side to Bay Area hip hop. While there have been a couple of MC Hammers and Digital Undergrounds in the past, for a kid sitting down with MTV or BET today the bay isn't even marked on the map. Underground scenes in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and elsewhere have developed as a reaction to the high-profile promotional campaigns by major record labels that stressed their artists' glamorous lifestyles over their musical talents. If the videos are to be believed, Manhattan is a place where rappers travel in motorcades a hundred motorcycles deep, and Southern California is one enormous ghetto barbecue.

But here, being underground is just a fact of life. The scene breeds independent businessmen and artists; it's a bug that's passed to younger artists from local veterans, many of whom have had major label deals that went sour. So Rasco's 1997 debut single, "Unassisted," wasn't just bragging by an MC setting out on a solo career; its title was a statement on the only way home-grown artists can step forth in the rap industry. When Rasco was with Various Blends in the early '90s, the group pursued record deals, but the A&R executives weren't exactly knocking down their door. After lackluster national sales for Souls of Mischief's and Saafir's recent large-budgeted records, the witty lyrical delivery that's part of the bay's hip-hop hallmark was deemed commercially unviable.

Various Blends self-released its "Chill as I Flex" single in 1994, featuring the abstract rhyming style then popular on the East Coast. But Rasco, a latecomer to the microphone, had only been rapping for two years at that point, and hadn't found his own poetic voice yet. As he began to do so, it became clear he and the group were heading in separate directions. "It took me awhile to figure out what style I was gonna have, what type of stuff to talk about, stuff like that," he says. "It took me two years before I really found my niche. I tried to fit in with the group instead of being myself. At the time the whole abstract vibe was big, like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, but that wasn't really my style. Then I realized, 'You know what your style was, you should just do it.'"

Rasco caught attention on the strength of one single, "Unassisted."
Rasco caught attention on the strength of one single, "Unassisted."

Luckily, his roommate Peanut Butter Wolf was getting his label Stones Throw off the ground at the same time, and asked Rasco to release a single on it. No one involved expected the splash "Unassisted" would make in the burgeoning national underground scene. In part due to the uncommon vocal presence displayed by Rasco and in part due to Wolf's classic beat, "Unassisted" sold almost 40,000 copies -- unheard of for an unknown artist on a practically unknown label. The track was also exposed to an unusually large audience as it was used frequently in scratch routines by the X-ecutioners and the World Famous Beat Junkies, two of the most widely touring turntablist crews. All of a sudden people wanted to hear more from the so-called "bald-headed, non-dreaded" MC working a full-time job and living in San Mateo.

Wolf wanted to put out a full album based on the single's reception, but Rasco didn't have all the pieces in place yet. "When he asked me to do it, at that point, I didn't have anything written at all. I was working at [music distribution company] TRC, and had to write, so I was like, 'Yo man, this is gonna take some time.' I didn't know anything I wanted to do for it except the title, Time Waits for No Man. That was going back to my group thing, where we were getting older, and I felt it was getting stagnant. If we're gonna make this move, we have to do it now."

Long-players from independent labels were (and largely still are) a rare thing in hip hop. When word got around that Stones Throw was planning one, there was speculation that an underground MC like Rasco was too one-dimensional to hold listeners' interest over multiple cuts. But Time Waits for No Man was released to much critical acclaim: It was voted top independent record of 1998 by hip hop's widely read magazine The Source. Rasco's ability proved not to be in rapid-fire multisyllables, but in the way he completely sank his verses into the rhythm tracks laid down by his producers. Guest appearances by local MC Encore, Fresno's Planet Asia, and L.A.'s Dilated Peoples and Defari provided a nice complement to his blunt, brash style.

After Time Waits for No Man had been out for almost a year, and Rasco and Wolf had finished promoting it, Rasco decided to start his own label, Pockets Linted. Of the many business skills he learned from working with Wolf, he lists timing at the top. He knew he had to follow up his album the next year so as to stay fresh in listeners' minds, but he didn't want to overexpose himself either. The perfect solution was the EP format -- the six-song The Birthwas released in September. "I wanted to put something out for this year," he says. "I don't want to be gone from the scene for too long. But I don't want to make appearances every 10 seconds, like be on everyone's record, or have a bunch of records out just because I can put 'em out."

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