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What trial-size shampoo bottles are to the weary business traveler, compilation albums are to the music fan -- efficient samplers, used on the fly and practically disposable. At least, that's how they're treated. Classic compilation albums rarely get their due in the established record guides and often aren't mentioned when people talk about their favorite albums. Part of the reason is that they've been cheapened by major-label movie soundtracks, built to inflict new signings on the public with a few big-name acts' throwaways included as bait. But that runs contrary to their importance for independent musicians -- if somebody is getting around to writing a thoroughgoing history of American punk rock, he'd be remiss to ignore landmarks like Flex Your Head, Not So Quiet on the Western Front, and the Rodney on the ROQ series, all of which worked as community-building scene reports. And because the punk ethos was about community as much as music, compilation records worked just like mix tapes from friends overseas or on the other side of the country -- a way to share a secret message.
Same goes for hip hop of all stripes, particularly in the Bay Area -- independent local artists can use a slot on a compilation as an efficient way to get the word out, and if there's anything that can be remotely considered "scene-building" around the Bay Area, it's on the smartly produced records that have come out on labels like Quannum, Ubiquity, No Mayo, Hip Hop Slam, Om, and Dogday. When the larger critical community turns its ear to these parts, it's the only musical approach that means jack. Most of the best-appreciated local albums in last year's Village Voice critics' poll were locally produced hip hop comps: No Mayo's The Funky Precedent, the Quannum collective's Quannum Spectrum, and Bomb's Return of the DJ Vol. IIIshowed up on dozens of Top 10 lists. But even amongst music fans, those records are the first blush with an artist, a culture, and a continuing conversation about Bay Area music. Hip Hop Slam's Billy Jam recalls listening to mix tapes from people in Ireland, England, and Holland and being pleasantly shocked at the contents. "I was figuring I was going to hear all these Dutch hip hop crews, and there was Rasco, Planet Asia, and Hieroglyphics," he recalls.
With that in mind, Hip Hop Slam and Amoeba Music recently collaborated to release All That Glitters Isn't Platinum: Amoeba Music Compilation Vol. 1, which over 17 tracks spins out a well-conceived assortment of not just local hip hop from 75 Degrees, Various Blends, and Mad Ill, but also spoken word from Goldie the Poet and a healthy smattering of local rock from Venus Bleeding, Dura-Delinquent, and others. When Oakland hip hop promoter and DJ Davey D plugged the CD recently on his Web site (www.daveyd.com), Billy Jam got a flood of e-mail from fans. "There was a lot of response from around the country saying, 'I love the Bay Area sound,'" he says. Along the same lines, on May 9 Om releases Deep Concentration 3, the third album in what's now a landmark series, diligently exploring the vibrant nexus of hip hop, turntablism, electronic music, and wild experimentation in general. When the first Deep Concentration album came out in 1997, Om's main focus was on dance music (and still is, pretty much), and the album was an experiment that took off and helped install many of its contributors -- Q-Burns Abstract Message, Prince Paul, Radar, Cut Chemist, Eddie Def, Lyrics Born -- on a national stage. Like The Funky Precedent and prior Om releases, Deep Concentration 3 isn't exclusively a local affair, but DJ Sole, the Space Travelers, and Planet Asia all put in strong appearances. Chris Smith, co-founder of Om and co-producer of the series, spent about six months putting together the collection. "It's really not very calculated," says Smith. "I sit down and think about who are some different people we want to work with, find some existing people in terms of being turntablists, some new people doing interesting things, listen to demos, word-of-mouth -- it was going to a local DJ battle at Zebra Records that I found the Fingerbangers."
Smith declines to give specific numbers about how well the Deep Concentration series has done, but notes that its influence is wide ranging and has "grown exponentially" in Europe and especially Japan. "I think [Deep Concentration] has had a lot of influence," he says. "Along with Return of the DJ, it's one of the main series that's really gotten out there, particularly for people other than DJs."
But there's a downside to all this: Just as those big names on the movie soundtracks find musical barrel-scrapings to inflict on audiences, sometimes musicians don't bother to put their best foot forward, saving their best work for their own records. "I don't like the track," says DJ Cue of "Buggin Out," which he and the rest of the Space Travelers (DJs Eddie Def, Quest, and Marz) contributed to Deep Concentration 3. "But I didn't want to pull the track -- it's the first track all of us have been on."
"We know we're never going to make money on compilation tracks," he adds. "We do it mainly for the publicity, and that's what people should think about in terms of compilations. That's what I told people when I was putting together Cue's Hip Hop Shop: 'Look, this is just a promo thing.'"
The Space Travelers have pulled out of the opening date of the "2000 Deep Concentration 3 Tour" May 4 at the Justice League (call 440-0409), which will still showcase the Triple Threat DJs (Apollo, Shortkut, and Vinroc), L.A.'s People Under the Stairs, and Planet Asia. For the release of Everything That Glitters Isn't Gold, 75 Degrees, Foreign Legion, Various Blends, Lloyd Jones, and others will perform at the Cocodrie May 11 (call 986-6678).
Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to Mark.Athitakis@sfweekly.com, or mail them to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.
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