Personality Crisis

As commercial hip hop radio becomes tired, turf wars flicker out, and the underground diversifies, does the Bay Area have its own identity anymore?

"Everybody is independent here, out of necessity," Jam says. "It's not that they turned down major label deals. It's like, 'Fuck it, are we gonna do it or not?'" Souls of Mischief MC and Hieroglyphics business administrator Tajai, who worked as recording engineer for the group's new double LP Trilogy, agrees that being independent is "definitely, definitely" a Bay Area thing. The lack of major label interest ("The last person they found was probably Santana," Tajai quips) necessitated the local independent movement. But other factors, arguably specific to the Bay Area, have helped it to gain momentum. Tajai credits local open-mindedness toward different kinds of music, the inspirational success of the independent-driven punk rock scene in the '70s and '80s, the "small community but large underground" that enables artists to sustain themselves with tape sales, and the proximity of other underground-savvy markets, such as L.A., Portland, and Seattle. The most crucial factor, arguably, is the mind-set -- the awareness of and confidence in the ability to go independent rather than thinking solely in terms of landing a major label record deal.

That's the legacy of every local independent success story. "When we got signed initially, that was the only thing we thought: 'Oh, you get a deal,'" Domino recalls. "'You go get signed, and then you come out.' No one then had the mentality that maybe we could do it ourselves. So now, since we've done it, and other groups have done it, then you have more kids who are going, 'Hmm. I got this type of music. I don't have to just try to shop it and get a deal. I could also put it out myself.'"

But as the Bay Area hip hop scene now identifies itself in terms of an underground mentality instead of a specific sound, the definition of "underground" or "independent" hip hop has become slippery. "For example, when I talk to people, they will say, 'Oh, I love Rasco and Mystik Journeymen and Dilated Peoples' and folks that have that type of sound, and they'll say that's the underground," says Davey D. "And I would say that's no more underground than the Delinquents -- you know, D-Shot, Killa Tay, and about 50 other groups that have a street, hard-edged, 'we came from East Oakland, the Fillmore, Hunters Point'-type of sound. What makes the Rawkus sound underground and the other type of sound not underground? ... You know, what makes you more hip hop than some kid that lives in East Oakland on 98th, you know, standing on a corner?"

Oakland's Hieroglyphics, on the leading edge of Bay Area hip hop's independent movement.
Jacob Rosenberg
Oakland's Hieroglyphics, on the leading edge of Bay Area hip hop's independent movement.
Local hip hop DJ, writer, and activist Davey D.
Local hip hop DJ, writer, and activist Davey D.

"As you start to search around," he adds, "you'll find that there's so many different sounds that people tend to gravitate towards a particular style, as opposed to necessarily looking at it regionally. ... You have an underground-type of flavor that people can appreciate from coast to coast; you have a street ... type of sound that people can appreciate from coast to coast; you have a spoken word sound that people can appreciate from coast to coast. And I think people start to link up on those cliques.

"I just see everybody's into a form of hip hop the way everybody was into a form of rock 'n' roll. And within hip hop now, like you have in rock 'n' roll, you have so many different genres ... [that] you gotta just kinda pick one. Punk rock is not the same as Bruce Springsteen."

Perhaps the most comforting, if paradoxical, side effect of commercial hip hop spreading across the nation is the shrinking of the spaces between artists. Collaborations, whether industry- or artist-driven, abound now more than ever.

Certainly collaborations can readily -- and often correctly -- be seen as cynical profiteering on labels' parts. It takes no effort to imagine back-room schemings about capturing the Southern demographic on Project Sell-a-Lot with the inclusion of special guest Juvenile. Dr. Dre and Eminem's platinum-selling work together, viewed from a profiteering mind-set, fits cozily into a corporate model of listener demographic consolidation: "Say, Morty, I'll loan you Dre's old-school gangsta creds and throw in some g-funk production on the new single if you spot me a bit of that Eminem kid's rising star relevance and crossover listener base."

But artists also often flourish in collaboration with others whose work they admire. While artists have always understood this, their requests to parlay mutual respect into artistic ventures are being met with unprecedented permissiveness, and even enthusiasm, on the part of their industry overseers. It's that collaboration between artists, despite its origins in industry consolidation, which may turn out to be the trend that ultimately brings about artistic and economic independence for artists. On last year's refreshingly eclectic Quannum Spectrum compilation (on Oakland's Quannum Projects), Bay Area artists DJ Shadow, Latryx, Blackalicious, and Souls of Mischief mixed it up with L.A.'s Jurassic 5, the Beat Junkies' Chief Xcel, and others. The collaborations also expanded on activist-minded compilations like last year's No Prisonsand No Mayo's The Funky Precedent, as well as the anti-Prop. 21 "guerrilla concerts" by the Coup and others.

According to Davey D, many current alliances between Bay Area and L.A.-based artists may be traced back to Tupac; the friendship between Ice-T and Too $hort; the many DJs from the bay who have worked in L.A.; MC Hammer; and Digital Underground, whose manager doubled as the road manager for N.W.A.

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