It seems like the members of Foreign Legion could go on riffing like this all day -- and if the group's debut album, Kidnappervan, is any proof, they often do. On the record's 14 songs, Prozack and Stretch toss off truckloads of postmodern wordplay, mixing off-kilter rhymes about varicose veins and Princess Diana with straight-up commentary about their underground rap struggles. Behind them, Design crafts a subtle, jazzy backdrop from old funk and soul records.
Since its release last year, Kidnappervan has received favorable notices from critics and hip hop fans alike. But, since buzz alone does not pay the rent, Foreign Legion has been playing out constantly, touring with contemporaries Zion I, Boom Bap, and the Micranots and performing locally at Storyville's "True Skool" showcase nights. Building a reputation from the underground up is hard work -- work that the group believes is well worth it. On "Full Time B-Boy," for instance, Prozack opines, "The dopest MCs are always the brokest," while tracks like "Underground" and "Overnight Success" offer similar nose-to-the-grindstone narratives. In person, Stretch jokes, "The "b' in "b-boy' stands for "broke as fuck.'"
Unlike a lot of cash-poor acts, Foreign Legion doesn't rap about what's greener on the other side of the fence. The trio refuses to adhere to such icons of hip hop as the ultraserious do-gooder and the hard-as-nails gangsta. The crew often appears onstage in costumes that play against stereotypes, dressing as Batman and Robin, Miami Vice cops, and cowboys. "We're really like Masterblaster from Mad Max [Beyond Thunderdome]," says Stretch, referring to the murderous midget-and-giant team that ruled the Australian outback in the sci-fi film. To illustrate his point, the Legion's MCs came out onstage in L.A. in true Masterblaster style, with Prozack rapping from inside Stretch's giant backpack.
Foreign Legion doesn't look like your typical hip hop ensemble either. Prozack, who is frequently referred to as the elfin Boy Wonder, is a diminutive guy with a sharp tongue and a short attention span. Stretch, weighing in at over 300 pounds and wearing one leg of his jogging pants far shorter than the other, probably comes the closest to fitting the traditional rap image, though he continually makes fun of his lack of hair and his sartorial "style." For his part, Design sports brown, polyester, old-man pants and a plaid, thrift-store, button-down shirt, and looks more like an Orange County punk than a baggy-clad hip-hopper. "Keith has the worst hair in hip hop," jokes Stretch.
"Every now and then I'll be onstage and people will go, "You're the one who made their beats? Look at you!'" says Design. "I'm thinking to myself how stupid and narrow-minded [that is], but at the same time I understand because they're so used to seeing this guy dressed in that certain uniform."
"I think I'm part of changing that, though," Design continues. "Now I'll see a kid who doesn't look like all that jiggy shit, and he'll come up to me like, "Yeah, I really love all your beats and I have all your shit.' He sees me -- and I don't look jiggy -- and he's like, "I don't have to go out and buy these $120 sneakers and this silly Fila sweat suit.' I can look how I want and won't be judged for what I look like but for my music. That's why I don't dress like [most hip hop artists]. Plus, I look stupid in that stuff anyways."
"I think people are always following in other people's footsteps," Stretch says. "They're bombarded with BET, MTV, and all these things. And it's all just these hard [rappers] standing around [in the videos], and they think, "Oh, I guess that's what I [should be] trying to be.' People are trying to fit into a mold that's not even theirs."
Besides keeping it real, Foreign Legion also keeps it really educated, dropping references to surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp and linguist/activist Noam Chomsky alongside allusions to Versace and Jerry Springer. Not surprisingly, the group's high-minded lyrics have gotten tepid responses from those critics who equate hip hop street cred with simplistic rhymes.
"This magazine Fat Boss in England did a review of Kidnappervan and they criticized the album by saying we're too intellectual and too jaded," says Design. "We got 50 percent [out of 100 percent] as the rating, and awful groups like Insane Clown Posse got, like, 80 percent. And then I met the guy who publishes the magazine, and he went to Oxford and Eton. [For him] to call us too intellectual and say we used too many big words was like an insult. None of us even graduated high school. But you know, we read. Like, hurray for literature."
Design's production style could also be called thoughtful, especially considering that he refuses to slap together soft rock samples and overused 808 bass tracks. On "Meanwhile," he crafts a clacking, syncopated beat that recalls hip hop's early classics, with horn stabs playing off Prozack's rhymes. For "You'll Never Be Number One," he uses a tinkly organ reminiscent of The Price Is Right theme music. Design's tracks manage to be catchy without being clichéd, utilizing distinctive scratching that punctuates funk-, soul-, and soundtrack-inflected licks.
"I don't try to develop my sound as much as I just try to develop my songs," says Design. "A lot of producers just sound like [they use] a bunch of throwaway beats."
Prozack concurs. "Production-wise, there's a lot of people who haven't found their style and they're so easily influenced by whatever is on the radio. I don't think Keith does that. It would be more productive if we could be like, "We need a dance song or we need a hard beat,' but it's a lot more natural the way we go about doing it."
Stretch explains that he and Prozack take a similarly freestyle approach to rapping, trying to make their lyrics jibe with the beats at hand. "The music carries a vibe and our responsibility as writers is to bring that out," he says. "We spend a lot of time just listening to the music before we write the lyrics."
Since the release of Kidnappervan, the bandmates have been working on projects outside the group. Prozack has completed a solo album, while Design is producing instrumental hip hop tracks and running his club night, "Gather Round," on Wednesdays at Fuse.
Design says that DJing has inspired his production work, since he sees how crowds respond to the music. "Before I was just playing records and having people stand there. Then [there was] the whole turntable thing where people just stand and watch, and I started thinking that I never see black people at hip hop shows anymore. It's all white people. And I thought, "Why is that?' It's like a fucking freak show now. You just have this guy up there scratching and it's over the same old hip hop songs you've heard off of Eric B and Rakim's first album. It's awful.
"And then I'm noticing that girls actually have so much influence on music," Design continues. "They're the ones buying the damn CDs and they're the ones that get into it and get people to dance. They get that feeling going where you feel good to be at a club -- they're all grooving, and the guys try and get up and start dancing. All of a sudden everybody's in a good mood."