The Sounds of Silence

Why the Bay Area has stopped producing big-time rock bands

Asp and Appelgren concede that the Pattern has a chance at fame, but the two also maintain they're not willing to compromise just to make it big.

"I'm a little bit elitist about our success," Asp says. "We know we sound weird, and we're not gonna give it to the heartland. But there are cool kids in every town, and if we can bring a little bit of fun to a boring place, that's a lot more gratifying than trying to go for the golden ring. Maybe that's not elitism so much as, well, small-scale rock."
-- By Nancy Einhart

Local Hip Hop Acts Shift Shapes and Units

With chart positions and first-week sales as much a part of hip hop culture as dis wars and sample spotting, debating which rapper is going to blow up next isn't just a topic for the A&R reps -- it's a pastime for the fans. But armchair oracles looking to pick out the Bay Area's next big thing are confronted with a challenge: There's no single definition of success. If S.F. rock acts despair of ever hitting the big time and local electronic musicians resign themselves to seeking recognition overseas, Bay Area hip hop artists have learned to play the game, authoring several different rule books along the way.

That's not to say it's all gravy. On his new album Grit & Grind, Oakland's E-40, the self-proclaimed "most underrated rapper in the game," laments that "everybody wanna use my slang." He's got a point: In a recent article called "Fact or Fiction? Who Keeps Stealing From the Bay Area," published on the Web site of local hip hop writer Davey D (www.daveyd.com), T-Kash details how artists here have coined phrase after phrase, only to see them claimed by better-known rappers. The allegation suggests that the region's hip hop community, once a force to be reckoned with nationwide, has lost some of its clout, even if its influence carries on.

Roberta Magriny, a publicist at Jive Records who handles legendary Oakland rapper Too $hort, agrees. "In the last few years, hip hop became so mainstream, the Bay Area sound became isolated. It never grabbed onto the pop market on the national level. The sound is regional, the stories are regional, and when hip hop became such a pop culture phenomenon, they couldn't keep up with those numbers."

The glory days of Oakland's gangsta rap may have faded -- even Too $hort left for Atlanta some years ago -- but its purveyors continue to mine a sizable vein. E-40's Grit & Grind, released in June, has already sold nearly 160,000 copies, according to SoundScan. While Too $hort's records don't go platinum anymore, he still sells hundreds of thousands of copies of each release. Also, by not making videos or spending money trying to get radio play, he yields a healthier profit than many acts with heftier advances. But what about younger artists who can't rely on a lengthy track record?


Oakland hip hop originated with rappers selling tapes out of the back of their cars -- the kind of DIY ethic that once defined American punk rock. But Davey D charges that many artists abandoned this self-reliance once acts like Paris and Digital Underground achieved national recognition. "[Rappers] didn't establish other foundations for themselves, unlike rock acts, which always had the club circuit and college radio to fall back on," says Davey D. "Here the rappers were just like, 'It's KMEL, and that's it.'" With corporations like Clear Channel (which owns both KMEL-FM [106.1] and its one-time competitor, KYLD-FM [94.9]) streamlining the industry, hip hop acts without access to huge promotional budgets can't gain airtime -- even E-40, with a solid fan base in the Bay Area, rarely makes it onto local commercial radio.

But airplay isn't the only measure of success, argues Domino, the producer and general manager of Hiero Imperium, the label behind the Hieroglyphics crew (Del tha Funky Homosapien, Casual, Pep Love, and Souls of Mischief). "On the surface, radio's the easiest way to judge things. But we sell the Fillmore out in advance, and we don't have videos on MTV -- and outside of late-night mix shows, we don't have anything on KMEL or KYLD."

Most of the Hieroglyphics artists were signed to majors in the '80s and early '90s (thanks in part to Del's cousin, Ice Cube), but they eventually fell out with their respective labels. Hiero Imperium rose from the ashes of the contracts. "We've been in the game, we've been on the majors, and we've figured, for us, this is how we nurture our product and nurture our groups," says Domino. Thanks to a combination of touring, Web merchandising, and word-of-mouth, "We've made more money since we've been independent than when we were on majors. People are like, 'What happened to y'all?' Well, actually, we're doing better than we were -- it's just a different type of success."

But some local acts are still pursuing the well-trodden path to stardom via the majors. Blackalicious, after respectable sales on British indie Mo' Wax and its own label Quannum, finally signed to MCA -- as did its labelmate DJ Shadow. While Shadow has enjoyed greater column inches in the press, Blackalicious is moving more units. This discrepancy shouldn't be surprising: Shadow has pursued the slightly bohemian, instrumental path he pioneered on 1996's Endtroducing, and Blackalicious has tailored its sound to a broader appeal. "They definitely have a lot of college kid, conscious hip hop sort of fans," says Tom Sarig, the vice president of A&R who signed the group to MCA, "but we tried to make them more appealing to mainstream black folks this time -- and at the same time keep their progressive artistic vision alive." Working off the major label's dime, Blackalicious has the advantage of having a video with consistent airplay on MTV2. But the group's other methods are no different from the Hieroglyphics crew's: The duo toured with established stars such as Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, and Public Enemy, and held onto that ultimate intangible, credibility, partially by simply keeping the Quannum logo on its CDs. "I love their brand," says Sarig. "I think it only keeps their cred going."

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