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For years, the group had met at the Truckee cabin of Daumont's aunt. The remote mountain getaway had long offered an isolated place for the group to hash over strategies for the upcoming year. In the past, the meetings had been a source of rejuvenation and inspiration, but in '96 things would be a little more intense.
Chang was the last one to arrive at the retreat. He had driven nine hours through a vicious snowstorm and was involved in a car accident that left him bruised and weary. By the time he stumbled to the doorstep, the other members of Solesides had already decided to disband the organization.
Their reasons for the split were complex: The crew didn't like the fact that it was known as DJ Shadow's supporting cast; it didn't want to be known as the label that was in direct opposition to mainstream rap; and, perhaps most important, despite the media attention, no one was making any money. There had been offers from major labels, but Chang insisted that Solesides stay independent -- a tough and questionable decision.
"The way it was run, Solesides couldn't have sustained itself," Davis comments. "It would've crashed and burned."
After being told of the dissolution, Chang slipped out the back door in a daze and wandered into the gathering snow.
"It was difficult," he remembers of the meeting. "I'd devoted so much of my life to Solesides, and it was fucking hard. I probably went outside and cried that night."
"From our perspective, Jeff was the founding father," Shimura recalls with equal parts warmth and sadness. "We used to call him Papa Zen. He was older than us and he had the wisdom. And none of us felt it was right to go on without him. He was such an integral factor in why we came together, and it didn't feel right to continue on with the same name."
Nevertheless, they did continue on. After a brief period in which the artists took stock and contemplated the future, Quannum Projects was born in the spring of 1997. Chang would go on to a lucrative career in hip hop journalism, while Shimura, Mosley, Parker, Daumont, and Davis relocated the center of operations to the Bay Area. They began putting together a strategy for the future that included both a tighter and more effective infrastructure and a plan to be less insular and reach beyond their core artists. It would take two years before Quannum would release its first album. New faces and fresh thinking would be introduced, but the essential values would remain the same: dedication, perseverance, and an adherence to a vision of hip hop that valued craft and ingenuity over empty theatrics and hype.
In September '99, Isaac Bess walked into the Quannum Projects office in downtown Oakland, where the crew had relocated following its transformation. Following a series of interviews, Bess had moved to the Bay Area from New York to become Quannum's general manager. A former employee of Matador Records during that label's halcyon days of the '90s, Bess knew what it took to make an independent label successful. But as he looked around the nearly vacant office, and waited for over 45 minutes for his new bosses to show up, it was clear that Quannum would have to be rebuilt from the ground up.
If the first half of the Quannum/Solesides story concerns a group of college kids finding their artistic voices, then the second half chronicles an increasingly savvy group of entrepreneurs learning to navigate an increasingly complex hip hop world.
"We realized that over the past eight years we had created a brand, a platform," Shimura says. "We had people's ears worldwide. And I started to look around, and I started to see other independent labels. The game was changing. The world was changing."
By the time Bess took the reins, the primary decision-makers in Quannum were so often out on the road or in the studio that the day-to-day execution of their vision largely fell on the new GM's shoulders. And Bess' first project was a daunting one: overseeing the release of Blackalicious' long-delayed full-length debut, Nia.
Though the label still lacked basic organization, Bess did have several factors working to his advantage. For one, 1999 was the height of what he calls "independent hip hop mania." Thanks in no small part to the success of groundbreaking crews like Quannum, there was a larger audience for non-major-label artists than ever before. Commercial hip hop was still floundering in a sea of bling, so for die-hard hip hop fans the heart and soul of the genre was to be found underground. The media were anxious to spotlight this burgeoning scene, and it looked as though Quannum and its independent brethren would continue to grow and bring in new converts.
And it didn't hurt that Blackalicious had delivered a remarkable album. Nia drew from 20 years of hip hop history without feeling confined by the genre's parameters. It emphasized dense lyrics and intricate productions. Amidst a flurry of Xcel's soul-tinged samples and rocket-fueled breaks, Gift of Gab offered up evocative storytelling ("Deception" and "Cliff Hanger"), trenchant meditations on the state of the art ("Shallow Days"), and dizzying wordplay ("A to G").
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