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Confident in his product, Bess dedicated himself to making sure that Nia received the proper push. At the time, Quannum did not have a publicist, so all media, street, and radio campaigns fell to him. There were 20-hour days and an endless procession of working weekends. (Bess says the secret to succeeding in the Bay Area hip hop scene is to work weekends.) There were thousands of conversations with hundreds of radio DJs, dozens of magazine editors and writers, and a Fellini-esque carnival of other contacts. If you imagine the life of a hip hop executive is filled with champagne and cute little butlers, you're wrong.
But the hard work paid off. Nia sold more than 250,000 copies, an incredible figure for an indie release. The album's success resulted in an intense bidding war over Blackalicious from major labels. And while Mosley and Parker remained ideologically loyal to Quannum and its values, they decided to record their next album for MCA. Just as the hoopla surrounding Shadow's Entroducing effectively introduced the Solesides crew to the rest of the world, Blackalicious knew that increased exposure via a major would benefit both the group and the label.
"When Blackalicious got to the point in 2001 when they were signed to MCA and we knew that their next record would be extremely successful," Bess says, "I realized that what the album really warranted was beyond what I could do in one small office."
2002 saw the release of both Blackalicious' Blazing Arrow and Shadow's The Private Press (on Universal). Full of sonic juxtapositions and genre-defying technical wizardry, The Private Press was heralded as the return of the master, and Blazing Arrow was considered Gift of Gab's and Chief Xcel's finest moment to date.
As Davis and Blackalicious continued to draw attention to their roots, Bess used the momentum as best he could. Since the inception of Quannum in 1997, one of the main goals had been to branch out and bring new artists into the fold. "Solesides was very insular," Davis explains. "We didn't recruit other artists or groups. But with Quannum, the first thing we did was reach out to the artists that we respected."
The first such group was Shimura's baby, German funk-fusion band Poets of Rhythm. Next, Mosley brought in Portland's Lifesavas. That group's resulting album, 2003's Spirit in Stone, was both sonically infectious and heart-rendingly honest.
By late 2003, Quannum was becoming a finely tuned machine. The label had put out a string of releases, relocated to San Francisco's SOMA district, and had even taken on a new employee, Lydia Popozich. "What Isaac had done extremely well is put in place a solid infrastructure," Mosley says. "He saw what Quannum could be, and he brought a level of expertise and experience that allowed for Quannum to be successful."
But while the machine may have been ready, the market was quickly drying up. Niawas perhaps the last great release to come out of independent hip hop's golden years. Thanks to a perfect storm of P2P downloading networks, a rejuvenated mainstream hip hop scene, and a sudden glut of indie wannabes, the market for indie hip hop virtually collapsed. And so as they geared up to release Shimura's debut, Later That Day, in October 2003, Bess and crew got crafty, setting their sights on a new market, one virtually untapped by hip hop artists.
Realizing that Later's lead single, the bombastic, vibrant "Calling Out," had crossover appeal, Bess, Shimura, and Popozich decided to market it to rock stations, namely the Bay Area's own Live 105. "Because the music we make is so varied, it has the potential to exist in any genre," Shimura observes. "It's just a matter of putting the right pieces in the right place."
Bess contacted Live 105 Music Director Aaron Axelsen in December 2003. Although he was initially supportive of the track, Axelsen had a difficult time picturing the song within Live 105's regular altrock format. So he gave it to DJs Disco Shawn and Party Ben of the Saturday night electronica show Subsonic, where it received the occasional spin.
In the meantime, Bess and Popozich put on a full-court press, fliering the city with posters asking listeners to request the song. Soon the calls starting coming in, so Axelsen dropped the song into the station's regular rotation.
"There's a large part of the Live 105 audience that likes hip hop music, though they don't go for the Jay-Z and the bling-bling artists," Axelsen says. "But there is a segment of hip hop -- like the Roots -- that appeals to our audience. And quite frankly, Lyrics Born had delivered a great song. It was the sort of song that transcended boundaries and really captured the moment."
Axelsen prominently featured "Calling Out" on Live 105's Homegrown Weekend, an annual event in early spring that dedicates a full weekend to promoting local music. Around this time, an unlikely break came when Coke used the tune in a commercial during American Idol. The single quickly caught fire, and went on to be the No. 1 request on Live 105 for three months, an amazing feat for a hip hop song on a rock station.
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