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After that first visit, Shimura, Mosley, and Davis spent the next few months in bitter competition with one another. Burrowed inside KDVS's listening stations, they would closely guard the records they'd used for samples on their homemade demos. If they heard someone walking down the hall, they'd quickly cover their records so as not to give anything away. Knowledge is power, and they weren't about empowering their competitors.
"My first impressions of Tom and Xavier weren't favorable," Davis remembers. "I was pretty territorial at the time, and I didn't like having them around."
Chang, the oldest among them, listened to the demos and was amazed by the raw talent he heard. "Listening to these guys and what they were doing in their bedrooms was mind-blowing," Chang recalls. "It was as good as or better than any of the stuff that I was playing on my show from the major-label artists."
So Chang approached them and laid down the gauntlet: "Y'all come in here every week and [work against] one another. How powerful would it be if we all worked together?"
The crew responded to Chang's challenge, and in the spring of 1992 formed Solesides. At that time, Chang envisioned fusing the spirit of the Bay Area hip hop hustle as personified by Too $hort, who galvanized the indie movement with his street-corner entrepreneurship, with the business mentality of '80s punk, which Chang saw as a sustainable, if not entirely professional, indie model. But while the fledgling label owners' aspirations may have been lofty, the nuts and bolts of running a record label largely eluded them.
"I didn't even know what a mission statement was until our fifth record," Shimura remembers. "We would take notes with Crayola markers. That's the level that we started at."
Chang may have provided the initial inspiration for Solesides, but it was Mosley who came up with the name. The original idea was to do a series of 12-inch records with different artists on each side, hence "sole sides." And there would be no shortage of talent to pick from as the core of the crew quickly expanded. Mosley's old high school buddy T.J. Parker (later to become Gift of Gab) migrated from L.A., and Lateef Daumont came to Davis from Oakland. Shortly afterward, the crew released its first 12-inch, in February 1993: Lyrics Born's "Send Them, Tom" on the A-side with DJ Shadow's "Entropy" on the B-side.
While Solesides was far from an overnight success story, the crew was beginning to get noticed, slowly but surely. This can be attributed as much to the members' hustle as to their talent. In the early days, they traveled throughout California in search of mom-and-pop record stores that would take their albums on consignment. In the spring of 1993, they played the Gavin Convention, which was then the premier showcase for upcoming hip hop stars. There, they were able to distribute their first single to prominent radio DJs like KMEL's Sway and NYC icon Bobbito.
The first member to break out of Northern California was Davis, who had a string of early-'90s singles on the Hollywood Basic label. Having noticed Davis' unique take on instrumental hip hop -- which contrasted the most bruising breaks imaginable with abstract, moody samples -- James Lavelle, founder of the British electronic label MoWax, featured one of the producer's tracks, "Lost and Found," on his very influential '94 compilation Headz. It was around this time that a fundamental shift in the world of hip hop was to take place. If luck is the intersection of preparation and opportunity, then the Solesides crew was about to get very lucky.
In the mid-'90s, as hip hop grew in popularity, major labels were figuring out how to commercially market it. Attention began to shift away from the "artistic" aspect of the genre and more toward its value as entertainment. Instead of trying to carve out a postindustrial African-American identity, hip hop started to concern itself with material accruements. The African medallions of De La Soul and Pete Rock were soon replaced by shiny suits and platinum rims.
Meanwhile, the bitter bicoastal rivalry between Suge Knight's Death Row Records and Sean "Puffy" Comb's Bad Boy label was quickly turning the genre into a bloody spectacle. Commercial hip hop slowly divorced itself from its core audience -- and some would say reality. This left a vacuum, within which labels like Rawkus, Solesides, and Stones Throw began to emerge.
"Corporate labels didn't care about the artistry of it, they only cared about what was hot," Parker recalls. "You had artists who were making really creative records, but they didn't have an outlet. And that's when we sprung up."
In 1996, Davis released his full-length debut, Entroducing, on Lavelle's MoWax label. Almost overnight, DJ Shadow became a household name. His album culled fragments of jazz, hip hop, '60s psych, pop, rock, and everything in between to create a series of desolate musical narratives that were as haunting as they were thrilling. The work was a dark detour through the back roads of modern music, where the lush ambience of Davis' samples was undermined by a gathering storm of blistering breakbeats and chopped vocals. Entroducing would go on to become the standard against which all other instrumental hip hop would be judged; it spawned a legion of contenders and pretenders, seemingly none of whom could measure up. Perhaps more important, it caused media outlets around the world to ask, "Who is this guy, and where did he come from?" Which of course led them back to Solesides. Fortunes were looking up for the crew, but just as the label seemed to be building up steam, it collapsed.
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