The Fifth Element

As mainstream hip hop stalemates in commodities, underground MCs keep old-school aesthetics alive through art

Critics and artists alike, from Greg Tate to Nas, have bemoaned the "death" of hip hop as a casualty of mainstream commercialism and willful neglect for the principles the culture was founded on. That may be true in New York, but in the Bay Area, hip hop is not only alive, it's overflowing with creativity on an underground level. Out of necessity, the Bay scene has been built on independence, not just in the sense of the numerous indie labels whose philosophy often runs counter to overall industry trends, but also with regards to the mentality of the artists themselves, who tend to value creative expression over just making catchy, commercially oriented music. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our local contingent of artist-MCs, who work in both visual and musical arenas.

Radioactive, Marlon Sagana Ingram, Ryan Greene, and Bukue One are all in their 30s, old enough to identify with hip hop as a culture (not just a commodity), yet still young enough to express themselves within that culture. These folks see little, if any, difference between music and art, and don't limit themselves to a single outlet. They've eschewed the nationally recognized hyphy craze Bay Area hip hop is best known for these days, preferring instead to illustrate their own artistic principles in their work.

What's interesting, though, is that by doing so, these underground cats are remaining true to the culture's original ideals. MCing is only one aspect of a true hip-hop enthusiast: Other mediums, from musicology (DJing) to movement arts (breakdancing) to visual art (graffiti) to human percussion (beatboxing) — collectively known as the "five elements" — are given equal weight if you look at the genre's long history. It's no coincidence that hip hop was most vibrant during the era when MCs, b-boys, graff heads, and DJs all had equal footing, and in a sense, the Bay's artist-MCs are a throwback to the days when hip hop existed purely as a subculture, when there was no coercive agenda to conform to the tastes of mainstream audiences.


Marlon Sagana Ingram.
Marlon Sagana Ingram.
Ryan Greene.
Ryan Greene.

"She's alive! She's alive!" Radioactive repeats from the stage of Club Six on a recent Friday in February. His spontaneous exclamations come at random intervals as his solo performance gradually blooms into a full band, including a shirtless djembe player and a dreadlocked saxophonist. Some might mistake Radio's utterances for the ravings of a madman who's sipped one too many rum & cokes. But Radio is no mere intoxicated lunatic; his statement refers to hip-hop culture's continued existence, and his unconventional approach is both performance art and an artful performance.

The rapper, human percussionist, and Spearhead member is here celebrating his latest mixtape, Sleep or Sell, which offers a deeply personal look at the vocalist. Radio's brief appearances on Spearhead albums contributing hooks and choruses weren't complete displays of his character or opinions. Sleep or Sell shows he's capable of dope flows as well as issuing a unique perspective on hip hop's perimeters.

The CD, assembled with the help of DJ D-Sharp (Quannum/Flipsyde) and released on S.F.-based indie label InHouse Talent, is a pastiche of Radio's original tunes, plus duets with Subverse, Jahi, Victor Essiet, and Dave Shul, and, natch, a couple of tracks featuring Michael Franti and Spearhead (including a new remix of "We Don't Stop" now boasting Gift of Gab). Even with all the star power, it's a heartfelt album more concerned with authenticity than explaining why Radio's hot. He shows off beatboxing skills — deftly emulating a dancehall reggae riddim complete with overmodulated bass line on one track — as well as lyrical finesse. "Wake Up" resonates with Franti-esque social consciousness (minus the granola undertones), as Radio implores listeners to "move to the light/ improve your sight," while on "Hip Hop Xpress," he ponders "thoughts in my mind that my rhyme never wrote."

Some of Radio's unwritten thoughts have manifested optically. The Club Six event doubled as a gallery show exhibiting his other passion: visual art.

While Radio and his musician friends get stewie on stage, the venue's back room displays canvases painted by the artist. Many speak to Radio's background in graffiti: elaborate calligraphy, characters and faces, color-blocked swirls, and rich, bold tones abound. The largest piece, measuring several feet in length, is an impressive work that builds on the wildstyle aesthetic by rendering its imagery in three dimensions: Art materials like pens and paint cans, wrapped in heavy canvas and painted with gold lacquer, extend from the piece, while sinister eyes peek out from almost every angle.

"Every movement on the canvas is rhythmic," declares Radio. Much like his music, his art is defined by a need to escape from a consumer society. "Look at who you would be," he says, "if all these things that are created by man weren't there."

In an era where commercial co-option has become the mainstream hip-hop norm, aesthetic notions often get lost in a hail of bullets and clich├ęd Scarface references. Yet the microphone and the aerosol can were once intrinsically linked: Old-school graffiti masters Futura 2000, Phase 2, and Fab 5 Freddy all put out now-classic 12-inch singles, and Masta Ace (aka Ase), KRS-ONE, and Bigg Juss (aka Lune TNS) started out as taggers.

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