The bass line thunders out of the DNA Lounge's colossal speakers as the sold-out crowd pushes toward the stage. With this many arms and bodies intertwined, it's hard to tell where one person ends and another begins. The beat drops. Cutting through the darkness, stage lights find the performers — MCs Lyrics Born, Lateef, and Gift of Gab — as they shuffle onto the stage, dressed immaculately in pressed button-down shirts. As the bodies surge, Lyrics Born cracks a quick grin before breaking into his gruff, singsong flow that rides over a deceptively laconic sample. Marveling at the crowd's enthusiasm, Lateef provides Lyrics Born with a smooth, supporting vocal counterpoint. From the amount of fun everyone's having, it's hard to imagine that these three are CEOs of the most successful independent hip hop label in the Bay Area, Quannum Projects. But they are that, and much more.
For the next 2 1/2 hours, the Quannum MCs, with the help of their DJ, Chief Xcel, deliver a euphoric set that spans from their early days when they were part of a crew known as Solesides — and when many in this crowd were barely teenagers — through their most recent output, most notably Lyrics Born's celebratory anthem “Calling Out,” the only hip hop song to stay atop local alternative rock station Live 105's request charts for 15 weeks. Judging from the fervor of both the fans and the performers, it's evident that this is more than just a homecoming for this crew, which was on tour most of last year. This is an assertion of dominance, a presence not felt since the glory days of Hieroglyphics in the mid-'90s. Later, Lateef declares that this is “probably the best show [he's] ever done.”
It sounds like hyperbole, but it's not. Over the past 13 years, Quannum Projects and its stable of musicians/owners have had arguably the greatest success of any independent hip hop label in balancing artistic viability with commercial appeal. Quannum co-founder DJ Shadow's 1996 album Entroducing is the top-selling instrumental hip hop album in the genre's history, while many consider Blazing Arrow, the second full-length album from Blackalicious, a duo composed of MC Gift of Gab and producer Chief Xcel, to be the epitome of politically conscious, socially responsible hip hop. Lyrics Born's 2003 release, Later That Day, was renowned as one of the strongest debuts from an MC this decade and broke into the Top 40 on the Billboard Independent Albums chart. But what is most exciting — and what makes Lateef's assertion seem genuine — is that the label is really just beginning to gain momentum.
Riding the success of Later That Day, the core Quannum artists — DJ Shadow, Blackalicious, Lateef, and Lyrics Born — are all set to put out albums in 2005, and the label has a slew of new artists who are planning releases as well. After years of hard work, perseverance, and dedication, the musicians who make up the Quannum crew are among the most revered and relevant in hip hop, and the story of their steadfastly independent label has inspired such other imprints as Def Jux, Anticon, and the Rhymesayers, among others. That story, which begins with a small group of racially mixed kids in a small college town, is testament to the power of self-determination, and an exemplification of the time-honored hip hop adage “It's not where you're from, it's where you're at.”
The seeds of the Quannum family tree were planted in the sleepy town of Davis (population 50,000). In Davis during the early '90s, the right place for a hip hop fan to be was to the left of the dial, specifically Jeff Chang's KDVS radio show. Born and raised in Honolulu, Chang had a brief stint in the state Assembly as a lobbyist for California State University students after graduating from UC Berkeley in 1989. But as Chang veered further into the political realm, his love for hip hop, and his understanding of the sociocultural implications of the genre, only grew. Pursuing this passion, he hosted a hip hop show every Thursday night from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. under the alias DJ Zen.
One of the segments on Chang's show was a contest called “Name That Sample.” After freshman student Tom Shimura (who would go on to become Lyrics Born) won it four weeks straight in the fall of 1990, Chang asked him to come down to the station.
That night, Shimura brought his friend Xavier Mosley (later to become Chief Xcel) to the station; future turntablism savior Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, happened to be there as well. Mosley still remembers the first time he walked into the cramped radio station, past the front office, and into the inner sanctum where seemingly endless rows of alphabetized vinyl surrounded the recording studios and listening booths where DJs and students could sample the station's vast library.
On any given evening, future hip hop journalist Joseph Patel (aka Jazzbo), Davis' sidekick 8th Wonder, and a motley collection of local hip hop enthusiasts would be slinking in the shadows. Shimura describes the scene as “incredible … much better than any radio station that I've been to.”
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.” [page]
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.
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. [page]
“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”).
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. [page]
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. Nia was 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.
Says Bess, “Live 105 is probably our greatest promotional success.”
Two hours before show time at February's DNA Lounge event, Parker, Mosley, Daumont, and Bess are resting backstage. Parker is in a near-trance, nodding his head to the music of the opening DJ while he eyes the ceremonial pre-show joint. Daumont is trying to get some sleep and is curled up in a ball behind Mosley, his head tucked beneath a jacket. Watching the Quannum brain trust lounging around in this somnolent state, you'd never guess that these guys are on the brink of their biggest year yet.
Trying to further cross over into a rock audience, DJ Shadow recently remixed Top 40 rockers Keane. He's also set to release an as-yet-untitled full-length on Universal within the next year. Shimura is gearing up to put out a new album, Same !@#$ Different Day, in April, which Axelsen has already enthusiastically referred to as “so freaking good.” Meanwhile, Blackalicious' The Craft is set to drop this fall, and Daumont and Mosley, operating as Maroons, have plans to put out a full-length follow-up to last year's critically acclaimed EP, Ambush. In addition, Shimura's wife, Joyo Velarde, who provided Later That Day with so many great hooks (including the one for “Calling Out”), is readying her Quannum debut for late 2005. The Lifesavas are also planning a follow-up, though a release date has not been set. As for spiritual godfather Jeff Chang, his recently published book, Can't Stop Won't Stop, has been hailed by The New Yorker as “one of the most urgent and passionate histories of popular music ever written.” Chang remains close to the group, and the Quannum artists even recorded a mix tape to accompany the release of his book.
If there's one thing that hasn't changed since the days of UC Davis, it's the group's unwillingness to compromise its vision of what hip hop should be. This rare integrity has served as a beacon to other kindred spirits. “I remember being impressed with their courage to step outside what most indie rap was doing,” remarks Peanut Butter Wolf, founder of acclaimed indie hip hop label Stones Throw. “It may have subconsciously had an effect on my willingness to do what I wanna do, rather than what people expect me to do, with my label.” [page]
Given Quannum's success, as well as its ever-growing potential, major labels have made numerous attempts throughout the years to bring it into the fold as an imprint. But, understanding the value of artistic and economic control, Quannum has repeatedly declined their offers. “When you combine Solesides and Quannum, it's one of the longest-running hip hop labels ever,” Davis says. “And it's important that we never bowed down to major labels.”
“There's a lot of folks that went out for the money or the fame or the power and glory,” says Chang. “But for us, we began as a bunch of friends who went out to change the world. And in many ways, we succeeded. We did change the world in a small way, and we've remained great friends. So it's a happy ending.”
In his 10 years on the scene, Bay Area rapper Balance has worked with virtually every major player in town. He recently completed a collaboration with hip hop's violent demigods G-Unit, and is currently fielding offers from major labels. Coming up in the game, he always wondered why the veterans never passed down advice. So, in an effort to provide the next generation with what he never had, he's revealed his top five keys to success for a Bay Area hip hop artist. — S.C.
No. 1: Study. “Whenever you're interested in something, you need to study the history of it. We're in the third decade of rap music, and a lot of young artists only study the artists out now, but now ain't the best time for rap. 50 Cent ain't good enough.”
No. 2: Write and practice on the daily. “The more that you're in front of the mike, the better you'll sound. Even if you're not the most talented, you'll sound a lot better after you practice. It took me 10 years to get where I am right now, and that's a lot of hard work.”
No. 3: Read All You Need to Know About the Music Business by Donald Passman. “It tells you everything about the business, from how to deal with managers to the legalities of copyrights, publishing, royalties, and how to make your business legit. If you want to be a hip hop artist, you have to know about the business.”
No. 4: Be self-sufficient. “Get a job and buy your own equipment. You don't want to be dependent on someone else. Own your own music, and don't let anyone else determine your future.”
No. 5: Be prepared to give away your music. “If you have no fan base, how is anyone going to hear your music? If you walk up and down Berkeley and give away your music, you're going to get people listening. Master P used to give his CDs to the people in the neighborhood with the biggest car stereo systems. You have to be prepared to do a lot of stuff for free early in your career.”