Walking down the station's escalator, I noticed a stocky, light-skinned black male wearing a Red Sox ball cap and talking into the headset of a cell phone. I tried to match this face to the one nondescript press photo that I'd seen of Balance, but the guy standing 10 feet in front of me looked a little too young and not quite gangsta enough to match my preconceptions. Finally, after an uncomfortable five minutes of us tentatively checking each other out, Balance broke the ice, asking, "Yo, are you Sam, the reporter from SF Weekly?"
This exchange may seem like a mundane detail in the life of a (ridiculously unorganized) music journalist, but it's also a perfect metaphor for the relationship over the past 10 years between Bay Area hip hop artists and the rest of the hip hop nation. The latter has approached the former tentatively, expecting someone who looks a little harder, maybe a little bit more like Tupac or E-40. And when the package doesn't quite match the expectations, both have just stood there in some strange limbo, nervously eyeing each other.
This is about to change. After spending the first half of the decade in a vegetative state, local hip hop is being resurrected; they call it the "New Bay." In a rush of post-freestyle adrenaline, Balance coined the term nearly two years ago on the popular radio program Sway and Tech's Wakeup Show on KMEL. Since then, he's watched it become a lightning rod for controversy (the "old bay" did not initially react well), a lame critical crutch ("New Bay" designates nothing besides the obvious: that you're a new artist from the Bay Area), and a marketing gold mine (last year, Federation released the popular New Bay anthem "Hyphy").
As the term has grown in popularity, so has its originator. By most accounts, Balance is not only one of the most talented members of this New Bay bunch (which includes, among others, Frontline, Federation, Turf Talk, and the Team), he's also next in line for national exposure. He was named one of seven "Artists to Watch" in hip hop bible XXL and has been courted by a steady procession of major labels; when I spoke with him two weeks ago, he had recently turned down a deal from Scarface's Rap-A-Lot Records.
The success of Balance and his peers has given the New Bay an air of legitimacy. Their ascent is symbolic of a changing of the guard, an indicator that the local hip hop scene may finally be able to wash away the stink of commercial failure that has plagued it for the last decade and move into a more profitable future. Perhaps most important, Balance and the New Bay are providing hip hop musicians and fans with something they haven't felt in years: hope.
An Oakland native, Balance first tested out his rhyme skills as a student at Claremont Junior High. At that time in the early '90s, the freestyle battle circuit was still in its infancy, and most battles were waged on street corners or in the parking lot after a big show. "I didn't really get in competitions. I didn't have the glory of 8 Mile or nothin'," Balance says, referring to that movie's depiction of large freestyle contests. "It was a little more street than that."
Around this time, Balance also witnessed Bay Area hip hop boom. Artists like Da Luniz, Digital Underground, and Tupac Shakur were in constant rotation on commercial radio and MTV, and it looked as if the scene would remain vital for years to come. "In '94, seeing the Luniz and Tupac get on the radio and get gold records, I thought to myself, 'This could actually happen to me,'" Balance remembers.
But then the bottom fell out of Bay Area hip hop. Although most feel that Tupac's untimely murder in September 1996 acted as an impetus, it's difficult to pinpoint a single reason for the collapse. As we talk, Balance and I theorize that once any scene reaches levels of popularity comparable to the bay's at that time, ideas and inspiration will come from the top down, with everyone imitating the bigger names. Eventually the scene will slip into self-parody and creative complacency. National media and record labels come to expect a certain sound, and once that sound grows old a stigma will hang over that region (ask Seattle how it feels about grunge these days). Whatever the reason may be, the fact remains that no new major-label hip hop artist has risen from the Bay Area in years.
"It's a bummer," Balance says. "I feel like if [the Bay Area was] still in the game, I would've had a spot already. But at the same time, I feel that the best music comes in a drought. And the Bay Area has been in a drought for about 10 years now, and as a result the music being made now has a strength to it. Whether it's Zion I or Federation or Casual, there are obvious benefits in not being successful. It gives you a sense of urgency."
For Balance, that sense of urgency came after five years of hard work. Throughout the '90s, he continued to battle and appeared on the records of local underground groups like Chaotic Order and Tango and Cash. But while the effort and talent were there, Balance wasn't seeing any dividends. So he started to get a little more creative with his hustle. Understanding that the hip hop world doesn't end at San Jose, he took a serious look at the New York City mix-tape scene shaping up around the turn of the millennium, which would soon begin churning out nationally recognized artists such as 50 Cent and Saigon.
A mix-tape market is the epitome of DIY inventiveness. It comprises an assortment of DJs, MCs, and street corner vendors, and it serves as the lifeblood for new hip hop by bypassing the traditional record-label bureaucracy and delivering music directly from the artists to the streets. Mix tapes are made up of hot-off-the-presses singles, unreleased tracks from major-label artists, and freestyle raps from up-and-coming MCs, usually over instrumentals of current hits. In addition to DJs assembling mix-tape compilations, MCs do so as well, creating tapes that feature their lyrical skills exclusively. The tapes are sold on street corners and outside hip hop shows -- though Amoeba Music also has a nice selection.
A mix-tape scene, technically speaking, is an illegal market. There are no sample clearances, no contracts with the artists, and songs are used without permission from record labels. The labels permit this activity because it provides a buffer between the boardroom and the street. Label execs not only have a test market for "leaked" singles, but also have the proven A&R skills of mix-tape DJs. "They know the value of what we do, even if they can't officially acknowledge it," comments Devro, one-half of one of the Bay Area's most successful mix-tape crews, the Demolition Men.
With his terse, East Coast-style flow, Balance was a prime candidate for adapting this NYC phenomenon for the bay. "I'm a pioneer in the mix-tape game in the Bay Area," he claims. "Before me, nobody was doing it. Nobody knew how to do it, and nobody cared about it."
The MC's first appearances came in 1999 on the mix tapes of local DJs T-Ski (aka Mad Idiot) and Vlad. The Vlad connection would prove invaluable for Balance. Around 2001, Vlad moved to NYC, where he quickly proved himself as one of that city's most motivated and talented mix-tape DJs. The loyal Vlad would continue putting Balance on his tapes, and soon his adopted city took notice of the young Bay Area talent.
Balance next began releasing his own mix tapes, first Come With Me in 2002, then Balance: The Mixtape in 2003. His extensive mix-tape experience -- he claims that he's appeared on more than 400 of them -- served to both raise his profile and allow him to grow as an artist. His most recent offering, The Bay Area Mixtape King, features an added lyrical heft. While earlier mix tapes contained sharp punch lines and Balance's forceful and effective voice, the songs were conceptually slim (most of them were braggadocio tracks) and structurally loose and unpolished.
The Bay Area Mixtape King not only continues to refine Balance's tough, street-ambassador persona, but also features more insightful and introspective material. The album includes a reflection on the Bay Area's rise and fall, "The Day Kali Died," that is perhaps the most poignant recorded commentary on the subject. And the confessional "Responsibility" flips the Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" for the new millennium: "Minimum wage/ Got a minimum gauge/ That shoots me every time I get paid/ Hold a grenade/ Cuz war is among us/ Even middle-class kids is hustlers," Balance raps. But more than just sharper lyrics about a wider variety of topics, The Bay Area Mixtape King displays a more coherent overall package and sharpened songwriting skills. If Balance's first two albums couldn't quite shake their basement pedigree, this one sounds sophisticated.
Homemade mix tapes have also allowed Balance to define who he is as an artist. It's a poorly kept secret that how a major-label MC is presented to the public -- everything from what he wears to how he acts in interviews -- is determined in a boardroom. But Balance feels that if he sells enough tapes independently, and continues making his name on the underground circuit, the majors will have no choice but to accept him as is. "When you're on a major label," he says, "they water you down and make you concerned with things that you don't need to be concerned about. I don't want to worry about making a radio single. I don't want to worry about the love songs. I want to be able to make my music, my album."
And while he does see signing to a major label as the next step, Balance is taking it slow. "To me, there's no rush," he says. "One thing that I've noticed is that whenever you do something that's independent, once it gets to the point where there's enough money, people pay attention to you. It's only a matter of time for me."