But here, being underground is just a fact of life. The scene breeds independent businessmen and artists; it's a bug that's passed to younger artists from local veterans, many of whom have had major label deals that went sour. So Rasco's 1997 debut single, "Unassisted," wasn't just bragging by an MC setting out on a solo career; its title was a statement on the only way home-grown artists can step forth in the rap industry. When Rasco was with Various Blends in the early '90s, the group pursued record deals, but the A&R executives weren't exactly knocking down their door. After lackluster national sales for Souls of Mischief's and Saafir's recent large-budgeted records, the witty lyrical delivery that's part of the bay's hip-hop hallmark was deemed commercially unviable.
Various Blends self-released its "Chill as I Flex" single in 1994, featuring the abstract rhyming style then popular on the East Coast. But Rasco, a latecomer to the microphone, had only been rapping for two years at that point, and hadn't found his own poetic voice yet. As he began to do so, it became clear he and the group were heading in separate directions. "It took me awhile to figure out what style I was gonna have, what type of stuff to talk about, stuff like that," he says. "It took me two years before I really found my niche. I tried to fit in with the group instead of being myself. At the time the whole abstract vibe was big, like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, but that wasn't really my style. Then I realized, 'You know what your style was, you should just do it.'"
Luckily, his roommate Peanut Butter Wolf was getting his label Stones Throw off the ground at the same time, and asked Rasco to release a single on it. No one involved expected the splash "Unassisted" would make in the burgeoning national underground scene. In part due to the uncommon vocal presence displayed by Rasco and in part due to Wolf's classic beat, "Unassisted" sold almost 40,000 copies -- unheard of for an unknown artist on a practically unknown label. The track was also exposed to an unusually large audience as it was used frequently in scratch routines by the X-ecutioners and the World Famous Beat Junkies, two of the most widely touring turntablist crews. All of a sudden people wanted to hear more from the so-called "bald-headed, non-dreaded" MC working a full-time job and living in San Mateo.
Wolf wanted to put out a full album based on the single's reception, but Rasco didn't have all the pieces in place yet. "When he asked me to do it, at that point, I didn't have anything written at all. I was working at [music distribution company] TRC, and had to write, so I was like, 'Yo man, this is gonna take some time.' I didn't know anything I wanted to do for it except the title, Time Waits for No Man. That was going back to my group thing, where we were getting older, and I felt it was getting stagnant. If we're gonna make this move, we have to do it now."
Long-players from independent labels were (and largely still are) a rare thing in hip hop. When word got around that Stones Throw was planning one, there was speculation that an underground MC like Rasco was too one-dimensional to hold listeners' interest over multiple cuts. But Time Waits for No Man was released to much critical acclaim: It was voted top independent record of 1998 by hip hop's widely read magazine The Source. Rasco's ability proved not to be in rapid-fire multisyllables, but in the way he completely sank his verses into the rhythm tracks laid down by his producers. Guest appearances by local MC Encore, Fresno's Planet Asia, and L.A.'s Dilated Peoples and Defari provided a nice complement to his blunt, brash style.
After Time Waits for No Man had been out for almost a year, and Rasco and Wolf had finished promoting it, Rasco decided to start his own label, Pockets Linted. Of the many business skills he learned from working with Wolf, he lists timing at the top. He knew he had to follow up his album the next year so as to stay fresh in listeners' minds, but he didn't want to overexpose himself either. The perfect solution was the EP format -- the six-song The Birth was released in September. "I wanted to put something out for this year," he says. "I don't want to be gone from the scene for too long. But I don't want to make appearances every 10 seconds, like be on everyone's record, or have a bunch of records out just because I can put 'em out."
Rasco founded Pockets Linted in order to release his own material, but soon opportunities for putting out music from his underground colleagues began presenting themselves. The Grouch, of the Oakland-based Living Legends crew, has a finished album he needs a home for, and Planet Asia's Fresno group Schoolyard Massive wants to put something out. "I kinda want to run [the label] like Wolf is running his," Rasco says. "I don't really want to sign somebody and have them obligated to me. 'Let's get together, let's work on this project, I'll fund the project, we'll split the money.' That's the way it should be -- I don't want to ask anybody to sign contracts. I want it to be an agreement between the two of us -- we'll both write the contract out. I don't want to be like, 'OK, I own you,' or something like that."
The first full-length slated from the label is the much-anticipated collaboration between Rasco and Planet Asia called Cali Agents. Asia, who at 22 is eight years Rasco's junior, is considered by some to be the West Coast's most gifted new MC -- and he hasn't even released an album yet. Rasco knew Asia from his years at Fresno State, where Asia would come to party occasionally. "I'd see him rhyming around," Rasco remembers. "He'd be at the talent shows and stuff like that, and I'd be like, 'Damn this kid is tight.' And he's always been like that. Ever since I've known him, he's been one of the illest MCs I've heard. We used to hang out and I'd tell him, 'When I come out with a record I'm gonna have you on it.' And he'd say, 'Yeah, whatever,' 'cause I was older than him or whatever. He was like, 'You ain't gonna have me on there.'"
Five years later, Rasco kept his promise, and listeners were introduced to Asia's verbal gymnastics on "Take It Back Home," from Time Waits for No Man. Ten tracks are already done for the Cali Agents LP, all of which were written in the studio right before being committed to tape. "We bounce ideas off each other, but we never have any problems," says Rasco. "We're like basically the same person. He's younger than me, so he's wilder, but at the same time, when we get in the studio and I say, 'This is what we want to do,' he'll say, 'Yeah, that's the same thing I was thinking.'"
Rasco's work as both artist and label owner begs the question often asked in hip-hop circles: What, exactly, makes something underground? Is it just the budget with which a record's produced and promoted, or is there something in the style of music that is inherently unpalatable to the mainstream? In other words, given a million-dollar marketing push, could the Cali Agents sell as well as DMX or Puff Daddy?
"The difference is in the style too, I think," says Rasco. "Do I think we could go platinum? Doing what we're doing now, it would take a miracle. Maybe not a miracle, but it would take people wanting a change. Even when De La Soul went platinum on their first album [1989's Three Feet High and Rising], it was more the beats -- like 'Me, Myself, and I' -- everybody knew that track. It was like, 'We like to dance to this, even though we don't know what they're talkin' about.' Most people these days, they want to dance, they don't want you to tell them all kinds of stuff.
"You know what you're going to get with one of my records," he adds. "For me to switch shit up now, people are going to be like, 'What is that?' Now it's up to me to keep up what I came in doing, while keeping it fresh at the same time. Keeping it old, but keeping it new."