Veteran contributors Digital Underground -- the Berkeley rap group that rushed the national scene in 1990 with a series of burlesque, funk-laden sides ("The Humpty Dance," "Freaks of the Industry," "All Around the World") -- were left for dead by Tommy Boy after their 1993 record Body Hat Syndrome. Or recall the Souls of Mischief, the talented Oakland quartet affiliated with the Hieroglyphics crew. Their first EP, '93 'Til Infinity, and the 1995 album No Man's Land quickly won them national respect and a loyal international following. But this couldn't stop Jive/Zomba Records from splitting with the group over a year ago. So goes the story.
But there's a lesson here. In the past few years, the Bay Area's scene has not only prospered, it's flourished. The rappers and the producers have kept their creative license and control of publishing and distribution; the majors have gotten the finger. The underground successes of East Oakland's Living Legends or Hunters Point's 11/5 suggest that local hip hop is stronger, more powerful, filled with greater amounts of integrity, when the practicing group is not dependent on major-label sponsorship.
To understand Bay Area hip hop, you have to understand the conceptual split between two competing factions. (Other scenes have a similar split, of course, but few are so dramatic.) On the one hand stand rappers, producers, and distributors who perpetuate the old-school but still-potent gangster mystique. On the other hand, a group of so-called progressive DJs and MCs ignores perfunctory street-life tales in a struggle to transcend the details of day-to-day living through rare sounds and challenging, esoteric beats.
With rare exceptions, critics prefer the latter. Their argument: By never deviating from three themes -- guns, hos, and shout-outs to dead homies -- gangster rap lost the immediacy that once made it relevant, valid; in its wake, progressive hip hop elevates rap as a music and a culture. Unfortunately, listeners have their own agenda, eschewing arbitrary distinctions in favor of quality, variety, and in some cases quantity. The artists also reject the critics: Both the gangstas and the progressives are too busy hustling for survival.
Two independently produced compilations released late last year provide a nice snapshot of the local scene as 1998 breaks. Oakland-based label Dogday's Million Dollar Dream features hard artists and tough groups, derivative -- but always savvy -- production, and masterfully explicit rhymes. The second album, Beats & Lyrics, from Industry Records, compiles progressive artists, atypical arrangements, and dexterous lyrical delivery. Together, these compilations capture the Bay Area's major minor (unsigned) players. But Beats & Lyrics and Million Dollar Dream are also fuck-yous to the fickle major labels. Hip hop is where the underground is, they say, not on commercial radio, not on the Billboard 200, or MTV, or even BET.
With a reproachful eye on the mainstream and an indifference to musical and lyrical niceties, Million Dollar Dream producers Nick Peace and Black Diamond unapologetically harvest beats and rhymes. The resulting bounty is 36 tracks of old-school gangsta beats that revel in the same musical aesthetics that made Oakland's Too $hort a rap legend, Tupac Shakur a household name, and E-40's Vallejo-based Sik Wid It label a cottage industry.
Like Shakur in the early days, and Too $hort and E-40, who both stayed independent as record sales gushed, the self-proclaimed pimps, playas, hustlers, and big ballers featured on Million Dollar Dream are making their mark surreptitiously, going for what plays on the streets -- not the radio. Million Dollar Dream contributes to the Bay Area's rich tradition of
trunk funk, that deliberately obnoxious expression of heavy rhythms, melody, and urban slang. For an audience that considers hip hop to be a form of musical expression as much as a way of negotiating a harsh urban landscape, gangsta rap is a symphony of percussion, words, and melody. Yes, it's vulgar, hyperviolent, confrontational, and abrasive, but base condemnation ignores the music's status as one of the few forms of remunerative creative expression available to a disenfranchised, mostly black, mostly urban population without many options for social betterment.
If there is a new, booming economy in the Bay Area, no one bothered to tell these players. Here, rap music is a new blues -- familiar, candid, affecting -- for a generation raised on the hustle. Producers Peace and Diamond know the rules of this game. Local heads will blast J-Mack's "Fuck Makin' Deals," Mac Shawn's "Boss Playa," or 11/5's "187-304" from their rides, because these are unpretentious, honest songs; because the beats pump and bump rather than herk and jerk with difficult rhythm and obscure samples.
Take, for instance, "Boss Playa." Here, Shawn's Southern-flavored delivery struts around a lazy funk arrangement -- heavy on keyboard distortion and 808 bass -- like a blaxploitation hero oozing self-confidence and spitting viper venom. The second verse, a gruff, posthumous broadside lobbed at Notorious B.I.G., is scathing, but not sorry or angry: "When you in this muthafuckin' rap game/ You better treat it like the muthafuckin' dope game." The subject matter -- a fallen rapper -- is less than original, but Shawn's take is fresh because he makes Biggie's death a parable: The dope game and the rap game are a serious hustle; stakes is high.
The record occasionally swerves away from repetitive beats and drugs: On "Rowdy Riders" Saafir, King Saan, and Andre Nickatina (formerly Dre Dog) rap over spaghetti-western licks; Rasta's "Ghetto Life" plays like a dancehall ditty; and Shock G and Humpty Hump turn "Jacuzzi" into a murky sexcapade. But too much of Million Dollar Dream is monotonous -- the beats, the melodies, the lyrical situations as a whole. Driven by the need to show and prove, or to speak in volumes, Diamond and Peace allow the excesses of the genre to influence the effectiveness of the compilation -- at 36 tracks it's way too long. Then again, on one level too much is what gangsta rap is all about. On Million not even the biggest names try to elevate rap music from one creative space to another. Digital Underground's Shock G, Hobo Junction's Saafir, Whoridas' Nickatina, Dru Down, and 11/5 came to play, not to change the sound of hip hop.
What Beats & Lyrics lacks in size (it has 12 tracks, less than half of Million Dollar Dream), it makes up in ambition. Supervised by Kool DJ EQ, another rising star in West Coast production circles, Beats wants to be the compilation of record for the West Coast progressive. Featuring a cross-section of talent from the left coast (Aceyalone, Abstract Rude, Xzibit, and Pharcyde from Southern California; the Hieroglyphics and Living Legends crews from the Bay Area), EQ's project attempts to tie together California's two creative centers. It's also a chance for EQ to showcase his own skills as a serious hip-hop arranger and DJ.
Like EQ, the Oakland rap crew Hieroglyphics -- whose members Casual, Del the Funky Homosapien, and Souls of Mischief are featured on four of Beats & Lyrics' 12 tracks -- take their hip hop very seriously. In the early '90s Del and (a few years later) teammates Souls of Mischief and Casual released debut albums and singles that emphasized the creative use of production skills, lyrics, and attitude. Today, without major-label support, their collective sound and vocal styles feel like home to hundreds of hip-hop heads. Since the contracts evaporated the Hieroglyphics have been making their way across the tumultuous landscape of independent hip hop, answering to no one but themselves and their fans. Their presence here, along with a half-dozen other unsigned acts (Pharcyde hold the lone contract of all of the participants on the Beats compilation), is both a nod of approval from the independent label and a reaffirmation that the rap underground is not only listening, but responding to the creative impulses driving it to generate affecting hip hop.
"Three Emcees" is a subtle head-nodder that covers all four bases: beats, loops, cuts, and rhymes. The musical complexity makes it a soundtrack for getting high; as such it lacks both the gravity of traditional Jeep music and the energy of hip-hop dance music. As a series of choppy chords provide a dissonant melody, and a high-hat plays off of a simple snare-kick drum arrangement, EQ's scratches float in over the top, disappearing during the verses of MCs Xzibit, Del, and Casual. Full of metaphor, rhythm, and melody, Del smashes great big SAT words up against urban slang and traditional English, employing singsong cadences that taunt, "My style's better than yours."
On Del's solo track, "Help Me Out" -- possibly EQ's most sonically complex arrangement here -- the MC bounces from one thought to another without warning, remaining elusive until the final verse. Suddenly, he's describing the evolution of an average rap listener, tracing his subject's earliest experiences with hip hop back to Public Enemy's socially conscious rap. Then the listener, explains Del, discovers the double-edged sword of N.W.A., as violent and misogynistic as they are honest. Mom doesn't like the music of course; and Baby Brother, ignorant of the difference between reality and fiction, emulates the hustling drug sellers and gangbangers N.W.A. glorify. Which brings us to the present: "Used to be a momma's boy, now you a grown man, with no plan."
Better yet is the accessible cut by Oakland undergrounders Living Legends/Mystik Journeymen. Frank and deliberate in its execution of beats and rhymes, steadfast in personal integrity and creative resolve, Living Legend's "Nowyouno" feels like a catchall comeuppance for every MC who's tried to clinch a record deal without paying dues. The hypnotic organ loop and James Brown-inspired backbeat give "Nowyouno" an undeniable all-absorbing groove. Then, just when you think you've heard near-perfection, in saunter the track's resident lyricists -- Eligh, Aesop, Grouch, Murs, PSC, and BFAP -- shoulder to shoulder like the gunslingers in The Wild Bunch: "You say that on the album, you better live it/ Or give that shit a rest/ Because I'm tired of you muthafuckas not being put to the test." Here -- steeped in individual creativity -- hip hop is a hustle like any other: Live your rhymes, or shut the fuck up. The sentiment echoes Mac Shawn's words for Notorious B.I.G. on the Million Dollar Dream comp: Play in the hip-hop game, but don't take it lightly. You do that, and you're in literal or the creative equivalent of mortal danger.
Beats & Lyrics and Million Dollar Dream manage uniqueness and distinction in their quest to react and respond to a record industry driven by profit and dedicated to exploiting the genre rather than facilitating its growth. Together the two signal, locally at least, a return to the essence of hip hop as a music and a culture. It doesn't matter what facet of the Bay Area scene the true hip-hop fans ally themselves with; they're all looking for the same thing in the artists they follow and support: true dedication to the rap hustle as a means of expression in an alienating world of pop that's moving at the speed of oblivion.