Independents' Day

Hip hop's next generation searches for a new label

Maybe there was a time when technique was the key to hip-hop supremacy, but that's as over as Moe Dee and Moet. Nowadays, you've got to have a concept, a mythology. Think the Wu's ghetto chopsocky without the subtitles. Think Biggie and Puff's high-rolling pimp bourgeoisie boogie. Or, for you older heads, think way back to Public Enemy's black-power moves.

Now, having jumped ship from Seagram-owned Def Jam (or been forced to walk the plank, depending on whom you believe), Public Enemy are left to surf the Web for a new myth, and damn if Chuck D hasn't found one: "independent hip hop." True, he seizes this convenient mantle under the patronage of Al Teller, onetime CEO of MCA, current president of CBS Records, and founder of the Net-based label of the future, Atomic Pop. After signing Ice-T last month, Teller released PE's seventh studio album, There's a Poison Goin' On, first on MP3 over the Web, then a week later on disc. With a demagogue's instinctive affinity for a new mouthpiece, Chuck now insists that the revolution will be digitally encoded. In this previously marginal medium, Poison takes on the music industry, preaching liberation theology to the jiggy flock currently enslaved by megacorporations.

Of course, long before Chuck vied with Al Gore for the title of Creator of the Internet, in that golden age known wistfully as "back in the day," rap circulated on a number of small independent labels. But then independence was a necessity, not a choice. Lacking the trust-funded privilege that allowed college rockers the freedom to eschew monopoly capital, most small-time hip-hop entrepreneurs kept their eyes on the major-label prize. The goal of a Russell Simmons or a Master P was always to attract corporate distribution dollars. This, as you may be aware, is known as "getting paid," and within the parameters of such a worldview, committing yourself to underground status would be like aspiring to become a Triple A shortstop.

Quannum leap: West Coast hip hoppers (left to right) Lyrics Born, Gift of Gab (Blackalicious), DJ Shadow, Lateef the Truth Speaker, and Chief Xcel
Quannum leap: West Coast hip hoppers (left to right) Lyrics Born, Gift of Gab (Blackalicious), DJ Shadow, Lateef the Truth Speaker, and Chief Xcel

But after two decades of buying into this system, a number of MCs and DJs have decided to opt out. Hip hop has begun to cobble together the sort of unpretentious back-scratching network that indie rockers now wax nostalgic over. It's a phenomenon that transcends the genre's deep-rooted geographical bias: Rather than wrangling over turf, groups like Minneapolis's own Rhyme Sayers Collective have established connections with similar subterranean hip-hop cooperatives in other cities (see Music Notes, right). Type "independent" and "rap" into the search engine of your choice and get ready to wade through the results, each site insisting it's the locus of a movement, not just another fan page. Or catch tonight's XXL showcase at First Avenue, headlined by Chicago major leaguer Common with eight homegrown indie acts opening. This who's who event for the local underground was organized in part by Jon Jon Scott, one of a half-dozen local boosters launching his or her own transregional label this year.

Indie hip hop is suddenly not so underground anymore, and two recent high-profile label compilations, Soundbombing II from New York's Rawkus and Quannum Spectrum from California's Quannum, may prove to be time capsules of the emergent ethos. Still, like Public Enemy, both imprints remind us that independence is a relative state of being. You can emancipate yourself from mental slavery, but you've still got to keep on good terms with whoever signs the royalty checks. Rawkus is the Gavin industry report's "Independent Rap Label of the Year" and unquestionably the prestige indie conglomerate of the moment; it's also owned by a white triumvirate whose most noteworthy member is 26-year-old James Murdoch, less familiar to the public than his dad Rupert (the owner of a little independent business called the News Corp.). After reporting $2.5 million in earnings last year, James has let Rawkus be assimilated into News America, a division of Murdoch-the-elder's company, and its Web site has recently been redesigned to link to the boutique-oriented site Platform.Net. Angered faithful are already posting querulous chat-room messages insisting that Rawkus may be "not so underground as hell anymore."

Deep pockets aside, what sets Rawkus apart from its rivals is that it creates an imagined community to which outsiders (consumers, artists) crave access. It ain't a party, after all, unless someone is not invited. Dip into the multi-rapper party of Soundbombing II and you'll encounter a world as exclusive as Bad Boy's Kristal-soaked palaces, but where the entrance fee isn't a roll of Benjamins but a highly refined musical street sense. The album is hip hop's sonic equivalent to, say, the baptismal Lollapalooza, an "alternative" reorientation session where Mos Def is a household name and Common a big-deal celebrity (both drop by as guests), while Sean Combs is just some kid from Uptown who's barely worth a mention. Perhaps the threat of being tagged a hater is too pervasive for inter-crew slags, or hip hop has finally learned that a dis is just a free advertisement for your adversary. In any case, after lead ringer Eminem threatens to "spray Puffy with Mase," the remainder of the disc ignores the sort of high-profile playas Chuck rails against interminably on Poison.

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