Independents' Day

Hip hop's next generation searches for a new label

 

Rawkus first burst into the subcultural consciousness with the crew Company Flow two years ago, when NYC's sound was nothing if not Puffy: Puffy murmuring over Biggie raps and Chic tracks; Puffy as mixed by Hot 97's Funkmaster Flex into Missy cuts and Wu Tang tunes. The hip-hop equivalent of "lo fi," Company Flow's murky sound challenged hip hop's technocratic bias. The beats on their aptly titled Funcrusher Plus staggered, stumbled, and tripped up listeners. The whole exercise was, in fact, within a recognizable New York tradition of the stripped-down, tripped-out minimalism that characterized early Eric B.

Now Soundbombing II insists that this low-key throb is what New York should sound like in 1999. Mixed by J-Rocc and Babu of the Beat Junkies, the disc is littered with high-profile cameos--Marley Marl, Pete Rock, Kid Capri, Prince Paul, and Q Tip, who's even more a patron saint of laid-back flow than Rakim. What's more, it sounds made-for-the-minute. If you take Pharaohe Monche's assassination/manhunt fantasy "Mayor" literally ("Sergeant yellin'/For me to come out like Ellen"), you'll be far jumpier than Rudy, who laughed it off in an interview. But it possesses a topical immediacy that makes hip hop and politics jell.

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

Though guest Mos Def warns against A&R enslavement, Soundbombing II contains no industry critique as pointed as the PE line, "If you don't own the masters/The masters own you," on the unfortunately titled "Swindler's Lust." But perhaps that's for the best. While the inherent stupidity of Chuck's carefully encoded anti-Semitism is, as usual, depressing, his deliberate return to turn-of-the-decade nuttiness is enough to plunge this longtime PE apologist into despondence. Up against the conversational currency of Soundbombing II, Chuck's lyrics sound like they were written in a vacuum, regurgitating the usual "unanswered questions"--not just "Who got Biggie and who shot Tupac?" but, Who are the "racist motherfuckers...shootin' at O.J.?" Somebody get Chuck's cable switched back on, or at least renew his subscription to the New York Post.

If Poison is blowhard and Soundbombing II bellicose, Quannum Spectrum is damn near oblivious to any world beyond its little acre of West Coast underground. The Quannum label first emerged as an imprint called Solesides in the early Nineties from UC-Davis radio station KDVS, and its best-known proprietor is DJ Shadow (a.k.a. Josh Davis). But the chief proponent of the Quannum Collective's ideology is Lyrics Born from Latyrx, who spouts that "beautiful soul music" is "fuel to get us where we're going in our lives," and whose rhymes seem culled from an ongoing pep talk he gives himself and his crew. Slurring like Jimmy Cagney on sess, Born brandishes enough ingrown charisma to be potentially annoying--damning for an easily palatable, would-be pop star, but the right stuff for achieving underground celebrity. When he takes production credit, Born generates trippy electrobeats that are more eclectic and progressive than the hard electrofunk favored elsewhere on Spectrum by Shadow, who may fear that his past record of beat collages will keep true heads from deeming him hip-hop enough.

Though Cali-spawned, Quannum may as well have emerged from nowhere--or everywhere. Spectrum sounds like the midnight hip-hop show at Everycollege, U.S.A., minus the dead air and fumbled attempts to fade out obscenities. The record floats in on a late-night radio murmur, narrated by Mack B-Dog, host of KDVS's The Late Night Hype. Populated by the kind of insomniacs who haunt low-frequency airwaves, Quannum Spectrum holds out the promise that membership is open to anyone with a telephone and an ill moniker.

Well, almost anyone. It comes as no surprise that both Soundbombing II and Spectrum are almost exclusively boys' clubs. Sure, the former album has Joyo crooning some tasteful Brand New Heavies-type silkiness, murmuring about "healing" and the "rhythm tree." Bahamadia, who's cosmopolitan enough to have rapped for Roni Size, has her own shining cameo on "Chaos." And aside from a fetal Eminem barking at his mom ("I'm ready now, bitch/Ain't you feelin' these kicks, cunt?"), there's no rampant gynephobia. But you've got to wonder if the boys aren't just worried about all that damn dancing they see on the MTV. Or worried about R&B crossover hos like Missy and Lauryn grabbing all the attention. Chuck D may not understand the new world of independent hip hop as thoroughly as he fronts, but when he defiantly barks, "This is man shit," he knows whereof he speaks.

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