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.
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.
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.
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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