Onetime Public Enemy producer Bill Stephney recently remarked to a panel at the CMJ Music Marathon that hip hop's national underground desperately needs a corresponding live circuit--"like Ian MacKaye and Minor Threat," he said to the nodding crowd at the Hilton. "We need to charge not $40 but $8 for shows," he added. And while he probably meant Fugazi, who charge $6, the sentiment struck a responsive chord.
Styles of Beyond's opening slot for MTV sweethearts Len at the Quest on Sunday for ten bucks may or may not be what Stephney had in mind. But the L.A. hip-hop group's widely unpublicized mix of brain-scrambling lyrics and unusually funky beats does signal how many out-of-state counterparts there must be to our local unknowns. Reached by conference call at two different area codes in the San Fernando Valley, MCs Ryu (Ryan Maginn) and Takbir (Takbir Bashir) admit that their bleached suburban pasture is hardly known for being a hip-hop hotbed.
"Alkaholics, Everlast--a lot of people that come out of L.A. come out of the Valley and you wouldn't know it because they don't talk about it," says Ryu, age 24. "I imagine it's just like any other suburban place in America. You've got your rappers, you've got your thug-wannabe gangster types." For a time, the only place for the two New York-born, L.A.-raised MCs to perform locally was a venue called the Fault at the Cobalt Café in Kanoka Park, which lasted two months before owners shut it down. (Sound familiar?) The only venue to bring national hip-hop stars to the Valley is a place called the Country Club.
Having grown up break dancing, DJing, and rhyming in Long Beach and in Santa Monica, respectively, Ryu and Tak met each other in 1995, hanging out in the parking lot of Woodland Hills' Pierce Community College. "We just hooked up right on the spot, we just clicked," says Tak, age 22."We started recording the next week." They've since appeared on an important new compilation of L.A. and Bay Area indie hip hop, The Funky Precedent (though I had to remind them what song they had on it), and dropped a bracing new album, 2000 Fold, on the Dust Brothers' Ideal Records. Forgoing the sonic density of East Coasters Company Flow and the old-school cheeriness of their neighbors Jurassic 5, Styles of Beyond stay beat-focused, matching their smooth, Rakim Jr. flows with a crisp bounce provided by DJ Cheapshot. Lauded producer Divine Styler (Ice-T) took turns creating cuts for 2000 with frequent Styles collaborator Vin Skully and Tak's older brother Bilal Bashir.
Under the hooky refrain "Gotta be patient/Gotta be calm/Just keep pacing/And move on," Bashir's "Muuvon" is a good example of the computer-savvy approach all three producers take. The track lifts a single guitar strum from that "Johnny B. Goode" of hip-hop samples, Chic's "Good Times," and repeats it endlessly over a beat in different keys, chopping it into ever smaller bits. The buoyant results feel both tough and decidedly, well, Valley. Their Q-Tip-sampling single, "Easy Back It Up" has a relaxed and entirely unexpected Native Tongues vibe, though Styles' connection to that musical strain lies mostly in their iconoclasm.
On the phone, the medium the two friends most often use when writing together, Ryu and Tak have an interplay that is as effortless as their often indistinguishable raps. The listener might not guess that they straddle the color divide: Ryu is white and Tak is black. "I think it was more of an issue a decade ago," says Tak. "Since then, so much has evolved that you don't know who's who."
Even their sleeve art is unusual in the No Limit age, a computer-generated spiral of smooth spheres that resembles a techno album more than anything--something that's caused retailers some confusion. "We just didn't want to have your everyday cover," explains Tak. "Yeah, I walked into the store and saw it in the crazy miscellaneous section. But I thought it was kind of cool. People can't put their finger on it."