Hip-hop’s local legacy
The underground success gained by the multiethnic SoleSides crew launched at UC Davis in the early 1990s continues to inspire capital-area artists today
South by Southwest is considered by many to be hype central: a churning mass of music fans and musicians who flood into and out of clubs, alleyways, vacant lots and city streets like floodwaters breaking over the banks of the nearby Colorado River. The buzz bands of the day play sets in tiny clubs in front of sweaty, mostly drunk music fans who cram into increasingly confined spaces for the opportunity to see hipster bands in “intimate” settings.
Of course, some bands are—by proxy of their popularity or their importance—able to escape the sweatbox. It’s March 2006, and a stage has been constructed for a larger show on the banks of the river. On it, a reformed Echo and the Bunnymen will take the stage, as will current buzz band Spoon. And in a few moments, so will former UC Davis students Xavier Mosley and Tim Parker, under their stage moniker: Blackalicious.
One might have suspected the humid Texas spring afternoon would dampen the spirits of the festival-goers, but when Mosley and Parker, together with their crew of turntablists and guest vocalists, begin to spin up their signature sound, the audience members start bobbing their heads in unison. After a few numbers, the combination of Parker’s (he performs under the name “the Gift of Gab") vocal style—a staccato, fast-paced technique that runs like pebbles rattling down that same riverbed—and Mosley’s (a.k.a. “Chief Xcel") beat and production work and turntable manipulations have the predominantly white audience pulled to the edge of the stage. Blackalicious—for this moment king of South by Southwest—is giving the audience a lesson on the primacy of music itself and the importance of hip-hop as an articulation of American culture. The lesson is all the more striking in the midst of a festival buried under the weight of its own indie-rock and No Depression alt-country obsessions.
The ability of Blackalicious to bring a sweaty, hung-over audience into its particular sonic world is testament to the past 15 years, a decade-and-a-half spent blazing an independent and intellectual trail through a genre that, at least in the mainstream media, often seems shallow and trite.
But one of the most remarkable aspects of Blackalicious isn’t simply its music. It’s the pool of talent the duo has been associated with since the early 1990s—a tight-knit crew of hip-hop aficionados who congregated in the record stacks at KDVS, UC Davis’ legendary student-run radio station. Through sheer determination, business sense and constantly striving imagination, those like-minded musicians, artists and writers would become some of the biggest success stories in the West Coast independent hip-hop scene. They’d also ultimately serve as representatives of a multiculturalism seldom seen in any forum.
Hip-hop becomes a musical force
By the early 1990s, hip-hop had gone from a genre many thought was just a passing fad to a musical force that was clearly here to stay. Back in 1979, when the Sugarhill Gang’s single “Rapper’s Delight” first brought the general sound of hip-hop to the mainstream (we all called it “rap” back then), the sound was an electric shock from some other world. Even the rhythmically spoken lyrics were in a language more like nonsense than communication: “I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop, a you don’t stop.” One could almost hear a collective “huh?” from the nation’s mainstream music listeners.
That might have been a flash in the pan if not for two albums that blasted out into the mainstream with a mix of rock and rap and helped pave the way for much of the hip-hop to come: Run DMC’s Raising Hell and the Beastie Boys’ License to Ill.
Run DMC’s tough-guy attitude opened the door to the gangsta-rap hedonism of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton and the politicized rap of Public Enemy. On the other side of the coin, the Beastie Boys’ self-conscious exaggerations of the genre on License to Ill made hip-hop into frat-boy music palatable to a white listening audience more interested in partying than political messages (particularly those messages that pointed the finger back at themselves).
By the time 1992 appeared on the calendar, hip-hop had solidified into a musical force to be reckoned with, even if that force had seemingly managed to focus in on itself with such narcissism that it seemed to many—fans and foes alike—that hip-hop was only one thing: a product of inner-city gang culture.
But just under the surface, hip-hop was (and perhaps is) a wide-open genre filled with possibility. For despite the mainstream insistence on “authenticity” and “urban experience” (and a particular brand of young, African-American male personality), just past the mainstream surface, hip-hop is significantly more diverse and open to experimentation, intelligence, variety and progress (both musical and social). DJ Kool Herc, a pioneer of DJ mixing in the 1970s, has called hip-hop “the voice of this generation,” noting that “hip-hop binds all of these people, all of these nationalities, all over the world together.” Indeed, Herc’s comments are proven by every hip-hop fan in the world who isn’t a young, African-American male from a bleak urban environment.
The early-1990s scene at UC Davis, particularly when viewed from a distance of more than a decade, bears out that optimism of possibility. Josh Davis, for one, was a young student in the communications department at the time. Just as music-obsessed students today, Davis gravitated toward the campus music station. KDVS held a treasure trove of musical inspiration, not only because its stacks included the latest in hip-hop, but also because the breadth of the material in the KDVS library was a perfect place to begin the process of assembling a distinctive sound.
Hip-hop is, after all, a sonic form based in many ways on the idea of the musical sample. As hip-hop writer and performer Paul D. Miller (who performs under the stage name DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid) notes, “Today, the voice you speak with may not be your own.” In large part because of its rise from the tradition of DJ record-spinning culture, hip-hop has always been interested in pinching effective musical material from outside sources—with funk providing particularly fruitful source material.
So Davis, a student with ambitions as a hip-hop DJ himself who used the stage name DJ Shadow, pawed through those stacks to find hip-hop manna: the excellent beat or break or sample that had not already been used to death by his peers.
A fresh beat is like finding gold
It’s strangely secretive work. Hip-hop artists are competitive by nature. In a genre defined by rhythm, finding the ultimate beat is the all-consuming work of any aspiring hip-hop producer or DJ: a snippet from a long-forgotten dancehall reggae album, or a flat-out crushing beat from a funk record no one save the most devoted funk fan has heard in years, or a multicultural rhythm that is different from anything used before.
Finding a beat or break that could be used in a fresh way was like finding gold. And that meant hiding the gold from other would-be DJs. Others—young students like Tom Shimura (who would become known as Lyrics Born), Lateef Daumont (who would rap under the name Lateef the Truth Speaker) and Mosley and Parker (who, as already noted, later would be known as Blackalicious)—were on separate missions of hip-hop glory. All were searching for the perfect sounds, and the best material was treated like a state secret.
“Fanatics!” wrote former KDVS DJ Jeff Chang, a.k.a. “DJ Zen,” about them in the liner notes to SoleSides Greatest Bumps, a compilation of early tracks cut by this same group of record miners. “One time, I walked into the listening booth to post my playlist. X and Lyrics had just found this fat Latin-ragga stomper of a break … and were playing it over and over, giggling wildly. When I stepped in the booth, the two of them pulled the needle, hid the album cover, dropped their chests over the turntable, looked sideways and told me to get the hell out.”
“What made KDVS so incredible is that it had one of the most vast musical libraries of any college radio station we’d ever been to,” Chief Xcel said via phone from his Bay Area recording studio. “That was the education process that we submerged ourselves in.”
Lyrics Born also cited KDVS as his proper education. It was where the SoleSides crew found not only the music but also a community of like-minded musicians to work with and to work for. “Davis seemed isolated from the rest of the world,” Lyrics Born commented. “The radio station raised us. There was so much music. I really got my education in that radio station.”
Before long, the secretive individuals had decided (at the urging of Chang) to team up. Pooling resources seemed more logical than competing, as it enabled the young hip-hop fanatics to combine their knowledge of the genre and their individual skill sets and points of view. Those points of view were unique even from the most basic level, since the group was perhaps the most ethnically diverse in hip-hop at that time. The Beastie Boys long had established the possibility of “white rap,” but Asian-Americans were (and are) completely underrepresented in mainstream hip-hop. A hip-hop collective as ethnically diverse as that of the KDVS crew was unheard of (perhaps even today). The combination of DJ Shadow (white), Lateef the Truth Speaker (black/Puerto Rican), and Lyrics Born and Chang (both Asian-American) was rare enough in the world of hip-hop, but the addition of Chief Xcel’s and Gift of Gab’s African-American heritage created a strongly diverse identity—all gathered together under the banner of music. Adding the artist known as Stan “the 8th Wonder,” journalist (and future MTV executive) Joe Patel and Benjamin Davis (who rapped under the name Mack B. Dogg) brought SoleSides to a nine-person collective.
The SoleSides crew also represented a distinct vision of underground hip-hop, predicated largely on the avoidance of the gangsta rap that was the mainstream hip-hop world’s bread and butter at the time. Instead, SoleSides’ lyrics (if there were lyrics at all) were “positive spin,” meaning that instead of urban tales of “bitches” and gunfire, they circled around issues of spirituality, emotion and music itself. There have always been groups of artists who run separate from the whims of the mainstream record-buying public, the massive multi-conglomerate forces, advertising budgets and press junkets. While the SoleSides crew released records and no doubt hoped for massive selling hip-hop glory, their “positive spin” was far from the early-1990s hip-hop mainstream. The first years of the 1990s saw the emergence of Ice-T’s O.G.: Original Gangsta and his metal project Body Count, Tupac Shakur’s 2Pacalypse Now and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. Hip-hop had always been fascinated with the tough side of urban life, but the gangsta rap of the early 1990s glorified it in ways that had never been heard before: Violence and misogyny gave the speaker credibility, toughness and cool. Today, the violence and misogyny of early-1990s gangsta rap still represents the genre as a whole for many critics of hip-hop.
Listening to the early tracks of the SoleSides crew, though, proves that there were other currents of hip-hop largely ignored by a mainstream media in a buzz over songs like Ice-T’s “Cop Killer.” Instead of the “bitches and hoes” and glorification of murder and revenge that pepper the worst of gangsta rap, SoleSides’ early sides are about music itself. The collective’s debut vinyl release appeared in 1992: a DJ Shadow track titled “Entropy” backed with Lyrics Born’s “Send Them” (the latter under Shimura’s original stage name, the self-conscious “Asia Born”). Shadow’s track, like most of his early work, is instrumental, mostly memorable only because instrumentals themselves were a hip-hop rarity at the time. The better track is Lyrics Born’s, a blisteringly fast vocal performance and production (with help from producer Dan the Automator) that firmly placed Lyrics Born as an innovative hip-hop artist. “Send Them” is, after all, an acknowledgement of just how commercially unviable Born’s music is, noting that “the fact is I probably won’t walk the charts” but that “this underground is my turf.” It’s a musical performance as well as a rhythmic one, which, taken as a whole, seems to announce: “There’s a new force in town, and that force is called SoleSides.”
That initial release was followed by others: sides by Blackalicious, Lateef the Truth Speaker, Chief Xcel, Lyrics Born and Latryx, the latter a progressive team-up of Lyrics and Lateef. The record sold well, and SoleSides began to make a name for itself in the regional circuit. Nevertheless, it remained essentially part of the hip-hop underground, a fact that would change in 1996 when DJ Shadow set off a buzz that would be felt on both sides of the Atlantic.
Shadow breaks out of the underground
Shadow had found patronage in fellow DJ and owner of London-based Mo’ Wax records James Lavelle. Lavelle tapped the young DJ to co-produce a project he called U.N.K.L.E., which featured guest performances from the likes of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. In the meantime, Shadow was hard at work on his own solo debut album, an instrumental project highlighting his abilities as producer, sampler, beat engineer and composer—all of which used sounds originally generated by others. In other words, Shadow’s debut was 100 percent found sounds, seamlessly reassembled into instrumental pieces of breathtaking originality.
The musical community saw it in much the same way, for when Entroducing… was released in 1996, the critical response was overwhelming. Reviewers called it one of the most important releases of the decade, and it apparently still holds the world record for being the first album composed entirely of sampled sounds. (Super-cranky online tastemaker Pitchfork gave the recent double-disc re-release a perfect 10.0 rating—one of the few times this writer has ever seen such a review on its pages.)
DJ Shadow had gone from relative obscurity to the forefront of the international underground in the span of a single release and provided a sonic blueprint for much instrumental hip-hop and sample-driven electronic music to follow. His work encapsulated a distinctly Californian-sounding laid-back feel, one in contrast to the hard beat of much of the day’s popular hip-hop tracks. Even when it gets loud and hard—as it does on occasion—the lack of vocals makes it sound something like a soundtrack to a great road-trip film that you will never see and that will never be made. Many of the mic-spitting clichéd antics of the day’s gangsta rappers are made essentially irrelevant for the span of Entroducing…’s hour. This is outer-space hip-hop for college students one fat joint into a long weekend.
Perhaps to capitalize on DJ Shadow’s surprise success, the original SoleSides disbanded in the late 1990s and reformed as Quannum Projects. Quannum was a leaner machine. The journalists and artists who had been a part of the initial model were gone, and only the core group of artists—Chief Xcel, Gift of Gab, DJ Shadow, Lateef the Truth Speaker and Lyrics Born—remained. Where SoleSides was essentially an artistic collaboration between its individual members, Quannum was a recording label that found and signed new talent in keeping with its own spirit. Today, the imprint remains a viable music label, releasing a variety of CDs from the familiar names that graced SoleSides labels, and expanding to include some fresh talent (including Bay Area trip-hop artist and skateboarding legend Tommy Guererro and Los Angeles-based underground hip-hop sensation Pigeon John). Still, the initial business model remains essentially intact. Quannum continues to be a model of successful underground hip-hop music, a label in many ways too smart—and indeed too different—for the mainstream.
Those smart, different releases include a series of projects from Quannum supergroup Blackalicious that feature artists from the SoleSides days, together with occasional high-profile guests (including former Rage Against the Machine vocalist Zack de la Rocha). Like DJ Shadow, Blackalicious has floated just out of view of the mainstream, and it’s unlikely that gigs like the big-stage South by Southwest show will change that. There are those moments when they flit by mainstream listeners’ ears (as when a Blackalicious song was heard during ESPN’s recent basketball coverage), but regular radio play and sales figures in the millions remain the realm of fantasy.
The other members of the original SoleSides partnership have continued to be just as active. Lyrics Born’s pair of solo albums—2003’s Later That Day … and 2005’s new-tracks/remixes album Same !@#$ Different Day—both were well-received slices of hip-hop, highlighting his distinctive vocal style and downbeat lyrics about daily life. Lyrics Born’s first live album will be released later this year, followed by a tour of the United States and Australia. (Interestingly, Quannum artists continue to be very well-received Down Under.)
Chang, the only non-musician member of SoleSides, has been busy promoting his American Book Award-winning tome, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (Picador), a masterful exploration of the social ramifications of hip-hop in American culture that made Salon.com frothy enough to call Chang “hip-hop America’s Howard Zinn.” (They’re right; it’s a pretty remarkable piece of scholarship and insight.)
The vision remains uncompromising
All this is reflective of SoleSides’ legacy, a legacy that—at least locally—has been as much about the group’s uncompromising vision as its do-it-yourself aesthetic. The music rejected much of mainstream hip-hop’s ridiculous posturing, misogyny and cartoon violence. Blackalicious’ Gift of Gab, for example, instead gives listeners clever wordplay as on “Alphabet Aerobics”—a song that starts with “artificial amateurs, aren’t at all amazing” and ends with “zero in zen thoughts, overzealous rhyme zealots” and, of course, covers every letter in between. “Swan Lake” offers a kind of hip-hop life lesson: “A planet ain’t a planet if it don’t have wars / A battle ain’t a battle if you don’t catch scars / A mind that ain’t inquisitive really doesn’t got / Shit to live for if you can’t explore the / Realms of thought you ought not test lest / You be chomped up, like a pop rock.” Even the clichés Gab addresses in his lyrics are flipped, as later in the same song when he tries to buy a $20 bag of marijuana that turns out to be only “a bag of strong palms.” Instead of stereotypical violence, Gab simply sings: “Maybe next time I use my finances right / Live another day, learn another lesson.” Good lessons can be learned, even from getting cheated on a drug deal.
Perhaps it is such relative thoughtfulness that has kept these artists from breaking out as hip-hop superstars, but the success they have garnered is legitimate artistic success unfettered by the demands of the marketplace that panders to a narrowly defined vision of “authenticity” most often based on specific ethnic (African-American), geographic (urban), gender (male) and economic (lower) expectations. (Even Eminem, one of the few white rappers in the mainstream today, fits three of four criteria.) Whether Quannum artists are properly labeled “underground” or not, Chief Xcel himself eschews the label. “We aren’t waving any underground flag,” Xcel said via phone. “For us, our aim is just to make good music. We try to shy away from the underground rap or the indie hip-hop label or any of those things. Our ethos is just making the best records possible.”
That ethos remains one of SoleSides/ Quannum’s most important legacies, a point underscored by local hip-hop artist Crazy Ballhead. “Mostly from a standpoint of being a creator myself,” Ballhead said via phone, “I look at them as being somebody from the same area who is doing it the way they want to do instead of what’s considered popular.” That ethos is something that Ballhead (and countless other young hip-hop artists) aspire to: uncompromising artistic integrity regardless of the whims of the marketplace. “When you’re underground, you can continue to grow,” notes Ballhead. “Not only the music, but the expectations of your listeners. The more creativity and innovativeness they hear in the music, the more they’re going to expect from it. In the mainstream, the creativity isn’t there, so the listeners’ expectations begin to shrink. In the underground, though, there are a lot of people out there pushing the boundaries.”
Crazy Ballhead name-checked several local up-and-coming hip-hop artists, including vocalist P. Chill, who cites listening to KDVS in the early ’90s as a watershed event in his life as a musician. “I remember getting my first Blackalicious tape, Swan Lake, while I was still in high school,” Chill said. “I think what they’ve done for hip-hop in the Valley is amazing.” Chill further credits SoleSides for much of the change in ethnic expectations in West Coast hip-hop, a situation he has experienced firsthand as a white vocalist with an ethnically diverse band. “When I was first starting out, I was in some different groups,” Chill noted. “We’d play places like the Cattle Club back in the day and places like that. It was received pretty well by people, but there was always someone with the ‘honkie’ or ‘cracker’ comment. It’s different now—people are more accepting, or they have their shit together.” Part of that “having their shit together” may have come from hip-hop’s underground, a musical movement more open, more accepting and perhaps more intelligent than what hip-hop offers listeners on its mainstream surface.
“Our ethnicity makes a difference in the sense that it’s who we are as people,” Lyrics Born said via telephone, commenting on his own identity as an Asian-American. “Because it’s music, it doesn’t even matter what I look like or what my last name is. On the other hand, it means everything to me because it governs the way I feel about the world or the way the world feels about me. … It gives me a lot of pride to know that people just like me are inspired by what I do.”
The SoleSides crew (as it’s still known by hip-hop fans in Davis) continues to inspire listeners. Nix Glass, a KDVS DJ whose hip-hop and electronica show has been running for 10 years, notes that SoleSides is still loved at the station. “There are a lot of people who are in the CD community and are trying to get into hip-hop and DJing. The fact that the SoleSides label pretty much started right here, that’s inspiring to them.”
As for new potential SoleSides crews rising up out of KDVS today, there are a few promising young hip-hop artists on the rise in what Glass described as a “low key” scene. Nostalgic Progression (including DJ Riff Raff) is one. Another is a Davis High School student who spins records under the name DJ Chillis. “He would watch all the DJs coming through the Delta of Venus,” Glass said, referring to the local venue he still DJs at on a regular basis. “He got his own turntables and got a show about a year ago. … I see a lot of potential in him, and he’s very influenced by KDVS and having access to all the music down here.”
It certainly sounds like the start of a familiar story. Perhaps Chillis, Glass, P. Chill, Crazy Ballhead and a few others will form the newest incarnation of hip-hop, a SoleSides for the 21st century. In the meantime, it’s clear that Chillis has found the best possible classroom for hip-hop education: the well-thumbed-through stacks of vinyl and CDs that form the music library at KDVS.
“The advice I’d give to aspiring artists is you,” Chief Xcel said via telephone. “Develop you. Nobody has a voice like yours.” It’s good advice for DJ Chillis. In fact, it’s good advice for anyone.
If that’s not educational, then I don’t know what is.
This story has been corrected from its original print version.