Outer space hip-hop school for nerds of the apocalypse

Underground hip-hoppers branch out to conquer the corporate world

Illustration by Andrew Nilsen

Naturally, it helps to be from outer space.

“Huh, the downfall?” asks Luckyiam, in a half-squeal, half-question, seemingly oblivious to everything in our world, especially the nuances of language.

Does the downfall of the record industry mean anything to you? In theory, it’s a really simple question.

A television blares in the background, and one can almost hear the Los Angeles emcee scratching his head on the other end of the line, watching Judge Judy out of one cocked eye, looking down the neck of an empty Heineken bottle with the other and smacking a plump space-hooker’s ass with one of his tentacles.

Just from talking with him for a few moments—the sporadic hyperactivity, paused with awkward silence and heavy breathing—one can tell the emcee is tired, strange, eccentric, anxious and confused. Finally he asks, “What happened?”

Welcome to our planet. For starters, it’s 2008. And if you haven’t noticed, fans are downloading all the music left on Earth. The prospect of never again having to fumble with a jewel case is all too tempting, and record companies are coming closer to irrelevance than Blockbuster Video. Once the veil is fully lifted to reveal the industry’s bloated corpse, all hell will break loose. Bono will swim back to Ireland in disgust, James Hetfield will wander the streets like a dope-sick vagrant, pawing at the air, trying to catch digital music as it streams from computers directly into our iPods. And good riddance, we’ll say. We’re sick of sensitive humans and their flab-rock that passes for music. We want something creepy and interesting—and Luckyiam, in his aloof space-haze, could be just the beast we’re looking for.

And he, so lustfully, says time and time again, that he’s looking for us, too. He’ll be in Sacramento—with his crew, the Living Legends, of course—on February 9, to show us how creatures from the other world rock a crowd.

“Ahhh, the apocalypse,” he says, catching a rare moment of lucidity, like a colorful butterfly. “I’ve always had a theory about that: If you make good stuff, market it right and get out there and do shows and [fans] come see you, they’ll buy your music. If you don’t make a good body of work, then people will pick at it. They’ll buy a song here, a song there, a single here, a ringtone there. That’s just the way it is.

Photo by Andri Tubman

“Ahhhhh, eeeeeeee-e-e-e-e!” he adds. Maybe he’s hungry.

Luckyiam, one-half of the group Mystik Journeymen, is a huge part of the Living Legends crew—the family of independent hip-hop artists (including also Sunspot Jonz, Grouch, Eligh, Murs, Scarub, Bicasso and Asop) who went from selling mix tapes at hip-hop events to giving major labels a run for their money. After more than 50 full-length albums and despite many solo projects and offshoots of offshoots, the Living Legends remain united, one of the most successful independent hip-hop crews in the United States. Needless to say, their reach extends across the globe—and, perhaps, beyond.

The Living Legends sound takes noticeable cues from hip-hop pioneers like Slick Rick and non-hip-hop pioneers like J.R.R. Tolkien, resulting in music that’s organic (flute heavy, tonally earthy) and consistent (punchy drums, jazz pianos, lazy flows) but definitely not tell-tale or monotonous. The message is positive but not soft, street-to-the-core but relatable. And with their mounting success, the Legends have only cultivated their trademark sound, not abandoned it. (Ahem, hear that, Hieroglyphics?)

Still underground, with virtually no radio play, their constant push to market their Living Legends brand help them score an ADA/Warner Music Group distribution deal. (“We figured out that working is cool on your own, but you need to have people work for you so you don’t have to wear that many different hats,” Luckyiam says.) They’re taking the art of independence and magnifying it, without having to sell their souls.

Until recently, the dialogue has focused on underground vs. mainstream, but successful crews like Living Legends have proven that by entering the mainstream, they serve to make it better.

Well, so are hundreds of new crews that have been taking notes, waiting for their shot at stardom. Are the Living Legends ready for hostile takeover?

“Show me a pack of them that we can’t handle,” says Luckyiam. “We’ll blow ’em out the water.”

It just so happens that Luckyiam is playing with a “pack of them” on February 9. Sacramento’s Another Rap Group is dying for a shot at indie success. With MindSpeakers, an offshoot art, music and apparel company, this crew’s knack for production and artistic vision is giving them a reputation for being jolly warriors bearing the gift of culture. And they’re just beginning to find their way within the industry, which is a pretty exciting prospect.

“There’s a 99 percent chance,” says emcee Ospis, “ … of failure.” He’s joking, of course, but his voice wavers a bit, as if there’s an ounce of truth to what he says. It’s a nasty market, but a good dose of skepticism never hurt anyone, right?

Illustration by Andrew Nilsen

Whether they admit it or not, every up-and-coming indie hip-hop artist admires what the Living Legends have done.

“It works for them,” says Ospis. “And we want to get there.”

“But we’re trying to find our own means,” adds KomplexOne, who’s quick to point out that they’re not following, simply admiring, which equates to building a strong fan base (ARG’s first album is available for free at www.myspace.com/arg) and not limiting themselves solely to music.

The group has combined jazz, rap, partying, fashion and culture into something audible, wearable and hopefully marketable enough to reach beyond Sacramento, beyond the Bay, America, Europe, Earth …

Also sharing a stage with the Luckyiam and his crew is Agustus thElefant and his clan Lost Tribe, known for their jazzy beats and slowed down nonpretentious vocals; they’re trying to attack the corporate world in a different way. Lost Tribe’s recent endeavor is a hookup with video-game maker Namco Bandai, which commissioned them to create the score for a video game adaptation of Samuel L. Jackson’s Afro Samurai cartoon. Weird, right?

Not really. It turns out, in light of the crumbling music biz, branching out is a lesson these hip-hop scholars have learned to keep themselves afloat. And it could be just the remedy for a failing industry. It’s a lesson Luckyiam is now really pondering himself.

“I make my money off of rapping … so that’s why I want to branch out into something else so I can have more fun with it,” he says.

So Cawzlos, Mahtie Bush, Verbal Venom and Agustus, all performing Saturday, are young Northern California artists who have been attending the outer-space hip-hop school that’s been taught on the streets for ages. And yeah, they’ll share a stage with Luckyiam and his crew, and they still idolize the Living Legends, even if they don’t readily admit it. But if you watch them closely at the Colonial Theater on Saturday, they’ll be taking notes as the Legends take the stage, trying to figure out how to become the heirs to their kingdom.

By now, Luckyiam has slurred his way through enough non sequiturs to be considered a stream-of-consciousness poet: “I don’t like being at home no more; I like being on the road, being out. I’ve had enough. I’m over recording. I’m ready to get it out there.” He’s rambled about hipness: “Youngsters like to have fun, but they’re not as cool as we were when we were their age.” And he’s spoken foreign languages: “Ohhhhhh, ahhhhh, yahhhhh.” But the most important part of this lesson is that while major label execs are sweating bullets, these underground emcees are keeping their cool and staying relevant just by being, and selling, themselves.

“Being who I am and where I come from, being able to travel all around the world and visit lots of countries and meet people and touch a lot of people’s lives and being more than just a CD to people, you know?” Luckyiam, whose album Time to Get Lucky will be out in the next light year, says. “That’s success, for me … the object of being an independent artist and everything, part of the philosophy was self-empowerment in general. I couldn’t imagine just working many, many hours every day and every week to build up somebody else’s dreams.” He trails off into a monologue about teaching children: “I gotta feed the kids their vegetables, but you gotta find out how to sneak them to them because a lot of kids don’t like to eat their vegetables … ”

And yes, it always helps to be from outer space.