By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Los Angeles hip-hop finds itself in the midst of both a renaissance and a revival. It’s a renaissance in the sense that L.A. hasn‘t been this flush with underground talent since the heyday of the Pharcyde, Freestyle Fellowship and the Good Life Cafe in the early ’90s. In just the past two years, artists like Jurassic 5, the Black Eyed Peas, Defari and Dilated Peoples have won the interest of major labels like Interscope and Capitol, while groups like the Lootpack, People Under the Stairs and Beat Junkies have found their niche among the independents.
This renaissance is also a re-visioning of a bygone hip-hop age that has always haunted Los Angeles but until now has never been given prominence. Jurassic 5‘s remarkable absorption of the old-school aesthetic is an obvious example, but it’s actually that era‘s successor, the new school, that has become the focal point of L.A.’s thriving underground, as made evident in a new trio of albums by Southland artists: Dilated Peoples‘ The Platform, People Under the Stairs’ Question in the Form of an Answer and Quasimoto‘s The Unseen.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what and when the new school was, but somewhere between L.L. Cool J‘s Radio (1985) and Nas’ Illmatic (1994) lay a loose movement of ideas about what hip-hop represented, whether Afro-positivity (Native Tongues, X-Clan), verbal pyrotechnics (Juice Crew, Rakim) or breakbeat science (Marley Marl, Pete Rock). The ideals put forward by A Tribe Called Quest summed it all up: beats, rhymes and life. While the new school was primarily centered in New York, its demise was sown the minute Ice Cube flashed his tre-eight in the grill of AmeriKKKa on N.W.A‘s Straight Outta Compton. The new school’s colorful, playful appeal was no match for the chart-crashing force of gangsta rap‘s gritty ghetto glamour.
It’s no small irony that L.A. artists are now both resurrecting and improvising on the new school‘s influences. Yet Dilated, PUTS and Quasimoto don’t merely offer a longing look back at hip-hop‘s yesteryear; they suggest an alternate hip-hop history that jumps time and place in order to re-imagine the Los Angeles underground as heir and guardian to a lost new-school tradition that never truly existed in L.A. -- a phenomenon that cultural scholar Arjun Appardurai has termed ”imagined nostalgia.“ It’s not that the new school never came to Los Angeles; photographer Brian Cross‘ exhaustive tome on L.A. hip-hop, It’s Not About a Salary (1993), documents the importance of albums like the Freestyle Fellowship‘s To Whom It May Concern (1991) and Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde (1992) in establishing a post-gangsta beachhead. But the new school never dominated the Southland soundscape as it did on the East Coast; gangsta‘s lush, expansive sound breathes out of and into L.A.’s urban sprawl.
On The Platform, Dilated Peoples invert this paradigm with their packaging alone. Designed by Brent Rollins and shot by Cross, the cover art uses the L.A. Metro to replicate the imagery of older, Eastern metropolises such as New York and Chicago. In doing so, Dilated flees from the lowrider sound of their g‘ed-up peers and finds a new home in the subway’s cramped confines and noisy rhythms, which were the main inspiration for the staccato beats powering the new school‘s sonic pulse.
Dilated’s Evidence makes it plain where he‘s coming from in ”Line of Defense“: ”Drum patterns are primitiveEvidence the derivativeof what the late ’80s and early ‘90s had to give.“ Through producers Joey Chavez, Evidence and others, Dilated manifest this ideal on the album’s jackhammer tracks. Throbbing rhythms, stabbing samples, and scratches by DJ Babu infuse songs like ”The Main Event“ and especially ”Work the Angles,“ Dilated‘s underground hit from 1998. Moreover, with an obsessive emphasis on showing skill vs. making scrill, Evidence and partner Iriscience come clever and caustic with their lyrics, attacking the wack while simultaneously lauding their own talents. ”The Shape of Things To Come,“ a witty collaboration with Aceyalone, finds Iriscience bragging, ”I center punch punch lines, shine when it’s crunch timeI‘m back to beat-box rap battles at lunchtime.“ Like new-school survivors Gang Starr, Dilated step up with a hard, aggressive style that blows out both your mind and your back.
On People Under the Stairs’ sophomore album, Question in the Form of an Answer, producer and MC Thes One promises in the liner notes, ”We‘ll keep making that ’93-style hip-hop with that ‘73-style funk till 2033,“ another nod to the new school’s legacy, especially in promoting a passion for vinyl archaeology. Thes and DJ Double K go as far as to dedicate a song to beat-digging called ”43 Labels I Like,“ running down a list of imprints that have provided their best sample fodder.
If Dilated throw beats like punches, PUTS is more interested in sliding into grooves. Their loop-heavy aesthetic pays off handsomely on slick songs like ”July 3rd,“ whose string and organ tracks raise the roof melodically. There‘s also the mellow ”Code Check,“ with its nimble, prancing guitar line. As MCs, Thes One and Double K run the gamut from puffed-chest braggadocio (”Yehaw Partystyles“) and day-in-the-life narratives (the entertaining though misogynistic ”July 3rd“) to the superfunky spy fantasy ”Suite for Creeper,“ where Thes One enjoys his John Woo moment, rhyming, ”I’m running, gunning and blazingdipping, diving and tasingclips flying, people dying.“