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
Below the Heavens changed everything, the album becoming that increasingly rare phenomenon in the Rapidshare age: the below-the-radar sleeper. Catching fire from word of mouth and word of blog, Blu’s record galvanized the diaspora of underground heads that scattered when Rawkus collapsed and Kanye became the “first nigga with a Benz and a backpack.” In fact, last year, Okayplayer.com, a purist-oriented site founded by ?uestlove and the Roots, named Blu its rookie of the year.
Most refreshing about the record was its ability to avoid the pitfalls that typically trip up 95 percent of independent rappers: strident self-righteousness, trite attacks on the major-label bogeyman, solipsistic and soporific stanzas about the greatness of the rapper’s lyrics. Instead, Below the Heavens exhibited Blu’s natural flair for storytelling, the rapper born Johnson Barnes demonstrating a unique facility to illustrate his plight (mounting debt, possibly pregnant girlfriend, empty bank account) while skirting softheaded oversentimentality.
Since he made his initial splash, Blu’s star has continued to rise and bigger labels have come calling, albeit without offers that he hasn’t found one-sided. In the meantime, this year alone, Blu’s released two albums independently, The Piece Talks,a more experimental, Gnarls Barkley–like collaboration with Ta’Raach, and Johnson and Jonson,a collaboration with producer and Sound in Color founder Mainframe that came out this week on local indie Tres Records.
“There’s a lot of passion behind what he does,” says Mainframe (née Jon Ancheta). “A lot of rappers try to fit into a certain mold, but Blu breaks out of it. No matter what he’s rapping about, he finds a way to make the listener relate. He’s conscious but not soft. I think he’s the savior of West Coast hip-hop right now.”
Pacific Division: Sealed for Freshness
Between MTV’s unofficial ban on videos and the lean times that have crippled budgets, the requiem for the music video was ostensibly sounded years ago. Yet Pacific Division, a trio from Los Angeles via Palmdale, attribute their seemingly meteoric rise to the self-financed clip for “F.A.T. Boys (’08),” which they released on YouTube in January.
“Once you get a video to people, that’s where it jumps off,” says Mibbs, surrounded by keyboards, computers and turntables inside the cramped apartment he shares with fellow Pacific Division member BeYoung beneath the 10 freeway. “People might have heard our music before, but they responded to the energy and visuals. It caught on naturally and spread on the blogs quickly.”
They tacitly align themselves with the retro-rap resurgence in more ways than just the title’s allusion to the ’80s plus-sized MCs; the “Fat Boys” video found Mibbs, his brother Like and BeYoung kicking playful rhymes about sneakers, money and lack of it, over a clucking minimalist beat and scuffed-up 808 drums. Heavily tattooed, the trio ham it up for the camera, gold chains dangling from their necks, faces stuffed with ice cream cones and pizza — Like rocking a coonskin cap and black-plastic glasses like a cross between Humpty-Hump and Davy Crockett.
The buzz the video engendered, coupled with endorsements from the likes of Snoop Dogg, Pharrell and ?uestlove, helped the group get meetings with several major labels, including a performance in front of Iovine, who told them that his son is a big Pacific Division fan. Ultimately, the group decided to sign with Universal in June, claiming that the Sylvia Rhone–led conglomerate seemed the most attuned to their vision.
“They remind me of the hip-hop I grew up on,” confirms Rhone, the president of Universal Music Group’s Motown Records and an executive vice president at Universal Records. “They have great lyrics and have something to say but don’t take themselves too seriously. I think they’re career artists rather than someone who will put out a single and a ring tone and then fade away. They remind me of classic groups like Digable Planets, De La Soul, Digital Underground or Tribe Called Quest.”
Of course, all the hype and major-label muscle in the world can’t do much if the songs aren’t there. But though their emergence may seem rapid, Pacific Division aren’t rookies, having paid their dues over the past several years, getting their start on infamous Sean Healy promotions bills, where aspiring rappers had to sell a set number of tickets in order to perform.
With recording recently begun on their Universal debut, Grown Kids Syndrome, Pac Div plan to release their Church League Champions mixtape this fall, the follow-up to last year’s noteworthy Sealed for Freshness Blendtape.
“There’s a lot more to us than sneakers and a ‘Fat Boys’ video,” Like says. “We know that there’s a whole world of human beings and stories to tell. We’re excited to be in this position and get the chance to prove ourselves.”