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Has the L.A. Hip-Hop Plague Finally Passed?

From New Orleans to L.A.: The Knux's Rah Almillio, left, and Krispy Kream

Kevin ScanlonFrom New Orleans to L.A.: The Knux's Rah Almillio, left, and Krispy Kream

A History of L.A. Rap in 750 Words

Ignore the conventional narrative. The simplistic and linear hip-hop hagiographies compressed into 30-minute VH1 specials or records from the Game. You know: N.W.A and Straight Outta Compton “kicked open the doors” for the “West Coast Gangsta Sound,” blah blah blah, letters from the F.B.I., etc., with the pattern emerging in easy evolution: Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Dre’s The Chronic. Snoop’s Doggystyle. Warren G’s Regulate ... G Funk Era. Tha Dogg Pound’s Dogg Food and 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me.... Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

It was always about more than just Death Row’s platinum plaques. Sure, natural selection favors you when you drop singles like “Nuthin’ But a G Thing,” “Gin and Juice” and “Regulate” (released on Def Jam, but whatever). But the post-riots rebirth belonged in equal parts to DJ Quik’s greasy, hydraulic grind; and Ruthless Records’ D.O.C. and Above the Law, whose 2Pac and Money B–featured “Call It What U Want” was alleged to be the first G-Funk single. There was also the body-rotting realism of Compton’s Most Wanted and South Central Cartel, equipped with protégés Young Murder Squad, whose 1996 single “How We Livin’” remains a forgotten gem.

The Maad Circle marauded out of Compton and Inglewood, with a not-ready-for-prime-time Coolio, and WC, who would later form Westside Connection with Mack 10 and Cube. Meanwhile, a flush-pocketed Eazy-E stalked the scene, diversifying Ruthless’ roster to include Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Atban Klann (the first incarnation of the Black Eyed Peas) and even a mutton-chopped pair of Jewish Valley kids known as Blood of Abraham. Plus, Eazy remained filthy enough to deliver the classic EP It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa, featuring one of the genre’s most searing salvos, the Dre-targeted “Real Muthaphukkin’ G’s,” and one of its most obscene sex raps in “Gimmie That Nutt.”

Simultaneously, a granola-and-incense enclave erupted in Leimert Park, revolving around the Good Life Café, and Project Blowed — whose progeny include the Pharcyde, Freestyle Fellowship, Abstract Rude, Busdriver and Jurassic 5. Imbibing on the periphery were the King Tee–mentored Tha Alkaholiks, a rowdy bunch of booze hounds whose 1993 debut, 21 & Over,remains one of the better party-rap records ever and featured the first appearance of a teenage Madlib (rhyming with Lootpack). Additionally, their Likwit Crew yielded a preride pimping Xzibit and underground staple Defari.

Also barbecuing at the backyard boogie, a quartet of local one-hit wonders dropped some of the era’s defining singles, including Ahmad’s “Back in the Day,” Skee-Lo’s “I Wish,” Domino’s “Getto Jam” and Paperboy’s “Ditty.” Not to ignore the litany of Death Row and Row-affiliated artists like the Lady of Rage (“Afro Puffs”), Sam Sneed (“U Better Recognize”), Mista Grimm (“Indo Smoke”), the Twinz (“Round & Round”) and the Dove Shack (“Summertime in the LBC”).

Centered in South Gate and East Los Angeles, a vital Hispanic rap scene thrived, with Kid Frost and Mellow Man Ace paving the way for the nasal, narcotic nods of Cypress Hill and lesser-known but relevant outfits like Lighter Shade of Brown, Funkdoobiest and the Herb Alpert–sampling Delinquent Habits.

Abruptly, in an avalanche of bullets, the L.A. Golden Age ended in 1996 on a September night in Las Vegas, with 2Pac snuffed out by unknown assailants — a grim portent. For various reasons (increasing industry corporatization, money, vanity, etc.), the quality of product declined, eventually dwindling to a trickle during this desolate decade. The quality hip-hop that did exist seemed confined to the underground — with the rise and fall of Dilated Peoples and Jurassic 5, Stones Throw’s quiet maturation into hip-hop’s finest label and Murs’ emergence as the Living Legend to watch. And while lacking in originality, the Game’s nostalgic West Coast revivalism deserves praise for the quality of its replication.

But something’s changed lately. It’s premature to claim that the West is back, but for the first time in over a decade, its vital signs are stable. The four artists profiled here represent some of the first new rappers in years that this town can rally behind. Moreover, they aren’t the only game around, with Diz Gibran (co-owner of Fairfax’s Diamond Supply Co. Skate Shop), the Cash Money–signed Watts native Glasses Malone and Long Beach’s Crooked I similarly bubbling. Added up, it might not yet amount to another Renaissance, but at least we can rejoice that the plague is over.

 

The Knux: “It Ain’t Bragging if You Can Back It Up.”

“Genres are for pussies,” says Rah Almillio, nee Alvin Lindsey, one half of New Orleans group the Knux, with a half-joking, half-mocking smirk, his older brother Kintrell “Krispy Kream” Lindsey nodding on in approval. Adds Almillio: “It’s for people who don’t have enough balls to do their own shit, so they latch onto these minigenres and hope that it’s going to be a movement.”

Strong words when you’ve only released three songs, but judging from the troika of leaked tracks from the Knux’s upcoming Interscope debut, Remind Me In 3 Days, the taunts seem less arrogance and more proof of the old Dizzy Dean adage: “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.”

The pair’s aggravation stems from the lazy “hipster rap” label writers stamped them with the moment the infectious “Cappuccino” caught fire on the blogs earlier this spring, before garnering airplay on Entourage and Harold and Kumar 2: Escape From Guantanamo Bay.

“We were the first ones to do all this shit that people call hipster rap,” Krispy boasts, pulling the microphone closer for full effect. “We were the first ones with a major-label deal, the first ones to experiment with electronic music. Hell, we’re the reason that these labels started looking at people like this in the first place. Ask Steve Aoki, ask anyone who was there before they had 17-year-old kids in leggings showing up to the club. We were dressing like this when people were still wearing backpacks.”

Of course, were you to judge the Knux at a glance, you might draw similar conclusions from their penchant for skinny jeans, oversized plastic Run DMC glasses and porkpie hats. However, anyone intimate with the enervated and unwashed American Apparel–clad hordes that clot east of Western knows that the only punches hipsters throw are Hawaiian, and then it’s usually into a recycling bin — unlike Krispy, who breathlessly relates a tale of nearly smacking an audience member in the face for talking shit last week. Besides, “hipsters” certainly aren’t raised in the ghettos of New Orleans, with gangs and drugs haunting their everyday realities.

“Every day was hell in New Orleans,” says Almillio, with only traces of nostalgia in his voice for the hometown they left after Hurricane Katrina. “That bitch is a jungle, it’s a Third World country inside of America. We were just trying to survive.”

Packing their belongings into a 2001 Saturn Ion and heading west with the goal of tapping existing contacts in L.A. in order to land a label deal, the pair flirted with Atlantic and Asylum and even endured a stint managed by Matthew “Beyoncé’s Dad” Knowles. Finally, the brothers inked a pact at Interscope, when company chairman Jimmy Iovine told them he believed they were going to be where hip-hop’s at for the next five years.

With their only demand total creative control, the Knux wrote, produced and played every instrument on their forthcoming October release. In the hands of lesser talents or someone with a hazier vision, such creative license — coupled with the temptations of an advance and a sprawling Hollywood Hills manse — could’ve gone haywire. Instead, the early singles turned out reminiscent of a young Outkast or a southern Souls of Mischief.

“They’re songwriters, that’s what originally impressed me and continues to impress me,” says Dart Parker, who manages the Knux (with Eminem’s manager Paul Rosenberg). Earlier this year, when Joe “3H” Weinberger, the executive who signed the group, left Interscope for Capitol, Parker stepped in to play the role of unofficial A&R. “Most people who have their level of musicality can’t rap, but the Knux can go in a cipher and spit with anyone.”

 

Bishop Lamont: Label Gymnastics and an Iconoclast’s Vision

During the past decade, the major labels have treated the digital age with the brutish, clumsy idiocy of Lennie pawing a puppy in Of Mice and Men. But few examples are more brazenly buffoonish than Interscope’s recent decision to kill the Dr. Dre–produced “Grow Up,” the debut single from Aftermath-signed Bishop Lamont, from Carson, California, just as the track began to enter heavy rotation at local urban-radio powerhouse Power 106.

“They said it would be a distraction from [Dre’s long-awaited] Detox, so they sent out cease-and-desist letters to stop the record from being played, a record that tested in market research as a No. 1 hit,” says the hulking Lamont calmly, hints of fury buried in the back of his baritone. “Have you ever heard of a label threatening to sue a radio station for playing a hit record?”

Wishful thinking, perhaps, considering that the comically delayed Detox,on which Lamont is slated to feature heavily, might never make it out of the recesses of Dre’s studio. If anything, Interscope should thank its lucky stars that terrestrial radio, still the premier driver of album sales, was even willing to play a song as complex, thoughtful and pop-averse as “Grow Up.” A scathing but sly indictment of immaturity, whether personal or artistic, Lamont’s would-be smash practically exists in an alternate universe, away from from the money-muddled mandarinism of Aftermath’s biggest star, 50 Cent.

“Whereas most people from the West Coast are stuck rapping about gangbanging and lowriders, Bishop’s diverse and eclectic,” says Garrett Williams, who works in national and urban promotion for Interscope. “He’s a unique breath of fresh air to the game. A lot of rappers only want to talk about how much bling they have. Bishop doesn’t even wear jewelry.”

Of course, having Dr. Dre’s imprimatur is invaluable locally, but to attribute the success of “Grow Up” solely to Lamont’s mentor discounts the four impressive mixtapes he’s released over the past 18 months, including last November’s stellar Caltroit collaboration with J Dilla heir Black Milk.

Lamont partially attributes the prolificacy to a desire to satisfy fans patiently waiting for his (predictably and constantly) pushed-back debut, The Reformation, featuring beats from a rap nerd’s production dream team of Pete Rock, DJ Premier, J Dilla, Dre and 9th Wonder.

“I don’t want to make people lose faith in me as a new artist,” Lamont says. “I love to put music out and feed the masses on whatever level keeps the movement correct and the momentum going. We’re trying to bring stuff to give the West Coast a resurgence. There’s lyricism and banging beats and, most importantly, it’s honest.”

When you talk with Lamont and listen to his mixtapes, his unabashed sincerity quickly reveals itself as one of his cardinal virtues, with no question he won’t answer, nor any topic too raw for him to rhyme about. In fact, it’s little surprise that Dr. “Fuck tha Police” Dre once declared that Lamont and Eminem were the only two rappers whose lyrics had ever made him feel uncomfortable.

“I just like to write, always have since I got into Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Frost when I was young,” Lamont reflects. “It got the ghost out of my skull and kept me stress-free. If you’re being PC about things, you’re just being corny. What I feel might not be the truth for everyone, but I firmly believe that if it’s your truth, you have to say it. It’s about what you’re in it for; do you want to express yourself and try to inspire people or do you just want the check?”

In truth, if “mainstream” West Coast hip-hop is ever going to get its style out of ’94, it’s abundantly clear that it’ll need iconoclastic rappers like Bishop Lamont. So buy a clue, Interscope — stop being mice.

 

Blu: Catching Fire From Word of Mouth and Word of Blog

The first verse on Blu’s official debut, Below the Heavens,aptly summarizes his situation at the time: “I don’t pack stadiums yet/I still rock ’em/and they still spell my name fucked up on their fliers, it’s B-L-U/and if you see the ‘E,’ drop it.”

Released last August on tiny and now essentially defunct local indie Sound in Color, the record received a meager initial pressing of 3,500. It ultimately sold twice that. Not bad, considering Below the Heavens,Blu’s collaboration with local producer Exile, received little to no promotion. Even more impressive when you consider that Blu was practically unknown at the time, and had never even thought about the prospect of making hip-hop for a living until the record dropped.

“I never thought I was going to rap professionally,” Blu says, woolen knit cap pulled low over his eyes, goofy stoner’s grin pasted on his face. “I just got signed to Sound in Color to do the one record with Exile. They were just a bunch of young dudes putting stuff out, mostly DJ scratch records. It wasn’t a big deal. I’d done four or five ones before that. I didn’t even get serious about rapping until 2004.”

Unlike many of his peers, Blu arrived relatively late to hip-hop, after spending an itinerant childhood bouncing across the Southland, with stops in Vernon, Claremont, Montclair, Inglewood, Long Beach, Azusa and Hawthorne. He was banned from listening to rap by his hotheaded pastor stepfather; it was only after moving to San Pedro to live with his biological dad that Blu got his first exposure to the genre.

“My pops used to bang Too Short and 2Pac all the time. At first, I was more into DMX, Mase and Will Smith. Big Willie Style was my first hip-hop album,” the wiry 25-year-old admits sheepishly. “Then I got into older hip-hop, like De La, old Busta Rhymes, Tribe Called Quest, Common, the Roots, Redman, Ghostface, Planet Asia.”

Denied a spot on the San Pedro High basketball team due to poor grades, Blu began to write lyrics and rhyme, describing his early attempts as “baby DMX” imitations. Despite his rapid improvement, the only label to show interest until Sound in Color came along was Suge Knight’s Death Row.

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.”