Photo by Mike Piscitelli

THE COUNTRY CLUB HAS SEEN BETTER DAYS. HAVING survived country, punk rock, boxing and Van Halen cover bands, the tired old venue — which hides near the clogged artery of Reseda Boulevard and Sherman Way in the barely beating heart of the San Fernando Valley — must now endure a hip-hop hop. Inside, the club feels musky and neglected, like a smelly aquarium with layers of built-up algae. Canoga Park's own Styles of Beyond are the big fish in tonight's tank, and man, are they drowning.

Nothing helps: not DJ Cheapshot's steady groove, nor the enthusiastic representing of SOB's posse — with boisterous assistance from the megahuge Forty, raising his meaty arms and spewing the usual crowd-inciting clichés (“Styles of Beyond in tha housssse!”). MCs Takbir and Ryu futilely shout their rhymes at the thoroughly frisked crowd of perhaps 300 — teen skater boys, preppy-looking girls in miniskirts who bob and weave to the muddy bass beat, and gravity-defying esés whose breakdancing spins turn them into human drill bits.

The MCs pack it in after 20 minutes. They had a feeling it would be like this. Besides, they coulda backed out when Tak tore cartilage in an ankle while performing photo-shoot acrobatics two days earlier. Instead, he's carted around the crowded stage in a wheelchair, occasionally hopping up to punctuate a line. However, when you're the San Fernando Valley's great hip-hop hope, with a freshly inked major-label deal and a national tour in the works, a bad show ain't no thing.

Styles of Beyond — the unlikely alliance between a buggin' white broken-homie with Abe Lincoln whiskers and a mellow African-American hip-hop legacy — emerged from a suburban swamp that has little in common with the bitches, blunts, ho's and gunshots that are the earmarks of West Coast hip-hop. Which is what makes their debut album, the sly and slinky 2000 Fold (on the Dust Brothers' Hi-Ho Records, though originally released on the indie Bilawn label last fall), such a pleasant shock to the bootay. It's a blast back to the day when rap was pure joy, sans the politics, exemplified in “Easy Back It Up,” with its celebratory refrain, “Put the needle on the plate.” 2000 Fold is hardcore without the horror, informed by that which all kids worship — Japanese animation, comic books, the Discovery Channel — and driven by classic hip-hop grooves produced by Vin Skully and assistance from an array of guest DJs, with a word up to the Beasties and A Tribe Called Quest, and a twist of Chic's “Good Times” turned on its head.

A concept album of sorts, 2000 Fold stars Ryu (Ryan MaGinn) and Takbir (Takbir Bashir) as badass superheroes who arrive in a radio-unfriendly universe to turn the beat around and save it from a morass of shit-talkin' gangstas and Puffyesque poseurs. The record's loaded with the clever, boastful rhyming of freestyle-battle vets: “Turn the rats on the ashes of what rap was before you trapped it/locked in a box as big as this room, but you can't keep hip-hop captive!” they shout in “Styles of Beyond (Style Warz),” over a tricky, low-down beat supplied by DJ Rhettmatic.

Outside the studio, however, the capes are off. “I just think we're trying to revitalize it, give it that old spark it used to have,” Ryu says. “We're not trying to save it, because it's not dead, it's just a lot different than we used to hear it.”

Not that the MCs had any idea what they were on to when they began recording 2000 Fold more than two years ago. “We didn't purposely set out to create a certain sound or anything like that,” Ryu explains as he sucks down an 18-ouncer of Newcastle Brown Ale. He's observing the happy-hour geezers at SOB's away-from-home headquarters, the C-Park English pub Scotland Yard, whose only obvious nods to the hip-hop nation are an SOB CD in the jukebox and a Jurassic Five sticker on the ceiling of the men's bathroom. Tall and blond, Ryu does most of the talking, punctuating his sentences with perfectly cultivated rapspeak: “. . . and shit,” “. . . know what I'm saying?” Takbir, 22, sits back with a green cap covering his dreads, his swollen ankle elevated, chiming in only intermittently, in chill mode after tossing back a Vicodin for the pain, washed down with his own Newcastle.

What sparked them were the old-school sounds they heard on the late radio station KDAY: Big Daddy Kane,

De La Soul, Tribe, the Beasties, and an artist KDAY never played . . . Grandmaster Mr. Mojo Risin'. “The Doors were a major influence,” Ryu says. “Jim Morrison was the original fucking rapper.”

If nothing else, 2000 Fold channels into the KDAY heyday, providing a funked-up alternative to the watered-down mainstream rap of 1999. “We don't have a deep message,” says Tak. “We're just trying to embrace all the different subcultures of hip-hop. The KROQ listener's gonna get a Styles of Beyond album.”

Despite pressure from the purists, SOB won't be gunslingin' any time soon. “It's really a hardcore hip-hop without the crap in it,” Ryu says. “You could still be hardcore and have rough lyrics and sick-ass beats without playing yourself in the process.”

Yeah, but the naysaying comes fast and furious, much of it because Styles of Beyond is geographically undesirable to the heads over the hill. “People in other parts of L.A. always try to diss us because we're from the Valley,” Ryu says. “It's not like we're trying to represent our hood because it's hard or something. It's just where we live.” 2000 Fold includes little Valley representing, “Winnetka Exit” being an obvious example. “We just wanted a song people could chill with,” Tak says. “Something real relaxing and kinda cool. It's our version of a gangsta song.”

They're also targeted for jacking old-school bravado. “Boasting is good,” Ryu says. “I love it when people hate on that shit. That's hip-hop, dude. It's storytelling. Besides, people that talk shit the most about how much we boast are always the ones who suck ass at rhyming.”

Mostly, though, they're getting props from their elders. They plan on utilizing the production skills of their bosses, the Dust Brothers, on their next album, and Beck apparently digs 'em as well. They've also heard from Prince Paul, Rza and Q-Tip. “They're all like, 'Yeah, I bought that shit.' That's kind of weird,” says Ryu. “We're like little kids compared to these people.”

TAKBIR GREW UP IN A STABLE HOME SURROUNDED by music — his brother, Bilal Bashir, is a notable hip-hop producer (Ice T, Divine Styler) who got his feet wet deejaying for Kurtis Blow, while Ryu bounced from Long Beach to Van Nuys when his parents divorced. Both honed their rhyming skills by freestyling with friends. “Where we grew up,” says Ryu, “friends just freestyled all the time, and I thought they sucked. They were like, 'Bust something.' And I'd bust something and it was probably pretty wack, but it was better than them, so I just started battling.”

After meeting in 1996 at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Ryu quickly joined the Styles of Beyond crew, which at that point consisted of Tak and DJ Cheapshot. “Tak was telling me he was a dope-ass battler and shit, and he'd battled this one dude and took him out,” Ryu remembers. “So we went back to the car and listened to some beats and started freestylin' and shit, and he said, 'I got access to studio equipment. Let's do something.'”

Initially, they rhymed and recorded just for fun. Neither had high hopes of turning Styles of Beyond into a full-fledged commercial enterprise, especially after they shopped their demo of “Killer Instinct” to L.A. rap labels, who didn't want to hear it. But Bilal helped get them a guest spot on 92.3 The Beat's Wakeup Show in early 1996, in which they freestyled and played “Killer Instinct.” Before they knew it, a distribution deal was set up and a single released on Bilawn Records.

And now that they've turned pro for keeps, they're gonna take full advantage: Takbir had a freestyling cameo in She's All That, “Easy Back It Up” was heard in the recent Chow YunFat film The Corruptor, and they positively will not sleep until their music is played in elevators and they get a Gap commercial.

But won't the cred police have more ammunition? “If we do a Gap commercial, we're gonna do a dope-ass Gap commercial,” Ryu explains. “That's stuff the underground hip-hop world does not see. This is a corporate world.”

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