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.“
As entertaining as Question and The Platform are in their mission to preserve and extend the new-school tradition, their devotion creates a cannibalistic cycle single-mindedly focused on making music for, by and about the underground. The result is that their albums feel redundant and didactic. There‘s nothing wrong with bragging about your superior beats and verses, but doing it over 15 cuts gives Platform an overfamiliarity by even halfway through, and subsequent listens fail to reveal any new secrets to marvel over.
At a hefty 74 minutes, PUTS could have eased the load on their album, too, but credit them with a diverse song selection and magnificent production. However, like Dilated, they’re overly conscious about representing the underground. When you brag about wanting to make ”‘93-style hip-hop“ 40 years hence, is that progression or regression? It’s clear that PUTS and Dilated are capable of much more.
Quasimoto‘s The Unseen risks the same fate with its staggering 24 songs (63 minutes), yet the album’s creative ballast prevents it from sinking under its own weight. The digitized doppelganger of producerMC Madlib (of Oxnard‘s the Lootpack), Quasimoto is an escape into a world of nonsensical imagination. Like PUTS, Madlib is a dedicated beat-digging fiend, offering ”Jazz Cats“ (a rundown of over two dozen influential musicians) and ”Return of the Loop Digga“ (self-explanatory). His tracks lack the polish of the PUTS or Dilated albums, but his laconic, lo-fi aesthetic is intentional. This rough-hewn approach gives The Unseen the sound and feel of a lost demo tape from ’92, except that no sane artist back then would have made an album with such bizarre, surreal songs. His selections, like ”Come on Feet“ and ”Put a Curse on You,“ don‘t follow any kind of narrative path or even straight rhyme pattern. Instead, The Unseen is a conversation between QuasiMadlib’s dueling alter egos, who argue back and forth over the music, only to be interrupted by spoken-word snippets grifted from the Last Poets and Melvin Van Peebles.
It‘s the album’s quixotic character that prevents Quasimoto from painting himself into a corner. While it‘s obvious that Quasi is a new-school child — evident in his loop-heavy production and subject matter (beats, rhymes and weed) — he doesn’t seem to care if he‘s staying true to anything but his own fancies. Not only does the album sample Van Peebles’ frantic vocals, it also shares an affinity with his spoken-word albums, such as Serious as a Heartattack — both are most interesting when they take chances and risk alienation andor ridicule.
That‘s the most significant difference with The Unseen. It’s clearly inspired by an imagined nostalgia for the new school, but it‘s not self-conscious about its authenticity, or beholden to a tradition. Rather than mechanically reproduce the new school, Quasimoto is content with embodying its creativity, frolic and experimentation. Thus, The Unseen is less resurrection and more improvisation, and that’s perhaps the greatest tribute one can pay to the past — taking its ideals and running with them anew.