August 16, 1999

CitySearch Rock, Jazz & Pop
by Anicee Gaddis

It's easy to forget that hip hop started out as an underground movement, especially in an age where everything from fashion trends to magazine publishing to Kmart commercials has been morphed by the genre's aesthetics. MCing, DJing, breaking and tagging are enjoying a second coming; and B-boys and B-girls are in vogue once again.

Despite the '90's divide between the new money hip-hop mainstream and the keepin'-it-real underground, the two schools are more codependent than ever before. Mainstream artists continue to look to their sub rosa brethren for original rhymes and vinyl-worthy beats. The independent labels and artists of the underground, in turn, rely on mainstream marketing to keep hip hop alive and well, while functioning something like the kitchen in a four-star restaurant—behind the scenes, where the best ingredients are whipped into the most eclectic and savory jams.

Quannum (a play on the physics term "quantum") is the latest "hardcore" independent West Coast crew, whose reputation for breaking with traditional hip-hop recipes, and opting for ground zero, has put them in a class by themselves. Formerly known as Solesides, this five-man Bay Area unit, including Lyrics Born, Lateef, Chief Xcel, Gift of Gab and turntablist DJ Shadow, is part of a new movement in a 25-year-old game. Along with East Coast crews like Company Flow and Black Star, Quannum is reviving a 'true school' movement: one that draws inspiration from classic late-'70s hip hop—when the genre was at its purest, and in many ways, its most lethal.

With their first LP release "Quannum Spectrum" out and a national tour in the works, not to mention a slew of well-known releases (some of which have been sampled by the likes of Black Moon and Fatboy Slim) from their original incarnation as Solesides, Quannum is ripe for the majors. Question is, will the true underground ever come up for air? For the moment at least, Quannum seems to preferr the subterranean world of "authenticity," where better live shows, more controversial and thought-provoking records and the absence of corporate sponsors tend to leave a sweeter taste in everybody's mouth. Following is a Friday afternoon East-meets-West Coast telephone conversation with Lateef the Truth Speaker, one of Quannum's ordained lyricists and soothsayers.

CitySearch: First of all, tell me about the genesis of Solesides, the precursor to your current label, Quannum.
Lateef: Solesides started with Jeff Chang or DJ Zen. He had a radio show on KDVS up at [University of California at] Davis. He used to have this thing called "Name That Jam." Chief Xcel and Lyrics Born used to call into the show and win all the time. So Zen finally asked them to come on down and play some shit. DJ Shadow had been involved in the radio station for awhile, because he used to kick it with [rapper] Paris, when Paris went to U.C.-Davis.
CS: Shadow went to Davis too?
L: Oh, yeah. That was in '91-'92, when they all started kickin' it—Gift of Gab, DJ Shadow, Lyrics Born, Chief Xcel and DJ Zen. Everybody was working on their various solo projects, and it was actually Zen's idea to pull their talents and form a label and put something out, instead of trying to get signed. When I finally got up there in '92-'93, they were already midway through putting out the first record. I got in with everybody freestylin'. Then came the Blackalicious "Melodica" EP in '94 [Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab], which got a lot of attention. We could've signed off of that record, but we were, you know, independent. And then we came out with the "Latryx" record in '96, which is to date Solesides' bestseller.
CS: Latryx is you and Lyrics Born.
L: Right. The original idea for Solesides was that everybody was going to be on a different side of the record. So the A side would have one artist, and the B side would have another. That was what brought forth "Send Them" from Lyrics Born and "Entropy" from DJ Shadow. Shadow actually had more experience than anyone else at that point, because he had done mix shows for Cameo, and he had already done a record called "Less Than Six."
CS: There was a tremendous amount of artistic talent involved on your recent album "Quannum Spectrum." And that's not even taking into account the guest appearances by Jurassic 5, Divine Styler, Souls of Mischief and El-P of Company Flow. It basically sounds like there were a lot of people in the room for this album.
L: I hear you. Well, the year we put out that "Send Them/Entropy" record was '92. There was only one other independent record that came out that year, and it was Wu-Tang's "Protect Ya Neck."
CS: Have other people compared Quannum to Wu-Tang, in terms of the collective organization?
L: I've heard that comparison made. And it's a valid one. But even Wu-Tang is a blueprint—taken to the level of a label—of hip-hop crews from the beginning. Think of BDP or the Juice Crew. There were a lot of really good independent artists that had something in common and brought it together and pitched it, even though they were doing their own solo projects. You know, Biz Markie was representing the Juice Crew. Big Daddy Kane was representing the Juice Crew. Marley Marl in the house. Even Hieroglyphics has Freestyle Fellowship, which predated us really, in terms of independent records. That first Freestyle Fellowship record came out in '91, I think. And it was one of those things that really inspired us, because it was a good record. It was like, "These fools are just off the Richter. They really don't give a shit."
CS: What's the underground Bay Area scene like these days?
L: The Bay is kind of the equivalent of Philadelphia on the East Coast. There's a bunch of talent, but it just doesn't get the same kind of nod. If you look at the Bay Area historically—on back through the '60s, even into the '50s—a lot of the artists have done it themselves. If you think of Digital Underground, they put out their first record independently. Obviously Too Short put out his first record independently. One of the only groups to get signed was De La [Da Lench Mob] and Souls of Mischief. And they both had a certain affiliation with Ice Cube that allowed for that.
CS: The Quannum sound is quite original, compared to a lot of the albums coming out these days. Where do you fall at a time when much of hip hop is either hard-core gangsta or pop fluff? How would you feel if your records were in rotation on Hot 97, for example?
L: We're not opposed to anybody listening to our stuff. That's all good. However that doesn't mean we compromise our artistic thing. We're not going to say what you necessarily want to hear.
CS: How would you describe Quannum's musical style?
L: I would put our music in the bin, you know. We really don't want to be pigeon-holed. If you listen to the Latryx stuff or the Blackalicious stuff, we try and break the mold every time. But I think there is something that's happening right now in hip hop. A true school movement.
CS: Yes, absolutely. The stuff Talib Kweli and Mos Def are coming out with.
L: Exactly. There's Talib Kweli. You've got Company Flow. You have the Roots, who are an extension of the true school movement. And the Roots are in the quote-unquote most advantageous industrial position. You know they're signedů
CS: Right. They can cross over to the mainstream, but still maintain an underground agenda.
L: Yeah. But they also suffer from the underground curse, which is that nobody knows who the fuck you are.
CS: When and how do you think this true school movement got started?
L: I think it's part of the underpinning of the whole thing. It's really an extension of BDP. Kind of like classic hip hop just still being done, as opposed to these various offshoots that have come as a result. There's not a big difference between what M.C. Hammer's doing and what Puff Daddy's doing. I should say what M.C. Hammer did. Except that Puff Daddy does it a little bit better.
CS: You think so?
L: Yeah. I like his music a little bit more than I like M.C. Hammer's more poppy stuff. They both started out in their hometowns, in an almost underground way. Jurassic 5 is part of the true school movement, also Black Star, ourselves, the Freestyle Fellowship.
CS: How did you meet Jurassic 5? They're on you new album.
L: We've been hookin' up with them for two or three years now. I must have met Cut Chemist like four years ago. And I mean the cat just had knowledge, you know what I'm saying. You had to respect it. That's how they are. We did tit for tat favors. When we'd go down there, we'd open for them, or they'd come up here and open for us. I feel like they're our brother group in L.A.
CS: Jurassic 5 can flow.
L: Their live show is fuckin' tight.
CS: How has the underground scene changed since the whole alleged East Coast-West Coast conflict, which culminated with the deaths of Tupac and Biggie?
L: A lot of that West Coast shit started in the underground. Freestyle Fellowship were the first ones to do that "West Coast, West Coast" shout. Mystik Journeymen did a lot of that too. It's not as in vogue anymore. I think it started in the underground as a kind of call for respect. Like, "Shit man, we're not gettin' no love, you better respect us." Especially from the East Coast at that time, because that was before they were givin' any love. Then Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog were the West Coast motherfuckers everybody loved to hate, you know. Biggie got shot while we were on tour with Jeru the Damaja. De La Soul was doing dates with us as well. There wasn't any real funk at our shows. Not between us. And the crowd wasn't really trippin'.
CS: You were touring the East Coast?
L: We were all over. It was cool for everybody, because that was the vibe that we brought to it. But I understand that Xzibit was on tour with MOP and Mobb Deep, and he canceled halfway through. And I can see why. That is a tour where funk might've jumped off. The vibe the people were bringing to the shit was like, "Fuck y'all. Y'all wanna waste Tupac. Fuck Tupac, it's Biggie." But that wasn't where we were at. People were talking about it on the tour bus. But that feud wasn't internalized.
CS: It's good to hear some people kept their heads.
L: Now everyone realizes this thing for what it was, in terms of it being a kind of money-making venture.
CS: Which goes along with the gangster stereotype, which is oftentimes just that, a stereotype that's used to sell records. Most rappers couldn't even live up to their own name. It's like a vaudeville show.
L: I think the underground is a little bit more real.
CS: Well, the underground is honest in a way the mainstream has less interest in being.
L: There's more substance. I like music that I can use in my life. Like I'm going to be able to have a conversation with someone and drop some shit that you said to me, and that person is going to be like, "Oh shit." Look at Common's record. That song he did about the abortion was rough to listen to. It was a good-ass song, but it wasn't going to be on the radio. You could take a piece of that home though—talk about it, maybe even work through some stuff with it. And to me, that is what the underground is.
CS: How has hip hop evolved since its inception, nearly 25 years ago?
L: I think that it has evolved, and it has also just expanded. In terms of evolution, you have a bigger gene pool, and you can construct a lot of new stuff from it. Ideologically, I think it's the same as it always was, which is basically just use whatever the fuck you want to make your shit. I think that idea is very powerful, because it's just music. That's just steel drums talking. That's how all of this happened, you know, somebody just picked up a stick—
CS: And started banging on a rock—
L: Somebody killed an animal, had a good ol' time.... I think the essence of hip hop is the music. I can enjoy any kind of music. And I feel like I can bring hip hop to almost any kind of music. I can get up there with a band that's playing some Middle Eastern shit—
CS: Well, that 's the best thing that has happened, the fact that hip hop has infiltrated all these genres of music—from Americana rock to the Asian Underground in London.
L: A lot of people are saying, "hip hop ain't what it used to be." They want to get all nostalgic about it. Hip hop started in the Bronx, New York. My father is from the Bronx. I can respect that. But now, that shit has gone all over the world. I've been on tour in Australia, and seen cats rappin' about their neighborhoods. And there ain't no way you can tell them they can't do that.
CS: So what do you think the message is today?
L: To me, hip hop, which is an amalgamation of everything—it's just this conglomeration of music from fuckin' forever—has become the tool, the vessel through which urban youth all over the world speak.
CS: How do things work out in the studio when you write and record as a group?
L: All of the artists in our collective are open enough with each other, that we can critique and work on a song together. DJ Shadow likes to work on a beat, and give you something that's pretty close to finished. He'll shoot it to you. You'll write to it, bring it back. You'll build on it together. Chief Xcel likes to give you a very stripped down version of the song, have you write to it and then create the beat around your lyrics. With him, it's more like a Ping-Pong game. You're gonna knock it over there and he's gonna knock it back. Eventually, you're gonna get to the point where you're both just slammin' it across the table.
CS: That's a nice metaphor.
L: With me and Lyrics Born, it's very organic. He's in tune with the writer's method. Of course, everybody can turn into a little bitch or an asshole when they've been there for long enough.
CS: But it's impressive when any group of people can work together on a creative project. Name some contemporary hip-hop artists whom you love, hate, respect or feel strongly about in one form or another.
L: West Coast, I'll say Jurassic 5, Freestyle Fellowship, although I haven't heard anything from them lately that I really dig. I like Ice Cube, from a historical point of view.
CS: He's the master. But what about his most recent album "War & Peace"?
L: I'm not really wild about his albums as of late. But I dig his shit. In general, I can listen to him, and be like, "That's Cube man." I kind of like that "pushin' rhymes like weight" shit. And "get ya club on."
CS: Yeah, he's definitely got his own style. What about rappers from the South?
L: I'm feelin' Organized Noize. I like Outkast. I like Goodie Mob, although I wasn't as wild about the last album. I'm kind of feelin' Silkk the Shocker. My little cousin, who is 13, is a big No Limit fan. He makes me listen to them. My sister goes to school in New Orleans, so I've been down to visit. There's some fuckin' talent in New Orleans. There's a local video station, and they were just playin' some stuff that was tight.
CS: Juvenile's from New Orleans.
L: Yeah, I dig his stuff, though not the rest of his crew's. OK, East Coast. I'm feelin' the Roots. I'm feelin' Black Star. I like listening to Mobb Deep and Company Flow, when I'm in New York. And I like listening to Biggie when I'm out there.
CS: He has tremendous style as a rapper.
L: And he's got universal appeal. But there's a way to listen to him in New York, where that fool is fuckin' talkin' about where the shit's at. And it's just fuckin' crazy. You can do the same thing with Pac in L.A., to a certain extent, with his later stuff. You ride through L.A. and be smokin' with your partner and feelin' the shit out of Pac.

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