So intones a nasal-voiced representative of the underground paparazzi on How the West Was One's final track, a parody of the infighting and credentials-checking that plague the subcommercial realms of rap music. As tongue-in-cheek as the skit is, it's clear from their lyrical content that the Cali Agents -- Rasco and Planet Asia themselves -- are seriously grappling with the nagging question of artistic authenticity, and how to maintain theirs while putting food on the table -- or even gold chains around their necks.
Having both fought their way out of the trenches of amateur MC-dom by the hallowed tactics of the so-called backpacker model -- pressing up records on low-budget labels and networking like mad with indie producers across the country -- Rasco and Planet Asia can boast backgrounds about as spotless as damn near anyone. The underground scene is ripe with such heroes, flesh-and-blood examples that prove rising in hip hop's ranks doesn't require a soft drink endorsement or the workings of the major label machine. Little backpackers can sleep soundly at night knowing that the great cause is being defended from crumbly studios and poorly lit stages everywhere.
All this is fine with the Agents. They grew up with similar convictions themselves, and still harbor serious reservations about the compromises demanded by full-blown commercial success. But with a few modestly selling solo outings under their belts -- and a modicum of financial security within sight -- they want to make sure they don't paint themselves into the starving-artists corner either. Rasco makes the point, with his relentlessly straightforward diction, on "Up Close and Personal":
"We still out makin' the green/ Clean cut/ I ask a nigga what in the fuck/ What you doin' in the game and not lookin' for bucks/ That don't make no sense to me/ Nigga we got some grands to see/ Better believe I retrieve/ Every last cent for rent/ I don't need another man's consent/ I'm content with my own."
In any splinter group that forms as a reaction to the mainstreaming of a larger scene -- be it acoustic die-hards with Bob Dylan or punk DIY-ers with Green Day -- there develops a sentiment that their heroes should stay broke and obscure forever. In hip hop, it's gotten to the point where artists are getting dissed for claiming to be independent while having their self-financed records distributed by the majors. Where and how you get your money is frequently more important than what you're saying or the music you're creating.
Over in Oakland, Wally Backpack pushes his investigation further: Well, well, well ... gentlemen, that's great and all but I have a few questions ... what about the backpacker? What about underground tapes? What about the fans that come to your shows and just stare at you? What about skateboards and Top Ramen? Aren't we losing our values here? Aren't you forgetting about where you come from? I mean, it's like you're selling out. I mean, look at you -- you have new clothes, chains, medallions ... you know what, I bet you even have money ...
Wally's line of questioning is silenced by a flurry of fist-meeting-flesh sounds as the rugged beat of "Fuck What You Heard" thumps along. Rasco, speaking via cell phone from a tour bus, says he thinks that type of fan got things terribly twisted somewhere along the line "and the whole thing's gotten out of control. I think it was a misconception with underground dudes that we don't deserve to make money, or we shouldn't make money," he explains. "To me, we are the ones that should make the money. If you're a cat that's doing a record and you're trying to stay true to the elements of hip hop and not really what you'd call selling out and doing some commercial stuff, I think those are the people that deserve to reap the benefits monetarily.
"This is a job," he continues. "It's the love, and to get paid to do what you love doing -- what more could you ask for? It's just like being a basketball player -- you've played it all your life, you've loved it all your life. When the time comes for you to go to the NBA, you have to take advantage of that. I'm in the game because I love it, but I also need to feed my family -- to me, that's real. I'm not fending for myself anymore, I got more on the plate than that."
With the outlandish success of Eminem, an artist who battled for years in the shadows while making freestyle cameos on mix tapes that were buzzed about in the same tones as Planet Asia's are now, it seems like the consuming public might be threatening to re-evaluate the skills of their favored pop sensations. So it could be that selling a million copies -- a figure Rasco makes no bones about aspiring to -- will soon be possible for MCs who aim to dazzle crowds with their tongues rather than their designer gear or sneering crew of hangers-on.
Any attempt to do so though must be timed perfectly and carried out with a special mix of business and artistic savvy. Asia, who spent over a year weighing his options before settling on a mega-budget solo deal with Interscope, is taking the transition as carefully as possible. In the opening lines of "Neva Forget," he almost seems to be warning himself of the potential pitfalls of such a move: "I heard you went platinum on your first album/ But tell me this/ Why is it now I heard you only sold about 200,000/ Now what's that telling you/ That your fans was never down/ Got you wondering now/ Maybe I should have stayed underground/ But you can't come back/ Because real rap fans they hate you/ You overdid your image/ Now you can't stay true."
In an even more self-conscious move, Asia's titling his final project before his major label debut Last Stand. After many years of dues-paying in the hip hop wasteland that is Fresno, he's moved to the bay and is now hoping to expand his listening base without alienating his grass-roots following. Through it all though, he's dead set on not catering specifically to any demographic, particularly the backpacker clique.
He often wonders how true a lot of the more politically minded fans are, given their claims of martyrdom to the culture and the so-called original elements of hip hop. "'They're gonna ride the next man's dick just as hard," he observes. "And the next man might not have the same amount of skill, and they just ridin' his shit because he's saying he's hip hop and he's saying he's underground or whatever.
"But we're not trying to shit on the backpacker fan like that either because we're backpack cats too. We're real cats though. Basically it's a balance -- we're trying to tell motherfuckas you can't be too much of anything. You can't be too much a patriot or none of this shit because all this shit is illusion anyway. Taking this shit like it's the most high or something -- hip hop's not the most high."
For both Rasco and Planet Asia, the critical line between artistic legitimacy and industry servitude is drawn over the issue of creative control. Compromise doesn't entail moving a certain number of units, but in listening to people pointing at pie charts when deciding how to present oneself to the public, either in terms of sound or image.
"If I do something and it feels like me and it goes commercial," Rasco says, "then I'm not going to fight that. I want to sell a million records, I'm not going to even lie to you -- I'd love to have a million people listening and supporting what I do. But at the same time, what did you do to get those million is what matters."