The Lootpack story begins in the 805 area code, an hour or so north of L.A., in a place called Oxnard. Twenty minutes away from the dreaded Central Valley, it doesn't seem like the classic breeding ground for a hip-hop group. "It's Mars to everybody, just a little lost city," producer and MC Madlib says. "I don't know how we ended up here. It's strange."
Or maybe it's not so strange. With so much overly slick and sugary radio rap coming out of the recognized centers -- New York, Los Angeles proper, and, more recently, New Orleans -- maybe a perspective from another planet is needed to make inspired hip hop these days. Maybe the important question to ask about a hip-hop group isn't whether it's under- or aboveground, but whether it's on different ground. That theory would explain the attention such far-flung locales as Vancouver, Houston, Cleveland, and Seattle have been getting lately as hot spots for "true," "pure," and "real" hip hop. If that were true, though, Lootpack's 24-track album Soundpieces: Da Antidote! -- a blend of virgin old-school hip-hop samples and modern rhyme schemes -- would have come from some kids in Anchorage or East Jesus, Mo. If it were only a matter of location, one of the year's best hip-hop albums would have had to originate from somewhere far more obscure than Oxnard.
For Lootpack, composed of Madlib (Otis Jackson), MC Wildchild (Jack Brown), and DJ Romes (Romeo Jimenez), it's a combination of unique perspective, time-tested skills in the studio and on the mike, and a whole lot of perseverance. "I just got mad patience," Madlib sighs. "I don't even worry about this." The "this" he's referring to is the get-rich-quick climate of the rap industry, in which producers reach for the nearest '70s or '80s pop hit, loop it, and watch the dollars roll in. "There's nothing I can do [about it] -- they're making so much money making that crap ... I guess that's just what average people like. We're making music for people who want something more than that stuff."
DJ Romes agrees. "The labels try to clone, to make their own Tupac, their own Method Man. That's why you have the overnight MCs." Artists with no prior involvement in the music or culture of hip hop are sprouting up like weeds, intent on making a fast buck on the mainstream's interest in rap and R&B. And to the uninitiated, the business sense seems sound. With hip hop commanding the largest share of album sales today, starry-eyed hopefuls think a hit single means financial security. If there's one thing Lootpack has learned in its 15 years, it's that all that glitters is not gold.
While Soundpieces, their first album, was released in June, Lootpack has been together since the members met in sixth grade, back in 1984. They made a demo and shopped it in 1990, which brought them to the attention of Tha Alkaholiks, one of L.A.'s first well-known groups to make a name outside the gangster rap genre. In 1993, they featured Lootpack on two cuts of their debut album, 21 & Over. Soon after, the big boys were lining up to sign the group. "The first one was Loud Records, because we were with the 'Liks," Romes remembers. "But they had a bunk-ass deal. Second was Mercury -- Bomb Ass Records -- with DJ Pooh. That was the big one, when I got all hyped and quit my job. Pooh was cool though, but it was a wack contract -- and I didn't have a job anymore. Then it was Warner Brothers. Something happened with the A&R guy, we got in a dispute with him, so that didn't happen. Then Pooh called us back for Warner Brothers and he was [offering] us a good deal, but somehow after we recorded the songs, it didn't happen. After that, they tried to get us on Geffen, and that didn't work."
During this whirlwind of bum deals, they saw like-minded groups such as L.A.'s Pharcyde and Oakland's Souls of Mischief sign major label contracts and have their music heard by the nation. In the meantime, Madlib's father, who was managing the group, funded their first solo release, a single called "Psyche Move," on their own Crate Digger's Palace Records. The song was picked up by college radio, where San Francisco DJ/producer/indie record entrepreneur Peanut Butter Wolf (Chris Manak) heard it. He contacted them, and the ensuing negotiations were like night and day compared to the group's previous label experiences. Lootpack is now releasing its records on Wolf's Stones Throw label on a per-album deal, but they aren't exclusively signed to anyone. There's always the chance the Holy Grail of major contracts will come their way, enabling Romes and Wildchild to quit their day jobs and do hip-hop things full time.
"We all have bills to pay," Wildchild says, "so the money would be an issue, but those [deals] have been brought up before, where we could have had this much, but the terms of the contract, publishingwise or the creative control, weren't right. It seemed like every label we went to had some expectation of what they wanted before they even heard anything. We didn't even hear that when we went to Stones Throw. [Peanut Butter Wolf] liked everything we did."
Their past deals only offered to pay for 10 songs; they knew they had something special with Stones Throw when Peanut Butter Wolf was game to release the 24 they had in mind. Soundpieces comes off like the final release of a million ideas stored up for way too many years. There's an eight-minute concept track called "Episodes" that sounds like a radio tuner scanning between stations, occasionally finding a snippet from different Lootpack tracks on the airwaves. The song "Questions" is followed up 12 tracks later with "Answers." Guest appearances from their own crew and L.A. neighbors Dilated Peoples and Tha Alkaholiks are almost as numerous as there are tracks. On "Weededed," Wildchild takes a critical look at the medicinal herb many MCs rely on to aid their ailing lyrics: "Don't get me wrong -- I like the smell of it, but when you need it and you prefer it are two different things."
The nucleus of the Lootpack atom -- and their unnamed crew of affiliates Quasimoto, Kazi, Oh No, Medaphoar, Godz Gift, and Declaime -- is no doubt Madlib, a production wizard whose variety of sound and finesse are on par with Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Prince Paul, or any of hip hop's most recognized figures. He pulls samples from forgotten soul and jazz records, television, even Rudy Ray Moore's obscure anti-classic blaxploitation flick Avenging Disco Godfather. "I don't use any Diana Ross," he says, "no disrespect ... but I try to dig for original loops."
He has a talent that could make him a very rich man -- a few pop-oriented side projects and Madlib could easily overthrow Master P or Puff Daddy as the next hit factory. "I could do R&B, I could do gangsta rap, but I don't be feelin' that. I gotta be true to myself. Like my man Tash [from Tha Alkaholiks], he wanted me to do some G-funk beats on his album, some radio stuff. I couldn't do that. And now I'm not on the album."
Instead Madlib cooks up beats for the MCs in which he has total confidence. Every day he makes a new 60-minute beat tape for the stable of rappers he works with to play in their cars. They freestyle while driving around the 805, whittling down the best cuts, and the favorites make it to the albums (Quasimoto's 30-song LP is next). "Basically, when he makes his beat tapes, he keeps all our groups doing stuff," Wildchild says. "Normal producers throw people a beat, schedule a session, and make a song. Madlib does it on a daily basis, so it helps keep our mind open."
The inner circles of the hip-hop community are finally starting to take notice. Recently, Peanut Butter Wolf received an e-mail from ?uestlove, drummer from the Roots, "saying, 'Thank you for putting Lootpack out' -- and I had never even talked to him or anything," Wolf marvels. "He literally said, 'Sheer genius.' He said, 'Me, D'Angelo, and [A Tribe Called Quest producer] Jay Dee can't stop listening to this record.'