There's a quiet, laid-back energy in the downtown Oakland offices of Quannum Projects, the independent hip-hop label formed out of the ashes of the Solesides label. But gears are definitely turning: Boxes of records and CDs move in and out, and the phone and fax machine are flooded with messages and requests. Lateef and Lyrics Born, who make up Latyrx, joke back and forth while Blackalicious' Chief Xcel tosses out comments to hype up the pair or settle them down -- anything to keep the conversation moving. Although their mood is lighthearted, they're also working hard in the midst of a do-it-yourself hip-hop obsession that has been their way of life for seven years.
Launched in the placid college town of Davis in the early '90s, the original Solesides crew gathered around UC Davis radio station KDVS: Xcel and his high school friend Gift of Gab (who formed Blackalicious), the Latyrx duo, and DJ Shadow. Encouraged by KDVS's DJ Zen to get serious about making music, they combined forces and released their first single in February 1993. Billed as "Hip Hop Reconstruction From the Ground Up," the 12-inch showcased Shadow, Gift of Gab, and Asia Born (as Lyrics Born was then known). More albums followed, including Latyrx's 1997 debut The Album, with some production assistance from Shadow as well as saxophonist John Tchicai, who played with John Coltrane in the '60s and has worked with a number of experimental jazz musicians.
Latyrx singles and albums have sold approximately 100,000 copies -- a number certainly bolstered by the success of Shadow's 1997 album Endtroducing and the critical acclaim that followed, and an impressive figure for an independent label.
"It's a nice reward," says Lateef. "We put a lot of work into [The Album]." But two years ago, the Solesides artists felt the need to recast their ambitions. "Quannum is a new chapter," says Xcel. "In 1997, we sat back and assessed everything we had set out to do in 1992, and it felt like we had achieved everything. So we were like, 'What's next?' " Quannum, he says, is "a huge movement of energy or energies combining to make a bigger movement of energy. That was the original concept."
That open-ended approach is displayed on Quannum Spectrum, a sampler of collaborations with various independent hip-hop artists: Oakland's Souls of Mischief, Los Angeles' Jurassic 5 and Divine Styler, and New York's El-P of Company Flow. The result is a showcase that serves as an example of what's possible when innovative hip-hop artists work together. "Extravaganza," produced by Lyrics Born, is a chunk of clean, futuristic funk featuring Souls of Mischief, while the Shadow-produced "Storm Warning" symbolically samples the off-the-hook phone sound. On "Golden Rule," Xcel and Lateef collaborate for a lyrical attack on greed: "Well what can I say: 'Never again'/ My windpipe is like a loaded 12-gauge."
The Quannum Projects artists approach their music with very few guidelines. "My only rule is not to have any rules," says Xcel. "We're just trying to give people really vivid pictures of where we are at in different points in our lives." Drawing from soundtracks to salsa to soul to reggae for musical and lyrical ideas, Lateef points out that "you are not really limited by the samples. You're only limited by yourself. We try to get out there and explore the world -- and we try to push the parameters of our work internally as well."
The collaborative nature of Quannum has assisted its artists as they've worked outside the imprint. On the heels of Blackalicious' 1995 Melodica EP, which toyed with varying funk sounds and tempos on the singles "Swan Lake" and "Lyric Fathom," the duo cut a licensing deal with British trip-hop label Mo' Wax, and in May released an EP titled A2G. Lateef appears on "Back to the Essence," a liquid energy burst tightly sewn up with dirty flute notes and a bouncing drumbeat, while on the Cut Chemist-produced "Alphabet Aerobics," Gift of Gab pushes his rap skills to the limit. The tempo smoothly shifts from slow to ridiculously fast as Gab plays off the alphabetical theme: "Artificial amateurs aren't at all amazing ... Broken barriers bounded by the bomb beat."
All of which has helped foster a cross-pollination of ideas and styles within the Bay Area's underground hip-hop community -- home to the ABB, Heiro Imperium, and Stonesthrow labels. "The roots of what we're doing are running deeper," says Lateef. "And as the roots grow deeper, the movement gets stronger." Domino, manager of Heiro Imperium (home to Heiroglyphics, Souls of Mischief, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, and Casual), says, "I think we're all trying to reach the same goals." The very presence of the labels, he notes, "makes people realize there's talent in Oakland -- and that's good for anybody."
"There's a reason why [there are so many] independent hip-hop groups in the Bay Area," says Lyrics Born, claiming that the do-it-yourself approach has fostered growth in an area that functions outside the mainstream entertainment industry. "Either you do it yourself or it does not get done," he adds. "That's why you are looking at this area as being a hot spot or a talent pool for what we do." The Quannum artists have seen it for themselves on tours of Europe, Japan, and Australia. "It's always inspiring for me to travel," says Xcel, "because you get to see all these pockets of scenes all over. We played in Melbourne, which is like the furthest south you can get in the world before Antarctica. To be all the way out there and have people come up to you and tell you that they got your first record at the age of 14 and they grew up on it -- that shit touches you."
Quannum's desire to stay independent is firmly rooted in a belief that hip hop is about experimentation -- collages of sound based on funk rhythms and poetry that can go in any direction. "The thing about hip hop, more than any other genre of music," says Xcel, "is that it has the capacity to reinvent itself at any given moment. That's what keeps the art form propelling forward. People can't be afraid to experiment and take the music to different places." As examples, he recalls De La Soul's Three Feet High and Rising and Pharcyde's Bizarre Ride to the Pharcyde as two albums that changed listeners' perceptions of the genre.
"I wish people would try new things on both sides of the record -- on the making side and on the listening side," says Lyrics Born. "At the end of the day, hopefully we've broadened what people's definitions are of hip hop.