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Thursday, October 21, 2004 at Ruby Skye

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Blackalicious

Blackalicious may not have released an album since 2002's breakthrough Blazing Arrow, but this year the band members have continued to cement their reputation as some of the most compelling hip hop artists in the nation with a string of solo projects. Applying an approach that refutes the notion that complexity and fun are mutually exclusive in hip hop, Blackalicious produces genre-defying music that initially challenges yet ultimately rewards the listener. Chief Xcel's throwback productions leap from Philly-style soul to thick slabs of funk to lush pop arrangements, and they do so in such a seamless manner that the connections always seem logical and never forced. As one half of Maroons -- along with Bay Area MC and Lyrics Born collaborator Lateef the Truth Speaker -- Xcel released one of the Bay Area's most sonically adventurous CDs of the year, Ambush. "Lester Hayes" and "Best of Me" are some of his strongest works to date, proving once again that the Chief is an expert at intertwining live instruments into his productions. In 2004, Blackalicious MC Gift of Gab released his long-awaited solo record, Fourth Dimensional Rocketships Going Up. With cosmic underpinnings and Gab's usual blend of heady wordplay and emotional transparency, Rocketships may have surprised most fans, but it disappointed few. While we're glad to see the guys exploring new territory, here's hoping that 2005 brings a new full-length release from the reigning kings of underground hip hop.

DJ Relm

DJ Relm, aka Michael Wong, began mixing in 1994, saving up funds from his job at Round Table Pizza in order to buy records. Ten years later, he is an accomplished turntablist known throughout the world. Relm honors the culture of the DJ not only by being one himself, but also through his original music compositions and his film and video work dedicated to the art form. He is the producer of several "skratch records," from 1998's Adventures of Sperm Boy: Defender of the Uterus to the more recent The Zodyax Scop System Levels 1-12, his series based on a new scratch technique he invented. These indispensable tools for DJs have helped gain Relm an appreciative international fan base. In 1999, he took home the title at the U.S. edition of the International Turntablist Federation (ITF) championship DJ battle, as well as second place at the ITF World Finals, solidifying his reputation as a leading talent. Relm is a featured DJ in the 2002 documentary Scratch, and he served as director and music supervisor for the making-of featurette of fellow DJ Q-Bert's Wave Twisters film. He has also hosted educational forums on turntablist culture for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and San Francisco State University. 2004 has been a lively year for Relm. He recently toured with Money Mark in Japan, Australia, and New Zealand after playing at several European summer festivals with D-Sharp and the Lifesavas, and now finds himself on the road with local hip hop hero Gift of Gab.

DJ Tom Thump

Tom Thump's been rocking the ones and twos for decades, but he's only recently received the kind of mainstream attention that fans on three continents feel he deserves. From his humble beginnings as Tom Simonian, a radio DJ with a reggae show on a small station in Ann Arbor, Mich., to his current perch at the epicenter of the local club circuit, Tom Thump has kept the body movin' with his signature blend of jazz, hip hop, and house.

Since hitting the scene at 26, Thump has spun at raves in L.A., been a resident at "Mushroom Jazz" here in San Francisco, and managed Groove Merchant, the record store that's so influential in the vinyl world it was name-dropped by the Beastie Boys on their Check Your Head album. Thump's 2001 debut, Panatone: Warm, earned the turntablist major props from critics and a chance to share a DJ booth with beatmasters like Tricky, Kruder & Dorfmeister, Jazzanova, Femi Kuti, and more.

The buzz on Thump, already at a fever pitch on the West Coast and across the pond, is poised to get even louder thanks to URB magazine, which recently tagged him as one of its "Next 100" DJs to watch for. When he's not busy giving interviews or making appearances at industry to-dos like Miami's Winter Music Conference, Thump can be found spinning at "Twice as Nice," his 4-year-old club night at 111 Minna, not to mention at his "Playland," "Mash It Up!," "Budonkadonk," "Sex/ Money/Freaks," and "Othership Connection" parties.

The Exies

Los Angeles' the Exies are singer/guitarist Scott Stevens, bassist Freddy Herrera, guitarist David Walsh, and drummer Dennis Wolfe. The quartet formed in 1997 but didn't release its self-titled debut until 2000, when a slew of industry buzz led to a signing with Ultimatum Records. Three years later, the band gained significantly more notoriety when Virgin Records released its sophomore effort, Inertia, which found the Exies eschewing the straightforward rock of their first release, instead opting for Nine Inch Nails-style arrangements, pulsating electronics, and studio trickery to spice up Stevens' screamed Stone Temple Pilots-esque melodies. After spending much of 2003 and 2004 touring and making appearances on Letterman and Last Call With Carson Daly, the band began writing Head on the Door, which is slated for release in November. The record was produced by Nick Raskulinecz, famous for his work with the Foo Fighters and Velvet Revolver. This time around, the Exies abandoned the direction they took with Inertia, looking instead for "big drums and punchy, tight guitars." Head on the Door fits in perfectly with the current big boys of modern rock. Linkin Park-y vocals yelp out themes of loss, politics, and loneliness, while distorted guitars chuck and squeal alongside hard-rocking drums. The band members even claim their latest batch of songs is the "edgiest, loudest, and most explosive" stuff they've ever written, which makes them excited about the rigorous tour schedule they have planned to promote the record.

Hyim & the Fat Foakland Orchestra

Singer/songwriter Hyim Ross and his backing band, the Fat Foakland Orchestra, won a California Music Award this year for Outstanding Jam Band, but don't go breaking out the incense and patchouli oil just yet. The group's sound is actually more closely related to the sexy, rhythmic vibe of hip hop, funk, and world music than to the stoniness of Phish or the Dead. Though frontman Ross describes his groove as "urban world beat," the pianist-cum-vocalist can channel Randy Newman one minute and Buena Vista Social Club's Ibrahim Ferrer the next. Ross, whose first name is Hebrew for "life," spreads his gospel over some fat beats inspired by Afrobeat, bossa nova, reggae, club music, and even classical, sprinkling in some contemporary pop/rock for good measure.

Over the past two years, Ross has been hitting the local club circuit, from Slim's to the Starry Plough, with his newly formed Fat Foakland Orchestra. A veritable supergroup of session players, the FFO features Wyclef Jean's drummer, Michael Faiella; Omar Sosa's percussionist, Ajayi Jackson; and bassist Mark Calderon, who's shared the stage with the likes of Dave Matthews Band drummer Carter Beauford.

Live, the group attracts a varied audience, united in the feel-good groove these players put out. The Hyim experience is soulful and uplifting, an infectious blend of rock-your-body funk and heartfelt vocals. Ross most recently recorded, produced, and released his own debut CD, Let Out a Little Peace.

John Santos & the Machete Ensemble
See the International/Latin/World nominees.

Kid Beyond

Kid Beyond is Andrew Chaikin, a self-professed voice-over artist, musician, and namer ("I have named, helped name, or helped rename all sorts of things: Internet start-ups, telecommunications companies, consulting firms, medical devices, software products, yogurt products, juice drinks, coffee, and so on. I've even named a spokesdog"). When assuming his Kid Beyond identity, however, Chaikin is all about the beat-boxing, which seems to be very much in vogue now that Björk has released a whole record of it. Like the strange love child of the Roots' Rahzel and Bobby McFerrin, Kid Beyond does spot-on impressions of drum kits and sings soulfully over his own looped beats. On "Kashmir," from The House Jacks, the self-titled Warner Bros. release by Chaikin's former a cappella band, it's uncanny when you realize there is no John Bonham or drummer whatsoever in the studio. What's striking is how much of a rock aesthetic Chaikin is able to achieve using a technique traditionally adopted by hip hop purveyors. Born in New York, he moved to San Francisco in 1991 with a very diligent work ethic that has resulted in musical contributions to countless records, television and radio commercials, cartoons, and video games. It's no surprise, then, that Kid Beyond has become somewhat of a cultural phenomenon in the Bay Area.

Realistic Orchestra
See the Jazz nominees.

Stymie & the Pimp Jones Luv Orchestra
See the Soul/Funk/R&B nominees.

Jason Wheeler

It takes some balls to get up onstage in front of a crowd of skeptic comedy clubbers and try to make 'em crack a smile, armed only with a mike and whatever wit you can muster through the stage fright. It takes a lot of balls to get up there, bomb completely, and go back for more. But that's just what S.F. transplant Jason Wheeler did after suffering through a particularly brutal performance at a Cleveland comedy competition hosted by future sitcom star and King of Comedy Steve Harvey. After putting some serious mileage and several years' distance between himself and the Cleveland incident, Wheeler decided to give comedy another shot, this time hitting up an open mike night in Portland. Shortly after, he landed his first paying gig at an area comedy club called, oddly enough, Harvey's.

Recognizing that being funny takes practice and good stand-ups don't just spring fully formed from the craniums of the comedy gods, Wheeler's spent the last eight years honing his craft, most recently at local laugh houses like Cobb's and the Punch Line. Creating bits out of life's everyday trivialities -- ranting about everything from reality television to politics to dating to the insane cost of living in the city -- Wheeler manages to be edgy without going too blue, an all-too-common rookie mistake. His rap has earned him opening spots for marquee names like Tim Allen, Robin Williams, Dave Attell, and Will Durst. Next up, he's headed to the New Zealand Comedy Festival, but first he'll be yukking it up as a performer and MC at this year's SF Weekly Music Awards.

Honorary Music Award for Commitment to the Local Music Community

Quannum Projects

Quannum Projects is the rare underground hip hop label that understands that the most interesting things happening in the genre are taking place on the peripheries. In Quannum's world, the inspirational boom-bap of the Lifesavas collides with the revamped Afrobeat of Fela Kuti; the soaring, classically informed vocals of Joyo Velarde careen above the dark back roads of legendary producer/archivist DJ Shadow; and the dense, cerebral lyrics of Gift of Gab languidly slide alongside the jazzy German funk of Poets of Rhythm.

Smart yet unpretentious, consistent yet prolific, local yet universal, Quannum is not only the finest independent hip hop label in the Bay Area, but also perhaps the most artistically and commercially viable collective anywhere. This past year saw the label releasing Fourth Dimensional Rocketships Going Up, the excellent solo debut from Gift of Gab, as well as Ambush, the collaboration between Latyrx's Lateef the Truth Speaker and Blackalicious producer Chief Xcel -- who has also recently released a Fela Kuti remix project on the imprint. As always, these records represent a progressive take on hip hop that offers a viable alternative to the mainstream without defining itself in opposition to anything. Quannum and its artists have received a lot of attention lately, and they deserve every bit of it. Blackalicious. DJ Relm. DJ Tom Thump. The Exies. Hyim & the Fat Foakland Orchestra.

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