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Personality Crisis 

As commercial hip hop radio becomes tired, turf wars flicker out, and the underground diversifies, does the Bay Area have its own identity anymore?

Wednesday, Jun 28 2000
Next time you ask somebody where hip hop's going, ask yourself, "Where am I going?"

Mos Def, "Fear Not of Man"

It's been nearly four years since the costs of hip hop regionalism, marked by commercial pigeonholing, and, indelibly, the murders of Tupac Shakur in 1996 and Biggie Smalls in 1997, finally caught up with its commercial rewards, first heralded by 2 Live Crew's 2 Live Is What We Are and N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton. Today, global-minded industry consolidations are hammering regional programming differences out of commercial hip hop radio, even as an embarrassment of riches in terms of genre-pushing diversity seems to be springing up in every city and suburb.

Like many hip hop communities, in the midst of these changes the Bay Area is being forced to reconsider its identity -- in particular its proudly independent status, and the nature of collaborations with other regions like L.A.'s label-heavy scene. Further, it's been forced to rethink the definition of "independent" and "underground."

Ten years ago, those issues weren't so murky. From 1979 to 1987 or so, a commercially pre-eminent, so-called "New York" hip hop sound codified (somewhat artificially) the work of artists from what were fiercely distinct boroughs. In the year 2000, a national commercial hip hop sound -- and perhaps even a stiffly parametered national "underground" sound as well -- seems to be codifying from the selected work of artists from what were, especially from the late '80s to the mid-'90s, fiercely distinct regions musically.

"I've been around the country and I can close my eyes and I can tell the company that owns the radio station by listening to the format -- versus knowing what city I'm in, because it all sounds the same," says Davey D, author of The Hip Hop Chronicles -- It Was Here Before You Came, which focuses on hip hop music and culture before rap records were released. As a Bay Area radio host, DJ, and activist for the hip hop community on listener-funded KPFA-FM (94.1), as well as the otherwise decidedly commercial KMEL-FM (106.1), and as one of the nation's most prominent independent hip hop information Webmasters (, D straddles the seeming chasm between hip hop's community-based roots and its ever-swelling market base.

Industry consolidation, D argues, is at the root of commercial homogenization. "The record industry will sound the same only because radio tends to be owned by the same people, so radio starts to program in such a way that what you hear in New York you hear in Philadelphia, with very little reflection of local scenes," D says.

"I think what has happened is that hip hop has grown," says Hieroglyphics producer Domino, who also runs the group's independently distributed label (at The growth of the medium, he argues, has not only yielded standardized commercial sounds, but expanded the audience for less commercially oriented acts as well. As a result, regional rivalries (never a Hieroglyphics motif anyway) have become less engaging for the average listener. "People are always gonna shout out where they're from and talk about where they're from," he says. "But I don't think that there's any type of rivalry anymore. I just think that the pie is big enough for everybody. Even on a pop level ... [the success of commercial hip hop] has made the pool of people who like underground, independent hip hop even bigger as well. ... And I think that everyone is kind of accepting everyone now. Hip hop has gotten to the point that the exposure is equal, in a sense, for everybody."

Hip hop, now in its 20s, has actually sired a prolifically growing family of scenes. Hungry young artists are popping up everywhere, with palettes often strikingly distinct from their parent artists'. In the Bay Area alone, "God, there's so much, there's really no one sound at all [anymore]," observes Billy Jam, a Bay Area (via Ireland) hip hop DJ/journalist/producer whose mixed-media company, Hip Hop Slam, has been nurturing local noncommercial hip hop since 1986. "In the late '80s you could say there was an Oakland sound ... which was more of the playa-gangster, i.e., 415 featuring Richie Rich, Poohman, Too $hort, all these people like that.

"[But then] Del and the Hieroglyphics come along in '90, '91, and then you have people like Digital Underground from Berkeley-Oakland, and Father Dom from Oakland, who was doing kind of a jazzy thing." From there, the local soundscape exploded across the spectrum, making classification an uphill battle for the organizers of hip hop's file cabinets.

Domino recalls the Hieroglyphics' initial impact on the region's hip hop identity. "I think ... we were the first to kinda be doing something else other than like the regular pimp, you know, mack mentality that ... was the only thing that the Bay Area was known for. ... So when a lot of people were trying to talk about a Bay Area sound, it got difficult to say 'a Bay Area sound.' What's that, when you've got people like Too $hort and E-40, but then you've got the Heiroglyphics?"

Bay Area rap artists emerging in the early to late '90s as a whole consistently drew inspiration from across the musical spectrum. This forced bay-boosting critics to reclassify the Bay Area hip hop aesthetic as more of an independent-minded mentality inherited from Too $hort, E-40, and others, rather than an actual sound that lined up with those pioneers.

"Everybody is independent here, out of necessity," Jam says. "It's not that they turned down major label deals. It's like, 'Fuck it, are we gonna do it or not?'" Souls of Mischief MC and Hieroglyphics business administrator Tajai, who worked as recording engineer for the group's new double LP Trilogy, agrees that being independent is "definitely, definitely" a Bay Area thing. The lack of major label interest ("The last person they found was probably Santana," Tajai quips) necessitated the local independent movement. But other factors, arguably specific to the Bay Area, have helped it to gain momentum. Tajai credits local open-mindedness toward different kinds of music, the inspirational success of the independent-driven punk rock scene in the '70s and '80s, the "small community but large underground" that enables artists to sustain themselves with tape sales, and the proximity of other underground-savvy markets, such as L.A., Portland, and Seattle. The most crucial factor, arguably, is the mind-set -- the awareness of and confidence in the ability to go independent rather than thinking solely in terms of landing a major label record deal.

That's the legacy of every local independent success story. "When we got signed initially, that was the only thing we thought: 'Oh, you get a deal,'" Domino recalls. "'You go get signed, and then you come out.' No one then had the mentality that maybe we could do it ourselves. So now, since we've done it, and other groups have done it, then you have more kids who are going, 'Hmm. I got this type of music. I don't have to just try to shop it and get a deal. I could also put it out myself.'"

But as the Bay Area hip hop scene now identifies itself in terms of an underground mentality instead of a specific sound, the definition of "underground" or "independent" hip hop has become slippery. "For example, when I talk to people, they will say, 'Oh, I love Rasco and Mystik Journeymen and Dilated Peoples' and folks that have that type of sound, and they'll say that's the underground," says Davey D. "And I would say that's no more underground than the Delinquents -- you know, D-Shot, Killa Tay, and about 50 other groups that have a street, hard-edged, 'we came from East Oakland, the Fillmore, Hunters Point'-type of sound. What makes the Rawkus sound underground and the other type of sound not underground? ... You know, what makes you more hip hop than some kid that lives in East Oakland on 98th, you know, standing on a corner?"

"As you start to search around," he adds, "you'll find that there's so many different sounds that people tend to gravitate towards a particular style, as opposed to necessarily looking at it regionally. ... You have an underground-type of flavor that people can appreciate from coast to coast; you have a street ... type of sound that people can appreciate from coast to coast; you have a spoken word sound that people can appreciate from coast to coast. And I think people start to link up on those cliques.

"I just see everybody's into a form of hip hop the way everybody was into a form of rock 'n' roll. And within hip hop now, like you have in rock 'n' roll, you have so many different genres ... [that] you gotta just kinda pick one. Punk rock is not the same as Bruce Springsteen."

Perhaps the most comforting, if paradoxical, side effect of commercial hip hop spreading across the nation is the shrinking of the spaces between artists. Collaborations, whether industry- or artist-driven, abound now more than ever.

Certainly collaborations can readily -- and often correctly -- be seen as cynical profiteering on labels' parts. It takes no effort to imagine back-room schemings about capturing the Southern demographic on Project Sell-a-Lot with the inclusion of special guest Juvenile. Dr. Dre and Eminem's platinum-selling work together, viewed from a profiteering mind-set, fits cozily into a corporate model of listener demographic consolidation: "Say, Morty, I'll loan you Dre's old-school gangsta creds and throw in some g-funk production on the new single if you spot me a bit of that Eminem kid's rising star relevance and crossover listener base."

But artists also often flourish in collaboration with others whose work they admire. While artists have always understood this, their requests to parlay mutual respect into artistic ventures are being met with unprecedented permissiveness, and even enthusiasm, on the part of their industry overseers. It's that collaboration between artists, despite its origins in industry consolidation, which may turn out to be the trend that ultimately brings about artistic and economic independence for artists. On last year's refreshingly eclectic Quannum Spectrum compilation (on Oakland's Quannum Projects), Bay Area artists DJ Shadow, Latryx, Blackalicious, and Souls of Mischief mixed it up with L.A.'s Jurassic 5, the Beat Junkies' Chief Xcel, and others. The collaborations also expanded on activist-minded compilations like last year's No Prisons and No Mayo's The Funky Precedent, as well as the anti-Prop. 21 "guerrilla concerts" by the Coup and others.

According to Davey D, many current alliances between Bay Area and L.A.-based artists may be traced back to Tupac; the friendship between Ice-T and Too $hort; the many DJs from the bay who have worked in L.A.; MC Hammer; and Digital Underground, whose manager doubled as the road manager for N.W.A.

In fact, D suggests, "where it even becomes a story of collaboration, you know, like the bay and L.A. are collaborating, the question should be, 'Why was it ever separated?' Why did somebody decide that they weren't going to play music from all over, and [instead play] just one particular type of music?" In other words, a regionalism rooted in rivalries and even a de facto geographical segregation of artists was once an overt industry marketing strategy. And today's increased fostering of collaborations between artists of different regions signifies a reversal of sorts.

"People are swaying away from that [regional emphasis] just because ... hip hop has gotten to the point where everybody's influencing everybody," Domino says. "[But] where they take it is yet to be seen."

About The Author

Greg Doherty


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