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Quannum Mechanics 

The amazingly true tale of the Bay Area's greatest hip hop success story

Wednesday, Mar 16 2005
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The bass line thunders out of the DNA Lounge's colossal speakers as the sold-out crowd pushes toward the stage. With this many arms and bodies intertwined, it's hard to tell where one person ends and another begins. The beat drops. Cutting through the darkness, stage lights find the performers -- MCs Lyrics Born, Lateef, and Gift of Gab -- as they shuffle onto the stage, dressed immaculately in pressed button-down shirts. As the bodies surge, Lyrics Born cracks a quick grin before breaking into his gruff, singsong flow that rides over a deceptively laconic sample. Marveling at the crowd's enthusiasm, Lateef provides Lyrics Born with a smooth, supporting vocal counterpoint. From the amount of fun everyone's having, it's hard to imagine that these three are CEOs of the most successful independent hip hop label in the Bay Area, Quannum Projects. But they are that, and much more.

For the next 2 1/2 hours, the Quannum MCs, with the help of their DJ, Chief Xcel, deliver a euphoric set that spans from their early days when they were part of a crew known as Solesides -- and when many in this crowd were barely teenagers -- through their most recent output, most notably Lyrics Born's celebratory anthem "Calling Out," the only hip hop song to stay atop local alternative rock station Live 105's request charts for 15 weeks. Judging from the fervor of both the fans and the performers, it's evident that this is more than just a homecoming for this crew, which was on tour most of last year. This is an assertion of dominance, a presence not felt since the glory days of Hieroglyphics in the mid-'90s. Later, Lateef declares that this is "probably the best show [he's] ever done."

It sounds like hyperbole, but it's not. Over the past 13 years, Quannum Projects and its stable of musicians/owners have had arguably the greatest success of any independent hip hop label in balancing artistic viability with commercial appeal. Quannum co-founder DJ Shadow's 1996 album Entroducing is the top-selling instrumental hip hop album in the genre's history, while many consider Blazing Arrow, the second full-length album from Blackalicious, a duo composed of MC Gift of Gab and producer Chief Xcel, to be the epitome of politically conscious, socially responsible hip hop. Lyrics Born's 2003 release, Later That Day, was renowned as one of the strongest debuts from an MC this decade and broke into the Top 40 on the Billboard Independent Albums chart. But what is most exciting -- and what makes Lateef's assertion seem genuine -- is that the label is really just beginning to gain momentum.

Riding the success of Later That Day, the core Quannum artists -- DJ Shadow, Blackalicious, Lateef, and Lyrics Born -- are all set to put out albums in 2005, and the label has a slew of new artists who are planning releases as well. After years of hard work, perseverance, and dedication, the musicians who make up the Quannum crew are among the most revered and relevant in hip hop, and the story of their steadfastly independent label has inspired such other imprints as Def Jux, Anticon, and the Rhymesayers, among others. That story, which begins with a small group of racially mixed kids in a small college town, is testament to the power of self-determination, and an exemplification of the time-honored hip hop adage "It's not where you're from, it's where you're at."


The seeds of the Quannum family tree were planted in the sleepy town of Davis (population 50,000). In Davis during the early '90s, the right place for a hip hop fan to be was to the left of the dial, specifically Jeff Chang's KDVS radio show. Born and raised in Honolulu, Chang had a brief stint in the state Assembly as a lobbyist for California State University students after graduating from UC Berkeley in 1989. But as Chang veered further into the political realm, his love for hip hop, and his understanding of the sociocultural implications of the genre, only grew. Pursuing this passion, he hosted a hip hop show every Thursday night from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. under the alias DJ Zen.

One of the segments on Chang's show was a contest called "Name That Sample." After freshman student Tom Shimura (who would go on to become Lyrics Born) won it four weeks straight in the fall of 1990, Chang asked him to come down to the station.

That night, Shimura brought his friend Xavier Mosley (later to become Chief Xcel) to the station; future turntablism savior Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, happened to be there as well. Mosley still remembers the first time he walked into the cramped radio station, past the front office, and into the inner sanctum where seemingly endless rows of alphabetized vinyl surrounded the recording studios and listening booths where DJs and students could sample the station's vast library.

On any given evening, future hip hop journalist Joseph Patel (aka Jazzbo), Davis' sidekick 8th Wonder, and a motley collection of local hip hop enthusiasts would be slinking in the shadows. Shimura describes the scene as "incredible ... much better than any radio station that I've been to."

After that first visit, Shimura, Mosley, and Davis spent the next few months in bitter competition with one another. Burrowed inside KDVS's listening stations, they would closely guard the records they'd used for samples on their homemade demos. If they heard someone walking down the hall, they'd quickly cover their records so as not to give anything away. Knowledge is power, and they weren't about empowering their competitors.

"My first impressions of Tom and Xavier weren't favorable," Davis remembers. "I was pretty territorial at the time, and I didn't like having them around."

Chang, the oldest among them, listened to the demos and was amazed by the raw talent he heard. "Listening to these guys and what they were doing in their bedrooms was mind-blowing," Chang recalls. "It was as good as or better than any of the stuff that I was playing on my show from the major-label artists."

About The Author

Sam Chennault

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