As the name suggests, Los Angeles based Basement Records specializes in underground hip-hop recordings. The label’s first DVD compilation features more than 30 non-mainstream acts performing live at various clubs or at in-store shows to crowds of appreciative fans. Most of the footage is raw with minimal editing, which gives the audience the impression of actually being present at the concerts. This is a positive quality on a documentary, archival level. One can literally see and hear what occurs just as if one were there. However, this also has several drawbacks. Unlike studio quality recordings, these live visuals can get grainy and blurry. Given the spontaneous quality of performances, the camera doesn’t always know where to focus. The audio portion can also be a bit muddy. Many of the rappers are difficult to understand. The disc should be of interest for those interested in Basement Records, the L.A. scene, or the acts involved but would not appeal to the casual hip-hop fan.
The line-up includes some names familiar to most rap fans, such as Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, and MF Doom, but they only appear briefly. Most of the performers are more obscure, such as Eligh, The Visionaries, Scarub, and C*Rayz Walz. These acts display a genuine talent for getting the audiences involved. The DVD does a good job of showing the interactions between the hip-hop artists and the crowds. The earliest performance on the compilation takes place at the Basement Records store with Fat Lip in July 2000 while at the other end of the chronology there are several shows from 2004. The performances are very similar despite the range of artists, venues, and the more than three-year time span. The rappers, turntablists, and audiences do not change much in terms of their lyrical deliveries, facial expressions or body movements. As sociologist Dick Hebdige once noted about other rock subcultures, what begins as revolt turns into style. Once the mode of expression emerged, this became the accepted manner of rapping and responding. There seems to be nothing that distinguishes the L.A. underground scene here from hip-hop shows across the country: The rappers speak into a hand held mike and urge the crowds to listen and participate; the audiences wave their hands and shout back out loud; the turntablists keep the energy going through scratching and other techniques.
The disc uses the conceit of a television with six channels and more than 40 different episodes as a way of organizing the material. There doesn’t appear to be any rationale to how the channels are ordered; the shows are not programmed chronologically or thematically, but breaking them into segments does make a particular show easier to find once one knows where it is. That said, none of the particular raps really stands out. Part of this may be due to the larger problems inherent in taped performances. As Marshall McLuhan famously noted, television is a cool medium. There is a great psychological distance between watching a mediated version of a live show and actually being there. Even the most energetic shows, such as the A-Team live at The Grand in Santa Monica in March 2003, come off as somewhat ho hum. The crowd may be jumping up and down, but the viewer is left cold.
Perhaps this is why the most entertaining segment is the non hip-hop performance by Sage Francis on the Venice Beach boardwalk. Draped in a modified American flag cape (with symbols like the McDonald’s arch for a star in the blue field) and a sandwich board declaring “Hippies are Racists”, Francis dances, confronts people that walk by, and acts out while an unnamed street singer croons a song called “American Psycopath”. The bit is funny, but not very deep. The disc concludes with several emcee battles in which the rappers take turns disrespecting each other. This leads to some humorous overstatements in the grand tradition of the dozens, but doesn’t go much deeper than the surface level of I’m great/you suck school of rapping.