On their spectacular 2000 album Quality Control, reigning L.A. underground hip-hop kings Jurassic 5 end the instrumental “Contact” with a sample of a man emphatically proclaiming “Los Angeles is what’s happening!” With all due respect to the scene and all the players making names for themselves in Hell-Ay, Los Angeles is what happened.
It’s time to head 400 miles to the north. Underground hip-hop cultivated in the San Francisco bay area is busting out everywhere you look. Del Tha Funkee Homosapien and Dan “the Automator” Nakamura have taken the post-apocalyptic party international with both last year’s amazing Deltron 3030 and this year’s animated supergroup Gorillaz (fronted by Blur’s Damon Albarn). The Quannum Projects crew, featuring DJ Shadow and Blackalicious, are cultivating the underground vibe from its roots and taking it around the world. The Invisibl Skratch Piklz are popping up like wack-a-moles at parties and raves in the bay area and beyond. Michael Franti and Spearhead continue to merge rap, rhythm and revolution. In San Francisco itself, clubs like Storyville and organizers like the Future Primitive Soundsessions are keeping locals bouncing until sunrise. The bay area is what’s happening.
The people who put together 1999’s definitive L.A. underground hip-hop compilation The Funky Precedent apparently agreed, because the second installment of the Precedent goes a bit further up the California coast. And virtually none of the artists or crews mentioned above are featured on it—not because they couldn’t do it, but because the scene is so deep and wide that there was plenty of room to fill up the compilation without getting to the acts that already have major clout.
The compilation starts way outside the bay area with Fresno (for those of you not from the west coast, that’s about 200 miles southeast of the bay area in the vast expanse of farmland called the Central Valley—not usually considered fertile hip-hop ground) collective Skhool Yard’s “Here We Come”, a low-end bouncer that with any luck will, as somebody says in the rap, “put Fresno on the map.” From there, it’s back to the bay area for the duration.
It’s a duration filled with all the beats, rhymes, scratches and funk you could ask for. The territory mined is more plentiful than the Mother Lode and as diverse as the countless communities that tie the bay area together. Yet, with as eclectic as it gets, there’s a definite homegrown vibe that dominates throughout. Let’s call it the Foggy Precedent: the percussion is minimal and deliberate; the raps are weighty and frenetic; the rhythms are sometimes atmospheric, sometimes scientific, but always a tweak shy of clarity.
The foggiest of the lot are Azeem’s “Contradictions”, a conscious trip with rhythm like a noir soundscape, Eb F of Various Blends’ flowing wordplay on “Condiments” and Pep Love’s “Warrior Poet”, a culture lesson set to a crying cello and piano. Rasco of Cali Agents turns up the beats and scratches a couple punches on “Uncut,” and Sahnutayshun Duhpartment Muzik featuring K.U. gets all phonetic on the posture-heavy “I’m K.U.” Sometimes it gets so thick that you might need something to wipe the mist off your Walkman.
But it’s not always foggy by the Bay. Live Human turns up the funk with live double-bass and scratched horns on “Lagoona’s Bliss (Elephant Mix)”. Zion I lays down a thinking feller’s party starter with “We Got It”, while Foreign Legion clown over DJ Design’s mix tape vibe on “Bike Thief”. And DJ Vinroc shows up for the turntablists on “3thahardway”, an interstellar scratch session with a sample that sets it off like the Wizard of Oz.
And that’s only half of it. The second installment of the Funky Precedent, like the first, is a succession of high points with precious few lows. It’s a welcome document of what’s happening around Northern California, and taken together with its predecessor, it’s proof that hip-hop is far from being dead and far from being overly commercial on the Left Coast. Not many crews in the rest of the Lower 48 could stack up to these underground teams, but hopefully we’ll get more compilations like this one in the future from other cities so we can at least listen to them trying.
// Notes from the Road
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