Fans of both underground and mainstream music are cultivated in remarkably similar fashion; each has a visceral initial moment of contact whereupon he/she becomes a convert. The key difference is the longer half-life of the underground head’s willingness to continue supporting the cause, perhaps in part due to the relatively greater personal investment (I met the dude versus I worship the Dude). This dogged persistence on the part of the fans has helped cement the reputation of the Living Legends as veterans and heroes of the Bay Area and Los Angeles hip-hop scenes; much of their audience can recall the days of slinging tapes in front of Blondie’s on Telegraph, house parties in the East O, and Broke-Ass Summer Jams. Not to mention the group’s efforts itself. Though commercial success has consistently passed the Legends by, they have remained thoroughly persistent in their pursuit of artistic dreams.
On this note, the crew releases music from its individuals, associated groups, and numerous collaborations for an informed and static audience. The crew has changed, as to be expected from a decade-plus existence: Murs 3:16 posters paint Brooklyn streets, courtesy of Def Jux; cold MIDI stabs take prominence over dusty loops; and granola hoodies have been replaced by LRG and Triple 5. However, LL always gives fans what they expect: raw lyrics, minimal production, and an underground-til-I-die ethos.
Perhaps then CMA, the Cool Man Association, best represents Living Legends at present. The relatively new undertaking of LL co-founders PSC/Luckiam and the Grouch, the duo’s sophomore album All Over carries both its forward ventures and its stonewall preservation of its past. The title alone summarizes the group’s curious ease into and subversion of maturity; eschewing their blunt sense of drama, the title is less referential to some impending doom (expectable from a group filled with Mystik Journeymen and Meloncholy Gypsies), but just a blurb for the album cover (for more proof of how oversimplified the under/over dichotomy is, place this next to the Beatnuts’ Milk Me cover). Perhaps a regression from Fuck the Dumb, the guys at least laugh a little more these days, albeit in a sophomoric and ignorant manner.
Nevertheless, the album illustrates a new place for the crew. The underdog sense of self-importance is still intact — the opening track “CMA2” features a chorus that decries the group’s overlooked debut album — but the rawness (“Bad Side”) is balanced with the tenderness (“Good Side”). Subtlety has never been a particular strength of any of its members (“Look at the window with them gates / That’s a metaphor for the bars that entrap you”), but an increasing perspective gives the album an unheralded depth. “The Immigrant” weaves a break and bossa bass as the Grouch and Lucky expand hip hop’s discourse on diaspora to include tales from the latest America. Buried between the Grouch’s poignant Everyman observations on Mexican migrant labor and Lucky’s less-effective elaboration on Russian prostitution are gripping and bizarre samples from El Norte and Born in East L.A., respectively. The samples stem from films with drastically disparate tones, but within the context of the song they are coherent. “Fuel 2 the Fire” takes a predictable skip down liberal lane and borrows snippets from Fahrenheit 9/11, but Lucky’s simple distinction between civil society and the state and market (“We buy G4s and G5s / They got the G8”) highlights this expanded view.
In some regards, CMA’s adherence to the Golden Truth has paid off with increasingly refined results. The AOR-laden nostalgia trip “Windows” excels with its simple tales from the so-so lives of its narrators. No After-School Tales from the Darkside here, the Grouch merely shrugs, “None of my woes were too large / But through any bit of hardship, character grows”. The song does not aspire to pull heartstrings or evoke guilt-ridden sympathy, but is content with minor insights amidst a major key melody.
Choice guest appearances from fellow Legend Murs and like-minded peers inspire CMA to push their abilities. The PE-meets-LL “Tactics” features lackadaisical Del freestyling his baritone with the greatest of ease, while Lucky assembles one of his finest cut’n paste verses, complete with calls and responses to his self. Brother Ali works the monotonous beat of “Raise up the Levels”, absolutely crushing any notion of been-there-done-that on this underground-as-a-way-of-life anthem. Slug and Murs only provide chorus work on “Bad Side” and “Good Side”, but their respective presence establishes the harsh and impassioned core of each song.
In spite of the overall strength of All Over, each successive release from the Legends forces both the crew and its audience to confront the limitations of the underground/mainstream dichotomy. According to the ideals of independence, the mainstream and subsequent commercial success must be avoided. However, each member ages, starts a family, bears children, and priorities change. Lucky can still warn Johnny Come Latelys, “If you slept on our last installment / Then palm these nuts / Pucker up and ass-kiss forgiveness”, but he remains in the game to seek more ears, correct? Nevertheless, the Legends have established their corner in hip hop history and continue to maintain their legacy; in this sense, All Over is a welcome addition. The album’s liberal sprinkling of maturity may even compel new listener’s to become new fans. The Legends are still relatively young, so mid-life crises be damned for at least 10 more years. However, their ultimate path remains to be seen.