The ’90s was an exciting time for Bay Area hip-hop. The NorCal cultural capital’s bustling hip-hop scene grew into burgeoning communities, investors mined its reserves of talent, and local dreams became global possibilities. This increased attention had broad commercial results. On one end, the Yay birthed the legacy of both Hammer and Pac. Opposite that were artists who staked a claim on the outer-mainstream, embraced hip-hop’s communal history by grouping together, and, in true Bay fashion, represented for all walks of life, from Hiero to Hobo.
The Living Legends — the sweat in the stinging eye of grassroots and homemade hip hop, centered on an eight-person core of Sunspot Jonz, Luckyiam/PSC, Murs, the Grouch, Eligh, Aesop, Scarub, and Bizarro/Bicasso — emerged from this well-spring, but quickly distanced their selves from even the aforementioned vanguard of the underground (members of Hieroglyphics and Hobo Junction enjoyed then endured brief contracts with major labels). Embodying the Underground ‘Til I Die credo, the Legends gave the whole industry the gasface and carved a niche within the Bay’s breadth. The crew made their mark by making music for the People’s Park, that is. While other MCs used tales from the East O, new slang, and clever similes to brag and boast, the Legends got mystikal, or spoke blunt(ed), maybe quoted Tolkien. Their efforts garnered international acclaim, thus justifying their name. Then they moved to L.A. to settle as underground hip-hop heroes, and aptly titled their latest joint album, Classic.
But that’s not the whole story.
While the Living Legends continue to embrace their reputation as über-undie archetypes, one must remember the timeliness of their ascension. Their rise to the cream of the underground crop and their current hold on success has been based on the establishment of a mainstream underground market. In other words, thank increased distribution avenues and middle-class interest for the Legends’, and the underground’s scratch (“It’s just coffee shop chicks and white dudes”, Common). Keep in mind, before an underground existed, it was just hustlers in bedrooms, cranking tapes to be slung out the trunk. When artists like Too $hort, who were underground before the underground existed, proved that you could make enough money to live off the music, they saw local popularity as a catapult toward major label support and financial success. Both Hiero and Hobo initially followed this path. The Legends were among the pioneers in using a local rep to build a global support base, while maintaining independent control (word up, Solesides). For these new artists, being “underground” did not mean staying poor; it was about grabbing a different piece of the “mainstream”pie. Since the Legends’ humble beginnings slanging tapes in front of Berkeley sloppizzeria Blondies, they have always made it a point to blow up; they just never go pop.
This background is important to keep in mind as the Legends breeze past a decade in the pros, and step to the plate this time with Classic, an album with a title that alone goes over-the-top with expectation. The Legends meet their self-imposed challenge by banking off their past success and building their mythology. In other words, they both remain true to their spirit — buy our shit because we said so — and build on their established spirit — keep on buying our shit because we haven’t stopped saying so. As mentioned above, the Legends have attained a level of support that allows them to continue their long line of keep-it-real tomes, while allowing elbowroom for maturation. Meaning, the hardcore headz are kept happy with the same ol’ thing — unconventional rhyme patterns (all of Eligh’s verses), stream-of-conscious flows (Bicasso gettin’ thoughtful over “Tears and Pain”), and elusive beats (“After I’m Gone”) — while newbies get to bypass the freshmen hazing of tape hiss and overpeaking bass, and instead get weaned on quasi-neo soul (peep the hook to “Good Fun”), futura beat crafting (Eligh’s Special K on the Trans Europe Express, “Down For Nothin'”), and love paeans (“Even Though (I Still Love You)”). Whether the Legends are consciously or subconsciously aware of the circumstances that allow them to continue making music, this has never taken away from the quality of their music. The Legends, as always, skim the fluff and simply strive for “good music.”
The most notable advancement in the Legends’ pursuit can be heard in Classic‘s, and every recent Legendary release’s, comfortable move away from dusty loops towards crisp samples and slick synths. “It’s Us Again” and “Busted” contain tweeting keys and punchy drums, vaguely reminiscent of Dre circa Chronic 2001. “Never Fallin'” is an exercise in balance: sped-up vocals are buttressed by flat drums; keys drip drip slowly from above as a busy bass bubbles up. Guest producers are in abundance, notably spearheaded by the Madlib-tuned lead single, “Blast Your Radio”, featuring his signature stuttering slump against a rasta growl. Perhaps more a reflection of the group’s month in Maui while recording the album than a throwback to A Story of Two Worlds, the latter section of Classic turns introspective. “The Deepest Breath” features shuffling drums covered by soft touches of strings and bass tones that wash in and out. As mentioned earlier, pop leanings surface, such as on the sunshine cheery “Good Fun” (the Grouch starts his verse, “Attitude shining like diamonds or glowin’ I’m knowin’ / Open chakras and all that it’s showin'”), but the Legends tackle each song with complete gusto. Albeit blunt. Which is hardly a weakness; when was the last time a hip hop song confessed so clearly, “We’re going bald / We’re going gray / We’re growing wiser with age?”
The Legends, while consisting of a variety of MC styles, continue to excel on Classic with descriptive and direct deliveries. On “Blast”, each member finds a distinct articulation of all they deem classic: the Grouch sounds off on “Stan Smiths and shelltoes / Mustangs and El Cos”, while Eligh revs his “classic California Condor ’67 horsepower jurassic flow.” From Grouch’s easy paced molasses mouth to Eligh’s jungle-type skitter stops to Murs’ party-starting fire, the rhyming delivers with both variety and strength. The Legends also move past braggart slickness by digging deep, such as Sunspot Jonz’ painful memory of a lost child and his nearly lost love on “Never Fallin'” where he admits to “feelin’ like a coward, like the wrong person died.” The Legends have always let each member speak their mind, which has been both a strength and weakness: they excel together through diversity of talent, but have at times lost focus with so many voices chattering. While Classic never aspires to unify itself around a common theme or the such, it sounds and feels whole because of the common spirit with which each MC approaches their verses.
The hour-long album contains filler, notably when the Legends cover tired territory. “Busted” makes little use of its Xxplosive beat by chronicling tired tirades of infidelity, while “Brand New” lags as a follow-up to the posse party-starter, “Blast.” Admittedly, the Legends’ mix of everyperson topics and pomp comes off as slack at times, such as on “Tears and Pain” where Bizarro’s largest battle is against laziness. However, the moments of clarity far outshine the moments of hesitancy. On “Good Fun”, Murs reflects hard on past sins: “Tryin’ to have a good time while being straight laced / So I can look into the mirror and not hate my face.” Such brusque characterizations of the self actually come with considerable frequency on Classic, which makes the album notable. On “Even Though (I Still Love You)”, the Grouch flourishes his recollections with Slim Kid Tre vocalese: “We pretend like this shit never hurts / but I never met your parents cos my color couldn’t work / With the scheme of your parents’ plan / Dreams, traditions, lock you in I said I ain’t existin’ then.” On the whole, greater attention has been placed on their work, making for a consistently enjoyable experience.
Life has turned out quite pleasant for the Legends, and the group obviously relishes the success. However, instead of being content to just sit lovely in the cut, the crew continually jumps back into the mess. Thus, the Legends continue baking cakes and engorging them, too. If anything, they now have the experience (by hip-hop standards, these guys are due for a midlife crisis) to back it all. So, indeed, cop their shit!