Label Q&A: Quannum Projects

Quannum Projects
Location: San Francisco, CA
Year founded: 1992

Lateef the Truthspeaker: Firewire

Lateef the Truthspeaker: FireWire (Quannum, 11/8/11)

Lateef the Truthspeaker: “Testimony”

In 1992, a collective of up-and-coming hip-hop artists at UC Davis — future big names DJ Shadow, Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel of Blackalicious, Lateef the Truthspeaker, and Lyrics Born — started up an underground record label called Solesides Records. Seven years later, the label transformed into Quannum Projects, and with the change came a host of esteemed releases that made it an independent hip-hop powerhouse alongside labels such as Definitive Jux, Rhymesayers, Stones Throw, and Anticon.

In addition to its commitment to quality hip hop, Quannum upholds values of ethnic diversity, artistic freedom, and do-it-yourself perseverance, sticking to its roots as a fully independent label throughout hip-hop’s pivotal evolution from burgeoning statement to mainstream farce. In advance of the label’s 20th anniversary, ALARM caught up with Lateef to chat about underground hip hop, his debut solo LP, and “selling out.”

What is your definition of hip hop? Do you think that the rise of mainstream rap diluted the art and culture of hip hop from decades ago?

To me, hip hop is a lens through which you see the world. I think that because the history of hip hop is not really something that is taught or passed on, different generations have different colored lenses. I don’t know if hip hop has been diluted as much as it has simply changed.

Unfortunately, a lot of that change has been dictated to the culture from those outside the culture. When pop culture values become the dominant voice of a counter-culture, the counter-culture becomes a pop culture. That’s kinda what’s happened to hip hop. As the genre became popular, the things that sold were the things that reflected popular culture values more than the values of hip hop. The stuff that sold more was viewed as more successful and (in the eyes of pop-culture values) “bigger.” The values of hip-hop culture were quickly trashed as being invalid.

One example is the notion of “selling out.” At one time, the concept was taboo to the point of rhetoric in hip hop. These days, it’s a key point in most marketing plans. People actually consider themselves lucky if they can sell out. It’s kind of the point for a lot of artists now, the reason they are even in hip hop to begin with.

In a lot of ways, hip hop has been commodified in a way that reduces it to a sales pitch. I mean, a lot of bubble-gum-pop singing acts are tagged as “hip hop” because they wear cargo pants. Crazy but true. It’s just another way that the culture is exploited by those that have no respect or real appreciation for the music or culture. They don’t really care, and nobody’s going after them, so why would they stop?

Still, I think there are a considerable number of artists – old and new – that are still making great music, even in a challenging and rapidly changing musical environment. In some ways, those that are making music in what is increasingly becoming a market wasteland are doing it for purer, more passionate reasons than ever.

That was probably a much longer answer than you were looking for…

How does the underground hip-hop scene in the Bay Area differ from elsewhere?

It is just crazy diverse, and it is fiercely independent in a way that encourages individual, unique expression. There are representations of every hip-hop sub-genre in the Bay, and most know several artists in completely different genres well. As a result, you get these crazy-interesting hybrids, or projects that defy logic beautifully.

How have the successes of Quannum’s artists affected the trajectory of the label?

I think it’s given the label a lot of credibility, as well as kept the label a very healthy place for featuring and nurturing new talent. Artist development is unheard of nowadays, but it’s par for the course at Quannum. We like good music, and we enjoy giving good projects a platform to be successful.

Solesides / Quannum often is called a family. What are the artist/label relationships like there?

I think it depends on the artist. In general, I think that Quannum is very fair and honest about what it can and cannot do as a label. It’s one of the reasons that QP is still around while so many others have gone under. We have always preached that the label is a resource, and that projects must be artist-driven. I think that has made a lot of artists that have come into the fold blossom into good, well-rounded and -grounded artists. We really try to debunk the label-as-a-parent myth and empower the artist. I think the fact that the owners are artists themselves make this message resonate that much more.

How do the KPM remixes reflect your love of crate-digging and library music? What else can you tell us about Quannum’s 20th-anniversary releases?

Love of the history of music and reinterpreting that history through our own lens is in many ways the essence of hip hop. That is what we are doing with the KPM stuff, and it is really an awesome opportunity to showcase our talents.

I don’t want to give away too much too soon, but with my solo record, The Gift of Gab’s solo record coming soon, DJ Shadow’s album having just been released, the KPM remix series, additional new artist releases, and new stuff from Latyrx and Blackalicious as well as touring including all sorts of crew combinations, I think it should be a great year — maybe one of the best to date for QP music lovers.

Lateef, how does FireWire, your debut solo LP, portray you differently than on previous releases?

I think it is a little more personal. I really tried to make sure I allowed people to have a window through which to see me. I didn’t just try to display skill ad nauseum, but instead really tried to hit an emotionally resonating vibration, something that listeners could connect to and use in their lives. Hopefully, I succeeded.

What has Quannum learned about running a record label over the past two decades?

It’s not all roses. Honesty is the best policy. Treat others fairly. Know when to hold ’em — and other various clichés.

Seriously, the bottom line: keep putting out great music. It’s important to produce quality art that you believe in. Be smart about it, but follow your heart. Aaaannnd there’s the cliché again…but I mean it!

What more would you like to achieve with Quannum? What’s in store for 2012 and beyond?

World domination. Occupy everything. Outside of that: continue to put out great music.

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