Iconic wordsmith Aesop Rock’s latest effort, Skelethon, hasn’t been released yet, but the video for the album’s new single, “ZZZ Top,” was worth the wait. In it, Chinese martial artist Hao Zhi Hua — better known as Patti Lee — holds her own against a horde of misguided attackers. Check out some formidable knife-slinging / general bad-assery below.
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…
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Moving from a high-school clique to a crew and record label was a natural transition for the Minneapolis-based Doomtree collective. The unlikely “family” unit went from trading beats in their spare time at Hopkins High to producing albums, organizing tours, and putting on the annual Doomtree Blowout in their hometown with a small but mighty lineup. The label’s foundation was built on the wings of the P.O.S debut Ipecac Neat, which was co-released with Rhymesayers in 2004, but it has since released 20+ solo, group, and mixtape albums.
No matter your tastes, the Doomtree family has something to satiate it, from Dessa‘s singer-songwriter-meets-rap-temptress style to Paper Tiger‘s layered instrumentals to Cecil Otter‘s nostalgic storytelling. Each of Doomtree’s diverse artists also takes a role suited to his or her strengths on the business end of things, which, like their music, is infused with the DIY spirit of punk rock. ALARM caught up with MC Sims to chat about the upcoming Doomtree group album, the challenges of being an independent label, and what the future holds for the collective.
How did the Doomtree collective get started?
A group of us got together back in 2001 and decided to form a collective of artists that would work together to help get shows and record and release music. A few years later we turned that collective into a record label and have been releasing albums since.
What types of obstacles have you had to overcome as an independent record label?
Budgets are always an obstacle. We’ve been fortunate enough to have never taken a loan of any kind to get Doomtree to the place where it is. For years, we took every dollar that any of us made through album sales, merch, and performance to fund the label. At this point, we take a standard 50/50 deal with the albums we release. So though we don’t have the financial resources of a major label, our artists get a good deal. That’s what we wanted from the jump with our label.
Has it been difficult at times to work so closely with friends? If so, can you give us an example?
At times, but for the most part we all get along really well. We sort of have a family dynamic here, so of course you’re going to not see eye to eye with your siblings every time something comes up.
Can you address the dynamic of making Doomtree group albums, including your upcoming effort, No Kings?
For No Kings, Lazerbeak, Cecil, and P.O.S got together a few times a week and starting collaborating on beats. After a month or two, they had amassed enough for us to start writing songs. It’s hard to get all 5 MCs together in the same city at once, let alone have enough time to write a bunch of songs together. So we had to schedule the writing session for this thing a couple months in advance. We went to a cabin in the North Woods of Wisconsin with the idea that whatever we came up with was going to be the album; there were no second chances, and there was not time to not finish. We did just that (for the most part).
We basically played the beats through a stereo and started writing. One of us would come up with an idea for the song and the rest would make something that fit that idea. It was our first time truly collaborating like this. Usually, somebody has a song that’s pretty well done but needs a verse or chorus, and then you take it home and finish it. This process, however, was much more organic in the way that we came up with and executed ideas together.
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The land of independent hip hop is a dangerous, inconstant place. Giants like Rawkus Records and Definitive Jux, once considered among the most vital sources of hip-hop innovation, have collapsed into footnotes. But Minnesota-based Rhymesayers Entertainment has managed to hold its place in the world of underground rap for more than 15 years, thanks in part to founders Slug and Ant’s flagship duo, Atmosphere.
Atmosphere’s previous album, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, broke into the Billboard top 10 — an impressive achievement for an underground hip-hop group, and, as a result, Atmosphere represents to the general public what underground hip hop is. Its latest album, The Family Sign, typifies all of the strengths and weaknesses of indie rap, but it’s unusual and accessible enough to be easily enjoyed. If the genre must have a face, it could do much worse than Atmosphere.
Known for his lyrical virtuosity, Columbus MC Blueprint won fame as half of Soul Position with legendary indie-rap producer RJD2. After that group dissolved, he produced and released an admittedly retro solo album, called 1988, in 2005, and went six years without releasing a new solo LP. But while RJD2 has spent his time moving away from hip hop, Blueprint’s new record, Adventures in Counter-Culture, makes it clear that he has spent his time going deeper.
As the album unfolds, its sounds swerve and mutate, breaking away from the tropes of the genre and presenting an arresting hip-hop record. Though not all of the experiments pay off, the sheer inventiveness that Blueprint puts into his production and lyrics make Adventures in Counter-Culture worth a look.
The album’s first song, “Go Hard or Go Home,” serves as the album’s manifesto. Over a beat with droning, echoing synthesizers, Blueprint outlines his intentions: “I’ma tear rap down, then rebuild the shit, with total disregard of if the pieces even fit.” From a production standpoint, Blueprint delivers on this promise. Distant, sterile, inorganic synthesizers dominate the beats, serving as an aural complement to Blueprint’s lyrical themes of disconnection and alienation.