-- Common, "I Used to Love H.E.R"
I used to tell friends that if they ever found a West Coast Rap CD in my car that it had to have been planted there.
For years -- with the exception of Paris (most widely known for his early '90s LPs The Devil Made Me Do It and Sleeping With the Enemy) -- I associated West Coast rap with Bloods, Crips, gangsta-perms, sawed-offs and other images that foretold the impending decline of Hip Hop culture. For the record, I also remember when Dr. Dre and the World Class Wrecking Cru traded in their jheri-curls and shiny suits for black Raiders jackets and baseball caps. That, however, is another story.
What I didn't know was that while Dre was holding down Compton (and the rest of America) along with Snoop, Cube, Mac-10, DJ Quik and others, Hip Hop crews with rather obscure-sounding names like the Mystic Journeymen, the Hieroglyphics, Souls of Mischief and Blackalicious were honing their verbal acrobatics and, as they say out West, creepin' on a come up.
I got my first taste of non-G-Funk West Coast Hip Hop in the late '90s after hearing Rass Kass' controversial single, "Nature of the Threat," on a local, community-based radio station. A half-day later I had copped the complete Soul On Ice album (now mysteriously out of print) and was completely blown away by Rass' effortless flow and mind-bending metaphors.
Shortly thereafter, the Hieroglyphic's Third Eye Vision had me convinced that the West Coast had more to offer than bouncing lowriders, 40 ounces and flannel shirts. Since then, artists such as Zion I, Planet Asia, Mystic and others continue to raise the bar with creative, off-kilter rhyme patterns and political messages embedded in their lyrics.
It's no coincidence that this culturally-relevant, agile lyricism comes from the same region that served as ground zero for a significant amount of late-'60s and early-'70s political activism. Like New York's Last Poets (recently featured on Common's hit single, "The Corner"), Los Angeles' Watts Prophets used poetry to instill a sense of racial pride and political awareness within the mostly African-American working-poor community of Watts.
Around the same time, two men named Huey and Bobby were busy forming an organization that would challenge police brutality and offer free breakfast to disadvantaged children in Oakland. It would naturally follow that the politically-charged language of the Black Panthers and other organizations of this era would serve as the foundation for a new generation of artists emerging from L.A. and the San Francisco Bay area.
Yet, when it comes to Hip Hop, there's New York and then there's the rest of the free world. In an online editorial entitled "Mainstream vs. Underground -- Something to Ponder," renowned Hip Hop journalist Davey D. (daveyd.com) recalls a time when New Music Seminar panelists (almost exclusively from the East Coast) refused to acknowledge the contributions of West Coast artists, claiming that rappers like Too $hort and NWA "cursed too much and had violent lyrics." This mindset typified the creative rivalry between coasts that is only recently beginning to crumble as MCs in N.Y. and L.A. recognize that true talent has no geographic boundaries.
Not surprisingly, West Coast underground Hip Hop crews also find it increasingly difficult to break the barriers that their mainstream counterparts (i.e., Snoop, Xzibit, The Game, et al.) have been successful in shattering over the last 10 years. Groups like Haiku d'Etat and Living Legends -- known for shifting effortlessly between Jazz-influence tracks, spoken word, freestyles and classic tag-team Hip Hop -- are likely difficult to market in an industry driven by the familiar sounds and images that make up West Coast "Gangsta Rap."
So how do up-and-coming underground MCs break into the game with Snoop Dogg wannabees running the show? Many credit L.A.'s Good Life Café for launching the careers of a number of moderately successful underground crews. Known to many as the "Lyricist Lounge of the West Coast," the Good Life quickly became the "it" spot for poets, hipsters, activists and conscious-minded crews like The Pharcyde, Freestyle Fellowship, Dilated Peoples and Jurassic 5. The café's strict no-profanity rule forced open-mic participants to craft extemporaneous verses with words that did not rhyme with itch, slow, fit and luck, resulting in a new standard of blended Hip Hop lyricism and sociopolitical commentary.
Apparently, the West Coast has much more to offer than khakis and chucks. While N.Y. must be acknowledged as Hip Hop's cradle, rhyme-fiends in L.A., Oakland and San Francisco have taken lyrical finesse to a new level. They're winning the West all over again -- but this time, they're doing it the right way.
KEVIN BRITTON writes about Hip Hop music and its impact on popular culture. His column appears monthly in CityBeat.