Number Five: The Visionaries: Galleries
Original Release Date: November 10, 1998 (Up Above Records)

When the first snaps of the snare shatter the opening silence of Galleries, it is already obvious that only Armageddon could adequately answer that chilling call. Indeed, this independent hip hop act from L.A. spends a lyrically packed 74 minutes (!) constructing a sparse and somber sonic landscape that is always in danger of crumbling right out from underneath their heavy, heavy rhymes. The Visionaries are latter-day proselytizers, wearing their Christianity on their hoody sleeves and urging listeners to wake up, look around, and “Prepare for Armegeddon and the Seven Signs” (“Lair of the Live Ones”). While Christianity mixed with popular music of any kind can’t help but conjure up images of teased hair and yellow and black spandex à la Stryper, The Visionaries present a novel attempt to give “J.C.” equal mic time with Allah, Jah, and “the G-O-D.” It seems fitting that such a foreboding sound should stem from the streets of Los Angeles, a town with a history of evangelical experimentalism and an excess of apocalyptic imagery (In Ecology of Fear, muckraker Mike Davis estimates the city has been annihilated at least 138 times in film and literature; incorporating hip hop lyrics would increase that number significantly). The group, another of L.A.’s multicultural collaboratives, is also notable for showcasing the vocal stylings of Asian American MCs Key Kool and Zen (Japanese and Filipino American, respectively). Rounding out the crew is 2Mex, a Chicano MC and another graduate of the Good Life Café, LMNO, a white rapper who supplies the majority of the religion laden rhymes, Dannu, an African/Native American MC who moonlights in Writer’s Block with Zen, and DJ Rhettmatic, a phenomenal Filipino American turntabilist who is a founding member of The World Famous Beat Junkies. Beginning with the meeting of Key Kool and LMNO in 1989 (ironically in a short-lived producer-engineered attempt at multicultural hip hop), the group accrued slowly, gathering members and momentum as the core duo moved through the Los Angeles underground scene, solidifying the current line-up in 1995.

While The Visionaries are far from one-note wonders—
Galleries has its share of downtempo chillouts (“Humanitree,” “Stargazer”), old-school odes (“Rockin’ the Sure Shot,” “Come On”), and even a solid party anthem (“Love (Hip Hop)”)—the majority of the cuts on the record reflect a gloom and doom aesthetic designed to accentuate their end time rhymes. Even the most upbeat of their songs are composed in the minor key, casting a melancholy pall over the whole of the album. Galleries is largely an electronic composition, devoid of the warmth that samples of live instrumentation bring to many hip hop recordings; Rhettmatic’s deft scratching often provides the only human touch in this spare, deconstructed musical landscape. A song like “Here to Stay” is typical of the Visionaries’ sound: heavy distorted bass that sticks tightly to the stripped-down drum beat (a tense snare, kick, hat combo) juxtaposed with a looped organ crescendo that gives the song a “ready to burst” anxiety. Sometimes the organ melody is replaced with more experimental noise, like the frantically turning Jack in the Box in “Say Where,” but the expectant, urgent effect is generally the same. Add the Visionaries hyper-enunciated, breathless vocal patterns to these foreboding tracks, and it truly seems as if “Time is Running Out.” Unlike their contemporaries Jurassic 5 or Ozomatli, the Visionaries do not use their music to imagine a space for cultural negotiation and possible community building. Rather, the group’s sonic backdrop serves as an electric analogue to the fallen world that they attack in their rhymes, a dark maze of sound that they must lyrically fight their way out of in order to “return to the natural life.” However, judging by the care taken with their backing beats, it is clear that, for The Visionaries, Babylon has its electronic temptations.

Overall, the rhymes themselves are fast, furious, and more than competent. The extra-heavy enunciation of consonants (especially “r” and “p”) create an angry growl that unifies the work; however, it can be grating at times. Ditto for the literary vocal tricks displayed by 2Mex (tons and tons of alliteration, the song “Audible Angels” runs through the alphabet from A-Z) and Dannu (extended meditations on a single rhyme: in “Here to Stay” he rhymes “Meditation” 47 times in under two minutes with words like “mastication” and “copulation”). While innovative in theory and fresh in snippets, the repetitive use begins to sound monotone and seems to limit the content. Although the breathless snarl of 2Mex and the understated but dogged cadence of LMNO tend to dominate the work, there is still room for Key Kool’s unique and precisely measured style. While he is always on time with the beat, you are never quite sure if he is going to get there; this adds to the overarching dramatic tension in the work.

In terms of content, The Visionaries are straight up about their politics and their religion. In many ways, the main subject of the album isn’t the world outside, but rather the soul and spirit inside
Galleries’ potential listeners. Although they leave room for dissent (2Mex’s extended anti-Catholic think-piece “The Popemobile”), and hypocrisy (while it is clear that LMNO doesn’t smoke weed, the other MCs hedge on this issue), the band can’t help but sound preachy, especially with lyrics like “God’s my pilot/I don’t have to get violent.” What is most unfortunate is that The Visionaries seem to have absorbed the sexism inherent in the “good book;” just seconds after being told to “put down the magazines/pick up the Bible,” listeners are hit with battle lyrics that declare “the crew acts female/and there’s nothing to offer/ the girls want to have fun just like Cyndi Lauper.” In addition, songs like “Stargazer” fetishize female purity and reify women who are “never seen on the dancefloor. . .never seen at the bar.” While certainly mild by hip hop standards, rhymes like these ultimately prevent the Visionaries from being holier than thou.

Standout Song: Yeah, they bleep out the F-word, but I am a sucker for “Love (Hip Hop),” a track that combines the Visionaries’ gloom and doom with a confession of adoration for their craft. This song absolutely goes off live.
I Almost Chose: Sophomore Jinx (Up Above Records, 2000).

Number Six: Dilated Peoples: Expansion Team
Original Release Date: October 23, 2001 (Capitol)

Although most hip hop heads would probably consider The Platform to be Dilated Peoples’ best offering, I am going to eschew underground authenticity and claim that 2001’s Expansion Team showcases the group at their finest. While I concede that there isn’t a standout single here that comes close to dethroning “Work the Angles,” the entire record reflects a much more cohesive, controlled, and clever output. I am not going to say Expansion Team is more “mature” (the hip hop kiss of death), but the Dilated Peoples’ sound definitely heads for the next level on this recording, pushing the group’s scope beyond battle boasting and into tonal territory evocative of Marvin Gaye, War, and Sly and the Family Stone.

Like many of L.A.’s hip hop acts, Dilated has had plenty of time to ripen. Both Rakaa (Iriscience) and Evidence became graffiti writers and freestyle rappers in the post-1992 L.A. landscape and have been plugging away at the mic ever since. For the last decade, Dilated has been steadily building hype the old fashioned way, by touring extensively across the U.S. and abroad, a fact which surfaces as one of the major themes of Expansion Team. The two MCs hooked up in 1994 after an open mic session at the Hip Hop Shop in L.A. and added DJ Babu (World Famous Beat Junkies) into the mix in 1997, forming a classic “2 MCs and 1 DJ” hip hop combo in the vein of Run DMC and Eric B and Rakim. In what is becoming typical of the L.A. underground scene, Dilated is a multicultural trio (African American/Chicano/Filipino American), although this fact goes unremarked on the record. The group prefers to treat their inherent diversity as a given reality rather than an unusual or aesthetically innovative argument.

While Dilated Peoples will be the first to acknowledge “the backbone of hip hop’s the DJ” (“Dilated Junkies,” “Clockwork”), in their case Babu is really on the frontline as well; his exquisite and exacting cuts push a solid but still somewhat ho-hum release like
Expansion Team into the four microphone range. Babu’s chirps, tears, and scribbles dominate the album from the first track (“Live on Stage”) and present the sharpest and most constant defining factor of the “Dilated sound.” Babu’s consistency is especially crucial on a record that credits eight different producers; despite some jarring style/tone changes, his scientific scratch breaks, looped choruses, and sampled lyrical accents keep the flow moving from one song to the next. His needle antics and well-timed shout outs also contribute to the album’s “live” motif, lending the music a more spontaneous feel. Overall, while Dilated Peoples has lyrically more in common with other L.A. underground artists the Visionaries and Jurassic 5 (an emphasis on gravely-delivered battle lyrics with the occasional conscious couplet thrown in for good measure), their record marks a musical throwback to the lushly layered backdrops of early 90s acts like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and the Pharcyde (whom Babu samples on “Dilated Junkies”). Each track is thick with sound: complex jazzy bass, overdubbed vocals, kickdrum heavy rhythm, female back-up singing, keyboard fills, background “party” noise and conversation, analog fuzz, and interwoven melodic tracks (often piano and violin/guitar). Within this dense fabric, one of their sonic signatures is the exploitation of dynamic range. Often there will be two competing melodies within the same song; the more predominate sound will loom loudly in both speakers, while the more understated riff remains at a lower volume in the right side. In addition to creating narrative tension, this technique exploits the listener’s audio depth perception and creates a roomy, round feel to the music. The producers unabashedly play with sound on Expansion Team, exploiting obscure samples and the power of the fader to create a variety of pleasurable soundscapes. Somehow, perhaps because of the more ruggedly recorded vocals and the darker overall tone of the record, Expansion Team miraculously manages to avoid sounding overproduced. Minor scale composition, frequent funk horn flares, and copious use of distorted string and atonal keyboard samples also contribute to the recording’s urgent and somewhat paranoid “take us seriously” cast.

Lyrically, both Rakaa and Evidence ably accept the mic passed from KRS-1, LL Cool J, and other “NY Gs” like Chuck D (“Clockwork”). Rakaa’s pumped-up energy and frequently political themes (“War,” “Proper Propaganda”) are a good contrast to the sleepy seriousness and more “Night Life”-oriented musings of Evidence. Unlike the dominant tendency among underground acts to stuff each bar to full lyrical capacity (see Aesop Rock’s verbose Labor Days), both of Dilated’s MCs have a laidback style that stretches out into the rhythm rather than challenging it. This creates a good “middleground” balance that allows listeners to hear clever rhymes like “Take your tape up and take this on/I heard anything that does not kill will make strong/And I build one of the sickest holding this steel/You need a dose of echinacea with a little golden seal” (“Hard Hitters”) without sacrificing the affective strength of the musical backdrop. However, their cadences do become repetitive about midway through the record, predominantly because most of Dilated’s songs have similar BPMs and there is little lyrical interchange between Evidence and Rakaa other than the occasional chorus chant and obligatory end-rhyme emphasis. Overall,
Expansion Team is an excellent the name for this record, as it illustrates how the hip hop field has extended beyond the limited mainstream/underground dichotomy to accommodate solid, “meat and potatoes” hip hop like this that falls somewhere in between. Dilated’s sound perfects and polishes hip hop lyrical conventions even if it does not push the envelope toward innovation.

Standout Song: While “Worst Comes to Worst” is the obvious single, “Live on Stage” has an infectious energy and an attractive, “in your face” power.
I Almost Chose: The Platform (Capitol 2000).