Number Seven: Medusa and Feline Science:
Undaground Crewed
Original Release Date: 2001 (Independant)

Medusa has no qualms about calling herself the “Underground Queen” throughout her independent 2001 release,
Undaground Crewed, and after reviewing her densely packed CD (9 songs in 36 minutes), I don’t either. Her strapping alto voice, clever rhymes, and unabashed love for hip hop help this album transcend its limitations as a homemade demo project. In her typically clever mode she raps in “Make Ya Neck Lock,” “I’ve been having a love affair with the saucy rhymes that I been kickin’em/soon as they leave my mouth I be missin’ em.” Medusa, along with her back-up crew Feline Science, has reigned supreme on the L.A. club circuit for years, selling out shows at the Temple Bar, the Knitting Factory, the Root Down, and monthly at the Fais Do-Do’s legendary Nappy at the Roots for over six years. She, too, is a veteran of The Good Life Café (and later Project Blowed), along with Freestyle Fellowship,Yo Yo, J5 and the Pharcyde. In addition, Medusa has played with George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars, been featured in Rachel Raimist’s 1999 indie film Nobody Knows My Name, had a guest spot on Ozomatli’s 2001 release Embrace the Chaos, and has met with almost every major record label in existence. So, why hasn’t she been signed?

The opening song on
Undaground Crewed, “Cold Piece of Work,” may shed some light on the matter. For one thing, Medusa knows a bit too much about how the exploitative music industry works (points and all), and she may just want what that suits aren’t willing to give: “non-exclusivity on my publishing/now that’s treating a girl loverly.” In addition, the heavily funked-up track introduces listeners to Medusa’s various personalities (Baby NeNe, Triple Kahlua, Sister Monet, Medusa, Microfro, and that “cool-playa-pimp nigga Sean”), giving an indication of the fluidity and complexity of Medusa’s stylistic arsenal. It is easy to see how music industry execs, so obsessed with the niche market, would have trouble casting Medusa in one of the limited roles they have engineered for females in pop music: she is too glamorous to be a “one of the boys” rapper in the style of MC Lyte and Da Brat; she isn’t glamorous enough to prance around with Eve and Tweet. She is too “hardcore” to be an earth mama like Jill Scott or India.Arie; she isn’t “hardcore enough” in the XXX style of Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown. She sings too much to be straight hip hop like Missy Elliot; she raps too much to be ultra “neo soul” like Erykah Badu. Medusa is also forthright about her bisexuality, still largely taboo in hip hop; in the opening bars of “Cold Piece” she proclaims, “I’m you and your woman’s every fantasy,” leaving the gender of the “you” open to interpretation. Much like L.A.’s former “overground queen,” Yo Yo, Medusa is simply too versatile to pigeonhole. Thankfully, she has refused to compromise, telling the industry, “I’m a show you how to market this/ Medusa’s beat swangs, bangs, and it’s a hit.” Until the record companies finally bet on the intelligence and diversity of their audiences, I’ll be bumping Undaground Crewed and catching Medusa live at the Fais Do-Do.

It is interesting that Medusa chose to make this recording without the support of her nine-piece live band, which usually backs her at all gigs. This could have been a conscious choice to create some distance between herself and the many other live music hip hop acts coming out of the city (Black Eyed Peas, daKAH, Burning Star, Ozomatli, Wozani), or more likely, an economic decision based on lack of funds for exorbitant recording studio fees. As a result, the album sounds like it was produced entirely on a sequencer; the beats are solid but fairly simple and repetitive. For the most part, each song on
Undaground Crewed has four main tracks: vocals, standard drums, heavy bass, and melody (usually keyboard- save for the killer harp on “My Momma Raised a G”). Occasionally, cuts are accented by emotive background vocals, rhythmic handclaps and cowbell clunks, but there is no scratching or DJ work on the album. While there are some notable tone changes on the record (Baby Puma’s Wu-Tang style video game backdrop for “Magnitudes,” Jaha’s blasé neo-soul keyboards on “I’ll Be Alright With That,” and the Spanish-inspired melody of “Barbershop”), the predominant mode for Undaground Crewed is straight-up funk. While these retro grooves are engaging, especially the “Sanford and Son” style loop in “Make Ya Neck Lock,” they also limit the album a bit, as hip hop’s 70s wave crested a couple years ago (at least I hope so).

Due to the budget musical production, the lyrics become ten times as important to the success of
Undaground Crewed. Thankfully, Medusa and Feline Science do not disappoint. The record’s vocals only fall flat on one number, Koko’s slightly out of key “React2,” which suffers from clunky rhymes and over-stylized delivery. While Neb Luv’s powerful Carribbean-inflected rap on “Get Up On It” and Jaha’s sand-papery smooth spoken-word in “I’ll Be Alright With That” are certainly standouts, the brightest sonic star on the record is clearly Medusa. Her voice is sonorous, powerful, and flexible; she is able to transition smoothly from rapid-fire raps to choruses belted deep out of the diaphragm, a rare feat. In addition to her unique delivery, Medusa’s rhyming is creative and varied. She is as at home paying homage to womanhood (“I’m the original toughskin/like ya mama, yo auntie, and they friends”) as she is kicking a freestyle battle lyric (“I turned down mo' freaks than Howard Johnson’s roommaid turn down sheets”). Her lyrical cadences sound especially fresh because unlike many rappers (such as the Black Eyed Peas) Medusa does not rely solely on end rhyme for poetic effect. She has a great ear for consonance, assonance, and other poetic techniques that exploit sound affinities outside of simple rhyme. Combining these lyrical effects with her clever narrative threads, Medusa consistently drops rhymes like these throughout the record: “I’m cold like afro combs/cold like Cleopatra Jones in Casino of Gold/cold like sista’s hips on the dance floor when they dip/or when Mama feels the baby kick for the first time/ and no chedda raps can touch that last line.” Damn right.

Standout Song: It doesn’t get much harder than “Cold Piece of Work,” a baaad asss, in your-face, Medusa classic.
No Alternative: This is the finest available collection of hip hop by L.A. women. Neb Luv’s upcoming album, Who is She?” looks promising, however.

Number Eight: da-KAH Hip Hop Orchestra:
Unfinished Symphony
Original Release Date: September 2002 (Independent)

On Sunday, March 14, 2004, at 7:30 P.M., daKAH Hip Hop Orchestra will take the stage at the shiny new Walt Disney Concert Hall as the guest of the L.A. Philharmonic. For many, this will be the ultimate coup, an opportunity for African-American inspired urban expression to take over “the Master’s House,” if only for an evening. On the other hand, the orchestra’s presence in the heart of bourgeois Los Angeles can easily be viewed as an end date of sorts, a sure sign that hip hop is finally dead and daKAH’s melancholy violins are merely playing it a spectacular dirge. In theory, daKAH has a powerful potential to re-ignite entrenched authenticity debates over who can lay claim to “the real hip hop,” as MC Julianna Jai remarked to the Los Angeles Times, “What we’re doing is way more hip-hop than what any keep-it-real kid with a drum machine can do.” In practice, however,
Unfinished Symphony fails to ignite or inspire much but a slight discomfort. If this orchestra is the future of hip hop, as so many L.A. media outlets trumpet (New Times, L.A. Weekly, Mean Street, URB), then I am going to be rooting for the underdog with the SB-1200.

Far be it for me to suggest that a hip hop/classical fusion can’t be done. The recalcitrant oldschoolers EPMD are far from being my favorite rap group and my ears are always open to genre-bending hip hop experimentation like Ozomatli, the Antipop Consortium, and the Roots. However, just like Parliament questioned whether audiences really wanted “Doobie in yo’ funk” back in the 1970s, there is something here that just doesn’t feel quite right. While daKAH attempts to sonically solve the centuries-old rhythmic war that Leroi Jones outlines in Blues People as raging between the exacting metronome-driven European melodies and the circular, polyrhythmic beats of Africa, the end product is a hyperactive muddle that creates more cultural confusion than it dissipates. Unlike Ozomatli, who approaches their musical composition from a hip hop logic—creating percussion driven grooves which inscribe space in the instrumental dialogue for Chali2na’s lyricism—daKAH throws hip hop on top of their cacophonous mix; DJ scribbles fight to be heard over puffing tubas and rhymes are nearly pulled under by the sheer weight of 30+ musicians roaring behind them.

In many ways, the band is a logical extension of the multicultural undergound hip hop scene in L.A., punched up with the type of spectacle that only Hollywood can produce. daKAH, the brainchild of Berkelee-trained musician and composer Geoff “Double G” Gallegos, began as a smaller jam band (13) that used to play a weekly spot at the Opium Den in 1998. The group’s core solidified in 1999, when Gallegos fused musicians from both Cal Arts and the Eastman School of Music under the current tag, bringing daKAH’s numbers up to 23 at their first gig at Santa Monica’s Temple Bar. In the past four years, the band’s population has snowballed, swelling to 31 and finally leveling off at a mindbending 49 musicians when the orchestra is in full effect. Instruments represented at any given L.A. show (the band has been forced to stay local because of prohibitive touring costs) include: a saxophone section, English horn, oboe, flute, bassoon, bass clarinet, trumpets, trombones, tubas, violins, viola, violoncello, a jew’s harp, pedal harp, sitar, guitars, bass, drum kit, a percussion section, a DJ, back-up vocalists, and a collection of MCs.

Musically, the album is constructed more like a symphony than an l.p., with songs bleeding from one to the next and the entire structure building to a climax in the stormy ten minute “Pisstissimo: City of Anger.” This linear construction is what undercuts the album’s tenuous claims to hip hop; it simply has too much movement and far too many changes to allow listeners to get properly lost in the groove. In addition, there is much more emphasis on wind and string instruments in
Unfinished Symphony; unfortunately, without hip hop’s strong low-end backbone of bass and percussion, the daKAH cachophony still manages to sound hollow. The best of hip hop follows Leroi Jones’ concept of “the changing same,” circular rhythms and melodies that balance repetition with innovation as they spiral forward through time. Typical daKAH songs like “Reap What You Sow” encompass so many musical shifts by such a multitude of instruments that they end up sounding like a Broadway orchestra tuning up before the curtain opens rather than the main event. For example, “Trying II Flow My Love” opens with overdubbed vocals, full horn flourishes, and low pensive strings. The tempo begins slow and measured, but speeds up as lilting violins drop in on top of this wall of sound, as do scat back up vocals and a saxophone. The sax stretches out in a jazz improv solo over now-dominant guitar and percussion, for tempo change number three. After a few bars, the full instrumentation charges back in with additional backing vocals. . . this is only the first two minutes of the piece! By the end of the song’s many convolutions, we arrive at a male solo vocalist emoting over a human beatbox; it is simply too much music to contain in four minutes. In addition to being overstuffed, much of the musical composition is simply too staid and “straight.” One of the energies driving hip hop is not simply instrumentation itself, but rather how rappers and producers riff on and distort those instruments. Despite the improvisational feel, there is little or no playfulness and innovation here.

Lyrically, the album is hard to judge. Rhymes are often stepped on by the intense orchestration and so many MCs flash before the mic that there is no one voice that speaks distinctly for the band. While this is an interesting response to the out-of-control egocentrism of much of hip hop, it also has the curious effect of making much of the rhyming seem generic and disengaged from any intimacy with the audience. The most affecting voice is the low smoky growl of Julianna Jai, who raps in a sleepy half-singing style that helps arrest the often zany nature of the musical backdrop. There are also occasionally interesting lyrical moments sprinkled throughout the album; a delicious irony is certainly at play when one MC raps about “the California aristocracy” while being accompanied by a full string section and a bassoon (“Chillitando: Island of Pride”).

daKAH, with the best of intentions and much more than their share of talent, has certainly set up an interesting experiment. What their trials end up proving, however, is that “hip hop” is not a synonym for “anything goes. . .jam it in and we’ll see what sticks.” Like classical, it is an artform with its own conventions, techniques, and emotional affect. As long as they refuse to study hip hop’s principles as carefully as they do their sheet music, this symphony is best left unfinished.

Standout Song:
“Chillintando: Island of Pride” is a good litmus test for how you will feel about the group. It has the best groove on the album and showcases the group’s full range of instrumentation in its eight minute running time.
I Should Have Chosen: The Breakestra: The Live Mix Part 2