- Lyrics Born: A big reason this year's hip-hop doesn't suck.
Ever since NWA's groundbreaking Straight Outta Compton in 1988, for better or worse, West Coast hip-hop has been defined by the conventions of gangsta rap. It's become a cliché: crip-walking, pimp-talking, funk-sampling dudes, driving lo-los, scrapers, and old-schools, waving gats and sporting grills, chains, Chuck Taylors, creased dickies, and white tees, and rapping about cocaine, ho's, and 22-inch rims.
Yet there's another side to West Coast hip-hop that's less celebrated, but more fulfilling than its bitch-slappin' cousin. Most non-gangsta West Coast artists have been typecast as "backpack rap," yet they've brought some interesting ideas to the hip-hop genre, while their thugged-out peers were regurgitating tired metaphors between dope and rap.
Few artists symbolize the creative side of West Coast hip-hop better than Lyrics Born and Cut Chemist.
Perhaps best known for his surprise 2004 commercial-radio hit "Callin' Out" (a funk-infused let's-get-this-party-started anthem that crossed over to alt-rock audiences), Lyrics Born has been active since the early '90s, when he, Blackalicious, DJ Shadow, and Lateef the Truthspeaker co-founded Solesides Records (later reborn as Quannum Projects). LB's unique, raspy delivery -- filled with tongue-twisting alliteration and a clever mix of self-deprecating humor and braggadocio -- was instantly recognizable, and though he works various musical styles from rock to reggae, a solid hip-hop undergirds it all.
L.A.-based Cut Chemist first came to fame with the rise of the mid-'90s turntablist movement, appearing on Om's DJ-centered compilation Deep Concentration with the Steinski & Double-Dee tribute "Lesson Six," a conceptually driven opus that told a story through sound bites and samples. As a member of Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli, Cut brought the L.A. underground hip-hop sound to mainstream arenas through incessant touring, branching off with the seminal "Brainfreeze" and "Product Placement" collaborations with DJ Shadow -- a series of mixtapes based on obscure soul, funk, and jazz 45s.
In their travels, LB and Cut Chemist crossed paths many times, frequently sharing stages, so it made perfect sense for them to collaborate on "Do That There," a track from LB's 2003 solo album, Later That Day, which found the Asian American MC delivering verbal niceties over the Chemist's boom-bip production. The song became a centerpiece of LB's much-lauded live set and appears in medley form on the rapper's latest release, Overnite Encore, a live album recorded last year in Australia.
The fact that Lyrics Born would even do a live rap album is a testament to his ingenuity. On Overnight Encore, he lends credence to the original meaning of MC -- master of ceremonies -- by stepping into the role of bandleader. The band smokes from jump street: a P-Funkish intro mixes Hazelesque power chords and Worrellian organ stabs, then segues neatly into Later That Day's "Shake It Off." Extended vamps and riffs on old-school chants add party atmosphere, and the three new tracks (including "L-I-F-E" with Oakland's hyphy expert Mistah F.A.B.) tacked onto the end are like getting a dollop of whipped cream on top of a big slice of chocolate cake.
Meanwhile, after many years of playing the background, Cut has finally come into his own with his long-awaited solo debut, The Audience's Listening, which fulfills the promise hinted at on "Lesson Six" a decade ago. The turntablist movement may have disappeared with the advent of ProTools, but the DJ-oriented album is still alive and well in Cut's nimble hands. The Audience's Listening feels as if it took about 10 years to make -- hundreds of songs were reportedly recorded, then whittled down to the 12 cuts on the album. Yet the results prove that Cut deserves to be in the same category of innovators as West Coast producers like DJ Shadow, Chief Xcel, and Dan the Automator. The eclectic mix veers crazily from cyborg voices announcing, "Here is your robot music," on "(My 1st) Big Break," to altered bossa nova complete with Astrud Gilberto samples and live berimbau ("The Garden") to scratch-scatting over jazzy piano ("Spat") to electro-futurist hip-hop ("Storm," featuring Edan and Mr. Lif). It's not typical dance music, but it's more than just headphone material.
Turf-dance next to your scraper on dubs all you want, but Cut Chemist and Lyrics Born are two big reasons that hip-hop doesn't suck in 2006.