The East Coast/West Coast hip-hop rivalry of the '90s was pretty stupid, an overblown ego battle that, at its worst, cost two amazing rappers their lives and, at best, was a laughable red herring that had more to do with civic pride and ego than with music. (Plus, East Coast hip-hop was clearly more innovative and smart and therefore superior.)
But that was then; these days, hip-hop styles have transcended region, and innovation is just as likely to sprout way out west in Los Angeles -- or way down south in New Orleans, or smack-dab in the middle, here in St. Louis -- as it is in oh-so-worldly NYC. Right now, LA -- best known in rap circles for being ground zero of gangsta rap and for cookie-cutter use of the P-Funk groove -- is dropping some seriously smart and innovative sounds. Two LA acts, Dilated Peoples and the Jurassic 5, showcase their sounds here this week.
Dilated Peoples are two emcees and one DJ. The emcees, Iriscience and Evidence, and the DJ, Babu -- who is also a member of the phenomenal DJ crew the World Famous Beat Junkies -- make hip-hop seem easy. Despite the thickness of their new CD, The Platform (Capitol), which is crammed with sample snippets that jump and bump in and out of the mix, it's never overly complicated, revolving around a few hooks, a simple beat and Babu's scratchin'. But the more you listen, the deeper and denser it becomes, until the simplicity is eclipsed by head-scratching sample gymnastics. Iriscience and Evidence trade rhymes back and forth, jumping from machine-gun speed to slow monosyllabic grooves, and their skill helps even the most difficult verbal combos flow from their mouths like water.
Double the Peoples and add another emcee, and you've got the foundation of the Jurassic 5: five emcees and two DJs, and you can hear them all when they crank it out simultaneously. Five emcees all rhyming the same thing at the same time -- something to behold in itself -- sounds totally revolutionary when the J5 do it. The result on their self-titled debut is a revelation, sounding like an old-school backyard rhyme session put to wax, especially on "Concrete Schoolyard," a cut that sings the glories of old-school and one of the best hip-hop singles of last year.
New Yorker Talib Kweli is best known as one half of Black Star (the other half being the more visible Mos Def, who, unlike Kweli, has a solo record out). With Black Star, Talib's rhymes are totally inspired and thoughtful; he's able to combine his obviously remarkable intellect with a superior internal rhythm, the result being couplets that work equally well on paper and on plastic.
Combined, they make for a great hip-hop bill. And anyone curious about the past and future of hip-hop shouldn't miss it.