Making Hip-Hop History
Some of the biggest names in the West Coast hip-hop scene got their start among the basement record stacks of the student-run KDVS radio station.
By Christian Kiefer
Three short keyboard chords and then an upbeat, simple repeating keyboard riff that would sound at home on a Partridge Family album. The voice that raps over that rhythm has little of the in-your-face rap vibe that seems to so permeate the mainstream media’s vision of hip-hop. Instead, it is a relatively straightforward sound, no posturing, no fakery. “We’d like to welcome you all again to the world of vibrations,” the voice says, and it’s difficult to resist the invitation, in part because the words come so fast and because the words continue the dual invitation and invocation.
By the time the chorus is reached, the listener is already hooked. The mid-1970s cheesy television variety show vibe introduced in the verse keyboards is embellished here as the chorus voices begin to recite a two-note chant, each syllable parsed into separate units of sound: “We vib-rate at high-er fre-quen-cies wel-come to our world and in-tro to fall in-to a space where there is no thoughts, just mo-ments cap-tured here we go.”
And so it goes until a rather abrupt bridge flips the song over, warping a slow, burning, almost hallucinatory groove where a woman’s high, soulful voice scrapes through the dark, smoke-filled air. The song is different, but the words remain the same—her voice taking up the chorus of vibrations, bringing them to a new geography, recontextualizing them.
This is the world of Blackalicious, one of the foremost West Coast hip-hop groups and one of UC Davis’ most famous musical exports. Essentially a duo comprising producer Xavier Mosley (performing under the name Chief Xcel) and vocalist Timothy Parker (performing under the name Gift of Gab) with a rotating cast of guests and friends, Blackalicious has been blazing an independent and intellectual trail through a genre that, at least according to the mainstream media, seems bereft of any variety of intelligence whatsoever. The fact that they’ve recently teamed with the ANTI-record label—a label that boasts a roster including Neko Case, Tom Waits and Elliott Smith, among others—only solidifies their position as one of the genre’s most interesting, innovative and moving musical forces.
But one of the most remarkable aspects of Blackalicious isn’t necessarily the music itself but rather the pool of talent that the duo has been associated with for the better part of two decades, a tight-knit crew of hip-hop aficionados who congregated back in the record stacks at KDVS, UC Davis’ legendary student-run radio station, and who, through sheer determination, business sense and constantly striving imagination, became some of the biggest success stories in the West Coast independent hip-hop scene.
Of course, back in the early 1990s, things were much different. Josh Davis, the man who would by 1996 revolutionize instrumental hip-hop under the name DJ Shadow, was a student in the communications department. As a hip-hop fan, Davis gravitated naturally to the student radio station, burying himself in stacks of vinyl LPs and singles and locating the best beats and drum breaks (short drum fills used for emphasizing a rhythm) to use in his fledgling DJ work.
It was strangely secret work. Hip-hop artists were (and are, one assumes) competitive by nature. In a genre defined by rhythm, finding the ultimate beat is the all-consuming work of any aspiring hip-hop producer or DJ. Finding that perfect new beat or break that could be used in a fresh and interesting way was like finding gold, and that meant hiding the gold from other would-be DJs. The other aspiring hip-hop artists huddling in the stacks, among them a young student named Tom Shimura (who would become known as Lyrics Born) and Mosley and Parker (who would eventually team up as Blackalicious), were on separate missions of hip-hop glory.
“Fanatics!” wrote former KDVS DJ Jeff “DJ Zen” Chang about them in the liner notes to SoleSides Greatest Bumps, a compilation of tracks cut by this same group of record miners. “One time, I walked into the listening booth to post my playlist. X and Lyrics had just found this fat Latin-ragga stomper of a break . . . and were playing it over and over, giggling wildly. When I stepped in the booth, the two of them pulled the needle, hid the album cover, dropped their chests over the turntable, looked sideways and told me to get the hell out.”
“What made KDVS so incredible is that it had one of the most vast musical libraries of any college radio station we’d ever been to,” Chief Xcel said via phone from his Bay Area recording studio. “That was the education process that we submerged ourselves in.”
Indeed, both he and Lyrics Born cited KDVS as their proper education. It was the place that they found not only the music but a community of like-minded musicians to work with and to work for. “Davis seemed isolated from the rest of the world,” Lyrics Born commented. “The radio station raised us. There was so much music. I really got my education in that radio station.”
Before long, the secretive individuals had decided (at the urging of Chang) to team up. Pooling resources seemed a more logical idea than competing, as it enabled the young hip-hop fanatics to combine both their knowledge of the genre and their own unique skill sets and points of view. Those points of view were unique even from the most basic level, since the group was perhaps the most ethnically diverse in hip-hop at that time. The combination of DJ Shadow and Lyrics Born (Caucasian and Asian American, respectively) was rare enough in the world of hip-hop, and the combination of that diversity with Chief Xcel’s and Gift of Gab’s African American heritage meant that the group’s earliest incarnation provided a strongly diverse identity, all gathered together under the banner of music.
This diverse vision collected under the name “SoleSides,” with DJ Shadow and Chief Xcel taking up most of the production duties and Lyrics Born and Gift of Gab providing the vocal raps. Also joining the fold were rapper Lateef the Truth Speaker (Lateef Daumont) and Jazzbo (Joseph Patel), both students at UC Davis. The business/partnership/friendship produced its first vinyl product, a seven-inch single, in 1993. One side featured “Entropy,” an instrumental track by DJ Shadow, the other Lyrics Born’s “Send Them.”
That first single ushered in a musical and business relationship that has lasted, in various guises, for 18 years. The SoleSides label went on to attract hip-hop talent from the Bay Area and to release, on vinyl, cassette or CD, music by DJ Shadow, Lyrics Born, Blackalicious, Lateef the Truth Speaker, Latyrx and Mack B. Dog. Beats and breaks were rolling out under the SoleSides banner in the form of vinyl records, cassettes and later CDs, and people were talking on both sides of the Atlantic.
One of the more important forces at work was London-based Mo’ Wax, a relatively small but important label that courted and signed DJ Shadow and, in 1996, released his Entroducing . . ., an album that remains the biggest-selling instrumental hip-hop album of all time and one that is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first album in history to be composed entirely of sampled sounds from other albums. Entroducing . . . put DJ Shadow on the map, giving him access to a variety of projects that the kid flipping through record sleeves in the KDVS stacks might only have dreamed of.
In the late 1990s, the SoleSides label reorganized itself as Quannum Projects and that imprint has remained a viable music label, to date releasing a variety of CDs from the same familiar names that graced the SoleSides label, and expanding to include some fresh talent. Still, the initial business model—important both in terms of its artistic and business success, and in terms of its ethnic diversity—remains essentially intact.
This latter point could easily be ignored were it not for the emphasis mainstream popular culture tends to place on “authenticity.” The cultural idea of an Asian American hip-hop artist isn’t as easy to swallow as an African American artist, at least in mainstream circles—despite the fact that ethnic identity has little or nothing to do with the quality of the music being produced.
On the subject of ethnicity, Lyrics Born understands the complex ways in which the backgrounds of Quannum’s artists affect their art. “It makes a difference in the sense that it’s who we are as people,” he noted via telephone. “Because it’s music it doesn’t even matter what I look like or what my last name is. On the other hand it means everything to me because it governs the way I feel about the world or the way the world feels about me. . . . It gives me a lot of pride to know that people just like me are inspired by what I do.”
Indeed, the SoleSides crew (as they continue to be known by hip-hop fans in Davis) is continuing to inspire listeners. Nix Glass, a KDVS DJ who has had a hip-hop and electronica show running on the station for 10 years, notes that SoleSides is still known and loved at the station. “There are a lot of people who are in the CD community and are trying to get into hip-hop and DJing. The fact that the SoleSides label pretty much started right here—that’s inspiring to them.”
As for new potential SoleSides crews rising up out of the current KDVS scene, Glass notes that, while the current scene is, in his words, “low key,” there are a few promising young hip-hop artists on the rise. Glass notes local hip-hop crew Nostalgic Progression (including DJ Riff Raff) as one such group. Another is a Davis High School student who spins records under the name DJ Chillis. “He would watch all the DJs coming through the Delta of Venus,” Glass commented, noting the local café where he still DJs on a regular basis. “He got his own turntables and got a show about a year ago. . . . I see a lot of potential in him, and he’s very influenced by KDVS and having access to all the music down here.”
It certainly sounds like the start of a familiar story. Perhaps Chillis and Glass and a few others will form the newest incarnation of hip-hop, a new SoleSides for the 21st century. In the meanwhile, it’s clear that Chillis has found the best possible classroom for hip-hop education: the well-thumbed stacks of vinyl and CDs at KDVS. “The advice I’d give to aspiring artists is you,” Chief Xcel told me via telephone. It’s good advice for DJ Chillis. In fact, it’s good advice for anyone. “Develop you. Nobody has a voice like yours.”
Christian Kiefer is a graduate student in English at UC Davis and a musician and freelance music writer. More information can be found at www.christiankiefer.com.
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