The shape-shifting world of entertainment requires new musicians to bend borders and break with stale conventions. Today's top performers are those who consistently redirect the path of their genre.
Enter Evidence, Rakaa and DJ Babu, the heads of hip hop's rogue state, Dilated Peoples. As pioneers of the Los Angeles underground rap movement, they attracted a great deal of attention during the mid-'90s, when the very different sound of gangster rap ruled the national airwaves.
The Dilated clan came together during a golden age of hip hop, one which witnessed the arrival of new hope for those who were dissatisfied with the pomp and circumstance of the mainstream: hyper-materialism and carefully contrived images. "That's the business of hip hop," Babu says. In contrast, the unadulterated "art of hip hop" was the primary focus of the first underground performers. And, as if refusing to let their spirit die, Dilated Peoples have reminded audiences of this period on each of their three albums.
The Peoples delivered a refreshing and relatively wholesome alternative to commercial gun music. Babu, the collective's expert scratch mechanic, describes the group's early work as being comprised of "imagery, battle hymns and political poetry," alongside "big beats and big cuts."
This mixture of dramatic production and conscious lyricism proved to be a winning formula. With a string of landmark twelve-inch releases, Dilated achieved iconic status. Soon after, Capitol Records, intrigued by the group's unique flavor and grassroots support, gave the group a long-term contract. Now here comes the twist.
Because they were so trail-blazing at the start, one might expect the Peoples to continually evolve. However, they have stuck to their original sound, eschewing popular music's demand for continual change. Although they have polished and elaborated on their style, Dilated's song catalogue represents an exaggerated adherence to specific tempos, structures and subject matters.
Babu explains this phenomenon in terms of personal history: "You have to always respect your roots," he says.
While new jacks experiment with stream of consciousness flows, and avant-garde beatmakers employ dissonance and other such unorthodox techniques, the Peoples' reactionary approach is counter-intuitively groundbreaking. Others strain to innovate, whereas Dilated traces backwards towards the future. Babu defines this aesthetic as "cutting edge traditionalism."
In addition to being invested in the old school, Babu also emphasizes that his group aims to penetrate virgin ears with its music. "People are getting on and off this escalator so fast. The kid that was six years old five years ago is now 11 and just getting into music. There's a good chance he's never heard of Dilated Peoples," he says. "We're constantly trying to win new fans while staying true to the fans that have gotten us this far."
On their latest record, Neighborhood Watch, the Peoples have enlisted some of music's finest soldiers to help them achieve this goal. Even Kanye West makes an appearance. But as Dilated continues to fight battles for recognition, it will be its retro-rap attack that wins the war.
Catch Dilated Peoples with Kanye West and Young Gunz Friday, April 23 at the Electric Factory (421 N. 7th St.). 8:30 p.m. $25 at door.