Mosi Reeves

Ridin’ the synergy


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Listening to Keelay & Zaire’s debut, Ridin’ High (MYX Music Label), is like being transported back to Bay Area hip-hop in the early ’90s. Remember those glory days? Hobo Junction and Hieroglyphics battled for supremacy; the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and Bomb Records sparked the turntablism movement; and Celly Cel, Spice-1, Richie Rich, and the Click created mob music.

Production team Tim "Zaire" Lewis and Kyle "Keelay" Pierce evoke that era with balletic numbers such as "I’m on Swerv," with its Zapp-style — not T-Pain style — Auto-Tunin’, and laid-back gangsta soul like "Alright with Me" and "Nurf to the Turf." The cast itself isn’t Bay-specific. Its geographical makeup — a product of connections made through MySpace pages and online community forums — ranges from Raleigh, N.C. (Phonte Coleman and Darien Brockington) to Bloomberg, N.J. (rising producer Illmind’s group Fortilive). It’s a result of Internet hustling, and the chorus line raps, sings, swaggers, and jostles for attention. But the smooth, breezy, Dayton-tires-rolling-on-concrete tone remains.

"We really just wanted to make something that would give the listener the feeling of riding around in a car," says Keelay by phone. A Salt Lake City transplant, he enrolled at San Francisco State seven years ago. "After college, I just didn’t want to leave," he remembers. "I loved it in the Bay Area. It quickly became my home."

Keelay met Zaire on the — once — message boards. Both work 9-to-5 gigs: Keelay is a computer technician for Wells Fargo. Zaire, who lives in Newport News, Va., is a government contractor who mysteriously performs "intelligence work." ("I don’t know what he does!" answers Keelay when pressed for details.) Without a label deal, they painstakingly cobbled together Ridin’ High over two years, paying for the guest appearances themselves, though, Keelay adds, "a lot of people were really generous," and did it for free. "Me and Zaire had to send beats and sessions back and forth" via e-mail, he says. "We did it all through the Internet."

Now MYX Music Label (MML), who signed Keelay & Zaire to a deal last fall, has chosen Ridin’ High as its first major release. MML is a subsidiary of ABS-CBN Global, a Philippines media company that launched a U.S. version of MYX TV in 2007. According to Karim Panni, who manages the imprint, the "music lifestyle channel" can only be seen on DIRECTV in the Bay Area. But it is working on various deals that will widen its reach. Meanwhile, Comcast carries MYX’s most popular show, Built from Scratch, through its On Demand channel.

"There’s a lot of work that goes into getting added onto Comcast. But we’re working on it," says Panni, also known as Nightclubber Lang, one-third of the Seattle group Boom Bap Project. "I was on tour with Brother Ali, and the owner [of MYX] asked me if I wanted to run his record label."

It seems odd that a multimedia company with international ambitions would choose an indie rapper to launch a record label. And judging from MML’s release slate — including 20 C Energizers, described in press materials as a "hip-hop CD produced solely by Asian MCs, producers, DJs and singers," and MYX TV-affiliated DVDs such as Slanted Comedy, which showcases Asian American comedians — MYX appears to target Asian youth culture. But when asked about MYX’s Asian identity, Panni bristles. "I’m not trying to be typecast as an Asian label," he says. "We’re not trying to market to a niche audience. We’re reaching out to everybody."

"These days, with the Internet, the lines between major and underground are really fine. So instead of looking for this type or that type of rapper, I just look for the people who are making really good music that I would like," Panni adds. His expectations for Keelay & Zaire are modest: "Really, to establish themselves in the Bay Area, in the California market, and then become one of the elite production duos in the game. This is a good jump-off to show what they can do."


With Blue Scholars, Grynch, and DJ Vin Roc

Sun/1, 9 p.m., $12–<\d>$15


333 11th St., SF

(415) 522-0333

Take off


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With more than two dozen headliners mashing and hanging together, The Spirit of Apollo (Anti-) promises pop ecstasy of the heavenly, spatial variety. DJ Zegon and Squeak E. Clean, the two wheelers and dealers behind the project, aspire toward a greater good, namely, bringing together people of disparate musical and geographical backgrounds — hence the name North America–South America (N.A.S.A.).

The Spirit of Apollo arrives a decade after Prince Paul’s double whammy of all-star concept albums, A Prince among Thieves and his collaboration with Dan "the Automator" Nakamura, Handsome Boy Modeling School’s So, How’s Your Girl? (both Tommy Boy). At the time, A Prince among Thieves — praised in a memorable Guardian essay by Oliver Wang titled "A Great Day in Hip-Hop" — towered as a complex opera of friends turned enemies, a Greek tragedy performed in the urban street.

N.A.S.A. seems inspired by that earlier era of overstuffed musical junkanoos. But they don’t get too deep. After all, the global village should be fun, right? So instead of dense narratives on international privatization, outsourcing, and proxy wars, Zegon and Squeak produce party fodder such as "Samba Soul," with Del the Funky Homosapien and DJ Q-Bert, and "There’s a Party," with George Clinton and Chali 2na. The songs emphasize good, clean fun. A few of the rappers — notably Method Man on "N.A.S.A. Music" — sneak in f-bombs, but most are on their best behavior. Even Amanda Blank, notorious in club circles for waxing lyrical about poontang and peckers, keeps it PG on "A Volta."

The Spirit of Apollo appears safe for urban bourgeoisie with small children, but will anyone else find it listenable? Squeak built his name producing albums for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs — he’s a producer of the engineering-and-microphone-placement variety, not a beatmaker à la Kanye West. Zegon’s musical career in Brazil is less known. As a result, the music doesn’t really boom and bump, instead opting for peppy skitters of funky hip-hop.

The duo soars, however, by launching incongruously great combinations. As two artists devoted to grotesqueries of the criminal and pornographic kind, Tom Waits and Kool Keith make a perfect match, even if the Gorillaz-like lurch of their "Spacious Thoughts" is hardly provocative. And the hipster dream pairing of West, Lykke Li, and Santogold over the Madonna-lite electro-pop of "Gifted" makes for a shining pop moment.

It’s that all-celebrities-are-friends-with-one-another myth that makes The Spirit of Apollo an intriguing dinner party — or, more accurately, a VIP-clogged backstage at Coachella or South by Southwest. Naturally, West and company talk about how cool they are and the burdens of fame. But with an hour-and-20-minute runtime, The Spirit of Apollo talks your ear off. It’s as if you got to the party early, got stuck cleaning up afterward, and at the end could only conclude, "Damn, that was a long-ass album."


With Flosstradamus, Wallpaper, and DJ Morale

Feb. 28, 9 p.m., $18 advance


444 Jessie, SF

(415) 625-8880



PREVIEW K’naan opens his sophomore album, Troubadour (A&M/Octone), with a true urban legend: it’s tougher in Africa than anywhere else. "Here the city code is lock and load /Any minute, it’s rock ‘n’ roll," he raps in an ode to his native "Somalia."

Having established his ghetto bona fides, the Canadian immigrant embarks on a conscious party, playing with U.S. hard rock ("If Rap Gets Jealous" with Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett), radio-friendly pop ("Bang Bang" with Maroon 5 vocalist Adam Levine), and Jamaican ragga ("I Come Prepared" with Damien Marley). Effortlessly sliding from twisty rap lyrics to midrange vocal tones, K’naan’s resolute optimism comes from having survived incredible poverty and hardship. "I’ll probably get a Grammy without a grammar education," he adds on "Somalia," "so fuck you schooling, fuck you immigration!"

K’naan appears with Stephen and Julian Marley and Lee "Scratch" Perry at the Ragga Muffins Festival this week.

RAGGA MUFFINS FESTIVAL With K’naan, Stephen Marley, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Julian Marley, and Rootz Underground. Fri/20, 7 p.m., $37.50. Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph, Oakl. (415) 421-TIXS,

Wale watch


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If you went to the 2008 Rock the Bells festival at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, then you probably missed Wale Folarin. Barely an hour into the 12-hour-plus event, he was on the main stage, rocking back and forth in a half-crouch, spitting rhymes from his viral hit "W.A.L.E.D.A.N.C.E." to an arena that was one-quarter full.

Wale may be a padwan among hip-hop’s big dogs, but many of the genre’s tastemakers and fans call him a rising star. Though he has yet to release an official album, Wale has already graced the covers of several magazines. His most recent mixtape, The Mixtape About Nothing, landed on major 2008 year-end lists, including Pitchfork’s. Earlier in the year, the Roots, who have a history of recruiting hot prospects, gave him a guest spot on Rising Down (Def Jam, 2008).

Before dropping out to pursue a musical career in 2004, the DMV (District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia) native bounced through three colleges on football scholarships. He has subsequently attacked the rap game like an offensive coordinator, eschewing offers from majors like Epic to sign a production contract with Mark Ronson’s Allido Records. In turn, Ronson negotiated a joint deal with Interscope to distribute Wale’s debut, tentatively scheduled for this year.

Everyone loves raw, unformed talent, and hip-hop fans are no exception. They love MCs who can freestyle for days, never mind that their stanzas flow with rhyme but with neither reason nor hooks. They venerate rappers who compile mixtapes chock full of half-ideas. Great American Songbook traditions like harmonic structure and verse-chorus forms are nonexistent or merely subtext to the rapper’s unyielding voice.

Wale’s Mixtape About Nothing is nominally built around samples from Seinfeld, punctuated by Jerry Seinfeld’s standup bits and Jason Alexander’s antics. But Wale, with his twangy Southeast accent, takes center stage. He mostly wanders around, offering flickers of insight amid heaps of undistinguishable lines. Then he "goes in," to use a hip-hop phrase that describes a moment of clarity.

On "The Kramer," he opens with a snippet from Michael Richards’ infamous 2006 standup routine at the Laugh Factory, when Richards’ shouted to a heckler in the audience, "He’s a nigger!" Wale uses it to launch a sprawling discourse on race. He begins by confessing, "And P said that I should stop saying nigga / But what’s the difference / I’d still be a nigga." But at the end, he declares, "Make sure everything you say / Can’t be held against you in any kind of way / And any connotation is viewed many ways / ‘Cause under ev’ry nigga there’s a little bit of Kramer / Self-hatred / I hate you / And myself."

Two years ago, Lil Wayne rocketed to superstardom on the basis of these kinds of rambling tone poems. Hundreds of his tracks fueled a cottage industry of Weezy mixtapes. As a result, everyone is flooding the Internet with rangy bedroom studio cuts, proclaiming their status as "the truth" to anyone who’ll listen. In 2008, Brooklyn MC Sha Stimuli issued 12 mixtapes in 12 months, basing one around the 2007 Jennifer Aniston comedy The Break Up. Charles Hamilton dropped eight mixtapes in two months. In most cases, all this sound and fury signifies nothing; worse, it makes it difficult for a talented artist such as Wale to stand out.

"Everybody’s doing blogs. Everybody’s doing freestyles. Everybody’s doing, like, way too much stuff on the Internet," Wale complains by phone. "It’s like, c’mon, we get it. It’s way overdone now." It’s the most provocative statement the 24-year-old makes during a brief interview. Otherwise, Wale keeps his answers amiable but bland. When I ask him about the dreaded "hipster rapper" tag, he claims not to know what I’m talking about. Even when I point out that XXL magazine asked him the same question for a cover story, he responds: "I’m not familiar with that term. Nobody’s said that about me."

Yet Wale is keenly aware of his atypical tastes. "I think it goes over a lot of people’s heads," he says. "By no means am I comparing myself with Leonardo da Vinci or nothing, but by no means do I understand the significance of the Mona Lisa. But there are millions of people who do, and appreciate that piece of work. So eventually you have to do stuff for the people who appreciate what you do." For the moment, his esoteric creative decisions seem to work, including his widely mimicked freestyles over rock hits like Lily Allen’s "Smile." As he says on his 100 Miles and Running mixtape, "Y’all believe me when I do it. Don’t sass me for doing it."


Jan. 31, 9 p.m., $15


444 Jessie, SF

Beautiful voices


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In the 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, Bob Dylan noted an era when people desired "beautiful voices over very melodic songs." He referred to the early 1960s and pop balladeers such as Doris Day and Johnny Mathis. But the description fits the current soul scene, too, and its celebration of black — and, increasingly, white — artists with wondrously perfect voices and virtuous, albeit sexually complicated lives. A friend of mine used to call it "church."

If the soul scene resembles a megachurch, then John "Legend" Stephens is its deacon. His rise in the music industry — from backup vocalist on Jay-Z’s "Encore" to flagship artist on Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint — was balanced with a years-long stint as music director at Philadelphia’s Bethel A.M.E. Church. In photos accompanying his 2004 debut Get Lifted (G.O.O.D. Music/Columbia), Legend stood in the aisle of a nondescript church, bathed in sunlight, his hands resting on two adjacent pews. Thematically the album followed Legend’s transformation from hip-hop kid with a roving eye ("She Don’t Have to Know," "Used to Love U," which pays homage to Common’s "I Used to Love H.E.R.") to chastened man trying to save his relationship ("I Can Change," "Ordinary People") and, finally, spiritually and physically devoted lover ("Stay With You," "So High"). He performed these songs with a studious air. His voice alternately massaged and swayed, like an altar boy brushing the dirt off his shoes as he enters.

Legend has moved on to other themes of love and devotion, but the Christian aspects of his music remain. The "church" probably wouldn’t have it any other way. The modern R&B industry resembles the old-school pop industry — before it lapsed into the Madonna/whore syndrome personified by Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus — in its celebration of carefully manicured personalities with stylish (but not too avant-garde) fashion sensibilities and gossipy (but not too slutty) love lives. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with going to church. Still, whether used as a metaphor or visited as a place of worship, a church and its congregation idealize the world around it.

As a result, most soul vocalists sing about love and sex, reducing the vagaries of life to intimate relationships. A few, particularly the great Anthony Hamilton and Raheem DeVaughn, address the black community, the effects of violent crime and rampant poverty, and the idea of working hard for a paycheck and dreaming of better days. But that’s not really Legend’s thing. He imagines as a songwriter and composer in the vein of Quincy Jones and Billy Joel. He cuts a dashing figure on the cover of his 2004 album Once Again (G.O.O.D. Music/Columbia), tinkling a grand piano in the middle of busy New York City streets and spinning light, romantic numbers such as "P.D.A. (We Just Don’t Care)." "Let’s go to the park, I wanna kiss you underneath the stars," he sings in a breezily sultry voice. "Let’s make love."

Much like Burt Bacharach, the old-school mandarin of fluffy Brill Building pop, Legend is an ace craftsman of modern standards. His best songs mix concise and thoughtful lyrics with subtle melodies, expert musicianship, and standout choruses. For his new full-length, Evolver (G.O.O.D. Music/Columbia), he adds "Green Light," a seductive come on buffeted by drum and keyboard programming. "Give me the green light, give me just one night," croons Legend as stray synth melodies pop and sparkle around him. Andre 3000 from OutKast shows up after the second hook, promising to have "you giggling like a piglet / Oh, that’s the ticket / I hope you’re more Anita Baker than Robin Givens."

The cover of Evolver, where Legend poses mysteriously in a Members Only jacket, plays on "Green Light"’s promise that the traditionalist is playing a new game. But, of course, it’s the same tricks. Get Lifted successfully mixed A-list rappers with familiar neo-soul grooves: baby-making music with a contemporary edge. Despite the subtle nods to ’80s babies nostalgia, Legend doesn’t wander too far from that winning formula. Instead, he offers creamy ballads such as "Cross the Line," where he admits, "I don’t want to risk losing everything."

For all the loveliness of Legend’s voice, it would be nice to hear him write more challenging material. Get Lifted drew unpredictable, exciting tension from his classical tendencies and hip-hop’s swagger, but with Evolver he veers dangerously close to blandness. Of course, his "church" probably wouldn’t want it any other way.

Back in 2006, I saw Los Angeles singer-songwriter Esthero open for Legend. Walking on stage barefoot and in loose-fitting clothes, Esthero’s funk jams and earthy Bjork-like trip-pop drew snickers from the audience. She was almost booed off the stage. It took Legend to pacify the old ladies and married couples.

"Hey, do you remember this one?" he teased them, playing a few notes from Jay-Z’s "Encore" and Slum Village’s "Selfish." He sang in fine form that night, and the church was pleased.


With Estelle

Mon/12, 8 p.m., $50.50–$76.50

Paramount Theatre

2025 Broadway, Oakland

A better tomorrow


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In the real world, the New York Stock Exchange did the butterfly flop all year, and the global economy sank along with it. But in the fantasy world of hip-hop, stock options on prime talent just went up and up. If it wasn’t proclaiming its Freshman Class of ’09 — led by Blu, Kid Cudi, and Wale — then it was top blogs and posting hundreds of videos, MP3s, photo galleries, and other ephemera per week. Web sites like lavished attention on its favorites — "real hip-hop" artists like the Roots and Common — with audio/video items and high review scores, doling out 92 of 100 for Q-Tip’s The Renaissance (Universal Motown).

Of course, MTV and its poorer cousins, MTV Jams and BET, still showed plenty of Young Jeezy and Rick Ross videos, mean-mugging thugs and "dimepiece" models looking soulfully in the camera, eager to show their souls and shake their asses. On the Billboard charts, dependable superstars such as Kanye West and T.I. dominated with subpar albums and MOR malaise.

Meanwhile, like a cheery prospectus, the new hip-hop media teemed with blogs and Web sites promising a better tomorrow of future stars. Seasoned music journalists found the hype difficult to ignore: this year’s CMJ Music Marathon included a panel asking, "The Hip-Hop Renaissance: A Cultural Rebirth?" Meanwhile XXL magazine, the bastion of conservatism that seemingly puts 50 Cent on the cover every month — the Freshman Class list was a rare lapse — wondered, "What the hell happened to good ol’ gangster rap?" Apparently, the new breed of MCs’ penchant for appropriating nerdy icons (Charles Hamilton’s Sonic the Hamilton), paying homage to old-school classics (Pacific Division’s "F.A.T. Boys"), issuing 10-minute linguistic exercises (Mickey Factz’s "The Inspiration"), and rhyming over dance beats (Wale’s cover of Justice’s "D.A.N.C.E.") present a major threat to rap’s G’s-up-hos-down kingdom.

It needn’t have worried. The new Internet landscape flourished on buzz, not actual achievement. Indie-rockers were doing it for years — witness the rise of mediocre talents Vampire Weekend and Lykke Li — before the Cool Kids learned how to blow up with nothing more than a few demo songs and a flashy MySpace page. By the time the Cool Kids finally put out The Bake Sale EP (Chocolate Industries), an ode to limited-edition sneakers and sugar cereal, the Chicago duo had already spent several months basking in magazine covers and sold-out national tours. The Bake Sale may have been good, but its release felt anticlimactic. And let’s not even mention Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III (Cash Money), and his "100 best Lil Wayne songs you’ve never heard." That’s so 2007.

The Cool Kids may be the best example of how to manipulate the new hip-hop stock market — ply the blogs with YouTube videos (popular topics: Top 10 R&B chicks worth a "smash"), and distribute mixtapes via (popular topics: Barack Obama and freestyles over Lil Wayne’s "A Milli" and old J Dilla beats). Original material such as Kidz in the Hall’s The In Crowd (Duck Down) and Black Milk’s Tronic (Fat Beats) drew positive reviews from magazines and traditional Web sites. But once the free MP3 downloads and shaky-camera videos dried up, the new hip-hop media didn’t seem to care about actual albums one could buy in stores — or, sadly, just download for free. It thrived on fresh content, not critical analysis.

Some actual hits emerged amid the deluge. Kid Cudi’s "Day N Nite," Asher Roth’s "Roth Boys," Q-Tip’s "Gettin’ Up," Kidz in the Hall’s "Drivin’ down the Block," B.O.B.’s "Haterz," and Jay Electronica’s "Exhibit A (Transformations)" drew universal props. Mountaintop pronouncements from Jay-Z ("Jockin’ Jay-Z," "Brooklyn Go Hard"), Eminem ("Number One"), and Nas ("Be a Nigger Too," "Hero") were heeded by all, though these utterances paled in comparison to past glories.

Mostly, though, there was a lot of crap to sift through. If critics and fans couldn’t agree on whether Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III was a certified classic or just an above-average hit album, it was because we were too busy downloading music, surfing blogs, and watching videos to think about it. Perhaps we’ll figure out what 2008 means many years from now, long after that tomorrow finally arrives — for better or worse.


1. Flying Lotus, Los Angeles (Warp)

2. Daedelus, Love to Make Music to (Ninja Tune)

3. Black Milk, Tronic (Fat Beats)

4. The Cool Kids, The Bake Sale EP (Chocolate Industries)

5. Kidz in the Hall, The In Crowd (Duck Down)

6. Blue Sky Black Cinema, Late Night Cinema (Babygrande)

7. Invincible, ShapeShifters (Emergence)

8. Black Spade, To Serve with Love (Om)

9. Common Market, Tobacco Road (Hyena)

10. Lyrics Born, Everywhere at Once (Epitaph)


Heaven-sent hip-hop?


Everyone loves a young artist on the verge. When a new, talented voice emerges from nowhere, we all buzz and titter. As a result, John "Blu" Barnes isn’t talking to the press at the moment. According to the Los Angeles rapper’s manager, Jonathan Kim, Blu is "trying to clear his head before he starts working on his next album," which will probably be made for a to-be-confirmed major label. "Clearing his head" means tuning out the noise of the blogs, magazines, fanboys, and hip-hop critics that lavished attention on him.

It may be the first time Blu’s been silent by choice. He has stoked fans with sharp-tongued linguistics all year, issuing two albums — Johnson&Jonson, with producer Mainframe, and as C.R.A.C. (Collect Respect Anna Check) with producer/rapper Ta’raach, The Piece Talks (both Tres) — and scores of guest appearances on others’ rap tracks. The avalanche of material brought his smack-talking, pussy-hunting abilities to the fore — with increasing acclaim.

But in the high-stakes, winner-take-all world of hip-hop, one false move will not only get your ass dropped from a label roster like a kidney stone, it’ll get your album shelved indefinitely. In its December issue, XXL magazine inducted Blu into the "Freshman Class of ’09." It also included a brief "Graduation" story on last year’s picks, nearly all of whom have fallen victim to stalled careers, waning audiences, or artistic malaise.

Years ago, when Blu was a hungry teenage striver in Southern California, he referred to this dangerous world of superstars, prodigies and has-beens as heaven. Below the Heavens: In Hell Happy with Your New Imaginary Friend (Sound in Color, 2007), his collaboration with producer Alec "Exile" Manfredi, "was a concept I came up with in high school," he told me back in January. "I thought all the people I was associated with were so-called below the heavens because we all want to get to heaven, and heaven was the mainstream, like, commercial success. And we were below the heavens."

Blu’s path to heaven began with the help of Exile, whose career courses from underground to mainstream circles, from Emanon (his longtime indie-rap group with singer-rapper Aloe Blacc) to thug pioneers Mobb Deep. At the time, Blu was a self-described freestyler, the type of dude who battled other prospective rappers in huddled "cipher" circles outside LA nightclubs. Exile pushed him to write lyrics that were more than just invectives and put-downs.

"I was always pushing for a more personal record from him," Exile said. "He definitely resented me for that a little bit because he wanted to get his raw MC-type shit out. I helped him polish his style."

Blu still manages to talk a gang of shit on Below the Heavens. On the first track, "My World Is," he brags, "Back when I was a young spitter bitches used to ask me to kick a flow to them. Next thing you know I’m strokin’ ’em." But he’s also disarmingly sensitive and poetic. On "Simply Amazin’<0x2009>" he describes rapping "until I buckle and become winded / And all the air from out my lungs slips into the sky like weed smoke." On "The Narrow Path," he admits, "I need a pen, I need a pad, I need a place to go, to get this shit lifted off of my soul." Through deft linguistics, Blu yearns for better days, rapping to not only save his life, but improve it.

Back in January, Blu told me: "As I started formuutf8g the album, it seemed to be like a collection of my life on earth, which is striving to make it to heaven. I felt since that was what the record was turning out to be about, I felt the title fit in both ways." When Blu said "both ways," he referred to heaven on earth as well as the spiritual afterlife. "I definitely wanted the respect from [Below the Heavens]," he continued. "I just wanted people to hear me, and cats wonder who I am. And it did that plus more. Now I’m looking to step it up for the people."

In the year that followed, Blu fully indulged his "raw MC-type shit" with The Piece Talks and Johnson&Jonson. If neither album approaches Below the Heavensspiky brilliance, they at least confirmed that Blu’s lyrical talent was undeniable. Now he’s on the cusp of entering the heaven of mainstream rap world — and an uncertain future.


With U-N-I, Richie Cunning, and Fashawn

Tues/9, 9 p.m., $12–<\d>$14


628 Divisadero, SF

(415) 771-1422

‘Fight’ songs


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On the night of Nov. 4, while President-elect Barack Obama was giving his victory speech in Chicago, Flobots were performing at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC.

"We ended up performing just after McCain gave his concession speech, and then we stopped when Obama gave his acceptance speech," remembers Jonny 5, the rap band’s lead vocalist, on the road to New Haven, Conn. He calls the moment "full of euphoric disbelief." Outside the club "there were people everywhere in the streets, giving each other hugs, and impromptu parades."

It wasn’t the first time Flobots’ career path had intertwined with that of the president-elect. In September, when the Democratic Party held its convention in the group’s hometown of Denver, they participated in several ancillary events, including a concert with Rage Against the Machine. "The entire event was planned to support the Iraq Veterans Against the War, who had a march immediately after the event," says Jonny 5. "So we used the stage to rally people."

Flobots’ rise from regional upstarts to modern-rock radio stalwarts mirrors Rage’s emergence more than 15 years ago. Just as Zack de la Rocha and company did with their fuzzy emo-punk, Jonny 5 — along with rapper Brer Rabbit — adds rhymes to an exotic mix of jazz horns, funky breaks, and hard-rock guitar. And the six-member crew are equally consumed with progressive politics. Each song on Fight with Tools (Universal Republic/Flobots Music, 2007), the outfit’s second album, overflows with righteous anger and activist fervor.

Flobots, “Handlebars”

"We want money for health care and public welfare! Free Mumia and Leonard Peltier!" Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit offer on "Same Thing." "We say, ‘Yes,’ to grassroots organization, ‘No,’ to neoliberal organization! Bring the troops back to the USA and shut down Guantanamo Bay!"

"Handlebars," of course, was Flobots’ breakout moment. Much of Fight with Tools, which Flobots released independently last year, before Universal Republic signed them and reissued the album this spring, feels overwhelmed by earnest slogans. But on "Handlebars," Jonny 5 weaves a stream-of-consciousness allegory about American exceptionalism while the rest of the band build, like an orchestra, to a cacophonous conclusion.

Jonny 5 says his influences range from hip-hop collectives such as Project Blowed to organic music ensembles like Ozomatli. The unusual chart success of "Handlebars," which soared into the Billboard Top 40 last summer, helped Flobots sell more records than any of their inspirations.

"Personally, I had this obsession or insecurity about whether we were really hip-hop, and whether we were representing the hip-hop community correctly. I don’t know … I was hung up on it," Jonny 5 explains. "[Influential indie rapper] 2Mex was with us for four or five dates on the West Coast, and the minute we would mention any criticism we’d get, he’d say, ‘Fuck that, man. Keep expanding. That’s what hip-hop is.’<0x2009>"


Sun/23, 8 p.m., $27.50–<\d>$30


982 Market, SF

Lemonade from lemons


With a title as whimsical as This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That, it’s only appropriate that Marnie Stern begins her second Kill Rock Stars album with the sounds of a simple clapping game. "I am vanishing into the trees," she chants while rapping her knuckles on a hard surface. "Defenders get onto your knees. This Is It is a decidedly girly affair. Its CD-booklet artwork, illustrated by Brooklyn painter Bella Foster, depicts Stern as a hiker in the mountains, surrounded by watercolor flowers and pen-line squirrels and foxes. The lyrics seem full of self-empowerment phrases such as "you rearrange your mind" ("The Package Is Wrapped") and "so I rearrange and I don’t mind the change" ("Clone Cycle"). But the electric feminist explosion that is This Is It masks deep personal anxieties, something she describes as a "combination of zen and extreme loneliness." It’s why she lyrically reaches for zen bliss. It’s the musical equivalent of making lemonade from lemons.

"It was therapeutic," Stern says by phone from her New York City home. "That first song ["Prime"] is just about feeling alone, and battling that, and just trying to get as authentic as I possibly can. With ‘Shea Stadium,’ I had been watching some baseball movies such as The Natural. There’s a real epic feeling to those kinds of movies, and how the team overcomes. So it’s in part about that, and in part about a relationship with someone.

"It’s much more difficult to try and be positive," she continues. "At least for myself, I automatically go to the negative place because it’s much easier. But nothing good would come of it. As I progress, only really good things that happen when I embrace being positive."

Much of the laudatory press for This Is It from outlets such as and The New York Times tends to ignore or criticize Stern’s violently happy lyrics in favor of her shredding. With only her second album, she has established herself as an ace guitarist. In an age where everyone’s afraid to play a monster lead solo, Stern lets it rip early and often, instead of sticking to boring rhythm guitar. On "Transformer," she taps out a volley of chords on the guitar’s neck, replicating Angus Young’s hook from AC/DC’s "Thunderstruck." For "The Crippled Jazzer," she picks out a lightning-fast and furious line.

"A lot of times people say I’m a virtuosic player, and I’m not," Stern says. When asked if she’s comfortable with mantle of indie-rock guitar hero, she exclaims, "No, of course not! No, no, and no! I’m not!" Instead, she modestly calls herself a singer-songwriter.

Stern first picked up the guitar when she was 15. "I didn’t really start playing until I was 21, 22," says the 32year-old musician. "It was really late. I didn’t take lessons." For her second album, This Is It, Stern wrote 30 numbers before settling on 12. Her goal, she says, was to make the songs coherent, with a clearer verse-chorus structure than her earlier work. Each number is made up of several unique 15-second guitar parts: she would write those first, then write a lyric for each part. "The tendency is for it to sound fragmented, because it’s just part-part-part," she says. "The joy for me in making the song is to get those parts to interlock together."

Stern self-deprecatingly refers to herself and This Is It as a poppy, accessible incarnation of noise bands she likes, such as Arab on Radar, Sheer Accident, the Flying Luttenbachers, and "that whole family of music. To me, my stuff is really straightforward." On one level, it’s a love of classic rock that sent her from the experimental noise community into the welcoming arms of pop music critics and fans. Still, it’s not her guitar playing, but her lyrics — and her conflicting emotions of karmic joy and nervy pessimism — that makes her a potential sonic revolutionary.

"Before I found music I was always pretty cynical about things," Stern says. "Then, as I found my connection with playing and writing songs, I began to feel that connectedness. It made me feel hopeful … It was the only thing that really satisfied me."


With Gang Gang Dance

Fri/14, 9 p.m., $15

Bimbo’s 365 Club

1025 Columbus, SF

Future present


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"I remember in the beginning I used to fuck around and not care about anything at all," says Steven Ellison, who records under the guise Flying Lotus. "But now it’s, like, Thom Yorke likes my music, dog. Now I think, oh shit, will Thom like this beat?"

It must be a happy conundrum to wonder if one of the world’s biggest rock stars will like your new song. Tinkering around his studio in Winnetka, a sleepy suburb in the San Fernando Valley, Flying Lotus works on a long-distance project with Burial. When he’s done, he’ll send the track over to the United Kingdom for the junglist producer to tweak. News of Flying Lotus collaborating with Burial, two of electronic music’s freshest new stars, will probably make some fans smile with pleasure. From Radiohead’s Yorke and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow — who recently noted in an interview with Remix that Flying Lotus makes "pure, mad music" — to the beat heads who ravenously scoop up any new Lotus material, everyone seems to love FlyLo.

So how did Flying Lotus become the so-called Chosen One? Los Angeles teems with a renaissance of kindred spirits. Carlos Niño (whose range includes Gaby Hernandez’s progressive folk valentine When Love [Armed Orphan] and Lil Sci’s rap treatise What’s the Science? [Shaman Work]), Daedelus (who blends early 1990s zoo rave with film soundtrack compositions) and Nobody (whose Nobody Presents Blank Blue: Western Water Music Vol. II [Ubiquity] eyes ’60s-ish psychedelic pop) all use electronic music as a starting point for forays into various genres.

Andrew Meza, who hosts BTS Radio on CSU-Fullerton and was an early champion of Flying Lotus, compares the scene to the vaunted "New Hollywood" wave of American directors in the early ’70s. "It’s a really small group of people doing really cool things," he says. In his opinion, Flying Lotus stands out in part because of his studio techniques. Although the artist records in a bedroom, his music sounds as polished as a major label product.

"People used to say this about Dilla — and I’m in no way comparing him to Dilla — that [when he finished beats] it sounded like everything was already EQ’ed and mastered," Meza says. "With [Lotus], his shit seems so much louder and bass-y."

Now, as a leader of the flourishing beat movement, Flying Lotus has launched a digital label, Brainfeeder, to issue projects from like-minded friends such as Samiyam and Ras G. To promote the label, he’s throwing a Brainfeeder Festival Nov. 8 at 103 Harriet St.

The best music often sounds like everything and nothing before it. Flying Lotus’ work evokes comparisons to J Dilla and Madlib and fits neatly into flavor-of-the-moment trends like 8-bit and dubstep, yet it is also excitingly unique. He utilizes standard bedroom production equipment, including a MacBook Pro and a Novation 25 MIDI controller, to make hauntingly fluid and improvisatory sounds. "My whole setup is probably less than a couple of Gs, man," he says by phone from Winnetka.

He samples other people’s work, then renders the sounds so unrecognizable he often can’t remember what they originally were. On Los Angeles (Warp), Flying Lotus pays homage to his late aunt, the great jazz pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane, by appropriating material from her 1968 debut, A Monastic Trio (Impulse!), for "Auntie’s Harp." "I tried my best to transform all the harp stuff so it didn’t sound like the original, but still had the essence," Flying Lotus says. "SexSlaveShip" builds on a more obscure source: ambient/acoustic folk artist Matthew David’s Spills (Plug Research). Another track, "GNG BNG," draws inspiration from DJ Shadow’s breakbeat experiments of the late ’90s.

As a result, Los Angeles, released in June, is part modern-day homage to California’s holistic vibes and progressive utopianism, and part science-fiction film, making for an arresting future present. "It’s the classic hero’s journey kind of thing, basically a story like a film," Flying Lotus says, adding that the movie that initially inspired him was Ridley Scott’s classic 1982 dystopia Blade Runner. "It’s the soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist."

The recording’s mood ranges from the deeply reflective vibes of "Golden Diva" to the steel drum-speckled techno funk of "Parisian Goldfish." There are a few vocal pieces on Los Angeles, particularly the lushly sensuous "RobertaFlack" with Turkish artist Ahu "Dolly" Keleslogu, whom Flying Lotus met online. For the most part, however, its liquid hip-hop instrumentals sing louder than words. As FlyLo puts it, "I wanted to make music that didn’t need a voice."

With Flying Lotus, Gaslamp Killer, Kode 9, Hudson Mohawke, Ras G, Samiyam, Kutmah, and Martyn
Nov. 8, 9 p.m., $15 advance
103 Harriet, SF

All is well in the land of Pigeon Funk


"This is the most we could come up with our small minds over a long period of time," says Joshua Kit Clayton, who often stops the phone conversation to ask what this author is wearing and whether he’s having a good day. Pigeon Funk’s second album, The Largest Bird in the History of the Planet … Ever! (Musique Risquée), took four years to make. For much of that time, Clayton was largely absent from the city’s techno scene after having once been one of its dominant figures. He finally reappeared this year with two 12-inches: "Grey Amber" and "I Left My Heart My Heart in San Francisco," the latter a double-A single with Sutekh.

"I don’t go to a lot of dance parties anymore, although I saw Seth [Horvitz, né Sutekh] at a rave the other night," Clayton muses. "I couldn’t even tell what kind of drugs people were on. But other than that, I haven’t been out to a dance music night in a very long time…. I have no idea what other people are doing today. I am sheltered."

"I almost feel like a strange outsider at this point," adds Sutekh, who says the aforementioned so-called rave gig was a rare occurrence. Musically, though, he’s stayed active, most recently dropping the "Influenza B" single earlier this spring.

When Pigeon Funk issued its self-titled EP in 2001, the group fit right in with the glitch/IDM/experimental wave cresting throughout the techno world. Years later it’s still about glitch, except house and hip-hop producers like Glitch Mob and Daedelus hijacked it. Meanwhile, the techno scene has moved on to minimal and — surprisingly — trance.

With few current trends to categorize it with, The Largest Bird sounds happily out of step. Abandoning the computer programming that has been a hallmark of their careers, Sutekh and Clayton turned to analog keyboard equipment, random vocally-generated noises, and disparate acoustic equipment. The eclectic beats range from wacky exotica lounge ("Alma Hueco" with vocalist Anna Machado) to funky bangers ("Bacchanal").

Touting The Largest Bird’s therapeutic qualities, Clayton says, "I think it would be really dope if people used this inside their yoga classes, their exercise classes, meditation classes, workforce training classes, any type of self-growth, whether it be erotic, financial, religious, or fitness. I think this album is something that would lift them up."

Formed, but not reformed?


The long-awaited reunion of My Bloody Valentine may herald another exercise in nostalgia-fueled repetition. The past few years have seen countless underground rock legends re-form for fun and profit. This usually involves an album that approximates the band’s trademarks with none of its original freshness (check Mission of Burma’s overrated Matador albums), followed by a cash-raking international tour (or, in the case of Pixies, several of them). Thankfully, the re-emergence of Portishead and the Breeders upends this hoary tradition. Both their new efforts — particularly Portishead’s Third (Mercury) — radically challenge their respective legacies with brackish, difficult interpretations. It’s difficult to hear Portishead’s metallic "Machine Gun" and think of their sweetly melancholic classic "Sour Times."

So which My Bloody Valentine will reappear this fall when Kevin Shields and company tour the states for the first time since 1992? The feedback scientists who briefly earned the title of "Loudest Band Ever," or the shaggy shoegazers who fans, including myself, know and adore?

My Bloody Valentine’s third album, 1991’s Loveless (Sire), was the apotheosis of years of guitar-noise experiments by Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Spacemen 3, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and countless other bands. In retrospect it sounds like the end of an era, arriving just before Nirvana’s Nevermind (DGC, 1991) heralded the corporatization of alternative rock. In an August 2008 story for Spin, Simon Reynolds cites dozens of promising, newish bands influenced by Loveless, including Deerhunter, No Age, Silversun Pickups, and a Place to Bury Strangers. He overstates his case: these groups aren’t just acolytes of Kevin Shields, but it’s Loveless reputation as a perfect album — from the wispy, dazed vocals of Shields and Bilinda Butcher to Shields’ droning guitars that shift ever-so-slightly, yielding one heartbreaking melodic tone after another — that makes it a touchstone for a now-bygone time that continues to fascinate us.

When great bands reunite, they usually choose to exploit their legacies for all they’re worth or ignore them entirely. Shields’ artistic meanderings — and his fruitless struggle to craft a follow-up to one of the best rock albums of the past two decades — have become the stuff of legend. Even now, with a curatorial assignment for the high-minded music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties NYC, followed by seven North American concert dates, My Bloody Valentine has only hinted at a fourth album. If this current tour is a run at the golden oldies — fuck, the band even has an official MySpace page — then it’s a tormented one.

Perhaps the inability of Shields to deal with My Bloody Valentine’s legacy neatly dovetails with the reunion trend. It’s easier to break up and disappear than stick together and, like Sonic Youth, weather the peaks and valleys of artistic creation. Similarly, it’s tougher to leave the past behind — thank god that drummer-turned-chef Greg Norton has kept Hüsker Dü from mounting a full-scale reunion — than hit the concert circuit and sing the oldies. Maybe the likes of Portishead and the Breeders point to a third way for My Bloody Valentine — though the tracks posted on its MySpace page suggest this will be unlikely. No matter which path they choose, the future is a mist.


Tues/30, 8 p.m., $47.50


620 Seventh St., SF

Channel surfers


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Tunde Adebimpe sounds like he’s in good spirits. Four years ago, when the lead vocalist of TV on the Radio was in his first brush with fame, he would snap at false critical judgments — from comparisons of his voice to "Games Without Frontiers"-era Peter Gabriel to race-oriented articles focused on the group’s unusual makeup of Adebimpe, guitarist Kyp Malone, and keyboardist/producer David Sitek — two black men and a white man.

Today, though, as he walks out of his apartment into the streets of Brooklyn, Adebimpe speckles his conversation with chuckles. He jokes about the Gabriel comparisons, noting, "He has a better tailor than I do." And he shrugs off TV on the Radio’s galvanizing success. "It’s encouraging, because we don’t make the most conventional stuff," he says. "We’re not rich off making records."

Though it’s not necessarily an Obama-size achievement, Greg Tate from the Black Rock Coalition probably didn’t imagine a mostly black rock band would become the darlings of the gentrified indie-rock establishment a mere 20 years after he protested racism in rock in the 1980s. But after two albums — 2004’s breakthrough Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (Touch and Go) and 2006’s follow-up, Return to Cookie Mountain (Interscope/4AD) — of brilliant, brashly intellectual and brazenly avant-garde music (three if you count its 2002 self-released debut, OK Calculator), TV on the Radio’s artistic achievement has eclipsed "black rocker" stereotypes.

By now, TV on the Radio’s amalgamations are well-cataloged: a little bit of doo-wop, a lot of Fugazi, and sprinkled with gospel-like choral rhapsodies. Despite or because of its alchemical properties — Adebimpe claims, "We’ve never written an original note in our lives" — a TV on the Radio album sounds wholly different from anything else. Sitek’s heavy-mental production techniques isolate Jaleel Bunton’s drums and Gerard Smith’s bass into echoing timbres. Adebimpe and Malone’s wavering voices tremble as if they were trying to find rays of hope amid the mud and asphalt of everyday troubles. A TV on the Radio recording is full of hardy optimism; it sounds like a triumphant battle for the human soul.

"I think that there has to be something outside of our reality. I genuinely hope and find that it is, because if it’s not … " says Adebimpe, his voice trailing off. Then he adds, "Our reality is pretty good. It’s got its perks. But hopefully there’s more to it. Whether that’s inside of a person or outside of a person, I have no idea. But there’s got to be something that’s less flawed, and sometimes boring and sometimes repetitive, than just us."

Set for release Sept. 23, TV on the Radio’s third full-length, Dear Science (Interscope/4AD), radiates with newfound confidence. Songs like "Red Dress" and "Golden Age," the latter on which Malone sings "Clap your hands / If you think your soul is free," positively bop with funk. Then, on the slightly kooky "Dancing Science," Adebimpe raps in a stutter-step pace about the information age overload. The effect isn’t as laughable as you’d think.

Dear Science‘s playful observations sound like a miracle after the earthwork obduracy of Cookie Mountain (which sold 188,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan). Universally hailed as a watermark on its release, Cookie Mountain refines Desperate Youth‘s ambient guitar lines and protean libido into granite walls of distortion, drums, and lust. On Desperate Youth‘s "Staring at the Sun," Adebimpe sings, "You’re staring at the sun / You’re standing in the sea / Your body’s over me," squeezing his lover in a viselike grip as if to protect the paramour from a world teetering on collapse. Compare that song with Cookie Mountain‘s "Wolf Like Me," where he doesn’t want to smother you, but devour you. The band attacks with ferocity as Adebimpe seduces his Little Red Riding Hood: "You’ll never know / Unless we go / So let me show you."

For all its enigmatic power, Cookie Mountain quavers with tension. Shocked at its success — "I feel like, after Desperate Youth, we were definitely astonished we were allowed to make another record," Adebimpe says— TV on the Radio initially struggled to devise a follow-up. "We were suddenly questioning ourselves about others’ opinion, which is always death," he observes. "But you always get to a point where you shrug it off and you say, I have no idea what anyone else is going to think. I can only do what I’m going to do…. The last record was intense periods of absolutely no fun followed by two months of the best time recording."

If Cookie Mountain closed a chapter for TV on the Radio’s alabaster soul, then Dear Science signifies a new direction. Adebimpe calls it "brighter and cleaner," shorn of the dense layers of distortion of the past. The music is wide open. The future is wide open.

TV on the Radio play at 7:25 p.m., Sat/20, on the Bridge Stage at Treasure Island Music Festival.

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Dangerous jumpers


"We’re not just late ’90s scientifical backpack revivalists," says Ian "Young God" Taggart, one-half of production duo Blue Sky Black Death.

It’s a reference only a hip-hop head could appreciate. The "super-scientifical" tag comes from a verse in Jeru tha Damaja’s 1994 classic "Can’t Stop the Prophet," a bizarre drama in which the Brooklyn MC battles thugs who represent the seven deadly sins. The term has come to represent an influential wing of ’90s hip-hop culture, evoking yin-yang flights of lyrically ornate action fantasy and pre-millennial dread.

But with its fourth album, Late Night Cinema, Blue Sky Black Death has distilled its essence into something more original than Wu-Tang Clan homage. Released on independent hip-hop label Babygrande this spring, it blends live instruments — by Young God and various musician friends — and samples into a dense tapestry of themes, from the antiwar epic "Ghosts Among Men" to the yearning romance "The Era When We Sang." The disc expertly evokes the group’s namesake, a skydiving term for snatching ecstasy from oblivion.

"Probably the most beautiful thing when you’re jumping out is all the blue sky, but it’s the most dangerous thing you can do at the same time, you know?" explains Taggart by phone from his Upper Haight District home. "That’s the black death. I thought it went well with our music because I thought it could be really dark or really pretty."

The 23-year-old Taggart doesn’t earn a living from music yet. Instead, he lives a journeyman’s existence sustained by a hodgepodge of retail and restaurant gigs. Meanwhile his Seattle musical partner, 30-year-old Kingston Maguire, has more stable employment as an apartment complex manager. "I feel like I’m attracted to bullshit jobs so I can focus on my music," Taggart says.

Since joining forces in 2005, Taggart and Maguire have worked hard to expand their audience beyond a small but appreciative following of hardcore rap fans. Their label has a — sometimes unfair — reputation for issuing angry, conspiracy-obsessed rap epics. Its flagship artist is Jedi Mind Tricks, a Philadelphia group whose ’90s-style beats and verbal assaults against organized religion and the government have become a controversial subgenre unto itself.

Blue Sky Black Death has expertly mined this niche with wintry street dreams such as 2007’s Razah’s Ladder, an album recorded in conjunction with Hell Razah from former Wu-Tang affiliate Sunz of Man. But Taggart’s afraid his group is being dismissed as a JMT acolyte. "Honestly, I don’t want to be lumped in with them," he says. "That’s not a diss towards any of those artists, and it’s probably our fault because of the people we’ve worked with. But we try to drift away from that with our instrumental music because we don’t want to be pigeonholed with our sound."

Blue Sky Black Death wants to break out of the super-scientifical ghetto without forsaking its roots. Upcoming projects range from Slow Burning Lights, a San Francisco downtempo band with Yes Alexander from the Casual Lights, to an album with rappers Ill Bill from Non-Phixion and Crooked I. "As far as when we’re making actual beats and we have rappers in mind, I guess we’re definitely influenced by the ’90s sound," says Taggart. "But we take it a lot farther."

Sleepless fights


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In May 2002, El Producto issued the acidic collage Fantastic Damage on his label, Definitive Jux. Winning universal acclaim for its compendium of broken-home tales, hard-won insights, and teenage misadventures, the recording crystallized a moment when rap musicians could reject the corporate-approved pay formulas proliferating on MTV without losing a receptive and knowledgeable audience.

Five years later that promise has seemingly passed. Rhymesayers, once famous for selling hundreds of thousands of CDs without major-label support, is now distributed by Warner Bros. LA rap scion Busdriver likes to wear a T-shirt that reads, "Sorry, underground hip-hop happened ten years ago." The controversial Anticon collective, once renowned for its vision of rapping as avant-garde art, has turned its attention to experimental rock.

Meanwhile, critics have long since withdrawn their support. "Independent pop — not just hip-hop — has in many ways become a version of graduate school, a safe zone where artists can eke out a living, take their time doing specialized work," New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote in 2004. "In most cases, this is the last thing a popular musician should be doing." Unlike the participants of past movements — think early ’80s hardcore or mid-’90s indie rock — neither indie rap artists nor the popist critics who hate them can imagine an alternative, noncommercial universe that is profitable as well as artistically successful.

Some things haven’t changed, however. El-P, the man whose Definitive Jux imprint represents the best in underground hip-hop, remains a restlessly intelligent and caustically opinionated maverick. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, his just-released follow-up to 2002’s Fantastic Damage, is one of the year’s most remarkable albums, hip-hop or otherwise. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is hallucinatory and strange, but it ain’t a coke rap epic. It’s the equivalent of a distorted lens refracting El-P’s mind, bent during wartime, and he stays afloat through torrential word pours and samples collated into Sheetrock. "Why should I be sober when God is so clearly dusted out of his mind / With cherubs puffing a bundle tryna remember why he even tried / Down here it’s 30 percent every year to fund the world’s end / But I’m broke on Atlantic Ave. tryna to cop the bootleg instead," he raps on "Smithereens (Stop Cryin)." Despite the knotty slanguage, however, his lyrics are conceptually grounded, even when he musses with the details.

"I think the record has a political tinge to it, but it wasn’t me trying to feed you my crappy, base understanding of geopolitics," El-P says via phone from Planet New York. "I think the record is a snapshot of a mind state during a time that is highly politicized and strange…. I don’t think anyone needs to hear my perspective on why war is bad or what’s happening in the world. I just think that I’m very influenced by the tone of the times, and it comes through."

Deliberately twisted, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead isn’t, as El-P puts it, "constructs for the radio." Some of the tracks, such as "Everything Must Go" and "No Kings," are simple yet evocative b-boy rants with fresh rhymes. Others are stories. "Habeas Corpses" details a prison guard and firing-squad technician in a futuristic American prison camp — "This is incredibly nerdy," El-P says — who falls in love with one of the prisoners destined to be executed. He questions his feelings for her, but in the end he shoots her.

Eye-catching names such as Cat Power, Trent Reznor, members of the Mars Volta, and Daryl Palumbo from Head Automatica riddle I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead ‘s liner notes. El-P submerges the cameos — a rap by Slug from Atmosphere here, a vocal hook by Matt Sweeney there — into the maelstrom along with the X-Clan samples. With few exceptions, they’re barely noticed. El-P retains center stage.

"It’s been five years since he’s put out a record, so there’s people coming out of the woodwork to get behind him," Amaechi Uzoigwe, El-P’s longtime manager and business partner, says. He describes a postrelease schedule that includes appearances on late-night TV talk shows and international tours. "I think this record is what El-P has done every five years, going back to Funcrusher on Rawkus with Company Flow," Uzoigwe says. "He redefines what indie hip-hop is and can be every time he drops a record."

Throughout his career, El-P has consistently pushed the boundaries of hip-hop. As the leader of the trio Company Flow, in 1997 he issued the totemic Funcrusher Plus, a disc that eventually sold more than 100,000 copies with no radio or video support. (Vibe magazine recently called it "the defining document of ’90s hip-hop dissent.") Shortly before the group disbanded, El-P cofounded Definitive Jux with Uzoigwe. The label grew into an outpost for idiosyncratic visions from Aesop Rock, RJD2, and Mr. Lif. I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead continues that tradition as El-P reconfirms his status as a serious artist worthy of the same consideration as Nine Inch Nails and Cat Power. It’s his first since 2002, but he argues, "It seems like a long time, but for me it didn’t seem that long." Remixes for others (TV on the Radio, Hot Hot Heat, and Beck), beats for his Definitive Jux roster (Mr. Lif and Cage), exotic collaborations (High Water with jazz pianist Matthew Shipp’s Blue Series Continuum), and a soundtrack assignment (Bomb the System) helped the years pass by.

"Those things were me getting into the role of different characters. None of it was really me," El-P says. "The outside production that I do is about me trying to step into the role of furthering someone else’s vision and working within those confines. I seek those things out. I wanna know how to do it. I want to get better at it. I seek these experiences out because I know I’m going to go back and make my record, and hopefully there’ll be something I can pull from those experiences to enhance what I do for myself."

If all goes to plan, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead will anchor a busy year for Definitive Jux. New albums from Aesop Rock, Cage, Camu Tao and Rob Sonic and a 10th-anniversary reissue of Funcrusher Plus are in the offing. The label has been relatively quiet in recent years, only releasing one album (Mr. Lif’s Mo’ Mega), in 2006. In 2007, Definitive Jux hopes to reclaim its past and map out its future.

"We spent last year getting everything together internally so that we can go into these next couple of years as strong as possible," El-P says. He bristles at the notion that Definitive Jux is on the verge of a comeback. The label’s inactivity, he explains, was due to operational issues from launching a digital download store (the Pharmacy) to simply waiting for artists to finish their albums. "We’re very lucky, especially given a time where record labels are dropping like flies. It’s hard to maintain a business, and it’s hard to keep going. Somehow we’ve managed to be healthy and line up great projects. I’m very excited, to be honest."

In some ways, El-P has it easy. As a New York artist who came of age during the Wu-Tang era, the 32-year-old is a critic’s darling who isn’t as scrutinized and second-guessed as many of his peers, a group that ranges from the aforementioned Atmosphere and Busdriver to People under the Stairs and Sage Francis. But if mainstream audiences and critics continue to write off indie rap as a province for silly idealists and college nerds, then I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead indicates that the genre survives in spite of their disdain. At the very least, it sets an impressively high standard for a much-maligned and beleaguered art form.

"I think the genre is a little bit stagnant, musically and creatively. And I think we’ve seen the result of that, whether it’s show attendance, record sales, and just general complaints from the music community," Uzoigwe says. "I think [I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead] is a much-needed addition to the indie hip-hop canon." *


Sun/25, 9 p.m., $15


444 Jessie, SF