“Let’s take it back to the concrete streets/ Original beats with real live MCs,” harmonized the Jurassic 5 MCs on their underground rap classic “Concrete Schoolyard.” Chanting in a collective voice inspired by the near-mythic old-school pioneers Cold Crush Brothers, the four MCs exuded goodwill amidst a sample of Ike Turner’s “Getting Nasty.” But their vision of primordial hip-hop authenticity was less convincing than the cheeriness with which they expressed it.
It was a watermark in an era where West Coast rap musicians — primarily in Los Angeles, but also in San Diego, the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest — embraced chunky funk and soul loops while lyrically pushing back against the Cash Money and Jay-Z-led corporatist “bling” era. Sonically, the difference between the hard-hitting boom-bap of the early 90s and EPMD’s anti-mainstream plaint “Crossover”; and odes to lyricism for its own sake like the Lootpack’s “Whenimondamic” is that the latter had soft and swinging jazz tempos. Producers like Madlib and Thes One of People Under the Stairs dug in their record crates for the sweetest, most melodic samples they could find, reflecting the everlasting sunshine of their California home.
As a recognizable movement – a moment when every indie-rap record appeared to sound the same – the scene lasted roughly from around 1997 to the early 2000s, before other influences like Detroit street rap, Neptunes-styled club pop and a belated appreciation of G-funk and regional rap took hold. However, not every West Coast group was as beatific as the J5, perhaps the most successful of the 90s West Coast underground. Dilated Peoples, who often performed on concert bills alongside J5, nurtured an admiration of Gang Starr, particularly DJ Premier’s signature chops-and-loops approach to beat making. The Quannum crew explored loose-fitting funk and neo-soul, and achieved brief pop recognition with Blackalicious’ <i>Blazing Arrow</i>. And the subterranean weirdoes associated with the Shape Shifters and Project Blowed, including Busdriver, 2Mex and others, charted a singular path that veered from wide-eyed sunshine beats to bewildering avant-rap abstractions.
Sonic parallels existed elsewhere, too, like the “true school revival” of Seven Heads’ the Unspoken Heard and J-Live in New York. And when the underground scene finally disassembled due to waning popularity and musical quality, a rise in Internet-fueled sensations such as the Cool Kids, and a newly cynical approach to mainstream success, it was the boundless optimism and countercultural ethos of those sunshine rappers that was missed most of all.
(Rhapsody – June 13, 2013)