By now you're probably more than a little tired of hearing about L.A.'s vaunted hip-hop underground. Not tired of the underground itself, mind you - there's still plenty of good music there - just tired of hearing about how it's all about to blow up, about to bull its way into the hip-hop mainstream. Tired, in other words, of the movement's perennial nextness. (Let's just pretend that's a word, a'ight?)
Nothing wrong with that feeling. After all, we've been hearing for years now about how mainstream hip-hop is broke, how the music making waves in L.A. and on the West coast is smarter, more innovated and flat-out more interesting than what gets blasted at us from Power 106, MTV or BET. And it's all true, except for the next part, the part about how it's only a matter of time before the underground explodes. So far, not a whole hell of a lot has happened to justify those expectations.
Not that mainstream domination was ever the point, really, but you know, hopes get raised, and it'd be nice to keep 'em up. That's why it's so good to talk to Regan Farquhar, better known to L.A. heads as Busdriver.
"Small moves are happening," assures the rapper, whose own music is probably way too smart, too innovative and just plain too interesting to ever break big here in Clear Channel Nation. (This, after all, is a guy who played in a bluegrass band in high school. Who rapped in a bluegrass band.) "Like [the popularity of] J5 - that's a big thing. And Gift of Gab and [Blackalicious], they got signed to MCA, that's a big move. And there's a lot of other artists that are getting approached by big deals. And it's all gonna take a little bit, but in the next year, year and a half, you're going to see a lot more artists getting pushes, you know?"
And there it is again. Next year or so. Any minute now. Don't blink, brotherÉ Thing is, two and a half years ago, when Blackalicious and J5 and Dilated Peoples all came out with their last albums, everybody hailed the changes on the hip-hop horizon. Now, with the imminent release of J5's Power in Numbers, those three have each dropped critically lauded follow-ups to their 2000 entries - and yet the underground is still the next big thing.
Truth is, there are all sorts of reasons the underground - especially L.A.'s underground - may never bubble up as predicted. To pick just one, there's the cred-killing - and oddly inaccurate - "happy hip-hop" label the genre's been saddled with, largely because the form's most visible practitioners (e.g., the guys in J5) are so damned upbeat.
"That's utter crap," says Busdriver, whose brand-new full-length, Temporary Forever, highlights his wild, fast forward flow and eclectic style. "That's complete bullshit. That just comes from people who are just falling into it. Happy? I don't know who people are really putting their ears to. I listen to a lot of different stuff, and I find underground hip-hop to be, you know, quite melancholy. But I don't know, it's a range of shit, there's a wide range of shit."
Just as there's a wide range of shit on Temporary Forever, from the frenetic, cartoony speed-rap of "Imaginary Places" to the jazzy horns and drums of "Jazz Fingers" to the old-fashioned gut-bucket of "Post Apocalyptic Rap Blues." It's not every MC who'll rhyme "oligarchy with "Paul McCartney," but Busdriver pulls it off on "Gun Control." And when, on the next track, he warns that "when you cross my mind, you best look both ways," it's barely necessary, coming as it does just seconds after he reports being "carjacked by a Korean volleyball team for my star maps." ("Yeah," Farquar concedes, laughing. "That's kind of random.")
And then there's "Along Came a Biter," a hybrid of styles; it's Public Enemy as interpreted by Digital Underground's Shock G. Busdriver weighs in on the likes of corporate mergers ("so New World") and "compassionate conservatives who get maximum superlatives" ("so neoReaganomics"), and ultimately declares himself "Coltrane and Kurt Cobain's brainchild." (I'm a huge Cobain and Coltrane fan," says Farquhar, who speaks with a mild stutter completely at odds with his rapid-fire flow. "So there's truth to it. Plus, it sounded good at the time")
So look, maybe the hip-hop underground - L.A., West Coast, whatever - really is about to rise up and fix the mother genre. Hopes are fading, but - if you believe Busdriver - they haven't disappeared altogether.
"There's so much there that's really good that when people say that hip-hop's dead, you know, that's dumb," says Farquhar. "You know, [people said] rock was dead. But is rock dead? No! 'Cause the [garage] rock scene is bringing it back, or at least it's starting to get more attention.
"I think the exact same thing is happening in hip-hop. I mean. Less attention is being paid to it, and I think the whole indie movement is kind of starting to show that it's here to stay."
Let's hope. Give it a year or so.