No Hop to the Top

Rakaa raps on how it happens: Dilated Peoples learned their craft and paid their dues.

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Word of Mouth Tour, featuring Dilated Peoples, Jurassic 5, Beat Junkies, and Supernatural Agora Ballroom, 5000 Euclid Avenue 8 p.m., Wednesday, October 4
Call 216-241-5555 and 330-945-9400
Dilated Peoples: Old-school beats in new outfits.
Dilated Peoples: Old-school beats in new outfits.
Dilated Peoples' rapper Rakaa (who also answers to Iriscience) describes the meaning of The Platform, the group's debut, as "our stage," "a soapbox," and "a street corner."

"We're coming together and working and improvising and doing these things," he explains. "We're able to express ourselves individually and find a way to do so in a cohesive way, in a way that gives life to even new ideas. That's the basic overall theme. More specifically, it has to deal with imagery, it has to deal with politics, it has to deal with different states of consciousness, it has to deal with turntable-ism, sound clashes. It's freestyle in its truest sense, and that's what we enjoy, that ability to come together."

If Rakaa seems a little headier than most rappers, it's because Dilated Peoples are much brainier and more provocative than most rappers. Part of a new underground movement that includes tourmates Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples make hip-hop for listeners who see beyond the green and gold.

"This is an honest piece of our past," Rakaa says. "We worked on this a long period of time before it was called anything. We put songs together with styles of music. Some of these songs are years old, and some of them were done days before the deadline to turn them in. We had a great time doing it, and we've basically become more comfortable with ourselves as instruments and growing as people, so that our expression is coming from a worldwide perspective rather than just from Los Angeles or California. We've worked with a lot of different people and worked in a lot of different places, and [we] see how hip-hop is expressed in different cultures and by different people all over the planet."

Rakaa and rap partner Evidence, along with DJ Babu (a onetime member of turntable heroes World Famous Beat Junkies), have crafted, on The Platform, one of the year's mightiest hip-hop collages. There are flaws on the record (despite seeming to have a lot to say, they really don't say all that much), but this combination of brains and brawn has been a rare hip-hop commodity through most of the '90s. Unlike their L.A. contemporaries, Dilated Peoples shun gangsta trappings; unlike most other rappers, Rakaa and Evidence -- who teamed up in the mid-'90s, when both were graffiti artists -- have more on their minds than getting paid.

They're dedicated to the music, so much so that when their debut album, Imagery, Battle Hymns, and Political Poetry, was dropped by Immortal/Epic (home of Korn and Incubus and several hip-hop acts before the label inexplicably dropped all of them) three years ago, they went independent.

"The disappointment came from how we were treated while we were there," Rakaa says of his first experience in the majors. "We spent money to get off the label and left the record behind in order to have freedom."

As a result, Dilated Peoples were a little hesitant to sign with another big player (Capitol, in this case) for their official debut.

"Ultimately it's about how much they're going to give up to play their game, but it's still their game, you know?" Rakaa explains. "We know what it is, and we made a business decision. We didn't go out and look to get signed. We were very happy and comfortable doing a record ourselves, and realizing that we could do it was very important to us in developing and being able to push forward. We have more options involved now. We have run of the kitchen, ultimately. We get to pick the spices and the flavors and set the menu. Up to this point, all we've had to deal with are opinions, and that's fine. I don't mind other people's opinions, as long as their opinion doesn't override mine when my name is on the line."

The 16 cuts on The Platform are generally old-school beats dressed up in new outfits. The duo brags about its mic skills on the tough "Work the Angles" and even gets in some jabs at one of our presidential candidates with lines such as "I haven't forgotten all those drugs that Bush brought in/It's funny how it's maybe his stash his son got in." During the recording hiatus, Dilated Peoples built up their rep and worked their live act -- reportedly a sizzling one, another hip-hop rarity -- into a tight touring unit. The label deal, Rakaa says, helped that.

"The record label will have you perform at the opening of every cereal box every morning in America, if it will sell records," he laughs. "They're happy to put you on the road, because you're recouping the expense to put yourself on the road, and selling records is all part of the game. But it's not any easier to get paid. We didn't mind being independent, because we learned how to handle our business."

Rakaa says the dichotomy and the push and pull that have been at the core of his partnership with Evidence from the start are the reasons the music works so well. "I learned how to deal in the studio, as I dedicated myself to making records as well as just rapping," he explains. "To get into making records is a totally different thing. I'm still learning the studio. I'm still learning the stage, too, but the stage is where I feel most comfortable. Evidence is the exact opposite. He came up in the studio around a whole bunch of producers and is really comfortable in the studio, and over the years, at the same time I was developing in the studio, he was developing on stage. And Babu comes from a weird mix of bedroom DJ/world-champion-battle DJ. It's just a perfect blend back and forth. We feed off each other and learn from each other and teach each other all the time."

The labels attached to the hip-hop underground can be condescending. At what point does an underground artist move above ground? It's a question Rakaa asks himself all the time, as he sees his peers go gold and platinum. He also questions the intrinsic undertones of such labels, but says he considers perceptions and perspectives on individual bases.

"It's really difficult to get caught up in labels, because people think in different ways," he says. "If people speak of the underground with endearment -- this is my music, and I identify with this -- I can't complain. It depends where it's coming from. Everything is good, if it's put across with respect. I just try to get to the root of what they're trying to get across to me, and if it's something positive, there it is."

For now, Rakaa and Evidence and Babu are busy bringing The Platform to the masses. From day one, it's been respectful to the art of hip-hop, and Rakaa adds that there's no reason to stop now. "Ultimately it all comes down to [the fact that] the music matters," he says. "More and more people are being exposed to this kind of music on a quality level -- Common went gold, the Roots went gold. These are people who studied the craft. They've been involved with it for years and cross-trained with very talented and legendary people. They've learned from the best and at the same time are pushing forward and have had years to develop their own style and their own professional polish.

"There's nothing overnight," he continues. "Even though we may be making our first appearance in your local magazine or TV station, we've been putting it down for many, many years. It's a matter of a professional music production, professional independent record distribution and publicity work, and people learning their craft and really taking it to the people. That's something we really take pride in. We know we're on the cutting edge of something. Because of what we do, somebody else will be able to sell records. I'd rather have my club packed with people who know we make solid music than have that same club packed to capacity with people who are there because I have a hit single. We're building it up a brick at a time, but it's a solid foundation."

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