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Accentuating the Positive With Dilated Peoples

May 21, 2000|SOREN BAKER | Soren Baker is a regular contributor to Calendar

Just a few years ago, the idea of a non-gangster Los Angeles rap group being signed to a major label was farfetched. Such artists as Tone Loc, Young MC and the Pharcyde had run their course, replaced by hugely successful hard-core champions Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Mack 10.

But now the tide is starting to turn.

Dilated Peoples, whose stunning debut album, "The Platform," will be released by Capitol Records on Tuesday, is among a wave of up-and-coming "positive" rap groups that are hoping to make a major commercial dent after establishing a fiercely loyal underground fan base.

Two Interscope Records acts, Jurassic 5 and Black-Eyed Peas, are also among the notable L.A. groups favoring free-spirited rhymes, innovative production and a less abrasive outlook than their gangster counterparts.

"For us to try to fit into a certain type of genre would be fake, like us trying to be gangster rappers because we're from L.A.," says rapper Evidence, 23, who is joined in Dilated Peoples by rapper Rakaa, 27, and DJ Babu, 25. "I grew up around a lot of the gangster stuff, . . . but that's not me. For us to touch on those subjects would be like a comedian writing a horror movie and being expected to be taken seriously."

The new album's engaging title track discusses the highs and lows of life, while the group boasts of its rhyming prowess on the scratch-laden "Ear Drums Pop." Most of the cuts feature sly braggadocio rhymes and punishing production that evokes memories of the hip-hop of yesteryear for longtime fans of the genre.

Executives at Capitol Records, which shut down its black music division in the mid-'90s and had no rap acts other than the Beastie Boys, felt that Dilated Peoples was the right group to establish the label's connection with straight-up hip-hop.

"Dilated Peoples had a voice that communicated with the people," says Ron Laffitte, the Capitol vice president of artists & repertoire who signed the group last September. "They had an audience that they had cultivated and maintained. They knew who their audience was and they knew how to reach them."

Dilated Peoples also recognized an opportunity with Capitol. Because of its lack of hip-hop experience, the label was more willing to acquiesce to the group's demands. For example, Dilated Peoples will continue to release its recordings on vinyl on the independent ABB Records, which released its earlier work, while Capitol will issue the CDs and cassettes.

"A big reason we went there was because of the lack of hip-hop there," Evidence says. "A lot of other labels would listen to what we were trying to do, but they weren't trying to understand. Capitol was an open window of opportunity for us. If we succeed, it's for the benefit of hip-hop."

*

Dilated Peoples came to Capitol with a loyal audience eager to embrace groups that provided an alternative to the violent, sexually explicit raps favored by most of the genre's better-known acts. With its traditional approach, Dilated Peoples became a torchbearer of sorts for pure underground hip-hop.

"The timing was key when we started," DJ Babu says. "It was a good time, and people were wanting to hear good stuff. I think we hit a nerve. We tapped into a type of youth that is strong all around the world."

Fan support has been strong enough to send the group on several European and U.S. tours. It was formed by Evidence and Rakaa, who met at a Melrose Avenue record store where Rakaa worked. It debuted in 1997 with a maxi-single that included the songs "Third Degree," "Confidence" and "Global Dynamics."

It was released on the tiny ABB Records, but it made an impact as the group quickly became the talk of die-hard hip-hop fans. The group gained national notice with its next maxi-single the following year. "Work the Angles," a masterful slice of hard-core braggadocio, enjoyed substantial play on late-night hip-hop radio shows and became one of Dilated Peoples' key calling cards.

Even with its rising stature, the group--which plays Tuesday at the El Rey Theatre with New York underground heroes Reflection Eternal--remained focused on developing its creative vision. The result is "The Platform," which looks like a candidate for one of the year's best albums.

"I didn't start rapping to make records, which means that I didn't start rapping to make hit records," Rakaa says. "I'm an MC. I rap to deal with the crowd directly. There's billions of people in the world, and we're not going to make everybody happy. We enjoy what we're doing. If we continue to make our core fans happy, that's the best way it could happen anyway." *

* Dilated Peoples, with Reflection Eternal and others, plays Tuesday at the El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., 9 p.m. $20. (323) 936-4790.

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