By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
As far as underground hip-hop goes, DJ Babu has got all the bases covered. He makes mixed tapes, produces records, collects vinyl and bangs around in clubs, both as a solo artist and as a member of a couple of stellar crews. At the moment, however, he's homed in on a simple career goal.
"I guess what I'm working toward is that I want to be deemed an all-out king when it comes to deejaying," he says.
Judging by his current schedule, Babu is on his way to claiming that title. He currently serves as one third of the Los Angeles-based rap trio Dilated Peoples and is a member of the World Famous Beat Junkies turntablist collective. Alongside other spinners such as QBert and Z-Trip, Babu has popularized a whole lexicon of techniques -- from beat juggling to the crab scratch -- that have revolutionized the turntable as an instrument, just as Jimi Hendrix did when he used distortion and a whammy bar to forever change the role of the rock-and-roll guitarist in the 1960s.
Babu has snagged a number of awards over the past couple of years: In 1996, he placed third in the DMC's USA Championship, a nationwide annual contest sponsored by Technics; in 1997, he was International Turntablist Federation's Beat Juggling Champion. And if Dilated Peoples' recent invitation to headline the Scratch Tour is any indication, Babu's kingdom may not be too far behind. The nationwide tour is the first of its kind, a road show of the most innovative and skillful DJ talent in the American hip-hop underground. Hip-hop heads who flock to the shows will also have a chance to see the new documentary film Scratch, which premiered at last year's Sundance Film Festival and was directed by Hype! creator Doug Pray; the film provides a definitive retrospective of the art of turntablism, covering its roots in the South Bronx in the '70s and highlighting the Bay Area masters of the early '90s. For Babu, the tour is as much of an educational outreach program as it is a musical event.
"The DJs and turntablists are basically the musicians of the future," he says. "I think the timing of the movie is really good. It's going to open a lot of heads to what we're doing. This movement has been going on for a while now. It's about time people know what DJs are doing and what contributions they're making to modern music."
In addition to the Peoples, QBert and other modern artists like DJ Swamp, the tour will also feature such old-school luminaries as Jazzy Jay and DJ Grand Wizard Theodore, who helped invent the technique of scratching. The chance to travel with and perform in the presence of the genre's primary architects is a special opportunity for Babu.
"Out of all the pioneers, Theodore is one of my favorites," Babu says. "He's such a humble cat for being the one who actually invented scratching. It's so nice to meet a cat who is so open to the younger generation and still keeping it going."
In their own work, Dilated Peoples have done their best to keep hip-hop going by emphasizing the style's essential elements: the DJ, the MC, the graf writer and the B-boy breakdancer. Before they were rappers, Dilated's Evidence and Rakaa Iriscience were graffiti writers who represented two separate crews in Los Angeles. In the early '90s, the two met at the now defunct Hip-Hop Shop, an L.A. store that functioned as a quasi hip-hop workshop and promoted a purist aesthetic. Iriscience eventually became manager of the Shop; one day, he challenged a young Evidence to a freestyle battle in the store. Drawn together by their mutual love of freestyling and graffiti, the two eventually did some recordings together with Evidence's neighbor and friend (and son of Quincy Jones), producer QD III.
In 1994, Evidence and Iriscience hooked up with DJ Lethal from House of Pain, who helped them ink a deal with Immortal Records, an offshoot of the Epic imprint. But after the duo recorded the full-length album Imagery, Battle Hymns and Political Poetry, Epic dropped the tiny label. The album languished, and the Peoples began looking for a new direction.
They found it with Babu. When the DJ entered the picture, the newly calibrated group began shaking up the underground with a lineup that recalled early heroes such as EPMD and Run-DMC. As a trio, the Peoples recorded the twelve-inch maxi-single "Work the Angles," which was released by Bay Area independent stalwart Beni B on his ABB Records in 1998. The song got a heavy push from important radio figures like Sway and Tech, who played it on their influential Wake Up Show on KMEL-FM, a Bay Area hip-hop station. Apparently, someone was listening: "Work the Angles" moved more than 100,000 units and is now considered a contemporary classic.
The single's success caught the attention of Capitol Records, who signed Dilated Peoples and released their first official full-length, The Platform, in 2000. High-profile tours with Gang Starr, Rage Against the Machine, Jurassic 5 and the Beat Junkies followed. Soon, Dilated Peoples became mainstays of college-radio and DJ-mixed-tape shows, with their songs sandwiched between singles from other underground artists like Ozomatli, Madlib and the Black Eyed Peas.