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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.
Dilated Peoples' DJ-centric sound -- with Babu cutting and scratching over recorded loops and Evidence and Iriscience darting in and out of the mix with battle rhymes and political flows -- has helped bring rap back to its essence. By working in a style that Babu calls "new-school traditionalist," the trio channels the spirit of late-'70s, New York hip-hop and mixes it with a Cali vibe, then uses technologies and topics to update the sound so that it's relevant to the times.
"Dilated is a traditional group: two MCs and a DJ," says Babu. "We put our personality and our own flavors, but we're definitely influenced by [older] groups. We're torch-bearers of a certain era in hip-hop. I wouldn't call us old-school, because we try to stay cutting-edge, but we do feel a certain responsibility of promoting the culture."
The group is currently enjoying the success of its latest joint, Expansion Team, which was released last October. The album's first single, "Worst Comes to Worst," has received major radio and video airplay. The disc features guest-producer appearances by Premier ("Clockwork"), Da Beatminerz ("Trade Money") and the Alchemist ("Worst Comes to Worst," which also includes a cameo by Guru). Despite all of the non-Dilated personnel, however, Expansion Team finds the trio settling more comfortably into a group mentality: The interaction between the members is more fluid and spontaneous, and the bandmembers feel rhythmically in tune with one another, like players in an accomplished jazz trio.
"From my point of view, Expansion Team was just more of an honest effort from all three of us," says Babu. "I came into the fold when the first album was being worked on; I was trying to find my groove with them. I don't think I found that groove until I was finished with The Platform. From the extensive touring we do and the number of hours that we had to log together as a group, our chemistry just grew. We just all better understand each others' roles -- like we know who should take the lead, or if someone should sit back and let someone else take the lead.
"It's an album we worked on from scratch, for about ten months straight," he adds. "It's more than just two rappers and a DJ. I consider us to be a band."
Babu became much more involved in the production aspect of things on Expansion, laying down five blazing tracks that are among the album's best; the politically potent "Proper Propaganda," "Hard Hitters" (which features a collabo with Black Thought of the Roots) and "Pay Attention" are particular standouts. His "Dilated Junkies" merges the Dilated Peoples and Beat Junkies crews to produce a classic scratch-DJ track.
"That song really defines for me where my career is," Babu says. "These are my two crews, so it really is a dream come true. We tried to do it in the fashion as an MC/posse cut, except we're DJs."
Babu sees parallels in his work as producer and DJ.
"My favorite rap producers were always DJs," he says. "A lot of the same aesthetics I use in deejaying, I apply to making beats and producing. I'm a very sample-heavy producer, so being a DJ and making beats from samples is pretty much synonymous. I'm constantly working on my record collection. I'm constantly working on my sound, trying to get it tight, and all of my DJ work has helped my timing. So has playing so much of other people's music. I can't even listen to a piece of music like another regular person anymore. A piece of music comes on, and I just analyze the fuck out of it."
Expansion Team marks the Peoples' second release for Capitol. And though the band's relationship with the label is comfortable, Babu admits it took some getting used to in the early days. "Capitol had a lot of learning about our ethic and our integrity on what we would say yes to," he says. But the label's leverage has helped the group get radio play and land appearances on Late Night With Conan O'Brien and Rap City, as well as on a European tour with Linkin Park. For Babu, the opportunity to reach more listeners trumps arguments that signing with a major signals a sellout.
"Before Expansion Team dropped, in interviews and with a lot of people we talked to, they were just cold, waiting for us to flip," he says. "I think they were waiting for us to have beats by the Neptunes and Dr. Dre. I feel good how we came back. I think we shut a lot of fools up."
One person the group initially did have a hard time silencing was Eminem. Prior to the record's release, the Peoples found themselves caught up in an escalating war of words between Slim Shady and Everlast. The feud apparently started when Everlast ripped into Eminem on the Dilated Peoples' remix of "Ear Drums Pop." Eminem replied with the song "Quitter," in which he dissed the group with the line "Dilated you violated/Now you're about to get annihilated." Evidence returned the favor with this jab on the Internet single "Searchin' 4 Bobby Fisher": "Lose the haircut/You're biting George Michael." Fortunately, the Dilated-Eminem conflict cooled down before it turned ugly.
"I'm proud of our camp and their camp for squashing it in true hip-hop fashion before it got out of hand and taken to a violent level," Babu says. "Battling is something that is good for hip-hop. For every element, there's a battle factor, whether you're a writer or a dancer or a DJ or a beat-boxer. It keeps your skills sharp and keeps you on your toes. But when it gets personal and violent, that's not necessary."
Hip-hop has come a long way from the days when '70s-era DJs like Kool Herc would play with the science of breakbeats in makeshift city-park laboratories while mike controllers one-upped each other on Bronx basketball courts. For innovators like Babu, its continuing evolution depends on schooling youngsters on the significance of the spinmasters who helped pave the way.
"I very much am into the modern style of deejaying and scratching and turntablism, and all the stuff that came out in the early '90s," he says. "But my biggest influences were from the traditionalist school. I'd like to influence kids on the type of hip-hop we grew up in and why they should be involved with it. If any of my music or live performances can touch individuals, hopefully it can influence a whole new generation of kids to look deep within themselves and look within hip-hop culture and do their homework, to carry the torch and keep this thing going. No matter how big it gets, the spectrum is going to get wider."