Over the course of the last decade or so, rappers have made a tradition of exaggerating the misery of their childhoods. Some emcees truly grew up in environments marked by grinding poverty, rampant crime and utter hopelessness, but plenty of others who claim to know about the mean streets firsthand are actually suburban to the bone: Call it the Vanilla Ice factor. So give props to Ryu (Ryan Patrick Maginn) and Tak (Takbir Bashir) of Styles of Beyond, who not only admit to hailing from Canoga Park, a not especially unpleasant part of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, but freely name the names of folks -- such as Ice Cube and Everlast -- who haven't been all that forthcoming about their Canoga Park connections. (Cube, Everlast and Tak all attended Canoga Park's Taft High School.) Moreover, they adamantly maintain that a life of degradation isn't a prerequisite for producing worthy hip-hop.
"Some people think that if you're not from inner-city, nasty, grimy L.A. that you can't rhyme or something -- that you have to go through hard times before you can do it. And that's just wrong," Ryu says. "Not that we haven't had our share of hard times. Me and Tak paid our dues like everyone else. But that doesn't necessarily make you a good or bad rapper. Besides, I'm white. How would I look coming out like a gangsta and a thug and all that? Even if I was the biggest thug in the whole world, people wouldn't believe it. That's why we're not trying to do anything but be ourselves."
"That's what 'keeping it real' should be all about," adds Tak. "Back in the late Seventies, early Eighties, rappers weren't always coming out saying, 'I'm keeping it real,' and they weren't spending all their time trying to put a title on what they were doing, either. They just did what they did, and that's what me and Ryu do. Our music is pure, and it comes with no titles. It is what it is, man -- real hip-hop."
Styles of Beyond offers up just that on 2000 Fold, the act's debut CD for Ideal Records, an imprint overseen by the production wizards known as the Dust Brothers. Although the disc never sounds less than contemporary, with an intro built upon a very modern, moody keyboard pattern and the requisite number of sound effects (explosions, splashes, random voices) sprinkled throughout, it succeeds because of its creators' attention to the rap verities: supple beats, passionate delivery and wordplay that's more about cleverness than posturing. "Survival Tactics" uses combative imagery ("Let's learn the way the tabletops turn/To my concern/You failed to practice survival tactics/And got burned") as a metaphor for DJ skills; the jittery "Muuvon" employs a Chic sample to unexpected effect; the astoundingly funky "Gollaxowelcome" touches on sci-fi themes in George Clinton fashion; and "Styles of Beyond (Style Warz)" comes across as a statement of purpose ("Locked in a box 'bout as big as this room/But you can't keep hip-hop captive") that actually has one. As a bonus, they throw in "Winnetka Exit," a low-key tribute to their hometown.
"It just tells what goes on in a day in the life of Ryu and Tak," Ryu says.
"That's right," Tak agrees. "It's a favorite of a lot of people from Canoga Park. They really appreciate it."
"There's a lot of hip-hop in the Valley, but it gets pretty much overlooked," Ryu explains. "So we wanted to do something for the people in our neighborhood. People from South Central and Compton and places like that, they've got their songs. We wanted to have an anthem for our area, too."
For the most part, though, the specific meanings of the lyrics that the group delivers are secondary to the sound as a whole.
"I don't expect people to break my rhymes down, because a lot of times when I say them to people, they don't understand what I'm talking about," Ryu concedes. "That's because we like to use words as rhythm."
"Exactly," Tak jumps in. "A lot of our music may not have an explanation, because we see our voices and our rhyming as another instrument. It's all in the way it's put together: the melody and the tone and everything. To us, the syllables in the words are as important as what they mean."
Appropriately, the Ryu-Tak partnership was formed in Woodland Hills, another nondescript Valley town. Back in 1995, Tak (whose brother Bilal Bashir deejayed for rap progenitor Kurtis Blow and produced recordings by cult figure Divine Styler and Ice T's Rhyme Syndicate) was attending local Pierce College by day and performing under the Styles of Beyond moniker alongside associate DJ Cheapshot by night. A mutual friend subsequently introduced him to Ryu, and before long, the two hip-hop junkies were trading lines on a full-time basis. In late 1997, the new lineup debuted with "Killer Instinct," a twelve-inch single also featuring Styler, a longtime friend of the Bashir family, and the tune got enough airplay on Los Angeles radio to inspire an indie imprint, Bilawn, to offer a contract. The company put out 2000 Fold in the late summer of 1998, and word of mouth soon brought it to the attention of tastemakers such as Prince Paul, A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip and, most importantly, the Dust Brothers, who reissued the album earlier this year. The Dusty ones just remixed "Winnetka Exit" for release as a single, while sometime Kool Keith associate Kut Masta Kurt handled the same duties on another track, "Spies Like Us." In addition, a collaboration with Sony 550 signee Esthero is planned, and there are hints that Dust Brothers buddy Beck would like to cut something with Styles of Beyond as well. But despite such celebrity endorsements, the duo has more immediate concerns -- like figuring out how to get some airplay.
"It's been a struggle," Tak allows. "Most radio stations, they're programmed with the top ten songs that you hear a hundred times a day."
"Our songs don't really fit that format," Ryu says. "So we have to push them really, really hard, because we know that they're not just automatically going to play the shit out of them. We have to talk about them and break them down and do a lot of press on things to get people to pick up the record. But then when they listen to it, they're usually like, 'Damn, that's pretty dope.' I think they appreciate having something to listen to."
Such reactions give Ryu and Tak hope that they'll eventually be heard, and so does the slow decline of the hardcore rap for which Los Angeles has been known for so long. According to Tak, "Even a lot of people into that gangsta phase know that it's dying."
"There's always going to be gangs in L.A.," Ryu says. "But back in the Eighties, everybody used to be in a gang -- even little kids from nice neighborhoods. It was the trendy thing to do. But now that's fading, and you don't have to worry about getting shot up at house parties and stuff like you used to. And a lot of the old gangstas have hung it up. All they do now is sit home and smoke weed and drink beer, because they have kids."
For Styles of Beyond, this cultural shift represents an opportunity to reach beyond hip-hop heads to those who'd previously shown little interest in the music. And thus far, on a small scale at least, it seems to be working.
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"We're happy that other people are picking up our music, because that's the direction we wanted to go in the first place," Ryu says. "We want to make music for everybody, not just for this little category."
"If we have a message, that's it," Tak notes. "Other than that, we're not trying to preach or tell people the way the world should be."
"Or to solve the world's problems, either," Ryu goes on. "We're just trying to put Canoga Park on the map."