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The bass line thunders out of the DNA Lounge's colossal speakers as the sold-out crowd pushes toward the stage. With this many arms and bodies intertwined, it's hard to tell where one person ends and another begins. The beat drops. Cutting through the darkness, stage lights find the performers -- MCs Lyrics Born, Lateef, and Gift of Gab -- as they shuffle onto the stage, dressed immaculately in pressed button-down shirts. As the bodies surge, Lyrics Born cracks a quick grin before breaking into his gruff, singsong flow that rides over a deceptively laconic sample. Marveling at the crowd's enthusiasm, Lateef provides Lyrics Born with a smooth, supporting vocal counterpoint. From the amount of fun everyone's having, it's hard to imagine that these three are CEOs of the most successful independent hip hop label in the Bay Area, Quannum Projects. But they are that, and much more.
For the next 2 1/2 hours, the Quannum MCs, with the help of their DJ, Chief Xcel, deliver a euphoric set that spans from their early days when they were part of a crew known as Solesides -- and when many in this crowd were barely teenagers -- through their most recent output, most notably Lyrics Born's celebratory anthem "Calling Out," the only hip hop song to stay atop local alternative rock station Live 105's request charts for 15 weeks. Judging from the fervor of both the fans and the performers, it's evident that this is more than just a homecoming for this crew, which was on tour most of last year. This is an assertion of dominance, a presence not felt since the glory days of Hieroglyphics in the mid-'90s. Later, Lateef declares that this is "probably the best show [he's] ever done."
It sounds like hyperbole, but it's not. Over the past 13 years, Quannum Projects and its stable of musicians/owners have had arguably the greatest success of any independent hip hop label in balancing artistic viability with commercial appeal. Quannum co-founder DJ Shadow's 1996 album Entroducing is the top-selling instrumental hip hop album in the genre's history, while many consider Blazing Arrow, the second full-length album from Blackalicious, a duo composed of MC Gift of Gab and producer Chief Xcel, to be the epitome of politically conscious, socially responsible hip hop. Lyrics Born's 2003 release, Later That Day, was renowned as one of the strongest debuts from an MC this decade and broke into the Top 40 on the Billboard Independent Albums chart. But what is most exciting -- and what makes Lateef's assertion seem genuine -- is that the label is really just beginning to gain momentum.
Anyways, reading it inspired me to throw up some Shadow mp3's, because I've always thought he was really really good. There has perhaps never been anyone else so skilled, in my opinion, at creating entire soundscapes through sampling, where everything meshed together beautifully to make beautiful, deep, and emotionally powerful music.
DJ Shadow & the Grooverobbers - In/Flux - A very early release from his time with Mo'Wax, possibly his first solo release for the label. A twelve minute virtuoso performance of sampling. Hypnotic and beautiful.
Zimbabwe Legit - Shadow's Legitimate Mix - This is off the Headz II compilation, which was a bit of a grab bag of stuff, featuring some really cool stuff, some trash, and lots of 'meh' material. This is really good, though, so that's why I've upped it.
DJ Shadow - Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt - This is off his first album, Entroducing, and is probably my favorite track off of it. It's built around a little piano riff, some heavy heavy drums, and all kinds of vocal fragments, and a strange monologue that he must have grabbed somewhere. Powerful.