I can point to no better example of what I mean by this than Spectrum, the forthcoming Quannum compilation. Quannum (formerly called Soulsides) is the label run by DJ Shadow and friends. I don't recommend spending any money on this album, which comes out on July 20, but take a listen in the store if you can. Set up to sound like an on-air underground broadcast, it features the Quannum core--Latyrx, Blackalicious, and Shadow--plus guests Jurassic 5, Souls of Mischief, El-P from Company Flow, and Divine Styler. But the DJs hosting this virtual talk show sound tremendously, amazingly, and most of all contagiously bored. I guess it's supposed to feel stony, late-night, and laid-back--but to me, the difference between Spectrum and Rawkus' new, New York-style, label mix tape Soundbombing II is akin to the one between a traffic jam and an express train.
The best track on Spectrum is a Divine Styler/DJ Shadow collaboration called "Divine Intervention." It enticed me to pick up Styler's most recent album, Wordpower:2 (DTX/Ground Level). It's a sequel to Divine Styler's 1989 debut, though he's done some work since then, including a collaboration with House of Pain. Styler has a New York background (I'm not sure of the details, but in his new liner notes he thanks P.S. 11 and Brooklyn's Empire Roller Rink), but has been an L.A. rapper since Wordpower came out on Ice T's label. Wordpower:2 finds him heavily into Islam, and collaborating with DJ Rhettmatic (the member of the Beat Junkies who hosts Soundbombing II) on some impressively vertiginous tracks. Even when his loops go into interstellar overdrive, Styler pushes forward on the mic. He's got the kind of authoritative vocal tone that makes even the most far-out rhymes resonate like thunder.
Divine Styler and Rhettmatic each guest on one track of Styles of Beyond's new 2000 Fold (Ideal/Bilawn). Signed to Ideal by the Dust Brothers (whose label used to be called Nickelbag), Styles of Beyond have the beats to live up to their name--which makes it even more of a shame that rappers Takbir and Ryu can't cut it, especially next to Divine Styler. It's harsh to say, partly because polite California lacks the dense, noisy, street-talk-fueled environment in which New York's and Jamaica's masters of ceremonies develop their skills. But there must not be affirmative action for car-culture rappers.
One California group, Lootpack, almost makes me regret pigeon-holing an entire state. On their new album, Soundpieces: Da Antidote (Stones Throw/Nu Gruv), Lootpack MCs Wildchild and Madlib evince the same air of somnambulance as Quannum's DJs, yet with winning rhythmic style. When they rap, you can almost taste the warm breezes that make these men so mellow. Lootpack is keyed into the national indie network--their album is produced by Kool Keith compadre Kutmasta Kurt and Bay Area turntable luminary Peanut Butter Wolf, and features guest raps by Dilated Peoples, Tha Alkaholiks, and Defari. The group has a strong core following that overlaps with that of the Hieroglyphics crew (the excellent Souls of Mischief, Casual and Del, who have been putting out fine cassette-only releases for several years now without the rest of the world noticing). I'd like for one of these core followers to argue me across the threshold, eloquently convincing me of Lootpack's greatness, but I think their scene is too insular for that to ever happen.
Also worth a mention are two albums that aren't from California artists, but are being distributed through Cali labels: Dres' Sure Shot Redemption (Ground Control/Nu Gruv) and Krispy's From the Country (Bomb). Dres was the lead rapper in the Native Tongue group Black Sheep. This, his comeback album, is energized via a distinct underground vibe, which on some tracks lends this not-yet-30 veteran enough eye-of-the-tiger context to bring his skills new life. Krispy is an English group of West Indian heritage. For those unexposed to their Kingston roots/Brooklyn-old-school/Brixton-jungle triple hybrid, San Fran's Bomb Records has provided an excellent opportunity to get acquainted.
(Lastly, I've come out. So if you've been reading this column under all of its goofy bylines, please mark this occasion by getting in touch with the person behind it all. I'm at email@example.com.)