Among hiphop purists, there’s a lot of talk of old-school tradition and how this generation has lost sight of it. But of the few groups that have been able to match their rhetoric with the high quality of their product, Dilated Peoples stands in the forefront. Nobody does throwback like the California trio of Evidence, Rakaa, and DJ Babu. Their 2000 debut LP, The Platform, reveled in the aesthetics of Reagan-era hiphop. As Evidence stated on “The Last Line of Defense,” “Drum patterns are primitive/Evidence, the derivative/Of what the late ’80s and early ’90s had to give.” Anchored by neck-jerkers such as that track and “Right On,” The Platform was a solid, if commercially unsuccessful, album.
But beyond being an underground-style banger released on a major, The Platform was notable because it confronted the stereotype of the West Coast MC by pulling together a coalition of underground Cali acts that ran the gamut from Everlast to Tha Alkoholiks. More popular West Coast artists such as Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and Too $hort are better known for noting their affinity for pimps and gang violence than showing off their mike skills. So the guys in Dilated were very much aware of the problem of being flow-fixated traditionalists in a state famed for producing platinum-selling gangstas. As Evidence put it on “Right On,” a duet with Tha Alkaholiks, “I’m a underground cat but still like money and cars.”
The Platform best exhibited its West Coast counteraesthetic on cuts such as “Work the Angles” and the remix of “Ear Drums Pop.” Both songs succeeded by using standard-issue East Coast underground tracksthumping drums and pounding keys on “Work the Angles” and quivering strings on “Ear Drums Pop”as well as lyrics that were more than just battle-rap braggadocio.
The album also brought the marriage of the DJ and the MC back to hiphop. Though the loss of the DJ is much maligned by old-school ideologues, most of their arguments are more nostalgic rhetoric than reasoning. But what Babu’s formidable skills on The Platform made clear is that when hiphop lost the DJ, it lost a sonic elementone that’s just as important as a bass line or a guitar lick. It’s tough to imagine “Work the Angles” without Babu’s amazing solo at the end.
On Dilated’s second big-league offering, Expansion Team, Babu is given as much prominence as MCs Evidence and Rakaa. In some cases, it actually becomes too much, with the group self-consciously setting special spaces aside for him as opposed to simply allowing him to blend in. And though nostalgic elements are still present, Expansion Team relies much less on underground regionalism than its predecessor, with production credits from DJ Premier, Da Beatminerz, and ?uestlove, as well as cameos from Black Thought and Guru. The influence of the West isn’t totally lost, however, as Defari, Tha Alkaholiks, and Phil Da Agony all make appearances.
Like most rappers, Dilated Peoples are rarely better than the tracks they enlist. Thus Expansion Team pretty much rises, and at times falls, on the strength of its production. Most infectious are the album’s first few cuts. “Trade Money” is an awesome resurrection for Da Beatminerz. During the mid-’90s, the production team specialized in the dark, murky tracks that became the signature of their Boot Camp Clik. In “Trade Money,” it reprises its old formula to produce a slow, bluesy track highlighted by Cokni O’Dire’s reggae chatting.
Evidence smoothly rides the music, explaining how life changed after The Platform: “Since last year I’ve accumulated more money/More big breaks, been dressin’ a little less bummy/But more headaches and more pain in my stomach/On top of that I got a lot of people actin’ funny.” “Worst Comes to Worst,” the album’s first single, is equally well-produced by Alchemist. Using blaring horns, he equips the group with a solid track, which Evidence doesn’t waste: “Set up shop and write a verse/Actually, that’s best come to best/My lyrics take care of me, they therapy/Get shit off my chest.”
Expansion Team is good more often than not, but during those moments when it goes bad, the album becomes rote and a bit stale-sounding. Commercial rap acts are frequently derided as formulaic and predictable. Unfortunately, Expansion Team proves that the underground isn’t immune to predictability, either. Surprisingly, leading the descent into boredom is the underground’s icon of sound-shaping, DJ Premier. Apparently using only a minuscule portion of his creative energies, Premier gives Dilated a bona fide doughnut in “Clockwork.”
Though Premier may be the album’s most noteworthy example of slacking on the boards, he isn’t alone. “Dilated Junkies,” an attempted ode to the DJ, falls short largely because its blitzkrieg of cuts and scratches isn’t supported by Evidence’s weak track. Only on “Heavy Rotation” does the group manage to surmount the limitations of Expansion Team’s production, and this can largely be chalked up to the humorous styling of cameo artist Catastrophe. “Batman can’t walk through my ‘hood, it’s no love/Tash’ll jack him for his cape and sport that shit to the club,” he rhymes. “Is it love or is it buzz that got my thinkin’ patterns/Thinkin’ yo bitch is mine/That’s why you see me winkin’ at her.”
As a whole, Expansion Team’s major weakness is that it isn’t significantly better than The Platform. Nonetheless, its minimalism and utter lack of gimmickry almost unfailingly give the listener the twangs of nostalgia that a Dilated fan expects. But for the next go-round, the group will have to surpass its Golden Age aesthetics and dig deeper for something to call its own. Only then will it be able to transcend the tedium of tracks such as “Clockwork” and “Hard Hitters” and forge a completely satisfying album. CP