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Most hiphoppers on this side of the country probably still haven’t heard the names Thes One and Double K. Nevertheless, they are the West Coast underground’s newest buzzworthy b-boys. The duo known as People Under the Stairs has already toured Europe and is now doing shows stateside to promote its second album. On Question in the Form of an Answer, the People are proud to proclaim, “We’re hardcore true school, but we’re not from New York/We universally rip from mid-city L.A.”
In the interest of full disclosure: I’m well acquainted with the crew affectionately known as PUTS. I knew Thes while I was a student at the University of Southern California, where he was a year or two below me. I met Double K through him. They weren’t officially a rap group back then, but the aspirations were there. With his impressive record collection and steadily increasing disdain for mainstream hiphop, Thes was already a bit of a music snob. Sure enough, a few years have passed since college and, listening to Thes and company’s sophomore effort, I am slightly saddened to hear that the “true school” propaganda has gotten the best of them.
People Under the Stairs might have fit in perfectly in the early ’90s, when sampling and looping pieces of old records was the standard way to make hiphop. Everybody was “diggin’ in the crates” for as-yet-unused beats and breaks. The originality of a song was measured by the obscurity of its components. But hiphop’s sound has changed over the years. Sampling laws have tightened, and clearing loops can be costly. Artists and labels fearing fees and even lawsuits have resorted to less and less sampling. Nowadays, extremely successful commercial rap records are being made without any sampling at all.
Ever the traditionalists, Thes One and Double K argue vehemently against the quality of these records. On “Youth Explosion,” Thes rhymes: “We’re tired of your fake underground sound, you’re fired/Non-vinyl-buying punks crying over Casios/Get it rewired so you can sample original breaks/You know, that rare funky shit, not them repressed fakes.” Most of the keyboard-driven tracks on mainstream radio are certainly weaker and less melodic than the sample-heavy grooves of the past decade, but for obvious reasons: The majority of hiphop producers lack formal musical training and are basically fumbling around with high-tech keyboards and a few instruments. In time, they’ll probably get better—and at least they’re trying. People Under the Stairs, however, are young rappers who’ve already grown into a stagnant mind-set that doesn’t even look good on paper. Inside the album jacket, Thes promises, “We’ll keep making that 93 style hip hop.” The PUTS press uses phrases such as “stuck in this era” and “we could never evolve,” and refers to a sound that others might describe as “dated.” Nothing could be truer.
Question sounds a lot like an unimaginative collage composed of the best moments in the duo’s combined record collections. Some of the loops are funky enough—the two clearly have an ear for jazz and a shitload of elaborate old drumbeats—but they’re layered in a standard, one-dimensional way. Looping someone else’s music limits you to the dynamics of the original recording. As a result, most of the tracks on Question sound pretty flat. On top of that, the People boast that their songs are recorded “on a simple 8 Track in Thes’ bedroom” with no “studio tricks.” In light of the album’s lack of sonic depth, they might want to look into saving up some money to book professional studio time.
Lyrically, Thes One and Double K’s constant discounting of modern hiphop is as numbing as their beats. Claims that they are “here to save the subculture hiphop” come off as ridiculous, not to mention highly unlikely. Still, it’s worth noting that the two have greatly improved in charisma and delivery since their vocally cluttered first album, The Next Step. Thes and Double K don’t pose as gangsters or jet-setting rap stars; they’re just regular 20-somethings fixated on old music. When they occasionally drop the mainstream-bashing, they manage to weave surprisingly endearing tales out of their relatively mundane existence. On “Give Love a Chance,” Double K tells the presumably autobiographical story of an aspiring DJ who receives no support from his family and is put out on the street with his turntables just for wanting to spin. “July 3rd” details a routine trip to the video store that turns disturbingly bloody when Thes is hit crossing the street by a minivan. In a momentary out-of-hiphop experience, Thes transcends the trivial: “Eight hours later alone getting a catscan/Trying to go back and understand the randomness of it all. Damn.”
Thes One and Double K are right to revere the early ’90s; the hiphop was good then, better than it is now. But imitation is flattery, not progress. The People Under the Stairs dream of being hiphop’s saviors, but they do little to further the music—much less the culture—by trying to re-enact its heyday.
Dilated Peoples bear surface resemblance to the People Under the Stairs. Aside from similar names, both are multiculti, West Coast underground groups that shun the common themes and styles of contemporary hiphop. A more interesting comparison is that, only a few years ago, Dilated Peoples were where the People Under the Stairs are now: toiling away on a small indie label and touring to generate a grass-roots buzz. Now, however, they’re signed to a major label, Capitol Records, with big money behind their new album, The Platform.
While Rakaa, Evidence, and DJ Babu of Dilated seem to maintain the same respect for the old school and disdain for the mainstream as Thes and K, they have crafted a sound that is nevertheless more modern. They sample discreetly. They chop up pieces of music rather than looping so as to have more control over the arrangement, and fill up the space with programmed bass lines and incidental noise. Their drums, as well, are programmed, not looped, so they’re dynamic. (Hint to budding producers: Using small, individual pieces allows you the opportunity to pan and create the illusion of depth.) DJ Babu’s frenetic scratches add spontaneity. Some of the beats are too sparse, others too repetitive, but overall, The Platform is as clean and as complete as any hiphop release you’ll find these days.
Rappers Rakaa and Evidence are not as topically diverse as Thes One and Double K, but their delivery has the polish and clarity that major labels demand. It’s mostly bragging rights, and Rakaa’s punch lines are silly to the point of being embarrassing, but his partner saves the day. Evidence joins Eminem in the minute group of white rappers who are not only unafraid to sound white, but also actually use it to their advantage. With a sneering, high-pitched flow that one friend of mine described as sounding like a narc posing as an MC, Evidence barely teeters on the beat. On the album’s title track, Ev perfectly articulates his sticky, halting style: “My motto/I didn’t write, but this I quote:/’It’s not where you put your words—it’s where you don’t.’”
It might also be said that it’s not what you say but how you say it. The People Under the Stairs have a lot to complain about, but because they’ve buried their beef in tired routines, few people will hear them. Dilated Peoples aren’t exactly a revolution in music, but they have a fresh sound. And with that they have the floor. CP