City Paper is not for tourists
Tha Beggas’ lab in the basement of a Northwest row house is nothing special to behold. There are the staples of all aspiring rap groups: turntables, keyboard, sampler, mike, and mixer. Crates strewn across the room pose as chairs, and an archaic record collection lines the walls. Then there are Tha Beggas themselvesa grab bag of MCs, managers, and a producerrelaxing and aimlessly shooting the breeze.
It’s not until the group’s resident beatmeister, King Cee, begins reeling off a few tracks he has concocted that the lab comes to life. Eerie and pensive, the pounding drum tracks and brooding strings hang thick in the air. Occasionally, a clacking key or a snare’s tap takes hold of one of the rappers, and, seemingly instinctively, a miscellaneous freestyle is offered up. More than an hour later, the group and I manage to pull ourselves away from King Cee’s hypnotic tracks, and our session begins. “Hiphop’s been taken away from its foundation,” says lyricist Dragon Fly, reiterating the creed of the hard-liner. “Hiphop is a culture,” he continues.
“And now it’s become a business,” I add.
“Exactly. But hiphop is something we live,” replies Dragon Fly. “So what we try to do when we come together is bring it back to its purest form.” Well, maybe not all the way back. Party rhyming is rap’s earliest and original form, and Tha Beggas are anything but party rap. Yet the ingenuity that made Sugar Hill and Enjoy the progenitors of recorded hiphop is evident in Tha Beggas’ lyrical stylings.
For nearly 10 years, in various forms and under different names, Tha Beggas have tried selling their sound to the record industry with no takers. Undaunted, the members of the collective have decided to release a single themselves, on their label, Emei Records, and in turn have become part of a growing trend in hiphop: the retreat of underground artists back to independent labels. It’s not that independent labels are anything new to hiphop. Indeed, Sugar Hill and Enjoy were both independents. But many of hiphop’s avant-garde artists are finding themselves increasingly unwelcome on the radio and consequently unwelcome at the industry bargaining table.
The rules now say that every rap cut needs a catchy hook and an easily recognizable sample. A cursory examination of Tha Beggas’ “Supernatural” and its B-sides, “Iron Wire” and “Near Future,” reveals what the group thinks of the rules. All three cuts are meditative gems highlighted by the vocal cerebrations of Dragon Fly, Father Lord, and Long Axe. Group lyricists Sammo Heung, Masta Begga, and Magic Sword weigh in with similarly Rakimesque lyrics.
Tight lyrics and unpredictable beats characterize the cuts, but while the tracks may capture hiphop heads, Tha Beggas’ music is wholly unfriendly to rump-shaking. No chart-busters hereTha Beggas’ sound conjures David Carradine flowing over a breakbeat. The tracks are wholly different from what the rest of the country knows of D.C. hiphop. King Cee and his lyrical comrades call Chocolate City home, but they sport a vocal style far removed from the Southern drawl of Nonchalant or the frenzied Old School call and response of DJ Kool. “It’s no boundaries to what we sample,” says King Cee, taking a break from the boards. “But I’m not going to go into all that, ’cause some things are just secret. But we go places that brothers wouldn’t even imagine.”
Like King Cee’s tracks, Tha Beggas’ MCing is meditative and hypnotic. They offer no tales of decapitated MCs; instead, Tha Beggas introspect and rehash urban-Zen philosophy: “When in need, I choose to takehold fastI never wait/’Cause being on time where I’m from is too late…Be wise, don’t hesitate, illustrate ya Begga skill/Whether rich or for poor, I never struggle for a meal/For real.”
Tha Beggas are hiphop purists at heart, and their aesthetic is the most enduring legacy of Father Lord, the group’s leader and producer, who died last year in a car crash. He was King Cee’s mentor and the craftsman of Tha Beggas’ sound. You can’t talk to any member of the collective for more than 20 seconds without having some lofty bit of praise of Father Lord hurled your way. Tha Beggas saw Father Lord as a teacher, but more importantly it was he who originally assembled the group, under the name the Actual Facts.
Ask any of Tha Beggas about what the group name means, and you’ll get different answers. “Some of us actually went through some begging days, when niggas ain’t have nothin,” says Masta Begga, half-smiling. Long Axe offers a more philosophical take: “A lot of people associate beggas with people on the street having a hard time or whatever,” he explains. “But historically, beggas dealt with what they had. If they had a skill or whatever, they used it to make money on the street and survive. So that’s what we doing. This is our skill. Some of us have 9-to-5’s; some of us don’t.”
Tha Beggas pull their influences from a diverse group that includes Jim Morrison, Run-DMC, DJ Premier, and Jimi Hendrix. More than anything, it’s hiphop’s lack of creative diversity that concerns the group most. “Everybody gonna have their little view about what’s hot,” says Long Axe. “But if you look at it back in the day, it was more diverse. You had people who could be on silly time, murder time, and on money time. But they all got their air time. There was more equality across the board. But now it’s, like, unless you talking about this one concept, you not going be on the radio, you not going be on this award show. And the public’s going to buy what they have access to.”
In the late ’80s, a comical MC like the Fresh Prince could see He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper sellas well as be canonized as a classic. At the same time, Public Enemy’s ultranationalist classic It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back could also go double platinum. Today’s best-seller list sports no such variety. “It’s all about ‘I’m selling my drugs or drinking my brew,’” says King Cee. “I know brothers experience those things, but we gotta broaden the scope….Every black person on this planet know about hell. Why do we keep dwelling on it?”
Hiphop’s terrain is not what it was a decade ago. The drawl of Bad Boy superstar Mase epitomizes the monotonous tundra that is quickly becoming hiphop’s landscape. But below the surface something is bubbling. You can hear it in New York’s J-Live or L the Head Toucha. In the District you can hear it in InShallah, Quiet Storm, and Tha Beggas. “It’s [a] new wave of hiphop in rotation,” says King Cee. “And I think people’ll grab on to this sound. We don’t sound like nobody else. It’s unique.”CP
“Supernatural” is available at Tower Records.