By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Encore, who works in the technical-support department at Yahoo! and had to wrangle a reprieve from his employers in order to tour, went to the same high school as his producer Architect but didn't start collaborating with him until after both had graduated. Initially, the two formed a group called the Vinyl Miners, but that disbanded when one of its members moved to LA. Inspired by Run-D.M.C., Kurtis Blow and the Sugarhill Gang, Encore and Architect continued working together and released a number of singles on small labels such as Stones Throw, South Paw and Certified. But Encore says he learned a valuable lesson from one of his first singles, "The Essence," which faded into obscurity not because it wasn't any good but because Encore didn't understand the nature of releasing a single.
"I was making songs that weren't single material," he admits, "more along the lines of the beats per minute. I was doing stuff that I liked, which I don't necessarily regret. I put out 'The Essence,' and (Bay area rapper) Rasco put out 'Twisted,' and his is a classic. My song is like 85 beats per minute, and when I recorded my song, there was an actual fight outside of my studio in San Jose. It was kind of crazy and threw off the focus. I was in the booth, and the engineer and the producer were trying to stop this fight. My vocals aren't mixed right. I would have done it a lot different if I had known. It probably should have been a little faster."
After releasing several singles (all of which feature smooth raps over laid-back beats), Encore started to get comparisons to Rakim. "Waterworld," a track that revolves around a beat that crackles like the sound of a running stream, did nothing to discourage the comparisons. The song, which was produced by Dan "the Automator" Nakamura, appears on the Handsome Boy Modeling School (a collaboration between Prince Paul and the Automator) record So ... How's Your Girl? It even included a sample of Eric B and Rakim's "Move the Crowd." And throughout the songs on his full-length debut, Self-Preservation, Encore flows with the same smooth delivery that gave Rakim the reputation as the world's best rapper.
"I love Rakim," Encore says. "I'm not going to deny the influence. Once people start hearing more of my songs, that will wear off. It's an easy comparison. People tease me about it. I don't claim to be Rakim. I don't think I sound like Rakim on every song."
Like Encore and Architect, Blackalicious's Chief Xcel and the Gift of Gab met while in high school. Although Gab was originally from Southern California, he went to high school in Sacramento and thought his skills on the microphone surpassed those of anyone upstate. But he was shocked to realize that the level of talent in Sacramento, which is a couple hours inland from San Francisco, was so high.
"We had an economics class together," Gab recalls when asked about the first time he was introduced to Xcel. "When we first met, we weren't feeling each other. We were ego-tripping with one another. He was from Northern California, and I was from Southern California. We would have debates about who was better, Ice T or Too $hort. We had our first down-to-earth conversation when we heard 'Top Billin'' by Audio 2. We both thought, 'This is just the dopest shit I've ever heard in my life.' From there, we discovered we had a mutual love for the music. I had another DJ at the time named Maestro K, and he wanted to do R&B, not hip-hop. I called X up one day, and I was like 'Yo, I need a DJ.' It's been on ever since."
Blackalicious released their first single, "Swan Lake," on Solesides (now Quannum), a label run by DJ Shadow, Latryx, Lyrics Born and other Bay area rappers. It took almost two years to deliver the group's most recent record, Nia (named after the Swahili word for "purpose"), but Nia is one of the best hip-hop records of the year. It features guest appearances by Shadow, Lateef and Lyrics Born and plays like a spiritual journey that climaxes with "Finding," a two-minute outro that offers words of encouragement for struggling African-Americans.
"There's a poem at the beginning and at the end, because the album is about purpose," Gab says. "The song 'Deception' touches on it. 'Shallow Days,' to an extent, touches on it, as does 'Making Progress.' It's about keeping your focus on your destiny. When you get that sense of purpose, it's about not letting things deter that. You're here for a purpose, and there's a lot of temptations that might pull you away from that. There's a lot of things that can tempt you.
"'Deception' is about an artist who gets blinded, which is the case with a lot of artists," Gab continues without naming names. "You can hear the hunger in their voice and even their level of creativity. But they get comfortable and lose that hunger and that eye of the tiger, and, boom, they fall off."
Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Blackalicious and Encore perform at the Galaxy on Tuesday, June 20; St. Louis' Bits n' Pieces open.