Ask any Los Angeles resident, and they’ll tell you the city both represents and disproves the clichés used to describe it. As a metropolis comprised of smaller, seemingly disparate cities, it’s more than the sum of its parts. A 10-minute drive in the wrong direction can mean the difference between staring at a porn star, staring at a mansion or staring down the barrel of a gun. In some ways, Evidence, DJ Babu and Rakaa Iriscience are the perfect representation for the city. They’ve been equally comfortable alongside the Lootpack over Madlib production, as part of the major label ecosystem trading features with Kanye West and pretty much everywhere in between. Dilated Peoples are distinctly Angelino, but their production, delivery and subject matter appeal to self-proclaimed “real Hip Hop” patrons near and abroad.
“I don’t think we ever really fit in to the signed industry of rappers,” Evidence explained, while Dilated was preparing for a performance co-headlining the “Word Of Mouth Tour” with Jurassic 5. “We were kind of like an anomaly—from radio, to video and just how we were received. To independently start on ABB records, try the major label thing and have moderate to really good success, depending on who you ask, I think it was natural that we go back.”
Going back may be a bit of a misnomer. The trio is still making high quality music (sometimes in garages) and touring relentlessly, but now they own their master recordings. They could cut into the project budget by commissioning Nabil Elderkin to handle the photography, but in addition to contributing verses and production, Ev is behind the lens on photo shoots and music videos. The guys are directors, but why just stop at photography?
How “Directors Of Photography” Showcases L.A.’s Diversity
HipHopDX: On tracks like “Cut My Teeth,” and “L.A. River,” you kind of take a snapshot of your respective sections of Los Angeles. How important is it for people to know that version of L.A. existed even if they didn’t experience it?
Rakaa Iriscience: I grew up listening to music. I grew up traveling through the South Bronx and all types of places—Oakland and even other parts of California I hadn’t been to just listening to the music. There’s what you see on the news and whatever’s in the brochure, but to actually have somebody take you on a guided tour through an experience that personal really builds a bridge between the artist and the listener.
For us especially coming from parts of L.A. that aren’t so cut and dry—Mid-City is kind of a diverse place. Venice is extremely diverse, so we really wanted to share the diversity and the spectrum of what is and take it beyond the obvious that’s represented.
Evidence: Just to add on, if you said, “I’m from L.A.,” I don’t quite know what you mean. I could pick somebody up from the airport who’s not from Los Angeles, and depending on where I live, I’m gonna drive them to my version of Los Angeles. They could go south, they could go east, they could go north, but not much further west because the airport’s at the beach. There’s so many versions of Los Angeles. When you think of New York, there’s Brooklyn, the Bronx and this, that and the third. They’re all different, and they have their own styles. But the shapes of the buildings are all the same, and the general attitude is the same. It might be little subtleties you notice if you’re from New York, but from the outside looking in, it’s pretty much the same. You may notice rich versus poor, but that’s about it.
With L.A., if you say, “I’m from North Hollywood,” I don’t know much about that even though I’m from L.A. If I say, “Venice Beach,” you might be like, “Oh, I’ve been there on the weekend once.” So to me, him saying, “Mid-City” and me saying, “Venice Beach,” we’re claiming Los Angeles. To me that’s why it was so dope to hear N.W.A talk about Compton. I never went to Compton, and it’s 15 minutes from my house. So for me to talk about Venice Beach, I’m still repping L.A., but this is my side of it. You can come to my little part of it, and that’s the part that I represent.
When I was growing up, Venice was known as a gang place. So for me to be able to say I’m from Venice in 2014, and it not mean I’m from a gang from Venice is dope to me. I can claim it, but it doesn’t mean I necessarily have to be gang affiliated.
Those are the two Alchemist tracks, so it’s kind of funny. When you rap over his beats, they make you do that kind of shit.
Evidence Details The Sonic Direction Of “Directors Of Photography”
DX: What’s the dynamic for you as a producer to rhyme over another producer’s track? Are you taking direction from Al or Premier?
Evidence: I think every producer still needs to be produced. When you cross that line and walk into the booth, there’s this invisible line that pops up. I haven’t been to too many Dr. Dre sessions, but I can imagine as articulate as he is with rappers, and how he knows you’re not gonna leave until this word is right, when he gets into the booth and gets on the mic, he might get a little blindsided. He might need somebody to point him back. I just can’t say it any more than that. If you think you can get over… Objectively, as much time as I’m gonna tell Rakaa I want him to do it like this, for me to just get into the booth and think I can just do it the way I do for somebody else, I can’t. Sometimes I’ll nail it, and even with the imperfection I dig the expression more than it being perfect, and I’ll keep that take. Or I’ll have to fight for the reason I want to keep that take and explain, “I know I could punch that line and say it tighter, but I just really feel like keeping it because of how my voice fluctuates.”
But I listen to Alchemist a lot, I listen to Babu, and I listen to anybody I respect. I’ll even listen to people I may not know if I feel there’s nothing ulterior about what they’re saying. It just has to be an honest observation.
Ironically, with this album, we didn’t have a lot of outside influences. From the DJ Premier track to the Diamond D track, to the Alchemist and 9th Wonder tracks, everything we got was pretty much the beats we wanted. Us three produced each other. I can’t say that Alchemist, Diamond or Premier was present for my rhymes. We sent it back to all of them for approval, and they were all impressed. I think that’s because we took so much time to make sure [and say], “If we’re gonna do this record, we don’t have to be doing it. We should be wanting to do it.”
For artists who take an eight-year break and come back, it’s usually a dangerous place. We’re not gonna step out unless I can step out and say I’m proud of this like I’m proud of Cats & Dogs or he’s proud of Crown Of Thorns. I feel like everything we learned in these off years came back on this record and came together.
But I would love to have somebody honest enough to tell me, “I think you could kick that shit better. When you were sitting down telling me the rhyme before you went into the booth, I liked how you were doing that better. Try to do more of that.”
How Dilated Peoples Remained Independent Minded In 2014
DX: Interesting. Aside from working with your peers, how do you approach a Dilated album from a business perspective? How do you approach when you want to strike and make the project profitable too?
Evidence: We had options doing this record, and maybe we could’ve done it leaning towards more of a major label thing. We experienced Capitol Records, and we’re one of the only Rap groups that finished our contract with Capitol. We kind of did that, and it was a struggle to fit in. I don’t think we ever really fit in to the signed industry of rappers. We were kind of like an anomaly—from radio, to video and just how we were received. To independently start on ABB records, try the major label thing and have moderate to really good success, depending on who you ask, I think it was natural that we go back. At this point in our lives creatively and how we’ve grown, it made more sense to do the independent thing. Rhymesayers is a good label on the independent side, and they’re definitely cutting edge. It made sense to do that.
Rakaa Iriscience: We also have the fact that we never stopped touring and maintained relationships around the world. It’s not like we just tour now because we have a record out. [Directors Of Photography] wasn’t even out yet, and we were already on tour. We just came off another tour. It allows us the ability to really maintain the connection on that side of the industry as well and not have it be so based on a product coming out. They’re two different businesses; they just compliment each other. The fact that we can operate independently working both realms—and when the time is right bring them together and make both situations stronger—that’s just how we’ve always approached it.
DX: What does it mean to be independent in 2014? Some people have distribution, and some people talk about “out the trunk…”
Evidence: That shit is dead [laughs]. Venice Beach on a Saturday with headphones, walking after people, that’s independent in 2014. Anything else, there’s a distributor, there’s somebody attached to it, management connections, there’s all kind of things. Being independent minded is important. When people say underground, what do they mean? That’s another vague term. Are you independent if your distribution is major? There’s so many layers to it, but I think it’s pretty easy to find out who’s doing what. Independent could be just you on your Soundcloud just annoying people on Twitter saying, “Listen to me.” Who knows what the level of independence really is. It just depends on how you view it.
Like I said before, we had moderate to really great success, depending on who you ask. For some kids, we were just the local people around town at the Hip Hop Shop. So that wasn’t tremendous, and maybe Jay Z could say we didn’t scratch the surface. It’s just in the eye of the beholder.
Rakaa Iriscience: I think it also has to do with, are you an artist for hire? Do you work for your record label, or are you making records and doing deals with people to distribute your product? Nowadays, that’s the way we interpret it. We own the master [recordings], we own the record and we’re making our own product. We partner with people in order to get it distributed and get it out to the world, but when it all comes down to it, it’s our record. That’s really as independent as you can be if you wanna do business out here.
Evidence: This could be related to the business on another note, but what really makes it independent is how we created the record—in somebody’s garage, just the three of us, no engineers, just really like a self-contained unit, not even thinking about anything but giving each song its individual attention and time. Nothing was created for radio and nothing was created to fit this format. No chorus was brought in earlier to appeal, but we have learned good songwriting, so some of that just happened naturally. But it wasn’t a conscious decision. It was just us in a room doing what we do.
Rakaa Iriscience Addresses Hip Hop’s Illuminati Infatuation
DX: True. I wanted to change gears and also get into your solo track, Rakaa. “Century Of The Self” mentions the TSA, big pharma and big business as tangible entities taking advantage of us. With so much evidence in plain sight, why are people looking for this mythical, Illuminati boogey man?
Rakaa Iriscience: It’s a lot easier to get on with your life if you feel like something is behind you. You can go address these agencies directly, but that actually takes work. There’s consequences that possibly come with that. To blame it on whatever it is people are trying to blame it on, it’s a lot easier to write it off as something outside of the scope of what you can do and point fingers that way. If you want to study the Illuminati and all that, there was actually an organization that existed. But there were a lot of organizations that existed. That one just happened to rhyme with body, party, naughty and a lot of other things. It sounds cooler than some of the other ones do. I think people don’t really take the time to study it. It’s kind of a catchphrase society mentality we deal with.
That’s easier than actually dealing with what it is and getting to the root of it on a case-by-case basis. A lot of it really has to do with big business not caring about you as an individual than some grand conspiracy or whatever the case may be.
DJ Babu: Yeah, Templars doesn’t sound cool [laughs]. Illuminati is way tighter.
DX: Babu, you had an interesting comment about connecting with DJ Premier and people recognizing the importance of scratching. Where do you feel the appreciation level is right now?
DJ Babu: On one hand it’s pretty crazy. The general public is more aware of what a DJ is. Having a DJ in the background is just built into Pop culture now. The DJ is a Rock star. For the most part, I still think it’s the same. People don’t really know what’s going on there. If it moves them, it moves them and it’s a very natural reaction to what they’re doing. The technical side of deejaying is still deejaying for other DJs. For the geeky side of people who are really into the technique and the art of it, that will always be there. There will always be an audience for that, and I can’t really say the size of it. It will fluctuate over time.
But lately, I always think scratching is so next level these days. Emcee battles are crazy, B-Boying is ridiculous and graffiti is the same with scratching in terms of super, next level things happening. For what we do, I try to throw a lot of technique in there. But I’m really going for a classic Hip Hop sound when I’m scratching with Dilated and working on Dilated records. I might get a little more left field with Beat Junkies and do something a more experimental on those things. But what can I say? I love scratching.