The musical empire destined to alter the course of hip hop music was born in a college radio station somewhere in the middle of Northern California, circa 1992. Davis, California, to be exact. A group of would-be revolutionaries sat around the studio, conceiving what would soon become Solesides Records.
Sound familiar? Probably not. Like so many planned revolutions, this coup was soon aborted, for reasons still not entirely known. But unlike so many others before them, these cats from Davis would eventually go on to become something.
Solesides was a joint collaborative effort between DJ Shadow, Gift of Gab, Chief Xcel, Lyrics Born and Lateef the Truth Speaker. In the early 1990s, these five had grown increasingly frustrated with the direction that hip hop music was headed in and found that the sound they were into wasn’t what they were finding in the record shops. So they began making their own records. Solesides began with three bands on the roster: Shadow, Blackalicious (Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel) and Latryx (Lateef and Lyrics Born). The label churned out a steady supply of 12” singles, and an occasional EP until 1997, when the group disbanded. Not coincidentally, DJ Shadow had released an LP the year before on Mo’Wax Records, called Entroducing, which would later go gold and be called one of the twenty best records of the decade by Spin. More recently, the crew has metamorphosed into Quannum Projects. They released a collaborative LP in the summer of 1999 that recieved critical acclaim that also marked a who’s-who of the emergent neo-old school movement.
Years have passed since those original Solesides days, but the demand for the records remains hot. Most of the releases are long out of print, causing fiends to mortgage their kidneys for a copy on E-bay. Shadow has grown to become an international superstar of sort, working with Thom Yorke, Mike D, and Richard Ashcroft on 1999’s U.n.k.l.e. project. Blackalicious released an LP themselves, Nia, on Quannum. And the crew of nobodies from Northern California has now achieved somebody status.
With that in mind, Quannum issued a re-release project this week, entitled Solesides Greatest Bumps, a two-disc set of the collected works from the Solesides years. This serves as a sort of comprehensive history of Solesides, leading right up to the point where Shadow released Entroducing and everything changed. It suffers from many of the same problems that most comprehensive histories do (i.e., not everything these cats recorded was dope), but it makes finding the Solesides rarities much easier (and cheaper).
The three most important tracks of the Solesides years are all found on the first disc and make this set worthwhile by themselves. After a sample of the earliest Solesides sessions, the disc moves on into “Entropy (Part A ? The Third Decade, Our Move),” the track that established DJ Shadow as one of the premiere artists in a genre still searching for a proper appellation ? abstract hip-hop, leftfield, trip hop ? and put Solesides on the map. Or, as Jeff Chang, one of the founders of Solesides in 1992, writes in the liner notes, “Entropy” was the track that “changed the world and made a lot of ugly, asinine motherfuckers rich”.
With it, Shadow establishes the sound collage format that will define his work on Entroducing but shows a much heavier breaks influence that his later work strays somewhat from. This track, previously unavailable on CD, is the place to start for those curious to see how music is made with a sampler and a stack of old records.
The penultimate track on the first disc, “Swan Lake”, is perhaps the defining song of the Solesides sound. On it, Gift of Gab, one half of Blackalicious, brings a conversational, melodic flow to bear on a not-soon-to-be-forgotten beat produced by DJ Shadow. After a homage to the old school to begin, the sumptuous bassline encompasses the listener, and matching guitar and horn lines get the head nodding. Gab writes rhymes like he’s talking on the telephone, and he delivers them like he’s got nothing else to do that day except eat dinner. You get the sense that he’s not going anywhere anytime soon; he takes his time on the microphone. The truly amazing thing about this track is that it was recorded and released in 1994. The minimalist approach they take on “Swan Lake” seems the perfect antidote to today’s over-produced hip hop music, but in fact it precedes the move.
The first disc ends with Latryx’s “Lady Don’t Tek No,” a track that begins slowly with a simple drum pattern and slowly builds into the most memorable tune you’ll hear for awhile. With a bassline that sounds straight out of Chic’s “Good Times”, and a unique pair of vocalists in Lyrics Born and Lateef, this track delivers disco-infected hip hop par excellence, courtesy again of Shadow’s production. For those tiring of the misogyny in today’s hip hop, this track, the single off of Latryx’s Muzappers EP released in 1997, is just what the doctor ordered: a bona fide love song, one part hip hop, one part Stevie Wonder circa Songs in the Key of Life.
The rest of the set is a collection of hits and misses: when the crew hits, as they do in the above three tracks, there are few in the world of music that can match them for creativity. But when they miss, the result is entirely forgettable. Fortunately, the balance is tilted strongly in favor of the tracks like “Swan Lake,” making Solesides Greatest Bumps an essential for anyone trying to remember what hip-hop was like before things went so dramatically wrong.