You can call Dilated Peoples an underground act. But not for long. Over the years, the Los Angeles rap trio has amassed a solid following but nothing massive. Album sales have been healthy but unspectacular. DP has eschewed crunk-for-the-clubs hip-hop trends for a more laid-back, streamlined approach.
But with its latest album, Neighborhood Watch, DP may be inching over to the pop side a little more. The trio tweaked its formula a bit by bringing hip-hop's go-to man of the moment, Kanye West, into the studio to take over the mixing boards for one track: "This Way," DP's current and hottest single to date. The rapper-producer also added his humorous flow to the number and appears in the video, which is in regular rotation on VH1, BET and MTV.
"We come from the school of working with outside producers and reaching out for new sounds," says DJ Babu, who's calling from a tour stop in Indianapolis. He and his two rhyming partners Evidence and Rakaa (Iriscience) play the 9:30 Club tonight. "Hooking up with Kanye was just an extension of what we've always done. He reaffirmed the philosophy between a beat-maker and a producer. The producer has a vision and at least pulls the best energy out of an artist. The beat-maker just crafts the beat," Babu says. "But it's beautiful to have the best of both. Kanye is up there with Dr. Dre and the cream of the crop."
"This Way" is also part of the ad campaign for the new Volvo S40, serving as the soundtrack to the Dave Meyer-directed commercial featuring a voiceover by LL Cool J. The ad is seen on cable stations (Comedy Central, E!, ESPN, VH1 and TLC) and during primetime shows (Will & Grace, Third Watch, Friends, CSI). With such wide exposure and a blazin' radio hit, Dilated Peoples may finally break out after more than a decade in the game. But unlike the Black Eyed Peas, DP's L.A. rap peers, the trio doesn't plan to dilute its formula for the pop charts.
"There's a lot of stuff I like on the radio but, at the same time, it's very cookie-cutter," says 30-something Babu, who along with the Alchemist and Evidence, produced the tracks on Neighborhood Watch. "It's got to be a little more balanced. I remember [hip-hop] being a little more diverse when I was a kid. It still is. Now you got to dig a little deeper for different [stuff]."
Back in '92, when Dilated Peoples formed, West Coast rap was straight-up gangsta. Purveyors of the G-funk sound - N.W.A., Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Warren G - took over the charts (and the headlines) toward the middle of the decade. But even with the dominance of such a hard-hitting, hedonistic, minimalist style, the California rap scene was still diverse. MC Hammer made it pop and Digital Underground kept it fun.
When Dilated Peoples came on the scene in the mid-90s releasing singles on the independent ABB label, the trio offered a well-executed approach. The productions seamlessly melded old-school samples - funk guitar splices, horn punches - with looping beats, over which Evidence and Rakaa rhymed about keeping the culture pure and battling sucka MCs.
"I think we've been criticized for being battle rappers," Babu says. "But we're trying to write honest, good music. That's been easier the more we've grown and the better the technology has become in recording."
In May 2000, DP released The Platform, its major-label debut on Capitol Records, which is still the group's recording home. The album, whose lyrical content mostly centered on the trio's love of hip-hop, was well-received by critics and fans of underground rap. Expansion Team, a more refined version of The Platform, followed the next year and broadened DP's base a bit with the brilliant single "Worst Comes to Worst." But three years - a lifetime in pop - passed before another Dilated Peoples joint hit the streets. Neighborhood Watch came out April 6.
"Touring is our bread and butter," Babu says. "So we've been doing that most of the time we weren't recording. We took about eight straight months to record Neighborhood Watch. Also, a lot of things weren't in order with management and the label. You can have the music tight, but everything has to be right before releasing the record - right at the label, I mean."
Shifts in leadership at Capitol kept DP's project in limbo for two years or so. Andrew Slater, the producer who brought us Macy Gray and Fiona Apple, became the label's president in 2001, bringing a new regime and re-activating the company's long-defunct urban music department.
"So we were building new relationships with the new people at the label," Babu says. "The result of the new people means our impact at radio and video is better than it's ever been."
The new album's title serves as a warning for those not ready for the group's budding pop appeal.
"Neighborhood Watch is a way of saying that Dilated Peoples is back," Babu says. "We're stronger. So watch your back."
Dilated Peoples and Jurassic 5 play the 9:30 Club tonight at 10. Tickets are $30. For more information, visit www.930.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun