"We figured it would be best to do business with an independent label," explains lead Rubberoom rapper Meta-Mo. He confidently continues, "And the way we look at it, it's more or less a business deal. Because you can blow up your own label. We pay attention to our concept, right down to our logo." Mo says Rubberoom wants to reach "hip-hop purists" and being on an indie allows the group the flexibility to do just that. "It means between the two of us, we can get the records to the right people through shows, stores, promotions. That stuff's mad important," says Mo, sounding as much like a CEO as an MC.

But it's this attention to detail that lets Rubberoom succeed even though the group is admittedly, as Mo puts it, "outside of 'hip-hop'." "Musically we wanna pick up where the hip-hop innovators left off. Back in the day you had phenomenal-ass MCs like Rakim and KRS-One, all different, all great. But these days there are a lot of emulators." As hip-hop postmodernist DJ Spooky notes, "Hip-hop seems to be about finding a formula that works and milking it for all it's worth."

The name Canibus comes up as an example of how not to proceed. A gifted MC from New York City who rode a wave of street-respect into a major-label deal, Canibus soon found himself in the midst of a very public feud with LL Cool J. When his debut album was finally released after what amounted to a case of massive overexposure, it was a huge disappointment: poorly produced and lacking the inspiration that had garnered him his initial attention. "It probably wasn't even his fault," says Mo sympathetically. "His label probably pushed him." But what it did was take a rapper on a steady trajectory and push him too far and too high, which in the fickle rap world, with its penchant for turning on any MC it deems a sellout, has meant a relative fade into obscurity.

It's little wonder, then, that eccentric rapper Kool Keith, late of New York's legendary Ultramagnetic MCs, walked away from a deal with Los Angeles major DreamWorks after heavyweight producers the Dust Brothers (Beck, the Beastie Boys) secured a record deal there for his 1997 Dr. Octagon record. Unwilling to play rap novelty for the rock-dominated label ("I felt like a project I didn't have any control over," he says), Keith blew off a DreamWorks-finagled spot on 1997's Lollapalooza tour. Then he took his six-figure advance and invested it in an escort service before retreating to the hip-hop underground where he's just released First Come, First Served under the moniker "Dr. Dooom" on his own Funky Ass Records.

Besides its unpolished beats (some tracks are little more than a bass note and a beat), First Come is its own marvelous declaration of independence, worth hearing just for Keith's rants on topics such as conglomerate record labels, eating raw chicken, and compulsively masturbating. But there is a method to the madness. As he raps on "Leave Me Alone": "I don't wanna meet no Insane Clown Posse and collaborate/I wanna innovate/While you spend you budget on your video, I'm in one of my three luxury apartments eating raisin bran..../I've taken care of my paperwork/I can take United Cab out to Vegas while the average R&B act is doing promotional shows/Besides I do wear a coat in winter/and eat at expensive restaurants."

But just because Kool Keith is independently inclined doesn't mean he's stupid. He has regrouped and inked a deal with Sony/Columbia, which will release his Black Elvis disc later this summer. Ironically, though he says the deal allows him "mental freedom," Black Elvis's first track, "I Need a Release Date," echoes his main complaint about major labels: They're too slow and bureaucratic to answer to the faster-paced street buzz by which hip-hop, arguably more than any other music, can be made or broken. He bitterly exclaims, "When I can't capitalize on a certain image at a certain time, because I'm just a marketing plan figure to some label, that's really frustrating." At least with Black Elvis he'll have a chance to reach a new audience; he's signed on as the opening act for the wildly popular white rappers Insane Clown Posse's summer tour. He may not want to collaborate with them, but, in the true independent spirit, there's nothing wrong with getting paid by them.

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