When Time placed Lauryn Hill on its cover this past winter, it seemed at first glance like an affirmation of hip-hop's creative strength. Years after Yo! MTV Raps had become a staple of middle-American viewing and teenagers of all races had adopted the low-slung baggy-pants look, here was further proof that the once-urban sound had conquered suburbia. Sales figures back up this mainstream ascendancy. Take a look at any recent Billboard Top 10, and you'll find mostly hip-hop and R&B, with only a few rock and roll acts holding on to their piece of the industry pie.

But just as you could argue that the Time story and the current chart success of hip-hop is "all good," there's an argument to be made that this pop crossover has actually diluted and literally debased hip-hop. After all what exactly is "hip-hop" in 1999? That would seem to depend, like the Clintonian meaning of "sex," on your definition. If hip-hop is any music made with a booming beat and a drum machine, then the popularity of hip-hoppish music signifies both a vindication for the genre's pioneers and a growing cultural homogenization. As grunge/rap sensation Kid Rock maintains, wasn't Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill just "NWA for fifteen year-old girls?" Isn't that LL Cool J on a WB television series? And isn't that a member of baldy gangsta ruffnecks Onyx appearing on, gulp, the family-friendly Moesha?

But if by "hip-hop," you mean the raw, street-level urban expressionism that Saturday-afternoon DJs and street MCs made up in the parks and clubs of the South Bronx twenty years ago, then you'll have to look elsewhere. Namely to independent-label-issued hip-hop. Just as the hair-metal glut of the early Nineties begot the Seattle explosion and indie rock's return to grittier, street-level sounds, so too has hip-hop's climb left a vacuum at the grassroots level where independent hip-hop not only lives, but these days, thrives.

As national tastes tire of the coastal hardasses and R&B crossovers (united in their similar lack of imagination), left-field major-label acts like Atlanta's Outkast, and rustbelt lampoonist Eminem, with his own deep underground roots, prove hip-hop fans today are open to different approaches and unorthodox styles. Labels such as California's Bomb Hip Hop and Nu Gruv Alliance have been slowly but surely gaining steam, reaching hip-hop fans looking for something more than iridescent Hype Williams videos and Puff Daddy's sample-happy karaoke, eager for something a little more grounded than DMX's washboard abs or Jay-Z's Bronx-meets-Broadway pop sensibility.

In fact much of indie hip-hop bears a striking similarity to the indie rock of five years ago: a nerdy, experimental fringe typified by its lack of frills and, to bust a rhyme, its wealth of skills. Says DJ Craze, Miami's most visible indie hip-hop export: "Independent hip-hop is the last frontier for creativity because mainstream hip-hop just isn't exciting right now at all." For his part Craze is indie hip-hop's mad scientist, turning cut-up beat collages into new, scattered rhythms. It can be bold, experimental stuff; Craze admits he thinks he's an anomaly in the commercially driven Miami scene, typified as it is more by formula-bound successes like Luther Campbell than genre-redefining risk takers. "Miami's got a lot of decent hip-hop MCs," Craze says proudly, but adds diplomatically that most are taking a more commercial route. Or, as he puts it: "They're all jiggy."

Still, even at the "jiggy" level, aesthetics are changing. Mixmaster Mike, of the indie turntablist group Invisibl Skratch Piklz and now touring DJ for the Beastie Boys, says, "The whole materialistic thing in hip-hop is done. Now it's just the skills, with no gimmicks." In truth though the skills arguably are the new gimmicks. Bomb Hip-Hop's premier act, Los Angeles's Jurassic 5, sounds like an early Eighties rap group with their Wild Style-ish penchant for the "two turntables and a microphone" purism. And it's exactly this old-school fetish that has landed them, after years of toiling at the indie level, a deal with major-label Interscope Records. But beyond skills indie hip-hop stresses self-empowerment, not just in the realm of spirituality, but in the literal economic sense.

Take Los Angeles's Beat Junkies. The DJ collective has released the fine album The World Famous Beat Junkies, Vol. 2 featuring guest MCs from the LA underground (Dilated Peoples, Jurassic 5) rapping over mixed-together groove constructions. As street-level hip-hop, the Junkies fly under major-label radar: The group cuts and mixes other peoples' records. And while its discs have an uneven but thrilling jazzlike immediacy to them, Beat Junkies' loose, collective spirit makes the notoriously scattered Wu-Tang Clan look like a choreographed Motown act in comparison. By mixing together underground cuts, however, the collective's records serve as a kind of pirate radio show of indie rap. The group also runs its own record store (Fat Beats in L.A.), has its own company and Website, and acts as scratchers-for-hire for a number of West Coast hip-hop acts.

Another example of indie hip-hop's autonomy-in-action is Chicago's Rubberoom. The Windy City isn't known for its rappers, but the Chitown quartet has delivered one of the year's most promising debuts with Architechnology on New York's 3-2-1 Records, an imprint of the indie rock label Zero Hour. With their loud-and-proud sound and raw rhyme skills, the Chicago group unfashionably recalls Public Enemy more than, say, the sampled-hook/R&B-leaning fare you hear continually on urban radio. And like the outspoken Public Enemy, Rubberoom sees itself as a self-contained creative entity. Being on a rap indie is a way to oversee its growth not so much vertically (as major labels would be wont to do with videos and radio hits), but horizontally, building an enduring, if more slowly accrued, fan base.

"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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