Going Back to Cali 

Rasco and Planet Asia both fight for their version of hip-hop "success."

"Some people are independent, but they aren't truly, truly independent."

So proclaims Kieda Brewer, better known as Rasco. His words are real talk in this day and age, when it seems that everybody's momma is an "independent" rapper.

When last we heard from the Solefather in September, he had just formed his own label, Pockets Linted, and released his fourth solo album, Escape from Alcatraz. He also had blown off quite a bit of steam, venting all his pent-up frustrations against the owner of his former label.

Escape from Alcatraz was released through East Coast indie Coup d'Etat, but for the latest Pockets Linted release, Cali Agents' Head of the State, Rasco secured his own distribution through Caroline. What's more, he not only rapped on the album and A&R'd it, but did all the little things -- making sure the artwork was done, handling promotion, and even pressing the CDs himself. "It's better that way," he says.

The music business, he explains, is "a numbers game." And by being truly independent, Rasco is peeping that game on a deeper level nowadays. "I'm finding out how these dudes are getting rich," he chortles. "I'm a lot happier now, because I feel like I'm in control of what's going on."

Head of the State reunites Rasco with his old sparring partner, Planet Asia. The two first appeared together on "Take It Back Home" on Rasco's debut album Time Waits for No Man. Since then, they've collabo'd on numerous projects, including the first Cali Agents album (How the West Was One), and several of each other's solo records.

It comes as no surprise to learn that Asia is getting a 50 percent share in Head of the State's profits; the two Agents aren't just colleagues, but partners. They're known in the rap world for activating their Wondertwin powers collectively. When you think of them, you think of Sammy and Dean, Godzilla and Mothra, mustard and ketchup.

But the rappers' styles are like night and day, as are their personalities. Rasco is the gruff-voiced, levelheaded one with the blunt delivery who stays blunt-free. Asia is the "bleedy-eyed" mile-a-minute metaphor man. Yet somehow the chemistry works.

"As much as we're different, we have the same outlook," Rasco says. "We just have two different ways of getting to that point. We've got the same kind of vision, we feel the same kind of music. We just link up on that vibe. It jells well."

But though they started out together, their career trajectories have differed. Rasco jumped off with a bang with 1997's "The Unassisted," cooled off a bit, then switched the burner to a steady simmer that has allowed him to remain independent and still be a factor in the game seven years later.

Asia, meanwhile, burst upon the scene like a streaking comet in the '90s, rising rapidly in the ranks of hip-hop's MC hierarchy. He went from unheralded cameos on underground compilations to Grammy nominations and a major label deal in three years, a man on a mission to blow up in a hurry. Along the way, he worked with everyone from Talib Kweli to Mystic to Linkin Park to Dub Pistols, and seemed to be on the road to fame, acclaim, and fat stacks of cash.

But though Asia signed a contract with Interscope in 2001, no album ever saw the light of day. According to Rasco, "they wanted to shelve him for a minute. And it had already been a minute. There was no release date in sight, and they had him going back and forth in the studio. And when you're signed to a label like that and you can't put records out, how do you eat?"

Forgoing the street cred that comes from being Dr. Dre's labelmate, Asia took his masters to Avatar, a smaller, LA-based label. The result is the long-awaited but disappointing new Asia album, The Grand Opening.

Asked if Asia just gave his new label the old album, Rasco says, "I think he ended up taking four or five tracks away from the old album and then blending it in with new songs, with different people." Rasco says his track with Asia is new, as is "Upside Down," featuring Goapele -- a conscious banger that hints at how tight the album could have been.

Alas, The Grand Opening was delayed too long. Asia's early work brought him comparisons with Rakim, yet this one will find plenty of unremarkable company in the bargain bin. In Ja Rule-esque fashion, Asia swoons over Chanel-clad hotties on "Hypnotize," and croons the chorus of "Right or Wrong": I'm just trying to get my hustle on/You actin' like it's something wrong.

"Asia wanted to be on the radio," Rasco says. "Dude is talented; he's just trying to find his way right now, as a solo artist at least. He's just trying to find his niche."

Evidently, the Solefather's grounded approach is the cure for Cali Agent #2's identity crisis. Rasco and Asia do indeed take it back home on Head of the State, which is not only a better album than Asia's ill-fated solo effort, but an improvement on the first Cali Agents project as well.

One of the best moments comes on the title track, as the Agents engage in some Run-DMC-esque tag-teaming, bouncing playfully back and forth with plenty of verbal skill. Another highlight is "Cali Nights" (which practically begs to be a single), featuring an autobiographical couplet from Rasco: I turned around, created a sound/That these fools didn't think reflects my hometown.

Maybe Asia is better off as a team player after all. He sounds more comfortable trading lines with Rasco than he does trying to maneuver his streetwise poetics into an awkwardly commercial direction. And while Asia still isn't sure if he's an underground slang-spitter or pimped-out playa, Rasco is chillin' in the skin he's in.

"For me, I feel like I've already made my choice," he says. "I know where I fit in, and so I'm gonna make the best of my situation, instead of trying to meddle with something that's really not broke."

And if he happens to learn the meaning of true independence along the way, so be it.

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