I couldn't make heads or tails of Bicasso when I first met him. I'd always imagined the typical MC as a guy who talks a lot of shit and carries a Rolodex full of girls' numbers, but Bicasso didn't seem to fill the bill. He'd ridden his bike to meet me at the Jahva House on Lakeshore Boulevard -- he wore khaki shorts and sneakers, carried a water bottle, and chatted about how he likes to paint.
Furthermore, he didn't talk any shit.
Still, he scoffed at the suggestion that he's an introspective, right-brained kinda guy. "I'm really a social person," Bicasso says. "I remember when I was five or six, I wanted to be a comedian, so I memorized all the Bill Cosby numbers and performed them for people."
Nonetheless, he admits there's another side of his personality that would rather stay home, write lyrics, and paint with acrylics. This kind of "brohemianism" -- a term coined by Bitch magazine writer Marisa Meltzer -- might explain the derivation of the name "Bicasso," which combines the artist's former DJ name "Bizarro" with, well, "Picasso."
Ergo, the guy oscillates between an impish hip-hop persona and a bohemian artist one. That seems like a fair way to characterize his crew, the East Bay's own Living Legends, on the whole. After all, Living Legends blend East Oakland grit and hustle with South Berkeley hippy-dippyness: They're wedged between the grimy backpack rapper army and the collegiate California Peace Action crowd, straddling that line as gracefully as possible.
Bicasso is ready to straddle that line solo.
The story of Living Legends begins in 1994, when two MCs -- PSC and Sunspot Jonz, known collectively as the Mystik Journeymen -- threw parties in their warehouse for exactly $1.87 a head. People would line up around the block to get in: These were the kind of jammy-jams where you could expect Kool-Aid at the door, and you didn't have to worry about someone popping a cap in your ass.
In addition to creating a cheerful community center vibe, those warehouse parties helped pay the electric bill. "If we had Top Ramen, it was a good thing," Jonz says. "I used to take the bus to Telegraph with the last dollar I had, and hope I'd sell enough tapes to make it home."
Meanwhile, Bicasso was studying sports medicine and rapping under various aliases at Humboldt University, where he met Big G, then a drummer for the college party band Lakota. Together they started the instrumental hip-hop group Critical Measures, featuring Big G on drums, Matt Robinson on upright bass, and Bicasso holding down the ones and twos. In '94 they opened for Mystik Journeymen -- one of the few hip-hop duos to tour in a Greyhound bus -- at the club Brew 'n' Beats in Arcata.
Thereafter, whenever Bicasso went down to the East Bay to shop for records, he would attend the Journeymen's Underground Survivor shows at Berkeley's La Peña. "It used to be 250 people deep in that spot, standing on chairs and scrambling up walls," he says. "It was off the hook."
Not too off the hook, however. "At other places, you always had to worry about getting your ass whipped," Jonz says. "I remember going to a show where this cat pulled out a silver Glock onstage."
When Big G and Bicasso moved to Oakland in 1995, they rented a loft space at fifty cents a square foot, which ended up being $1,000 a month between them. They decided that was too much, and invited the Journeymen to share it. Eventually, their friends Grouch, Eligh, Murs, and Aesop joined the fray with plans to build rooms of their own -- so the spot ended up housing eight musicians (plus one girlfriend). They named the space the Outhouse, which was also the name of Mystik Journeymen's record label. Jonz describes it as "a big-ass, 2,000-foot playhouse with a cooking structure and a treehouse outside. Each of the enclosed areas became someone's personal live/work space, so the place had four studios going at the same time."
With their studios set up, the newly named Living Legends crew began recording in earnest and putting feelers out into hip-hop scenes beyond the East Bay. Soon the days of selling tapes outside Amoeba were over: The Legends started opening for major acts -- ODB and Busta Rhymes among them -- at SF's Maritime Hall, which attracted a more mainstream crowd.
That was when Bicasso noticed a significant demographic shift in the Legends' fan base. At La Peña, he recalls, they'd perform before a multicultural audience. But once the Legends took the stage at Maritime, their prototype fan was "a young, red-faced white dude," he recalls. "A hip-hop fan though, down for it so hard that it was like, 'Man, I can't do nothing but love you for loving the music like that.'" For his part, Jonz suggests the Maritime catered mostly to kids from Petaluma, San Francisco, and Marin who could afford to shell out 20 or 25 bones for the ticket.
Conceding that "the role of an artist is to make music for the folks who appreciate it, regardless of their ethnic makeup," Bicasso is nonetheless frustrated by the dearth of African-American fans in underground hip-hop. He wants to bring his music to black audiences, even if that means doing more free shows or taking his act "to spots where people aren't knowing." In 1999 he moved into an apartment upstairs from the Black Dot Artist Collective on 23rd Avenue in Oakland. Founded by Marcel Diallo, the Dot is a hub for spoken-word artists, soul bands, and hip-hop activists of all stripes. Its atmosphere sits somewhere between a salon and a small church. The location -- "a crummy part of town," Bicasso admits -- tends to discourage gawkers, so those who frequent the place are real down-to-earth artists and activists.
Once there, Bicasso met Mama Earth, who often sang there with her soul band, Jua, during the Dot's Thursday night open-mic series, Living Word. "Someone told me the guy upstairs made good beats," Mama Earth recalls. She sought him out, and the two began recording and later performing together. Blending Bicasso's ciphers with Mama Earth's gospel-inspired vocals, they created what she calls "spirit music with a bump."
The sound might be a little too groove-driven for your typical hip-hop head, but Bicasso isn't concerned with placating his old Legends fanbase. "I think about black people, and our situation in this country," he says. "A lot of times, that motivates what I rap about. Then I extend the messages beyond black people to a humanistic point of view, which is where my songs end up."
Now they've ended up on For Rent. At first, don't expect to cream over Bicasso's new album the way you once creamed over Mystik Journeymen's 4001: The Stolen Legacy. For Rent's title alone insinuates that this is a hustle album par excellence, and Bicasso describes it as a hodgepodge of tracks he recorded between 2000 and 2002 that otherwise would've been shelved.
It'll surprise you how much you like it.
It's interesting to observe how Bicasso's preoccupation with straddling racial lines is made flesh in For Rent. In one of its best tracks, "Respect Yourself," he raps, "So fresh, so clean, it seems that we worry-free/More dressed than dreams the things that they worry me/I try to show 'em let 'em know and if they wanna hear/We write the beat, but can we shift it into next gear?" Bicasso introduces the song as his personal "spiritual," but acknowledges that the lyrics "could apply to anybody who is lost on the path of materialism, or disconnected from what life is really about."
In other words, although he may have been speaking originally to black folks, his message has resonance for a wider audience.
Granted, this album isn't a tour de force -- the beats get rickety at times, and the sound is a little protein-deficient compared with Bicasso's live show with Mama Earth. Oddly, Bicasso seems to agree; he appears to have washed his hands of For Rent so he can devote himself wholeheartedly to his next album, Family, which stands for "Future Ancestor Music in the Living You."
"That album's gonna be my baby," he says. "It's geared towards family -- meaning the hip-hop community -- but the lyrics also touch on topics that only my immediate family will know about."
At his best, Bicasso's beats are as brash and percussive as his lyrics. If For Rent is a slapdash effort -- even one that's definitely still worth checking out -- Family is gonna be off the chain.
But not too off the chain.
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