On a Mission 

Oakland's Foreign Legion are tight bros from way back when.

Foreign Legion want to put the boogie in your body. The Bay Area hip-hop crew known for rockin' beats while bike stealin' has discovered the discotheque. Its new record, Play Tight, abounds with electro-funky textures and club-ready vibes. It's quite a departure from the usual indie hip-hop fare, which can be so anti-jiggy as to be antisocial. "What good is making money if you're not making memories?" the title track states, while the phat bassline provides an excuse to get your groove on, if you needed one.

Thank producer DJ Design for the sonic upgrade. "We got a little bit more stoned, a little drunker with it," he says from his Western Addition apartment, which doubles as the Look Records headquarters and recording studio. He's referring to the group's sound, not its partying proclivities -- which are already semilegendary in the Bay Area.

"We had quite a bit of fun making this record," adds Marc Stretch, one of the group's two MCs.

It's not as if FL's 2000 debut, Kidnapper Van, was square or uptight by any means, adding depth to the much-heralded West Coast underground renaissance with a solid effort rooted in traditional hip-hop aesthetics. The combination of DJ Design and the comically mismatched duo of Prozack (a diminutive Irish-American dude) and Stretch (a six-foot-four, three-hundred-pound African American) resulted in a fresh and humorous take on the genre. Stretch might resemble the guy who jacked your lunch money in high school, but if you were expecting him to drop profanity-laced lines about street thuggery, think again; he'd much rather relax your mind and let your conscience be free. Similarly, Prozack might look like a nerd, yet his clever rhyme skills allow him to say almost anything on the mic and get away with it, no matter how bugged. Even when riffing on paranoid conspiracy theories involving aliens and the FBI, Foreign Legion maintains a healthy sense of the tongue-in-cheek.

Design and Prozack -- best friends ever since they attended the same South Bay junior high school -- started the group in the mid-'90s, making bedroom beats and dreaming of a life of rhyme. At the same time, Stretch was a solo MC who was having a hard time finding hip-hop crews among the game-oriented Vallejo rap scene. He heard a FL demo tape, liked the beats, and sought out Design. Soon after, Stretch was conscripted into Foreign Legion, relocating from V-Town to Prozack's West Oakland residence so the group could work on its music.

Offstage, Stretch still rocks old-school Adidas and football jerseys, Design looks more like Sting in the film Quadrophenia than he does Swizz Beatz, and Prozack sports thrift-store Western shirts and fisherman hats. Live, however, they have been known to dress up as Batman and Robin or Cowboys and Indians, adding that burlesque touch hip-hop had always been missing. But the topper may have been when Prozack appeared on stage packed into a backpack worn by Stretch, rapping all his verses from inside the rucksack without missing a line. Such zany behavior brought FL to the attention of Beni B of Oakland's ABB Records, which has a track record for signing underground groups that have gone on to wider acclaim.

"Full Time B-Boy," Foreign Legion's first single on ABB, couldn't have come out at a better time. It immediately followed ABB's release of Dilated Peoples' "Work the Angles" -- then a huge underground record. After Dilated's success, a lot of heads started checking for the ABB label.

Despite the fact that "Full Time" became a grassroots anthem, the group ultimately left ABB over what its members describe as a "financial dispute" (a spokesperson for ABB declined to comment on the matter, adding that Beni B was currently out of the country and wouldn't be returning for several weeks) and soon signed with SF's Insidious Urban, who put out Kidnapper Van. FL's lyrical style appealed to hip-hop fans who appreciated the group's ability to blend elements of braggadocio and realism. Design's knack for infectious big-beat soundscapes didn't hurt, either. The album was a modest commercial success, creating enough buzz to allow the group to tour Europe.

If FL's mission used to be about some unpretentious MCs and a loop-digger just trying to make a good hip-hop record while having a good time, now the Legion is trying to put its own brand on the genre while having a really good time. And though the troops might claim they're only in it for the nookie -- as Prozack says, "honeys can't say no when you're sipping Jamo" (Jameson's whiskey, his favorite libation) -- the group's sound does seem noticeably more mature. Its revamped musical direction is apparent from the first notes of the rockish guitar lick that runs through "Here We Go Again," the album's opener. Throughout the record, reggae basslines, organs, and even strings are inserted into the mix, making Play Tight a well-rounded album musically that could appeal to alternative rock fans as easily as die-hard hip-hoppers. (The first single, "Happy Drunk," released some months ahead of the album, became an immediate club favorite and even garnered some airplay on Live 105 -- a station not exactly known for supporting local hip-hop.)

The rest of Play Tight shows just how much FL has grown since last time it was out. "Roommate Joint" -- which probably should have been called "I Wanna Kill My Roommate" -- is easily one of the most conceptual songs the group has ever created. It seems destined for heavy college radio airplay, given its subject matter -- annoying housemates and the annoying things they do -- which will probably resonate with anyone who's ever known the horrors of shared housing.

Being on tour altered how FL's members thought about themselves, which carried over to recording the new album. "We had been out in the world a little more," Stretch explains. "Our perspective changed." The last album, they say, was for themselves. This one, they insist, was designed with the listener in mind.

"We made songs we wanted to rock at shows," Stretch says. With so much negativity in the world, he explains, "people want an escape. They want entertainment." Crowd participation became a prime consideration when writing choruses and hooks -- which are much more prevalent on Play Tight than its predecessor. The group didn't exactly tone down its rhetoric on the microphone -- bawdy references to porn queens abound -- but, as Stretch says, "as much as we are non-PC, we wanted to have an intelligent sound."

Interestingly, Play Tight was almost the group's swan song. "This is the last Foreign Legion record," Design said grimly during one conversation months ago, when it appeared that Prozack might depart for a solo career. For a while, the group seemed on the verge of breaking up. After coming off tour in 2001, the three members struggled to make ends meet. Prozack, who was working three jobs, split with his longtime girlfriend. At one point, Stretch was earning money playing tight end for the Oakland Vipers semi-pro football club. Meanwhile, Design was attempting to build his own indie label, making beats in the studio and spinning at clubs here and there.

Prozack had indeed gotten a major label deal with Dreamworks, owned by Hollywood big shots Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen. The label offered him a substantial recording budget and set up studio time with A-list producers such as Pete Rock, Organized Noise, Jay Dee, and the Alchemist. "Now, when I'm in the studio," he says, "I'm not looking at my watch as I'm writing. Like, 'I gotta finish this in ten minutes, or I'm out of money.'" Prozack's sudden rise to major label status seemed to foretell doom for the Legion. But then a surprise turn of events led FL to realize that maybe it could have its indie-label cake and eat off the major label buffet spread too.

After Live 105 discovered it, "Happy Drunk" started picking up commercial radio spins on other alt-rock stations. Prozack remembers that "program directors started calling up Dreamworks' A&R department," asking about persistent rumors that the label had just scooped up Foreign Legion. Eventually, the group decided to continue as a unit -- and Prozack could still do his solo thing. DJ Design ended up producing several tracks on Prozack's upcoming album and Stretch graced a couple of songs as well.

Originally, Play Tight was scheduled to drop around the beginning of the year, but was delayed while Prozack finished recording his album and FL toured Europe. Foreign Legion is set to be his opening act when he hits the road to support his album, entitled Death, Taxes, and Prozack. He's even lobbying for FL to join the Dreamworks roster, a decision that ultimately hinges on how well his own album does. If he pulls anything resembling Eminem numbers, he could probably snag a record deal for his grandma and her bridge partners. If not, well, he can always go back to being a "happy drunk."

Regardless of how Prozack's album does, Marc Stretch is already planning his own solo joint -- he's currently about nine songs deep -- which he says will just be an extension of the Legion's flavor. "We'll always be friends," he says of his bandmates. "We're like cousins. I love 'em to death." Both of them, he says, "can be assholes, but if they need something, I'm there." For example, he adds, "Prozack could've gotten a deal on Ku Klux Klan Records, and I still would've been there at the record release party. ... It's all about being loyal."

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