Road-Tested, Mother-Approved 

The Quannum label continues to redraw and redefine alt.hip-hop's boundaries.

It's rush hour in downtown San Francisco, and normal traffic hustle and bustle is heightened by the crush of Giants fans trying to secure parking in the few public spaces available in the immediate vicinity of SBC Park.

From the second-floor window view of the Quannum Projects headquarters on Fifth Street, Isaac Bess and Lydia Popovich survey the scene. Parking is a sore point for Popovich, a zaftig woman with sparkly eyes who estimates she has paid the equivalent of several Hawaiian vacations in tickets in the past few months. Some lots close to the ballpark charge as much as $30 per game, and at that price, it almost makes more sense to try your luck with the meter maids. "Who can afford that?" she wonders aloud. Just then, a trophy blonde driving a white BMW convertible rolls by, and Popovich has her answer.

Bess and Popovich play an unheralded but vital role in the Bay Area indie music scene -- they're the glue that holds together the business aspect of the label that has continually raised the bar for alternative hip-hop in its six years of existence as Quannum (for six years prior to that, the company was known as Solesides). Bess, the label manager, resembles a character out of Oliver Twist, with his scruffy facial hair and casual bohemian style. Popovich is a Jill-of-all-trades whose business card reads "First Lady." Together, they handle all the legwork, so the artist-owners of Quannum can go out and play.

Quannum is particularly well named: The collective's roster does seem to imply leaps of mathematic logic. The lineup comprises Lyrics Born, DJ Shadow, Gift of Gab, Chief Xcel, Vursatyl, Jumbo da Garbageman, Lateef, Joyo Velarde, Erin Anova, Omega, and DJ D-Sharp (see page 66 for more on him). From this nucleus comes Quannum's groups, which form like Voltron in several configurations: Blackalicious, Latyrx, Lateef and the Chief (aka the Maroons), and the Lifesavas.

Quannum doesn't have a particular sound, nor is it beholden to a certain style. Blackalicious, for one, has evolved from underground battle-rap-derived opuses like "Lyric Fathom" to the high-concept, accessible-but-not-overly-commercial Afro-futurist hip-hop of Blazing Arrow. Lyrics Born's happy-foot funk and tricky tongue-twisterisms have matured out of Latyrx' primordial verbal ooze while keeping intact the nods to old-school influences. Lateef and the Chief represent Quannum's more militant, socially conscious side. And DJ Shadow didn't invent trip-hop; rather, the genre coalesced around his hallucinogenic sampled soundscapes.

Bess speculates that Lyrics Born's recent solo disc, Later That Day, could have come out ten years ago and been received just as well -- the record stands on its own to such a degree that it could work in any hip-hop era. By the same token, Solesides-era material such as Latyrx' "Lady Don't Tek No" and Blackalicious' Melodica have attained classic status, and will likely hold up for decades to come. Though Melodica is out of print, Bess and Popovich still get weekly e-mails asking about its availability; if you're lucky enough to possess a vinyl copy (as C2tE does), hold on to that puppy. One of these days, it'll be worth a mint.

Making Quannum's equation even more complex, members often collaborate on songs and produce tracks for each other. And, Bess adds, they've also been known to engage in hour-long capping sessions while on tour, which leads C2tE to wonder if the key to hip-hop longevity isn't necessarily accumulating platinum plaques, but having a devastating "Yo momma" joke ready at all times.

From the Quannum tour bus somewhere between Philadelphia and Boston, Lateef speaks about his squad's veteran status. "In the time we've been in hip-hop, there are a lot of crews that have come and gone, that were hot and are hot no more," he says. "That part of it is kinda wild." After giving shout-outs to fellow indie pioneers like Hieroglyphics and Stones Throw, he drops science about why Quannum has prospered for so long: "We're friends first," he says emphatically. "We don't allow our business to ever intrude on that friendship. As a crew, we really are a crew. ... When we're working together, we've having fun, because we're kicking it."

The crew is currently in the middle of a 21-city jaunt, which lands at the Warfield on Saturday night. They've all been frequent road warriors both nationally and internationally, but this is the first time the entire squad has toured together at one time. Bess isn't exactly stressed, but he's somewhat agitated, as befits someone who is so used to multitasking; it's hard for him to sit still, even for an interview. "We've had a really busy spring and fall, actually, because of the Lifesavas and Lyrics Born records," he confides. Both Later That Day and the Lifesavas' Spirit in Stone exceeded expectations, even for a label accustomed to generating heaps o' favorable press and college radio play. "The response to those was really ..." -- Bess searches for the right word -- "excellent."

Quannum didn't pause for air, however, but plunged ahead with Blackalicious MC Gift of Gab's solo project, 4th Dimensional Rocket Ships Going Up, another typically brilliant, left-of-center effort, which drops May 11. The album bears some stylistic similarities to Blackalicious, but takes listeners farther inside Gab's personal headspace while pushing the limits of breath control techniques with incredibly rhythmic, alliterative flows.

Farther down the line, if all systems are go, September will see the much-anticipated release of the Lateef and the Chief album. In the meantime, Lyrics Born's "Calling Out" is still getting love from tastemaking local DJs such as DJ Zeph and Toph One, who've made it into something of an anthem for their club sets.

Maybe that's what happens when, instead of following trends, you create your own. Creativity and eclecticism are the name of the game at Quannum, so it should come as no surprise that the office playlist is all over the place. Here's what Bess and Popovich have been bumpin' the last month: Joyce, Biz Markie, Kanye West, Dolly Parton, David Cross, Joe Bataan, Bing Ji Ling, M.I.A., Probot, and Dis-Joint's Dis-Jointed compilation.

Wait a minute, did they say Dolly Parton? Yup. Doesn't seem very hip-hoppish, until you remember that Afrika Bambaataa was particularly fond of the Munsters theme song and Ennio Morricone's spaghetti Western soundtracks.

Ever since the early Solesides days, the Quannum crew has always aspired -- to paraphrase the Geto Boys -- to grip it on that other level. It has outlasted fickle trends, dot-com busts, and industry shakedowns because it never tried to be the flavor of the month. And it's one of the few hip-hop labels whose stuff you can play for your mom, your girlfriend, or kid sister without apprehension.

Popovich recently did just that, playing Later That Day for her fifty-year-old mother, who never busted headspins on linoleum or wrote her name in graffiti on the wall, yet loved what she heard nevertheless. "It's mom-approved," she laughs. "Like Jif."

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