Yardcore Rap 

Between thugged-out, jiggied-up, and cerebral stands Fresno's Skhoolyard.

West Coast MCs have tended to be classified as either gangsta/playa/ thugs or abstract/backpack/nerds, and ne'er the twain shall meet. You'd have to go all the way back to the late '80s and early '90s, when Humpty Hump, Digital Underground's big-nosed "straight gangsta mack," was at his rump-tickling peak to find a period when Cali hip-hop wasn't squeezed into one of these categories. The perception has been that the two camps exist independently of each other and that their audiences don't overlap. But, as "Big Willie" Shakespeare might say, therein lies the rub.

Take the latest contribution to Cali's hip-hop scene, Skhoolyard. The five-man crew, comprising rappers Planet Asia, Kubiq, Supa Supreme, and Shake, as well as producer Protest, has graduated from freestyle sessions in the park to opening shows for national acts. Those claims to fame would seem to make them no different from any other indie hip-hop act these days, except for the fact that Skhoolyard isn't your garden-variety kids with Walkman cords hanging from their hoodies, debating Def Jux over Dälek. Skhoolyard combines urban street rap with the cerebral tones of the backpack set. "I used to walk around with a strap [handgun] in my backpack," says Shake matter-of-factly.

The group's hip-hop influences and inner-city upbringing come into play on its debut EP, A New Way of Thinking. The eight-song effort, produced by Kut Masta Kurt, combines turf-oriented topics with insightful lyrics that blend the street-level awareness of gangsta rap with the elevated mindstate of alternative rap. "We was out there doing this way back," the group explains on the album's intro, referring to hip-hop as an artform. "Niggas thought it was a fad/but that's all we could do/We can't do shit else ... it's like a church, a religion." They aren't new jacks, they're veterans.

The Yard's group dynamic is evident on "Rap Moguls," the EP's jump-off track. Over a fluid Kut Masta Kurt beat, the rappers complete each other's verses with a blistering display of synchronistic verbal energy, coming together like a rap-happy Voltron robot. "From Central Valley, Cali's finest/Yard mass dynas'/Spitting the timeless/We bubblin' on daily assignments." The song is laced with traditional MC routines ("Too cold for snow, too hot for heat/We rock the beats"), before adding a West Coast gangsta twist ("Ay yo, everybody out ya seats/Before I pop the heat").

Since Skhoolyard's members have been working together for more than a decade, getting the right vibe on their debut came easy. "We know what's up, soon as we get in the studio," says Asia. He pauses momentarily to search for the right metaphor, then adds, "It's like playing hoop with some brothers on the block. When y'all get to the court, you got a certain style that y'all playing with, so you could just feel it -- hit the crossover, alley-oop, and there it is."

Headnodders like "Sit Back and Chill" and "Cigar Splittas" could remind listeners of late-'80s and early-'90s East Coasters EPMD, or Leaders of the New School. "Rollin'," on the other hand, is 100 percent Cali, an ode to the state's fabled car culture along the lines of Too $hort's "In the Trunk" or Dr. Dre's "Let Me Ride." But the group's signature tune is probably the funky, jazzed-up "Yard Style," with Kubiq's proclamation that he's "squeezing these breeders from Sweden to Milpitas." Yo, when was the last time anyone shouted out Milpitas?

Asia, Supreme, and Shake -- Kubiq and Protest couldn't make the trip up from Fresno -- are conversing in front of Berkeley's Malcolm X Elementary School, an appropriate setting, given the group's name and its pro-black consciousness, another thing that separates Skhoolyard from typical thug rappers. Dressed head to toe in L-R-G gear, clothes favored by the indie hip-hop crowd, they aren't exactly ostentatious, but they aren't bummy either.

Though they each speak in the Ebonics-laced dialect of the ghetto, their conversation is not limited to one- or two-syllable words. "Our lifestyles were a little bit different than most cats you see representing hip-hop from the West Coast," remembers Asia, who grew up in west Fresno's Pottle Block neighborhood. "I don't really like to glorify that or go back to that -- whatever, whatever -- but we did do all that."

Fresno is a predominantly blue-collar city with a large Latino and African-American population. Living in the projects of this midsize inland city may not seem like growing up in fabled MC breeding grounds like Queensbridge or the South Bronx, but for the Skhoolyard crew it was no less "hip-hop." In fact, Fresno has had a hip-hop scene for almost two decades now. According to Asia, it has included "OGs that used to gangbang" as well as b-boy legends Poppin' Pete and Boogaloo Sam, not to mention "cats walking around with big radios and fat laces."

But the idea that a rapper's locale is a better indication of cultural authenticity than his actual microphone skills is ludicrous, according to Asia. "You can't put a label on hip-hop just 'cause a certain person is representing a certain area ... All hip-hop is, is who you are."

Call them lyrical gangstas or thugged-out backpackers if you must, but for Skhoolyard, hip-hop is both a lifestyle and a form of expression that goes beyond superficial categorization. The members' microphone personas are no gimmick; they're not fronting, or attempting to present themselves as something they're not. "A lot of cats out here ain't being theyself," scoffs Shake. "The ones that wanna be gangstas, they try to be lyrical, and the lyrical dudes try to be gangsta. We just doing us," he explains, adding, "We're already gangsta, and we was already on lyrics."

Still, the fact that a bunch of guys from an unheralded place like Fresno could relate to listeners outside their neighborhood, much less outside their state, might seem like an unlikely prospect until you delve deeper into their history. Being exposed to hip-hop culture at a time when artistic expression was at its peak -- when the preferred mode of transportation was a shell-toe sneaker, not a $200,000 luxury sedan -- made a big impression on Asia and his fellow Skhoolyard members. Shake remembers listening to Cali playas like Ice-T and Too $hort, while Asia recalls catching concerts by East Coast MC pioneers who passed through Fresno during the big national tours of the mid-'80s. "I'm an off-product of the Fresh Fest," he says, proudly running down a list of acts he saw as a preteen: LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, Public Enemy, Rakim.

But for all its exuberance, Skhoolyard also has a solemn, serious side. "From the drama I arise/Take a look in my eyes," states the chorus of "Days of Our Lives." This poignant, self-reflective track -- complete with flutes and strings -- was influenced not only by the aftermath of September 11, but also by the struggle for survival going on every day in inner-city America. The song qualifies as "conscious" rap -- Skhoolyard rhymes "godbody" with "Haile Selassie," and makes references to "bow ties and Final Calls" -- but it also drops playa-isms like "I been told the game is sold, not told." This dualistic mode of awareness allows the group to "sit at the table of life and hoo-ride," which it doesn't see as contradictory goals.

One reason why Skhoolyard might feel compelled to prove some sort of gangsta-cred is the fact that Planet Asia has been thrown into the opposite camp, being roundly embraced by backpackers from Tacoma to Tokyo. In the last three or four years, he's become the secret weapon of West Coast hip-hop, earning his nickname "Bleedy Eyes" with dozens of hydro-fueled studio sessions. The former Amoeba Music employee's shrapnel-esque syntax first appeared on Rasco's Time Waits for No Man in 1998. This was followed up soon after by a slot on the Rules of the Game compilation, appearances on Peanut Butter Wolf's My Vinyl Weighs a Ton, an eponymous EP (produced by Fanatik), and a Cali Agents album with Rasco. He's also released several singles on various indie labels (including Oakland's ABB) and collaborated with the likes of Mystic, Talib Kweli, Dilated Peoples, and Zion-I.

Asia's distinctive lyrical style helped to alter the national perception that West Coast rap was either G-funk or mobbish, and found favor among hip-hop heads around the world. Back in 1999, while visiting Tokyo's trendy Shibuya district, this reporter remembers seeing Asia's single "Place of Birth" prominently displayed at Manhattan Records, Japan's most famous vinyl emporium. The rapper's rapid ascension culminated in a 2001 Grammy nomination and a record deal with Aftermath/Interscope. The label put out one well-received single, "Pure Coke"/"Livin' It Up," before getting cold feet and shelving his project.

Although the future of his relationship with Interscope is in doubt, the rapper owns all his masters, so it's quite possible we'll be hearing the long-awaited Planet Asia album sometime next year.

"I'm loving the fact that the eyes have been put on people like me and Jurassic 5 and Dilated [Peoples]," Asia says, though he's still not satisfied with the current state of the hip-hop artform. It's fashionable to dis' boardroom rappers like Ja Rule or P. Diddy as the root of all evil, but as Asia points out, artists on a less-exposed level aren't above reproach either. "My thing with hip-hop is, there's still not enough balance in the game right now ... and I'm not even talking about corporate hip-hop, I'm talking about underground hip-hop." Too many underground groups are limiting themselves stylistically, he argues, which has resulted in a paucity of variation across the board. But he's not complaining just to complain. "I don't really look at it as a problem, I look at it as a challenge," he says. As an MC, his mission is "to get that understanding out there."

Part of the problem, he says, is that "niggas that be lyrical, they don't be kicking no shit that the average cat really want to listen to." Conversely, "the lyrical motherfuckers don't want to hear all that street [talk]."

So what then, exactly, is the big picture? According to Asia, it's that the various strands of hip-hop are all linked together by a common source. "Anything from the street is hip-hop," he says. "From fashion, to the way you talk, slang words, all that. Gangsta music is hip-hop, jiggy music is hip-hop, and R&B is hip-hop."

This lesson plan from Skhoolyard might very well lead to backpackers and thugs discovering their common ground, repairing the schisms caused by self-enforced segregation, and ultimately bringing a measure of unity to the hip-hop community.


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