Key Kool went to the Wal-Mart in Brea just to pick up a little of the usual junk and one of the workers started tailing him right off, following him from aisle to aisle and room to room. And although Kool is currently an upstanding private businessman and a devoted family man with several years respectable residence in Irvine to underscore his credit, he was once a little rap kid rooting around the Roadium Swap Meet as N.W.A was getting together, so he remembers getting tailed through other stores and he was starting to get a little uncomfortable—they thought he was going to shoplift? But instead the guy stopped him and asked nervously: "You aren't in the Visionaries?"
"I get hit up here by kids into music and hip-hop every day," says Kool now, back in his Irvine home on a Saturday afternoon. "At Albertson's where I used to get coffee, they always hook me up. At Coffee Bean, the guy is like, 'Key?' It's strange when someone starts staring, but if someone stares at me, I'll go say hello. I guess it's the teacher in me—my whole family are teachers. There's a lot of heads out in OC—the younger generation looking for something, and I feel we relate to that."
Kool's Visionaries—2MEX, Dannu, Lord Zen, LMNO, Rhettmatic and Kool—are just about to turn over 10 years as one of the leading independent California hip-hop groups, as well as just about to release their fourth record on Up Above, the Long Beach label Kool co-founded. And it could be time to take a look back from those landmarks: while Kool's natural inclination toward education is a Visionaries fundamental—something that had people pegging the group after their 2004 album Pangaea as "some conscious cats," he laughs—there are also some extracurricular concerns he'd like to address. "You know," he says, "we're just normal human beings."
So We Are the Ones (We've Been Waiting For) is the necessary personal (and practical) follow-up to 2004's more philosophically instructive Pangaea, he says, an album to show people "how we got where we are today."
Sometimes literally, actually: "In the Good" takes a Visionary-by-Visionary tour of an adolescent street-level LA detailed enough to mention the streets and sidewalks along Del Amo by name, a representative song for an album as much about where-we-come-from as where-we-need-to-go. Or the song "All Right": besides the automatic J Dilla melancholy—the noted Detroit producer passed in February, putting the entire hip-hop world on pause—it's a long and heartfelt meditation on family and responsibility, a lifer's look at life and art.
2MEX wishes he could help his parents move from an apartment into the first house they'd ever live in; Kool admits his family hoped he'd do more with his degree than start a struggling company; LMNO finishes the song with a respectful roll call of hip-hoppers passed, including the recently lost DJ Dusk. Though next song "Crop Circles" is a beefed-up, start-stop, boom-bap beat, "All Right" might be closer to the real center of We Are the Ones—Kool remembers Lord Zen showing up to write in the middle of one of the worst days he'd seen him suffer in 15 years, and watching something optimistic come out of it: "It's therapeutic," he says. "It's a life lesson for us to realize the stresses and struggles are just temporary."
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Of course, the usual righteous Visionaries ire hasn't been erased: "Thirty-three percent saying nothing!" says the chorus of the battle-ready "1%." "Second 33 just frontin'/Third 33 straight bluffin'!" And We Are the Ones reels in a worthy selection of guests, too: production by Madlib, J. Rocc and J Dilla alongside Kool and Rhettmatic, plus a verse by Ariano and keys by the Mars Volta's unstoppable Ikey Owens and then the monster posse track "Need to Learn," featuring Brand Nubian's Sadat X, X-Clan's Brother J, overlooked golden-age MC YZ, tha Dogg Pound's RBX and Dilated Peoples' Rakaa Iriscience—not quite "Don't Curse," but an impressive session of formation flying nonetheless.
But title track and conclusion "We Are the Ones"—which even sounds like it was built on something or other's closing-credit music—brings back a kind of gravity to the album. With some of the most frankly encouraging lyrics on the record ("The love that we have for you/will always be stronger than the hate you have for us/so just trust/We're the ones we have been waiting for!") it makes for the hopeful if somehow unresolved ending Kool wanted.
"'We Are the Ones' is from a thing a Hopi elder was reading to his people—the whole message was 'the time is now,'" he says. "That it's up to you to take action. Pangaea had a message of unity, a real strong positive message, and providing an ideal is one thing—but how do you get to that ideal? It's easy to speak all generally—actually manifesting it is the challenge."
THE VISIONARIES WITH WU TANG CLAN, MOS DEF, TALIB KWELI, DE LA SOUL, LIVING LEGENDS, MURS, SUPERNATURAL AND MORE AT THE NOS EVENTS CENTER, 689 S. EAST ST., SAN BERNADINO, (909) 971-0474; WWW.ROCKTHEBELLS.NET. SAT., NOON. $50-$100. ALL AGES.