"You want to destroy underground hip-hop?!? What the fuck kinda questions are you asking?!?"
Renowned hip-hopper Aceyalone is barking at me for daring to ask him offensive questions, like, "Why stay in the game?" and "Are you bothered you're not selling Jay-Z-style numbers?" The first time he hears them, he hangs up the phone, and with dial tone buzzing in my ear, I'm thinking that either I'm an asshole or I managed to hit the major hot-button issue with him that explains everything.
Some moments later, my phone rings. It's Acey—cool now, but there's tension in his voice. "My music is about progressiveness, artisticness and survivalness. It takes a lot of compromising to sell a lot of records like Jay-Z. I'm not going for that."
Okay, so I am an asshole. It's not fair to ask an indie musician why his sales don't match an artist who's backed by the gargantuan marketing muscle of Universal Music. But the sharp edges of my question reveal a lot, too. Aceyalone, 33, is a revolutionary MC who's always done things his way, even when the music industry demanded a different diktat.
Like rapping 24/7 about crime—Acey was never interested, not in the classic putting-down-people-every-second rhyme. That's a surprise coming from someone who started rapping in South L.A. when gangsta style was dominating Cali hip-hop culture, but Acey's scene was always based on defying expectations.
He was one of the top MCs of the early '90s Good Life Caf vibe, based around L.A.'s artsy Leimert Park neighborhood. The stress then was on conscious rhymes and jazzy experimentation, and it helped spawn a musical underground with soon-to-be-famous crews like Jurassic 5, Dilated Peoples and Black Eyed Peas. A decade later, dissident MCs like Busdriver namecheck Aceyalone as a big influence.
"When I heard Acey, I thought, I got to open my mind," says Busdriver. "Hip-hop encompasses so much more than I had thought. He taught me that you have to develop your craft, you have to write well, that it wasn't just about hanging out."
Like the rest of the Good Life crew, Aceyalone could unleash verbal pyrotechnics, but Busdriver says he had the chops to make his flow jazzy and meaningful. "Other MCs were as equally skilled, but Aceyalone's lyrics and his conceptual framework were so genius. He can take an idea and completely run it to the end, bend it and stretch it and bring it back to the point where he started. His rhymes were complete, they made sense. He was a master."
Aceyalone first earned props with rap crew Freestyle Fellowship. He's also recorded several solo albums, the latest being Love & Hate, which was independently released in June. It's a full hip-hop voyage, where the new stars of the underground—producers like El-P and RJD2—drop beats on seething tracks like "City of Shit" and more soulful, peaceful cuts like "Moonlit Skies," made gorgeous by the haunting vocals of Bay Area songstress Goapele.
The album got mixed reviews from London's Independent newspaper and Entertainment Weekly, who dissed perceived bloodshed on the album. "The latest solo disc from Aceyalone voices the kind of boastful violence that sent heads looking for alternatives in the first place," scrawled EW.
Acey, no surprise, thinks his critics are dead wrong. "Love & Hate reflects a lot of conscious thoughts and lyrics. It reflects some aggressiveness, but by no means does it reflect thuggishness," he says. "I'm a person who grew up in a rough neighborhood in Los Angeles, and that's a part of me, so how do I best present the music within those dynamics? I'm positive and I strive for positivity."
If anything, Love & Hate's violent scenarios end up being cautionary tales that touch on brutal urban environments, or, in the case of the title track, how anger and jealousy can sour relationships between men and women. Aceyalone's sense of the positive also branches into his private life: at Leimert Park community arts center KAOS Network, he coaches young adults who are looking to start hip-hop careers. "He's often spent 75 to 80 percent of his time here," says KAOS director Ben Caldwell. "He makes intellectual, thinking hip-hop. That's where his foundation is. I couldn't imagine him selling out."
But even buckets of virtue can quash individual expression. That's the critique of MC Nick Fury, anyway, who's half of hip-hop duo Lexicon. To Fury, underground hip-hop is fast becoming as humorless as Greenpeace activists forced to pump gas at Exxon stations.
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"It's got to the point where everything has to be so serious," says Fury. "You have to eat a certain way, dress a certain way . . . the underground was supposed to be different, but it seems like if anyone tries to do anything different, they get the stink-eye."
Aceyalone understands, but thinks there's too much at stake for laughs.
"There's some truth to that. I think there's no such as thing as too serious. Every single time someone puts out music, there's someone who's influenced. I'm not against comedy, I'm against gun talk and people messing up their lives."
Aceyalone spins a rare DJ set at Detroit Bar's Abstract Workshop club, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600. Sat., 9:30 P.M. $10. 21+.