Fans eye their favorite bands suspiciously when they broaden the scope of their sound and seek to expand their audience. Dilated Peoples’ DJ Babu acknowledges as much, admitting, “We’re in a weird position. We walk that fine line of keep it filthy and raw but at the same time, trying to push them units.”
The new Dilated Peoples album, Neighborhood Watch, steps away from the battle-rhyme-heavy style of the first two albums toward a more melodically driven, pop-savvy musical approach while putting a tighter rein on their free-flowing lyrical content. With the fickle embrace of fame, success is often a matter of timing and taking advantage of one’s opportunities. Dilated Peoples recognize this, streamlining their approach on their third album and making their most ambitious appeal to a larger audience.
“On the first two albums there was a lot of buckshot going on. We would just unload and hit a little bit of everything. This one, it’s a lot more focused,” says Babu, speaking from Seattle, where the band played the night before. “I think before it was, ‘We got 14 hard jams, now what order do we put them in,’ where this one was, ‘We’ve got a nice melody on this one, the energy is at this level, we kind of rapped about this, so we need to do something to complement that.’ We’re trying to put together a whole complete thought, and we want it to flow and melt together nicely.”
Certainly given the recent success of Outkast and Black Eyed Peas, the timing is right for Dilated Peoples to tack toward the mainstream, though the fit is not as smooth as it has been for BEP. Despite the old-school, two-MCs-and-a-DJ lineup, and the literate, East Coast style that has made them an underground mainstay, their L.A. roots run to the street, or as Evidence raps on the new album track, “Caffeine,” “I’m an underground cat but I still love money and cars.”
Rappers Evidence and Rakaa’s battle-rhyme origins are based in a mixture of ego, pride and street braggadocio more consistent with blingin’ and thuggin’ than the consciousness-raising rap of the Roots, and, as such, there are moments of uneasy coexistence on the album, as the band straddles different worlds.
It’s the same with their current tour opening for star Rock-A-Fella producer and sudden rap sensation Kanye West, whose debut, The College Dropout, resides near the top of the charts. West lends his sure hand to Dilated’s “This Way,” whose flute-driven trill and gospel-tinged R&B groove is the lead single and the album’s best track. Babu calls the tour “hard but good,” offering them a great opportunity to connect with fans who might not otherwise be familiar with them, a chance to introduce the old school to the new one.
“Our whole thing is that we would never want to be considered as dinosaurs or a throwback group. We try very much to stay up-to-date and keep our sound relevant to what’s going on now. But at the same time we still carry those standards and that tradition from groups of the past,” says Babu. “I would like to think we make music that would make a Premo or a Pete Rock or a 45 King or a Marley Marl proud, but at the same time I would love to turn a new kid who’s 13 years old and has only been listening to hip hop for one or two years onto Dilated Peoples too.”
Like their efforts to meld an old-school aesthetic with contemporary sounds, and street-style lyrical battles with the philosophical strains of rap, Dilated Peoples see their stab at mainstream appeal as a natural progression and synthesis based in their long-standing love of hip hop. They may be trying to bridge different worlds, but to them the distinction between the underground and mainstream is irrelevant.
“For us it’s always been about making honest music, but it’s also been about pushing and seeing how far we can go with it. We grew up listening and watching groups like Run DMC, EPMD and Tribe Called Quest, where they were selling out coliseums and were on MTV all day,” says Babu. “We’ve never fronted on the fact that we’re here to sell records. That’s our job. But whoever said we couldn’t do that while keeping our integrity and making honest music that comes from the heart?”
Dilated Peoples will perform on Friday, April 16, at the State Theatre (2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit) with Kanye West. Call 313-961-5450.Chris Parker is a freelance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org