Paid Dues Preview: The bluffer's hour-by-hour guide to backpack rap
With 13 acts scattered over nearly nine hours of music, Saturday's lineup for the fourth annual Paid Dues Festival can seem arcane to even the most conscientious backpack rap fan. Held at the sprawling NOS Events Center, and presented by Guerilla Union and local indie ground hero, Murs 3:16, Paid Dues seeks to strike a balance between the legends of subterranean yore and the next generation of new jacks. This year’s lineup is no different, including everyone from stoner deity B-Real to emo-rap kingpin Atmosphere to newly Warner Bros.-signed local product Blu (playing with MPC maestro and DJ/producer Exile).
In order to make your lives easier, Pop and Hiss presents a bluffer’s guide to this year’s Paid Dues Festival. Jansport not included.
Atmosphere: (11:05-11:45 p.m.)
Along with Jay-Z and KRS-One, Atmosphere can lay claim to defining a blueprint. Arguably this decade’s biggest independent rap success story, the duo of Slug (rapper) and Ant (producer) has risen from selling cassette tapes to local hip-hop shops in their hometown, Minneapolis, to nurturing Rhymesayers, one of indie rap’s most prominent labels. The most recent album, “When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That [Stuff] Gold,” debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard charts and spawned a radio single ("You"). More important, Rhymesayers has done so largely without corporate concessions (the label is distributed by the Warner Music Group). Indeed, by staunchly adhering to the independent spirit, and taking bold creative risks, Atmosphere has retained a sizable cadre of die-hard supporters while expanding its fan base.
Tech N9ne (10:10-10:55 p.m.)
Although the recession has forced many of his major label peers to pawn their ice grills and return their rented cars, gruff-voiced, gangsta rapper Tech N9ne continues to thrive a decade after his debut, “The Calm Before the Storm.” Even as rap in the 2000s has been colored by dozens of one-hit wonders with ephemeral careers (Chingy, anyone?), the face paint-prone, Kansas City, Mo.-born Aaron Yates has cultivated a fiercely loyal fan base and is reported to have sold more than 1 million records -- a staggering total for an artist without print, radio or blog attention. With many of the sales racked up on his Strange Music imprint, Tech N9ne may remain a mystery to the broader public, but there’s no mistaking his hustle.
Living Legends (9:10-10 p.m.)
Formed in Oakland during the early '90s, the Living Legends crew shifted its home base to Los Angeles a decade ago and never looked back, dropping a constant flurry of singles, full-lengths and solo records to an ever-increasing audience. Comprising Eligh, Scarub, Aesop, the Grouch, Luckyiam, Bicasso, Sunspot Jonz, and festival mastermind, Murs, the octet has reportedly shifted more than 300,000 units of its records, all released on its own Legendary Music imprint. Hometown favorites, the Legends can expect to draw the evening’s most rapturous applause.
Slaughterhouse (8:10-9 p.m.)
Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated performance of the evening (at least by us), Paid Dues marks the official West Coast debut of the Slaughterhouse crew. A supergroup comprising Joe Budden, Royce Da’ 5’9, Joell Ortiz and Long Beach’s Crooked I, Slaughterhouse’s rhymers rank among the finest pure battle rappers within the genre. Other than Budden, who scored a smash single with 2003’s “Pump It Up,” none of the rappers involved has earned radio play, or released a major label effort, yet to their small but significant following, they’re all superstars. Were you anxious to learn to rap, this is where you should begin.
Brother Ali (7:25-8 p.m.)
During the first half of his career, Brother Ali’s albino appearance and strident politics tended to overshadow his prodigious abilities. A steadfastly lyrical rapper with a preacher’s cadence reminiscent of the legendary Pharoahe Monch, the erstwhile Jason Newman emerged as the second most prominent rapper on Rhymesayers, with 2007’s “The Undisputed Truth.” Intense and introspective, Ali’s oeuvre features everything from anti-government diatribes, his divorce, his albinoism and the loss of his mother and grandfather to cancer and suicide. Promoting his recently released CD/DVD, “The Truth is Here EP,” expect a kinetic live performance filled with equal parts politics and pathos.
B-Real (6:45-7:15 p.m)
The veteran frontman of Cypress Hill is a recent entrant to the independent scene, recently releasing his debut solo record, “Smoke and Mirrors,” on venerable New York outfit, Duck Down Records. Minus beats from DJ Muggs and the Cypress Hill brand name, the album elicited a relatively tepid response. Still, this is B-Real we’re talking about -- the bestselling Latin rapper of all time, with a greatest hits list as long as the trail of roaches he’ll leave behind onstage. Expect mostly new material, but he’ll surely find a way to slip in a “Hit from the Bong” or two.
Grouch & Eligh (6:05-6:35 p.m.)
Two of the most prolific members of the Living Legends crew, Grouch & Eligh boast 20-plus solo albums between them, in addition to myriad guest appearances, Living Legends albums and other collaborative efforts. With so many songs to choose from, expect the pair to hew closely to their latest effort, “G & E Music, Vol. 4 -- Say G&E!,” slated to drop next month on Legendary Music.
Cage (5:25-5:55 p.m.)
Cage’s path to becoming one of the underground’s leading lights was littered with obstacles, from drug addiction to label struggles to a beef with Eminem that threatened to squash his career in its infancy. Though he first appeared on wax in 1993, the rapper born Chris Palko didn’t make his official solo debut until 2002’s “Movies for the Blind.” Featuring the “Clockwork Orange”-sampling underground smash, “Agent Orange,” the album showcased for Cage’s shock-value raps and ample skills but little else. But 2005’s Def Jux-release, “Hell’s Winter,” found Cage taking a quantum leap forward, leading to feverish anticipation for the forthcoming “Depart from Me.”
Eyedea & Abilities (4:45-5:15 p.m.)
At just 18, Eyedea emerged as one of the indie boom’s most promising prospects when he triumphed at the 1999 Scribble Jam. The next half-decade found him releasing a trio of intermittently brilliant records with fellow Minneapolis native DJ Abilities. And then ... nothing. Rumors abounded about how the onetime Atmosphere affiliate had abandoned hip-hop -- an idea that seemed to receive confirmation when he emerged with a rock band, Carbon Carousel. Back in the rap game, the metaphysical-leaning MC has a comeback album tentatively slated for release later this year.
Blu and Exile (4:15-4:35 p.m.)
It’s a shame that Paid Dues is allotting only 20 minutes for Blu and Exile, the current kings of the Los Angeles underground, and one of the most electric shows in contemporary hip-hop. Last week at the Nah Right/Smoking Section at SXSW, the pair slaughtered the much-hyped competition, further proving Warner Bros.’ wisdom in signing Blu, the 25-year-old San Pedro native. In an indie rap genre teetering toward the moribund, the duo’s 2007’s “Below the Heavens” breathed new life into the scene. If there was ever a reason to arrive early, this is it.
-- Jeff Weiss
Paid Dues Festival, Saturday, March 28, at NOS Events Center, 689 South "E" St., San Bernardino. Doors open at 3 p.m. $40. Buy tickets here
Photo: Blu gives festival attendees a reason to arrive early. Credit: Ryan Lewis