Cover Story: Hip-hop’s underground avengers

As Atlanta’s mainstream urban music industry keeps rolling out the hits, an independent community rooted in hip-hop culture grows

The neighbors don’t know shit about the B-boy next door.

Sure, the folks living in this hilly, north Cobb subdivision might be able to hum the chorus to “Ms. Jackson,” the megahit off OutKast’s multiplatinum Stankonia album. Maybe their kids could pick out hip-hop impresario Jermaine Dupri from a lineup of P. Diddys and Master P’s. And they might have a faint notion that both OutKast and Dupri are residents of the area.

But there’s no way the split-level dwellers on the outskirts of Kennesaw have a clue about MF Doom, the masked super-villain of underground rap whose exploits have been celebrated everywhere from hip-hop bible The Source to New York’s bastion of music criticism, The Village Voice. This despite the fact that MF Doom has lived quietly among them since moving from New York three years ago. And Daniel Dumile, the 30-year-old husband and father behind Doom’s metal mask — and behind some of the more accomplished hip-hop made in recent years — would just as soon keep it a secret.

Sixty miles away, on the southern edge of metro Atlanta, it’s a similar story. Only two blocks off Newnan’s historic Southern-style town square, the Newnan Lofts offer the kind of hip in-town living that’s all the rage up the highway in Midtown Atlanta. But because of the location — nowhere near in-town — the Newnan Lofts are renting huge, open spaces with 30-foot ceilings for prices that’d be considered a steal in Midtown. That’s how Bigg Jus, alumnus of revered New York avant-garde hip-hop group Company Flow, ended up there.

Having folks like Bigg Jus and MF Doom in town is notable — just as it’s significant that world-respected turntablists and independent acts with rising national profiles call Atlanta home. It’s an indication that, regardless of how much the departure of LaFace, L.A. Reid’s commercial powerhouse of a label, might have diminished Atlanta’s urban-music sales potential, the city’s stature as home to hip-hop’s independent vanguard has never been higher.

Of course, Bigg Jus is no L.A. Reid — though in some circles his name carries as much weight. But like Reid, he’s a producer/writer turned record company owner. Last year, not long after Reid shut down LaFace and moved to New York to head Arista Records, Bigg Jus left New York — home base to Sub Verse, the indie label he co-owns — and came south to live and record his solo debut.

Jus’ arrival in Atlanta wasn’t reported, much less lavished with the attention Reid’s departure received. And there’s no chance his presence will have the commercial impact Reid’s had. That’s because, while Reid and Jus are both heavily involved in creating hip-hop, their worlds couldn’t be further apart. Reid is a businessman who sells music. Jus is a B-boy, part of an army of true believers who see hip-hop foremost as a culture to be lived, rather than a product to be commodified and mass-marketed.

Bigg Jus’ Sub Verse label sells only a tiny fraction of what LaFace records routinely earn. And while, like LaFace, Sub Verse’s roster is loaded with Atlanta-based acts — including Micranots (who’ve since left town), Scienz of Life and the Hemisphere, as well as MF Doom and Jus himself — chances are good you wouldn’t recognize any of them on the street.

“They’re not attracted to Atlanta because of the music scene, but because of the logistics,” says hip-hop icon Chuck D of the city’s largely transplanted underground scene. “There’s better weather. Better cost of living than up north. Just more opportunities to do different things.”

Those things brought Chuck, leader of the seminal rap group Public Enemy, down to Atlanta 11 years ago. They also attracted other hip-hop artists of his generation, including Eric Sermon, Red Alert, Phife (of A Tribe Called Quest) and Beastie Boys’ DJ Hurricane, along with older black-music stars like Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield.

“It’s funny that all of these artists live in Atlanta now,” says Fiona Bloom, one of Jus’ partners at Sub Verse. Bloom lived in Atlanta in the early ’90s and hosted a hip-hop-oriented radio show on WRFG, but later moved to New York to work in the record industry. “It’s prosperous, very rich, and a lot of people consider New York played out, and Atlanta is still so newly tapped as far as this type of underground scene.”

No doubt some aspiring hip-hop acts have come to Atlanta in hopes of getting discovered by the likes of Jermaine Dupri, Dallas Austin or She’kspere. But just as many make music that’s incompatible with the commercial requirements of Atlanta’s hit makers. Those artists have ended up carving out their own scene, which is gaining national attention not only through Sub Verse but also through other outlets. MassInfluence recently released a single on San Francisco’s Om Records. Then there’s U.S. turntablist champion DJ Klever and fellow beat-jugglers Faust and Shortee, the popular Lyricist Lounge compilations — which featured locals the Hemisphere on a recent disc — and El Pus, which is set to record its major-label debut on Arista Records. Meanwhile, the national distribution for Elemental, an Atlanta-based underground hip-hop magazine, has skyrocketed in recent years.

As much as anyone, Philadelphia native Andre Lett finds himself at the center of Atlanta’s rising independent hip-hop scene. As D.R.E.S. tha Beatnik, he performs as a human beat box and also hosts local hip-hop shows promoted by his 4 Kings Entertainment company. Recently, he gained out-of-town exposure touring Europe with popular hip-hop band the Roots.

“Unfortunately for us as underground hip-hop artists in Atlanta, we have to work twice as hard because the city isn’t known for underground hip-hop,” he says. “When you think Atlanta, you think LaFace, So So Def, the more mainstream commercial stuff.”

Adds Chuck D, “The underground happens to be more rooted into the creative aspect of the art form. The other music is dependent on 12-year-olds requesting what’s on the radio.”

The flipside is that some perceive underground hip-hop as elitist and inaccessible. “They’re saying stuff that’s relevant,” says Wayne Briggs, a longtime promoter and manager of local hip-hop acts. “But a lot of the time, the concepts of the underground are so abstract and esoteric.”

Sometimes, though, defining what constitutes the underground is less a matter of aesthetics than of who you know. The Dungeon Family crew, for instance, is a collective of local rappers and producers — including OutKast, Goodie Mob and Organized Noize — who’ve earned critical praise while operating within the commercial hip-hop industry. Their music is not necessarily at odds with the styles coming out of the underground, but because the Dungeon Family consists almost exclusively of southwest Atlanta natives, they rarely come into contact with the transplants who populate the clubs of Midtown.

“There’s a very strong boy’s club network,” Bloom says. “OutKast being there forever, they had their peeps, and when they get put on, they put their boys on. Whereas somebody that just comes into the picture and develops there, but not from the get-go, they’re a little out of place because they don’t have their peeps. Or their peeps are in the same position as they are — broke and starving.”

Perhaps because of the success Atlantans have had in mainstream hip-hop, the city’s development as a hotbed for underground talent is relatively late in coming. Given Atlanta’s large multi-racial middle class and the high number of black college students in Atlanta — groups that tend to support more challenging strains of hip-hop and have the means to find it — it would otherwise seem unlikely that a thriving independent scene would take so long to develop.

Briggs attributes the city’s late-blooming underground to a lack of connections with the cultural centers of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. He also suggests the city suffers from an inferiority complex. “It’s interesting how the Atlanta market doesn’t really embrace their local artists,” he says.

In those other cities, independent hip-hop as we know it today began to materialize as early as 1994. That was the point major-label control over the music solidified and the flavors of Dr. Dre and Puff Daddy came to define what commercial rap sounded like. And that, in turn, created the need for an alternative.

Of course, hip-hop began as an underground phenomenon in the early ’80s, and the initial artists were all independent. But through hip-hop’s first decade, there were no great aesthetic divisions that separated commercially viable rap music from the stuff that didn’t take hold in the mainstream. As hip-hop’s first generation of artists explored the possibilities of the new genre, being different hadn’t yet disqualified anyone from making a mark on the mainstream. You had the pop-friendly rap of MC Hammer, the militant barrage of Public Enemy, the bratty Caucasian rhymes of the Beastie Boys and the gangsta assault of N.W.A., all enjoying platinum sales in the late ’80s.

But by the early 1990s, groups trying to impart social messages or further hip-hop as an art form were meeting with diminishing returns. And soon, acts that didn’t conform to a preconceived notion of what the consumer wanted to hear (party music, vicarious depictions of violence, simple adaptations of already-proven pop hits) had trouble finding an outlet through a major label. So they were forced to go it alone as independent artists. Groups like the Hieroglyphics and the Coup in the Bay Area, Freestyle Fellowship in L.A. and Company Flow in New York defined what, for the first time, was a truly underground hip-hop style.

Atlanta hip-hop also turned to independent labels and distribution, though more for reasons of regionalism than artistic control. Because bass music, the dominant hip-hop flavor in Atlanta during the early ’90s, had only limited appeal outside the South, homegrown labels kept the music available locally. The underground hip-hop being forged around the country, however, was a style that, then as now, walks the line between a dedication to original B-boy values and a desire to push the art form ahead. That’s the stuff that’s now gaining a critical mass in Atlanta.

If Bigg Jus is particularly emblematic of the B-boy lifer who makes up the hip-hop underground, that’s because — perhaps more than anyone — hip-hop raised him and then saved his life. Listening to him tell his story, it’s hard to imagine the soft-spoken 31-year-old lived the life he describes.

Jus’ skin and features suggest African and Asian descent, though he has no idea where he comes from. An orphan since infancy, he spent his first years in foster homes before he was adopted by a couple who promptly divorced amid domestic abuse and alcoholism. By the time he turned 12, Jus was spending as much time living on the streets of Queens, N.Y., or crashing with friends, as he was at home with his adopted mother. Hip-hop was in its infancy, and on the streets Jus found a culture that embraced him. Hooking up with the TNS graffiti crew, Jus took the name Lune TNS as his signature.

“During those years, the graf movement was killing it, so I spent mad years in the tunnels,” he says. “I lived on trains, wherever I could sleep.”

To avoid reform school, his mother arranged for him to attend high school in Gainesville, Ga., at Riverside Military Academy. “It was like prison, basically,” Jus recalls. “I was the only kid who wasn’t allowed off the campus.”

Three years later, Jus left with an education and returned to New York “right at the heart of the crack epidemic,” he says. Though he’d learned enough from the sad cases on the streets to avoid becoming a drug user, dealing was too hard to resist. So was the pastime of car theft, which became another major source of income — and transportation — for Jus.

By then, the graffiti subculture was winding down, and Jus used a portion of his illegal proceeds to explore the world of music production. “I consider myself a B-boy from writing graffiti as a true tenet of the culture,” he says. “I’ve always been in the culture to the highest degree, but I never fucking MC’ed. MCs were the kids in the neighborhood who talked mad shit, it wasn’t me. I totally didn’t have that type of personality. Right up until ‘91, there was enough hip-hop to keep me going. I had all the BDPs and Brand Nubians, good quality hip-hop. And then it started to slip, when a lot of the gangsta stuff came up. I was like, ‘This is too far away from where the movement should be,’ and that’s when I started out MCing.”

In 1992, Jus met El-P, a white rapper who was already producing tracks and recording under the name Company Flow. Jus became El-P’s roommate, then after a year away in St. Louis (where Jus’ wife and son still live), he returned to New York to record “8 Steps to Perfection,” his debut as a member of Company Flow. Hip-hop DJ Bobbito Garcia embraced the single and played it on his popular New York radio show, which led to the recording of Company Flow’s debut EP, 1994’s Funcrusher. At a time when Wu-Tang Clan and Notorious B.I.G. were dominating New York’s hip-hop landscape, Company Flow charted its own course with ultra-dense verbiage, cutting-edge sounds and an old-school independent ethic.

In 1997, Rawkus Records cobbled together Company Flow’s scattered recordings to create the group’s only full-length album, Funcrusher Plus. “Between me and El-P, it was like, ‘Let’s give the industry a big middle finger.’ Thing is, the record blew up. So we were touring for two-and-a-half years with the same songs. Then we were at a point where I couldn’t see where to go with the group. We started to get all sorts of direction, people started shaping us up to be the next Beastie Boys. I was kind of disheartened, because I thought the statement would be made that this is a unification of the cultures and races, but then it got perceived as a white group.”

Company Flow’s final show came in March of this year, though the group had been over quite awhile at that point. Their audience never rose above a feverish, mostly New York-based cult following, but the finale was deemed significant enough to warrant a review amongst the mainstream music coverage in Rolling Stone.

By then, Jus was deep into Sub Verse and already had set up shop in Newnan. Having been through Atlanta many times, on tour and to visit friends, he had decided on the city as a good place to get away from New York. Along with his friends and fellow Sub Verse artists Scienz of Life, who’ve since resettled in the Stone Mountain/Lithonia area, Jus moved down here last year.

“I just wanted to have some place inexpensive, with a good quality of living and away from people,” Jus says, as he sits surrounded by gear in his Newnan Lofts space. Jus chose Newnan because he couldn’t afford anything in Atlanta proper that was large enough to house the entire crew and its studio equipment. “I kind of like being this far out,” he says.

Black Mamba Serums, the full-length product of Bigg Jus’ Newnan isolation, is still a work in progress and isn’t due until next year. But this week, Sub Verse releases the 13-track maxi-single “Plantation Rhymes,” which serves as Jus’ de facto solo debut. Both works sound at times like the hip-hop equivalent to free jazz, with irregular rhythms, disjointed musical passages and stream-of-consciousness poetry that’s not strictly metered. And lyrics like, “Procrastination, poor public education, national strategic defensive/Lobbyists for special interests, legislative oversight, smoke and mirrors, famine, arrogance, control deception” are not your typical bling-bling fare.

“Hip-hop overall was a big influence,” says Jus. “I’ve seen it from the parks on up. I come from the school of ‘you don’t bite nobody’s shit.’”

On his porch in a backyard strewn with fallen leaves and children’s toys, Daniel Dumile slips on his mask, flashes his gold teeth, unsheathes a knife and assumes the sinister pose of MF Doom for a photographer hovering nearby. Just as the make-believe gets rolling, he’s caught mid-pose by his 9-year-old son, who emerges from behind the sliding-door blinds.

A lanky, gentle boy in tight dreadlocks, the kid politely offers his hand in greeting. “How was school — good?” his father asks. The boy nods and asks if he can go to the store with a friend. As the son heads back into the house to prepare for shopping, Doom slips his metal mask back on and re-establishes his character.

The question arises: Does Doom’s son tell his classmates that his dad is a rapper? “God forbid,” Dumile says quickly. “I’m not a rapper; I don’t want to have nothing to do with rap. Rap has a certain stigma to it. People assume you’re a certain way if you’re into hip-hop or you’re a rapper. I’m here to really change a lot of that — that’s one reason for the mask. But until I change it, I’m not a rapper. I’m a musician or engineer.”

Though he may deny certain titles, there’s no hiding that Doom still very much lives and breathes B-boy. He grew up in and around New York City at the time of hip-hop’s birth, and with his brother, Subroc, formed the crew KMD while in his teens. They would breakdance, would write graffiti and, once they scrounged enough money for equipment, started to DJ and MC as well. It didn’t matter, though, as long as it was hip-hop. “All of us B-boys have hip-hop in us — we all project it,” says Doom, his oversized T-shirt revealing a slight paunch.

In the late ’80s, Doom — who went by his graffiti name Zev Love X at the time — hooked up with 3rd Bass and appeared on the group’s 1989 cult hit, “The Gas Face.” By then, KMD had evolved into a full-fledged rap group and signed with Elektra Records.

Their 1991 debut, Mr. Hood, was a lively slice of Afrocentric/Muslim-oriented hip-hop, similar to the sounds being produced by label mates Brand Nubian. It did well enough that the label paid for the recording of a follow-up, Black Bastards. In 1992, however, Elektra’s parent company, Time Warner, was embroiled in the protest over Ice-T’s “Cop Killer.” They had no interest putting out an album with a name like Black Bastards, whose cover art depicted a Sambo character dangling from a noose in a hangman game. Elektra dropped KMD in 1993 without releasing the album, and the legend of what came to be known as one of hip-hop’s great lost records was born.

Meanwhile, more calamitous events had befallen KMD. Just weeks before the completion of Black Bastards, Subroc was killed in a car accident. With the loss of his brother and musical partner, and unable to find a new label to release their record, Zev Love X disappeared from sight. “For some reason, motherfuckers didn’t want to fuck with us after that,” he says today, puffing on a blunt in his studio. “Like we got blackballed out the game or something.”

Dumile is vague about exactly where he was between 1993 and 1998. He mentions being flat broke and homeless at times; he says he never had a day job during that period. Stories place him on a religious retreat or fighting a charge that carried a sentence of 25 years to life, but he won’t talk about it on the record. In place of facts, he offers a creation myth that echoes the tale of Dr. Doom, the Marvel comics character with whom he also shares a nickname and disguise.

Having been badly damaged from a sabotaged experiment with the record industry, the story goes, the rapper went missing in action while recovering from his wounds. But he swore revenge against the music biz that had so badly deformed him. Thus, when Dumile began appearing again at open-mics around New York in 1998, and on record the following year, it was as the masked MF Doom.

“Everyone looks the same; everyone’s talking about the same thing. I’m coming with a totally different thing,” Dumile says of the costume. “I’m bringing that back to hip-hop, showing that everybody don’t gotta keep following everybody else. The shit is retarded.”

Doom’s debut solo release, Operation: Doomsday, saw a very limited release on Fondle ‘Em Records, the ultra-underground vinyl-only label run by Bobbito Garcia. With its liberal use of recognizable samples and sing-song flow, Doomsday in some ways harks back to the era from which KMD emerged. But free from the input of record execs and outside producers, Doom’s latest concoction is much less polished and far weirder than anything to be found on a major label, then or now.

By the time of Doom’s return to hip-hop, Dumile had relocated with his son and new wife to the Atlanta suburbs. “The vibe down here is bananas,” he says. “It’s different from New York. Atlanta — Georgia in general — is good for raising children.”

One night out at a club in Atlanta, Doom ran into Bigg Jus, who Doom had known through his friendship with Company Flow’s DJ, Mr. Len. Neither of them had any idea the other had recently moved to town. Jus offered to release Operation: Doomsday on CD through Sub Verse, which would provide much wider distribution to a record few had yet heard. He also offered to finally give KMD’s Black Bastards an official release. Both arrived in May of this year to relatively significant fanfare, marking the start of Doom’s full-scale assault on the industry that nearly ruined him.

“Hip-hop seemed to have lost the camaraderie amongst the artists,” he says. “Me and Jus get along through business. We look out for each other — just on the fact that we’re both B-boys and we’re still in it.”