In the music business, there are two types of legacy artists: nostalgia acts who perhaps made some memorable songs at a particular moment in time, and timeless acts, who not only made classic songs which helped to define an era, but continue to make quality new music up to the present day. Quannum MCs are the latter kind.
Gift of Gab, Lateef the Truthspeaker, and Lyrics Born have been musical collaborators for more than 25 years; their journey has taken them from the music listening rooms of UC Davis’ radio station to concert stages around the world. But though they frequently appear on each other’s records, and have formed in multiple configurations—including Blackalicious, Latyrx, Lyrics Born and Gift of Gab solo albums, and The Maroons (Lateef and Blackalicious producer/DJ Chief XL)—they’ve only done a handful of concert appearances as Quannum MCs, which makes their December 28 date at the historic Fiillmore a very special evening.
The significance of a Quannum MCs show, says Gift of Gab, “is the three original MCs of Quannum Projects and the chemistry we have. Between the three of us, there’s definitely a synergy, and I think we have all played parts in making us be the MC’s we are today.”
Lateef adds, “We’re all very different MC’s, but we’re all kind of rooted in the same tradition.”
Lyrics Born chimes in next: “There’s a legacy there, a lot of albums, a lot of albums sold, a lot of styles, a lot of innovation. I think our legacies are intertwined.”
Along with their Quannum family members Xcel and DJ Shadow, the three rappers can make a strong argument for being independent-label trailblazers and pioneers of West Coast alternative hip-hop. As Lyrics Born says, “I don’t know if you can talk about independent hip hop and not talk about us. I mean that in a humble way.
Their history as a collective traces back to the late ‘80s, and their recorded history begins in 1991, when the first Solesides 12”, “Entropy/Send Them,” dropped. The single was soon followed by a Blackalicious single, “Swan Lake/Lyric Fathom,” and then by the duo’s Melodica EP in 1993. Lateef released a couple of singles himself, then teamed with Lyrics Born for the Latyrx album – a seminal release in the then-largely-undefined microgenre of experimental hip-hop. After much-lauded releases like Blackalicious’ Nia, Latyrx’ Muzapper’s Mixes EP, and Lyrics Born’s “Balcony Beach,” Solesides morphed into Quannum Projects, just in time for a group compilation, Spectrum. The hip-hop explosion of the 90s brought many like-minded artists to the scene, including fellow Bay Area legends Hieroglyphics, and LA’s Jurassic 5 and Dilated Peoples.
There are stories about opening a Gavin Convention hip-hop showcase which also featured Kool G. Rap, Black Moon, and Das Efx; touring with Public Enemy and De La Soul; and sitting in with Ozomatli at a small club performance, back when Chali 2na and Cut Chemist were still in the group. Shadow’s Mo Wax connections were leveraged into international touring and recording opportunities, and bigger labels signed both Lyrics Born and Blackalicious, while Lateef was the featured rapper on a top-charting single by Fatboy Slim.
“We’ve watched others rise and fall,” Lateef says. “And we’ve just tried to keep this steady uptick, continue to do what we do, continue to get better as artists. That’s been our philosophy.”
“Before we’re artists, we’re also fans,” Lyrics Born remarks. He recalls inspirations of his like Boogie Down Productions and Run-DMC, who approached rap music with an earnest dedication to the artform. “They took it really seriously… We’re blessed to be of that generation.” One of the collective’s goals, he says, was “to be able to emulate our heroes in that way.” Not touring, he adds, “was never part of the job description.”
None of the Quannumites can estimate an approximate number of shows they’ve done collectively, except that it’s in the thousands, or maybe tens of thousands. “Obviously, [there’s[ a work ethic to it,” explains Gift of Gab, “but I think combined with that, we’re just really passionate about our craft. We love what we do.”
Through all the rollercoaster movements of the music industry over the past decades, Quannum has remained their rock. “We always saw Quannum as a launching pad,” Lateef says, and to this day, they’ve maintained both a DIY aesthetic and a commitment to creating excellent music, which could explain their longevity. In the last three years alone, they’ve released Latyrx’ second album, Lyrics Born’s Real People, and Blackalicious’ Imani. If you watch sports on television, you may have also seen the Bleacher Report animated commercials which revised Blackalicious’ “Alphabet Aerobics” formula to emphasize sports metaphors. Newer projects, including Imani Vol. 2, are being prepared for release, and may even include a Quannum MC’s album.
Never content to stand on their laurels, raising the bar is a motto the Quannum MC’s continue to live by with each new studio project. “We’ve always been competitive artists,” Gift of Gab says. “That has kept us in a realm.”
He confesses that he won’t let anyone else hear a song “if I don’t feel a certain way about it. Especially with Blackalicious. We have this thing called ‘the goosebump theory,’ where if it doesn’t give off a certain feeling… I only say that to say, we strive to make high-quality music.”
The three MC’s have been around for so long, their audiences have become multigenerational. “Obviously, we’ve done something that new generations continue to discover and think that it’s dope,” Gift of Gab says, recalling a recent YouTube comment about a song he made years ago.
“We’ve hit this tipping point,” Lateef says; Fans who bought their music 20 years ago, now have kids who come to the shows. As a result, “We’ll have shows where the age range is literally 15 years old to 55, and everything in-between. Everybody’s rockin’, they know the songs.”
Xcel, who’s been listening to the entire conversation, points out that, back in the Solesides era, every artist in the collective had a simple goal to put out one 12-inch single. Obviously, the Quannum crew has exceeded that many times over. In the process, they’ve not only put themselves on a par with still-active peers like De La, J5, and Hiero, but provided a strong counter-narrative to the idea that hip-hop music is disposable.
Just to name one example, look at Latryx’ “Lady Don’t Tek No,” which shattered the stereotype of a brain-dead club anthem by name-dropping feminist icon Nikki Giovanni. As Lateef recalls, that song didn’t get hot until almost two years after its release, when DJs across the Bay Area and Pacific Northwest started bumping it – and kept bumping it. In fact, it still gets rotation to this day, 20+ years after its release, despite never a video for it until earlier this year. It all goes to show that, as Lateef says, “hip hop stereotypes are disposable. Real life is not.”