Dilated Peoples - Neighborhood Watch

2006-03-29 21:14

Springing from LA's thriving underground hip-hop scene, Dilated Peoples were born of the same fertile ground that spawned artists like The Black Eyed Peas and Jurassic 5. While MCs Evidence and Rakaa had been collaborating since the early '90s - it was only when DJ Babu joined the line-up that Dilated Peoples solidified into the formidable hip-hop outfit they are today.

Despite the fact that "Neighborhood Watch" is their third commercial release, the "Peoples" remain deeply connected to their "street" origins. On virtually every track the rap is front and centre, never allowing the backing "hooks" to overwhelm the rhymes. Even the hooks themselves are, as a rule, generated by the vinyl cuts and scratch of their gifted turntablist DJ Babu, and not by programmable drum kits and pre-recorded samples.

Compared to the super-slick sound of most of today's commercial hip-hop, Dilated People's brand of purism seems almost old fashioned, taking it's cues from the freestyle competitions and battles of the old South Central neighbourhoods, and not the well-heeled production studios of uptown LA. But for all their rough edges the Peoples have a raw intensity and energy that few of the big marquee groups can match.

Another thing that sets this group apart is their lyrical content. Rather than glorying in the easy cliches of gang-banging, beefs, "hoes" and crack, Dilated Peoples mostly rap about things that really matter to them, and not what they think audiences want to hear. Like their more light-hearted compatriots, the Black Eyed Peas, Dilated Peoples are a crew with a conscience.

The sincerity of their political beliefs comes through strongly, if a little clumsily, in tracks like "Big Business". But it's when they rhyme about their home that "Dilated" really come into their own. The deeply mistrustful and territorial nature of tracks like "Neighborhood Watch" and "Love and War" can come across as irrationally defensive - until you realise that all this chest puffing is a façade that hides a heartfelt love for their roots and for the "crew" that they grew up with. It's hard not to be touched when you realise these big tough rappers have such a soft spot for their old 'hood.

Not that they are immune trash talking - there's still plenty of bravado and a good deal of naked aggression in their angrier tracks. "Poisonous" in particular verges on misogyny , however accurate its portrayal of gold-digging fans may be. They make no effort to hide their large egos, or the intense ambition that drives them on. But all this only serves to underscore the unvarnished honesty that is one of their greatest strengths.

Politics and deep insights aside, Dilated Peoples definitely know how to produce a catchy track. The funky two-step bounce of "Love and War" and "World on Wheels" make them great dancefloor fillers. The diamond edged "Caffeine" positively growls with menace, giving Evidence a chance to show off his well honed solo skills. The pimped up swagger of the album's title track uses Ragga's west-side drawl to great effect, making it on of the stickiest cuts on the album. Finally "This Way" serves up a piping hot slice of gorgeous Motown funk from Chicago's wunderkind producer, Kanye West.

There are also some weaker tracks like "Who's Who" and "Big Business" in which the elements don't gel as well as they should, and the hooks seem to compete with or undermine the lyrics rather than complement them. But even in these tracks the crew are utterly professional and focussed. You could never accuse "Dilated Peoples" of sloppy work.

Is it worth buying? For hip-hop fans, both devoted and casual, absolutely. But this is not a good introduction to hip-hop. The album lacks the easy accessibility of mainstream groups like the Black Eyed Peas and its particular west-coast flavour, like an unusual wine, requires some context before it can be enjoyed properly. But as unusual as it may be, you will struggle to find a more genuine representation of the next wave of West coast hip-hop.

- Alistair Fairweather

Hear it:
Listen to select tracks - click the track names on the left to launch the player

Hip-hop purists Dilated Peoples have an urgency and an honesty that makes most commercial rap look silly and shallow. Like their once also "underground" compatriots, The Black Eyed Peas, they manage to combine social conscience with great music.

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