Contradictions seem to thrive in past and present Bay Area music scenes. It’s a place where E-40’s slick lexicon mixes with the “soul” stylings of Goapele; where crooner Raphael Saadiq drops hooks for rapper Richie Rich; where Quannum crew member Lyrics Born collaborates with Casual of the Hieroglyphics. All co-exist and work together — not necessarily perfectly — within this hybrid and eclectic cultural space. Unfortunately, the mass media’s understanding of West Coast rap is often dominated by Los Angeles “gangsta” hegemony — a major rap-focused publication recently dismissed the Bay Area scene as nothing more than E-40 and slang dictionaries. On its debut, Now You Know, the Frontline attempts to refocus the lens of industry bias on West Coast rap by re-centering it on the social and cultural relevance of “hyphy” (a mixture of hype and fly) sonic culture and the ghetto-scapes of the “New Bay” rap renaissance.
The concept of “New Bay” as a place of prestige re-emerged with the changing musical aesthetics of area’s sound. The novelty of the Federation’s 2003 Bay Area anthem, “Hyphy” (the song that brought that term national attention), a sort of up-tempo “crunk” with a perhaps more heightened dance-floor urgency, marked an updating of the sounds of older Bay Area legends including Richie Rich, Too Short and Ray Luv — typified by the slow rollin’, bass-heavy gangsta-fied mobbin’ music. The Frontline, consisting of Locksmith, runner up on the MTV Rap Battle, and producer/emcee Left, is spearheading the “New Bay” revival, which aims to show that “crunk” ain’t the only style around.
The party-friendly vibe is seen on heaters such as the siren synth, boomin’ kicks and handclaps of E-A-Ski- and CMT-produced “What is it,” “Uh huh” and “Bang It!,” a chaotic-ness having the fight-starting fury reminiscent of Lil’ Jon. It features the Frontline effortlessly clappin’ back verbally at haters and studio thugs with their battle and mix-show tested raps and braggadocio. It’s easy to lump their sound as “gangsta.” These stereotypes, however, hardly explain who they truly are.
The ghetto-centricity of their “reality raps” reflects a thoughtfulness on the geographic sensibilities of their hometown if Richmond, just north of Oakland: memories of crack cocaine, hyper police state, violence, disinvestments in urban areas and desperate choices in order to survive. Their commanding and aggressive deliveries over what are at times repetitive and cinematic rock-induced beats seem to equally match the pain of urban neglect they to describe. In the intro, Left makes clear this isn’t on some celebratory masculinity or nihilism, but rather to “explain the train of thought of niggas caught up.”
In the hometown anthem “The Rich,” Lock diagnoses the problems such as the simultaneous loss of jobs with the rise of crack economy, whereas Left notes the subsequent cycles of abuse as they “watch good mothers turn to crack mamas/ watch beauty queens turn into dope fiends.” Similar stories are told on “I know” (featuring Fallon), where they critique trickle-down economics and question the definitions of “morality” with the comparison “Burger King hourly five seventy five, strippin’ at Naughty Girl five hundred a night.” There ain’t no talk about gangsta boogies here.
Lately, some rappers have spit heated polemics about contradictions of urban poverty and the spending habits of the war, with Jadakiss leading a protest in his video for “Why” a la Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” But the Frontline’s action seems strangely innocuous. Rather than direct protest music or soapbox preaching, their mere sonic presence suggests a survival of the Reaganomics era they describe and music industry apathy to their regional sound. This resistance to these similar forms of social marginality, however, reminds us not to call this a comeback, ’cause the Bay has never left.