This article is part of an ongoing series in which I examine the artists and music that defined specific eras of my life. You can read my previous installment on Outkast, covering the years 1997-2000.
By the year 2000, hip hop had fully infiltrated the furthest reaches of suburban America. Even my rural hometown in Kansas, for better or for worse. With the release of The Slim Shady LP in 1999, followed by The Marshall Mathers LP a year later, Eminem had become not only one of the biggest stars on the planet, but a celebrated figure in my own high school (and probably every other high school for that matter).
As someone who had spent the previous years immersing himself in hip hop culture, you might think I would be over the moon about this new found adoption from my classmates. Not at all. Not even a little.
There were certainly great byproducts of rap music stepping into the national limelight, not the least of which was the disruption of popular music tastes coming out of the 90s, which had been predominantly driven by white artists. Yes, Eminem dominated the airwaves, but new pockets of the country began blossoming their own sounds. The emergence of Nelly and the St. Lunatics as a voice for hip hop in the Midwest gave me particular delight, as did the arrival of a new wave of producers that begin shaping the sound of the new decade, namely the Neptunes and a new, then-unknown producer named Kanye West (more on him in a later installment).
Nevertheless, hip hop’s transition into the popular discussion sent me on a path to discover something new. Ironically, my discovery resembled something that was driven to pay homage to its past and was staunchly dedicated to its roots. Something underground.
In my late high school years, those early internet communities I had stumbled into began to grow and evolve. As rap made its way into top 40 radio, I became introduced to an entire portion of the genre that had been bubbling just beneath the surface all along. It was through MSN chats and online forums that I became introduced to names like Jurassic 5, The Pharcyde, Aesop Rock, Atmosphere, and more.
But the biggest revelation, and the one that sent me tumbling headlong into a new community defined by shell-toe Adidas sneakers and beat up backpacks, came in the form of L.A. Symphony, a hip hop collective born out of the burgeoning West Coast underground scene.
Sometime around 1999 or 2000 – I can’t pinpoint the specific date from my memory – a friend of mine wanted me to hear something. He was a subscriber of the long-defunct alt music mag 7ball, which came wrapped in plastic bimonthly with a mix CD of new artists. This particular installment contained the track “San Diego” from the group’s debut album, Composition No. 1. I was immediately obsessed.
Fortunately for me, it didn’t take long to find people online who felt the same. That debut sent ripples through the West Coast underground, attracting the attention of major labels who were hungry for new hip hop acts. Like many underground collectives of the era, L.A. Symphony was sizeable in number – anywhere from eight to nine members at any given time. The core of the group was composed of Flynn Adam Atkins, Joey the Jerk, The Eternals (Cookbook and Uno Mas), Halieyoos Fishermen (Sharlok Poems, JBeits, and Trendi MC), and Brainwash Projects (Pigeon John and bTwice).
It was the latter duo that performed “San Diego”, and to my luck, they had released their own album a year prior that I also purchased and began obsessing over (The Rise and Fall of Brainwash Projects). Each member or duo brought their own flavor and personality to the group, creating a long tail of interest. Over the coming years, as each released their own solo albums in addition to the group material, I would gobble them up, play them relentlessly, and display their CD jewel cases in a line across a shelf in my room.
Part of what made L.A. Symphony (and underground hip hop as a whole) so intriguing, aside from the unique sound, was its purpose. At the time, the terms “underground” and “socially conscious” were nearly interchangeable. As I began experiencing my own social and political awakening during my exit from high school into college, this music was speaking my language. As corny as it sounds, it was almost like having a whole other avenue for education in my life. And I consumed as much of it as time would allow.
Conscious hip hop at the time thematically ran the gamut from social, racial, and economic issues to more philosophical topics like faith and religion. Each artist or group would bring their own perspective to the table, creating a community that felt bonded by its desire to learn and grow together. L.A. Symphony added a unique element of humor and lightheartedness that set the group apart. They wanted you to think, but weren’t afraid to crack a joke in the next verse and make you laugh.
The music led me to want to know more about the people creating it. During these years, I would scour the web for any morsel of information I could find; mainly interviews that would shed more light on the thoughts, views, and motivations of the artists I loved. But when my own curiosity couldn’t be quelled, I found a new way to keep the conversation going.
During my final two years of high school, I was given the opportunity to host a show on a local radio station in my town (an hours-long weekend hip hop show that I somehow sold the owner of the station on). I also began pitching article ideas to various websites I frequented, and shockingly, was given compensation to write said articles.
I had no formal training in broadcasting or journalism, yet somehow, I was suddenly interviewing my favorite artists, asking them for answers to questions that I couldn’t find elsewhere. And they actually told me stuff. And people actually listened and read what I was saying. It’s the kind of rush that somehow still propels me to do the same all these years later.
L.A. Symphony was at the epicenter during this time. I can’t count from memory how many interviews I did with various members of the group during those years, but it was more than was likely necessary. For a fleeting moment, the group’s ship actually did arrive in the form of a record deal with Squint Entertainment, resulting in a 19-track album titled Call it What You Want, featuring production from likes of Prince Paul and will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas. Sadly, in one of the most well-worn stories of the era, Squint was acquired by Warner Music Group, which shelved the album prior to its release. Although leaks scattered across the internet, one of the most anticipated albums in underground hip hop history never saw the light of day.
L.A. Symphony re-grouped and independently released Baloney in 2002, an incredibly unsung record that ended up producing an unexpected hit when “King Kong” was featured on a Tony Hawk Pro Skater video game. While home from college in the summer of 2003, I interviewed Pigeon John by phone in anticipation of his sophomore solo album, Pigeon John is Dating Your Sister. Near the end of the conversation, I prodded for some updates about L.A. Symphony. After a couple of ambiguous answers, he finally caved. JBeits, bTwice, and himself had all left the group. L.A. Symphony as we had all known it was no more.
It was the first big story I ever got to break. It was also deflating and the moment that marked the beginning of my next musical transition. The core remaining members of the group carried on, releasing two more full-length albums on Gotee Records. In the summer of 2004, I caught a live performance in Tulsa, Oklahoma, before being invited out to dinner after the show with the group. The high school kid that had pestered them with interviews and broken news of their semi-breakup was now dining alongside them at a TGI Fridays in the middle of Oklahoma. Maybe not quite as exciting as William Miller’s journey in “Almost Famous”, but it still somehow felt stranger than fiction. I can’t think anything that could’ve brought this period of my life more full-circle.
By now, I was halfway into my college experience, full of new friends and, of course, new sounds. Hip hop remained a passion, but for the first time in my life, I felt fully accepted into a real life community of friends that wasn’t based solely on the web. And these friends listened to some cool music. By that summer of 2004, I was sporting a checkered backpack covered in patches of my new favorite pop punk bands: MxPx, Good Charlotte, Simple Plan, The Ataris.
I dove headfirst with my new friends down that new path of guitar-driven, angsty-lyric-filled music that had taken over Warped Tour and was about to break through on MTV. A sound that was about to literally be screamed from the rooftops by a passionate new influx of fans into “the scene.” And I was about to discover the band, my unquestionably favorite band, that would shape everything about the way I thought about and experienced music thereafter.
Second Tier: Clipse, MxPx, Deepspace5, St. Lunatics, Linkin Park
by Kiel Hauck
Kiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.