To us it’s nothing new; just some people we’re big fans of and we thought we could collaborate to achieve a new level with our sound.
I got into underground rap through my brother was all up in it. He used to furiously trade badly dubbed tapes of independent rap singles from around the country on the Internet. This was before indie rap was well-distributed, and way before MP3 culture; these tapes were practically the only way to hear what was hot and local across the country. I used to steal some of these tapes, and they blew my mind. I was really amazed that someone had hid this shit under the gangsta rap for so long.
A tape I literally wore out had Blacklicious’s debut EP, Melodica on one side, and selected Dilated Peoples tracks on the flip. Many years have passed and both groups have signed major-label contracts without those pesky creative control clauses, allowing them to keep it 100 percent real. I spoke with DJ Babu of Dilated, who just released their third album on Capitol, Neighborhood Watch.
How does Neighborhood Watch differ from the other two Dilated Peoples albums?
I think, as far as the group goes, the first two albums pretty much showed everyone we’re a rap group: we can make beats, we can scratch and all that. But I think on this one we’re really showing the world we can really craft songs and craft an entire album. I think the vision on this one is a lot more focused; the chemistry of the group is that much stronger and I think it reflects on the music.
The first singles off Neighborhood Watch feature artists like Kanye West and Devin the Dude, who definitely aren’t the same flavor as older Dilated work. Any other surprises coming up?
Those are the most surprising to anyone who’s been familiar with Dilated. There are other guest producers on there. We got a cat by the name Reef who did “Try to Breathe.” But really, Evidence and Rakaa, when they started this group, before I even came into the group, neither of them produced. They were very much from the school of going to producers and getting beat tapes and trying to achieve a sound by working with outside producers. If you look at all our albums, we’ve always gone out of our way to collaborate, whether it was with T-Ray or Primo or the Beatnuts…now with this album, it’s Devin and Kanye. To us it’s nothing new; just some people we’re big fans of and we thought we could collaborate to achieve a new level with our sound.
Which Dilated album is your favorite?
It’s hard to say right now. I’d like to see how I feel about Neighborhood Watch in a year or so, or two years; let it stand the test of time. But right now, I’m really into Neighborhood Watch; I think it’s our best work so far. Actually, we had this album done at the top of summer, so I became sick of it and stopped listening to it for the majority of last year. Now that the video’s coming out and the label’s all into it and everyone’s getting ready for the big push, it definitely rekindled my flame toward the album again. It’s exciting to have it finally hit the streets. I’m also fond of Expansion Team. Expansion Team was really nice for me because that was the first one where I really spread my wings as one of the internal producers for the group.
The group originally started as just the emcees. How did you get involved?
About the same time these guys started putting out independent 12 inches on ABB Records—this must have been ’96 or ’97—I was a manager at Fat Beats, a record store in L.A. I still remember Ev and Raaka literally bringing records from the Rainbow Pressing Plant over to the store to sell to me. At the same time, I was DJing on the radio, and I was really trying to do a lot to break their music; I was a big fan. When I moved to L.A., we all geographically started being in the same kind of circles. It started like, “Why don’t you come down to the studio and do some cuts?” “We got a show down at the Wilshire. Why don’t you come down? We’ll put a show together.” Before you knew it, I was flying all over the world, doing shows with them, getting courted by record labels, and the guys hit me up about making a full-time commitment. The rest is history.
I guess it’s turned out well?
Very much. When I think about it now, what really drew me to hip-hop as a youngster, was DJs and rap groups, whether it was EPMD or UTFO or Run DMC. That’s what it was about to me, and I’m really honored and proud to be Dilated’s DJ. It’s a dream job to me.
How do you feel about the position of the DJ in American culture?
I think it’s great, man, I think there’s a little bit of over-saturation. It was just the other day I turned on the TV and saw Tony the Tiger cuttin’ it up. It’s a double-edged sword. DJing’s definitely penetrated pop culture in more ways that a few, but I think the identity of the DJ is great. You see a lot of DJs who can go out there without having to be held up by a rap group or anything else; they can just go out and DJ themselves. You look at a DJ like Tony Touch or DJ Skribble or even in other genres, house and techno DJs—those guys are making hundreds of thousands off just being a DJ. I think the standard of being a DJ is great.
Does it ever bother you to think that, in some way, the idea of the DJ is being exploited?
As much as some purists will knock it—“Aww man, they’re playin shit out”—it’s a beautiful thing, it really is, to think that DJs have moved to this point where [they] can be self-sufficient and create careers and jobs out of this. It’s a beautiful thing. I understand, there’s always the hardcore cats like, “Fuck that shit, fuck Tony the Tiger scratching. Why’s Ronald McDonald got headphones and turntables?” But I think that’s what pop culture does: they take advantage and bastardize anything they can make a quick buck off of, so it’s inevitable. If you expect something to elevate, you’re going to see positive and negative ripples throughout the pond.
Dilated Peoples’ third album, Neighborhood Watch, is in stores now. If my brother reads this, he’s going to kill me.