Two groups take on hip-hop's bad rap

Dilated Peoples and Little Brother join forces for a tour of 'Positive Hip-Hop.'

Don't expect to see scantily clad dancing girls on stage when Dilated Peoples and Little Brother join forces for a US tour this week. The two hip-hop groups don't flaunt ostentatious displays of "bling," nor do they wear bulletproof vests in photo shoots - as some rap stars have been known to do.

The two up-and-coming rap acts are exponents of what some are calling Positive or Conscious Hip-Hop. Little Brother, a trio from North Carolina, don't shy away from lyrics that warrant parental-advisory stickers, but their latest CD, "The Minstrel Show," is a concept album that critiques the violence, misogyny, and materialism in much of hip-hop culture. "20/20," the new record from Dilated Peoples, features the Californian trio's characteristic sociopolitical observations rather than the preening and sneering of gangsta rap.

"I feel with Little Brother and us, it's the same thing," says rapper Rakaa, a member of the West Coast outfit. "We are positive groups; we try not to bring negativity to the world, and ultimately appreciate the art of music."

Both groups have something else in common: They each received a boost from Kanye West, the star producer and rapper whose argyle sweaters are as famous as his quotable outbursts of braggadocio. Dilated Peoples toiled on the underground scene in Los Angeles since the mid-1990s but surfaced to mainstream consciousness in 2004 with the hit "This Way," featuring West as an emcee and producer. West's midas touch has also enriched Little Brother's past work.

West, who has made headlines for condemning homophobic rap lyrics as well as for his single "Diamonds from Sierra Leone," a song about the gems that have financed a civil war in West Africa, has proven that it's possible for a rap artist to sell records without toting a gun. Little Brother and Dilated Peoples agree that the violence and machismo of gangsta rap has gone too far.

"It is one thing when bad behavior is being talked, but it is a whole other issue when bad behavior is being rewarded," fumes Little Brother's Phonte Coleman. "Cats are going around talking about shooting or killing people - it's not a joke," adds Rakaa.

In the past, hip-hop's violent lyrics have often overshadowed the more thoughtful and observational work of artists such as Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and The Roots. Those groups have often struggled to sell records while others who have bragged about their criminal past have gone on to buy mansions in the suburbs. Many hip-hop artists posture to their audiences by talking up their street credibility - and that bothers Little Brother and Dilated Peoples.

"I will not rhyme about something I did not really do," says Little Brother's Big Pooh. Rakaa chimes in that it's crucial to remain honest with an audience. "If you start disrespecting your base [then] anything you build on it would collapse, crumble, and fall," he says.

"We stay away from the mainstream stereotypes of selling drugs," concludes Big Pooh. "We have songs that people can relate to because [they're] real-life stories."

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