Album titles rarely mean much in hip hop but “Directors of Photography” is precisely the role Dilated Peoples would play if a movie was made on hip hop in its purest form. DJ Babu, Evidence and Rakaa Iriscience moved from the dusty 90s New York sound in to the 2000s with a refined, cleaner image more suitable for the HD-era. That they hailed from the West Coast is irrelevant when you consider the number of California artists carving out a distinct sound that wasn’t reliant on g-funk or hardcore gangsta stylings. Planet Asia, Defari, Phil the Agony, Rasco, Jurassic 5 and even Xzibit were tearing it up atop beats you’d expect to hear from the Big Apple, yet never sounded out of place. They effectively carved out their own niche that felt a bit more light-hearted without sacrificing any integrity, and the authentic sounds of two groups in particular saw some mainstream success – Jurassic 5 and Dilated Peoples.
The latter’s debut (“The Platform”) was arguably their best album, full of energetic scratching from Babu and strong production from the young Step Brothers – Evidence and Alchemist. It wasn’t until 2001’s “Expansion Team” landed that many (including myself) were aware of this crew that filled their albums with blockbuster production values and philosophical rhymes. Evidence and Rakaa have become two of the most reliable, yet equally underrated emcees still tearing up the microphone on a regular basis, and can often be overlooked on Dilated albums due to the calibre of the producers they collaborate with. Even Evidence himself is now up there with his compadre The Alchemist and DJ Premier in terms of consistently dope discographies for beats. Yet they both rarely drop a weak line. Evidence has clearly blossomed from going solo for a few albums, but I’m glad to hear Rakaa hasn’t dropped the ball on this first Dilated album in eight years. EIGHT YEARS. Not even Guru and Premier made us wait that long between Gang Starr albums.
“Directors of Photography” is a different animal to their previous albums. Their first two records (ignoring the unreleased “Imagery, Battle Hymns and Political Poetry” from 1995) are highly regarded amongst hip hop heads, combining underground sentimentality and stellar production. 2004’s “Neighborhood Watch” was their biggest stab at success, yet looking back ten years later you can tell it is their one record that underwhelms. “20/20” was a return to form but drew on Evidence’s Alchemist-like sound and included the brain-destroying “Alarm Clock Music” which actually tried to make an alarm clock sound hip hop. Evidence is listed as a producer on six of the sixteen tracks (there are two bonus MP3 tracks too, see below) and this automatically marks this out as a better album than “20/20”. That album had some cracking beats but was largely a taster of the Evidence album “The Weatherman LP”, particularly with its chopped vocals and hench kicks. “Directors of Photography” is certainly more of a Dilated Peoples album, harking back to their origins with the barebone gem “Opinions May Vary” (produced by DJ Babu) possessing an old school quality that may well split opinion, but ends up as this reviewer’s favourite track. A plodding instrumental backs up the rhymes but explodes in to life thanks to Babu’s intense stabs of vinyl on the platter. It also throws the spotlight on to Evidence and Rakaa more than any other track, showcasing just how much they have grown lyrically:
“Existentialist in my temple
I shook the world with Etch-a-Sketch force, then sketched a masterpiece with a pencil
That’s how lead fires
Ink that black, crispy outlines, UFO, ancient aliens, is how their head flies
With my red eyes, heavy squinting just to let light in
Learn the handshake, step right in
ATF, DEA wanna check my pen
It can stick a fiend’s heart and jumpstart adrenaline
At minimum it’s a spark, backyard like a national park
Animal sightings, heavy lighting but the flashes are dark
Everyone’s an expert until the classes start
Ask them who the best is then watch the clashes start”
Evidence brings some humor and references Nas:
“Are you number one? Depends who you asking
Who, who, who? That’s for owls in the Aspens
Why do rappers rap in past tense? It’s veteran
They think De La Soul and David Letterman
That wasn’t fact checked but I go off
Got a fat check, where’s deep end? And dove off
Weekends were down by the beaches blurred
They come and go, but you could never put a leash on a bird
You never know if you never go out of the zone where you comfortable
Where you come from?
I sing the role of the unsung out the dungeons of rap
Where cats don’t make it back”
While Dilated utilised Babu’s DMC-level turntablism techniques to define their earlier work, this reunion combines the best of Evidence and Alchemist with heavy hitters such as Oh No, 9th Wonder and Jake One. You can’t really call this a more mature record, because Dilated Peoples have never really felt immature, but it’s clearly a darker, more focussed effort than “20/20.” It lacks the airy vocal-samples that Evidence uses to drive his production. Thankfully Babu does leave his fingerprints on most songs on “Directors of Photography”, stealing the show on “Directors”, lending the minimal loop an extra dimension and the album a promising start. The lead single “Good As Gone” will overshadow the album on a first listen, simply because it’s a DJ Premier track that boasts a killer beat and is one of the pacier BPMs to be found on what is largely a sombre record. Aloe Blacc drops by on “Show Me The Way” to kill a hook without taking anything away from the ridiculous Jake One beat. It’s on some Self Scientific-era DJ Khalil level of fist-pump that is one of the few times that sees the record sound remotely West Coast. Another gem comes courtesy of possibly the oldest contributor; “Let Your Thoughts Fly Away” has Diamond D lacing a back-and-forth session between the Dilated trio that showcases every member at their best. It’s not as structured as some other songs on the album, but most importantly, it feels like a track that made “The Platform” or “Expansion Team” so memorable.
Both Rakaa and Ev are better lyricists in 2014 than they were in 2000, so the more laid-back, plodding beats suit the message being delivered. I used the word ‘philosophical’ earlier on in this review and while neither emcee is going to be delivering Plato-level head-scratchers you’ll want to get tattooed on your neck, they are often found sharing one-liners or phrases you’ll nod your head in agreement to. They may not even be their own material, but there’s plenty of lines you may well want to get inked with, one being Evidence on “Good As Gone” as he refers to his hectic touring schedule:
“The more that I roam the more that I’m free
The more I’m in Rome the more that I’m me”
My one gripe with this album is that the MP3 version comes with more songs than the physical CD. I get that we pay more for the physical because it has artwork and is a tangible product, but getting less music seems like a slap in the face to those of us that still prefer the CD. Thankfully, the two tracks that are excluded aren’t life-changing enough to get a refund for. “Times Squared” is a typically sturdy Dilated Peoples track, but sounds like one of their older tracks and I can see why it wasn’t included in the main tracklisting. The other track is a posse cut that features Action Bronson, Vinnie Paz, Fashawn, Rapsody and Domo Genesis. “Hallelujah” sees the seven emcees trading verses, but is largely unremarkable minus Rapsody’s song-stealing 16. It’s well worth parting some cash with just to hear her destroy some well-regarded emcees by just being herself.
Time will tell where this ranks in the Dilated Peoples’ discography, that now houses Evidence albums, Rakaa’s overlooked “Crown of Thorns” and DJ Babu’s brilliant “Duck Season” trilogy. Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter because the trio from L.A. have delivered another excellent album that will remain in your deck for years to come. After a few weeks enjoying the music, the rhymes will reveal themselves, the scratches will be etched in to your mind and you’ll be thankful that a group is making that much vaunted “traditional hip hop” in 2014 without sounding nostalgic or past it.