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The question is pretty straightforward, really. It's the answer that curves away from me.

I'm talking to Evidence -- a third of the L.A. hip-hop group Dilated Peoples -- about the state of the movement, the much-vaunted L.A. underground that flourished back in the early '90s with a barely-noticed-by-the-mainstream scene centered at South Central's Good Life Cafe and nurtured by the now-defunct KDAY-AM. That scene produced L.A. rap mainstays such as Freestyle Fellowship and Jurassic 5, and the question for Evidence is where's the scene now -- with both the Good Life and KDAY consigned to the history books, what's the status of L.A.'s underground, the one that'll produce tomorrow's Freestyle Fellowships, tomorrow's J5s -- tomorrow's Dilated Peoples?

Evidence's answer? "I don't think it exists, really." Huh?

"The term 'L.A. underground' is not a term anybody in L.A. put on themselves. It's a term the media put on us," Evidence explains, and while he may be right, it's worth mentioning that Ev's own label, Capitol, refers to Dilated Peoples in its press release as having led "the recent resurgence of the West Coast underground." Still, he has a point -- a term like "the underground" isn't all that useful.

"To say that Will.I.Am and Dilated Peoples have something in common -- really, the only thing keeping us in common is the fact that we're from the same place," he says. "I have as much in common with Will.I.Am as I have with Dr. Dre. There's rap music of all sorts. You're going to have your Kenny G.s of rap and you're going to have your Miles Davises of rap, and that's just how it's going to be. But there's always got to be an angle."

Fair enough. (I didn't ask who's Miles and who's Kenny in L.A.'s undergr . . . , uh, among L.A.'s rappers. Ev just didn't seem to be in the mood.) Still, the question remains: Regardless of what you call it, where's today's Good Life, where young artists can and do hone their skills?

"Well, you had the Good Life, and now you have Project Blowed," says Evidence, referring to the Leimert Park workshop founded by rappers Aceyalone (of Freestyle Fellowship) and Abstract Rude. "You had KDAY, and now you have Power 106. I would say that the Blowed thing has still stayed pure, whereas to find rap music [on the radio] of all different kinds, all throughout the day, is difficult. I don't knock Power 106 because I can listen to Friday Night Flavors on Friday night. But I like all kinds of rap music, you know?"

And unlike in KDAY's heyday, says Ev, you won't hear all kinds of rap music -- music like Dilated's, for instance -- on the radio throughout the day. "It's like Erick Sermon [of EPMD] said, we get airplay 'maybe at night, but no airplay in the day.'"

And that's unlikely to change, despite the near universal praise heaped on Expansion Team, Dilated's second major-label album, which hit the stores last October. Evidence acknowledges the widely held critical opinion that Expansion represents a forward leap in consciousness for the group.

"The general consensus [regarding Platform, the group's 2000 Capitol debut] was that we were a braggadocio freestyle group," says the rapper, who's joined in Dilated by co-MC Rakaa and star-in-his-own-right DJ Babu. "With this record, what I've been getting is, 'This seems to have more to hold onto.' It's not something we were intentionally trying to do -- in fact, we were trying to say, 'Fuck everybody, let's do the exact same thing we did last time and just be solid about it.' But we grew as people, and we couldn't help to maybe touch on a few more topics."

Topics that include frequent targets like the media ("Proper Propaganda") and war (uh, "War"). And, of course, Dilated's take on rap's cash culture, against which groups like J5 have consistently railed, but on which Dilated takes a refreshingly pragmatic stand. "Make money money, but please don't waste money," they chant in the chorus of "Trade Money," the album's Beatminerz-produced high point. "We don't love money, but we don't hate money."

Ultimately, Ev says, success does come down to money -- not what you make, but what you make of it: "I don't want to be limited. If people say, 'Well, I saw Evidence wearing a gold chain or a platinum chain,' I'm gonna say, 'Well, I fucking deserve the fucking shit that I'm wearing.' I'm gonna rock that shit with pride. I like cars, I like chicks, but I'm called an underground rapper so I'm not supposed to like that? It's ridiculous." Still, he adds, "The reason people are legends is not because of Soundscan. The reason I'm a Gang Starr fan is not because that first album sold 'x' amount of copies, and I don't love KRS-One because he's gone gold, you know?"

However you identify Dilated Peoples' subgenre, the group is currently taking Expansion Team on the road as part of the Scratch Tour, promoting the DJ-documentary film Scratch with an adventurous collection of hip-hop artists who would seem to be aiming closer to the aesthetic direction of a Miles Davis than a Kenny G.

"I'm not ashamed to be called an underground rapper -- that's great, that means I'm credible, that I care about the music culture more than the pop culture, you know? But [we're] not afraid of being seen and being heard, and that's the difference," Evidence says. "A lot of people say, 'I just want to stay here, I'm comfortable with this.' We're always trying to grow, to dilate, to expand," he adds, explaining the band's name and the new album's title in one shot. And, it's worth noting, illustrating why Dilated Peoples is one of the leading lights of L.A.'s underground.

Or at least it would be. If there was one.

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Dan Reines

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