Artist: Crown City RockersTitle: EarthtonesRating: 4 StarsReviewed by: Brolin Winning

Previously known as Mission, the Crown City Rockers have been making top-shelf Hip-Hop for many years now. They came together in Boston back in '98, where several members were attending Berklee School of Music. After hooking up with Rashaan Ahmad to handle mic duties, the crew relocated to the Bay, and promptly became a fixture in the local scene. Revered for their jazz chops, positive lyricism, and high-octane performances, they developed a fervent following and continued to build their rep thanks to an excellent debut album (One, Insiduous Urban, 2000) and a long line of dope 12-inches. Crown City Rockers are a live band, (though they also use samples and drum machines), but thankfully steer clear of the usual pitfalls that "live-rap" outfits often succumb to, i.e. blatantly aping The Roots or descending into jam band style noodling. Instead, the group, which includes keyboardist Kat Ouano, drummer Max MacVeety, bassist Woodstock, and producer Headnodic, forge ahead and make compelling, exceptionally tight music that effortlessly appeals to a wide array of listeners. The beats are so knocking that even thug-rap heads can get into it (Murder Dog mag was big on their first LP), yet it's catchy enough to play for your rap-phobic mom, and she'll probably dig it too.

Earthtones (Basement Records) packs in 19 tracks, and there's really not a sour note on here. After a brief intro, things get popping immediately with "Another Day (Rhyme Writing)," a day-in-the-life thumper built on a familiar melody of scraggly guitar loops, smooth organ vamps, and hard-hitting drums. This is followed by "Balance," featuring Scarub from Living Legends, a slightly mellower jam with chill keys and trunk-rattling bass bumps. Several tracks find them reinterpreting classic samples, adding new flair to sounds that will be immediately recognizable to well-seasoned beat-heads. "Sidestep" updates a riff once rocked by Rakim and KMD, fleshing it out with soulful singing, meandering Fender Rhodes, and live guitar. We also get a few excellent instrumental joints, including the rich, sax-drenched funk of "Fate," giving shine to Broun Fellini horn-man David Boyce, and the album's closing track "No Sense," which does wonders with an antique-sounding, metronome-style drum machine.

As strong as the music is, Rashaan is no slouch with the rhymes either. Able to alter his flow on different songs, his approach has a sort of friendly, down-to-earth vibe, with lyrics squarely focused on reality and his undying love for the music and lifestyle. "B-Boy" is a perfect example of this, with energetic verses shouting out Yo! MTV Raps, Wild Style, and Beat Street, before delving into Hip-Hop's impact around the globe. This theme is continued on "Culture," where he is accompanied by freaky synths and crashing waves, while "Simple" encourages under-qualified emcees to give it up and be content with just being fans. Despite the positive/conscious tag, he never comes off as too preachy or too p*ssy, he's just doing his thing, and doing it well. Guest spots are relatively limited and rock-solid, with local favorites Gift of Gab and Zion I repping on "Fortitude" and "Without Love" respectively.

Barring an unexpected break-up or devastating earthquake, there is absolutely no question that Crown City Rockers will blow up on a national level. With their impressive body of work, ultra-hype stage show, non-threatening lyrics, and undeniable musical talent (not to mention multi-racial and multi-gender line up) they are practically destined for commercial success. Not as "weird" as the Quannum cats and far more consistent than the Hiero family, Crown City Rockers have what it takes to go from "big in the Bay" to "famous," straight up. Do your part by copping their album. You won't be disappointed.