Living Legends: Eight Steps to Perfection

Right now the Living Legends are being drowned out by Public Enemy. It’s not the group’s fault. A concert organizer decided to place the B Stage of the Rock the Bells tour just off to the right of the Randall’s Island concert venue; what looks to be a safe distance from the main stage. There are two apparent problems with this decision: the massive amounts of speakers used for the main stage and trying to have two sets play at the same time. The reality is that when six stories of speakers are stacked on both of sides of the main stage, coupled with a second barrage of speakers nearly 200 yards out, it doesn’t matter where the B Stage is placed. And it doesn’t help that the two-stage event doesn’t have sets staggered. Any sound coming off the official Paid Dues portion of the Rock the Bells festival will sound like a whisper when competing with the main stage. The Living Legends seem to do better when it’s only the Paid Dues Festival, a 12-city tour featuring nine acts currently on the road where the Living Legends members step on stage four different times during the festival; with Luckyiam.PSC opening the show, The Grouch & Eligh performing, the Living Legends with second billing, and Hip-Hop group Felt, comprised of Slug from Atmosphere and Legends member Murs, headlining the Paid Dues Festival. As if the Legends couldn’t make the Paid Dues Festival anymore … well … legendary, the Living Legends just released the Broke Ass Summer Jam album and accompanying DVD. The combination package includes music from the group’s 1999 show at the Maritime Hall in San Francisco and the live DVD features the performances from the 2006 show at The Fillmore. In the early 1990s, Broke Ass Summer Jam was created as a response to local radio station 106 KMEL’s Summer Jam. Legends member Sunspot Jonz said the station would not feature the Living Legends because the group wasn’t commercial enough at the time. Since the Legends’ Broke Ass Summer Jam started, it’s become one of the premier Hip-Hop concerts in the San Francisco area. “In the end, the radio station is like whores; they’re going to use you for that moment and when you’re not hot anymore, they’re not going to have anything for you,” says Sunspot Jonz. “We’d rather create a community that’s based around our music and our talent. We’re still up for performing at any show, but we don’t have to sit there and beg anymore.” Presently, Sunspot Jonz is wearing a black T-shirt that reads his name in stylized white graffiti. Despite the self identification, no one approaches the lone emcee as he ventures out from behind the B Stage at the Rock the Bells concert Sunday, July 29, in New York City. One’s first thought is whether or not the rest of the group has the same identifying T-shirts. The rain is pouring, drenching every concert-goer; even the ones wearing the most water-resistant clothing still look miserably wet while watching early acts Talib Kweli and Mos Def perform. Over at the furthest point inside the mile-long concert venue, the Living Legends member takes his chances with the inclement weather. Though patrons of the concert who’d been there since noon when the first acts stepped on stage spent more than two hours in the rain, one has no doubt that artists such as Kweli and Mos Def, wearing a purple crushed velour jacket or a smug sweat suit, respectively, were not venturing off the stage or out from under the tent area to get wet. But maybe that’s what separates Sunspot Jonz from the rest of Hip-Hop. While the Broke Ass Summer Jam album marks the sixth release under the Living Legends moniker since the group was officially formed in 1998, Sunspot Jonz, Luckyiam.PSC, The Grouch, Eligh, Murs, Scarub, Bicasso and Aesop have far more impressive numbers as solo artists and inter-group releases. In total, Living Legends account for roughly 70 solo albums as well as about 15 smaller group releases, including material from the 3 Melancholy Gypsys (Eligh, Murs and Scarub), Mystik Journeymen (Sunspot Jonz and Luckyiam.PSC), G&E (Grouch and Eligh) and CMA (Grouch and Luckyiam.PSC). Those are Frank Zappa numbers; the legendary Rock musician who released 100 albums in his 30-year career before dying in 1993. All comparisons aside, the founding of Living Legends began with Sunspot Jonz. Before there were eight guys on the microphone, before the “Outhouse Village,” the group’s 2,500 square foot warehouse they used to live and record in, even before the Mystik Journeymen, there was Sunspot Jonz taking the bus every day to Telegraph Street in Berkeley, California, and trying to sell his music on the street. “I’d get to Telegraph using the last two dollars I had to get there. I was broke by the time I got there,” says Sunspot. “There was no way I was going to get home unless I sold that CD. There was no way I was going to eat unless I was going to sell that CD. It was a fulfilling feeling just to get home each day.” Sunspot would go on to create the Mystik Journeymen and ask Luckyiam.PSC to move up to the San Francisco Bay area and be in the Mystik Journeymen with him. The newly formed Journeymen went on to release 1995’s 4001: The Stolen Legacy, and that’s when Hip-Hop heads began to check this new group from the left cost. Nearly two weeks prior to the start of the Paid Dues Festival in Chicago July 25, Luckyiam.PSC is speaking over the phone from a dentist’s office in Los Angeles. It turns out he needs four fillings, and it’s his second visit of the week. He’s already had half an extraction and a root canal so far. The dentist’s needle breaks up the conversation.There is a charisma about Luckyiam.PSC. He’s having his “look-at-me” moment, as his solo venture Most Likely to Succeed released August 7. His sharp rhyme skills off the newest album and carefree nature in his voice are palpable. It shows a man who knows he’s good at what he does but doesn’t take himself too seriously. What is serious about the L.A. native is his presence on the microphone, those same attributes that impressed Sunspot so much in the first place, and now have blossomed into Most Likely to Succeed, a continuation of his Extra Credit album series. “I’m a better writer when it comes to stories and narratives,” says Lucky. “I’m more attuned to political and world issues. I’m trying to make things more musical by adding bridges; so it’s not typical rap. I’ve learned how to make songs.” In 1992, with Sunspot living in his aunt’s house and Lucky sleeping in between the bed and window, the two began their fledging career as the Mystik Journeymen. After meeting The Grouch on a sendoff trip to Europe, the Mystik Journeymen would return to America and move into the basement of Grouch’s grandmother. It’s obvious that The Grouch is a very understanding individual; gears are turning in his mind every time he hears a question or a phrase, and that he responds as fully as possible to the postulation that’s been placed in front of him. He likes to make sure there are no gray areas. What you see is a man who’s grown up around what he describes as seven other dysfunctional children. Though, with respect, The Grouch emphasizes that they do care for each other, so they can’t be that dysfunctional. But with such a large group to account for, eight minds constantly ticking with creativity, juggling line after line of rhymes, trying their best to outwit the man standing next to him, someone has to be the parent. The Grouch comes from a position of authority. He’s prescribed to a breadth of knowledge when it comes to histrionics and Living Legends lure. Those year’s with the Mystik Journeymen were an eye-opener for The Grouch, who found that while others were making demos for record executives and labels to listen to, the Mystik Journeymen were completely self-reliant, making albums and trying to sell them on their own. “Those were the first guys to show me you could make music and put it out,” says The Grouch. “Back then, everyone was putting out demos and trying to get signed, passing them out to labels, other groups and executives. Mystik [Journeymen] said, ‘This isn’t a demo, this is my cassette. Do you want to buy it?’” The Grouch remembers the Mystik Journeymen giving him an ultimatum: while the Journeymen would perform down in Los Angeles for the weekend, The Grouch had that time to put together an album. And since 1995 with Don’t Talk to Me, all the way up to Show You the World, which will be released in February of 2008, along with his new imprint, Simple Man, he’s never needed another provocation to know that’s he’s got enough creativity in himself to continue working on music the rest of his life. While Sunspot, Luckyiam.PSC and The Grouch were up in San Francisco capturing listeners with their unique perspective on Hip-Hop, another group in Los Angeles was carving out its own name; the 3 Melancholy Gypsys. As high school students, Eligh, Scarub and Murs were mythological rap legends, aligning themselves with Log Cabin, a supreme collective of Hip-Hop artists who disbanded only a short while after 3MG joined. Before they even made the move up to San Francisco, 3MG was group all about appearance, focusing on how their words sounded; the vocal tone and the rhythm in which they were said, not necessarily on what the words meant. “When we were young, we’d say things a certain way, not knowing full well what it meant,” says Scarub. “It was about skills. It was about style. Presentation was how we were brought up.” After performing the Chicago portion of the Paid Dues Festival, Scarub spends nearly two hours on the phone, struggling to describe his addiction to lyricism in between cell phone cut outs during the drive from the “windy city” to Baltimore. He is very open about what he considers good music within his groups and himself. But for a man who emphasizes lyrical content and the quality of one’s words paramount to everything else, it’s easy to understand why recording albums a certain way elicits more accolades from the 3MG MC than half-assing other albums. That presentation Scarub talks about with 3MG is one of the reasons he considers 2005’s Grand Caravan to the Rim of the World, the group’s seminal release, 3MG’s first “real” album. Not only was the release a cumulative turning point for the matured MCs, but it showed focused brethren, with the 3MGs flying to Europe to record the album; free of outside problems and away from anything that might distract the artists. Problems that delay the release of albums and draw the focus of group members elsewhere, with most of the Legends now having families to take care of, is a reason Scarub only has a fraction of the releases that his fellow group members have. He likes to remain fully focused to a project when he’s recording; free from the rest of the world. The 3MGs move from Los Angeles to San Francisco was a friendship developed by Gypsys member Eligh and The Grouch; the type of relationship that would also blossom into G&E, the duo which have three releases to their names. Though, Murs is still considered the kid of the group, despite his higher visibility in music. He’s the one the rest of the Legends sometimes call “Sunspot Clones,” for the somewhat same characteristics he shares with Sunspot. Murs popularity is due in large part to his work ethic. Between recordings with his 3MG mates and Legends albums, Murs has an extensive body of work under his belt. Now in San Francisco, the 3MGs and Mystik Journeymen were expanding and in need of new housing. And when Lucky and Sunspot traveled to Humboldt State University and brought back Bicasso, the group got its new home. When Bicasso finally gets on the phone, one finds a heavily guarded individual speaking about his crew. He does not like delving into the history of how the group came together, who started it and how it formed into its present lineup. And why should he want to concern himself with that? In his own words, "Does anyone really care who the last member of the Rolling Stones was?" For Bicasso, the Legends have always been about eight men in their early twenties bonded by a common path. The way it gets funneled through the channels makes it seem as if Bicasso was one of the last individuals to join the Legends. But back when the Legends were living in the Outhouse Village, it was Bicasso’s name on the lease. The “artistic” twist to the MC’s name is not just a clever rhyme alias. Bicasso has been putting in serious work as professional artist, trying to get his sculptures and works placed in art galleries. In addition to Rebel Music, an as yet to be released album nearly 90% completed, Bicasso has two art series: “Black Angelic” and “Grillz,” an opportunity he’s finally realizing can be fully maximized after working as an MC and a Legends member for more than a decade. “The art series are characters on wood,” says Bicasso. “The wood is not cut like a square or rectangle; it hangs on the wall in the shape of the image. It might be silhouette with an ornate headdress hanging from the back. And then that whole shape will be placed on the wood and cut out in some way.” The Paid Dues Festival has put a fresh perspective on Bicasso. He’s finding a group of grown men who’ve put aside any doubts or differences they’ve had in the past, especially in a group where the extent of their solo material is based on the concept of being able to market your material first, and are really looking at what the Living Legends can come up with next. “The Mystik Journeymen, they spearheaded the tenacity of getting your music out to the people. They created a drive to do your s**t and get it out,” says Bicasso. “That’s also a double-edged sword. When you get eight guys together who are of the mind of getting your s**t out; we had to take a couple of steps back when we got together as Legends. And that’s where I feel we are right at this second. We know what we need to do.” With Bicasso now up in Oakland with the rest of the Legends, the Outhouse Village was formed, the warehouse purchased for the members to live and record music. Much in the same vain as artist Andy Warhol’s Factory, the Legends’ Outhouse Village served as a place of creation, constant recording and a thriving community of Hip-Hop. “We all built little rooms, it was pretty elaborate,” says The Grouch. “It wasn’t nice or professional, but it was crazy.” There were signs that something was forming, and all would change with the 1995 Mystik Journeymen release Underground Worldwide and the song “Voices,” which featured the Living Legends for the first time. From then on, these eight MCs would solidify their legendary status in Hip-Hop as innovative artists. If there is one individual who could be considered the “last” to hook up with the Legends, it is Aesop, who didn��t join until 1997. Though, the Fresno native is one of the Legends with the most solo ventures since becoming a Hip-Hop artist: 13 albums. Aesop was a fan who would show up every week in the Bay from Fresno, Calif., to check the Mystik Journeymen shows. It shows a level of persistence, dedication and loyalty to one group. Between 1993 and 1999, when the group released its first album Almost Famous under the Legends name, the eight artists from the Bay were simply known as the Mystik Journeymen featuring Murs, featuring Bicasso, featuring G&E, and so on. As the group had so many components to it, it’s no wonder they couldn’t get billed; the name alone would take up the whole marquee. So they simply became the Underworld, named after the European techno/trans group that was making noise in that part of the world at the time. According to Sunspot, once he found out the “real” Underworld was becoming a little, shall we say, “light on its feet,” he knew he had to change the group’s name. Reflecting back on what the group had done over the past decade, the countless albums recorded, the trips to Japan, Norway, England, Switzerland, the French Riviera and a host of other countries, and realizing that no one in his neighborhood would ever get to do something like that, Sunspot came to the conclusion that these eight rhyme slingers were legends; Living Legends to be exact. For the Legends, 1999’s Almost Famous was a milestone for the group. “That album represents our first accomplishment of creating a big, clean sound,” says Bicasso. The follow up, 2003’s Crappy Old S**t, was a collection of older songs the group had compiled. “Those kind of albums are cup holders,” says Scarub. “But we owed it to our fans to put it out. These albums allowed us to get to the next level.” If Crappy Old S**t wasn’t up to par, not even for the Legends themselves, 2004’s Creative Differences was a complete 180-degree turnaround for the group. The Legends had been recording separately, and as a result some of the songs on Creative Differences seemed like puzzle pieces that didn’t exactly fit. But there was a concept behind the album. The homage to the Brady Bunch television show depicted on the cover got heads to take notice, the Legends got more radio play and it remains one of the Legends’ highest selling albums to date. Released in 2005, Classic is the pinnacle of what the Legends are trying to do as a group for Hip-Hop. The Legends took to the beaches, venturing to Maui, Hawaii, for a month to record the album. “We locked ourselves on an island together,” says The Grouch. “It’s hard to get eight guys to focus. We rented a house, sat there and basically recorded the album in two to three weeks.” While the Legends might be a year from a new release, and that’s an optimistic outlook, they are talking about new material. Until then, there will be intermittence of individual and inter-Legend group releases, in addition to Broke Ass Summer Jam, which might already be a collector’s item. Don’t think so? Just try and find it in stores.