What initially seems like the bane of your existence can sometimes turn out to be its salvation.
For Abstract Rude, it started with hitting the open mics at South Central L.A.'s Good Life Café as a teen in the early '90s. The young emcee built his chops and felt bound for a major label. But then the gate slammed shut as the industry sold out Hip-Hop's Golden Age at gunpoint.
Two decades later, Rude is still alive and well in the indie hip-hop world. Next week sees the release of his Keep the Feel: A Legacy of Hip-Hop album, featuring appearances by artists ranging from Aloe Blacc to Atmosphere emcee Slug. For Rude, it's all about the power of the DIY hustle and the legacy that industry outcasts have built with it.
"If you give us all the scraps, we'll take it and make chitlins," he says. "Just staying in something, and not quitting, speaks for a lot."
Rude and his crew, Abstract Tribe Unique, had hoped to use their demos as a stepping stone to a major-label deal. In the process, he honed a gruff downbeat flow that rumbles like a Mustang over jazzy, rubbery, sidewinding rhythms.
But after West Coast rappers like Pharcyde, Freestyle Fellowship and Kool Keith got signed, major labels unceremoniously abandoned conscious rap, in favor of the darker, melodramatic True Crime style pioneered by N.W.A. and perpetuated by a cast of thousands.
"We were forced into a DIY network," explains Rude. "It's like the industry let us in for a second and then shut the door really quick — and put out the dog before they shut it."
But as more and more artists stepped outside the narrow guns-hoes-bling formula, the indie hip-hop movement has upped its game and tightened its craft.
"The curse became the gift," says the emcee. "It took the industry falling apart for that to happen."
Rude remembers Prince's discontent being one of the first signs that everything really was changing. "When you have him walking around with 'Slave' written on the side of his face, you want to be independent. We started thinking what we were doing was maybe kind of wise."
That's the spirit Keep the Feel seeks to honor. To do so, Rude empties the Rolodex for a pair of tracks, "Kan of Whoop Ass" and "Kan of Whoop Ass (Reprise)," that employ a cross-generational all-star lineup including Myka 9, Slug, Brother Ali, Blueprint, Grouch & Eligh, Pigeon John and Busdriver, among others, rapping about how they and their crew made it in the game.
Another track, "For the Luv," features longtime friend Aceyalone with sudden sensation Aloe Blacc, who charted internationally with "I Need a Dollar" and subsequently earned a Grammy nomination. Rude knew Blacc from his previous rap duo, Emanon, and was heartened by the artist's commercial success.
While excited and optimistic about Keep the Feel, he knows better than to linger too long on the possibilities. "I'm open for any unforeseen success that may come my way," he says. "But the way you stay in this for 20 years is to not think about that kind of stuff."