AS DE LA SOUL LEARNED shortly after releasing the comedic 3 Ft. High and Rising 10 years back, hip-hop artists who front physically are considered "street," while hip-hop artists who front intellectually get tagged as nerds. When the Long Islanders followed up with the decidedly less whimsical De La Soul Is Dead, they may as well have pronounced humorous hip-hop dead as well.
So it's understandable that the members of Foreign Legion sound defensive about their lyrics. After all, the Bay Area trio's MCs spend no time puzzling over what rhymes with "bitches and hos" or musing on their latest weapons purchase, instead choosing to play with pop culture references and rhyme Versace with Joanie Loves Chachi. Even linguist and Libertarian rabble-rouser Noam Chomsky gets name-checked on Foreign Legion's 2000 debut, Kidnappervan: Beats to Rock While Bike Stealing (Insidious Urban).
"We're kind of like Jackie Chan," says Prozack. "We might be funny, but we'll fuck you up." The San Jose native goes on to explain that he, fellow MC Marc Stretch, and DJ Design sometimes show up at East Oakland open-mike nights to battle with hardcore rappers.
It's also understandable that the members of Foreign Legion feel like they've got something to prove. Besides the humor handicap—and the fact that the two MCs often dress in costume for performances, as sidekick teams like Fred and Barney and Batman and Robin—they're of mixed race: Stretch is African-American; Prozack's white; and Design's Hispanic.
Their genetic makeup mattered little until recently, when the trio began earning local praise for their live shows in the Bay Area and national notice for their debut, which features wildly imaginative songs like "Nowhere to Hide," a meditation on conspiracy theories set to a sharp two-note hook that's worthy of vintage Public Enemy. Other songs, such as "Full Time B-Boy" and "Let Me Tell You Something," groove to simple old-school beats. Then there's "Secret Agent," a more ominous-sounding tale of espionage and intrigue that exposes the group's depth.
On the rise and about to start their first US tour, Foreign Legion are also on the spot: How can a hip-hop act with this much natural talent and wit be anything but black—or Eminem?
DJ DESIGN RESPONDS with an anecdote. Last year, while at a New York City hip-hop show featuring several of his idols from the D.I.T.C. crew, the DJ played a Foreign Legion track. When Design introduced himself and thanked him, the DJ responded, "Hey, man, if it's dope, we'll play it." "That pretty much sums it up," Design says. "If it's dope, play it. It doesn't have anything to do with color."
Before he had to worry about such things, Design expressed his musical curiosity by hanging out with other b-boys, including Prozack, at a San Jose junior high and by emulating the scratches he heard on tracks like Herbie Hancock's "Rock It" with the zipper on his jacket. After finishing school, Design and Prozack continued working together, releasing a cassette in 1997.
They met Stretch through a mutual friend, and the three clicked, quickly recording songs that would be released as 12-inches, and helping chisel out a space in the Bay Area's burgeoning hip-hop scene. With Kidnappervan, Foreign Legion stepped up and delivered. Part of what makes the trio so appealing is their earnestness; throughout the album, Stretch and Prozack rap about their ambitions, even criticizing those who think the underground is synonymous with purity.
"That's the irony with all these so-called underground groups," says Prozack. "They front like they don't wanna sell records. It's ridiculous. It's like, just sit on your couch and freestyle if you don't wanna make money, because why the fuck are you putting all this money into it? If you're an artist, you want to share that with the world."
Of course, life, and especially hip-hop, is more complicated than that. Which is why Foreign Legion may find themselves facing the same predicament as De La Soul did a decade ago: wanting respect and commercial success without resorting to gangsta clich鳠or misogynist rants. Prozack admits that he and Stretch can become so obscure with their references as to be "Dennis Miller- esque," but notes that the hip-hop community's ready for intelligent discourse, despite the naysayers.
"No sword can slay what's righteous," Prozack says, launching into soliloquy. "What're you gonna say, the sun's not hot? The ice isn't cold? I don't have to act hard. I don't have to pretend that I can rap. I read a book called The Book of Five Rings by this guy named Miyamoto Musashi, a samurai, and there was this quote I really liked: 'A true samurai does not concern himself with being a samurai.' I apply that to hip-hop and being an MC."
He goes on to assail the pack mentality of today's hip-hop culture. "A lot of these people watch too much BET and MTV and think whatever you see on there is what you're supposed to do: That's hip-hop. If Wu-Tang came out rockin' Speedos and flip-flops and a cowboy hat in the next video, what are you gonna see at the club the following week? That's gonna be hip-hop. If Prince worked for a valet service parking cars, he probably wouldn't be rockin' the high heels with his ass hangin' out the back. He couldn't pull it off. But he's Prince! What're you gonna say? He can't play guitar? He can't sing? He's a bad motherfucker, so in a sense, that's where we're at. This is us. You can't call me and say I'm frontin'. You might say you don't like it, and I can respect that. It's not for everybody. But I'd rather have people dislike us for being ourselves than think we're the shit for pretending we're fuckin' Jay-Z."
Foreign Legion play Friday, January 12, at I Spy as part of the Fantastic Four Tour with Zion I, Micranots, and Seattle's Boom Bap Project.