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L.A.’s Hip-Hop Goes to Rehab at the Spliff

LA Watts Times, Commentary, Slav Kandyba Posted: Jan 23, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles underground hip-hop culture is going through a resurgence of sorts. Leading the way are Pacific Division, a trio of rappers who grew up in Palmdale. The three were handpicked by Universal/Motown president Sylvia Rhone last year as the heir apparent to A Tribe Called Quest. Another up-and-comer is Inglewood’s U-N-I, a pair of rappers who have an MTV Award to their credit yet aren’t even signed to a major label.

As these artists make a push to garner respect for their locales, a new wave isn’t far behind. The ground zero for emerging talent is a monthly showcase called the Spliff at Rehab Records, an independent record store sandwiched in a strip mall of an industrial area near the intersection of Pico and Sepulveda boulevards on the Westside. Running the shop is an unassuming 22-year-old named Val the Vandle.

“I’ve never been someone to claim the limelight,” Val says, sitting in the passenger seat of my Honda Civic outside the Acapulco restaurant at the Del Amo shopping center. “Most of that comes from my mom. I was the middle child—that’s why I think I’m so selfless.”

The Spliff originally began as an event called Aquarius, which Val and his friend Paul had intended to make into a spoken word showcase. That didn’t quite pan out, but it led to some basic math.
“We didn’t know that many poets,” Val said. “We know a lot of emcees, producers and DJs.”

When friends backed out of committing time to the Spliff, Val kept it going. He managed to meet with a friend of Warner Bros. recording artist and L.A. underground stalwart Murs. That led Murs to come out to an installment of the Spliff last spring. A number of respected local artists then made it a point to stop over.

And here’s where this story becomes personal for me.

Back in the spring of last year, I was assigned to write a feature story on Murs for The Source magazine. I drove up to the Burbank offices of his label, met him and his manager, and we decided to walk to a nearby El Torito restaurant to eat and talk. For the next hour or two, L.A.’s own world-touring, street-wisdom-dispensing, inner-city griot opened his world to me, and I soaked up the game to write about it in the pages of the “Hip-Hop Bible.”

Before he hopped in his Nissan Murano to leave for the day, Murs mentioned the Spliff. I took heed, but didn’t quite follow up until months later, after much beckoning from several people whose taste and judgment I trust.

I finally rode up to the Spliff a few weeks ago. It didn’t take long before it set on me: I was watching the new crop of L.A. hip-hop cultivate their talent in front of an eager audience of peers. I was immediately taken back to Sunday nights at Elements at Club Gabah, where 16 emcees would battle each other for the number one spot that came along with bragging rights and some cash.

I thought back to the stories I heard about the Good Life Cafe, where then-upstart L.A. legends such as Freestyle Fellowship honed their skills before getting short-lived record deals. I also thought back to the Lyricist Lounge in New York City in the late 90s, which served as the breeding ground for respected rappers such as Pharaohe Monch. Given the opportunity to build a fan base, he quickly got signed up to Rawkus Records and garnered a modest mainstream following that persists to this day.

On a recent afternoon, taking a break between pickup basketball games at Westchester Park, Thurz from U-N-I told me that it’s a “good look for L.A.” that Spliff exists.

I couldn’t agree more.

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