The deeper you dig into hip-hop's celestial sphere, the closer you get to emerging again. Just ask Atlanta's Scienz of Life, whose long underground journey is now closing in on Chinese topsoil. Building its reputation on zero image, sparse exposure and a strong attention to spiritual consciousness, the group would seem a paragon of the so-called underground hip-hop movement.
But for Scienz of Life, the underground represents confinement, a stylistic crust that must be poked through. With this week's release of the group's second national release, Project Overground: The Scienz Experiment, the trio -- Lil Sci, I.D. 4Windz and Inspektor Willabee -- emerges into daylight, shaking the loose soil of the underground off their musical garment.
"Overground is a rebuttal to this whole 'underground' thing," says Lil Sci, the crew's lucid, level-paced lyricist. "People are just twisting that word, making it mean so many different things that it's really not. It's time to deaden that word as far as Scienz of Life is concerned, because that word is holding a lot of heads down to a certain level. It's putting a lot of limitation on the music, and it's putting a lot of limitation on careers as far as expanding the music. I'm not underground. I'm overground and beyond."
Sci is not the first hip-hop artist to turn up his nose at the muskier confines of the underground. In its finest moments, the spirit of the underground embraces meaningful lyricism, personal responsibility and artistically creative, often gritty production -- essentially, the elements most often missing from the glossy shellac of formulaic, commercially oriented hip-hop offerings.
But the underground's passionate sense of purpose can itself become oppressive and provincial. Expectations get built into the underground aesthetic concerning appropriate levels of success and exposure, lyrical content and, most importantly, allegiance to the underground community. It's an equation Scienz of Life has balanced very well in the past, but which they now feel the need to challenge.
"We're going the direction of separating ourselves from the whole you're-supposed-to-be-conscious, how-dare-you-say- 'cigarette'-in-your-rhyme thing," explains Lil Sci. "We're trying to distance that whole vibe. We're people. We're human, and we visualize the same things that everybody else in this world visualizes. So, yeah, we want to talk about those things, even if it is negative to some people. It's real life, so we want to talk about it."
Sci explains this attention to uninhibited, expressive freedom as the first of the album's two "overground" philosophical directions. The second direction involves opening up Scienz of Life to a larger audience. While conscious hip-hop challenges the mainstream's patterns of one-dimensional materialism, misogyny and negativity, the protective sense of membership often found in underground circles undermines the scope of this message. In other words, conscious artists get stuck in a cycle of preaching to the converted.
"We're saying we gotta take this music to a level where we're not just pulling in people who already know," says Sci. "When you're dealing with conscious music, a lot of times your whole audience is nothing but conscious heads who already know. That's why they love it. That's why they came; they're flipping because they're familiar with everything you're bringing to them on the mic. So we're like, 'How do we get to the people who don't know?' We said, 'OK, you know what, we disguise ourselves just a little bit.' But we don't break the chain. I'm definitely not trying to hit the pop charts or anything like that. You can call it the wise men playing the roles of fools, but for a very important purpose."
This kind of clever political positioning could sound very fishy. It's tempting to read it as a crafty way of dressing up the fact that Scienz of Life is actively courting commercial success -- one of the great aesthetic transgressions of the underground. But where Sci's talk of "assuming disguises" might raise a critical eyebrow or quicken the pulse of the underground purist, the music contained within Project Overground quickly puts both at ease. Yes, there are nods to more accessible styles -- most notably, the fun, house-flavored shuffle of "Shake It Off" -- but for the most part, Project Overground is a low-key, thoughtful and, at times, downright sober affair.
With an Eastern mantra-like motif and lyrical nods to chakras and prayer, "Metaphysics 2030" feels more like musical meditation than marketable merchandise. Dark and brooding, "Play This" still manages to bob heads. "Yikes" features labelmate and fellow Atlantan MF Doom and the Scienz crew rolling reflective rhyme over melancholy piano jazz. They are by no means party joints, but these tracks are emblems of the Scienz of Life strategy -- matching emotional, visceral beats and crafty flow with strong spiritual and cultural subtexts.
Without a doubt, this notion of advancing hip-hop culture holds high priority for the group. Listening to them talk, you get a sense of their calculated musical intentions, pushing a strong social agenda. The already animated Lil Sci becomes emphatic when waxing on hip-hop culture and commercial exploitation.
"We are about our forefathers who did this music," Sci says. "Who died, who put blood, sweat and tears into the culture of this music, and who made sure it was passed onto us in order to represent it further. I want to pay homage and respect to the forefathers of this music, and to the forefathers of life, period. Giving thanks is not done enough. People run with hip-hop, making all this money from the hip-hop culture. I saw Snapple bottles breakdancing and spinning, man. When I see that, I want to step to Snapple and say, 'Yo, I wanna do a tour -- y'all got some dough? Y'all wanna make it happen? Do you really want to get into the culture? Let's go.' I feel like if you are gonna do it like that, do it for real. Step to somebody and do it for real. Don't exploit it on no silliness. It's a culture -- you're disrespecting a culture."
Call it "buying in." As Scienz of Life lifts the veil of mystery it has stitched for itself, the group poses a potent challenge to underground hardliners: If the role of the conscious artist is to increase awareness -- to make a palpable social contribution -- why shouldn't Scienz aim for commercial success and the wider audience that it brings?
"Before, we would say, 'Nah, don't put no pictures [on the album].' We were doing it for a purpose. We felt like we didn't really need to reveal it. We did album covers where you couldn't tell what kind of music we were -- you would have to listen to it. So in a way, it was about being mysterious and hiding ourselves. I feel like now it's not necessarily about getting more into the image, but yeah, we can reveal who we are and let people see what we look like.
"I don't want people to think that when you start out a certain way you remain that way. You're supposed to go up, and continue to go up. Change is the only constant in the universe, and that's what we deal with. You're gonna be seeing a lot more."
Scienz of Life perform at a CD release party Fri., May 10, at MJQ Concourse, 736 Ponce de Leon Ave. Stahhr tha F.E.M.C.E.E. opens. 11 p.m. (doors). 404-870-0575. At 5 p.m. the same day, Scienz of Life appear at More Dusty Than Digital Records in Little Five Points.