Best Of '99: Mountain Brothers Climb Into Hip-Hop Scene

Asian-American rap trio bring old-school vibe to first album.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Wednesday, Aug. 4.]

Peril-L is a rapper of the old school. He and his mates in the Philadelphia trio the Mountain Brothers grew up on the block-party hip-hop sound.

The Mountain Brothers — rappers Peril-L and Styles, both 24, and rapper/producer/DJ Chops, 27 — say they got into rap because it's an art form that extends beyond popular culture.

"Hip-hop is pretty much a form of expression for people that are not necessarily part of the mainstream," said Peril-L (born Chris Wang), speaking in New York. "As Asian-Americans, we fit into that. That's one of the reasons we got into hip-hop in the first place. You can hear we're Asian, but it's not something we push as the main thing."

While the group's name — taken from a Chinese legend about a group of 108 Robin Hood-like bandits who stole from the rich to help the poor — is ethnic, the music on Self, Volume 1 is not.

On their debut LP, the Mountain Brothers engage in the playfulness of old-school hip-hop artists such as De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers, and expand on that sound by throwing in Mellotron, wah-wah guitars and vocoder effects.

"We're basically bringing back the essence of hip-hop: original beats, original lyrics. Chops uses all live instruments," Peril-L said. The group also builds on its local musical heritage, incorporating the soul and jazz that also define the music of fellow Philadelphians the Roots.

On the album's first single, "Galaxies: The Next Level" (RealAudio excerpt), Chops (born Scott Jung) uses electronic keyboard, gentle jazz guitar, horn effects and a slight drum tap to take the beat back to 1973, when producers and songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff were the musical kings of Philadelphia. Meanwhile, the three rhyme back and forth about making it in the hip-hop world: "No more rejection letters," they say in the song.

The group delves even deeper into nostalgia on "Days of Being Dumb" (RealAudio excerpt), a song that could appeal to anyone who attended an urban grade school in 1985. One verse romanticizes scrawling graffiti, wearing parachute pants and breakdancing before, during and after school. Chops drives the mix with xylophones, a drum machine and soul rhythms.

"[In the studio] it's usually a matter of messing around until something sounds good," said Chops, who counts jazz musicians Bob James and Herbie Hancock, along with hip-hop groups A Tribe Called Quest and OutKast, among his main influences. "Making music is more of a subconscious thing for me."

Chops, Peril-L and Styles formed the Mountain Brothers in 1992 while attending Penn State University in State College, Pa. In 1996 they recorded a series of underground releases. That same year, they won a contest sponsored by Sprite and appeared in a commercial for the soft drink. In 1997 "Paperchase" — included on Self, Volume 1 — was released as a vinyl single by Ruffhouse Records.

The Mountain Brothers released their debut album earlier this year on their own label, Pimpstrut Records, and have since seen their profile rise. In addition to its own headlining gigs at clubs, the group has also opened for singer Dionne Farriss and for New York rapper Jeru The Damaja. The video for "Galaxies: The Next Level" has also been played on MTV.

"We're continuing to make sure [the album] blows up," Styles said. "It's kind of a trip to be treated like — I don't want to say a celebrity — but it's nice having people respond to our music."