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Kanye West

Kanye West has success written all over him. With a list of hismore memorable production jobs literally tattooed onto his forearmand an iced-out Roc-A-Fella logo medallion dangling from his neck,it’d be hard to peg him as an underdog. But despite being thefavored beatsmith of everyone from Jay-Z to Talib Kweli toLudacris; despite having several mix tapes that showcase hisever-improving lyrical abilities burning up the underground;despite the fact that his debut album, The College Dropout,has been ready for release since fall 2003; despite his first solosingle, the Chaka Khan-sampling “Through the Wire,”getting play on MTV2, West is still working like an unprovenoutsider.

“Ipaid for my video,” he says. “I got an independent promoter to help getradio spins. I wanted to get it to the point where Def Jam would say,’Okay, we gotta get behind this.'”

If his record company (technically Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)needs any convincing, it may have something to do with the confusionover how exactly to market the 26-year-old Chicago native — bling orbackpack? As a producer, West provided the felonious thump for trackslike the bruising Beanie Sigel anthem “The Truth,” but his solomaterial tends to be somewhat more conscious.

“I’m one of the only rappers who has both his parents andall his grandparents still alive,” he says. “My father was a BlackPanther. My grandparents were involved in civil-rights marches. So Ihave a responsibility to reflect them.”

West does his roots justice on such tracks as “Jesus Walks”and “Breathe In Breathe Out,” which tackle spiritual faith andmaterialism. “I want people to scream these songs back at me,” he says.”I want to bring back the feeling for people. Like the feeling I hadwhen I had Saturday detention back in school and I would pop in [ATribe Called Quest’s] The Low End Theory.”

That’s a high standard, but West is primed.

“I love the challenge,” he says. “I do music for the sake ofshowing off. I got the Harlem Boys Choir [on the song “Two Words”] notjust because they sound good, but because I could. Some people are likethat with cars, like, ‘Look what the fuck I got.’I’m like that withmusic, like, ‘Look what the fuck I did.'”

Three More Hip-Hoppers On The Verge

9th Wonder/Little BrotherA couple years ago, Durham,North Carolina’s 9th Wonder was just a little-known beatmaker for alittle-known underground trio called Little Brother. But since beingpublicly big-upped by the Roots’ ?uestlove, 9th has released a bootlegremix of Nas’ God’s Sonalbum (dubbed God’s Stepson), laced with his distinctive jazzykeyboards and head-nodding snares, and landed a coveted production sloton Jay-Z’s The Black Album. Next on the plate: a follow-up to Little Brother’s 2003 indie sleeper, The Listening (probably on a major label); Atlantic is among the interested.

Young GunzThe Roc-A-Fella family continues to bring up heavy hitters from itsPhiladelphia farm system (see Beanie Sigel and Freeway). With theirbreakout hit “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop,” Young Gunz — Young Chris andNeef — showed that they knew how to fill dance floors from the windowto the wall. But if numerous mix-tape appearances are any evidence,their debut full-length, Tough Luv, will have plenty of the souped-up soul and crime rap that’s the Roc’s bread and cheddar.

J-HoodDrafted out of high school by his Yonkers, New York, neighbors the Lox,J-Hood has been dropping snippets of his so-called life all over theunderground mix-tape scene for two years now. He earned a rep with hisappearance on Sheek Louch’s “Mighty D-Block (2 Guns Up),” theunofficial street anthem of 2003, that combined the best of his D-Blockbrethren: Jadakiss’ punch-line savvy and Styles P’s concrete realism.Check for his solo album later this year on D-Block/Universal Motown.