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LORDS OF THE UNDERGROUND (Buy CDs by this artist)
Here Come the Lords (Pendulum/Elektra) 1993
Keepers of the Funk (Pendulum) 1994

Like other hardcore musicians, hip-hoppers are generally presumed to come from America's teeming underclass; between the harsh language, rough stylings and streetwise sensibility, it's hard for casual observers to imagine mic-checking products of the environment by way of stable families, comfortable circumstances and college educations. Though rarely discussed, class does play a role in shaping rap style; without correlating thousands of musicians' personal histories and the contents of their records, the anecdotal evidence suggests that rappers favoring lighthearted whimsy and trippy examinations of pop culture's frivolities in their work aren't people whose real lives have been a daily struggle to survive. (The converse, thanks to self-proclaimed gangstas, is by no means reliably true, however.)

Formed at Shaw University in North Carolina, Lords of the Underground — Doitall (Dupré Kelly), Mr. Funky (Al-Terik Wardrick) and DJ Lord Jazz (Bruce Colston) — returned home to Newark, New Jersey (Colston is actually from Cleveland) and launched their career via producer Marley Marl, who happened to be their first manager's cousin. Smoothly entertaining, loaded with diverting references, nearly wholesome and just loopy enough to make a lasting impression, Here Come the Lords walks a cagey line between straight-up hardcore and a slightly removed pop version of it. (The bonus track, "What's Goin' On," takes a step back to offer a bemused, indignant observation that "Everybody and their momma got a rap song...What used to be noise is now making a killing.") Marl's beats are, as usual, effective, imaginative and inconspicuous, setting the Lords on a solid platform from which to rhyme. The trio's claims to underground credibility are belied by the album's easy accessibility — even "Grave Digga" is no threat to public safety — but the Lords manage a deft verbal dance across prejudicial barriers with tough talk and friendly charm.

The solid success of their debut lit a flame of mercantile desire; merry dreams of metallic rewards and chart rankings dance through their heads on Keepers of the Funk. Besides razzing human beatboxery ("...shooting spit in your face"), "What I'm After" specifies "the gold and, after that, the platinum...a stack of those plaques" as the goal; thanks to the trio's good-humored intelligence, however, the Lords come off more motivated than greedy. Too often, the MCs lock into tiresome repetition of taglines rather than substantial verses here, but when their pens get busy (as on the old-schooly "Tic Toc"), the sophomore jams are as much fun as the debut's. George Clinton even drops by to offer his words of encouragement on the title track.

[Ira Robbins]