YOU MIGHT THINK of hip-hop as being divided into two camps. On one side of the ring with their bling are mainstream rappers - all about the cheddar, flashy beats, blow jobs, chart placement, and "keeping it real." On the other side of the ring, rocking knit caps, are indie MCs, espousing DIY production, street-corner ciphers, mature lyrics, and "the real hip-hop." And in the middle are Busdriver and Radioinactive, just waiting to get beat up for straying way outside the formulas.

The two MCs - who are presently on tour with Andre Asmar and Awol One - come from a new and mutated strain of hip-hop that's all about keeping it surreal. Off and on, their flow resembles the psychedelic, left-field sounds of Anticon and Boom Bip, the ballistic delivery of Aceyalone, and the vocabulary and topical humor of Thirstin Howell III, but it's hard to define them by one particular scene's rules.

If anything, the two typify artists on the Mush Records label, who open up the hip-hop paradigm to influences from techno and beat poetry to Coltrane and Cobain. The strategy has paid off in attracting new listeners to hip-hop. "The Mush crowd always seems to be a mélange of people, from the b-boy to the more emo, sensitive-looking guy to an older crowd, like a comic book-collecting crowd," Radioinactive says on the phone from a tour date in Ohio. "It's definitely more of a mixed crowd than we're used to seeing, but that's definitely good."

Living the Good Life

Busdriver and Radioinactive came of age in Los Angeles' multifaceted underground hip hop scene, which was centered on the Project Blowed MC workshop and the Good Life Café, where artists like Jurassic 5 and Medusa honed their styles before an unforgiving audience of peers. Busdriver - whose first hip-hop group as a teenager was called 4/29, after the date of the 1992 L.A. riots - says Los Angeles never gets enough credit for changing the face of modern hip-hop. "There's definitely a lot of signature things in underground hip-hop that have come from L.A.," he explains over the phone. "The open mic [at the Good Life Café] started in 1989 and stopped in 1994, and to me it was the archetype for the open mic night, [what NYC's] Lyricist Lounge based their whole thing off of. Freestyling was taken up a few steps in L.A. and on the West Coast in general, as far as being able to take an idea and go with it and take a style and create it on the spot."

Although both artists knew each other through friends, they developed their styles separately, with Busdriver creating a cabaretlike feel with his varying mic personae and Radioinactive pursuing personal topics and a world music quality on his productions with Anti MC. Their solo albums, 2002's Temporary Forever and 2001's Pyramidi, respectively, showcased rapid-fire, staccato lyrical prowess and a nonlinear storytelling style but only hinted at the theater of the absurd that awaits listeners on The Weather, their collaborative album with experimental techno producer Daedelus.

Heavy 'Weather'

Listening to The Weather is like sugar-rushing on cereal and watching Saturday-morning cartoons, like an Ionesco play, like being temporarily stricken by attention deficit disorder and schizophrenia at the same time. Musically, Daedelus, blithely lays down campy theme songs, haunted house glitch-hop, and tracks that go bump in the night, with loping, clacking drums that refuse to fall into a straight formation and machines gurgling in the background like they're talking back to the rhymes. Lyrically, Busdriver and Radioinactive paint abstract pictures, squeaking like helium suckers one minute and bleating out a low baritone the next, and sometimes talking in tandem. Rhymes flow like random thoughts.

"Like asking a sasquatch to taste your gazpacho / That's a nice watch, bro / I bought it from Costco," Radioinactive busts on "Exaggerated Joy." He pauses, then murmurs, "God, I like pasta." "You ask what's The Weather," Busdriver poses on 'Name Forgetter,'"I have a wet umbrella / He has a parasol in the sand / So guess what it is us, and when you are in the The Weather, you're covered with tar and chicken feathers."

Similar twists

Radioinactive says that, on tour, he and Busdriver often talk like they rhyme, in conversations full of oblique references and oddball in-jokes. "We definitely have a similar type of twisted humor,"he notes. "There's definitely a lot of elliptical moments in our conversations and a lot of non sequitur, nonlinear jokes going on."

Each place the pair travel to together brings new inspiration, often from the most unlikely sources. "We were just on the East Coast, so we spent a lot of time doing funny freestyles," Radioinactive says. "It was a lot of that East Coast hip-hop, hiccup, kid-type stuff, double-goose jacket and riding the train with piranha-type rhymes. We're just traveling from region to region, absorbing a lot of different styles and throwing them back out into the universe."

Triple vision

Working on The Weather, the two MCs had plenty of time in the studio to get used to each other's style and sense of humor. The project was their first collaboration, and it was also their first time working with a producer like Daedelus, whose music strays far from hip-hop's standard 4/4 time signatures. "It was really a challenging thing to do a song with him," Busdriver explains. "It's not a very straightforward process. It's not like a straight song where I drop my lyrics over it. Sometimes I just lay down my lyrics and then he rearranges the song and turns it into something else."

"He's not a hip-hop producer, and he has a very mathematical, interesting way of creating music," Radioinactive adds. "He would give us these song structures and sometimes we wouldn't even have drums or the beats would be in different time signatures. All that definitely had a strong influence on pushing us in a different direction."

"Producing The Weather was sometimes like wearing bifocals,"Daedelus concurs via e-mail during a European tour. "One half was my own electronic composition and the other some take on hip-hop music. Seeing clearly wasn't happening, but maybe that became its own strength."

Downtempo downtime

The L.A.-based producer is known for tackling experimental downtempo beats with a fondness for childlike melodies, quirky samples, and midcentury string arrangements, but he says he learned a lot from working with both vocalists. "On the surface they both express themselves in a fast, varied cadence, but as I have gotten to know their working habits, I have come to recognize and respect some differences," he writes."Bus works well over the askew beats and has a good voice for vocals, whereas Radio can take a steadier loop and make it feel varied by his unanticipated phrasing choices. They really play well together; perhaps they paid attention in preschool."

Though Daedelus won't be able to join the pair's present tour, he will be present via video. Going even more esoteric, the trio have concocted a theme for their show based on a fake corporation called Winthorp and Winthorp, with a digitized Daedelus playing a suited representative. "It's kind of just an ongoing joke that we toy with throughout the show," Busdriver says. "We're a company that makes synth bots, and there's all these weird things about clothes and blah. It's just a random barrage of things." Not unlike everything in The Weather 's created climate.

Busdriver and Radioinactive perform as part of the Mush Records tour Sun/18, 9 p.m., Storyville, 1751 Fulton, S.F. $7. (415) 441-1751.


Mush Records