Asian Flav

Nicolo also claims the group's lack of experience with labels and recording played a role. "I will take as much blame as the band for what happened," he says. "They will continuously get better. At the time they were still in the process of learning."

To compensate for Sony's reluctance, Ruffhouse made several musical suggestions to the group, which the Mountain Brothers found unacceptable. The label intimated that the band's music -- more specifically Chops' jazzy, organic production -- wouldn't meet Ruffhouse's multiplatinum sales expectations.

The band's refusal to compromise was born even before it signed with Ruffhouse. At that time labels were displaying a remarkable amount of ignorance about the trio. One major-label executive, says Chops, wanted to use their ethnic backgrounds as a warped marketing vehicle and suggested they perform on stage wearing karate outfits and wielding gongs. Another, after complimenting their music, explained, "There's only one problem. You're Asian."

All of which only inspires the Mountain Brothers to change what they don't like about the guns-and-glamour image of modern commercial hip-hop. "We're making the music that we want to hear and putting it out there," says Styles, an enormous fan of Biz Markie -- rap's clown prince. "We're not happy with the music that's out there now, for the most part, so we're putting out stuff that we are happy with."

Still, that stuff has grown older during the group's struggle to release it. The album's newest track, "Whiplash," is already a year old, while "Paperchase," a standout track about the pursuit of the almighty dollar in which Chops' soulful keys provide a lush, hypnotic melody, was recorded more than three years ago -- an eternity in the rap world. Most acts choose not to release music this "old," but when listeners have yet to hear such a sound, it remains fresh. "There's a song called 'Brand Name' that we made about two years ago when the commercialization of hip-hop was just starting," says Styles of the name-brand craze popularized by Puff Daddy. "It was kind of cool that it applies even more today."

"Brand Name" also gives fans a taste of the Brothers' humor. Instead of hip-hop's customary Versace or Gucci references, Styles, with a wink, rhymes about brand names for the rest of us: "Don't player-hate me or my Trader Bay henleys/We stay at Super 8's and break fast at Denny's." Some rap critics, however, don't seem to get the joke. "What really struck me is that when we sent out album dubs to various reviewers, a few would be, like, 'I liked everything on the album except "Love Poetry" and "Oh, Oh, Oh,"'" says Styles. "They didn't realize those were joke songs. And I thought that was odd, until I realized that people don't really make humorous-type songs anymore, and so it didn't even occur to the reviewer that we were not being serious."

But overall, the Mountain Brothers rely less on humor than on bread-and-butter microphone skills. "Fluids" finds Styles ingeniously summing up their experience in major-label purgatory: "Record companies are just like Weight Watchers/They take your loot/They make you less fat but more popular."

Fresh from well-received tour dates opening for A Tribe Called Quest, and on the eve of Self's release, the band remains mindful of its beginning -- the three artists began rhyming seven years ago, while attending Penn State.

The reason they came together? Just for fun.

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