"It's bigger than hip-hop," booms the chorus of Dead Prez's "Hip Hop," a characteristically blunt challenge for the hip-hop world to look beyond commercial success and the fetishized trappings of rap superstardom, and instead pursue nobler, more humanitarian goals. The message is directed largely at the paper-chasing über-capitalists dominating the hip-hop charts, but it seems equally applicable to underground hip-hop, where rap-centric tunnel vision has been the ruin of countless acts. A favorite of hip-hop purists the world over, particularly in Japan, Dilated Peoples embodies the strengths and weaknesses of the hip-hop-centered mindset better than any other act. Essentially a glorified version of the group's demo, Dilated Peoples' 2000 major-label debut The Platform revealed a group obsessed with battle-rap and terse displays of B-boy orthodoxy. Like its West Coast peers, Dilated Peoples rapped about its fondness for women and weed, but still sounded like it would rather caress the fine contours of vintage vinyl than manhandle a groupie or a blunt. Such devotion can be compelling, but it can also be incredibly limiting, which is a major reason The Platform never quite lived up to its considerable hype. The new Expansion Team, however, makes good on The Platform's promise by showcasing a battle-tested but exuberant group at the top of its form. Like nearly all of the West Coast underground, Dilated Peoples takes its cues from the sonically inventive, lyrically challenging ethos of late-'80s/early-'90s East Coast hip-hop, rather than the laid-back hedonism of the more thugged-out West Coast mainstream. For Expansion Team, the group actually had the clout and money to employ the likes of DJ Premier, Black Thought, ?uestlove, and Da Beatminerz. But as with The Platform, Expansion Team's best moments come courtesy not of its big-name guests, but from producer Alchemist, whose soulful production on "Worst Comes To Worst" packs much of the same visceral wallop as his work on the title track of Dilated Peoples' debut. More importantly, rappers Evidence and Rakaa Iriscience sound looser and more relaxed than on previous efforts, and their sense of joy in creation is infectious. Like Dilated Peoples, Arsonists paid considerable dues in the underground hip-hop scene, winning over crowds with energetic live performances while developing a reputation as a group of ferocious freestylers and battle-rappers. But where Dilated Peoples derives much of its B-boy allure from its stoicism, Arsonist fire-starters Q-Unique, Jise, and Swel 79 are quintessential class clowns with a weakness for goofy humor and conceptual tomfoolery. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire spoof "Millionaire." The final track of the group's new Date Of Birth combines three of hip-hop's most endearing tropes—the game-show parody, the spoof of a pop-culture phenomenon, and the fake commercial—in one conceptually overloaded track. Though the trio's cartoonish delivery and self-deprecating humor precludes a certain amount of soul-searching, Date Of Birth gets serious on one song, "His Hate, Her Love," a smart, harrowing look at the cyclical nature of emotional and physical abuse. Like Expansion Team, Date Of Birth doesn't reinvent hip-hop, but it mines considerable rewards just by operating within the style's familiar confines.