While rap and hip-hop remain inaudible on most radio stations, the genre continues to represent the music of choice for a hefty percentage of the under-25 crowd, whose members dump more of their cash on CDs than those in any other single group. These are the people who put Friday, the soundtrack to the new Ice Cube film, atop the Billboard album chart in its first week of release--yet the volatility of their tastes is responsible for the rise and fall of one big-name rapper after another. Performers like the Fresh Prince, LL Cool J and Queen Latifah, who once sold millions of records, survive by doing TV sitcoms--and they're the lucky ones. Anyone remember Tone Loc? Oh, yeah--he had a bit part in Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.

Label executives have responded to this new-star-every-week environment in predictable ways: As they did during the teen-idol era of the early Sixties, they're figuratively throwing dozens of new faces against the wall in the hopes that some of them will stick. The situation presents opportunities and drawbacks to the hungry young rhymers suddenly given a shot at the big time. If their timing is right and luck is with them, they can go from obscurity to megafame faster than Andy Warhol ever imagined. If not, they'll get swallowed by the industry machine just as quickly--and the prospect of unimaginable riches will be replaced by a lifetime of wondering what the hell went wrong.

Right now, Nine, a solo artist from the Bronx, and Da Bush Babees, a three-piece from Flatbush, are in the process of learning in which direction their careers will go. Nine, whose CD Nine Livez was released by Profile, seems to have the upper hand right now; the distinctive single "Whutcha Want?" has been among the fifty top-selling rap cuts in the country for most of the past six months, and "Any Emcee" is on the rise. By comparison, the songs from Ambushed, Da Bush Babees' bow on the Reprise label, have turned fewer heads--but the group has a good reputation among New York scenesters as a result of energetic live shows and a sound that combines a party vibe with reggae skank. No one--including them--knows if these qualities will be enough to push Nine or Da Bush Babees over the top. But what is certain is that both have taken the high road with regard to their sound. At a time when mimickry of already successful stylists is proving to be the easiest way to make a short-term buck, they're actually doing their best to sound like themselves.

Nine, in particular, has been very measured in his development of a personal trademark--a deep, rumbling roar of a voice that he wields like a club. It's a technique that doesn't come to him naturally; rather, he invented it specifically to differentiate himself from the pack. "A lot of people knew that I could write good hooks," he says, in a tone much smoother and less flamboyant than he uses in his raps. "They knew I could structure songs, too, but I needed a voice that stood out. So I studied reggae artists and I did some vocal training. My cousin's a singer, see, and I drove him to his voice coach one day and sat in on the session. While I was there, I listened to what the coach said, wrote it down and then went home and starting practicing. And after I came up with my voice, I got a deal in no time.

"It doesn't hurt to do it. I've been doing it for two years now, and it's getting deeper and deeper. On my next album, it's going to be deeper still--and that'll make it harder for anyone to imitate me. There might be some people who'll try, but it'll be so blatant and obvious that everyone will say, `You're trying to sound like Nine.'"

To do so, an impressionist will have to do more than simply ape vocals--because Nine's musical approach is often as conceptual as his throaty growl. In many ways, Nine plays by the well-established rules of the game: Like so many hip-hop discs before it, Nine Livez features a mood-setting intro, song titles with altered articles and supplementary z's (e.g., "Da Fundamentalz") and lyrical imagery that blends boastfulness and machismo--in "Tha Cypha," for instance, Nine barks, "I've got O.J. Simpson's knife right at your gut." But he's also canny enough to engage in the fine art of juxtaposition, rubbing his Louis Armstrong-on-amphetamines delivery against sometimes incongruous musical backdrops. "Whutcha Want?" is the prime example: The surface's abrasiveness contrasts with a melody played by gently see-sawing violins.

"That was intentional," Nine confirms. "Pretty music and a rough voice. To me, that's another way of being original. For the next album, we're already messing around with orchestration. One song's going to have a symphony and everything--the Beethoven-type thing. Because next time, we've got to really step over the line."

Da Bush Babees are less blatantly purposeful than Nine, but they're also into playing with formulas--within limits, that is. Yeah, Ambush starts with an intro, too, and "Bleu Buttaflyze," the subtitle of "Remember We," exhibits that familiar z-mania. Still, the Babees mix things up thanks to three MCs with fairly unusual pedigrees: Babe-Face Kaos and Mister Man are both natives of Trinidad, while Y-Tee is a Jamaican whose very pale skin color led to his moniker. The trio's West Indian heritage doesn't overpower Da Bush Babees' sound--Ambush remains, unmistakably, a hip-hop disc. But Y-Tee shades tracks like "Ruff N' Rugged" with modified toasting of the sort that often appears in dancehall and ska but only occasionally distinguishes rap.

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