By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Inkoo Kang
By Dave Herrerra
By Josiah M. Hesse
By Britt Chester
By Noah Hubbell
Vamp Dogg may sound like a gangster, but he insists that he doesn't make gangsta rap.
"I'm not into that shoot-'em-up, bang-bang kind of stuff where you're pretty much killing through the album," he says. "That's fake. If you walk into the bank and kill everyone or shoot some cop, you're not going to go out to the car, smoke some blunts and go back into the 'hood. It's not real."
Does that mean Vamp specializes in watered-down hip-hop for the Brandy and Monica crowd? Hardly. Gotta Keep It Real, his debut disc, is filled with reports of murder and mayhem that probably won't go over well at the next meeting of the Police Benevolent Association. In his opinion, though, his songs can't be dismissed as the aural equivalent of slasher films. Instead, they're what he calls "reality rap"--reports from ground zero that counterbalance gore with the kind of detail most emcees miss. "I take it to the level where I talk about childhood experiences, or I'll talk about dirty homies or people you can't trust," he says. "The whole album is based on things that I've seen, done and just know about. I've seen it happen; I've lived around it. This is what you see growing up in the urban ghetto life."
The rapper is no stranger to the street. He grew up in Sacramento, and by the time he reached his teens, he was running with a rough crew whose activities occasionally ended with him behind bars. "I was caught up in something deep--and I was in and out of that damn state-paid higher-education system they've got," he says. He moved to Denver in 1994 in an effort to pull himself out of this downward spiral. The change of environment helped him realize, he says, "that I was here to do something other than fuck up my life."
The following year, a Vamp selection was included on No Coast Line, a 1995 compilation assembled by area scenester Hakeem Abdul Khaaliq. But Vamp is far from proud of this accomplishment. "That song sucks, to be honest," he says. "It was my first exposure on the mike." The problem, he believes, is that he looked upon music at the time as a hobby, not as a career opportunity: "I was never trying to get serious as far as making an album or going to the studio on a regular basis. I was just doing it for fun with the homies." That changed in early 1998, when Vamp began laying down the tracks for Gotta Keep It Real. With the assistance of locals such as Chris Johnson and Boozilla, who've worked with Nyke Loc and Kingdom, and Deuce Mob's DJ Fame, Vamp put together a professional-sounding joint that foregrounds his brash rhymes with ominous beats.
"The Prayer," which kicks off the CD, initially seems like an odd introduction, but Vamp feels that it's perfectly appropriate. "I want to let you know right here and now that gangsters do pray," he says. "The album was filled with lots of drama, so before I get into drama--just like if you were on the streets and about to do whatever--I like to go home and pray."
The search for loyalty in a disloyal world is a major theme on several Real cuts. On the title song, R&B vocalist Dai Dae croons in the background as Vamp asks, "To be real or not to be?/That is the question that I ask of thee/Where are all my true soldiers at in my time of need?" He later spews venom at "playa-hating envious types" who "hate to see me come up because your pockets ain't right"--a reference to certain members of the black community who, he feels, resent any peer who succeeds. "It's not just the people who don't know you who it's hard to trust," he says. "It's the people who do know you. Like they say: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer."
"Get Out Tha Game" looks at a different kind of relationship--one involving a dope slinger and his lover, who wants him to reject his dangerous lifestyle. Featuring the prodigious talents of Carla Andrews, a student at East High School who was only sixteen when she recorded her part, "Game" is "a two-sided song," Vamp explains. "I let a female do her point of view, and then I came in and did the male point of view. She says she needs more time with her man, who's out there selling dope, gang-banging, and he's saying, 'Baby, this is what I've got to do to make ends meet. Let me do my thing.' I leave it up to you what side you want to take."
He takes a similar position when it comes to the gunplay that crops up frequently on Real. "I don't condone violence, but we are in a time of murder and violence," he says. "This is '98, and this is where we're at. People can ignore it; they can try to go, 'Oh, you're glamorizing murder.' But I don't really see it that way. You turn on the TV, Channel 7, and all the time they're telling you about gang-related shootings. And if that's not glamorizing murder, then neither am I. I'm simply telling you a story from my side."