By Noah Hubbell
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Dannell McNeil is a rapper, singer and soon-to-be music mogul with ambitions as stratospheric as Don King's hair. As the point person for his own record label and production company, W&D Productions/Risk Entertainment, McNeil has set some lofty goals, and he pulls no punches when naming them. "I want to offer something for everybody, something the family can watch and listen to, something for the teenage crowd and adults," he says. In this pursuit, McNeil has placed himself in some pretty estimable company. "My goal is to be like Berry Gordy with the flavor of a Tommy Mottola. I feel like I'm the Muhammad Ali of entertainment when it comes to music. I'm not holding my tongue -- I'm coming out striking and kicking ass because that's all I got, and it's coming from my soul."
Like many artists who decide to form their own recording companies, McNeil hopes to build a label that provides an alternative to the sheep mentality he perceives as pervasive in the record industry. "By me driving an independent label," he says, "we'll have the freedom to break the mold. Right now the industry is just follow-the-leader, ever since gangster rap set such a trend across the country." His observation of the industry's reluctance to accept and promote acts with a more positive orientation, especially in the rap world, has led him to follow an independent route, and he plans on becoming the first act to break out on W&D. Although McNeil originated the label's concept in the late '80s, it wasn't until last year that he got it up and running, with the release of his maxi-single, "Risky Lover." The single, currently available at area Media Play stores and at Sunshine Records in Aurora, is meant to give audiences a taste of what's to come in the early spring, when he drops a full-length album of the same name.
The taste that "Risky Lover" provides is a good sample of McNeil's style. It's a funky, up-tempo cut that manages to convey a message without sounding too preachy. The song, he says, has many different messages, all of which are drawn from McNeil's own experiences as a reformed player and a single father. "There's me being the risky lover, where, hey, I ain't afraid to take the risk," he says. "If a woman wanted to be with me, whether she's single or married, hey. But now I've grown more mature." There's also an overt message of the importance of practicing safe sex, something McNeil feels can never be stressed enough. "Going into the year 2000, everybody's screwing everybody. Let's just be real: How many people are thinking smart, being safe, using a condom?" "Risky Lover" fits in with McNeil's goal of creating songs that inspire and educate rather than degrade and denigrate, something that he sees as another point of departure between his work and business approach and that of many major labels. As an indie-label head and performer, he says one of his intentions is to "keep pushing the industry to stop calling women 'bitches' and stop pushing the drug and gang warfare."
Another song that attempts to achieve this end is "Don't Get Hooked on a Junkie," which will also appear on Risky Lover. Lyrically, the track is a frank narrative of substance abuse. "It's plain and simple," he says. "If you're using drugs, get out of my face, because I don't want to be a part of it. I'm conveying the message from a person that had to pull a child out of a drug-infested environment."
Perhaps the strongest track that McNeil has laid down so far is the autobiographical old-school-flavored rap "Single Daddy." The track chronicles his time in Los Angeles, when he had to make important life decisions that affected not only him, but his then very young son. "California turned me from a boy into a man," he says. The song has a man-child narrator who proves he's tough enough to ride with anyone ("Cruising from Cali/Straight out the Valley/Still rolling Caddy") but also poses a direct challenge to the OGs who ignore parenting in favor of gangster posturing ("So, punk, you think it's fun cold-cocking triggers like a sniper/Stay at home sometime and change your child's dirty ass diapers/Gangster baby-maker ain't the answer"). The lyrics, spoken with a braggadocio swagger, cut right to the heart of one of the rapper's core beliefs. "In America, there are too many piss-poor men who want to hop under the covers without taking responsibility for what comes out of the covers," he says. In the song, which he dedicates to his son (whom he asked remain unnamed in this article), McNeil challenges men to raise their children, because he believes it is one of the best gifts they can offer. "It's easy to pull a trigger, but it's hard to change a diaper," he says, adding, "Most men want to pawn their child off on their woman."
McNeil knows well the temptation to eschew parental responsibilities. In October 1990, his son was born in Denver. Prior to the birth, McNeil split his time between Denver and California, where he served in the Air Force and pursued his dreams as an actor and musician. He worked as an extra and behind the scenes in movies such as Disney's The Rocketeerand Ladybugs, with Rodney Dangerfield, and he fronted his own R&B group, the Risky Lovers. The Lovers enjoyed some moderate success, opening for such Def Jam comedy acts as Jamie Foxx.