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."
Getting such tales heard in his adopted hometown has proven to be a challenge for Vamp. "Everybody here is so influenced by other states. If it comes from Cali, it's the bomb, if it comes from New York, it's the bomb, and if it doesn't come from there, it must not be the bomb, and therefore, they don't support it. As a matter of fact, they don't even listen. They don't give it a chance." This problem is exacerbated by the unwillingness of KS-107.5 and other commercial radio stations to give airplay to Colorado artists. "If the radio doesn't start coming to terms or doesn't start letting us get a 'Slam It or Jam It,' I think it's time for local artists to start a boycott or a strike. It's time to be a little stronger. We're pretty much letting them give us whatever. It's time to start taking."
Such aggressiveness has paid off for Vamp thus far. He's formed his own label, Pure Breed Records, with partner Daniel "Tank" Elliot, and together they convinced staffers at Media Play to move copies of Real from the local bin to the national rap section. The results have been excellent thus far. "When it was in the local section, it wasn't touched for two weeks," Elliot says. "But when they put us in regular rap, we sold maybe 200 copies." The CD is also available at Tower Records outlets nationwide thanks to a distribution deal Pure Breed inked with City Hall, a firm that Master P used prior to making it big. And Vamp is confident that more stores will stock the disc following an upcoming mini-tour with Nyke Loc that will take him to Seattle, Portland and numerous metropolian areas in California. Vamp is also making the most of his Sacramento connections: He's set to guest on the next release by Sacramento rapper X-Rated Loc, and one of his songs is expected to appear on a compilation titled Who Put Sac on the Map?, Volume II.
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Nevertheless, Vamp isn't ready to give up on the Mile High City quite yet. "Somebody is going to open the door for Denver," he says. "It's cracked now, and it wants to open so bad. All it needs is a few more pushes and I think it will open. So I'm going to keep knocking on the door." He adds, "Denver is going to be on fire when I get done. They're going to be Vamp-crazy in this state."
Vamp swears, however, that he's interested in more than Benjamins. He speaks emotionally about Rodney Powell, a friend from Sacramento whose death casts a shadow over Real: "He was a really strong figure in my life. He was older than me, and he pretty much gave me feedback on how I see life today." He hopes he can pass along the same sort of wisdom to members of the younger generation.
"Some of them out there are lost," he says. "They're taking the same road I took when I was lost. I know, because I've been there and I've already done that. But if they can just read between the lines in my songs, they can realize that there's another way out.