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.
"We were one of the first groups to incorporate a reggae artist in a group," Mister Man notes. "And Kaos and myself have different styles. Kaos is more like a B-boy, straight up with an edge, and I have the more analytical, complicated lyrics."
In another twist, the most frequently used word on Ambush isn't "motherfucker." The CD bears a parental-advisory warning, but it's more of a sop to record buyers suspicious of a rap disc the whole family could enjoy than a necessary admonition to parents that a few profanities may turn Junior into a crackhead. For the most part, tracks like "Pon De Attack" and "Original" are party music, with big chants, heavy backbeats and a sturdy sense of humor. For proof, check the single "Swing It," which references that bastion of hardcore The Muppet Show.
There are a few concessions to topicality here--particularly in "I Just Can't Stand It," a black-pride cut that drops the names of three prominent Kings: Martin Luther Jr., Rodney and Burger. More typical is "Get On Down," which uses key lines from Bob Marley's political manifesto "Get Up, Stand Up" as an admonition to have a good time.
Mister Man is far from apologetic about Da Babees' subject matter. "We feel that we don't have to talk about blunts and smoking and drinking and shooting people," he says. "A lot of people who claim that they've killed a lot of people haven't really done it, anyway, or else they'd be in jail. At the same time, cursing and all of that doesn't make up for a lack of skill. In Trinidad, it's not cool to curse and get violent and talk about guns. So we don't.
"We've had some pressure from the record company for doing what we do. You're always going to get that, because record companies want to sell records, and whatever's out now that's selling, that's what they want you to do. They're like, `Listen to that song. Why don't you try doing something a little like that, so we can sell that, too?' But that's not what we want to do."
Neither does Nine, who's particularly contemptuous of the gangsta rap that's still pouring out of Southern California. "It's out of control out there--everybody's trying to sound like Dr. Dre," he says. "It's getting monotonous. And what makes it worse is that lyrically and vocally, none of them can handle East Coast artists. We don't have to say `bitch' in every sentence, and we don't talk about blowing your head off for no reason. They need to show some creativity. Some of them are so talented that saying the same thing over and over again is a waste.
"People have got to start taking chances again. They hear a Biggie Smalls record and they want to make a Biggie Smalls record. They hear a Method Man record and they want to make a Method Man record. I hear those records and I want to make a Nine record. I enjoy Biggie, I enjoy Method, but copying them defeats the purpose. We're supposed to add something to the music, not just reproduce it."
Flip through the hottest current rap singles and you'll discover that this way of thinking isn't universally embraced: For every cut by comparatively innovative acts such as Naughty by Nature, Ol' Dirty Bastard and the Roots, there's three by future trivia questions like Da Brat, Craig Mack and a host of even less worthy one-shots. In an effort to avoid fading away as quickly as many of their competitors, Da Bush Babees and Nine are touring hard on the coasts as well as in middle-American locales, where rappers remain a relative novelty.
"Getting on the road is important," Mister Man says, "because a lot of people still don't consider hip-hop to be real music. I don't know why that is--they just don't take it seriously. But if they see a group live, they get a sense of the energy and they can understand a lot more where you're coming from."
"Certain markets, they don't play rap on the radio at all," Nine adds. "But sometimes that's a blessing, because the fans who do enjoy it are so hungry for it when you come there. And I'm getting a good response, because my music is hard-edged. It's shocking to some people, and if you didn't come from where I come from, you might not understand it. But a lot of people do.
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"If I'm an angry artist, it's because it took me so long to get to this point. I felt I was more skilled and talented than a lot of people who were getting breaks, and that frustrated me. I mean, this is really my last shot. I'm getting up there in age, you know."
And how old are you, Nine?
"Twenty-six, man," he answers guardedly, as if he's picturing all those under-25 CD buyers out there. "I'm 26."
Nine, Da Bush Babees and Kokomoz. 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 24, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $12.60, 447-0095 or 830-