Although rap music became commercially viable only a few short years ago, the style itself has been around in one form or another since at least the late Sixties, when the Last Poets' brand of incendiary verbal politics first scorched the intelligentsia. A quarter of a century later, many members of the hip-hop community aren't nearly as receptive to new ideas of the sort the Poets once symbolized--and innovative performers such as those in New Kingdom are feeling the chill.
"Nowadays there's a lot of shit out there that's like this Cheez Whiz kind of music," says Sebastian, one half of the rap duo. "It's really manufactured. Back in the day, people put their blood and their sweat into their music. You can really feel it. And that's what we're trying to bring back."
Don't take that last comment as an indication that New Kingdom churns out retro rap. While Sebastian and his partner in rhyme, Nosaj, use samples, the source material they employ on their underappreciated Gee Street debut disc, 1993's Heavy Load, tends toward the unexpected; among the tracks the duo turns inside out are a pair by, respectively, the James Gang and Grand Funk Railroad. More important, the sounds they create through their combination of borrowed beats and live instrumentation gleefully trash conventional rap categories. From the tough, abrasive "Frontman" to the deliberately paced stoner anthem "Are You Alive?" New Kingdom evades every pigeonhole. It's an artistically satisfying approach, but one that Sebastian says has produced more than its share of problems.
"It's been very difficult," he concedes. "We send our videos to hip-hop shows and they say they're too alternative, and then we send them to alternative shows and they say they're too rap. And since the same thing's been happening with radio, we're getting very little airplay anywhere. People who program stuff don't really get on to something until it hits them in the face, and then it's a little bit too late."
Sebastian and Nasoj didn't set out to challenge conventional hip-hop wisdom. They met in 1987, when both were working at a vintage-clothing store in New York City, and were inspired to start a band after discovering their shared love of Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix and new-thang rap made by artists such as De La Soul. Three years later Gee Street offered to bankroll some New Kingdom demos. By 1992, when the label finally committed to a complete album, the twosome was ready. They put together part of the album at their home studio in Brooklyn, the rest during a brief residency in London. At both locations, Sebastian, Nasoj and producer Scott Harding employed the same loosely structured recording strategy.
"We'd go in like gangbusters, and then it was whatever happened by the end of the day," Sebastian recalls. "We'd go through records and come up with a basic track, and then Scott would play some guitar or whatever. And the kind of shit we wound up with was really dirty."
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Musically dirty, that is. Lyrically, New Kingdom rejects the now-standard gangsta stereotypes, as well as the woman-bashing that's become so commonplace in the genre. Not that Sebastian is one to preach against rappers who prefer a different style of wordplay. "We just write about who we are," he says. "We're not really sexist people. But if you listen to gangsta music, that doesn't mean you're going to go out and be misogynistic or start shooting people. Somebody might--look at John Hinckley. But you can't soften the blow just because somebody might not take it right. That's what's really fucked about these groups trying to come down on people with gangsta lyrics and shit. They're trying to make these generalizations about the whole human race, and that's not right."
As for New Kingdom, the act has thus far evaded complaints about its lyrics, even though many of its songs revolve around idleness and alcohol. And if criticism does come, Sebastian is already armed with a response. "We're just writing down what we observe," he says. "We may talk about getting drunk one night or high one day, but we're not really glorifying it. We're not telling people, `You should go out and buy a six-pack or a bottle of Stoli's.' It's just a part of our lives, that's all."
In the meantime, the band is doing its best to circumvent the New Kingdom media blackout by taking its show on the road--something that fledgling rap groups do all too rarely. "We have a live band with us, so when we play hip-hop venues, people don't really know what to expect," Sebastian notes. "But the good thing about touring is that you get to meet so many people, and even if you turn only one person on to the sound, that's still cool. It's grassroots--if you know what I mean."
New Kingdom, with Lord of Word and the Disciples of Bass. 9:30 p.m. Saturday, June 11, Seven South, 7 South Broadway, $5, 744-0513.