Visitors to Atlantic Records' Internet home will find the Nappy Roots listed among the imprint's roster of artists, and an affiliated website that's linked there remains fully functional. But despite appearances, the performers have moved on, and rhymer William Hughes, who goes by Skinny DeVille, makes it clear that the decision was entirely theirs. "We saw a window where we could take more control of our own destiny," DeVille says, "so we took the chance and got out."
Atlantic's eagerness to look as if the Nappy ones are still in the fold makes perfect sense. The act's 2002 Atlantic debut, Watermelon, Chicken and Gritz, scored a trifecta, going platinum, winning critical acclaim and earning a Grammy nomination for the single "Po' Folks." And if 2003's Wooden Leather didn't go down quite as smoothly as its predecessor, it was hardly a failure. The disc fell just short of gold status, and the reviews it received were typically as glowing as those garnered by Gritz.
Nevertheless, the Nappies -- Deville, Ron Clutch (Ronald Wilson), R. Prophet (Kenneth Anthony), Big V (Vito Tisdale), B. Stille (Brian Scott) and Fish Scales (Melvin Adams) -- were uniformly dissatisfied with Atlantic's Leather campaign. In DeVille's words, "We put a lot of thought and effort into that album, and it hurt to see that they didn't work it as hard as they did for the first album. They thought they could come in and promote it lightly, just go off the Nappy Roots name, but you can't do that with hip-hop. You really need to get into people's faces."
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No doubt staffers at other labels would eagerly volunteer for such duty. Rather than troll for another deal, however, the group's members chose a far riskier course. Last year, they purchased and renovated a studio in their home state of Kentucky and recorded the lion's share of four discs there: solo joints by DeVille, R. Prophet and Fish Scales, and a new Nappy disc, all of which are tentatively slated for release in 2006. Furthermore, they formed NR Music as "an umbrella company that houses all our individual production companies," DeVille says. While he wants to secure distribution for NR's musical offerings through a specialty firm, he adds, "We'll handle graphic design, production and marketing in-house. We'd been doing that before, but when we were on Atlantic, it got put on hold. Now that we're free, we want to capitalize on that and use what we learned in college."
You read right: Unlike those hip-hop figures who jaw about dropping out (ahem, Kanye West) or matriculating from the school of hard knocks (Jay-Z, etc.), the Nappy Roots proudly acknowledge their high-level scholastic background. The players met circa the mid-'90s at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, and DeVille stuck around long enough to receive a diploma. "I ended up getting a general-studies degree, but my major was mass communications," he notes. "I took a lot of marketing classes, a lot of Internet classes, a lot of television, radio and business classes."
His studies paid dividends. In addition to forming the act during this period, DeVille and his partners also launched ET's Music, a record store that sold discs by area artists, not to mention promotional T-shirts that became a hot on-campus commodity. Even so, the most important aspect of ET's turned out to be a mini-studio where the collective cut the tunes that would make up its initial effort, 1998's Country Fried Cess.
The CD sold well enough at ET's and elsewhere to attract Atlantic's attention, and although Gritz was a long time coming, it proved to be a tasty dish. Many of the tunes have an infectious Southern-party feel, and the accompanying lyrics are typically as entertaining as they are forthright. Instead of boasting about bling they didn't sport at that point, the Nappies offered "Ballin' on a Budget," which proves that good times are possible without an unlimited credit line. The chorus of "Po' Folks" puts an equally upbeat spin on similar themes: "All my life, been po'/But it really don't matter no mo'/And they wonder why we act this way/Nappy Roots gon' be okay."
People from disparate walks of life reacted positively to the outfit's fun-filled brand of honesty; Kentucky governor Paul Patton went so far as to designate each September 16 as "Nappy Roots Day" in the state. Yet on Wooden Leather, the group refused to turn poverty palaver into shtick. The platter balances merrymaking of the sort that runs through "What Cha Gonna Do? (The Anthem)," co-starring crunkmeister Lil Jon, with the consciousness of "War/Peace," in which DeVille outlines societal miseries before declaring, "It's time for revolution/Get your gauge and bullets off the shelf."
DeVille concedes that some of this material "went over the heads" of people who saw the Nappy Roots as simple down-homeboys. Still, because of turmoil at Atlantic, the disc didn't have much of a chance. "They weren't really solidified as a label when we were coming out with the album," he says. "There were a lot of layoffs. They lost their president, they lost half of the promotion-and-marketing department, they lost a lot of people who were working on our project and a lot of other projects, too. At the time our album came out, they were more concerned about their jobs and their families than working our project. We understood, but at the same time, it was upsetting to us. We'd go back into markets where we'd been before -- and the first time, they'd known we were coming, but the second time, radio stations didn't have our product, and no one was prepared. I was like, 'This is bullshit.'"
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Atlantic personnel confessed in private that they "dropped the ball" when it came to Leather, DeVille maintains, and they promised to do better on the next one, which they hoped would be coming soon. Still, DeVille wasn't placated, and he found himself wondering if Atlantic deserved the huge slice of revenues its accountants were grabbing. "We were like, 'Why do we have to keep tap-dancing around this major when we see all these independents that are making so much money?'" he says. "A lot of independents are making money only selling 100,000 units, and our fan base is between 350,000 and 750,000 people. Plus, the dollar value goes up when you're on an independent. Instead of making a dollar-fifty, two dollars a CD on a major, you have the opportunity to make seven, eight dollars on an independent. And my mama didn't raise no fool: If we sold as many records independently as we sold on Atlantic, I'd be more than tripling my money."
Clearly, the Nappies aren't interested in experiencing destitution again, but neither have they become greed-is-good poster children. They've spearheaded a number of education initiatives in Kentucky, including a DVD designed to teach third- through seventh-graders multiplication tables via hip-hop. Even more ambitious is a program developed by B. Prophet in conjunction with the University of Louisville and Jefferson Community College to help students that the No Child Left Behind Act has, well, left behind. "We have teachers who volunteer to come in on Saturdays to help kids who maybe can't read as well they should to really understand words and sentence structure and this, that and the other," he says. "And at the same time, we have classes for their parents about things like money management and real-estate investment so they can learn how to make their lives and their income a little more stable when they're waiting on their kids." He laughs as he adds, "I find myself sitting in on the classes and picking up a thing or two."
Experience has taught him plenty as well. "As a rapper, your future's not as stable as you'd want it to be, because hip-hop changes so quickly, and we don't like to stick to our artists. In rock, people who supported the Rolling Stones way back when still do. But in hip-hop, that's just not how it is. Hip-hop's about youth, about the hottest thing coming out. So we can't wait around for a major label to help us. The time to capitalize financially is now, and we've got to be able to do it for ourselves."