In the pop-music universe, three years is a long time--but not that long. A megahit album can keep spewing singles for much of that span, and even groups who have achieved more moderate success with their debuts can put off their sophomore efforts for 36 months or so and still survive.
But hip-hop is another story. The life expectancy of the average rap group is comparable to that of the average housefly. Have a smash one year and you'd better have a smash the next, or you'll wind up as extinct as the dodo. Sure, a few rhymers (like Queen Latifah) have beaten this death sentence, but they're the exceptions. And besides, would you really want to become a cast member of Living Single?
Right now, Das EFX is wrestling with this conundrum. Skoob and Dray, the duo behind the moniker, first hit the national scene in 1992 with Dead Serious, a platter that sold more than a million copies, thanks mainly to Skoob's distinctive verbal skills. His trademark--an ability to stretch out words by inserting nonsense syllables into their midsections--soon became a common part of nearly every rapper's repertoire. As a result, 1993's Straight Up Sewaside, released by EastWest (whose execs expected it to be a major commercial breakthrough), was seen by many observers as an imitation of the very approach Skoob had pioneered. Its negligible sales have made Hold It Down, issued late last year, a make-or-break proposition. And Skoob knows it.
"You've got to maintain," he says, "and know that this is just a cycle. It goes through the same thing year after year. So you have to be on point, and each time you have to elevate. You can't stay in one position. You know what your fans are looking for, but at the same time you have to keep them interested. You can't just throw out something that you threw out last year. They know you for a certain thing, but they always want to hear what else you can do."
The pressure, the stress, the constant vigilance: These demands weren't part of the scenario when Skoob and Dray first joined forces. They're both from the urban East--Skoob was born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Dray hails from New Jersey--but they met while attending Virginia State University. Before long the two were campus celebrities, and their status was enhanced after a 1991 rap contest judged by the members of EPMD, a cadre of Long Islanders whose 1988 platter, Strictly Business, established them as heavyweights on the scene. Das EFX didn't win the prize that night, but EPMD's Parrish Smith was suitably impressed, and he subsequently made Skoob and Dray a personal project. Dead Serious was the spawn of this relationship, and the combination of the EPMD production stamp and Skoob's oral calisthenics made Das a fast riser on the national scene. That was fine by Skoob, but he was also enough of a hip-hop student to understand the importance of sustaining ties to the musical underground--the "sewa," in Das lexicon.
When it came time to cut a Serious followup, Skoob and Dray found themselves in the midst of a hip-hop soap opera. Specifically, EPMD partners Smith and Erick Sermon split up, prompting a name change (the original appellation stood for "Erick and Parrish Making Dollars") and the usual brew of bad blood. The newly tagged PMD oversaw Straight Up Sewaside and managed to give it an effective gloss. But by the time it reached stores, the mania for new studio methods left Sewaside sounding like yesterday's news. Or at least that's the way Skoob explains it.
"The beats were okay," he insists, "but there were a lot of new producers coming up, and they were taking over the airwaves. It was their thing that year. And since we'd used the same crew on Straight Up as we did on Dead Serious, it didn't really work with the mainstream crowd. They couldn't really feel what we were doing. Our underground fans stayed with us, but that was about it."
In addition, there was the wholesale thievery of Skoob's linguistic technique--a topic that really gets his dander up.
"A lot of people want to be a star," he begins. "And there's so much money in this hip-hop thing that they'll do anything to get into it. It's just a good way to get some money, and once one person does it, everyone thinks, `I can do that, too,' even if they don't really have their own sound. And when somebody at a record label hears a new group sounding like another, well-established group, he goes, `Damn, I should have had that other group in the first place. So, all right, I'm going to go out and get somebody who sounds like them.' You know what I'm saying? And then they take this not-as-creative person and put them out, put a lot of money behind them and they confuse the public. The real hardcore, underground people know what's going on. They know that the second label fucked the niggaz who were original. But nobody else knows. And when the second record blows up, the underground cat gets lost in the shuffle.
"Now, sometimes people aren't really trying to imitate. They just look up to certain people, and if some eleven-year-old out there picks up on Das, then he's going to sound like Das. But that kid's got to learn that you can like this guy and like that guy and like the next guy, and you can take what you can from them and make it your own. But you shouldn't take that man's creation. Just try to put something of yourself in there and keep it real. Because that's what hip-hop is."
Hip-hop is also a stern, unforgiving taskmaster. Knowing this, the twosome behind Das EFX decided to swing for the fences with Hold It Down. They maintained their loyalty to Parrish Smith and PMD on a handful of tracks, but they also brought in some trendy dial twisters: Gang Starr's DJ Premier, who produced the most recent CD from KRS-One, and Easy Mo Bee, who got the latest from the Notorious B.I.G. and Craig Mack on tape. In addition, KRS-One dropped by for an appearance on "Represent the Real."
These shifts result in a robust recording--no genuine breakthrough, but a saucy showcase for Skoob's weird wordplay. A typical example of his quirky gifts can be found on the single "Microphone Master," in which he casually juxtaposes references to those kindred spirits, mass killer Colin Ferguson and Neil Simon character Felix Unger. "Working with different people definitely brought out things people in hip-hop never heard from Das before," Skoob claims. "We write by using the beat, the mood of the song, so writing for three or four different producers definitely changed the sound. Which was basically our purpose."
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Nevertheless, Hold It Down isn't setting the charts on fire. In fact, it isn't on the charts at all right now. But rather than quietly accepting that their race is run, Skoob and Dray are in the midst of a nationwide tour intended to keep the support of those hip-hop fans who aren't dependent upon radio stations to tell them who is hot and who isn't. With broadcasters in Denver and other major cities shying away from rap almost entirely, Skoob concedes that this tack may soon become a necessity for combos on Das's level.
"Way back in the day, you had groups like NWA and EPMD going gold, platinum, double platinum, with no airplay at all," he notes. "So the radio thing really doesn't matter. As long as the music is strong, good things are going to happen anyway. If we go mainstream, it's a plus for us, no doubt. But we're making our songs for fans, not so that radio will play them a hundred times a day. This is hip-hop, and hip-hop is underground music. And if people in the underground can feel and hear what we're doing, then we'll be fine."
Still, Skoob is not blind to reality. In the vast scheme of things, he's a very young man, but as far as hip-hop is concerned, he's a grizzled veteran. "I feel that way, too," he says. "There are so many groups coming out these days, you can hardly keep up. One day you're on top and the next day you're on the bottom. Just to be in the game for three years is pretty good."
Onyx, with Das EFX, Insane Clown Posse and Group Home. 6 p.m. Tuesday, January 9, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $17.85, 447-0095.