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Swan Song

They'll give you something to quack about: The Long Beach hip-hop trio Ugly Duckling.

In the rap world, Long Beach, California, carries with it a certain stylistic connotation. When most hip-hop fans think of the town on Los Angeles's southern edge, they think of hard-edged rappers laying down rhymes about gangster life set to that classic laid-back G-Funk sound. Not surprisingly, the all-white rap trio Ugly Duckling -- which shares a zip code, if not an aesthetic, with the Dogg Pound crew, et al. -- have had to fight for respect on the fringes of the West Coast scene. The only thing that the Ducklings really have in common with their more famous Long Beach County counterparts is the fact that Andycat (the rapper whose government name is Andy Cooper) attended the same school and went to the same prom as Snoop Dogg.

"The L.A. clique that exists, I mean, we ain't allowed in it," says Andycat, who along with his bandmates, rapper Dizzy and DJ/producer Young Einstein, is more Winky Dinky Dog than Snoop Dogg. On stage and on wax, this threesome would rather give pop-culture shout-outs to classic cartoons like Hong Kong Phooey than boast about blunts and body counts. With its frequent references to old-school rap groups like EPMD, Ugly Duckling belongs to the new crop of revivalist crews that want to bring back the lighthearted, humorous aspect of hip-hop -- the clever, funny stuff one used to hear in the raps of Biz Markie and Slick Rick. This approach has helped the group attract a sizable following, especially in college towns such as Boulder, but it has also garnered some detractors as well.

"Some people aren't ready for it," says Andycat. "A lot of people are coming to hip-hop new, or they've only been shown the real urban-ghetto side of it, and they don't have the understanding that hip-hop can be anything and that's the tradition. Some people come up to us and have the attitude that 'you guys are selling out hip-hop, you're trying to be too goofy,' and I'm like, if you knew anything about hip-hop and you know about the artists that have come out in the past, it was based on an escapism from urban plight. From the Sugar Hill Gang to Biz Markie, there has always been humor and enjoyment in the music. It's stupid for people to think everything has got to be a frown and a tale about welfare."

As defenders of old-school ideals, the guys often get frustrated with those thug wannabes who think rap begins and ends with Tupac and DMX and who end up disappointed when they realize that's not what Ugly Duckling represents. "Sometimes we feel like we're ruining it for kids, like they don't wanna see us," says Andycat. "They want to see a bunch of tough guys. I guess for them, it's like going to a Schwarzenegger movie and he's going, 'Violence is stupid.' So I'm thinking, you don't have to act like Ghostface Killah. You're just a normal white boy from Boulder, and you don't have to be that way. But part of their attraction is that they want to act like tough guys."

Despite occasional negative reactions from individuals with a narrow vision of how a rap performer should look or act, Andycat shrugs off the notion that race has been an obstacle to the group's acceptance. "The race thing isn't that big of a deal. There's millions of white, Latino and Asian rappers at this point. Everybody has come together in that sense."

Ugly Duckling recently released its first full-length, Journey to Anywhere, which aims to show that hip-hop can be as diverse as its hometown. With the album, Andycat says, the group was trying "to get hip-hop out of its stereotypical rut, and do stuff [that is] a little more interesting, a little more fantasy-oriented. We did songs about dreamy cartoons, and about space, and about traveling around the world."

Like fellow Cali artists Jurassic 5 and The People Under the Stairs, Ugly Duckling uses new tactics to update music from an era that seems almost light years away from the sounds created by most of today's producers; put out on 1500 Records, Journey brings on a Pete Rock-style funk while also reflecting a Native Tongues positivity in its loops and rhymes. As DJ/producer, Einstein samples heavily, and he constructs tracks that would sound at home on any early records from A Tribe Called Quest. For the group, this is a deliberate strategy, an attempt to counter a loss of hip-hop's initial flavor in the current sample-lite era. "That's the main thing about hip-hop that bugs me now," says Andycat. "It just ain't funky. Half of the time, it's real kind of dark. It's more electronic now. It used to be so funky. It introduced me to soul music. I didn't listen to James Brown until I listened to hip-hop."

 

As a group that's often felt like a wallflower in the hip-hop house-party scheme of things, Ugly Duckling makes a point to keep the crowds moving with its block-rocking beats. The trio takes prides in the fact that it's a musical group -- not just MCs who enlist various producers to complement its raps. The members look to groups like the Native Tongues collective, Main Source and Audio Two as inspirations for their sound. As an MC, Andycat is more interested in how his raps supplement the song structure as opposed to just standing out as a battle-rap MC. "We try to be like a hip-hop band and do hip-hop music rather than just be like beats and rhymes," he says. "I'm really more interested in songs. I don't really care about being the King of Rap. I want the song to be good. I want it to get its point across. I want the rap to complement the music."

Journey to Anywhere, a fresh blast of subterranean crate-dweller hip-hop, accomplishes that goal. The overall feel is one suited to kickin' it on the weekend -- it's smart, breezy, and, yes, funky. Andycat and Dizzy show they can deliver the goods lyrically on Latin-laced cuts like "A Little Samba," which takes on those wannabe platinum players who permeate rap videos. "Every time you watch TV, there are like fifty guys with gold chains and a gun, and they're sitting on a beach in Hawaii, acting like they're Scarface or something. Everybody acts like they have a ton of money. But we know that being in the music industry, it's almost impossible to make money. So we thought it was funny to do a song about how everybody acts like they are rich but they still live with their mom," says Andycat, laughing, noting that his bandmates are, indeed, still living with their parents.

Other tracks, like "Pick Up Lines," further distance Ugly Duckling from the mainstream flock; the cut addresses rap's often degrading depictions of women. "Most of the time in hip-hop, when they portray a girl, she's a ho or she's a sex machine," says Andycat. "We just wanted to have a different take on a woman and do a song about a woman who wasn't like that at all, and all that player stuff isn't going to work on her at all. If you act like a big jiggy boy, she is not going to go for that, because she respects herself. That's kind of what our group is -- we just want to have a different angle."

Ugly Duckling has selected a wide range of subjects to approach from this different angle -- including hip-hop itself. "The Pike," for example, likens the rap game to the WWF ("This is the WWF/An act, a charade they perform to get paid"). The group waxes autobiographical about its initial forays into the music industry on stellar cuts such as "Introduckling" and "I Did It Like That." They also get Beastie on "Rock on Top," which deals with the fact that Ugly Duckling has made a bigger splash in Europe and Britain than in the States. ("I heard they bootleg our record in the UK/That's okay, we rock on top like a toupee," is one of the song's more amusing quips.) The group's first single, "Fresh Mode," released in 1997 on the independent Special Records, sold about 3,000 records stateside; it blew up overseas when it was released on Wall of Sound's Bad Magic imprint. Andycat partially attributes the Duckling's transatlantic success to the elasticity and resilience of European pop culture, which has yet to totally morph into Carson Daly's vision of a teen dream world. "Europe, on the whole, is not a commercially dominated market like America. It's not brainwash-style, like America is. People think for themselves. They are a little more musically critical. They take pride in enjoying music and [recognizing] who is a real artist. All the old soul artists like Lyn Collins, Bill Withers and Roy Ayers all do real well [there]. In America, we got to jam it down somebody's throat to listen, because they think whatever they saw on Total Request Live is the bomb."

Unfortunately, even if Ugly Duckling were willing to somehow force its music into the American hip-hop consciousness, its chances of getting its disc heard by a wide audience just got slimmer. Although the group has received plenty of positive press for Journey to Anywhere, the guys have found themselves caught up in a record-label shakedown just as they embark on a tour to support the record. Thanks in part to the shaky state of Internet commerce, 1500 Records is in limbo. "The company that really owns [the label] and has the majority rights on it is in kind of hock right now," says Andycat soberly. "Riffage.com, which was a music Internet company, bought the majority rights to our label. The guy and a bunch of others who own that company have decided to go into liquidation, so we haven't really had any marketing or promotion," he explains, adding optimistically that the group will continue selling its music at shows.

 

Though the Ducklings' tale might sound like just another casualty of the Internet age, the Web has actually helped the band get wider exposure. Ugly Duckling was initially signed by 1500 Records (which at one time was an A&M subsidiary) after the label's powers that be stumbled upon an online chat room where people debated who was better: Jurassic 5 or Ugly Duckling. The J5 had already inked a deal with Interscope, so the 1500 executives decided to sign Ugly Duckling in 1998 -- based on the success of its first single, "Fresh Mode," as well as the chat room discussions. The eight-song EP Fresh Mode followed in 2000 and received enthusiastic notices in Rolling Stone, Blaze and Rap Pages.

If crowd response and burgeoning record sales are any indication, these latest label shenanigans should only be a minor setback for Ugly Duckling. When the trio started out in Long Beach in 1994 -- during the peak of gangster rap's popularity -- the members thought they were the only white kids in their area who liked rap; today they've developed into a solid unit that can rockit equally with fans of Sublime/Long Beach Dub All-Stars and the Pharcyde, whose audiences overlap more frequently these days. The group, along with other similar-minded Cali acts, has helped contribute to this expanded hip-hop fan base, something that fits in with Ugly Duckling's overall vision. If there is anything this group wants to contribute to hip-hop culture, Andycat says, "it's for people coming to hip-hop to have the sort of freedom that other musics have obtained. I just wish people would approach the music with an open mind."

Hip-hop can be anything and everything for all people. This is the message that comes across in Ugly Duckling's music. "We do a routine in our shows sometimes where we'll say, 'You know what our music is about. We can enjoy hip-hop culture because we grew up with it, but we don't have to act like something we're not to enjoy it,'" says Andycat. "We don't have to put on beanies. We don't have to be tough guys or use slang that isn't us. We can understand and love hip-hop music and do it the way we want to do it. We have that sense of freedom that anybody can do this."

What separates the Ducklings from the current crop of haters and wannabes is that they don't feel inclined to follow any market trend. Going the independent route isn't easy, but it has given the members of Ugly Duckling a freedom that they sum up best on the title track of their new album: "On a journey to Anywhere, you can make your own map."


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