"Let's face it--negativity sells records," says Taboo, one of the three emcees behind Black Eyed Peas. "It's wack, but it does. Negativity sells movies; violence sells a lot of things. Sex and violence are two of the biggest things that turn humans on."
That may be true, but the men of Black Eyed Peas and OutKast, two hip-hop acts now touring together, have little interest in mindlessly employing these surefire sales devices. Not that the outfits produce the kind of innocuous kiddie rap guaranteed airplay on creatively timid R&B stations--both can get hard when the situation demands it. But in general, they choose to avoid the offhand misogyny, clamorous stupidity and sonic redundancy that are all too prevalent in commercial hip-hop. Instead, they favor lyrics that dig deeper than usual and music that's more than a reclamation project for smashes from the past.
Behind the Front, the Peas' debut for Interscope Records, isn't wholly original (it's all-too-obviously indebted to A Tribe Called Quest and other participants in the Native Tongues movement), but it treats listeners with intelligence via music that generally steers clear of stereotypes. Even better is Aquemini, OutKast's third CD for the LaFace imprint, wherein rappers Dre and Big Boi's contrasting techniques--the former is introspective, the latter is party-ready--come together in a manner that kicks like a hoodlum, but without a moronic aftertaste. Moreover, OutKast's palette incorporates a bracingly wide variety of musical colors.
"It's hip-hop from the start," Dre says, "but we're also into funk, blues, jazz and even some country and bluegrass. I couldn't tell you a single name of somebody who plays bluegrass, but when I hear it, I like it."
Big Boi (ne Antoine Patton) and Dre (Andre Benjamin) were born in 1975 within three months of each other: Aquemini is a conflation of Aquarius and Gemini, their respective zodiac signs. They met while attending Tri-Cities High School in suburban Atlanta and quickly discovered common ground. "We came from basically the same background," Dre says. "We grew up the same way, and were into a lot of the same things."
These activities weren't always the kind approved by the Concerned Mothers of America; Dre and Big Boi spent much of their free time on Atlanta avenues, and they weren't there to sweep the curbs. But rap saved them from a less productive fate. The two OutKasters signed with Atlanta-based LaFace shortly before their Tri-Cities High graduation, and when their first album, 1994's Southernplayalisticaddillacmuzik, reached stores, they were approximately a year shy of their twentieth birthdays. In the jacket photos, Dre looks too young to get a job delivering newspapers.
As the disc's title implies, several of the tunes on it exalt the seamy side of life: "Player's Ball," the platter's biggest single, references "gangsta rides" (preferably 1977 Cadillac Sevilles), "bitches watchin' for snitches," "gin and juice" and so on. But there are also numerous signs of nascent lyrical consciousness (e.g., "You need to git up, git out and git somethin'/Don't spend all your time tryin' to get high," from "Git Up, Git Out") and a fondness for genre-mixing. "Peaches" kicks things off with a dose of jazz, "Myintrotoletuknow" tosses out hip-hop flavored with bayou boogie, the title cut and "Funky Ride" call to mind classic soul, and so on.
ATLiens, from 1996, continued OutKast's growth process: The songs on it are even more musically eclectic than the ones on its predecessor, and the lines often aim for greater complexity. "Mainstream," for instance, follows up routine bits of ghetto melodrama ("Go get my gun/Load up for fun") with some bitter truths ("It ain't just the police/We kill each other/Just lost another brother/Fast living will get you took/ Thinking it can't happen to you/And then it do"). In addition, the emcees go further in establishing separate identities. On the hip-hop hit "Elevators," Big Boi boasts about OutKast's success in boisterous terms ("Passes gettin' thrown like Hail Marys/And they lookin' like Halle Berry") while Dre patiently explains to an old schoolmate that popularity isn't something to be taken for granted ("I got more fans than the average man/But not enough loot to last me to the end of the week...If you don't move your foot/Then I don't eat").
The differences between the approaches of Big Boi and Dre have not been lost on LaFace publicists, who refer to the pair collectively as "the playa and the poet." Dre, however, is uncomfortable with the label. "I hate that saying, really," he admits. "I do have a poetical side at times, so I guess that's cool, but I'm not like an everyday poet. I guess you'd say I'm an unstable type of guy--unstable meaning that I'm always changing to keep myself going, always searching for something new. And Big Boi, he's more straightforward. He knows exactly what he wants to do in life. He knows. What he brings to OutKast is more like a street type of flavor, and what I bring is something different from what you hear all the time."
These observations are confirmed by Aquemini, OutKast's strongest effort to date. Superficial listeners may think "Return of the 'G'" is a tribute to musical superflys who "talk about bitches and switches and hoes and clothes and weed," but it actually turns the hustler mythology inside out. As Dre raps it, "Return of the gangsta, thanks ta/Them niggas that got them kids, who got enough to buy an ounce/But not enough to bounce them kids to the zoo/Or to the park, so they grow up in the dark, never/ Seein' light, so they end up bein' like your sorry ass/ Robbin' niggas in broad-ass daylight/Get down!" That's followed by "Rosa Parks," which subtly evokes the nation's most famous bus rider in a ditty about refusing to rest on one's laurels; "Da Art of Storytellin'," a two-parter about women done wrong by the men in their lives; and a batch of other songs that don't let enlightenment get in the way of entertainment. The music is tough enough to attract the likes of Raekwon, the Wu-Tang Clansman who guests on "Skew It on the Bar-B," but it also makes room for a George Clinton cameo on the P-Funk nod "Synthesizer." As for Erykah Badu, who is Dre's significant other and the mother of his numerically monikered son, Seven, she sounds heavenly on "Liberation," a statement of purpose that's as tasty as it is satisfying.
Like many of Aquemini's tracks, "Liberation" has a message, but the men of OutKast know better than to simply hammer it home. "You can't just preach to people," Dre says. "It's almost a case of where if you want to give a little baby some medicine, you put it in some food or something. You've got to get their attention first--almost sneak it in. That way, they don't really know what they're getting, but they're getting it.
"It's not really a formula," he goes on. "We just go into the studio, and whatever we're feeling that day we put down, and it seems to come out right. But as an artist, I get bored. I don't want to just keep doing the same things over and over again. The people I grew up listening to who I really loved were innovators who brought something new to the table. They made a mark, and that's what I like. So when we are making a record, we always make an effort to do something fresh--something other."
This philosophy is shared by Black Eyed Peas, one of the most ethnically diverse combos in hip-hop. Apl.de.Ap (Alan Pinetta) is of African-American and Filipino descent, Will.I.Am (William Adams) is an African-American who was raised in the mostly Hispanic enclave of East Los Angeles, and Taboo (Jamie Gomez) is Latino and Native American; he adopted his nickname from Tabooh Nawasha, a warrior who fought at the Battle of Little Big Horn. These lineages set the Peas apart from most of their current competitors, but Taboo doesn't believe that'll be true for much longer.
"This is the reality of what hip-hop has become," he says. "We're a direct mirror of the audience, and that shows how hip-hop has expanded. It's no longer just an urban thing, and it's no longer just an American thing, either. It's a universal thing. If you go to Japan, you'll have people who'll walk up to you and be like, 'Yo, what's up?'--and they've got dreadlocks and they're dark. You just know they've been sitting in a tanning booth." He laughs before adding, "And it's not just in Japan. Hip-hop is huge in Canada, in Australia--everywhere. It's no longer what it used to be, and that's why we feel we're the new face of hip-hop."
Like OutKast, the Peas began as a high-school group, although under another handle. In 1990 classmates Will.I.Am and Apl.de.Ap formed Tribal Nation, a dance combo that they dubbed Atban Klann two years later when hip-hop elements began coming to the fore. In the beginning, says Will.I.Am, "there was really no concept. It was more about bringing back music to hip-hop and bringing back the artistry. Back then, a lot of the music was about materialism and money--it was business-oriented. But we had other ideas."
The pair signed to Ruthless Records in 1992 and two years later recorded an album whose release was delayed by a handful of factors, including the 1995 death of rapper Eazy E, Ruthless's driving force. Frustrated, Will.I.Am and Apl.de.Ap fought for their freedom. By the end of the year they'd joined with Taboo (who'd been with a collective called Grassroots) to form Black Eyed Peas. Shortly thereafter, Interscope execs brought the trio into the fold.
Behind the Front, the flower of this deal, is a relaxed, swinging concoction. Between three skits that sound like outtakes from De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising, the Peas offer up jazzy, easygoing grooves over largely upbeat words about unity in the community. "Movement" advises: "Hey you, listen to what I got to say/Let's get together and form a parade"; "Communication" describes their desire to "activate communication for the world/Shocking your mind with rhymes"; and "Joints & Jam" asserts, "We're about mass appeal, no segregation/Got black to Asian and Caucasian/ Sayin' that's the joint, that's the jam/Turn that shit up, play it again."
This last cut contains a couple of samples (from Paulhino DaCosta's "Love Till the End of Time" and A Tribe Called Quest's "One Two Shit") and borrows a hook from (no kidding) the Barry Gibb-penned theme to the film version of Grease. But the album turns on Will.I.Am's live theremin and assorted keyboards, as well as a supporting cast headed by guitarist Kevin Feyen, bassist Mike Fratantuno, drummer Terence Yoshiaka and jack-of-all-trades Brian Lapin. The music doesn't stray too far from the hip-hop verities, but it includes plenty of other aural flourishes.
"That happens because of the different forms of music we enjoy," Taboo says. "From alternative to Brazilian to hip-hop to old R&B, that's what we listen to. And we don't just listen to it only if somebody plays it. We actually go out and buy these types of things and support different forms of music because we love them. But just because we listen to it doesn't mean we'll make something that sounds just like it. For all of us, there's a direct channel coming to us about our music, and we're always in tune to that channel. I could listen to some salsa shit for a whole year and then go into the studio, and it's still not going to sound like salsa. It'll have some salsa influence to it, but it'll still sound like us."
Perhaps, but the band doesn't yet have a distinctive style to call its own--hence the frequent comparisons to Native Tongues acts. But Taboo isn't worried. "It's just like when ketchup was first made, and then some other company came out with their brand of ketchup; at first people probably thought they were exactly the same, but then they realized that they tasted different. That's what we're going through. Right now we're a new group, and people have to understand our chemistry, because there's a different twist to it. And when they do, some other new group will come around and they'll say, 'You guys have that Black Eyed Peas feel.'"
The Peas have a ways to go before this scenario comes to pass: Although they received positive notices for their appearances on this year's Smokin' Grooves tour, Front's sales have neither gone through the roof nor threatened to bump against it.
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But the news is better for OutKast. Aquemini opened in the Billboard Top Ten and moved over half a million units before the end of its first month in release. Dre credits this fast start to the balance he and Big Boi strike. "We get two very different types of people with two totally different lifestyles who get together to listen to the same album...As long as the beat is grooving and the groups are saying something that's hip, they'll be like, 'I guess that'll work for me.' And then you've got another type of person who likes to get inside the music and get inside the mind of the people who make the music--really feel it. And that's another type of person we've got to reach.
"There are good sides and bad sides to everything," he goes on. "And even though a lot of what's happening today isn't that good, we've got to talk about it anyway. But once you know the truth, you have to look at where we can go from there. And that's what we're about."
The same can be said of Black Eyed Peas; after all, the last song on their disc is called "Positivity." But Taboo is under no illusion that this outlook will put purveyors of the darker side of hip-hop out of business for good. "It's going to change, regardless," he notes. "It's a cycle. There'll be positive groups for a while, and then there'll be some new group that'll come along and say, 'Fuck all this positive shit. I'm trying to take things back to the way they were back in '94.' And people who aren't doing shit with their lives will have something to listen to again."
OutKast, with Black Eyed Peas and Melky Sadek. 8 p.m. Friday, November 20, Music Hall at Lodo, 1902 Blake Street, $20, 303-830-8497.