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Ask some slacker from San Francisco what the Phoenix music scene means, and he'd probably say the Meat Puppets or the Gin Blossoms.
Call up Rolling Stone with the same question, and they'd rattle off names like Alice Cooper and Stevie Nicks.
But chat with a deejay at a London rave or an A&R rep from major label A&M Records, and what do you get? Snickers? A shrug? Would you believe a nod as a burgeoning black-music spot?
In the past two years, a trio of acts from the Valley's tiny hip-hop/dance/R&B community has signed deals with A&M.
Harlem-gone-Glendale rapper the Overweight Pooch was the first to get A&M looking to the funky side of Phoenix, and she set off a chain reaction that hasn't stopped reverberating. Her album Female Preacher, released last summer, pretty much flopped, but the Pooch's label couldn't have been more pleased with the disc. Pooch producer Felipe Delgado invited homegirl Ce Ce Peniston to sing on a trio of tracks, and soon A&M was more interested in Peniston than the Pooch.
A&M representative Manny Lehman, his ears pricked by former Miss Black Arizona Peniston's booming vocals, made her the label's second Phoenix discovery. The singer responded by turning out an album that's made her arguably the Valley's most famous musical celeb since Alice Cooper. Her first two singles have topped both of Billboard's dance charts, and her third just went to No. 1 in club play.
And A&M's Phoenix gold rush isn't over yet. The label's betting it's struck another vein with its find on the Peniston track "You Win, I Win, We Lose." Glendale resident Malaika Sallard, who threw in a few back-up vocals on the song, impressed A&M talent scout Lehman enough to get a single and probable album deal with the label.
So what's behind the Phoenix renaissance in contemporary black music? After all, it's the first time since local Sixties act Dyke and the Blazers that anything urban has put the Valley on the musical map. For starters, attribute it to a whole bunch of the kind of dumb luck that makes the record industry such an unscientific business. Without the Pooch, there might be no Ce Ce. Without Ce Ce, no Malaika.
Curiously, only one label seems to be combing Phoenix for new black voices. Although Malaika claims that London and Profile have expressed minor interest in her recently, A&M is the only company dishing out money and deals left and right.
And why is A&M being so generous all of a sudden? Lehman wouldn't return telephone calls and the label wouldn't speak for him--all in character for an A&R rep. Secrecy and anonymity are the cornerstones of their profession.
Malaika's theory revolves around Janet Jackson's recent ditching of the label for Virgin Records.
"She was the breadwinner," Malaika says. "And I think they had a lot more money left over to invest in people."
That it's taken this long for the local black-music scene to show up on Hollywood's radar is pretty understandable. In Phoenix, where the black population hovers around 3 percent, it's a scramble to get yourself heard as a new-school R&B singer or rapper. Where heavy metal, alternative and country up-and-comers have established launching pads on the club scenes of Tempe, Scottsdale and the West Valley, aspiring black acts do gigs like weddings, an occasional night spot and the odd talent contest. The Pooch, for instance, played gigs at a rented dance hall with a fuzzy PA and at Celebrity Theatre in the Arizona Battle of the Rappers before inking with A&M.
"I mean, this is not Atlanta," Malaika smirks. "The black population is very limited here. You want to please everyone, but you always tend to please the majority."
The story of Phoenix's black-music invasion starts in Harlem in the mid-Eighties. It was there that Sh†tonya Davis, who calls herself the Overweight Pooch after a childhood nickname, rapped with friends, reworking songs by old-school blast masters like Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew and Dana Dane.
Five years ago, the Pooch followed her newly remarried mother from Harlem to Phoenix.
But moving from the birthplace of hip-hop to the home of Glen Campbell didn't daunt the Pooch. Perfecting the style she'd developed on the stoop and in the park in Harlem, she eventually won the Arizona Battle of the Rappers in 1990 and attracted A&M's attention, becoming the state's first emcee to sign with a major.
The rapper's song "Hip House Party" showed up on the 1990 A&M compilation dance tape Jam Harder along with DNA's club-hit remix of Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner." The Female Preacher album followed last year.
The Pooch, now 21, did some release dates for the album primarily in California. Billboard gave the album hype for its artistic merit, but figured the rapper wasn't likely to put a dent in Hammer's market share. A variety of factors killed sales. Call it regionalism or blame it on the good ol' B-boy network, but with very few exceptions--among them Sir Mix-A-Lot and Geto Boys--radio and video playlists just don't make room for a lot of rappers who aren't from hip-hop epicenters like New York, Oakland, L.A. and Miami. It's possible, too, that the world wasn't ready for a woman rapper who sizes up closer to Heavy D than Salt or Pepa.