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By Brian Palmer
If you could pick one symbol of the way hip-hop has infiltrated American society to its core, it might be Dave Bowers' car. Parked on a Scottsdale street lined with neat suburban houses, it's a wholly respectable Honda Accord, except for the two bumper stickers that howl B-boy rebellion. One is the oval Phillies Blunt logo, a universally subversive way for rappers and their fans to show they're down with the pro-pot movement. The second displays the hard-core singles ad: "I Want a Gangsta Bitch."
Inside his folks' house, Bowers sits with his friends Mike Bradford and Jahmal Graves, all Scottsdale young men in their early 20s who look as if they're earnestly playing the part of hard-core rappers. All wear shaved or stubbled heads underneath their appropriate headgear--baseball caps for Bowers and Graves and a ski hat for Bradford. Bowers and Bradford also have the requisite billy-goat beards hanging off their chins. Talk to them for a minute and they're so polite and soft-spoken, without an unkind word for almost anyone, you'd swear their only hookup with hip-hop comes each afternoon when they park their behinds in front of Yo! MTV Raps.
There is, however, one thing that sets them apart from the upper-class milieu pumping Dr. Dre in the Jeeps their daddies bought them: Their group, Brothers Grimm, is so funky, authentic, hard-core and faithful to hip-hop, you want to check their driver's licenses for Compton addresses. Even if they're all twentysomething Scottsdalians, they do as good an imitation of the South Central sound as you're likely to hear. The implication, of course, is that you don't have to live the inner-city experience anymore to excel at the rough music born on its unforgiving streets.
Shrugging off the effect their privileged turf has on the Brothers' music, Bowers likes to ply the well-worn bromide, "It's not where you're from. It's where you're at."
The record industry, in particular, seems to buy that line. Since the group formed last summer, execs have been swarming. Ruffhouse Records' top man, Joe Nicolo, executive producer of such hip-hop heaviness as Cypress Hill and Kris Kross, called the group in October to rave about the Brothers' demo tape. It didn't take long for the Grimms to sign on Nicolo as their executive producer. Nicolo nearly landed a deal with Geffen for the group, but pulled the carrot away when Guns N' Roses' label would only offer a deal for a 12-inch single with an album option. Currently, the Brothers figure their best bet is probably G Street, an Island Records subsidiary.
The group's been getting some sweet live work, too. It's warmed up for Cypress Hill and House of Pain. And this week, it's the only local act invited to play at Lollapalooza 93.
Why is the recording and concert business spoiling these Scottsdale kids? The overriding attraction of the group is Bowers' gift for producing. On a five-song demo, he displays a skill that easily puts him on par with today's hottest hip-hop producers, jam meisters like Dr. Dre and Cypress Hill's DJ Muggs. Songs from the group's demo like "Get the Phunk Up," "Wreckin It" and "Jimmy Dooley" come out blasting with relentlessly funky rhythm loops, ridiculously catchy hooks and samples that drop like a sweetened-up Bomb Squad mosaic.
A former rock drummer, Bowers crafts the beats for each song on a sampling percussion instrument and layers up to 30 samples off old LPs carefully labeled and stacked in a bedroom studio he calls "The Lab." Where many rappers build their sound strictly from the canon of funk elite like James Brown and George Clinton, you're more likely to find a Ted Nugent or John Coltrane record in the main stack Bowers heads to for most of the Grimm sound.
Bowers is proud he's got one of the busiest sounds around, but admits he has a tendency to go overboard. "If you can take 20 different snippets and make it fit, that's what I'm about," he explains. "I don't like to take one song and sample five different things. I like to try to find little things from everywhere. On the other hand, you can have a good street track and wreck it by having so many sounds."
Of the three Grimms, the 24-year-old Bowers' (who goes by Flex-All onstage) gutbucket roar is the most identifiable, probably because it so closely approximates the bass tone of House of Pain's Everlast. Like his more famous sound-alike, whom Bowers admits being influenced by, the Grimm Brother spits out rhymes that don't so much flow as snap off.
Bradford (stage name Piehead), 22, is the closest thing the Brothers Grimm have to a vocal headliner. On "Wreckin It," his raspy-tinged raps rise above the beats at times and surf them as if the rhymes were waves. Bradford's lyrics stand out, too, particularly his goofy sports metaphors (I'll do you like Rose did baseball") and decidedly un-hip-hop name checks of Slayer and the Grateful Dead.
Graves (a.k.a. No-Doz), at 20 the youngest and least musically experienced Brother, only started rapping last year. He's already capable of mixing it up on a major league level, but hasn't developed a style equipped to wrest attention from Bowers and Bradford.
Graves' almost effortless rise to the near-top is seemingly rivaled only by his group's own story. The Brothers have been together only a little more than a year. The industry notice they've attracted in that time has elicited grumbles around town that the Grimms haven't paid their dues.
"I think we've worked hard enough," argues Bradford. "Some people just mess around. We've got 40-some jams."
But Graves, who's already recognized that his skills and the Brothers' success have given him the okay to get cocky, adds, "If you can freak it right, it don't matter."
Background checks of the group's members reveal, though, that Bowers is the only Brother who's paid his dues consistently. As parts of two different hip-hop groups prior to the Brothers, Bowers already has recordings on a couple of different indie labels to his credit, neither of which foreshadows what he would accomplish with Brothers Grimm. In 1990, as part of the group 2 La Jit, Bowers had a pop-crossover 12-inch out on Miami's Peters' Records. In January, as half of a group called Styles and J.I.Z., Bowers released a Miami sound album on San Diego's Heat Wave Records.
The Brothers' germination began in 1990, when Bowers listened to a crude demo tape of Bradford at a party. Bowers was mightily unimpressed with Bradford's raps, inspired by Public Enemy. "The first time I heard it, I thought it was doo-doo," the producer recalls. "But I said I'll produce a couple of tracks because he wasn't trying to front." Bowers threw Bradford some material he hadn't worked on too ambitiously, and a friendship developed.
Though Bowers went on to Styles and J.I.Z., he eventually grew disenchanted by the Miami sound of the group. Looking to branch into a more hard-core style, Bowers started to work more intently with Bradford and Bradford's new partner, Graves, with whom Bradford had hooked up while the two were bagging groceries at the same supermarket.
Because of contractual obligations with Styles and J.I.Z., Bowers initially formed a production arrangement with Bradford and Graves for a group called Hyde Park. Once Bowers was able to wriggle out of Styles and J.I.Z., the Brothers Grimm began.
Since the formation of the group, reality has seldom gotten in the way of the Brothers' charmed trip. Still, the record industry's teasing courtship of the group has left it hopeful but frustrated. Bowers admits he's disappointed that Nicolo didn't grab at Geffen's limited offer. Bowers claims the group could've gone with Nicolo's own Ruffhouse label, but that because of the company's other commitments, the Brothers' album would've been put on hold for another year.
Hip-hop giant Tommy Boy Records also showed up at the Brothers' door, only to knock and run. After hearing their demo, the record company called the Grimms to let them know that if they had sent their tape to the company a year earlier, they could've been House of Pain. In any event, Tommy Boy passed on making the Grimms House of Pain II, as Bowers explains, launching into his imitation of a Tommy Boy A&R rep: "Their thing was like, 'We just released House of Pain, a white group. So now we're gonna follow it up with another white hip-hop group? What does that say about Tommy Boy, that we're just trying to go with white rappers, or we're not putting out black rap?'"
In fact, the group is interracial (Bowers and Bradford are Caucasians, Graves an African American), which has met with other weirdness on the part of the industry. Bradford says one exec, for instance, even saw the two-tone makeup of the Grimms as a selling point, telling the group, "You guys know you've got the black-white thing working."
"Shoot, maybe we should get a Mexican and a Chinese dude," says Bowers, snickering.
The Grimms don't like to discuss their racial makeup. "I think our album should have a blank cover so people don't see what color we are," says Bradford.
Interestingly, both of Bowers' previous groups were interracial, a coincidence he explains away by noting that good white rappers don't exactly abound in Phoenix.
What's on the Brothers Grimm's minds most of all these days is grabbing a contract. "I think our lives are ruled around a record deal," admits Bowers. "We all pretty much have a one-track mind."
Indeed, the Brothers seem willing to do almost anything short of selling out their music for a spot on a major label. The Grimms display a surprising amount of concern over their image, a stark and baffling contrast to their uncompromising hard-core sound. Bowers and Bradford repeatedly ask that an old press photo showing them minus their fashionable facial hair not accompany this story.
The Brothers' Scottsdale gangsta persona fully reveals itself, though, when they're asked to name the first thing they'll buy with their advance money if and when they're signed.
"I'm gonna go buy my mom something," says Bradford.
"I'm gonna buy my family a new carpet," adds Bowers, as if on cue. "My parents have done so much and put up with me for so many years doing crazy stuff, if I get anything monetary, it's gotta go to them first."
Graves, it seems, is the only Brother prepared to start living the life of a true hip-hop god. His first purchase? "I want a pound of hydroponic weed," he says dreamily.