By Benjamin Leatherman
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Wordplay is essential for a rapper. Without it, what more is he than a dude who talks with music in the background? A love of language suggests a lot, and those who stayed awake through high school English class should be familiar with the rapper's bag of tricks: simile, metaphor, apostrophe, meter, rhyme. And then there are other fun things you can do with words: anagrams, crosswords, that sort of thing.
But rapper One Be Lo? He's a fan of the acrostic. You know the acrostic: You take each letter of a word and let it kick off a new word or sentence. Maybe you first made one in third grade, using the letters of your name to come up with the qualities that best describe you. Julia, let's say, would become Joyful Unique Lovely Interesting Amazing.
One Be Lo — born outside Detroit and then splitting time among the Motor City, Seattle, and, most recently, Cairo — was a founding member of late-'90s duo Binary Star, a member of B-boy crew Massive Monkeys, and a founder of his own independent label, Subterraneous Records.
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Over the past decade, One Be Lo's titled all his releases after lifecycle stages. There's Project F.E.T.U.S., S.T.I.L.L.B.O.R.N., S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M., The R.E.B.I.R.T.H., L.A.B.O.R., and the unreleased, all-star-guesting B.A.B.Y. That's some serious dedication to a theme. And what do those letters represent?
There's For Everybody That UnderStands. Sounds of Nahshid Originate Good Rhymes and Music follows that (One Be Lo was born Ralond Scruggs but adopted the name Nahshid Sulaiman). Subterraneous/Trackezoids Invest Lost Lyrics Bringing Old Rhymes New references One Be Lo's label and production crew Trackezoids. The least-strained Real Emcees Bring Intelligent Rhymes to Hip-Hop, Language Arts Based on Reality, and Being a Black Youth wrap things up.
Why the dedication to initials? One Be Lo's the kind of rapper to focus on social issues and community concerns in his rhymes. Perhaps it's got something to do with the tight links between progressive, "conscious" hip-hop and community-organizing movements. Anyone who's gotten anywhere near the nonprofit world knows of its love of the acronym. Add a dash of self-help and corporate motivational material, and the connection seems organic.
There's a lot of complexity in One Be Lo's smooth style, and he favors intricate wordplay, but his messages are often to the point and boosterish, with less of the holier-than-thouness to which too many of his "conscious" brethren fall prey. His spiritual, political, philosophical rhymes, like the acronyms that adorn his releases, can tend toward the dense, but some of the joy in listening to rap is unpacking all the words, right? B.A.B.Y. is his long-in-the-works upcoming release, which features guest spots from artists like Jean Grae, Zion I, and Devin the Dude. Legal issues have kept the release in limbo, though.
"In most cases, artists want the album to come out sooner than later," One Be Lo writes on his blog. "[I'd] rather make a classic album, and take my time putting it out, than to rush to put out an album that needs more work. Plus, I ain't no lawyer; I'm an artist. So I'll let the lawyers do what they do, and I'll keep doing what I do until the smoke clears. I call it the pangs of labor. I kept writing and recording and working with the band. That's really where the whole 'labor' concept came from. I knew that I was going to have to work even harder to put this baby out. That means more labor for me, more music for you."
And though One Be Lo's a worldwide dude living part-time in the Middle East, Arizona isn't just another stop for him — the rapper's involved himself in our political issues in the past. Three years ago, for instance, he made a special visit to the Valley, performing at the Stray Cat as part of Verbal Kent's hip-hop protest against Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
This week, One Be Lo comes back to the Cat to headline the WTFunk? Friday event, which is rounded out by resident MCs Marvel and Pearlie Q and drummer Sauce. Also on the bill: Habit, Moeazy, HOPE for the Future, and Shining Soul. Grab a minute with One Be Lo after the show to chat local politics. Given his time spent in the Middle East, maybe he'll have some thoughts on the role rap played in expressing revolutionary ideas. And the Arabic language; it's got 28 more letters that One Be Lo can play with.