Ballin' on a Budget
Skinny Deville is explaining how his group Nappy Roots managed to emerge from the University of Western Kentucky into the national hip-hop consciousness.
"There was no school for music business in Western Kentucky, so we made our own," he says. He speaks in the same way he and the other five members of Nappy Roots rap: high-speed, high-density and with just a hint of the emphatic rhythms of the preacher.
"That's where the hustle mentality comes out of, when you apply everything you learned in school. Luckily we had the drive with six individuals to really make something happen for ourselves. We actually fulfilled the dreams; that's the thing that makes us more so Nappy than anything, because we stick together and make the things happen."
The group's members Deville, Big V, R. Prophet, Ron Clutch, Scales and B. Stille came together in a record and clothing store they founded near the Bowling Green campus. The six business students had clearly come up with a hot brand-name: Before they had even released any music, they were briskly selling Nappy Roots T-shirts to customers who had no idea what the name meant.
In 1998, the six friends decided to parlay their retail success into a musical project. Nappy Roots recorded and released two albums from its backroom studio '98's Country Fried Cess and 2000's No Comb, No Brush, No Fade, No Perm. Seville says that he and his five fellow rappers obsessed over each detail of the recording process, since they were handling every aspect of the work themselves. Nappy Roots' attention to detail earned the group decent regional success, which in turn brought major labels to Bowling Green. Atlantic managed to woo the group and brought them out of the backwoods into a real studio.
"We were in a million-dollar facility in Nashville," Deville says. "We walked in there and was like 'Whoa!' That stepped it up a whole 'nother level of professionalism. You got an engineer in there that knows the sound and knows what sounds right versus you just readin' the manual, hittin' the button and erasin' half the shit half the time."
With the leap in its financial resources, Nappy Roots was able add more than just engineering acumen to its recording of Watermelon, Chicken and Gritz, its Atlantic debut. For the song "Ho Down," the group invited Larry Dodson of the legendary funk outfit Bar-Kays to contribute guest vocals.
"He brought another aspect to the game, a level of longevity and professionalism," Deville says. "The Bar-Kays, they've been around. They're my father's group! I knew my father knew them . . . he, like, flipped. So I got hyped! I started checkin' out some of their music, and just to be in the same presence of somebody nice and old-school from back in the day, man . . . we did something that most people won't even dream about: [We got] a little Kodak of that moment!"
Though the Nappy Roots guys already considered themselves seasoned artists, Deville admits they still felt a bit wet behind the ears in Dodson's presence. "He brought a whole 'nother level of knockin' out tracks in one or two takes. You can't go in there and bullshit for an hour or two, when he came in here and did a hook that he'd never heard before in 20 minutes, and it was hot! It made you go in there and do your thing."
He may be wielding million-dollar studio resources and cutting tracks with his father's heroes, but Deville says that he's not about to be lured by any platinum fantasies. "I just wanna rap, man, for real. If you're not doing this for the love, man, the business of it will overpower you and corrupt you to where it's all about the money."
Made up of consummate Southerners, Nappy Roots expresses that down-home emphasis of family over finances throughout Watermelon, Chicken and Gritz. "That's what the South is about, man," Deville states. "A lot of fellowship, family, church . . . we went through a lot of things to get to where we are [here in] the South. I'm not talking about as far as black or white; I'm just talking about the South in general. The South was always making music, but we never had our own voice."
Nappy Roots even let the Southern values of fellowship and community guide the promotional direction for the album. "Atlantic gives us a lot of creative freedom, just because we came out of a spot no one really ever came out of," Deville explains. "As far as picking singles, we let the people decide! Fans, family members, friends, critics everybody just gravitates toward certain singles."
The song that elicited the most popular response was "Po' Folks," which celebrates the life and times of the downtrodden. Nappy Roots selected the cut for its second single, Deville says, "because we knew that was gonna hit the masses, especially how the times are now. We need some things that are gonna bring it back to reality."
Deville maintains that Nappy Roots isn't merely singing about regular folks and their troubles, but is actually living the same lifestyle. On "Ballin' on a Budget," the group offers tips for living like a mack on a recessionary salary.
"[We're] the nine-to-fivers, the hard workers that make the world go 'round," he says. "It's the people that sit on top that get the cream, but there's a lot of people that's drinkin' on that malt on the bottom. We relate to just people in general. Most stars, they just stars, you gotta get on the space shuttle just to get to 'em. . . We on the curb, some cats sittin' on the curb. Waitin' for our taxi . . . don't need no limo, call a cab."
Like the moral of every episode of Good Times, the new album urges us to celebrate, even when we're not living large. "Be yourself, be original, that's the whole thing that Nappy wants to get out. Do you, man, be happy with yourself. Don't get caught up in materialism. You can't take none of that with you when the Lord calls you. It ain't going with you the Egyptians already tried it."
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