Nothing confusing about "real" -- you either are or you aren't. It's like art or porn or funny -- you know it when you see it, and you know it when you don't.
Like millionaire rappers talking about life on the street, for example. There's something very unreal about that, and very un-right, and it gets less right with every passing platinum album. So what is real, then?
Well, how about Nappy Roots?
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Yeah, Nappy Roots. There are six of 'em in the group, six MCs out of western Kentucky, whose first major-label release, Watermelon, Chicken and Gritz, dropped on Atlantic this spring. And Nappy Roots are all about real -- real (nappy) hair, real rides (a '79 Coupe DeVille here, an '81 Seville there), real problems (like, say, roaches in their un-air-conditioned recording studio). The group is most often compared to Atlanta's OutKast, partly because they're both from the South, but mainly because a few Nappy Roots MCs employ a rapid-fire flow similar to Andre 3000's. But as good as they are, Nappy Roots aren't nearly as eclectically creative as the Dre and Big Boi. (Hell, George Clinton ain't as eclectically creative as OutKast.) Nonetheless, they bring something different to their music -- something earthier, more palpably, well, of the Bluegrass State.
"Kentucky's uncharted ground, so it's gonna be different," says Big V, the sextet's appointed mouthpiece for this particular conversation (the six of them split media duties pretty evenly). "It's just a different way of life. We're not in the dirty South; we're from the top of the South. Kentucky's the first state in the South, and we're too north to be Southern and too Southern to be north. So we're trapped right in the middle. It's a filter, you know? We connected with Tennessee, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana [not to mention West Virginia, Missouri and Illinois]. So Kentucky's a filter, and a lot of music runs through here. We just spit it out in our version."
That Nappy Roots version first took form in the mid-'90s in the college town of Bowling Green, where Big V grew up and where his bandmates -- Fishscales, Skinny DeVille, B. Stille, Ron Clutch and R. Prophet -- were enrolled at Western Kentucky University. The six of them grew close while freestyling in the back rooms at Western Kentucky parties, and they eventually pooled their money (and some other people's money) to turn a two-sided house on school property into ET's Music ("Er'thang's Tight"), a ramshackle underground record store with a lo-fi, closet-size recording studio attached. The group recorded tracks on one side of the house and sold them on the other, until, in 1998, they decided to put together a proper album, the tiny Country Fried Cess. Things picked up pretty quick after that.
"After a month and a half," Big V says in his loping, stony drawl, "we hadn't really sold any units, we hadn't been on the radio station -- we don't even have a radio station where I was from -- and by God's grace or dumb luck or whatever, Atlantic comes just knocking at the door, and they were like, Uh, we're here to sign you. We interested.' And we thought it was a joke, right? . . .We hung up the phone -- we were like, Quit playin', we don't know Atlantic.' They called back again, and they was like, Seriously, we want to sign you.'"
And that's when things slowed to the pace of a Kentucky summer's day. Atlantic didn't quite know what to do with Nappy Roots once it inked them -- it's been more than four years since the deal, and Watermelon, Chicken and Gritz is the band's first release for the label (though, in the interim, the crew independently released a second album, No Comb, No Brush, No Fade, No Perm).
The wait was tough on the group, with each member sacrificing for the whole in some way, according to Big V.
"Everybody had stakes," he says. "Everybody gave something to the group." For starters, while they toured, wrote and generally found little time to watch the shop, Western Kentucky took back ET's and knocked it down for parking. Meanwhile, the six-foot-six Fishscales, known to Western Kentucky basketball fans as Melvin Adams, senior power forward, gave up his scholarship to focus on music after the band signed with Atlantic. Big V sacrificed, too, though his struggle was a little different: "Personally, I went to jail behind just waitin' on money," he says. "I have children, and I couldn't pay my child support, but I had this dream. And I could have got a job easily and just gave up, but I had this dream. So I did my thing." (Big V's vague about how long he spent behind bars: "Uh, longer than I'd like," he says. "But really, I don't like to even feel bad about that.")
Still, it's probably no real surprise that Big V and the boys had their new label completely stumped. With their country-fried aesthetic -- fast, funky backing tracks that emphasize organs and guitars over, say, old Jackson 5 samples, and lyrics that focus on Southern food, "ballin' on a budget," "deer horns on the hood of my truck" and, uh, Southern food -- Nappy Roots don't exactly produce the kind of hip-hop that's been driving the charts for the past several years.
And then there's those accents: The six MCs fly their slurry, 'tucky drawls like some sort of hick-pride flag, managing to rhyme "woods," "did," "barefoot," "could" and "good" in one line on their anti-bling anthem "Ballin' on a Budget" ("Comin' up in the woods all I did was run barefoot/Ne'er could comb my hair good"). Now, with 9/11 (at least temporarily) stunting the rap world's bent toward materialism -- to say nothing of the minor mudsplash made last year by über-hick Bubba Sparxxx's Dark Days, Bright Nights -- it looks like Nappy Roots' time has come.
(Side note: If you're starting to picture these guys as some kind of painfully wholesome hip-hop Opryland, well, they're not that either. Asked about his day-to-day existence, Big V quotes the hook from "Blowing Trees," off Watermelon: "Drinkin' Grand Marnier, blowin' trees [smoking weed]. It's the life that God chose for me." And if God hadn't chosen it for him, he'd have chosen it for himself anyway, right? "Uh, I don't know," he says. "But I'd see if we could compromise.")
Yeah, looks like Nappy Roots' time has come. "We could rap then just like we can today," explains Big V, "it's just that the music world wasn't ready for us. It was more into I got this, I got that.' And instead of conforming to what they was doing, we just stuck with ours and just waited our turn."
"Ours," in this context, is what Big V calls "a celebration of bein' average." And what's that mean, exactly?
"Well, are you a rich guy?" V asks, by way of explanation.
"Do you have tons of money?"
"Then you wouldn't like to hear about that, would you?" he asks. The kid's got a point. "You'd like to hear about something you can relate to. And we don't know anything about money. We ride around on tour in a 15-passenger van, something like a church van, with our luggage in it. And everyone says, God, you live like that?' Well, we don't know that there's any better."
Of course, that may all change now, if sales of Watermelon come anywhere close to the widespread adulation already being heaped on the album; critics have uniformly (and rightly) praised it, and Spin named Nappy Roots a "Band to Watch" for 2002. If all's right with the rap world, these six guys in overalls and unpicked Afros could be among the genre's biggest stars by year's end. So what's up next . . . Caviar, Filet and Cristal?
"Well," says Big V, "we like to sing. And whatever's going on in our lives is what we rap about. But we're pretty much never gonna talk to you about money."
It's nice to hear, and hopefully they'll manage to stick to that ethic. After all, it's that charming levelheadedness, that admirable commitment to representing their own world, that keeps Nappy Roots so real -- and so very Kentucky.
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As Big V says of his hometown, "In the end, that's where I want to live. In Bowling Green, Kentucky."
So our fears are unfounded? We shouldn't worry that one gold record will turn these self-proclaimed "country boyz" into coastal hipsters? We shouldn't expect to see Big V eating sushi on the deck of some beachside Malibu manse in the near future?
"Well, I don't know," he counters, exercising his drawl after a thoughtful pause. "Because to tell the truth, I really want to get into acting."
Yeah, well, "real" is such a subjective term anyway, ain't it?