The life expectancy of the average hip-hop group is comparable to that of the average housefly. Have a smash one year, and you'd better have a smash the next, or you'll wind up as extinct as the dodo. Sure, a few rhymers (such as Queen Latifah) have beaten this death sentence, but they're the exceptions. And besides, would you really want to become a cast member of Living Single?
Right now, Das EFX is wrestling with this conundrum. Skoob and Dray, the duo behind the moniker (which stands for "Dray and Skoob Effects"), hit the national scene in 1992 with Dead Serious, a recording that sold more than one million copies, thanks mainly to Skoob's distinctive verbal skills. His scatlike trademark--stretching out words by inserting nonsense syllables into their midsections--was soon a part ofnearly every rapper's repertoire. As aresult, 1993's Straight Up Sewaside, released by EastWest (whose execs expected it to be a major commercial breakthrough), was seen by many critics as an imitation of the very approach Skoob had pioneered. Its negligible sales have made Hold It Down, issued late last year, a make-or-break proposition. And Skoob knows it.
"You've got to maintain," he says, "and know that this is just a cycle. It goes through the same thing year after year. So you have to be on point, and, each time, you have to elevate. You can't stay in one position. You know what your fans are looking for, but, at the same time, you have to keep them interested. You can't just throw out something that you threw out last year. They know you for a certain thing, but they always want to hear what else you can do."
Skoob and Dray are from the urban East--Skoob was born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York, and Dray hails from New Jersey--but they met as English majors at Virginia State University in 1990. Before long, the two were campus celebrities, and their status was enhanced after a 1991 rap contest judged by the members of EPMD, a cadre of Long Islanders whose 1988 album, Strictly Business, established them as hip-hop heavyweights. Das EFX didn't win the prize that night, but EPMD's Parrish Smith was suitably impressed; he subsequently made Skoob and Dray a personal project, and produced Dead Serious.
The combination of the EPMD production stamp and Skoob's oral calisthenics made Das a fast riser on the national rap scene, and the duo toured the world with EPMD as part of the bench-mark 1992 Hit Squad Tour.
When it came time to cut a serious follow-up, however, Skoob and Dray found themselves in the midst of a hip-hop soap opera. Specifically, EPMD partners Smith and Erick Sermon split up, prompting a name change (the original appellation stood for"Erick & Parrish Making Dollars") and the usual brew of bad blood. The newly tagged PMD oversaw Straight Up Sewaside and managed to give it an effective gloss. But by the time Sewaside reached stores, the mania for new studio methods had left it sounding like yesterday's news. Or, at least, that's the way Skoob explains it.
"The beats were okay," he insists, "but there were a lot of new producers coming up, and they were taking over the airwaves. It was their thing that year. And since we'd used the same crew on Straight Up as we did on Dead Serious, it didn't really work with the mainstream crowd. They couldn't really feel what we were doing. Our underground fans stayed with us, but that was about it."
In addition, there was the wholesale thievery of Skoob's linguistic technique--atopic that gets his ire up. "A lot of people want to be a star," he begins. "And there's so much money in this hip-hop thing that they'll do anything to get into it. It's just a good way to get some money, and once one person does it, everyone thinks, 'I can do that, too,' even if they don't really have their own sound. And when somebody at a record label hears a new group sounding like another, well-established group, he goes, 'Damn, I should have had that other group in the first place. So, all right, I'm going to go out and get somebody who sounds like them.' You know what I'm saying? And then they take this not-as-creative person and put them out, put a lot of money behind them and they confuse the public. The real hard-core, underground people know what's going on. They know that the second label fucked the niggas who were original. But nobody else knows. And when the second record blows up, the underground cat gets lost in the shuffle.
"Now, sometimes people aren't really trying to imitate. They just look up to certain people, and, if some 11-year-old out there picks up on Das, then he's going to sound like Das. But that kid's got to learn that you can like this guy and like that guy and like the next guy, and you can take what you can from them and make it your own. But you shouldn't take that man's creation. Just try to put something of yourself in there and keep it real. Because that's what hip-hop is."
Hip-hop is also a stern, unforgiving taskmaster. Knowing this, Skoob and Dray decided to swing for the fences with Hold It Down. They maintained their loyalty to Parrish Smith and PMD on a handful of tracks, but they also brought in some trendy dial-twisters: Gang Starr's DJ Premier, who produced the most recent CD from KRS-One; and Easy Mo Bee, who got the latest from the Notorious B.I.G. and Craig Mack on tape. In addition, KRS-One dropped by for an appearance on "Represent the Real."
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"Working with different people definitely brought out things people in hip-hop never heard from Das before," Skoob claims. "We write by using the beat, the mood of the song, so writing for three or four different producers definitely changed the sound. Which was basically our purpose."
Nevertheless, Hold It Down isn't setting the charts on fire. In fact, it isn't on the charts at all. But rather than quietly accepting that their race is run, Skoob and Dray are in the midst of a nationwide tour intended to keep the support of fans of "real hip-hop," who don't rely on radio stations and Yo! MTV Raps to tell them what's hot (and what's not). With broadcasters in Phoenix and other major cities shying away from rap, Skoob concedes that this tack may soon become a necessity for combos on Das' level, and stresses the importance of sustaining ties to the musical underground--the "sewa," in Das' lexicon.
"Way back in the day, you had groups like N.W.A and EPMD going gold, platinum, double platinum, with no airplay at all," he notes. "So the radio thing really doesn't matter. As long as the music is strong, good things are going to happen anyway. If we go mainstream, it's a plus for us, no doubt. But we're making our songs for fans, not so that radio will play them a hundred times a day. This is hip-hop, and hip-hop is underground music. And if people in the underground can feel and hear what we're doing, then we'll be fine."
Das EFX is scheduled to perform on Sunday, January 21, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe, with Onyx. Showtime is 8 p.m. (all ages).