THE MOUTHS THAT ROARED
On a television screen in a quiet, north Phoenix home, a frightening scene is playing itself out. It's a musical snuff film. The victim? Hip-hop.
In the video, Phunk Junkeez, two local rappers with the same skin color as Vanilla Ice, is whipping a crowd of more than 1,000 white people at Paradoxx into a complete frenzy. Skate punks and slackers leap off the stage and bob on top of the crowd. Groupies gyrate in the front row. One wise guy picks up drumsticks and starts bashing away on a standup kit near the front of the stage. At one point during the show, the rappers, whose stage names are K-Tel Disco and Soulman, lead the crowd in a massive chant: "Lick my balls! Suck my dick!" Everyone roars.
K-Tel Disco and Soulman deliver their lines with a headlong rush of white-punk energy and the self-conscious goofiness of Caucasians plying a thoroughly African American art form. A Public Enemy recording spins on the deejay's turntable at one point, but the beats throughout are often more akin to hard-core punk than hard-core hip-hop. The mosh pit revolves as much to the buzzing guitar as to the funky drum riffs.
Kirk Reznik, 26, and Joe Valiente, 22, the aforementioned K-Tel Disco and Soulman, respectively, sit on Reznik's bed in his parents' home, watch the videotape of that night and roll in hysterics. The surroundings include a wall full of black-light posters of naked women with large Afros, a collection of lava lamps, a pot pipe resting in front of the TV. The wall also has a series of holes punched in it, the result of a row between Reznik and a girlfriend. "That shit was haywire," Reznik says, giggling and watching the riot scene on tape. "I don't remember none of this show. I was drunk as shit."
On this afternoon in June, neither Reznik nor Valiente has any apologies for the way they've roughed up hip-hop and rearranged its face. Together since 1985, the heyday of such rappers as Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J, Reznik and Valiente have paid a fortune in dues to get where they are. At the moment, they're arguably the most popular local band in Phoenix, more popular even than mainstays like the Gin Blossoms and the Meat Puppets. Where the Blossoms and the Puppets are internationally recognized and critically celebrated, the Junkeez maintain a local following just as rabid, if not more so. Over the past year, the Junkeez have routinely played before local crowds of 1,000 or more.
The newfound success has left Reznik and Valiente with a chip on their collective shoulder as big as a boom box. They smirk at the way major labels wouldn't give them the time of day until the labels noticed that Phunk Junkeez had sold 20,000 albums for Naked Language Records, an alternative imprint of Atlanta-based indie Ichiban Records. The two gleefully reminisce about the time they dumped pitchers of water on the heads of their own label's executives. When the subject of hallowed heroes of Phoenix music rolls around, they aim for the kneecaps. And they turn up their noses, for the most part, at hot, new rappers, preferring to give props to old-school masters like Schoolly D.
"If I was to compare us to anyone, I'd say Run-D.M.C. and Sex Pistols," states Valiente, with no apparent irony.
The future Soulman first met the future K-Tel Disco at Moon Valley Park in north Phoenix, a gathering place for pre-twentynothings who lived in the area. Reznik, who had previously played in a variety of punk bands, was rapping with a friend to a beat box atop the bed of his 4 x 4 truck. Valiente, a hip-hop fiend and deejay who'd moved to Phoenix after growing up Jerklike in a black section of North Carolina, walked up and asked to join in.
Thus the earliest incarnation of Phunk Junkeez, the aptly named White Boy Rap, was born as a trio. That group's major accomplishment? "We weeded someone out," says Valiente, laughing at the way his partnership with Reznik began. "That's about it."
Reaction to White Boy Rap eerily foreshadowed the response Phunk Junkeez would get at live shows. "It was weird, because even then, we were doing rap, but we had a pit going," says Valiente.
In 1987, WBR gave way to BumRap, a concerted effort to attract industry notice. "It was time to take it seriously, and either try to get a record deal or get out of it," Valiente remembers.
BumRap gained a modicum of respect, warming up for acts including De La Soul, Hammer and N.W.A. in Phoenix, Las Vegas and L.A. "If a show would come through, they'd call on the local white boys," says Valiente.
Not everyone was amused by the novelty. BumRap ran squarely into one hostile black audience in Las Vegas that wasn't about to give Reznik and Valiente props without making them jump through some hoops first. "We played in front of 4,000 people, warming up for Heavy D and the Boyz, Salt n' Pepa, N.W.A. and Eazy-E," recalls Valiente. "The first song, they said, 'Oh, these are white boys, fuck em.' I look over at Kirk, Kirk looks over at me, we were like, 'Shit!' We were just gonna walk offstage, but we stuck it out. The second song, they kind of shut up. Third song, they were kind of into it. Fourth song, when we left, we got a little props. And they quit booing."
Reznik and Valiente also met up with a phenomenon that many white rappers face on the road to success. Ever since the Beastie Boys whitened hip-hop forever, industry execs have had wildly divergent ideas about what white rappers should sound like. Various Caucasians who've made hip-hop albums for major labels have been accused of everything from sounding too white to coming off too black.
Caught up in the hunt for a recording deal, Reznik and Valiente found themselves gamely trying to follow a soundstorm of advice, including some from Ice-T's producers. "They were trying to make us more black-oriented, not necessarily like Vanilla Ice, but more along the lines of a 3rd Bass, yo-homeboy type of rap. At the time, everybody in L.A. was telling us, 'This would be a good thing for you guys to do.'"
The labyrinth the hip-hop industry sent Reznik and Valiente running through would've been enough to permanently embitter and/or kill most groups. But Reznik and Valiente's passion for their music never waned. They simply couldn't imagine doing anything else. Indeed, the two have classic, slacker work ethics. Valiente, who says he ended high school with three credits to his name, worked in a car lot after dropping out. Reznik says he supported himself with part-time delivery jobs and a stint playing, of all things, minor-league indoor soccer in the Midwest.
Through the years they've been together, Reznik and Valiente say, they've had no trouble getting along, despite radically opposing personalities. Valiente's crew cut and habit of cocking his head to one side and piercing you with one bugged-out eyeball brings to mind the intensity of a Johnny Rotten or a Henry Rollins. His hyper energy is in stark contrast to the laid-back demeanor of Reznik, who often can't get a word in edgewise during the length of a two-hour interview. Nevertheless, Valiente is the self-described nice guy of the two. He claims to have helped mellow out his partner's straight-edge punk tendencies by turning Reznik on to pot, the b-boy drug of choice.
Today, the thing they admire most about each other is their perseverance, which enabled them to conquer their recording-biz-inspired self-doubt. When it was clear BumRap was done for in 1990, Reznik and Valiente decided to give their partnership another shot, with a new formula they hoped would help them turn the corner: They decided to be their pale, not-quite-funky selves, the essence of what would become Phunk Junkeez.
The duo began quietly with a show at the now-defunct Chuy's in 1990, using a tape deck as a band. Drawing on the following they'd built in their previous incarnations, the Junkeez were soon drawing hundreds of people.
Then, in 1991, the group's manager, Larry Serrin (Sir Mix-a-Lot's former front-office man), was able to parlay his industry connections into a recording deal with Ichiban. The group was getting nibbles from major labels, but echoes of what L.A. had done to the duo were enough to make Reznik and Valiente resist the labels' advances.
"The majors' vibe was, 'Yeah, we like it. We'll give you a production deal, you go out, cut us a demo, bring it back and we'll see what we can do,'" says Valiente. "But we weren't getting any, 'Yes! Fuck, we're behind you, man.' We just came to the decision that we were gonna go with an independent."
At the time of the signing with Ichiban, though, the Junkeez were still one key move away from turning into the live monster they've become. Valiente sensed the group had hit a plateau with its precarious sound setup.
"We'd mix our own sound onstage. We'd hit 'pause' on the tape deck, all that kind of shit," he says. "We started . . . not necessarily losing the energy, but I was thinking, 'Fuck, man, if we could put a band behind us. . . .'"
The band they found, Freak Squad, had warmed up for Reznik and Valiente, but the Junkeez didn't pay much attention at first. Then Valiente went to see the Squad at a later show. "I sat in the front row, and thought they had a smokin' rhythm section. After the show, I said, 'Hey, would you guys like to play with us and lose your lead singer?'"
Freak Squad lost the singer in late 1991, and the Junkeez' broader live sound added enough energy to boost the attendance level at their shows to its current, near-riot levels.
The band also rounded out the Junkeez' self-titled debut. Produced by drummer and friend Michael Mavrolas and ex-Dazz Band member Marlon McLain, Phunk Junkeez was released last February. It's shown up on radio here and there across the country, including local alternative outlet KUKQ-AM. The group even got airplay in Australia, where one deejay played harmonica to the Junkeez' song "Thick Like Mornin' Dick" during an interview.
Sales of the disc are booming in the Valley. Ichiban says an estimated 7,000 copies have been sold locally. Phunk Junkeez has been lodged on local chain Zia Record Exchange's Top 25 list for several months.
"It's cool to pull up to Zia and hear somebody in their Camaro just pumpin' the shit," enthuses Valiente.
@body:The album comprehensively displays the group's unabashedly white take on hip-hop. Reznik and Valiente's rapping is competently artless, at best, and occasionally degenerates into pseudo-Bill Murray, lounge-lizard rhyming. Valiente insists, though, that the Junkeez' white-inflected vocalese is every bit as valid as more traditional black styles.
"As far as anyone telling us, 'Your rap style is wack,' I'll say, 'It's weak to you, but our rap style is good to us, and if you think that you can step up, let's run the drum machine and go toe-to-toe.' You talk about my mama, I'll talk about yours," puffs Valiente. "We've been with this stuff for long enough to know what good raps and what bad raps are. We don't have to go up there with lickety-boom-sticky-boom-stickety, that kind of crap. You won't hear us, 'Yo, homeboy, check it.' "We had a write-up that said we had an overtly Caucasian rap style, which is cool with us. I wouldn't say that we take offense to being called overtly Caucasian."
If the Junkeez have a strength as rappers, it's their lyrics, which occasionally manage to transcend the vocalists' primitive skills on the mic. "Going Down to Buckeye" is a quirky celebration of the Arizona town that Rocky Point revelers pass through on their way to Mexico. "Thick Like Mornin' Dick" adequately conveys a snotty rage at being victimized by the recording-business run-around.
Musically, the album is just as hit-and-miss as the rapping. The Junkeez take average chances by mixing in thrash, metal and classic funk with straightahead hip-hop, but the low-budget production drops decidedly nonfat beats. The main attraction is the sampling, an art at which the Junkeez show modest promise. "Going Down to Buckeye," for instance, hums behind a postmodernized loop of the Who, Public Enemy, Tom Jones and "Disco Inferno." So why do thousands of Phoenicians pass right by the stacks of Dr. Dre discs in local record shops in search of the Junkeez' album? You could start with skin color, or, more specifically, the attitude of whiteness the Junkeez bring to hip-hop. In the hands of the Junkeez, hip-hop becomes a vital, new sound for white kids who've grown out of punk. Like the Beasties, the Junkeez translate hip-hop into an easy-to-digest formula for Generation Xers who wouldn't buy an Arrested Development album if their Doc Martens depended on it.
The scene at a typical Phunk Junkeez concert invariably resembles a vintage, Eighties, L.A. punk show more than it does a hip-hop jam. Fans throwing their hands in the air and bobbing their heads are replaced by skaters hurling themselves off the stage and frat boys behaving like bumper cars. In other words, racial demographics at Junkeez shows often resemble those in the Phoenix Country Club locker room.
While they've grown quite comfortable with their own whiteness, the Junkeez bristle at being lumped in the same category with other rappers of European descent. "People always ask how we feel about Vanilla Ice or Snow," whines Valiente, launching into a mock interview. "That's the dumbest question in the world. What do you think of Vanilla Ice or Snow?'"
Like many white rappers, Phunk Junkeez do acknowledge the stigma of being in the minority of a black-dominated industry, and they clearly grow self-conscious about it at times, as evidenced by their publishing moniker, Honkee Beat Music. But Valiente can still proclaim earnestly, "I like to say, 'We're not really white rappers.' I like to say, 'We're rappers.'"
The Junkeez' cocky, confrontational attitude is clearly both a cause and an effect of their popularity. Their rage-against-the-machine credo extends to the way the group regards its local competition, as well, in particular the Meat Puppets and the Gin Blossoms.
Reznik likes to recall how, when he was younger, he and his friends would go to punk shows at which the Puppets were playing and wait for the group to leave the stage before entering the club. "I hated the shit," he says, snickering.
Valiente brags that when the Junkeez opened for the Puppets at one show at the now-defunct Silver Dollar Club, about 1,000 Junkeez fans left the venue before the headliner's set--a healthily exaggerated figure, according to at least one person at the show.
"We knew that we were being used to pull in the crowd," brags Valiente.
Meat Puppets' bassist Cris Kirkwood's response: "The Phunk Junkeez are incredibly and deservedly popular. They've got a huge amount of talent and star appeal. My band is a miserable bag of sod. They actually talk shit about other bands? That's funny. That's kind of a cool tactic."
But the Junkeez' contempt for the Meat Puppets doesn't come close to rivaling their disdain for the Gin Blossoms. The Junkeez' hypothesis for the Blossoms' success is that the band's label has teamed up with radio to cram the group down listeners' throats.
"They've got no heart and no balls," opines Valiente, admittedly no fan of the Blossoms' alternative-pop-rock sound. "I'd rather be able to say, 'Man, I've got some music that says, "Hey, fuck you, suck a dick."' Maybe they enjoy what they're doing. If that's the case, cool, but I'd rather stick to playing our kind of music and be happy with ourselves than have to go and get molded into this clich of what alternative music is."
The Junkeez' hard-on for the Blossoms materialized when Reznik and Valiente allegedly heard someone from that group take a dig at the Junkeez during a radio interview for the Junkeez' frenetic "I Am a Junkee" video, which features a midget bodybuilder and Valiente break dancing. Valiente decided to retaliate when the Junkeez played last April's Q-Fest at Compton Terrace. Valiente says that following the Junkeez' last song, he departed by saying, "Thanks a lot. We're the Gin Blossoms."
"The crowd was on it," Valiente says, smirking. "As far as I'm concerned, we kind of settled that."
The Gin Blossoms' opinion of their new rivals, beyond the alleged radio comment, is anyone's guess. Several telephone calls to the band were unreturned.
Meanwhile, the Blossoms and the Puppets have something--a big something--the Junkeez don't: a major-label contract.
Even though the Junkeez may turn up their nose rings at the Blossoms' record-company support, they wouldn't have minded a major label working their debut. But like the Puppets, who spent years repelling and repulsing major labels, the Junkeez are in no rush to whore themselves out to the first big company waving money at them. The Junkeez say majors, including SBK and Sony, have started to sniff around.
"Now that we're out there selling some records, I don't think they even give a fuck about the music," muses Reznik.
"Our attitude towards them is a little different than it used to be," Valiente says, sniffing. "If they wanna do something, fine. I'm not gonna sit here and bow down to these record execs for something they could've had a long time ago. If a label came along that was really interested in us genuinely, we'd go for it."
Meanwhile, the Junkeez are content to bask in their attitude, perhaps the spoil of success they revel in above all others.
"We've worked for our fucking shit," concludes Valiente. "And whether we're the best band or whether everybody in the fucking industry thinks we suck, something is going right. We may not do it the way everybody else around here is doing it, or everybody else around the country's doing it, but you still gotta give us respect.
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