In rap music's formative years of the 1980s and early '90s, being a fan of hip-hop was often an all-or-nothing affair. Two decades ago, it wasn't unusual for a rap fan to listen to gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A. or Ice-T one minute, then throw in a cassette by conscious rappers like Poor Righteous Teachers or De La Soul the next. As hip-hop has grown, however, deep fissures have developed among its subgenres. Nowadays, fans of underground hip-hop turn up their noses at mainstream rap's glorification of materialism, while fans of commercial rap roll their eyes at the hippie-dippy, can't-we-all-just-get-along vibe of indie hip-hop.
One Phoenix hip-hop duo is on a mission to close the chasm between these two factions. American Negro formed in 2009 by MCs Lil G and Q and already have released two mixtapes. Their latest release, The Red Mixtape: Who Raised You Mothaf*ckaz?!, features club-worthy beats shot through with socially conscious lyrics. The contrast was no accident, Lil G says.
"We was trying to get in between dope boys and conscious music," Lil G says. "You hear a lot of music with great beats — great beats — but then they ain't talkin' 'bout nothing. So we were like, 'Man, what if you put some substance on top of them nice beats?' That's all we were trying to do with that. There's no excuse for having great beats and not having great lyrics, and there's no excuse for having terrible beats and amazing lyrics. That's what people get offended by, I would say, as a fan of rap music. I'm like, 'Man, your lyrics are amazing, your flow is awesome, but who the hell is doing your beats?'"
The mixtape is a surprisingly cohesive release, especially considering American Negro's diverse background and low-budget, DIY approach. The group's backstory sounds like a bizarre mash-up of Northern Exposure, Office Space, and Friday Night Lights. Q moved to Phoenix from Anchorage, Alaska, in 1998, while Lil G is a Dallas transplant and former Division 5A high school football player. They developed a friendship amid the corporate cubicles of a local aerospace firm, bonding over a mutual love of hip-hop. After Lil G played Q some songs he'd recorded while living in Texas, Q suggested they collaborate. The pair recorded the mixtape in Lil G's living room with just $300 worth of recording equipment and software. The beats — some familiar, some not — were culled exclusively from the Internet. Unlike many of their bling-obsessed hip-hop contemporaries, American Negro take pride in doing things on a shoestring budget.
"Coming from the South, you learn to make things on your own, not deal with the big boys. You improvise," Lil G says. "No matter what you do, you can't pay for swagger, bravado, skill, flow. That's free. If you get that right, it doesn't matter what type of equipment you have. People are gonna feel what you're saying. I think that's a decidedly Southern thing, because in the South, we used to listen to people who would record in their basement, and we would like it because that was my dude from down the street or the dude from my neighborhood."
One of the more unusual elements of American Negro's approach to hip-hop is their desire for relative anonymity. Unlike, say, Mike Jones, who can't rap eight bars without mentioning his name, his album title, or his cell phone number, American Negro employ a drastically different protocol. Both their Web site and MySpace page are devoid of photos, and they asked that New Times not print their real names or run a photo with this story. The lack of images isn't a result of concerns about personal safety or job preservation. According to Q, it's a "marketing experiment" designed to let the duo's music stand on its own merits.
"When a new artist comes out and I go get their album, and I'm looking at the cover or the image on the screen, I'm like, 'Okay, why does he got all these tattoos all the way up his neck?'" Q says. "Or maybe he's wearing skinny jeans and you won't even listen to it. We just wanted to take that variable out of the equation, so people will say 'American Negro? Sounds interesting. I'll check it out.'"
American Negro realize they're facing an uphill battle in a city that has yet to produce a bona fide hip-hop superstar. They're refreshingly candid when discussing the shortcomings of the Phoenix hip-hop scene. It's not that Phoenix lacks talented MCs and producers. The problem, according to Lil G, is the absence of a distinct, cohesive sound.
"The thing with hip-hop is, it's so ingrained in the culture," Lil G says. "It's so ingrained in the streets that when you come to a city that doesn't have that culture base, it's hard to make that transition.
"When you hear 'Gin and Juice,' you're like, 'Man, I wanna buy a '64 right now, put 'dros on it, drop the top and ride down Crenshaw.' When you hear 'Drop Top Chevy,' you're like, 'Man, I wanna go to the south side of Houston, ride with candy paint and some 24s and just look at everybody.' When you hear New York, you wanna stand on the corner with a conehead hoodie — boots untied — and just post up. But when you hear an Arizona song, what you wanna do? What does Arizona sound like? What does Phoenix sound like? That's the thing. I think that's why Phoenix has never just blown up like that, because people don't know what Phoenix sounds like."
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Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing American Negro is the group's name itself, which apparently didn't meet the political correctness standards of a certain social-networking site.
"Facebook would not accept our name," Q says. "I had to change it to Negro Americano, 'cause they figured it was Spanish [so] it was just 'Black American.'"
The name was intended to be provocative, says Lil G.
"Think of the perception of 'American.' I think when most people think of 'American,' they don't think of black people, per se. They're gonna think of a white person. I went to Brazil and a person in Brazil asked me, 'Hey, why do Americans act like that?' I'm like, 'Bro, I'm American.' He's like, 'Nah nah nah, you're black.' So you see a specific person. And then we attached the 'Negro' to it. So 'American' is more mainstream. That's what it represents. 'Negro' represents the underground, the people that don't have a voice to speak up . . . 'American' is the mainstream, 'Negro' is the streets. Since we make music between dope boys and conscious rappers, we want to represent the whole spectrum, and we just felt that was the best representation. Yeah, it's controversial. I want people to look at it and go 'Why did they name themselves that? What the hell does that mean?'"