Ask some slacker from San Francisco what the Phoenix music scene means, and he'd probably say the Meat Puppets or the Gin Blossoms.
Call up Rolling Stone with the same question, and they'd rattle off names like Alice Cooper and Stevie Nicks.
But chat with a deejay at a London rave or an A&R rep from major label A&M Records, and what do you get? Snickers? A shrug? Would you believe a nod as a burgeoning black-music spot?
In the past two years, a trio of acts from the Valley's tiny hip-hop/dance/R&B community has signed deals with A&M.
Harlem-gone-Glendale rapper the Overweight Pooch was the first to get A&M looking to the funky side of Phoenix, and she set off a chain reaction that hasn't stopped reverberating. Her album Female Preacher, released last summer, pretty much flopped, but the Pooch's label couldn't have been more pleased with the disc. Pooch producer Felipe Delgado invited homegirl Ce Ce Peniston to sing on a trio of tracks, and soon A&M was more interested in Peniston than the Pooch.
A&M representative Manny Lehman, his ears pricked by former Miss Black Arizona Peniston's booming vocals, made her the label's second Phoenix discovery. The singer responded by turning out an album that's made her arguably the Valley's most famous musical celeb since Alice Cooper. Her first two singles have topped both of Billboard's dance charts, and her third just went to No. 1 in club play.
And A&M's Phoenix gold rush isn't over yet. The label's betting it's struck another vein with its find on the Peniston track "You Win, I Win, We Lose." Glendale resident Malaika Sallard, who threw in a few back-up vocals on the song, impressed A&M talent scout Lehman enough to get a single and probable album deal with the label.
So what's behind the Phoenix renaissance in contemporary black music? After all, it's the first time since local Sixties act Dyke and the Blazers that anything urban has put the Valley on the musical map. For starters, attribute it to a whole bunch of the kind of dumb luck that makes the record industry such an unscientific business. Without the Pooch, there might be no Ce Ce. Without Ce Ce, no Malaika.
Curiously, only one label seems to be combing Phoenix for new black voices. Although Malaika claims that London and Profile have expressed minor interest in her recently, A&M is the only company dishing out money and deals left and right.
And why is A&M being so generous all of a sudden? Lehman wouldn't return telephone calls and the label wouldn't speak for him--all in character for an A&R rep. Secrecy and anonymity are the cornerstones of their profession.
Malaika's theory revolves around Janet Jackson's recent ditching of the label for Virgin Records.
"She was the breadwinner," Malaika says. "And I think they had a lot more money left over to invest in people."
That it's taken this long for the local black-music scene to show up on Hollywood's radar is pretty understandable. In Phoenix, where the black population hovers around 3 percent, it's a scramble to get yourself heard as a new-school R&B singer or rapper. Where heavy metal, alternative and country up-and-comers have established launching pads on the club scenes of Tempe, Scottsdale and the West Valley, aspiring black acts do gigs like weddings, an occasional night spot and the odd talent contest. The Pooch, for instance, played gigs at a rented dance hall with a fuzzy PA and at Celebrity Theatre in the Arizona Battle of the Rappers before inking with A&M.
"I mean, this is not Atlanta," Malaika smirks. "The black population is very limited here. You want to please everyone, but you always tend to please the majority."
The story of Phoenix's black-music invasion starts in Harlem in the mid-Eighties. It was there that Shtonya Davis, who calls herself the Overweight Pooch after a childhood nickname, rapped with friends, reworking songs by old-school blast masters like Doug E. Fresh & the Get Fresh Crew and Dana Dane.
Five years ago, the Pooch followed her newly remarried mother from Harlem to Phoenix.
But moving from the birthplace of hip-hop to the home of Glen Campbell didn't daunt the Pooch. Perfecting the style she'd developed on the stoop and in the park in Harlem, she eventually won the Arizona Battle of the Rappers in 1990 and attracted A&M's attention, becoming the state's first emcee to sign with a major.
The rapper's song "Hip House Party" showed up on the 1990 A&M compilation dance tape Jam Harder along with DNA's club-hit remix of Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner." The Female Preacher album followed last year.
The Pooch, now 21, did some release dates for the album primarily in California. Billboard gave the album hype for its artistic merit, but figured the rapper wasn't likely to put a dent in Hammer's market share. A variety of factors killed sales. Call it regionalism or blame it on the good ol' B-boy network, but with very few exceptions--among them Sir Mix-A-Lot and Geto Boys--radio and video playlists just don't make room for a lot of rappers who aren't from hip-hop epicenters like New York, Oakland, L.A. and Miami. It's possible, too, that the world wasn't ready for a woman rapper who sizes up closer to Heavy D than Salt or Pepa.
For her part, the Pooch suggests A&M could have promoted the album better. But the rapper also blames herself for not taking the wheel on the project. The ruthless rules of hip-hop say you live or die by your own rhymes, but the Pooch showed up in the writing credits on only five of Female Preacher's 11 songs.
Part of the problem was that the Pooch's family was cramping her style. Now a mother of two, the Pooch had to juggle studio time and her kids. "Everything happened so fast," she remembers during an interview from her home in Glendale. "I was pregnant with my daughter, and I was taking my son in the studio with me."
Realizing she couldn't have it all, the Pooch shopped out writing assignments. "It was like I was trying to give a lot of people chances," she says. But the rapper adds that the various writers didn't always come up with songs the way she would have done them.
The Pooch is a keen judge of what went wrong. Female Preacher is the sound of a rookie artist being pushed and pulled a thousand different ways. Where top contemporaries like Monie Love and Yo-Yo immediately establish their presence on record with brilliant rapping and engaging, outrageous personalities, the Pooch's identity dissipates in the role of interpreter. Producer Felipe Delgado's beats would sound fresh on either coast, but his overall musical concept for the album, eclecticism minus the vision of a De La Soul, makes it even tougher for the Pooch to find a groove. The tracks march through hard-core, swing, blues and house with the rapper in the passenger's seat more often than not.
On the mic, the Pooch is no Monie Love, but she's headed in that direction. Granted, there are clichs and predictable rhymes aplenty, but the rapper can also throw in the rhythm changes, the tongue-twisting word plays and the lyrical originality to let you know she has pro potential.
The Pooch, perhaps sensing her second album has a make-it-or-break-it warning label attached, promises she'll be the one barking the orders this time. "I'm going to write everything," she says. "This time I have to prove it to myself, prove I can do it."
For now, the Pooch's most important contribution remains the discovery of Ce Ce Peniston, an unexpected find if there ever was one.
While recording Female Preacher, the Pooch was searching for a singer to add vocals to the title track. She remembered meeting a woman named Malaika Sallard at a talent show, but when it came time to get Malaika into the studio, the rapper found she'd lost her future label mate's number.
Producer Felipe Delgado remembered Peniston from hearing her on a demo tape and brought the singer in to do background vocals on the song. The response from everyone who heard Peniston moved the Pooch to invite her back for more vocals on "Kickin' da Blues" and "I Like It."
A&M's Lehman wasted little time making Peniston his second Phoenix signee, and the singer quickly made the loss of Janet Jackson easier for the label to swallow. "Finally," the eventual title track off Peniston's debut album, was released late last year, and topped club playlists in London and in Billboard. It also went Top 5 on the pop singles chart. "Love Thang," her second single, duplicated the chart-topping performance of "Finally." Now "Keep on Walkin'" is poised to complete the hat trick. This past June found Peniston kicking her newest club anthem on the Arsenio Hall Show, her A&R rep's answering machine and at a KKFR-FM Power House show at the Valley's Desert Sky Pavilion.
Sitting in the front row at Desert Sky while warm-up acts go through sound check, Peniston talks in matter-of-fact tones about her accomplishments. You get the feeling she'd be surprised if kids from San Francisco to Berlin weren't dancing to her tunes. While an opening hip-hop group is waxing foul in preparation for the show, the next goddaughter of soul rattles off a series of positive-self-esteem quotes that range from quietly confident to brashly egotistical. It's as if she's jumped straight from the pages of some how-to-make-your-first-million-in-show-biz-before-you're-25 best seller. Even though she's got her black X cap pulled on backward and a stud in her nose, she'd probably be equally comfortable in a business dress. Financial world terms like "lower-accountant" are now part of her vocabulary.
Peniston, also 21, has been on one kind of a stage or another since she played Buttercup in a grade-school production of H.M.S. Pinafore. In between a variety of talent contests and the odd wedding gig, she managed to squeeze in the Miss Black Arizona crown in 1989.
Even without the Pooch's leg-up, Peniston thinks she may have risen to the top anyway. "I feel like anything's possible," she says. "I know one thing: If I wasn't at this spot, I still would be achieving to get to this spot."
Actually, it's hard to argue with Peniston's ego. She's not just up there putting the face of a beauty queen on some producer genius's house tracks. At 21, Peniston, who's often tagged as the next Chaka Khan, sings with the richness and depth of a Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey, but at house speed. Her voice moves fluidly from the rumbling bottoms of the blues through brassy conversation, expertly caressing the breezy melodies of her songs and punctuating them with a falsetto if that's what the song calls for. At Desert Sky, Peniston buries lip-synching contemporaries like Jackson. One minute she's dancing with such reckless abandon it shakes one of her overall buttons loose. The next, her voice is booming all over the grounds a cappella.
It's fair to say Peniston is better than her material at this stage. The singer came up with the words and melody to "Finally," and her producers have mixed together an extremely radio-friendly bunch of pulsing dance tracks, but a writing- and knob-spinning team that could slug it out with Peniston note-for-note, say, a Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis or a Cole and Clivelles, could push Peniston's career to a place even she never dreamed of.
As it became clear that the singer was leaping from the Pooch's album to the top of the charts, rumor had it the Pooch was stewing over Peniston's using Female Preacher as a springboard. But the Pooch swears she harbors no Peniston envy.
"There's no jealousy, because she has a voice," the Pooch insists. "I gave her the chance, but I didn't give her a voice."
Under the heading of "near future," Peniston's Filofax lists film, but she's positively hush-hush about the follow-up to Finally. The obvious question is whether she'd be up for taking on more intimate stuff in the vein of Oleta Adams or Anita Baker. "I don't like to let the cat out of the bag" might be her way of saying she's not ready to give up a steady diet of No. 1 club songs just yet. Peniston did grow up on balladeers like Patti LaBelle and Shirley Murdock, though.
Still, her best songs now all have throbbing beats in common. Peniston's voice genuinely turbocharges the house tracks on Finally, but she sounds flaccid, if technically impressive, on the ballad "Inside That I Cried."
On the strength of her up-tempo performances, critics have mentioned the word "diva" so often to sum up the singer, it might as well be a professional degree. No argument from Peniston here: "I think people consider 'diva' as someone with a lot of soul, and I consider myself a person with a lot of soul, so I think the description would fit right."
Just like "diva" and Chaka Khan naturally pop into your mind when you hear Ce Ce Peniston, there's someone people think about all the time when they're talking about Malaika Sallard.
"To be truthful," Malaika says with an embarrassed laugh during an interview at her Glendale apartment, "people say me and Ce Ce sound alike. Ce Ce has a full voice. She doesn't have this baby squeak. I feel I fall into the same category."
Malaika, in fact, is already shaping up as a Mariah Carey to Peniston's Whitney Houston. "Why do I have to sound like her?" she asks in mock exasperation. "Why can't she sound like me?"
The singer, 20, swears she sounded like her friend before they met, but it's a fair bet Malaika's voice is more Penistonian today than before Ce Ce.
The singers met a couple of years ago in the cafeteria at Phoenix College, where Peniston was on her way to a liberal arts degree and Malaika was studying nursing. You could say Malaika took a minor in Peniston.
Soon after they met, the singers had students listening in amazement to their duets. But it wasn't their voices that had jaws dropping. It was their choice of venue--the cafeteria. While students munched and studied, Peniston and Malaika took requests, conversed in song and generally made a scene.
"We would grab an audience," Malaika recalls. "People would gather around and ask, 'Are you gonna sing today?'"
Not everyone was similarly moved by their harmonies. "There would be people who would say, 'Oh, those girls are always singing.' And we would just say, 'Look, it's for the benefit of our voices, we like to do it, and if you don't like it, then I'm sorry. There's other places on campus that you can hang out.'"
School wasn't the only place Malaika and Peniston carried on.
"We could be in the middle of the mall, and if I'm on one end and she's on the other end, we will sing, 'Hey, how ya doin? So how was your weekend, gir-r-r-l?' And sometimes we just go on and on and on. So it's kinda cute, but then again, it embarrasses other people."
Beyond wowing shoppers and bugging students, Malaika's workouts with Peniston did something more constructive.
"With us singing back and forth," Malaika says, "I would assume that we do have some characteristics alike."
Peniston brought out the beast in Malaika. "When I first started, I sang more through my nose than through my diaphragm. She told me, 'You've gotta use your stomach.' Now my voice has more clarity. It's louder, it's fuller, you can hear the words better. If you would've heard me a few months ago, you would've said, 'Oh my God!'"
Peniston, along with her mother, also gave Malaika a mental makeover.
"I think confidence was my main problem," she admits. "They said that I had talent, that it doesn't come a dime a dozen, and that someone is gonna pick me up."
Besides serving as Malaika's voice coach and guru, Peniston even played agent. "We pretty much promised one another, 'Hey, if you get a record deal, think about me," Malaika says.
Had the Overweight Pooch held on to Malaika's telephone number, Peniston's career and hers could easily have been flip-flopped. If her own A&M deal hadn't gone down, Malaika says, "I would've been, 'God, that could've been me, and I didn't even know it. How could this girl lose my number?' It would've been a definite loss to me had I not known Ce Ce."
When Peniston landed the A&M deal, she did more than think about her friend. The way Malaika tells it, Peniston must have regarded her vow as a blood oath. "I would be at work when the calls would come in, but I always had my machine on," Malaika says. "Her mother worked diligently trying to get in touch with me. They kept calling and calling."
Peniston kept her word, but Malaika's part wasn't meaty enough to attract A&M. During the session, though, Peniston and Malaika again fell into their unique brand of musical conversation, and her voice did make an impression on local producer R.K. Jackson, who was in on the recording. Jackson put together a Malaika demo and networked it to Lehman at A&M. The label apparently was more impressed with the voice than the song. "It was a jazzy type tune, and A&M said, 'Well, we like it, but could she do something fast?'" recalls the singer.
At that point, Jackson hauled Malaika back into the studio for a song called "So Much Love." This time A&M bit for a single deal with a possible album to follow.
A rough four-track preview, as heard on the singer's stereo, reveals it to be a knockoff of Peniston's dance hits. It's an insistent house track with a synth hook custom-built for heavy club rotation. Malaika's voice, a shade deeper and punchier than Peniston's, fairly roars over the beats.
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The singer has reason to be hopeful about an album deal following up the single. Malaika reports that she's shipped some more demos to A&M and heard no complaints.
But can she build on what the Pooch and Peniston have done and become Phoenix's next big league R&B singer or rapper? Having won the record industry's lottery, Malaika seems to know she'll be meeting lots of friends she never knew she had.
"People hear about you doing an album, they just start coming outta the woodwork."
For the record, at least, the singer's in a generous mood, even if she won't reveal who Phoenix's next Pooch, Peniston or Malaika might be.
"I've been looking at some people," she says vaguely. "It wouldn't be fair to name em off and then not use em. Whoever's around at the time that can get the job done, then I'm gonna go with that person. If I can bring somebody along for the ride, I don't have any problem with that.