Monday, November 27, 2006

Handle the truth

The first time I met D'angelo was in a nightclub in Richmond's Shockoe Bottom. A promoter was showcasing several local rap acts, among them a group called "Dirty Souls," a rap duo that included Marlon C., who was known around town as D'angelo's cousin. Dirty Souls were heads and shoulders above the average plain brown rapper that night and proved it with a song about masturbation that was based on The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Me and My Bitch." I remember one of Richmond's brighter talents, Danja Mowf, telling me that he wished he had thought of that.

After the show, Marlon talked about his record deal and sitting across the table from Sylvia Rhone as promises were made. Despite his cousin's popularity and pull with the label, the group was dropped without even releasing a single. I kept in touch with Marlon for awhile after the show and I remember him being a little bitter about how things went down.

The next time I heard Marlon C. was on a song called "Talk S**t to Ya," and which was almost good enough to redeem the ill-conceived coming of age movie it supported. It was bluesy and soulful with a hip hop edge, without being contrite or predictable, like that song Nas made with his pops. Despite help from his famous cousin on the track, labels didn't take notice. I didn't hear much about Marlon for awhile, until a friend told me he was opening for national acts at a local concert series ... with a guitar. What?

Three weeks ago, I notice a poster for a Marlon C. release as I was leaving my friendly neighborhood record store. I went back and and picked up the last copy of Ain't That Da' Truth Listening to the CD I was reminded of the rumors that Marlon was often an unattributed contributor to D'angelo's sound. Unpolished and raw, maybe this what Richmond's infamous recluse would sound like without a hefty production budget and "help" from seasoned songwriters.

On "Ain't That Da' Truth," Marlon C. manages to establish his own identity with unique phrasing, solid songwriting and a reverence for the spirits of soul music. Despite the tired skits that fill the CD, it's clear he's not just talking sh** anymore.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Disciple

Shabazz the Disciple was the first voice in "Diary of Madman," the debut album from The Gravediggas. In one verse, Shabazz killed you, stomped on your corpse and threatened to buck you down if you tried to haunt him. It wasn't one of those rhymes you easily forget.

Shabazz built on his notoriety and released two singles on Penalty Recordings. He was promoting his first track,"Death be the Penalty," when he came to the Phono Booth Record Store in 1993.

Shabazz explains his opening verse on the Gravediggas single along with the religious imagery and symbolism in his debut clip.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Moments of Truth Pt. 1

It was rare that we would shoot Wavelength outside of Richmond, Va. But when I got a call from an EMI rep about Gangstarr being available at Georgetown hotel, we got on the road quick. My usual cameramen were unavailable, so I snatched up D.J. Reese from his Mom's house and explained how a video camera works on the way. (D.J. Reese woud later come up with an idea for what would become "Are You That Somebody? remix, but that's another post.)

This was before the days of mobile phones, which turned out to be a blessing. The label attempted to cancel the interview while we were enroute. There is something to be said for being out of reach. Anyway, we got to the Hyatt and and Guru was in the lounge with his road manager and couple of guys in suits, who were trying to interest the rapper in a business deal.

His partner, Premier was nowhere to be found. Guru left the hotel restaurant several times to phone his room. Each time, he'd come back with the same news.

"He'll be down in a minute. He's on the phone."

While we waited, Guru talked about his days a starving artist on Wild Pitch records, listening to Queen Latifah's "Wrath of My Madness," on repeat for days and working part-time in a lawyer's office.

After almost an hour, the hip hop duo reunited for a interview in the rear of the hotel's restaurant. When this inteview was done, Primo hadn't given many interviews and had a mystique about him. But for some reason, he felt like talking, so we let him.

Gangstarr remains one of the most consistent, solid and prolific rap duos in history. Guru's confident montone, Primo's scratches and drum kicks are essential elements of any hip hop collection. While the group's reign may have ended, their legacy remains untouchable.

CRAIG: What's up fellas?

GURU: Ay yo, we're just doin' this promotional tour, we stopping through.

DJ PREMIER: I'm coolin'. Jus' loungin' with you right here in the "HI" in G-town on Wisconsin.

CRAIG: Alright. Premier, what we're you doing before this happened? (Holds up a picture of Gangstarr's first LP, "No More Mr. Nice Guy."

PRIMO: Oh wow. I was, you know, djing all the parties and whatnot. I was into hip-hop like crazy already 'cause my brother was still in New York and he would send all the records to Texas and everything. While I was doin' that, a friend of mine named Top Ski, who was from Boston, he motivated me too take it to a music level and actually be in the business. I was for bein' in the business, but as a producer, not really as an artist. After constantly doin' little things together, with him rhyming, he motivated me to wanting to get a record deal. But things didn't work out too well with me and him and I ended up being on my own.

And this man over here (nods toward GURU) had a few singles out, and he was having some problems with the members of his group so we were both two lost souls tryin' to find the right niche. I sent a demo to the label that he was on at that time, and he liked my demo. He used to listen to all the demos that came to the office. The owner of the label called me and we started vibin' with each over the phone. I was always making beats and stuff, but actually not for anybody, just for my own enjoyment.

Once I heard this brother ... he had a song called "Bust A Move," he had a song called "To be a Champion." I actually saw one of his shows on the dl, but we didn't get to meet. I just saw him do a performance and everything and I liked his style. Once we hooked up, I already knew a little bit about his background, as an artist at least. Not as a person but as an artist. He liked my style, I like his, we hooked up. We're still Gangstarr.

CRAIG: Keith E, What were you doin' before you first LP?

GURU: Well, Before that [gestures towards first LP] happened, like he said, I had a couple of singles. Really how it all started, I moved from Boston to New York in '82 and I started shoppin' my demo all around. That's my advice to the young people out there that want to get into this rap game, you know, it's not about jus' battling. It's not about goin' up to someone and sayin' I wanna battle you. That's not going to get you a record deal. That's not going to get you nothing. It might get you a little respect on your block for a day or two, that' about it . What I was doin', goin' into record stores lookin' on the labels, the different rap labels gettin the address, or even gettin the address of the management company. A lot of times, labels won't even accept any demo material, unless its through a middle person. They call that unsolicited material, they'll send that back to you, without even listenin' to it.

So I went through all that for like four years. Then finally in 1986, I got signed to Wild Pitch. It was a good move as a far gettin' out there in the market, but we paid a lot of dues, on the financial tip. You know what I'm sayin'? Now things are gettin better, but it's all about looking at it as a business. It's not fun and games all the time.

CRAIG: You said you moved from Boston to New York. Do you think its possible for a hip hop act to break out of an area like Boston?

GURU: Ed O.G. is from Boston, he's one of the best rappers out today. He like myself, had to make connections in New York in order to get busy on the national tip. There's a lot of talent there. There's a new group called RSO from Boston on Tommy Boy, they got one called "One in the Chamba."

CRAIG: You were among the first rap acts signed to Chrysalis Records. Did you encounter any difficulties as they had never handled a rap act before?

GURU: For us it was cool, at least we got to be with some people that were takin' more of an interest in us. There were some ... you know little, minor problems during the course of "Step into the Arena" last year. That's probably why it didn't do as well as it should have. Now EMI bought Chrysalis, and EMI is like slammin'. Their black music staff is very dedicated. They respect us, they work with us, so things are fine right now.

I'll post Part 2 upon request.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Rappers from the Basement

It's hard to remember a time when a rapper could admit to enjoying role playing games and not expect complete humiliation. But once upon a time in 1993, we met A rap duo that wasn't afraid to talk about the dragons and dungeons,the Cella Dwellas.

Like many artists on Loud during this era, the Cella Dwellas (Phantasm the Tall Man & Augide the Imagination) found it hard to thrive in the shadow of the giant W mark of The Wu-Tang Clan. You would think with a name like Cella Dwellas, there would nowhere to go but up.