DIY. It's a punk rock thing. Kentucky rappers Nappy Roots have their own take on it.
"I call it D I D Y," says founding member Skinny DeVille with a chuckle. "Do it cho damn self."
Nappy Roots have an album out on a major label that's sold a million copies. But before the breakout this year of Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz (Atlantic), the Napsters spent more than seven years doin' it they damn selves.
It's an improbable success story on many levels — perhaps foremost is that Nappy Roots are self-professed "country boys" making it in the decidedly urban idiom of hip-hop. Amid a rap culture dominated by bling-bling, Cristal, Escalades, gats and nothing but the finest hos, Nappy Roots go on about "Po' Folks" and "Ballin' on a Budget." The six guys comment on struggling to get over, but having a good time as you go. And they rap about food. Soul food. Turnip greens, neckbones, pinto beans, black-eyed peas, sweet potato pie. Instead of cruising in a tricked-out Benz, they borrow Grandma's old Cutlass.
"All these folks talking about buyin' $375,000 Bentleys," Skinny says in his rapid-fire style. "Man, if I had that money, I'm not gonna buy no car with it."
The Nappy Roots saga began at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, which Skinny describes as "real Dukes of Hazzard. The downtown's a little square, there's no skyline, there's one mall."
In 1993, two struggling freshman from Louisville, William Rahsaan Hughes and Ronald Clutch Wilson, decided to form a rap act. Christening themselves Skinny DeVille and Ron Clutch, they moved into a house off campus, threw parties, smoked trees and free-styled. A local named Big V joined. From 1995 to 1997, R. Prophet, B. Stille and Scales signed on.
Six college cats bangin' rhymes in a rap wasteland didn't exactly conjure up images of platinum. But Nappy Roots had dreams. And they had their DIDY attitude.
Skinny went to school on a seven-year plan — with a purpose. He convinced other students to take out college loans and invest in the group. Nappy Roots opened ET's Music, a record store across from campus, and built a little studio in the back. They cut their 18 best songs and independently released Southern Fried Cess.
They sold the disc at ET's next to Master P, Cash Money and other big time acts. They also peddled it on campus and around town, along with Nappy Roots T-shirts and other merch. "We made sure our CDs were released at the end of the school year," Skinny explains. "Here was some new shit. You know in college, everyone wanna have shit first. Finals week people would have book money so it was an easy sell. Hit someone walkin' outta class, 10 bucks, bam. 'Hey, tell your boy.' It was local, but it was good music. People headed home with the CDs, got thousands of people talkin' 'bout Nappy Roots."
The group initiated some unique marketing wrinkles. "We sold CDs wholesale to (pot) dealers around town," Skinny says. Buy a dime, get a Nappy Roots disc for free. "You'd get a sack and good CD."
In August of '98, a call came in to the record store from a guy saying he was with Atlantic Records. Figuring it was a prank, they hung up on him. A&R man Mike Caren called back five minutes later. After convincing the guys he was legit, he met them in Nashville. Nappy Roots signed in October.
By March of the following year, they turned in a full CD but watched it go unreleased month after month. This was right in the thick of Cash Money mania. The label wanted Nappy Roots on board with the bling. "We did a couple of 'I got all this money' songs, but we thought, 'This is bullshit,'" Skinny says. "We had to face people back home. If people back home ain't feelin' ya, that's bad. We had to stay true to ourselves first."
Meanwhile, Skinny changed majors from Mass Communications to General Studies, so he could cherry-pick classes that would help his career. "For most everyone, college is about getting that piece of paper so you can get a job," he says. "I already had a career. I took Radio and TV, Internet Marketing, shit that I could use."
He also signed up for no more than 12 hours each semester, thereby maximizing his college stay and, along with it, his student loan money.
Nappy Roots couldn't escape an age-old music biz cliche: Atlantic didn't hear a single. Frustrated but undaunted, the group took their rejected album, dubbed it No Comb, No Fade, No Brush and hawked it out of backpacks and car trunks.
At one point during a series of low-budget road trips to Atlanta, Nappy Roots' manager stopped to pay his phone bill at a Sprint store. He got talking with the clerk about his Kentucky rap act. The clerk told him about his roommate who "made beats." They decided to check him out.
"He was living bad, just like we were," Skinny says, "Had a futon for a bed. I was thinkin' 'This motha-fucka's livin' foul.' Then he started pullin' up some beats ..."
Soon enough, Nappy Roots were making regular trips to Atlanta, cutting demos with James "Groove" Chambers. But time was running out. Atlantic had sent another small advance but laid out an ultimatum: come up with a single or it was over. The song "Set It Out" piqued the label's enthusiasm; the rollicking "Awnaw" put the project over the top. Nappy Roots moved into a bigger studio to bring the CD home. They brought Groove Chambers with them.
He and other producers built a foundation of deep Southern funk for the six rhyme-slingers, who spew verbal fusillades in a variety of flows and gather together for rugged call-and-response hooks. Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz bears some resemblance to the thick, gritty sound of Outkast and the rest of the ATL crowd but maintains its own countrified identity.
The disc reached the 500,000 gold plateau just seven weeks after its release in late February. These days, Nappy Roots are in the midst of the next phase of what Skinny calls their 20-year plan: a hard year on the road.
And all the while they're keepin' it nappy. "All these folks talkin' 'bout keepin' it real," he says. "It's such a cliché. So many people wasn't keepin' it real. They just wanted to hollah it. We're about keepin' it nappy. Look at hair. You let your hair grow, you don't tame it, it sticks together, you can't run no comb through it. Keepin' it nappy is about avoiding fads and fashions."
And about keepin' it humble. "With how the economy is and all the (CD) bootleggin'," Skinny muses, "for a million people to believe in some Kentucky country boys enough to buy their music — that shit's amazing."