By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Nappy Roots was a T-shirt before it was a band, something Big V, Ron Clutch, Scales, R. Prophet, B. Stille and Skinny DeVille sold out of the record shop/recording studio--ET's Music--they owned and operated just off Western Kentucky University's Bowling Green campus, the city's first black-owned record store. (ET's, by the way, is short for "Er'thing's Tight.") It was a hot seller, the Nappy Roots hick-hop logo printed in fraternity and sorority colors so the Greeks would snap them up. Which they did. The group, five Western Kentucky students and one non-student local (Big V), couldn't print them up fast enough.
Soon enough, something else with the Nappy Roots logo on it became a must-have on the WKU campus: the group's first album, 1998's Country Fried Cess, recorded and sold at ET's. It was in permanent rotation at parties all over Bowling Green, especially the ones DeVille and Big V threw at the house they shared at 1234 Kentucky Street. The word of mouth that moved the disc from one set of ears to another spoke so loudly it was heard by Atlantic Records. Two months after Country Fried Cess hit the racks at ET's, Nappy Roots had signed with Atlantic. It was a fairy tale--a made-for-MTV movie, maybe--down to the fictitious-sounding address of DeVille and Big V's house on Kentucky Street.
Then: nothing. For years, Nappy Roots rode the bench, wondering when anything would finally happen. They wrote and recorded, then did it again. And again. Over time, they amassed several albums' worth of songs, though most of them were never heard outside of the studio a block away from Western Kentucky University. They did manage to put out another self-released disc in 1999, No Comb, No Brush, No Fade, No Perm, but that was almost as frustrating as not releasing anything at all. Nappy Roots' debut for Atlantic, Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz, was finally issued in late February, almost four years later.
"Maaaaaaan," Clutch says, when asked what took so long. He's in Washington, D.C., a couple of days into the Sprite Liquid Mix Tour, an inexplicable package bill with fellow hip-hop acts Jay-Z, N.E.R.D. and Talib Kweli, as well as mope-metal groups Nonpoint and Hoobastank, and 311, which is somewhere in between. He stretches the word out so long, he turns one syllable into three or four words. "To be honest, man, it wasn't our time. You know what I'm saying? It wasn't really our time in the industry. I don't think the industry was ready for Nappy Roots. The people weren't ready for Nappy Roots. From '98 to 2002, it was just a time period in which Nappy Roots, we grew. We developed, as men and as artists. I mean, it worked out."
He's right about that. "Awnaw" has become the kind of hit Atlantic hoped for when it signed the group, the hit Nappy Roots knew they were capable of all those years when Atlantic wasn't doing anything with them. The song, oozing organ and Dirty South snap, has been a fixture on urban radio, as well as MTV and its sister channel, MTV2, which is playing both the album version and a rock remix featuring P.O.D. guitarist Marcos Curiel. (Nappy Roots, in fact, are up for the MTV2 Award at August 29's Video Music Awards.) Featuring fellow Atlantic act, Atlanta-based rapper-producer Jazzy Pha, "Awnaw" (as in, "Awnaw, y'all up and done it") is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially the take-'em-to-church chorus: "Them country boys on the rise."
On the rise, yeah, but not all the way there yet, admittedly. Right now, Nappy Roots are low down on the Liquid Mix Tour bill, continuing to pay dues, remaining on the never-ending installment plan they've been on since 1998. "Even though we're going on early, the crowd is still a nice crowd," Clutch says. "They got us going on at, like, 5 o'clock, man. But, I mean, it's cool. You take the worst and make the best of it."
They're used to that strategy. Instead of fussing and fighting during their long climb from Bowling Green house parties to touring with Jay-Z, they tightened up their sound, making sure that when Atlantic got around to tapping them on the shoulder and pointing at the field, they'd be ready to play until the final whistle sounded. Talking about it now, Clutch almost sounds glad Nappy Roots had those years to themselves. The world might not have been ready for Nappy Roots, but it works both ways: Nappy Roots might not have been ready for the world in 1998.
"We started recording in '98, and the direction we was going, we didn't really have a direction," he explains. "I mean, you know how, like, the label wants to do one thing, and you know down in your heart, I mean, you've gotta do something else. So it was kinda like, um, we had to compromise. We used that four years, that three and a half years to really find ourselves, and to prove to the label that this is what we was gonna do. And that this is what needs to be done and this is what the world needs to hear."
The sextet was obviously right to be themselves (once they figured out exactly who they were, of course) because that's the best thing about Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz, a disc that's as comforting as the meal in the title. It's a party album for minor-league playas, often literally; on "Ballin' on a Budget," they talk about how the hustle works in KY: "No pager, no cell phone, no access at all/Just a pack of Dutch Masters and a pint of alcohol." The beats are as thick as the "Kentucky Mud" they pay tribute to, the lyrics always sticking up for the "Po' Folks" and "Country Boyz" back home. With six MCs vying for the mike, Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz is as versatile as it is down-home, like the Wu-Tang Clan rolling with the Dungeon Family, with Arrested Development providing counsel, keeping everyone honest. They can drop knowledge ("Everybody love money to death/And only three percent control America's wealth," from "Dime, Quarter, Nickel, Penny"), but it never sounds like they're preaching. They'd rather be eating pork chops and turnip greens, just two dishes on the tray of soul food that gets a shout-out on the record.
"When you new and you coming out of nowhere, that's how they relate," he says. "I can't think of the word I'm looking for, but, I mean, they gotta compare you to somebody. You remind them of something or somebody. But, I mean, that's an honor, man, to be in the same sentence, the same reference as groups like OutKast and Goodie Mob. They definitely blazed the trail. Set the standard. As far as similarities, I think when people compare us to OutKast and Goodie Mob, I think it's the soulfulness of the music. We put our heart and soul into the music, as well as those groups, so I think that's the similarities. Plus, we coming out the South, too. So folks are gonna try to pigeonhole you."
And soon enough, Clutch says, there are going to be groups coming out that people will try to pigeonhole as "the new Nappy Roots." Clutch and the band have only had a record in stores for less than a year, but they've been around long enough to know how major labels operate: If something works, find something just like it and keep doing it until it doesn't work anymore. He's not worried about that either.
"Kentucky is uncharted land, or it was," he says. "And now it's Nappy time. So, I mean, record labels, they see that. So they're liable to say, 'We need to go down to Kentucky and get us a Nappy Roots.' I don't wanna say it like that, but I think that's what's gonna start happening. You gonna see a lot of groups coming out. Not to say that they copying off us, but, I mean, they out there. They just ain't really got the recognition that they deserve. We're blazing the trail, man, setting the standard. Something new in the industry."