By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Arkansas Bo is looking for work: "If you've got any leads," he says, "let me know."
The rapper, whose real name is Marlon Jennings, hails from the tiny Arkansas burg of Stuttgart, the "rice and duck capital of the world," he says with a laugh. He moved to Dallas in 2007 to take a job with FedEx, but was laid off in 2009. Next, he got hired by a temp agency—but his gig with them finished in December. He's still got bills, though. His apartment in Carrollton costs him $688 a month, and he's got two young daughters to support.
So he's taken to selling CDs by hand.
"I be standing at the liquor store off Marsh Lane and Belt Line by the RaceTrac gas station," he says in his slow, rolling baritone. "Or a couple doors over at the Quick Stop, or at the mall."
It all seems unjust for an MC as talented as Jennings, whose weighty-yet-charming musings and soul-music-inspired flow make him one of the South's best unsigned rappers. His duo, Suga City, has recently received plaudits for its cultured, fresh take on hip-hop. The group, which also includes Andrew "Goines" Goins (who works at the Walmart Supercenter in Pine Bluff, Arkansas) was praised in a feature-length article in Oxford American's recent Southern Music Edition, and the duo's cello-infused song "Savoir Faire" was included on the issue's CD soundtrack. Meanwhile, Suga City's mesmerizing, horn-filled slow-burner "New New" was featured in last year's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 video game.
Still, those placements aren't going to make Jennings rich—or even solvent—overnight. In a town full of young rappers breaking big with materialistic, chauvinistic jingles, Jennings is the principled veteran perfecting his craft. Though he won't say how old he is, he's been making music for a rap eternity, having joined his previous group, Varsity, more than a decade ago and been featured in The Source's March 2005 "Off the Radar" column.
"That was pandemonium," he remembers of the piece. "People were stealing magazines out the store in my hometown. Everybody thought I had made it big, but I was still working at the post office."
About all Jennings can hang his hat on these days is the fact that he continues to deliver tremendously solid music. On albums like Porch Thinkin' and The Life and Suga City mixtape tunes (the group's debut full-length The Best We Got...Right Now is on hold), he offers up funny, introspective, streetwise nuggets. "'Fuck talent, you've gotta have swag to succeed,'" he raps on "Onetime," echoing a rap truism. "Fuck swag, that word don't mean shit to me but bad weed/ They say 'I drink too much'/ 'I'm trying to keep it real'/ This shit stank like a dead skunk in front of the paper mill." Combined with his soft, stripped-down melodies—courtesy of various underground producers—his music would seem to have crossover potential with the college radio crowd.
On "The Dream," a highlight off his new mixtape The Notebook (available at djbooth.net), Southern rappers like Scarface, Juvenile, Big Boi and Young Jeezy offer him advice. Actually, it's just Jennings imitating these guys, but the impressions are so uncanny you'd think they were actually on the track. Elsewhere, he infuses philosophical tidbits with braggadocio and bravado, such as on "Attacking Issues," in which he confronts a Dixie dolt wearing a rebel-flag T-shirt.
"I'm giving you real life situations, but I make it pleasurable to the ear at the same time," he explains. "I hide the medicine in the ice cream."
As critical as he can be of Caucasian oppressors, he also stresses the need for black men to shape up. "We have the worst reputation on the planet. We ain't blow up no buildings, but that's the way it is. I saw that movie District 9, and it kind of reminds me of us."
Jennings himself was once something of a tough, gangbanging youth in Stuttgart. Though he was never much into drug dealing, "I could fight all day," he says. "It was 'fight for your respect'-type shit. I ain't never killed nobody, but I whupped a couple of people."
He calls that behavior "dumb," and adds that he takes great pains not to glorify 'banging in his songs. In any case, his family eventually set him straight, and he got things on track as a visual arts major at the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff. Though he dropped out because of the birth of a daughter, while there, he met some of the members of Varsity and, later, Goins. The pair then formed Suga City, deriving its name by dropping the T's in Stuttgart and combining it with the second word of a Pine Bluff nickname derived from its noxious paper mills—"Stank City."
Suga City is on hiatus right now, with the two members exploring their own creative paths, though Jennings stresses that there is no beef and the group is not done. He adds that his next solo album will be called Swine Flu, "because I'm a Razorback and I'm sick with it." As for a due date, he admits he has no idea.
"It's coming soon," he jokes. "Like every other rapper says, 'It's coming soon.'"
Still, Jennings' humorous, dark self-assessment contrasts with the current crop of local hitmakers' penchant for self-aggrandizement.
"That ain't my style," he says, referring to the guys with the nice paint jobs and those with the propensity for hitting hoes. "I'm not saying that it's bad, 'cause I don't want these niggas coming at me."
He laughs and adds: "I know what kind of music Dallas likes. They like simplistic beats and simplistic lyrics."
As if the thought just occurred to him, he suddenly wonders aloud whether it might behoove him to appropriate this style, if only to help improve the lot of his two daughters.
But just as quickly, he abandons the idea.
"I ain't going to dumb nothing down," he concludes. "I'm just going to keep putting the medicine in the ice cream."