It's always been complicated for Ghetto Fame-Us. Time, money, whatever: Something always gets in the way. For example, the group finished recording its debut, Add On!, in late 1998, and then spent the better part of the next year scraping together enough nickels and dimes to release it on their own Load Zone Central Recordings. They kept telling their friends and fans that it was coming, first in January, then in March and then they just gave up trying to guess. By the time it finally hit stores in November 1999, Add On! had been receiving regular airplay on EZ Eddie D's Saturday evening hip-hop show on KNON-FM (89.3) for a year, and anticipation had given way to frustration. By then, the album was old news.
Six months later, so was Ghetto Fame-Us. Looked that way, at least, since three of the five members got tired of waiting for the group's name to become a reality and moved on to their own projects. MCs LB and Boo Love began working on solo albums and performing on their own. WIZ, who produced many of the tracks on Add On!, disappeared into his studio, The Wizard's Den, concentrating on making beats for other local rhymers. (A compilation of some of those, Hits from the Den Vol. 1, with appearances by The Legendary Fritz, KP, Doctor Kool and others, should be available in the next few weeks.) The group had been winnowed down to two members (Dread and Ron D.) and a name. Which, as far as Dread was concerned, was more than enough ammunition to keep firing. No need to raise the white flag yet.
"The album didn't move as fast as I think everybody wanted it to," Dread says, explaining WIZ, LB and Boo Love's departures. It's early June, a few weeks before the release of Add On!'s follow-up, And Then There Was Us!, and Dread is sitting on a couch inside the Dallas Observer offices on Commerce Street. "Maybe that was it, I don't know. But everybody decided it was time for them to do their own project. So we got together, and it was like, 'OK, everybody, just do what you gotta do. I'ma stay with what I'm staying with. I've already started the name, and I feel we've created a nice buzz. So I'm gonna keep that name. Everybody else--just do what you gotta do.' There's no anger or hostility. Nothing like that. I'm in the studio, and I see LB. I've seen Boo Love at his shows."
For a while, though, no one saw Ghetto Fame-Us. Dread and Ron D. took some time off "to reorganize and redevelop our vibe and everything. Try and come back again, do our thing." Didn't take long: Soon enough, the duo became a trio with the addition of Lodidah, a singer-MC who often refers to herself in her rhymes as "the black Janis Joplin." With Lodidah on board, the group started performing again--well, as much as you can in Dallas and Fort Worth, where hip-hop clubs are rarer than quality starting pitching for the Rangers, even though D-FW has improved in that respect over the past few years.
(A bit about that: "I'm not gonna say Dallas is close to being a big city for hip-hop, per se," Dread says. "But it is amazing, the turnaround we've made. Major acts have started to come down here finally. On a regular basis--not just every now and then, not just at the Smirnoff, but down here in Deep Ellum. There's a lot of new groups in the underground that we're checking out. There's the Dirty South scene. I think that's created a nice little vibe. I love what's going on with the hip-hop scene. It's progressing, but I think it's got a ways to go, mainly because the main radio stations don't give you hip-hop--they give you rap. So when you advertise a hip-hop function, the hip-hoppers go looking for hip-hop, but they get rap. That's conflict, right there...Radio needs to be the radio, and if I go to a club, I don't wanna hear the radio format. We're not being represented properly on the major airwaves.")
A year ago, the streamlined Ghetto Fame-Us began recording the songs that would later turn up on And Then There Was Us!, and although Dread maintains no ill will toward his former bandmates, it's clear he prefers what the new version is capable of in the studio. Produced mainly by Dread, and featuring guest shots by The Oddities (the Long Island branch of the Ghetto Fame family), Epatomed and The Legendary Fritz, the result is an album that sneaks up on listeners instead of attacking them from every angle--as Add On! did, and never let up. It's a disc that's equal parts Dirty South spank and Brooklyn bounce but all Dallas soul, a record that wants to move minds--"Crack is still a problem/AIDS is still a problem/What's going on?/Thugs are heroes/ Blue-collar workers are zeros," Dread says on "Another Level"--but doesn't mind if feet get involved in the process.
"This album is more rounded off than the last album," Dread says. "I think the last album was more..." He pauses, trying to get the words right. "It just punched at you. It didn't give you time to relax and enjoy yourself. Sometimes you just don't wanna have to go through a lot of pressure and whatnot. I don't think the songs on the last album catered to that vibe. So this time around, we were more conscious of that. I want to see people dance when we do our thing. At the same time, I wanna talk to you.
"I think that now that it's just us three, the minds are different," he continues. "She"--he nods his head at Lodidah, sitting next to him--"brought a different aspect to the game. She was more vocal with her singing and wanting to have that affect, letting people know that you can do this hip-hop and we can sing, too. We can enjoy ourselves. I thought she brought something different to the table, where as far as the last group, we were all men. We was all on, 'Let's hit 'em hard, let's go strong at 'em.'"
Which was a good idea, except that Dread and the group weren't sure where to hit people. Leaning forward in his seat on the couch, elbows rocking on knees, Dread admits he didn't really know what he was doing the first time around. He thought he did: Dread knew how to make an album, where to put the beats and rhymes, how to make it hold together. That was the easy part. And he eventually figured out how to get the record in stores. All that took was money, learning how to balance the checks and make sense out of dollars. It was frustrating, of course, but they managed, and anyway, Dread and the rest of Ghetto Fame-Us knew what they were getting into. After all, much of the time, "doing it yourself" is just an optimistic way of saying, "going broke."
Dread thought that was all there was to it: Talent gets you in and out of the recording studio and determination carries you the rest of the way. Sounds simple enough. Trouble was, Dread and the group didn't know that they were only halfway there. Think of it as a relay race: A band cuts a record and puts it out, and then they hand the baton to the listeners. The people with the car stereos and Discmans and iPods take it the rest of the way, and it's up to the group to make sure there's a successful handoff. You can record the best album ever, but if no one hears it, it's just another useless piece of plastic: a drink coaster, a Frisbee, forgotten. Looking back, Dread and Ghetto Fame-Us tripped on the track.
"I don't think we actually knew what we was jumping into at the time," Dread says, after pointing out that the group will pay more attention to spreading the word to other cities this time, a plan that kicked off with a June 18 performance in New York with The Oddities, providing the entertainment for the launch of Busta Rhymes' new clothing line. "We didn't focus on where we wanted to promote it and how we was gonna get it out there. I think this time around we're more focused on making sure that the people know what's going on, and not using not having enough money as a crutch. Because there's other ways around it. We've made positive connections within that time; even though we haven't dropped anything, we've always still been out there. We've been doing shows and everything. It's a little bit easier this time."
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