Southern hip-hop collective Nappy Roots burst out of the clubs and house parties in Western Kentucky with two platinum albums: 2002’s Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz and 2003’s Wooden Leather on Atlantic Records.
In theory, this should have given the band enough clout to keep major label powers from tinkering with a machine that wasn’t broke. In truth, it didn’t.
Nappy’s relationship with Atlantic basically ended in 2004, when, in the middle of a six-month tour to promote Leather, the label told them to get back in the studio.
“Creatively we had some differences,” said Skinny DeVille, one of Nappy’s five emcees. “We were like, ‘No, no, we want to continue with this record, because we believe in this project.’ They said, ‘That’s not what we want to do.’”
Compounding the strained conversations was the fact that Nappy was still borrowing money from Atlantic, a scenario DeVille says a lot of artists have become more familiar with.
“No artist on a major label makes a shitload of money,” DeVille said. “It’s still set up (that way). You’ve got to borrow more money. It’s a bank. It’s something else gatekeeping your dream. Our fanbase on the first album was 1.2 million. Our fanbase on the second album was 350,000.”
Sensing an impasse, the group exercised a clause in their contract that allowed them to jump ship. Atlantic was on track not to renew anyway, DeVille said. Once they were free, Nappy Roots hired a new accountant, a new lawyer and has been self-managed since 2005, opting to use consultants instead of a single manager to weigh business decisions.
In setting up its return, The Humdinger, a title any Southern kid would approve of, Nappy Roots crafted a multi-tiered record deal. Fontana, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group, will distribute The Humdinger, while Interscope will market singles.
DeVille said the group wasn’t too wary of majors having a role in promoting this record, because the new deal allows them freedom and control. “That was the plan: trying to find the right deal that was going to allow us the freedom that we have now and keep our options open,” he said.
But they had to do it without R. Prophet, who left to pursue a solo career. He and the group are on good terms, DeVille said, but the members knew they had to enhance their style: “Everybody had to step up some more.”
The first single, “Good Day,” which was released to MTV and BET’s Rap City two weeks ago, is bound to stick. Thanks to Philadelphia producer Big Al 360, its strong piano loop becomes a hook-festival — owing in part to a kid-sung chorus. Lenny Bass, who shot Nappy’s videos for “Awnaw” and “Round The Globe,” filmed “Good Day” in Atlanta, where Humdinger was recorded.
DeVille said the group is concerned about being absent from the scene for five years, but Nappy’s three mixtapes — The Leak, Interstate and Cookout Music — have kept them on the radar. In the fall, Nappy will aim for its target audience with an array of live performances and a new single. “We figured out our target audience is pretty much college students,” DeVille said. “When school starts back in, we’ll be going on our second level, doing a lot of things to stay visible.”
Nappy Roots celebrates the release with a free in-store performance Wednesday at 7 p.m. at ear X-tacy. And they’ll play Headliners on Friday.
Wednesday, Aug. 6 Friday, Aug. 8
ear X-tacy Headliners
1534 Bardstown Road 1386 Lexington Road
Free; 7 p.m. $10; 8 p.m.
Five years is a long time in hip hop. For Nappy Roots to wait five years to follow up their excellent Wooden Leather LP could seem to some to be too little, too late. Rap fans are fickle, you might say, and they won’t remember you. These people have obviously not heard this record.
This is exactly the record I needed right now. What’s that word I so often repeat? Balance. These guys have it. This is the equilibrium of street records, club songs, conscious tracks, clever and sincere lyrics, ridiculous beats (Thank you to whoever played that Ernie Isley solo on “Down ’n’ Out”), and even a couple strip-club anthems.
Opener “Beads & Braids” tells the tale of what they’ve done with their (five-year) summer vacation (Keys to the city/solos on the way/now we doing real estate/more bread to break) in a somber but hopeful piano-driven track that reminds one of Southernplayalistic-era Outkast.
With five active members bouncing back and forth with impossible fluidity, you never notice that they’re one short. R. Prophet left to go solo. With all the interest and accolades being thrown toward the Southern emcees who are insanely less-talented than they, let’s take a minute to recognize the greatness in our own backyard: Nappy Roots may have just made the South’s hip-hop album of the year. —Damien McPherson