Kidz in the Hall: School Spirit

On Talib Kweli’s “Right About Now”, he chronicled the rise and subsequent fall of the largest independent Hip-Hop label of the late ‘90s: Rawkus Records. This label introduced the world to Mos Def, Company Flow, Kweli, and reintroduced Kool G Rap and Pharoahe Monch tragically faded in a flash of layoffs, mergers, and push-backs. But […]

On Talib Kweli’s “Right About Now”, he chronicled the rise and subsequent fall of the largest independent Hip-Hop label of the late ‘90s: Rawkus Records. This label introduced the world to Mos Def, Company Flow, Kweli, and reintroduced Kool G Rap and Pharoahe Monch tragically faded in a flash of layoffs, mergers, and push-backs. But four years after its last success in “Get By”, the label is doing just that with a youthful duo.

Naledge and Double O claim Pete Rock & CL Smooth and Gang Starr as their influences. A Chicago MC and New Jersey producer, they met at the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, and clearly studied the classics from the crates, not the library. With the release of School Was My Hustle the group says that while first week sales aren’t any indication, the success of Rawkus may be riding on their polo rugby shoulders. Backed by a name that symbolizes grassroots success in Hip-Hop, see if this group has what it takes to stand out in a cramped fourth quarter, let alone your iPod. Chicago’s had a big year for Hip-Hop, but the sales haven’t been there. Rhymefest’s numbers were frightening. Lupe didn’t do as well as people expected. Looking at the marketplace over the last few months, has the vision for this album changed at all?

Naledge: I don’t think it did at all. Rhymefest had his own vision: he wanted to carry out the Blue Collar theme. He had a lot of issues with people at J [Records] were trying to push him in a certain way. I think his second album will be a lot different, wherever it comes out. Lupe is more eclectic than anything that I would ever do. We’re two different people, two different MCs. The union that [Kidz in the Hall] have, is music we made four and five years ago. We mapped this out a long time ago. I don’t think anything that’s happened in the climate of the game has changed it. I don’t think it’s a Chicago thing, it’s a Hip-Hop thing. ‘Cause Twista’s album has nothin’ to do with what I’m gonna do. [Laughs] But the industry lumps things together, and those I mentioned seem more likely than that.

Naledge: I think with my solo album, the climate will be different. It’s coming out in February or March. I’m still cuttin’ records. I just feel like what I’m doing is pure Hip-Hop. Pure Hip-Hop fans, they’re gonna like it. Not only that, but me being on Rawkus, I don’t have to deal with a lot of the major label bulls**t of havin’ a big first week. I’ll win if I move 100,000. I don’t think Rhymefest can say, I don’t think Lupe can say that, I don’t think a lot of these cats can say that.

Double O: Our in-thing is how do we get onto peoples’ iPods? Because that’s where people are listening to their music. The people that are listening to radio are dropping off.

Naledge: The mixtape is almost dead, and the street team is slowly dying. The new guerilla marketing is the Internet and the computer. It’s seamless. People aren’t leaving their homes anymore to get music. Rawkus bought into this theory, and it’s a theory we adopted. The same people who were in line to get Company Flow, High & Mighty, Mos Def don’t feel like they’re the same people who would care about Procussions or Panacea. There isn’t that market presence. Do you worry that the Rawkus name doesn’t mean anything anymore?

Naledge: It’s weird, ‘cause a lot of people were left with a funny taste in their mouth when Rawkus left the first time. Sometimes, we face repercussions of that when we talk to people about Rawkus. But we’re trying to convince people that other than [owners] Brian [Brater] and Jarret [Meyer], it’s a completely new regime. People will ask me about A&Rs – there are no A&Rs. [Laughs] None of those people work there anymore; there’s two people at Rawkus. We just feel like we’re creating a new generation. We’re creating a new Black Star, a new Reflection Eternal – but we’re not emulating them, just spawning into something new. You’ve got a record on the album, “Move on Up” that seems to speak largely to a Black fanbase. I don’t have a sense that the releases that the “new” Rawkus has put out are being picked up by a majority of people of color. How much work do you both have to do to reach your intended audience?

Naledge: I don’t view that as an issue. Public Enemy sold millions of records, Talib Kweli, dead prez – even Mos Def. I write about my reality, and the issues that I had to fight for and speak about. That’s what drew the original Rawkus fans, authenticity and unwillingness to bend what I’m saying. That is what people accepted before. I’ll be real with you: I feel we are the future of Rawkus. There’s other groups on Rawkus, but I feel like if we tank, then this whole s**t is tankin’. If you notice, when we came up, that’s when people said, “Rawkus is back.” Those other [artists’] records are out, and they’re not doing the same types of interviews that we’re doing.

Double O: It reminds me of the mid-90s era when Def Jam was real iffy. In that, it didn’t have the strength in its brand, it didn’t have anything. Then, all of a sudden, bam – DMX, Jay-Z, Ja Rule changes the tide of everything. People bought Company Flow, people bought Black Star. It wasn’t until later on that it was, “Oh, it’s a Rawkus release, I have to pick it up.” We can’t rely on the fact that Rawkus had a strong name. You both seem to be interested in marketing. I know you guys were very active in the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity at University of Pennsylvania. People talk about the power of the Black Fraternity as a networking tool. Do you think that’ll play into something as mundane as releasing an album?

Naledge: I’m a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, and I feel like there will be brothers across the nation who would be like, “I’d support him, just on the strength. He’s real. He’s gotta be about some of the ideals I’m about, because I know what it takes to be in my fraternity.” I think it will help on a grassroots level. Seeing that it’s rooted in a college level, I think it’d help. I’d be a fool not to think that it won’t. But I’m not abusing that situation. I’ve had a lot of brothers reach out to me on that strength already though. That speaks volumes when you’re on a low budget. I don’t know how people view me, I think people view me as like the Cosby kid or something. I’ll definitely use it to my advantage. [Laughs] Double O, as a producer, what were you doing before Kidz in the Hall, and what are you up to on the side now?

Double O: Prior to Kidz in the Hall, I was grinding in L.A. I was doing the placement [of beats] in R&B. It was hard for me to find anybody that I f**ked with lyrically as much as Naledge, period, anywhere. This was always the plan – since 2000. Eventually, doing things outside of the music, I’d meet the people who would bring us [together] in Just Blaze and some other people. Other than that, I’ve done some engineering work – I was second engineer over at Sony [Studios] for Destiny’s Child, Changing Faces, Missy, Ms. Jade, Petey Pabo. I’ve engineered a couple mixtapes for MC Lyte. I’ve done some remixes with John Legend, ‘cause we both went to school together. Yeah, that’s about it. I made a specific decision to ride with the Kidz in the Hall thing and stop doing outside projects when we really focused on grinding this. The decision worked. Right now, Young Gunz have picked up some stuff. Other than that, Teedra Moses is writing to some stuff. I kinda want to make my way into R&B, and put my stamp in Hip-Hop with [Kidz in the Hall]. I’m saving some stuff for the top of the year…[Laughs]…unless I get on the Jay-Z album. Is that a possibility?

Double O: Uhhh…[laughs]…that’s a whole other story. You’ll know about it soon enough. Just Blaze was initially billed to be executive producer of this album. Whether or not that’s still the case, do you think his role in the group pulled focus from your abilities, and made people hungry for his element?

Double O: It wasn’t that much. Truthfully, that’s probably more [apparent] on Saigon’s project than with ours. Because there’s so much riding on Fort Knox and Saigon, with Just doing the entire album. Whereas, with our situation, people knew about it before he became [involved]. They’ve definitely heard us before Just Blaze. He’s gonna executive produce [Naledge’s album], not Kidz. I mixed our entire album at Baseline [Studios]. We’re always bouncing ideas off him. You talk a lot about alcohol on this record, something Common also did in the late ‘90s. What role do you think drinking played in making School Was My Hustle.

Naledge: You wanna live righteously, but you still gotta recognize your faults. I recognize that in the Hip-Hop culture, a lot of it is built off of youth and rebellion. Being young, you develop habits. I’m from the Southside of Chicago, and I hung out with people that were drinkin’ and smokin’ at the age of 13. [On mixtapes, I had a song] “Clothes, Hoes, and Liquor” – a lot of people associate me with that song. “How this kid talkin’ this when he went to an Ivy League…” What the f**k, you think ‘cause I went… people from Ivy Leagues drink more than anybody I ever met. They got more money to go buy the drink. [Laughs] They worry about clothes more than mothaf**kas in the hood. The s**t just isn’t on blast. I had more sex [in college] than after I went to college. Everybody has vices. I acknowledge my vices. It’s a ritual. For me, it was alcohol. A lot of my memories, a lot of the stories I tell, I can almost name you the liquor that was associated with it. At the same time, I’ve had periods of time where I need to focus and stop drinkin’. I don’t think I have a problem, but it’s times where I’ll quit drinkin’ to get my mind clear. Like Common said on “The Truth” with Pharoahe Monch, “Constantly I seek it / But I need a six-pack to speak it.” But, at the same time, De La Soul [on “Declaration”] also said, “I never use the weed as a ghostwriter.”