It says something about Little Rock that I only learned about the concert by rapper Young Jeezy (and the slew of Arkansas-bred rappers who would open for him) a few hours before it started.
For fans of rap, it was a big, big deal. Jeezy’s sophomore album, “Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101,” has been roaming around at the top of the Billboard 200 since its debut eight weeks ago (it’s at number 13 as of this writing, after peaking at number 2). Fresh off an interview in Rolling Stone magazine, Jeezy fits anybody’s definition of “hot.” Still, news of the concert hit Little Rock’s mainstream media (this paper included) with about as much force as an old lady turning over in bed. Some Little Rock rappers like to call Interstate 630 — the expressway that cuts through the middle of the city and mostly divides black neighborhoods from white — “The Wall.” They’re talking about more than real estate.
The concert was held at the Clear Channel Metroplex, and as fans poured inside, my photographer and I stood on the sidewalk, slapping mosquitoes and being eyed by two mountainous security guards flanking the door. Their people were talking to the promoter’s people, who would talk to the talent’s people about getting us inside for a few pictures. Come back in an hour, they said.
Soon, we struck up a conversation with the opening act for the opening act: Chris “Chasa” Phillips and Carlos “Big Boy Los” Treadwell — also known as the Stank City Boys out of Pine Bluff — and their manager, Dana Bradley, Treadwell’s fiancee. They saw our press tags, and like good businessmen, they sidled up to make contact with the media. In the weird combination of music and dime store self-actualization that is rap entrepreneurialism, they were “working the street.” That night alone, they passed out over a hundred rewritable compact discs, each burned with a compilation of their music — cool, clever raps about partying, sex (at one point, Phillips rhymes “convertible” with “insertable”) — scrambling after money and cruising the ’hoods of Pine Bluff — each disc carefully inked in permanent marker with their name.
Like the majority of Arkansas rappers, the Stank City Boys have been trying to make it for years, working minimum-wage jobs all day and handing out free music and flyers after dark, shelling out for recording time, and traveling to talent shows where they might have to pay to perform. For all the good it has done them so far, they might as well have been plunking those CDs through a crack in the floorboards. Still, Treadwell and Phillips remain among the believers — in themselves and the scene.
“The key is being heard,” Treadwell said. “You got to be heard. That one person that’s feeling you — that right person, with that money — got to hear you. When he hears you, you convince him? You’ve got the world.”
Even if you’re not a fan of rap, you’ve probably heard it in the soundtrack of American pop culture. After developing on the East Coast in the 1970s and ’80s, rap soon became a nationwide phenomenon — hard, car-rattling beats, rappers verbally riffing about their neighborhoods, dancing, women and wine, often in the graphic and misogynistic language that gives the prudish so much to hate about the form. With the coming of gangsta rap in the 1990s, rap took on a darker, more crime-ridden rep. These days, however, rap has in many ways returned to its roots. Not just a black thing anymore (the number one album on the charts right now is by white Houston rapper Paul Wall), modern rap mostly serves as a pressure valve for urban life, with lyrics about partying, money, club-hopping, cars, pot, relationships (however brief they may be) and laid-back weekends.
While the rap sound in cities all around Little Rock — Houston, Dallas, St. Louis and Jackson, Miss. — is red hot, Arkansas rap, with a few notable exceptions (like Little Rock-based Lil Rok, whose single “Mrs. Jones” made for a national hit this summer), remains a cool backwater, with a sound that remains in a state of flux. But, like many Arkansas rappers, Phillips and Treadwell think that the state is going to break any day now; that sometime before Jesus returns, Arkansas’s well of rap talent will be recognized by someone with national pull. Then, friends — as came to pass in Dallas and Houston — the record labels will arrive with a basket full of contracts and feed the multitudes.
“We’ll get our time,” Phillips says, the gold Arkansas medallion around his neck flashing in the light. “We’re taking control. We’re reaching out. We’ve got good music, and what I tell my partner is that whenever that right person comes down here and hears us, we’re going to make that money.”
The strangest thing is that after years of faith and struggle, it looks like the Arkansas rap rapture might well be at hand.
Frederick Nash is the publisher of “The Dirty” magazine, a glossy look at regional rap headquartered in Little Rock and operated on a wing and a prayer for going on six months now. Nash is a consummate expert on the ins and outs of the regional scene, and will tell you flat out that — notwithstanding some mimicry and creative lapses from hit-hungry local artists — our moment in the spotlight is rapidly approaching.
Nash describes the Arkansas sound as a “montage” of regional styles, though unique qualities are beginning to emerge. “There is a growing insurgence of this soulful sound that a lot of the artists here are starting to tap into — a blues, Southern feel.”
Though Nash said that Arkansas suffers externally from stereotypes about shoeless hicks and internally from a lack of knowledge about the “business side” of things, he believes such hurdles could make for better music. He compares Arkansas rap to the NBA: As the basketball talent pool got better and better over the years, it forced the stars of the game to shine brighter, and forced out those who couldn’t. “It helps people who are really serious about having a career step their game up,” he said. “They always have to be a step ahead. They always have to be readdressing themselves, studying and honing their skills.”
According to Nash, Arkansas artists’ dedication is starting to pay off, with the music industry finally beginning to eye the state as one of the last bastions of untapped rap talent in the South — which has produced chart-toppers since the 1990s with rappers like St. Louis’ Nelly and New Orleans’ Master P, and more recently Houston artists like Wall and Jones.
Once the record industry chooses an Arkansas rapper for the national spotlight, others from the state will follow in his or her footsteps as labels rush in to capture the sound, Nash said.
“It’s rapidly coming to light that there’s a ton of talent here, that you don’t have to leave to make it,” Nash said. “Granted, you have to visit other places, you have to get out and tour and things of that nature, but it’s very viable here in my opinion. I think the time is coming for someone to make it big.”
Larry “Trapper the Rapper” Johnson also believes it’s time for an Arkansas rap artist to make it big. A long-time devotee of the scene, four years ago Johnson quit his job as an Army recruiter to develop his music. A manager at the West Little Rock Barnes and Noble bookstore, Johnson makes sure that the music shelves there offer a good sample of Arkansas rap. Now signed to a regional marketing deal — a deal that means he at least doesn’t have to pay for his own CDs anymore — Johnson diligently works the streets in his off-hours, papering light poles and record stores with handbills and posters. In the grand tradition of often ignored Southern rappers, Johnson has sold most of his records so far out of the trunk of his car. Johnson has an unshakable belief in himself, but his faith in Little Rock rap is another matter entirely. He unabashedly compares local artists to Ray Charles, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones.
“As far as talent, the quality of rap music that’s coming out of here is better than it is anywhere in the South,” he said.
Johnson was one of many rappers I talked to who complained about what he sees as a lack of support for local artists by Arkansas radio — what he called “the pink elephant in the living room” of Arkansas rap. He has sold 5,000 records “out the trunk” in the Little Rock market, but he can’t seem to get on the radio. “Television supports us here,” Johnson said. “I’ve been on two of the main stations in Little Rock. The paper supports us. All the local magazines support us. But I’ve only been played [on local radio] one time. You can count my spins on one hand. That’s not just me, that’s everybody.”
“The radio doesn’t support local artists the way they need to be supported,” said April “XXzotic” Mills, one of Arkansas’s few female rappers. Born in Helena but raised in North Little Rock, Mills said the lack of radio support often sends her out of town to push her music. When we spoke, she had just gotten back from Las Vegas, where she played a show before 13,000 rap fans. “When I get ready to put a single on, I’m not going to bring it here. I want to get where somebody big, corporate, is bringing my stuff to Arkansas. I don’t even want to be the one to take it in the station because you can’t get anywhere like that.”
In addition to not being taken seriously as a rapper because she’s female (“It’s hard to get anyone to listen to you because they think you’re going to be garbage just because you’re a girl”), she said the biggest drawback to rapping in Arkansas is that the number of venues for rap just isn’t big enough to build a fan base. “We perform in a little club that can’t fit 500 people,” Mills said. “When it comes to going out of town and doing something bigger, it just doesn’t get you ready for anything.” While Mills said Arkansas is always going to be home, she’s most likely going to move to a larger Southern city soon to pursue her career. “I’ll always come back. It’s like the ‘charge up,’ the home base, to come home and get myself together. But I don’t think it has anything to offer in terms of entertainment.”
Tyrone “Lil Ty” Burns is the president of Tyga Entertainment and a rapper with the group 501 Click, which stands to be among the first wave of Arkansas artists to go nationwide. After years of working the streets, their first commercially produced album, “Colt 501,” is set to be released nationally on Nov. 8. Tyga’s also pushing the Arkansas sound through an “incubator deal” with Universal Music Group, which allows it to sign and develop Arkansas artists, which will then be test marketed in certain urban centers to see how they play.
A protege of Arkansas music legend Al Bell and Power 92 operations manager Joe “Broadway Joe” Booker (see sidebar), Burns sees the reluctance of Arkansas radio stations to play local talent as a kind of tough love, meant to make sure only the strongest of them make it to the national stage.
“A lot of the artists have to realize that once one breaks out of here, they’re going to be the one,” he said. “So certain people that are in those positions to help you break out, they’re going to make sure that it sounds good, because that’s what represents us.”
Burns said that he has taken 30 or 40 records to Booker at Power 92 since 1998, when 501 Click was formed. Of those, only about six have ever made it onto the air, and those only for a few spins. On the rest, Burns said, “he’ll tell me, hey, that’s not a hit, but you’re almost onto something … I thank him for that but I think a lot of people don’t like him for that.”
For 501 Click, the road to a national release has been a long one indeed: weeks spent touring on what Burns called “the Chitlin’ Circuit,” endless promotion, and tiny dressing rooms — when there was a dressing room. It has brought them even closer together. “We’ve become just like brothers,” said 501 Click member Jesse “J-Diggy” Jackson. “We’re all on the same page, traveling the same road, riding in one car.”
Burns and his bandmates agree: If Arkansas rap can find its own sound, then the big blow-up everyone anticipates will come even sooner. “The biggest problem with Arkansas is mimics,” Burns said. “If we could just say, hey look, we don’t have to sound like anybody else, let’s just do our own thing — I think it’s the old fashioned bandwagon. We’re all guilty of it.”
One person helping Arkansas get there is Thomas “Big Keys” Booth. After starting out as a rapper, Booth is rapidly making a name for himself as a regional producer. From his Key Ingredient Music in Sherwood, Booth takes raw raps and spins them into layer cakes of sound, drawing on everything from crying babies to samples from old R&B tunes. Booth has two prices for his services: the out-of-towner price, and the price for “my people.”
“It’s about to be a huge explosion,” Booth said. “It’s like we’re at the border point now. It’s been brewing, but it’s only a matter of a few months before everything initially hits the fan. It’s going to catch the attention of some people.”
Booth said the Arkansas sound has evened out in recent years, becoming “bi-coastal,” a blend of West Coast, East Coast and Southern sounds. Getting local rappers to sweat the production value of their music, Booth said, is one of the first steps to getting the state noticed and respected by the national labels. “A lot of the time, people didn’t care about the quality of the sound,” he said. “It was just something they wanted to ride around and listen to in their cars. Now that they want to put their stuff out there, a lot of it isn’t sounding good. … We’re just trying to correct the mistakes.”
Even with his homeboy discount, getting that sound under Booth’s guidance doesn’t come cheap. Booth charges upwards of $4,000 to produce a full album. With that amount of money and his own reputation as a producer on the line, Booth said he often finds himself pushing artists in the direction of more creativity in their music. “That’s pretty much how I built my clientele base. I push them to their limit. I push them to: Let’s not leave it at that. Let’s try this. I’ve had rap artists singing who never sang a note in their life.”
For all the pain, heartache, money and time it has taken so far to try and realize their dreams of rap superstardom, the success of artists like Lil Rok and 501 Click has most Arkansas rappers more upbeat than they have been in years.
For his part, Larry “Trapper” Johnson sees any success that might come for Arkansas rap not as something new, but a continuation of something as old as the first singles of Johnny Cash. “Somehow,” Johnson said, “we’ve lost our identity as far as music. We don’t have the attention focused here.”
He’s awed enough by the talent pool that whenever he collaborates with local rappers, he always finds a way to give them a few bucks for their trouble. “I’ll tell them, ‘I’m robbing you, because I know how talented you are.’ It’s like I’m stealing from them.”
Johnson believes that the time is approaching for a core group of local rappers who he calls the best he’s ever heard, bar none. Until then, the record labels better hope he doesn’t hit the lottery.
“They better sign them before I get enough money to sign them,” Johnson said, laughing. “That’s the bottom line. If I get a million or two, I’m going to put it all into these guys.”