Sunday, October 5, 2003

Nappy Roots' 'Leather' reflects new seriousness

By Chris Jordan
Gannett News Service

As the song from Nappy Roots' new album Wooden Leather states, the Kentucky hip-hop group has indeed been "Roun' the Globe."

One stop was Baghdad, where the group performed in July as part of a USO tour at the request of the United States soldiers stationed there.

"It was crazy, man," says band member Fish Scales (whose given name is Melvin Adams). "We pulled into the Saddam International Airport hangar where a lot of the soldiers are staying now, and it was like 4,000 soldiers just waiting on us to arrive.

"They just parted like the Red Sea when we came in."

Nappy Roots, whose major-label debut Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz sold 1.2 million copies last year, was the soldiers' second most-requested hip-hop act, Jay-Z being the first. Though there was plenty of sand, it wasn't like playing the MTV beach house.

"We really had to dig deep to go over because it was still going on," Scales says. "People are still being killed in Iraq over this situation. It's like, getting off the plane in Kuwait, "Have a good time, but run to your car - do not hang around."'

The reception Nappy Roots received should not be surprising, considering the amount of hip-hop in the Middle East these days. Radio Sawa, the U.S. government-sponsored radio station that broadcasts in the Middle East in Arabic 24 hours a day, sprinkles hip-hop onto its playlists. Then, there was Lance Cpl. Alex Rivera Jr. of the U.S. Marines, who demonstrated his rhyming skills on the top of a Humvee for a group of Iraqi children soon after the war started.

"The whole point is how far hip-hop has come - it's so universal now," Scales says. "It's always been our best way of expression. I'm not the greatest speaker, but I can write a verse and tell you how I feel, and now everybody is starting to understand that."

As hip-hop is now a universal language, emcees should be more vocal when it comes to social issues like the war, Scales says.

"In Iraq, hip-hop should take a stand and speak on this war because most of the soldiers over there grew up on hip-hop," Scales says. "It's the hip-hop generation and we do have the strongest voice right now."

Strong, perhaps, but not impervious.

"You have to be careful, especially if you want to sell records," Scales acknowledges. "Look at what happened to the Dixie Chicks. But I think hip-hop has to be more responsible and really take care of the people coming up because they listen to every word we're saying.

"They don't listen to the news to know about the war; they listen to us."

What they'll hear on the new Wooden Leather is another helping of the down-home tomes to everyday life that was first served on Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz. There's the folksy "Sick & Tired," where the Naps proclaim that they're sick and tired of barely getting by. "Push On," with a soulful tremolo guitar and vocals by guest Anthony Hamilton, offers words of encouragement for those who refuse to give up.

The first single, "Roun' the Globe," is a brisk acoustic jam featuring handclaps and a sing-along chorus.

Where Wooden Leather differs from Gritz is in a bit more polished sound. "No Good" features synthesizer sounds, and the class-war anthem "War/Peace" also has synths, in addition to a heavy metal guitar lead.

"We had a lot of success last year, and we come back humble and it showed," Scales says. "We show you that we're blessed to be here, we don't take that for granted. We've been there and Lord knows we don't want to go back to doing some of the things we had to do to get here.

"There's less drinking, less smoking, and a lot of focus on making this music happen."

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