For the greater part of the past decade, record labels assaulted hip-hop heads with an onslaught of one-hit blunders calling the Dirty South home. It got so bad that at one point, amidst all the Chingy’s and J-Kwon’s and Rocko’s, most listeners had all but forgotten that the South was once home to artists like Outkast, Goodie Mob and UGK. But in the thick of the British Petroleum-sized stream of musical garbage came the six-man group Nappy Roots. Armed with a southern fried sound and enough lyrical capabilities to make any east coast purist bite his tongue, the Bowling Green, Kentucky collective went multi-platinum with their first album, 2002’s Grammy-nominated Watermelon, Chicken and Gritz.
But by 2005, fed up with their label Atlantic Records, Nappy Roots gained their release and decided to take the independent route. Starting up their own imprint – Nappy Roots Entertainment Group – and securing a distribution deal with Universal Music Group’s independent distribution arm Fontana, the group returned to the limelight one member short with 2008’s critically acclaimed The Humdinger. Earlier this week, DX caught up with Skinny DeVille and Fish Scales of Nappy Roots to discuss their latest LP The Pursuit of Nappyness, how the independent life has been treating them and why they still love college.
HipHopDX: For you guys as a group, what was the recording process like with The Pursuit of Nappyness?
Skinny DeVille: The process for [The Pursuit of Nappyness] was a bit different than we did on the previous album because we’re living in different cities now. Me and [Fish Scales] are in Atlanta, Big V came to Atlanta about a month ago and [B.] Stille and Clutch are still in Louisville, [Kentucky], so what we did was we used technology a lot more. We emailed tracks back-and-forth, we used [a beat dump site] PMPWorldwide.com to find some beats other than [those produced by] the producers that we worked with. We kind of used technology more than just showing up in the city and dropping off stuff. We’d go to the studio and we’d all hang out and we did that, we had sessions when we were all together, but then when were not all together, we had individual sessions and studios in the house…we recorded records and emailed to the other individuals [in the group], and they jumped on them and sent them back. It was a good thing. Different, but still effective in my opinion.
DX: I know when that happens to a lot of groups, it sometimes doesn’t really come together on the album. But this wasn’t at all the case with The Pursuit of Nappyness. In that respect, how did you make sure that you maintained that group cohesion?
Skinny DeVille: We talked, we communicated. We didn’t really rush it. We took our time and we had a lot of really great people around us that kind of helped us and gave their opinions about stuff. A lot of people that work for us gave their input and it was very respected. We [also] sat on it a little while. We let certain records age and made sure those records stood the test of time, like even though it might have been hot when we did it that night, is it going to be hot six weeks from now? We had to go back and look at those records…and like I said, we hooked up. We had maybe three or four sessions where either we went to Louisville and recorded or the guys came to Atlanta and recorded. So whatever they had that they were working on, they brought that with them and we’d give our input on it like we’d been together the whole time.
DX: Now, you had mentioned that with production this time around, you guys went to PMPWorldwide.com, a beat dump site, as opposed to working in the studio with producers, namely Joseph “Groove” Chambers with whom you’ve worked with a lot in past…
Skinny DeVille: Right, yeah. We didn’t get a chance to work with Groove on this album. Groove was checking out the artist side of his career. He has a hot record called “In the Bag” that he’s been working on. He’s working on his own projects, so we kind of [were like] “Okay, we’re not going to really bug you and try to make you give us records like we always do,” so we kind of let him do what he did, and we worked with a new production company called Phivestarr. They gave us some heat on some mixtapes a while back, but we really got in and got really gritty with them this time, and they gave us that real acoustic feel to the album Those guys are dope, they really gave us that edge that most Hip Hop acts are not using right now. We still want to be groundbreaking and innovative and not get complacent in our own production. We kind of got pigeonholed at one time in regards to “country,” but this time, we really embraced that side of it by really going country with it and at the same time, going with the values and beliefs that we’ve always had.
[We also] stepped our production up by going outside the box with PMPWorldwide. Those producers kind of gave us the flavor, I want to call it. You get the meat, you get the vegetables, but sometimes, you don’t get the flavor with some producers, and some of these producers gave us that sprinkle of pepper or paprika. Call it want you want, whatever flavors you like to add to a meal to spice it up. PMPWorldwide gave us those spices, like [the song] “Right Place, Right Time.” That was a producer LX, who came from PMPWorldwide. The first song on the album, “Welcome to the Show,” the producer [goes] by the name of Cloud9. He came from PMPWorldwide, come to find out he’s from Canada. We would’ve never, ever, ever, ever known about this guy if it wasn’t for a site like that. He would’ve never gotten a shot with Nappy Roots if it wasn’t for him putting his beats on that site.
I think [sites like PMPWorldwide.com] are going to be the new wave for a lot of artists that need that top-notch production but they’re just not getting it where they’re from. You can got to a site where people from all over the world are dropping beats down and you can pick through them like you’re shopping in a shopping mall. I think that’s going to make [the quality of] production go up, and I think it’s going to make getting dope tracks from producers easier. It’s easier to negotiate as well. Everybody’s humble, nobody’s trying to sell a $40,000 beat because they made something for someone four or five years ago. We’re in the day and age now where it doesn’t cost that much to make an album anymore. You have to be very, very meticulous to make sure your quality doesn’t lag because it doesn’t cost that much.
DX: Definitely, and kind of tied in with that, two of the tracks on Nappyness that really stood out to me were “Fishbowl” and “Be Alright.” They sounded like different styles of music than fans have heard from Nappy Roots. Why did you choose to go this route in terms of going against the type of music you’ve been established for making?
Skinny DeVille: Oh, you know, we’re growing. We’ve been in the game a long time, and you don’t want to get stuck in one way of doing anything. It gets boring and it gets predictable. Both of those records, “Fishbowl and “Be Alright,” we were just having a hell of a fuckin’ good time at that point in our lives. We don’t really give too much thought about having to be in the club to make a club record. We want to make good music for everybody. At the same time, we go out, we have a good time, we want to pop bottles and get drinks. We’re known for kicking it. We do a lot of frat shows, we do a lot of colleges and everybody that we’re in front of, they have a great time at these shows. Why not try to duplicate that [experience] in your music?
It wasn’t like, “Okay, this ain’t Nappy Roots.” We have a great time. We make get drunk songs, we make weed smoking songs, we make songs that are feel-good. “Be Alright” is definitely a feel-good record, it just so happens that it has a feel that you can hear in the club. For us, it’s like let’s not be bound to what people know us for. Let’s do what we want to do and let people experience other sides of Nappy Roots and see what it becomes in the future. We’re growing [as a group] as well. We’ve been together for a long time, we’ve been making music for a long time. We’ve seen the country in and out three or four times over again. Let’s broaden our branches so we can start getting into different genres and areas [of music] that people don’t see us in. I call it being refreshing.
DX: And as you mentioned, you guys do a lot of college shows. What about performing at colleges and frat parties appeals to you?
Fish Scales: I don’t know, we just have a special relationship with a lot of universities across the country that we’ve built. At some places, it’s kind of traditional to check out a Nappy Roots show. I’m not sure if it’s because Nappy Roots met in college and that’s just a good platform that we’re familiar with, but our form of music is kind of a party and fraternity-style music if you will, and we cater that. If you at [the college scene], that’s not a bad market. There’s always new kids coming in, enrolling in school every year. It keeps you refreshed…it’s just a good market. Plus, [college kids] party like we do, and that keeps us going. Truthfully, everybody wants to hold on to their college days, and in a sense, we do. We’ve been in the game for over ten years and we still get to go party at colleges every weekend.
Skinny DeVille: Without taking classes.
Fish Scales: Without taking classes. [Laughs] That’s definitely cool.
DX: Yeah, definitely. Now, getting back more into the album, one of the other songs on the album that really stood out to me was “Live and Die.” You guys paint a really vivid picture of the ups and downs of Hip Hop in it. So for you, when you see artists like Big. K.R.I.T, Pill and Freddie Gibbs come out, do you the problems that major labels have been enduring is kind of bringing the artistry back to hip-hop?
Fish Scales: It seems that way, especially with the names you just named. It seems like this is a good year for hip-hop. There’s been some down years where the radio music really took over hip-hop, but now you see artists like those you named really are not on he radio big, but they’re building strong followings just in the streets and [with] people who like good music period. It is coming back to the artistry of it, and that plays in the hands of Nappy Roots because we consider ourselves true artists, not just who are out here doing it for money. So I do feel it coming back around, and with the Internet, it gives everybody a chance to access anybody. You can hear Big K.R.I.T., who’s all the way from Mississippi, you can hear him in New York without having to catch him on MTV. You can just find these artists. You can find artists in Canada that might fit your style. I pray that it does go back to more of the artistry of hip-hop. Big artists, not just somebody who can make a single…and some of those people that you just named really can bring some thing to Hip Hop right now.
DX: And kind of tied in with that, you guys went independent with 2008’s The Humdinger with Nappy Roots Entertainment Group and Fontana Distribution. How did you guys transfer to this new more self-reliant independent industry and then now, with this new album, have do you feel you progressed with being able to manage the industry?
Skinny DeVille: In ’08 when we dropped The Humdinger, it was a big transition for us in regards to expectations. We came from Atlantic Records success, debuting our first album [2002’s Watermelon, Chicken and Gritz] out the gate nationwide, selling over a million records. That was a miracle in itself coming from Kentucky, some country boys coming from college selling over a million records on their first go around…But when we got off Atlantic in 2005, it was very, very difficult for us to find a home that was going to give the attention like Atlantic Records. We sat down with Koch [now E1 Music] almost a month after we got off Atlantic…[they] wanted to sign us…but how they were doing music then wasn’t really what we felt was going to be the best look for Nappy Roots even though a lot of people who got off a major went to Koch. Back then, it was, “If you went to Koch, that was the graveyard for rappers,” and this, that and the other. No it’s not; the graveyard for rappers is the graveyard. A lot of niggas are going there or ending up in jail. That’s the bad part of Rap.
The hype about some of these labels was very, very dominant in ’04, ’05, and we got off in ’05, so we wanted to have the best situation. At that point, we knew the game was changing. [Major labels] weren’t going to be able to support a six-man group…it just didn’t make sense for [us] to get paid peanuts. An we’ve been living off of our tours from day one, so it wasn’t a problem…But on the business decision side of it, it wasn’t the best decision to go back to a major and get that same type of deal because records weren’t selling. So we chose to independent and it took us about a year to find the right independent that gave us the support and love…Fontana did [give us that support], and if we did sell oodles and oodles of records, we’d have opportunities to elevate up into a bigger distribution system, which is Universal. The Fontana situation was perfect for us because it didn’t have a glass ceiling to it. There are a lot of labels like Fontana, but Fontana in regards to us was the best decision because it wasn’t tainted or stained like some of these other independents are. Like, “Ah, they don’t work for their artists, they don’t care about them at all, they only want to sell three single to the streets and that’s it.” You hear that and you get scared, but we went with Fontana and they’re passionate about us and we did it.
But the expectation we had when we dropped The Humdinger, we did everything that we did on Atlantic Records because that’s all we knew how. So it was a bit of a learning curve. We didn’t have to dumb ourselves down, but we had to change our scope from looking at the whole nation and world to just…locking it down in [multiple] regions. We learned a lot from The Humdinger until now because we were out of the game for five years – 2003, which was when Wooden Leather, to 2008. That’ll kill an artist. You can’t take [five years off] and think you’re going to come back and do anything like you did the first rip. We were fortunate that our fans were still there, we encountered new fans, and like Scales said about us going to these colleges…we got fans that were coming in and out every year that we were building on. We built a nice movement and fan base so that when we drop The Pursuit of Nappyness, I think you’ll see how we learned how to maneuver throughout the independent [market].
The scope and the drive and the type music are not going change. But the expectations, we’re going to lower them a little bit, we’re going to sell what we sell and we’re going to make more money than we did at Atlantic. And that’s the truth; you don’t have to sell a million records to make a million dollars. We sold a million records, but we had to borrow two million [dollars]. It’s like that shit doesn’t make sense to a business man. Like “Hold on, I sold a million, and I’ve got to come back ask you to borrow another two million? Where’s the money that I made?” And they start showing you how much they spent on you, it’s like ‘Well, fuck! Who spent that? Who authorized that?’ And because you’re not involved, because you’re just an artist on a major label, there’s a bunch of things that you’re not authorizing that they’re double billing you for that you get screwed [with] in the end and they say, “Well, you owe us three million because we spent this, this and this.”
It’s funny, man. It’s very shady in the majors. People are actually making a living off of taking advantage of artists that don’t know any better. We always made a point to know something, but certain things are not privileged information to artists because that’s how it’s supposed to be. When you get a chance and do your own independent grind, you’re involved in everything. You cut the check, you sign off on everything. Every flyer, every mixtape, every hotel you stay in, every budget; you’ve got to sign off on and approve, so it was a very entertaining to see how artists get robbed. But when you figure out what you’re supposed to do, you’re in control. And we love more so being in control.
It’s not as glamorous as being on a major, but the pay-off at the end of the day is definitely rewarding. That’s kind of what we’re in it for. We do it because we love it…but we’re not going to be taken advantage of [like] most artists, especially with these new 360 deals. It might have worked for some artists, but for Nappy Roots, that 360 deal is not going to work. I’m not going to want to prevent it because a lot of people got very famous [off of them]. If you talk to those people that have gotten very famous [from 360 deals], and you ask them have they been very successful…you weigh it up. I can tell you, I was in it. The fame was great, but the actual success side of it…if you can’t get how you’re really supposed to get it, it ain’t really worth it for us.