It was 2002 and Nappy Roots was on
top of the music world.
The Kentucky-based hip-hop quintet
was enjoying multi-platinum sales for its major-label debut, Watermelon,
Chicken & Gritz. Nappy Roots member B.
Stille thought the follow-up, Wooden Leather — featuring production work by the likes of Kayne
West and Lil Jon —would be even better received.
Then their fortunes changed.
Their label, Atlantic Records, merged with Warner Bros. and Elektra. Many
people, including those tasked with promoting Nappy Roots, lost their jobs.
Suddenly the machine that had been behind the group was no longer there.
During a recent phone interview, Stille explained that that was a confusing period in the life of Nappy Roots, but that, "By God's grace we were able to
Instead of folding, the act re-evaluated its path, which
included turning down a couple new record deals they feared would devalue their
integrity. Eventually they formed their own imprint, N.R.E.G. (Nappy Roots
Entertainment Group) and signed a distribution deal with Fontana/Universal
Music Group. Stille says their goal is to have something like Def Jam Records
did in the early '80s or Diddy's Bad Boy label in the late '90s — a
familial company that puts out solo records and music by hand-picked artists.
"This was our plan from the
beginning," Stille said. "(Atlantic) gave us a fan base that we probably
couldn't have gotten ourselves. But we're in a great position now. We're
blessed to have had this roller-coaster ride – the ups and downs and
corkscrews and loopty-loops."
Since then Nappy Roots have
released a mix tape and a couple studio efforts, including this year's The
Pursuit of Nappyness. Full of bouncy,
beatifically organic rhythms, Stille calls it their best and most honest work
"Everything we do we feel like
it's the best (at that time)," he said. "This album is no different. We don't
put out music we don't feel good about."
Times have changed since the
members of Nappy Roots — including Skinny Deville, Fishscales, Big V. and
Ron Clutch (R. Prophet left for a solo career) — first started laying
couplets on each other in college. After going pro, they became used to A&R
guys feeding them beats, which they'd use to write lyrics before meeting up in
the studio to record. Now technology is such that each member has his own home
studio, allowing him to write anytime and all the time and present the results
to the rest of the collective. Files were often exchanged over the Internet
while the new album was coming together. It made it easier, considering Deville
and Fishscales now live in Atlanta while the other three are still in
"That process was different for
me, but I liked it because I could do it in the comfort of my own home," Stille
said. "I could wake up at 5 in the morning or 5 in the afternoon and drop the
verse whenever I felt it. That helped us grow as men because we had more
responsibility to make that happen."
And they've taken the
responsibility to speak on behalf the working man, on behalf of their
"It's like no man's land and
every man's land," Stille said of Kentucky, which he called "the charm on our
A lot of today's rap, he said,
may be hot in the clubs, but it's nothing the average person can relate to.
"I think it's more about life experience,"
Stille said. "You can't expect a 17-year-old to rap about the issues going on
in the world or to relate to adult problems. Those are things someone who has
experienced them will have a better song about."
It doesn't help that so many
labels are perpetuating what Stille calls "cookie-cutter" music. many younger
artists quell their creative instincts for fear of rejection. As a result,
Stille said, you get a saturation of songs about sex, money and drugs.
"That's kind of where hip-hop is
at right now," he said. "It's back in the disco stage; everyone's trying to do
the same thing because it's hot."
But Stille also sees emerging
artists like Drake and B.o.B. breaking from the norm. Stille says that one of
Deville's lines from the new song "Live & Die" sums up what Nappy Roots has
always stood for: "Ain't nothin' wrong with being smart, black and proud." And
Stille is ready for the rest of the hip-hop world to put away childish things.
"It's kind of like a scale
– it's got to tip so much to the left that people need it to balance back
out," Stille said. "Hip-hop's going through the next phase right now, and I
feel like Nappy Roots is one of the groups leading the charge."
Free download of "Nappy University" mixtape (feat. tracks from The Pursuit of Nappyness).
Promotional video for "Ride" from The Pursuit of Nappyness: