Not long ago, Kentucky-based hip-hop group Nappy Roots suddenly realized they were being hosed. Fresh off their multiplatinum debut, Atlantic Records handed them their recoupable expenses tally and told them, "We don't owe you anything. You owe us money." Indeed, the label was setting aside another $2 million for their second record, which they'd also have to pay back out of sales. After releasing Wooden Leather, Nappy Roots decided to play possum to get released from their contract.
"We had to dead ourselves and not give them any music for two years," says Skinny DeVille, one of the group's founding members. "It wasn't about being famous, it was about having peace of mind and having something to show for it, such as owning our masters. It was a leap of faith, and it wasn't easy. It isn't to this day. But it's better than being on Atlantic and having someone taking advantage of you."
As a result, it was five years between their second album, 2003's Wooden Leather, and 2008's The Humdinger. As soon as Atlantic dropped them, they got back out on the road and attempted to further re-establish their momentum with 2010's The Pursuit of Nappyness. Both albums demonstrate Nappy Roots' joyous sense of hope, humor, and camaraderie, from the bluesy gospel-inflected trouble of "Down 'N Out" (with Anthony Hamilton, who sang on their first album hit "Po' Folks") to the jazzy-funk carpe diem of "Good Day." They've certainly made a case that they're not just some blazed-out and bladed porch-sitting hicks, like some sort of countrified answer to Cypress Hill, as they initially were portrayed.
"Country for a long time had a negative connotation. Our meaning behind it is that we're just down-to-earth folks. We're family oriented, and we love having a good time," says Clutch, another founding member and Kentucky native. "Like we said in our song, the whole world is country. We've been to Kuwait, and those folks like chicken and having a good time too."
"We went off and toured the world," echoes bandmate B. Still. "Of course, that influenced us and gave us a little more culture, allowed us to talk about a lot more stuff other than just hanging on the porch drinking beer."
That's pretty much how they got together. Nappy Roots weren't a rap group so much as a group of friends attending Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. It eventually grew into something bigger.
"We were just a cool bunch of guys hanging around with each other every day. Like every day. As soon as class got out, everybody came to the house, and we were smoking. By 7 o'clock that night, the lights were on, and we were freestyling around the kitchen table," recalls DeVille. "On Fridays, we'd go to house parties together and everyone knew us — even before we had the name Nappy Roots: 'Those are the rapping fuckers.'"
That's how it was when the band released its major-label debut, Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz, in 2002. The album drew from the rhythm and style of West Coast hip-hop and the drawling, gritty sounds of the Dirty South. Tracks like "Kentucky Mud" and the hit single "Awnaw" clicked with Southern audiences.
Not much has really changed. Sure, they've gotten older, and several live in different cities, but they still snap on each other and talk shit like kids. They recently finished up work on their fifth album, Nappy Dog Org, recorded with hot Atlanta production team Organized Noize. It's due in September.
"Organized Noize are the Rick Rubin of the South. Being able to work with them is like a dream come true." says DeVille. "Trusting them and what they know, it's been a very cohesive project. The songs are phenomenal. It's probably some of the best work we've done to date. I know everybody says that, but the music is just crazy."
Would you expect anything less from a band that continues to redefine pop culture with such country attitude?