Got my stunna shades on
What: Nappy Roots
When: 8 pm Sun., Jan. 6
Where: Wild Buffalo, 208 W. Holly St.
Wednesday, January 2, 2019
When the likes of Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc, the Sugarhill Gang, and others were pioneering hip-hop in the 1970s, it was very much an underground genre, passed from one person to the next like a secret. The music was gritty, exciting and entirely of the moment—the poetry of the streets. During the 1980s, the genre went mainstream and where some artists saw their work diluted by greater attention and resources, others distilled their craft, resulting in music that was leaner, meaner and more real.
That latter trend would continue in the 1990s, very quickly morphing into gangsta rap, which served as a visceral and sometimes violent object lesson in how neatly life can imitate art and vice versa. Many of us had no idea while singing along to the radio hits that came one right after another that the songs weren’t just catchy stories of imagined lifestyles, but were drawn directly from the real-life experiences of hip-hop’s most lauded artists. Even fewer of us realized those experiences were not of the past, and the fights and feuds detailed in verse were ongoing and ever-present. That is until the bicoastal rap war playing out on the radio exploded into real-life gunfire, and by the time the decade was over, two of its brightest lights and strongest voices, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, had been extinguished, assassinated by killers who have yet to be caught.
As that century ended and the 2000s began, hip-hop continued to strengthen its hold on mainstream music while simultaneously suffering from a bit of an identity crisis as it tried to redefine itself away from gangs, guns and the stark realities of the streets. Nelly posited that the natural solution to it being “Hot in Herre” was for us to take off all our clothes, while a similarly sartorial-obsessed Eminem was angrily talking us through the process of cleaning out his closet.
And then there were the Nappy Roots, who were up to something else entirely.
If the most powerful voices in rap music were the ones painting the most vivid portraits of life on some of the meanest streets in America, the Nappy Roots aimed to give another snapshot of the black experience in this country. Although they were from Kentucky, they were of a different ilk than such Dirty South neighbors as Outkast, T.I., or Ludacris. And while their songs were topical, they trended more upbeat than apocalyptic and focused more on optimism than anger.
This different approach was evident from the Nappy Roots first big hit, “Po’ Folks,” which, as the title suggests, deals with being broke both in funds and as a state of mind, but instead of it being an anti-poverty polemic, it comes with a chorus of “All my life been po’/But it really don’t matter no mo’/And they wonder why we act this way/Nappy Boys gon’ be OK,” and verses that touch on the state of the world and its injustices while also stressing that they’re just trying to make the best of it like everyone else in similar economic straits.
It’s not a stirring anthem of confident hopefulness, but it was a departure from the rap music of the time. Their approach proved to have widespread appeal as “Po’ Folks” earned radio play, climbed up the Billboard chart, was nominated for a couple of Grammys, and helped make Nappy Roots the top-selling hip-hop group of 2002.
But the song that would come to exemplify the Nappy Roots, their sound and their particular artistic viewpoint wouldn’t happen for several more years, after the group made two albums on Atlantic Records, decided to return to their fiercely independent origins and record on their own label, Nappy Roots Entertainment Group. That song was “Good Day,” which appeared on Humdinger, the group’s first indie album after leaving Atlantic.
The song was quite a departure from its similarly named predecessor, Ice Cube’s “Today Was a Good Day.” Whereas Ice Cube’s song describes a gang member cruising his neighborhood, gambling and winning some money, and famously offers up the line “I didn’t even have to use my AK” as evidence that the day was indeed good, the Nappy Roots version of the day involves hanging out with church friends, buying new cologne and a line that says, “Got my stunna shades on and a grin on my face.” Proof that in rap life, as in regular life, a good day is in the eye of the beholder.
For Nappy Roots, “Good Day” turned into the musical gift that has yet to stop giving. As independent artists, they own all rights to the song, which means that when, say, Target licenses it to use in a commercial, all royalties go to the band, without an intermediary label taking a cut of publishing, songwriting, etc. More and more artists and groups do business in that way these days, but when the Nappy Roots decided to jettison their major label and go it alone in the industry, their approach was downright revolutionary for a hip-hop act.
Nowadays, while still making music and touring—they’ll be at the Wild Buffalo for a Sun., Jan. 6 show—that same independent mindset is ever-present in their increasingly diverse business ventures. They released the critically acclaimed Another 40 Akerz in 2017, along with operating an apparel company, hosting their “Nappy Hour” podcast, partnering with the Cincinnati Bengals for a promotional campaign, brewing their own craft beers, and making human-grade dog treats for their furry friends. They may no longer be the “Po’ Folk” of their breakout hit, but the Nappy Roots have never lost their hustle.
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