"Our name signifies our unwillingness to conform with fads," says Nappy Roots MC Skinny DeVille. "Once the fads die out, you always come back to the roots."
That statement is as good an explanation as any for why this six-man hip-hop crew out of Bowling Green, Ky., has become this year's surprise mainstream breakthrough. In an era when pre-fabricated artists are the norm, the Nappy Roots' major-label debut, Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz, stands out simply because the group remains true to itself, rather than trying to jump on anyone else's bandwagon. Granted, Nappy Roots are hardly the first rappers to ride a soulful Southern sound onto the pop charts -- Arrested Development, OutKast and Goodie Mob blazed that particular trail back in the '90s -- but the sextet has a truly distinctive sound all its own.
The group first forged that sound in the late '90s, as students at Western Kentucky University. The members had come to the school from different parts of the country -- from Kentucky (DeVille, Ron Clutch, B. Stille and Big V) to Oakland (R. Prophet) to Georgia (Scales is from Milledgeville) -- but found a common bond in hip-hop, through freestyle sessions at campus parties. "After a while," Clutch says, "it was like -- let's do somethin'. There was a hot producer in Bowling Green named General Lee, and soon we was all meeting up to lay down tracks on his living room couch."
From those laid-back recording sessions came a self-released debut, 1998's Country Fried Cess, which flew off the shelves at the local record store. The group couldn't print Nappy Roots T-shirts fast enough to satisfy the demand on the WKU campus, and soon word of this underground buzz reached Atlantic Records. "They got ahold of our album and they was diggin' it," Clutch says, with a deep Kentucky drawl. "They called us up and said, 'We're feelin' y'all.' But we didn't believe it was for real. We hung up the phone. But when they called back, we realized they were serious."
Which leads us to Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz, the Nappy Roots' assured Atlantic debut. Recorded in Atlanta, Nashville and Los Angeles with relatively unknown producers, the album is so thoroughly Southern you can almost taste the grease, from the sepia-toned photo of a rustic country porch that adorns its cover to the Dirty South bounce that drives most of its tracks. "Awnaw," with its gospel organ riff and infectious-as-hell chorus, is the breakout single that earned the group a nomination at this year's MTV Video Music Awards. But songs like the acoustic guitar-laden "Po' Folks" and the blues-influenced "Ho Down" also help to reinforce the group's image as a family of corn-fed country boys trying to build a grassroots following the old-fashioned way: one listener at a time.
"That album is like a big plate," Clutch says of the group's unique approach, "and it's all about coming together and finding that recipe -- that nice mix -- that makes it taste just right. Damn near all of us came from big families, so we're used to having to share. And six heads is better than one. We work together like a family and feed off each other's energy."
Asked why listeners from both coasts have caught onto the Dirty South sound after New York and L.A. battled it out for supremacy so long, Clutch suggests it was simply, "time for the South to rise. It's a different sound, and folks are gonna be attracted to somethin' different. It ain't no coincidence that the word 'soul' and the word 'south' start with the same three letters. That soulfulness is what we're all about."
It's also what earned Nappy Roots a spot on Sprite's Liquid Mix Tour -- an eclectic package tour featuring headliner Jay-Z, rock-rappers 311, experimental hip-hoppers N.E.R.D. and aggro-rockers Hoobastank. It's sure to introduce the group's earthy energy to a whole new audience, and Nappy Roots seem understandably excited about the possibilities that lie ahead.
"We just wanna go to the top, man," Clutch says, "and let the world know that it's cool to be nappy. Nappy is real, and that's what Nappy Roots is all about."