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Photo by Kate RomeroTwo days back in Long Beach after his first trip abroad—a 40-date tour of Europe as an MC for the hip-hop trio Ugly Duckling—was awfully soon to ask Andycat Cooper to crystallize the essential lesson of such a whirlwind experience. But he gave it a try: "From Tijuana to Stockholm, dank, nasty, alcohol-filled clubs are the same around the world."
And there you have it: we are the world!
Andycat, who doesn't drink and works in a Christian bookstore when he's not working the microphone for Ugly Duckling, didn't have to touch a drop to have this epiphany; that's one of the benefits of traveling with friends. And the members of Ugly Duckling—Andycat, fellow MC Dizzy and DJ Young Einstein—say they are still friends, despite spending six weeks crammed into a tour bus, under the strain of constantly changing languages, foods, performing venues and toilet facilities.
"A positive side of our group is that we're really different types of people," said Andycat. "Whereas after a show I liked going back to the bus and writing or reading and having my own space, they like to party. Whereas I'd be more interested in finding a museum during the day, they like to sleep. So we really didn't argue much more than we usually do—unless somebody forgot to wipe the hair off the soap."
Ugly Duckling toured to support its debut eight-song EP, Fresh Mode, which was released early this year, and to stimulate interest in a full-length CD that's due this Christmas. The group opened for the Jungle Brothers, creating a double bill dedicated to the ethics of old-school hip-hop.
Or it was supposed to, anyway. "The Jungle Brothers are now a little more dance- and pop-oriented," Andycat observed. "So the audiences that came out weren't always looking for what we do—which is make music with records, turntables and microphones. Generally, that was a positive situation, even when we weren't totally in sync with the crowd because we had the opportunity to play to a new group of people."
In many ways, Ugly Duckling sensed that its commitment to hip-hop's roots was more openly received by audiences in Great Britain, Germany, Norway, Denmark and Sweden than it often is in the United States, where the genre was born. "Maybe it's because people who live in Europe can't relate to old-school hip-hop in such personal terms," speculated Andycat, 26. "Like lots of people in this country, I grew up with hip-hop. People here became aware of hip-hop before it became a worldwide phenomenon. We have a bigger stake in it, a more intense relationship. Over here, if people don't like the music, they won't like you—personally. In Europe, people became aware of old-school hip-hop after they became fans of its offshoots. It's far away, in space and time and reality, kind of like a comic book. Because it's not so real, they're almost more objective."
Meanwhile, the almost-nightly shows affected Ugly Duckling's perspective on the art and business of entertaining, too. "When you're only performing every few weeks, you get more ego-involved; each show becomes the be all and end all, and you criticize it more," reflected Andycat. "But on tour, each show is not so pressurized. If something small goes wrong—say, you miss a part or the turntable skips—it still bothers you, but you know you're playing again the next night. And overall, you get better. You tend to dig deeper into your performance. Rather than just getting the lines right or concentrating on timing, you get into the reason you're there: the crowd. It becomes an exercise in communication, rather than just being able to pull it off."
Ugly Duckling is glad to be home, but not for the reasons you might expect. "A break feels good," said Andycat, "but not from the shows—from the travel time and downtime. Typically, after a gig we'd be in the bus at 2 a.m., drive all night, wake up in another city, go straight to the club and do a sound check, then wait for the next show. Since most of the clubs were in industrial areas away from the city, it was hard to get out and see the sights. The challenge was not to vegetate."
Still, simply watching life in a foreign country—and inside the tour bus—often constituted sightseeing in itself. "When you first get to a new country, every building is like looking at something completely different, and so many of the pictures I took were of plain, stupid stuff that was fascinating to me," Andycat allowed.
"I was calling the whole experience 'Hip-Hop Summer Camp.' The food was bad; nobody was taking showers; and the tour managers were acting like camp counselors, getting all of us going off on field trips to see some monument. You know, a bunch of people who weren't that close are all of a sudden in a situation where they're in a little cabin doing everything together. And to top it off, throwing in tons of alcohol and nasty skanks."