Shiny, Happy Peephole

Ugly Duckling's Amazing Journey

For all the cherried-out charm their old-school crusade exudes on record and onstage, the three members of hip-hoppers Ugly Duckling can get a little prickly in the privacy of their hometown. Maybe that's because a security guard has just kicked them out of what's left of the Long Beach Plaza mall for sitting on the bench-style planters-interrupting an interview they're doing to promote their new album.

"You'd think this place would welcome anyone to sit anywhere," mutters Dizzy Dustin, noting that only one store is still open (a Ross Dress for Less outlet) in the echoing husk that used to be the heart of the downtown retail district.

Ugly Duckling leave peacefully, of course, because . . . well . . . that's how they do it. The essence of Ugly Duckling's revivalist style is their shiny, happy peephole into hip-hop's positive core. But do they leave blissfully? Not quite. The body language of DJ Young Einstein, his shoulder bag full of records that bang heavily against his side as he slouches out of the mall and trudges down the empty promenade, silently communicates the mood.

Still, it doesn't seem that Ugly Duckling are entirely disappointed by what's just happened. You get the sense that this eviction somehow fits into their version of the world. You suspect that it works to translate their oft-frustrated idealism into good-humored resignation. You can see how that could be crucial to their pursuit of a career in the music business. "One thing about Long Beach that has conditioned our group to do okay on tour," says Andycat, not quite smiling, "is that nobody here cares."

Since Andycat quit his job at a Christian bookstore to tour last spring, none of the members of Ugly Duckling are working anymore. That's a good thing-it means their music is.

"We make just enough money off our music to scrape by, but just barely," winces Einstein. "Andy can support himself because he doesn't spend any money."

"Or party," adds Dizzy.

"I always had a job, and I saved my money," Andy shrugs. "At this point, you can't support yourself if you try to live like Puff Daddy."

Or-more to the point-if you try to live like Snoop Dogg or even Warren G, whose hardcore roots and multiplatinum successes over the past 10 years remain the world's overriding impression of the LBC sound.

"Wherever we go, saying we're from Long Beach turns heads," says Andy. "But beyond that, it really doesn't have much to do with us or our music. Somebody will get excited and tell us about an aunt of theirs who lives in Torrance. Somebody else will ask if we knew Brad Nowell. So really, it's the same response we get here. Beyond the name 'Long Beach,' there's no town unity."

If Ugly Duckling are to have a long-term music career, it will be determined by the wider response to their music, beginning with this Tuesday's release of Journey to Anywhere. It's the group's first full-length project, as well as their first CD since being signed to the 1500 Records label (Fresh Mode, the eight-song EP that 1500 released last year, was recorded before the band was signed).

"For Journey to Anywhere, we had a lot bigger budget and we invested a lot more time," says Andycat. "Last time, we had $1,000 and recorded at a friend's studio that wasn't very up-to-date technologically. We'd take a half-hour for a mix, run it through twice-'Sound okay? Levels all right?'-and that would be good enough. This time, we'd spend a whole day doing a mix. But it's kind of a double-edged sword because you second-guess."

Ugly Duckling's music is itself a second guess. Bottom line: it's a high-road response to the blunted, bumpin' state of the hip-hop nation. Einstein's faintly familiar samples of '60s soul, '70s funk and timeless jazz cultivate mood swings so intricate they're almost hallucinogenic. Dizzy and Andycat lace this potion with profanity-free lyrics that weave opinion, principles, memory, ambition and silliness-as well as a little braggadocio-to actually arrive at some coherent points.

But the second-guessing-or how about reconsidering?-doesn't stop there. In fact, it has only begun. Eighteen months ago, Dizzy bragged about the "total control" that Ugly Duckling had over its music, and Andycat charged that hip-hop "was never intended to be some huge moneymaking machine."

Now they joke about being distantly influenced by Slipknot, inasmuch as their label owner's brother manages the sickeningly successful horror-rock group. They squirm about the pressure to produce a hit single. They bicker about the beat they had to change on "A Little Samba" because they couldn't get the sample cleared.

"Giving in on that one was hard," Einstein says.

"I still can't feel the new beat compared with the old one," says Dizzy.

"The old one is irrelevant to me because it isn't actually the song anymore," says Andycat pointedly. "So I don't bring it up or talk about it."

"I can't let it go," says Dizzy.

"It doesn't have anything to do with reality," Andycat responds even more pointedly, "so it doesn't matter."

Now, Ugly Duckling are feeling around, trying to find the right place to put their foot on the tightrope of integrity-the line that balances the music and the business.

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