The hip-hop bill at the Tiki Bar, a weathered Costa Mesa roadhouse, hasn't drawn a very big crowd, and most of those in the house have come to run their mouths, since the evening's proceedings will begin with an hour of open mic. In principle, this arrangement works the same way it does at comedy clubs, where show-biz wannabes are offered a stab at getting a laugh. In practice, however, it's much funnier.
But the members of Ugly Duckling aren't laughing. They've got to endure this stretch of hardcore karaoke, followed by a legitimate opening act, before they can play their set at this hastily booked show.
"We really shouldn't even be here," says Young Einstein, Ugly Duckling's DJ, who's snacking on beer and popcorn while a guy who looks like a cross between Haile Selassie and the Cat in the Hat spits truth. "There's a million places I'd rather be. We're doing a favor for the promoter and just figuring it will pay off down the road."
Only a week before, Ugly Duckling was performing before a packed house at the Troubadour, lapping up the adulation of an audience lured to the legendary West Hollywood nightclub by the release of the trio's debut CD, Fresh Mode. Well, okay—the audience came because of the CD and the hospitality of the record company, which was picking up the tab.
"The Troubadour show was the best we've ever done," Einstein gushes, while on the Tiki Bar stage, the Rasta-Seuss hybrid is relinquishing the microphone to a tall, skinny, jug-eared guy who makes you wonder where Reggie Miller would be without basketball. "We were hitting with everything, and it was so great to look out at the crowd and see that everyone knew the words."
Ugly Duckling is the latest notable act to join the impressive hip-hop procession that's come slouching out of Long Beach during the past 10 years. But except for geography, Einstein and rappers Dizzy Dustin and Andycat don't share in the tradition established by Snoop Dogg, Warren G, Nate Dogg, Daz Dillinger or even Domino. "Long Beach is known for that hardcore sound, all the gangster music, and we never really were a part of that," says Dustin. "That's why we call ourselves Ugly Duckling—we never really fit in."
"Fresh Mode," the 12-inch single they produced with friends and distributed from their homes last year on their Specialty Records imprint, has grown into the title cut on an eight-song CD that's suddenly available all over the globe, thanks to a distribution deal with mighty major label Interscope. Ugly Duckling is spending June touring the United Kingdom and Germany as the opening act for the Jungle Brothers. Their music has become a favorite of critics, and it's getting significant college and public-radio airplay, along with the occasional commercial spin.
Along the way, Ugly Duckling developed a reputation as one of the standard-bearers—along with outfits like the Black-Eyed Peas and Jurassic 5—of a sort of retro-nuevomovement in hip-hop. It's a return to the stripped-down, late-'70s roots of the genre, but with a wised-up, end-of-the millennium sensibility. In an era when the self-indulgent audioscapes of electronica and the calculated mixing-board production of pop-chart hip-hop are beginning to sound eerily like the new disco, Ugly Duckling make their music with two turntables and a couple of microphones. And they eschew the prevalent mad-doggin' attitude in favor of an assessment of life and time that's both more world-weary in its sincerity and resolutely playful.
"Some people interpret what we're doing as some sort of new movement or surge," says Dustin. "But I'm not sure if we're really all connected. It's more like anything that's not gangster or pop, they're putting in this new category."
Ugly Duckling don't hide their unhappiness with hip-hop's status quo. "I don't consider anything on any commercial-radio playlist to be anything approaching real hip-hop," says Andycat. "I look at hip-hop music as something that comes out of the urban environment but offers something—an escape, a release, a bonding expression—to everybody in the community. To me, hip-hop started becoming something else when it became gangster music. I don't think it was ever intended to be some huge moneymaking machine. When something other than the art form or the culture is the motivation behind the music, it strays away from hip-hop."
Dustin listens to this and sighs. "I feel like hip-hop has been tainted," he says.
Ugly Duckling are uncomfortable with being assigned a role in some widespread revolt within the hip-hop nation, however, preferring an every-man-can-make-a-difference approach. That's how hip-hop started, anyway.
"All hip-hop music is, basically, is rapping over old records," says Einstein, whose relentless beat digging—searching for old records, whether from the collection of his friends' parents or from the bins of side-street stores—and dexterity on the turntables provide the backbone of Ugly Duckling's songs. "And that's what we do."
With imaginative rhymes and interactive wordplay, Dustin and Andycat bat about issues that range from their own invigorating take on hip-hop's worn-out themes ("Fresh Mode") to a frustrated complaint about life's baffling issues ("Get on This") to a consoling meditation on the end of the world ("Everything's Alright"). Meanwhile, Einstein weaves and squeezes sounds from the turntables into the mix so expertly that it's almost another voice.
"We make hip-hop the way Einstein does it:all samples, all drum loops, and all of it off real records," says Andycat. "We don't have any R&B, any keyboards, any singing or anything like that. From our standpoint, that's the way hip-hop's supposed to be."
For all its purist fervor, however, Ugly Duckling epitomizes one of the changes in hip-hop during the past 20 years. Its members are white.
"Back in the day, that was real hard—I used to be scared to rap because I'm white," says Dustin. "I thought people would make fun of me, or worse. But I realized I come from the same neighborhoods that this music comes from. All kinds of people do. Shit's so diverse now that people don't care if you're white or Asian or Indian or Mexican or black. People just want to hear good music. If you put it out, they're willing to give it a chance."
"Hip-hop is definitely a black art form—that's where it came from, the urban black experience," emphasizes Andycat. "But hip-hop's popularity has become so pervasive that it inevitably became a legitimate form of expression for other people. We come from the first generation of kids who grew up listening to hip-hop. All I ever wanted to do is make this kind of music."
But for now, Ugly Duckling's practical purpose still boils down to the hip-hop tradition of creating a street buzz, the real reason the group is playing rooms like the Tiki Bar and the Lava Lounge, a bowling-alley bar on their Long Beach turf.
"The way we've got to look at it is there may be 10 people here who buy our CD," offers Einstein, as the string-bean rapper on the Tiki Bar stage surrenders the mic to a guy shaped like a can of pork-and-beans. "Even if we don't sell any CDs, if one person leaves here thinking we did a good show and tells his friends, then it's worth it. That's the way hip-hop has always worked. You start on the street, get a little buzz going, and build it up slowly. We figure there are a lot of people who grew up the way we did, who like what we like, so maybe there's an audience for us out there."
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