It's 13 stories to the circular rooftop of Capitol Records headquarters, although the Kottonmouth Kings can tell you many more than that. "The seed of this band comes from back in the punk rock days," says front man Brad X, still bleached-blond and spiky-braided but now thirtysomething and very formerly of an Orange County outfit called the Humble Gods. "The seed comes from the school of hard knocks, when we did bands, did tours, put out records, and never saw a penny for it. Back then, we didn't care if we saw a penny 'cause that wasn't—at the time—why we were doing it."
Times have changed. Well, sales figures have, anyway. Promotional techniques, too. The Kottonmouth Kings sold more than a quarter-million copies of their 1998 debut album, Royal Highness, which was jointly released by Capitol and the band's own imprint, Suburban Noize. The Kottonmouth Kings and their consortium of companion acts—Corporate Avenger, Grand Vanacular, Dogboy—have a major online presence, direct marketing their music (www.kottonmouthkings.com) and merchandise (www.merch.com). They also have their own management company, SRH Productions.
The music they make is just as amalgamated, tapping into hip-hop, punk, psychedelia, reggae, and rock—and significant amounts of THC and testosterone. Brad X has grafted a pair of young MCs, D-Loc and Richter, to his punk roots. Together they rant and rap over a soundscape created by two turntables, via DJ Bobby B., and a live drum kit made out of a low-rider bicycle and presided over by Lou-dog, while a masked, 6-foot-5 mascot, Pakalika, wordlessly pop-locks and puffs on joints.
"We're just a community of artists—an extended family," summarizes Brad X. "Like the Wu-Tang Clan."
As for the timeless, old-school punk purity of the Kottonmouth Kings' artistic motivation? Well, that's harder to quantify. "The whole concept here is to continue to be self-empowered," says Brad X, "and hopefully, to postpone having to deliver pizzas again for as long as possible."
The Kottonmouth Kings have spent this afternoon autographing copies of their newest CD, High Society. They've got an appointment this evening to be interviewed on KROQ. Now the guys are killing time by clowning around on the rooftop of the same world-famous building where bands as dissimilar and successful as the Beatles and the Knack have gotten goofy before them. There are publicity pictures to prove it. Up here, the view in any direction—even down, where the star-studded concrete of the Hollywood Walk of Fame awaits —can seem to reach toward a gladdening future. That seems to be the Kottonmouth Kings' frame of mind, anyway, as they take turns standing obliviously close to the edge of this shaped-like-a-stack-of-records structure to scrawl their autographs on its distinctive spire.
Of course, they've been smoking weed all day. "Marijuana is part of our symbolism," says Lou-dog, squinting through the camcorder he takes almost everywhere, compiling footage for a Hoop Dreams-type documentary on the Kottonmouth Kings that he hopes to title Pipe Dreams. "Marijuana is our common—uhh, something we share—bond . . . or ritual, maybe?"
As they cavort above the rush-hour commuters stalled on the Hollywood Freeway, the Kottonmouth Kings are still passing blazing fatties back and forth, never minding that one false step could deliver them to the Walk of Fame as an anonymous stain. D-Loc is trying to pick out the building across town where the band shot the video for the single "Peace Not Greed," which featured a four-story burning banner picturing Pakalika—and a guest appearance by punk legend Jack Grisham.
"The new record is a lot more positive," says D-Loc. "It's about peace and freedom, legalization and anarchy. Plus, the beats are tighter."
Brad X is memorializing the antics of a former roommate, extreme-sport psycho Rob Harris, who died skydiving on a snowboard while filming a Mountain Dew commercial. "Once Rob drove up beside me on the freeway, and when I looked over, he was sitting in the front passenger seat—like no one was driving," says Brad, still giddy with the memory. "He was reaching over to the gas pedal with his left leg."
Corporate Avenger, who does not smoke pot, is explaining the meaning behind the black lines he has drawn on his painted-white face and the chain that connects the leather collars he wears around his wrist and throat. "I paint my face for my Viking, Celtic and Basque ancestors, who would paint their faces when they went to war," he says gravely. "I believe I am going to war—the war of ideas. The chain and collars bind me to the truth of what I say."
Kevin Zinger, the Kottonmouth Kings' manager, sits off to the side, between a thick brown briefcase and a voluptuous blonde in a red tube top, alternately answering his cell phone and making small talk with two men wearing black stocking-cap masks. "We're not your normal band, and getting the record executives to understand what we are trying to accomplish didn't happen with one explanation," says Zinger. "When you've got guys up onstage smoking weed and every other word is, like, 'Fuck this, fuck that.' Well, I get a lot of flak. We've definitely caused controversy here in the round building. These days, though, it's pretty much in one ear and out the other. Selling 250,000 records definitely made my life a lot easier."
Zinger pauses and checks his watch, and a woman from Capitol's public-relations department uses the opportunity to begin herding the Kottonmouth Kings toward that interview on KROQ "The van leaves at 6:30," Aimee says, but nobody really gets moving until she reminds them, "We have spaghetti and chicken burritos for you downstairs." The van is black and limo-length, with tinted windows and tan leather bench seats, a good sound system and a respectfully silent driver, who waits patiently with the engine idling while the Kottonmouth Kings climb inside.
"Okay, clean yourselves up!" says whoever is attached to the hand that tosses a fistful of small plastic bottles into the van. They ricochet off the windows, land on the seats, and bounce onto the floor. They are bottles of eye drops, courtesy of the record company, just in case the Kottonmouth Kings want to get the red out before they get to the radio station. But they lie unopened and ignored. Instead, as the van pulls out onto Vine Street, heading up toward the freeway and over Cahuenga Pass, the sound of its engine is drowned out by the sputter and gurgle of glass water pipes. "FIVE-OH!! FIVE-OH!!" somebody suddenly shouts. Everybody in the band reflexively drops their hands to their laps and, eyes bulging with fear and cheeks bulging with smoke, sneaks a peek to see where the police car might be.
"Juuuust kidding!" the jokester says after an interminable second, and another relieved second after that, the van is filled with literal billows of laughter.
If you want to see the Kottonmouth Kings stop laughing, remind them that most critics dismiss their music and their lyrics as overblown and inconsequential. At best, they get lumped together with other guilty pleasures, the way Bachman-Turner Overdrive did with rock, the way K.C. and the Sunshine Band did with disco, and the way . . . well . . . the way the Kottonmouth Kings do with the hardcore, pothead, party-on brand of white-boy-come-lately hip-hop that has been taken to the top of the charts by the likes of Korn and Limp Bizkit.
The band doesn't appreciate this assessment. "First of all, people are inclined to hate us because we're white and we do hip-hop," snaps Brad X. "LA Weekly called us Fubu-wearing snowballers, called us peckerwoods, honkies, whiteys—all these racist terms. Same thing with Rolling Stone, which reviewed our record with lots of blatant racial slang. If they used those words with any other group—Latinos, Asians, blacks—the NAACP would be up in arms about it."
Beyond that irritable observation, however, the Kottonmouth Kings claim not to care much about critics. In fact, rather than reacting with knee-jerk rage at the mention of disdainful pop-music eggheads, the Kottonmouth Kings' pained expressions are accompanied by a surprisingly fine-tuned response: passion and purpose.
"We do our music for our fans," D-Loc argues emphatically. "We do our best to get our music to our fans as purely as possible. We want it to be as untouched as possible by outsiders, whether you're talking about the record company or reviewers. We do that best online and at our shows."
The band shrugs off the observation that its straight-to-the-people sound seems to detour through some pretty familiar musical neighborhoods. "Everyone compares our music to something—'sounds like this, sounds like that'—because they can't figure it out," explains Brad X. "And it is probably a little funk, and you might hear a little techno, might hear a straight West Coast hip-hop beat, might hear a little punk rock, and might hear a little reggae. You're probably hearing all of that, but our production manifests it all in a way in which we hopefully create our own unique sound."
Since most of the Kottonmouth Kings' songs are about smoking marijuana —hell, it's even referenced in the name of the band—the group's message is almost automatically written off as ganja din. But whereas so many bands of the stoner-rock/rap genre celebrate their disaffection, the Kottonmouth Kings suggest people are taking their lyrics too superficially.
"We enjoy life—we love it—and we try to make the most of it each day," says Brad X. "If you want to interpret us as a party band, so be it. But if you want to dig deeper, something else is there."
The Kottonmouth Kings consider themselves techno-revolutionaries, freedom fighters, anarchists, soldiers on the front line against racial profiling and corporate culture. Maybe it's just the pot talking, but at times, their rhetoric can get pretty compelling. "The Kottonmouth Kings aren't only talking 'bout the idea that marijuana should be legal so you can smoke with your friends," says the Corporate Avenger. "They're also talking about the concept that some group of human beings believes they have the right to take away your human rights, and they don't. It's like freedom of speech: the government tries to tell you it gives you freedom of speech. But that's a ludicrous concept. The Creator that gave you a mind and a mouth gave you freedom of speech. And that same Creator gives you the freedom to smoke weed, too. Bottom line: the government doesn't give a fuck about people using drugs. The government does give a fuck about the fact that drug laws give them broad-reaching ability to get into every motherfucker's life."
During the drive to KROQ, the conversation darts from the power of the World Bank to the pointlessness of international borders to parents allowing their children to be raised by televisions and computers to the growing control that those same computers give artists over their work and, finally, to the influence that comes with being a popular band.
"My mom was askin' me, 'Are you registered to vote? Are you going to vote?'" laughs Brad X. "I'm like, 'Listen, Mom, why do I need to vote? I have a platform to share my ideas and beliefs with more people than one vote could ever do.'"
The interview at KROQ goes well, as far as it went—a few softball questions, a few smart-ass answers. Outside the studio, everybody gets a Popsicle and then climbs into the van. KROQ has been spinning "Peace Not Greed," but other stations have been balking at adding the Kottonmouth Kings to their playlists. But Aimee, the woman overseeing the Kottonmouth Kings' radio promotion, has come up with a strategy for getting airplay from hip-hop stations. During the ride back to Capitol Records, she reveals it to the band: the new single will be sent to those stations without identifying the artists. The band will be called KMK, disguising the fact that it is a bunch of white boys. If the station plays the record, says Aimee, she will reveal the KMK is actually the Kottonmouth Kings.
"The problem is that radio overthinks everything," Aimee explains. "If the people from Power 106 hear a Kottonmouth Kings record on KROQ, then they're not gonna want to play it. But if they don't know it's them and play it and get good response, then they're going to play it, regardless. So you kinda have to trick 'em."
But as Aimee proudly unveils the plan, the Kottonmouth Kings begin to smolder. When she gets to the phrase "trick 'em," an argument is ignited:
BRAD X: We don't have to trick 'em! We don't have to fuckin' hide from nothin'! That's fuckin' record-company bullshit right there! Kottonmouth Kings, we're proud. We stand behind what we do. We ain't ashamed 'cause we're white and we do hip-hop. If they want us, they want us.
KEVIN ZINGER: Somebody in the big round building thought it would be a good idea, right? They said, "Hey! We got a great band that makes great hip-hop tracks! But they're white! And black people are scared of white people who rap! So let's just put some fuckin' question mark on it and send it to 'em, and maybe they'll play it 'cause they won't know they're white!" That's the fuckin' stupidest concept I've ever fuckin' heard in my entire life.
AIMEE: It's not because the record company is ashamed you're white. It's because your last couple of singles have gone to alternative radio. The problem is the program directors and the music directors stereotype it. It's not because you're white and do rap. Look at Eminem and how he's working among formats.
ZINGER: You make our point! Eminem was on Power and KROQ.
BRAD: Same songs!
AIMEE: It has nothing to do with being white.
BRAD: I don't hear WhoRidas on KROQ.
AIMEE: It has to do with how the stations are going to go into tunnel vision, and they're going to see it like . . .
BRAD: You're assuming that, but that ain't how it is. We were at fuckin' Power 106, and they were totally down. We did a fuckin' show with them!
ZINGER: I was in their office, played 'em a track. They said, "This shit's the fuckin' bomb!" They said, "We got to get you guys on Power." We lined it all up, without any outside help whatever. But the next thing you know, when the big machine got involved, it got all fuckin' fucked up. They pulled our song off the air.
AIMEE: Of course you guys should be proud of who you are. Absolutely. Some of that works, but not all the time. If they saw the new single come in as Kottonmouth Kings—not everyone, this is an overview—they may not necessarily . . . they might just say, "Oh, that's the song we heard on KROQ." So they might . . .
D-LOC: I don't know who convinced you people of that ideology behind everything. That is not how that works.
ZINGER: You know as well as I do, Aimee, a fuckin' great song is a great song.
ZINGER: That's the philosophy you need to go into with promotion—this is a great song and the station has every reason in the world to play this song. To try to avoid what it is just risks getting it . . .
D-LOC: Limited into one format.
AIMEE: I work every format. I'm in at Power. I played this for them the second we got it. And I know how half these people think. People overthink shit all the time.
BRAD: That's why we don't put our efforts and energy into worrying about that. We put out records to the people. The people will decide ultimately. They're not worried about program directors or whatever. If they're not into Kottonmouth Kings, fuck 'em! Straight up! I don't care! We make music for people who want the music, know what I mean? If people like us, then they'll play us. If they don't, they won't. We don't write songs for radio, anyway. They edit the hell out of our songs. So we're not losing any sleep. It ain't any weed outta my sack.
CORPORATE AVENGER: Yeah, but deep down inside, it hurts. It's mass racism—alternative is for the white kids, urban is for the black kids. And not putting "Kottonmouth Kings" on the record is like subscribing to that mentality. White and black? They are just words. What do they mean? I am not white. I'm a Basque, Viking and Celtic warrior. I have roots. My tree has roots. I have a bloodline composed of beautiful cultures that were wiped out by Christianity.
Suddenly, the conversation is interrupted by a horn honking long and hard, coming from a car right beside the van. Traffic has slowed to a standstill, and the man behind the wheel is furiously focusing his frustration on the car in front of him, which is piloted by an elderly couple. The guy just won't let up off the horn.
"Look at this!" says Brad X in a high squeal. "Look at that guy, man! Road rage! At those old people, dude! Oh, my God! I love that he's honking at the old people. He's pissed! He's gonna pull up alongside the old people. Look at him! I love that! The guy thinks he's actually gonna go somewhere! That's the funniest part!"
Back at Capitol Records, the band disperses, its workday over. It's after dark. But Brad X and Corporate Avenger aren't ready to call it a day. Dogboy, one of the other Suburban Noize artists, is mixing some tracks at Can-Am Studios, the San Fernando Valley recording complex made famous by the years when it was music-making headquarters for Death Row Records. They can't resist paying a visit. During the drive up the 101, the Kottonmouth Kings' single "Peace Not Greed" comes on the radio. Brad X turns it up, but not too loud.
"That's killer," he says softly, with palpable satisfaction. "An old punk like Jack Grisham is singing, 'abolish government' and 'peace through power' and 'legalize weed' on KROQ right now. We really have come a long way."
They drive on wordlessly for a while, the frenetic outrageousness of the song somehow bringing an air of sweet reminiscence into the car. "But on the other hand," Brad X continues, picking up his thought when the song ends, "not all the changes have been good. Punk was angry, it was frustrated, but there was a lot of intelligence behind a lot of those bands. Then it turned into this knuckleheaded, violent outlet or something. Now it seems that people are into music—into everything—for all these crazy, purely materialistic reasons. We get further and further away from the advancing of the soul."
Hours later, well past midnight, Brad X and Corporate Avenger sit behind a massive, blinking mixing board at Can-Am Studios, listening intently while Dogboy asks for feedback on a reggae-tinged song. "Can we hear what it sounds like, muting the vocals, letting the instrumental bop for a minute—just to let the track breathe a bit?" Brad X asks the engineer. A few knobs are twisted and it is done, and after listening for a bit, Brad nods his approval.
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"I don't take any of this for granted," he says suddenly. "Not at this stage, after all the years of scraping by."
"This is the job we always wanted," agrees Corporate Avenger. "We've always been making music, but never the way we get to make it now."
"And this may all be gone next month or six months from now," Brad says. "So why not, while we have the opportunity, take advantage of it?"
"Yep," says Corporate Avenger. "I hear ya."