Where I'm from—that'd be the German port town of Hamburg—Long Beach's Ugly Duckling are one of America's more noteworthy exports. Their videos are all over TV. Music magazines compare them to the likes of De La Soul, Black Eyed Peas, Jurassic 5 and Black Star.
But a few months ago, as an innocent Southern California exchange student, I went to interview the band and found myself standing near the Long Beach harbor, outside a fading blue house where Young Einstein, Ugly Duckling's 21-year-old DJ, lives with his parents.
Cribs this wasn't. The door to the house opened, and a lady looked distrustfully at me. She told me to get her mail from the letter carrier just rounding the corner.
Ugly Duckling has toured most of the U.S. and hit 20 other countries. Here, Andy Cooper, one of the band's two MCs, joined Young Einstein and me in the abandoned garage beside the house. Taking note of the derelict surroundings, I asked if they've ever thought about leaving.
"Never!" Einstein said. California is home, and that seems a natural enough reason to stay, along with family, friends and the sun.
But why not move to Europe, where the band's fame might bring them big euros?
This is where my conversation with Ugly Duckling, a band I've admired from another continent, went suddenly south—or rather rightward. It turns out Ugly Duckling are standard-bearers for conservatism.
"I don't want to pay 50 percent of my income to the government. I don't want to be controlled by the state!" Cooper said.
I was taken aback. I paused. I looked around. My English isn't perfect, and I wanted to diplomatically point out that the band doesn't have much to show for its reliance on the American marketplace.
Wouldn't it make sense, I asked, to pay more taxes for a better social welfare net and an innovative health-care system?
"No, it wouldn't!" Cooper said. Innovative health care? When Americans are sick, they go to "the doctor and pay him cash!" Social welfare? "Why should the government give unemployed people an apartment and some money to stay alive?" Cooper asked. "It just makes the people unproductive! They should get out and find a job."
Well, I offered in halting English, maybe it's harder for people to find a job once they're homeless. Ugly Duckling didn't want to hear it. "You can just write down the address of your homeless shelter on the job application," they offered.
It all seems quite simple for Young Einstein and Andy Cooper. America is still the country where you can become a (Joe) millionaire and make your dreams come true. All you need, they said, is to "work hard enough."
"Look at us," they told me. And I did. They may not be rich and famous—not here, anyway—but Ugly Duckling have found themselves in the enviable position of being able to live off their music for the past five years, even though most people in Southern California have never heard of them.
But why haven't they heard of them? They blame the media.
"In America, pretty much the media controls everything," said Young Einstein. "We hope to sell around 50,000 to 100,000 copies of our new record [Taste the Secret, out on June 17]. The stuff they show here on TV needs to sell millions."
The band also blamed the music industry and said the flaccidness of their record sales in the States is partly a product of a legal hassle involving their former label, 1500 Records, and Ugly Duckling's first full-length, Journey to Anywhere. Ugly Duckling went through an eight-month legal fight to gain the song rights back to rerelease it. Meanwhile, the album came out in Europe and gave them the chance to tour.
I told them it must be great for a band to travel around the world, to see different places and different cultures, and meet different people.
"After six tours, it turns out to be a job," said Young Einstein, quickly adding that he doesn't want to complain.
The last show they played in the LA area was in August—"a really good show," they said. But they still don't play around here very often, a phenomenon they attributed to an embarrassment of hip-hop riches. "Why should people come out and see us when they can go and see Puff Daddy?" Cooper asked. "People in Southern California are spoiled. There is so much going on in LA every night."
So right now, the white rappers with the odd neo-conservative beliefs who make up Ugly Duckling are looking forward to forgetting the past, toward a new album that will sell millions to people around the world—in countries with good and bad social safety nets, with innovative health care or not. Rock on?
Ugly Duckling perform with Prince Paul and Aceyalone at the House of Blues, 1530 Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583. Wed., 8:30 P.m. $15. All ages, but 16 and under must be accompanied by a guardian.
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