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.
"To a degree, if you're an artist trying to sell a project, you have to keep in mind that you are trying to deal with someone who might want to purchase the record," Andycat allows. "But if Journey to Anywhere doesn't sell, I won't think it's a bad album."
They're hoping to at least double the sales of Fresh Mode, which moved 20,000 copies. They're also hoping to expand their touring, which last year included three trips to Europe and stops in 45 states, where they opened for the likes of the Jungle Brothers, Del the Funky Homosapien and the Long Beach Dub All-Stars. But on those tours, Ugly Duckling usually did their set for fans of those bands and mostly impressed college-radio DJs and magazine critics.
"But we have seen people at shows wearing Ugly Duckling shirts they drew themselves," Dizzy interjects. "And we got an e-mail from a guy in the Navy who said he'd been all around the world and our EP helped him get through it."
"We don't have a lot of fans in any one place, but we've got, like, four hardcore fans in every place," Andycat continues, almost smiling again. "Yeah, it's always no more than 10 and no less than two. We're spread thin everywhere. We even sold 200 records in Algeria."
"We got the map covered," summarizes Dizzy. "We just got to make it thicker."
If the infectiousness of Journey to Anywhere generates increased sales, they will be a byproduct of artistic advancement. Einstein's soundscapes are the stars of this 14-song collection, and Andycat and Dizzy wisely check their egos in deference. But their lyrics, although often still derivative, more frequently reach into unexplored territory. For all their perky enthusiasm and sweet reminiscence, Andy and Diz are at their best when they venture into the quasispiritual realm. The title track slips in and out of consciousness, from childlike dream state to ethereal afterlife, emphasizing the consequence of our mortal end even as it hints at the mystery that follows.
"It's our 'Riders on the Storm,'" Andy says, half-joking.
It's also reminiscent of "Kiko," the bewitching title track to one of Los Lobos' poorer-selling albums from the early '90s.
"This kind of spirituality is kind of maligned in hip-hop," Andy continues. "But I think you have to justify continuing to make music. You have to try to do something a little bit different, and hopefully you eventually get so out of control that you have to go back to where you started and repeat the cycle."
Meanwhile, Ugly Duckling have come down from their spiritual mountaintop. The men are sniping at each other about whose goof caused them to miss out on a recent four-show tour of Europe. They're squabbling about whether it is-or ever was-difficult to be a white rapper. They're insulting the message on the new Chinese-script tattoo that Dizzy has inked on either side of his neck; Dizzy says it reads "peace" and "unity"; Andycat says it reads "white" and "trash."
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"If we were all the same and got along good, our music wouldn't be good," Einstein reasons.
"We all bring different issues to the table," says Dizzy, "which is why we're equally adept at rhyming and getting at each other's throats."
"It's a strange dynamic," says Andycat. "Being involved with music is a labor of love, but it doesn't always feel that way-and that's not necessarily bad."
Ugly Duckling play the Lava Lounge, 3800 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Long Beach, (562) 597-6171. Tues., 9 p.m. $8 before 10 p.m. 21+