Local Rapper Duane Bridgeford Slowly Makes a Name For Himself
After a serious 1998 bidding war, Brooklyn rapper and Notorious B.I.G. sound-alike Shyne landed a seven figure deal with Bad Boy Records. California rapper Guerrilla Black, on the other hand, tried his hand at sounding like Biggie years later and was booed out of the industry by critics and fans after tepid sales. The lesson: You have to be talented, original, and most importantly prove you were born with that voice to pull off sounding like an established MC.
For the last few years, Duane Bridgeford, aka NOE (pronounced "no"), has been earning a living because of--and in spite of--the fact that he sounds like rap music's perennial aging hipster and entrepreneur, Jay-Z. It's opened and shut a few doors for Bridgeford, but the 29-year-old Baltimorean is still smiling.
"Yeah, a lot of people say I sound like Jay Z," Bridgeford casually says, as if it were an afterthought. But anyone listening to his music for the first time will agree that, initially, he sounds distractingly like Jay-Z. So much so that it's cost him deals in the past, as most labels considered him a novelty act at best and a biter at worst.
"In the beginning it was discouraging," he says. "I was looking at it personally, too. I lost my temper a few times, but after a while people started to see that this wasn't a gimmick and that I have talent."
During a phone interview while at a New York recording studio, Bridgeford isn't very candid about growing up in East Baltimore. He opts not to mention the name of his high school, and sums up his criminal history as "two arrests, one was for drugs, one was for a gun violation, all in all I did about three years." He does mention that he regrets not being closer to his family, and looks at that rift as the reason he decided to express himself through poetry. A peek at NOE the poet is revealed for a split second.
"It would be nice to share it with them, but it is what it is" Bridgeford says, referring to himself as an "estranged family member." He goes on to say that "without defaming my parents, I'll just say everyone ain't meant to be parents. I'm sure they were good people, and looking back, I'm sure they did the best that they could. But we all just gotta move forward."
For Bridgeford, moving forward included moving from Baltimore to New York in search of a record deal five years ago. "Baltimore doesn't really have a hip-hop scene, they have a club scene," he says. "And the radio situation is terrible. There's a lot of payola going on--trying to get on the radio [in Baltimore] is one of the worst ways to try to get into the industry, straight up. And in order to be part of what I wanted to be a part of, I had to go to where it was poppin'."
Over the last five years, New York rappers the Diplomats (aka Dipset) have been what's "poppin'," and after being rejected by A&R men throughout the business for sounding like Jay-Z, Bridgeford's business partner Nicole "Nicety" Chaplin, who worked with Dipset President Jim Jones while he was still signed to Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella label, introduced the two. The crew's label, Diplomat Records, has artists spread throughout the industry from Def Jam to Asylum to Warner Bros. And regardless of critical opinion, Dipset has sold a respectable number of records, most notably "Ballin'," last summer's Jim Jones homage to being rich and gloriously tacky. Jones asked Bridgeford to join the Dipset offshoot Byrdgang sight unseen. Chaplin also introduced Bridgeford to Conrad Dimanche, senior vice president at Bad Boy, who was impressed with his work but not interested in signing a new act.
"[Dimanche] just told me to start writing, and it just so happened that Diddy was working on the Danity Kane project," Bridgeford says. "Writing is where the money is at. There's less scrutiny. I don't have to worry about sounding like anybody or whatever."
He went on to write Diddy's lyrics for the Danity Kane song "Show Stopper," the R&B girl band's first single. Working with Diddy has also given him a chance to work side by side with Jay-Z. "It was a real professional situation," Bridgeford says. "He was doing the hook on a song that ended up not being on the Danity Kane album, and I had to come through to write the lyrics." The similarity between the pair's voices wasn't discussed at all, Bridgeford says.
Despite his beef with Baltimore radio, Bridgeford feels it will eventually catch up to what he feels is already a movement. "They gonna have to do like everybody else, because the single is already poppin' in North Carolina," he says. "It's poppin' in New York. It's getting love everywhere it's at. Eventually they gonna have to play it. And if they don't, I don't care."
That Bridgeford's single, "NOE Headlights," produced by homegrown beatsmith Jay-funk and featuring Jim Jones, is a unique thumper built from a sparse, tense kick drum, an intermittent paradiddle drum roll, and a creepy, robotic howling sound. His lyrical style is quick and clever; he takes pride in his wordplay. And even though he definitely sounds like Jay-Z, he's unique enough to stand on his own, with a diverse body of work covering more than stories about selling drugs and being rich. For example, there's his love letter to hip-hop, "You Got Me," a song in the vein of Common's "I Used to Love H.E.R."
Bridgeford's current project is a Byrdgang/Dipset compilation album that will feature the entire roster, from Cam'ron and Juelz Santana to Jim Jones and NOE. When he's not working on that, he has a solo album in the works, and he's working on Danity Kane's follow-up album and more ghostwriting for Diddy. His busy schedule makes sure that people behind the scenes know who he is. Eventually, he says, fans, not just industry types, will follow suit.
"First people would say, `That's that rapper that sounds like Jay-Z,'" he says. "Then that turned into, `Hey, that's NOE, that rapper that sounds like Jay-Z.' And soon it's just gonna be, `Hey, that's NOE.'"