Local MC Tries To Catch Fire—Without a Major Label
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Jerrod Cephas, the 26-year-old rapper better known as Hots, is spending the afternoon in a basement studio in North Baltimore with his producers, listening to some tracks they’ve been working on. It’s a humble scene, especially when you realize Hots has been featured on MTV and radio stations around the country, and his producers have a platinum plaque to their credit. But even having dealt with a few music-industry power players, Hots’ ambitions don’t involve big business. “Forget doin’ it with a major label,” he says. “I’m gonna do it independent, because you’re really doin’ all the work yourself anyway. Even if you get a good deal, you still gettin’ raped.”
His producers agree with him, somewhat surprisingly since they recently signed a production deal with Virgin Records to bring one of Baltimore’s most popular rappers, Bossman, to the label. One Up Entertainment—Rich “Nieze” Shelton, Kevin Veney, and Loren Hill—is on the cusp of mainstream fame with Bossman, but Hots is the artist they’re eager to bring to the public next. “It really is a movement,” Nieze says. “Bossman is a big part of it, [but] I think Hots is really gonna be the thing that takes it to that next level.”
Hailing originally from Cambridge on the Eastern Shore, Hots now lives on Greenmount Avenue. But he doesn’t feel like an outsider in Baltimore’s insular hip-hop scene, which can be notoriously cold to rappers from rural Maryland. “To be for real, they embraced me,” Hots says. “I never heard one wrong thing from somebody from Baltimore, because actually I live in the ’hood, I’m right there with ’em, every day, all day. I represent the whole state of Maryland.”
Hots first caught Maryland’s attention in 2003, when 92Q started playing his single “2 Step,” a slow, funky dance track. One of the station’s DJs at the time, Buttaman, now at MTV, helped Hots get in his foot in the door for an appearance on Advanced Warning, the channel’s new artist showcase. Fresh off the buzz of “2 Step,” Hots issued a self-released mixtape, 2003’s Fuel for the Fire. But since then, he’s laid low, working with One Up and amassing a vault of unreleased songs for another mixtape and eventually an album.
Hots speaks softly, and even when rapping his voice has a drawling, fluid ease to it. In person, as well as in the video for “2 Step,” he exudes a quiet charisma, a permanent baseball cap shading his eyes and covering his braids. And while that track worked subtle wordplay into a pretty typical club rocker, his newer material is considerably less pop, with One Up creating menacing bangers out of bluesy guitar loops and, on “From the Hood,” a sample of the iconic synth line from Journey’s “Separate Ways.”
Last year, Joe “3H” Weinberger, an A&R man for Shady Records, and Paul Rosenberg, Eminem’s infamous manager, took notice of Hots and signed him to a demo deal with Shady. Hots recorded several tracks with up-and-coming producer Aqua (Jay-Z, Beanie Sigel), including a collaboration with G-Unit’s Tony Yayo. After that brush with one of the most powerful labels in the industry, though, Hots is now committed to the independent grind.
In recent months, a new Hots single—“Movin’ Up,” featuring Raheem Devaughn, a Washington soul singer who released his debut album on Jive last year—has been gaining buzz in the city. Hots considers it merely a teaser for his upcoming projects. “Actually, that’s just a warmup,” he shrugs. “I’m just tryin’ to get people reintroduced to me again, tryin’ to get back in the scene, do some radio joints, but not purposely for the radio. If they just happen to make it on the radio, they make it.” Citing the Notorious B.I.G. as one of his biggest influences, Hots says he isn’t customizing songs for radio but thinks he’ll make hits nonetheless. “Like Biggie, all he did was rap over a track, and they played it on the radio, but he didn’t purposely make a radio joint.”
It’s been about three years since Hots linked up with One Up, but the production trio’s history goes back much further. Nieze, Veney, and Hill came together in 2000, and even before that Veney and Hill had been producing together as Mass Order, their career highlight being Adina Howard’s 1995 platinum single “Freak Like Me.” As One Up, they produced for R&B stars like Jennifer Lopez and Baltimore’s own Sisqó. But it was an independent album with a little-known local MC that proved to be One Up’s most ambitious project to date.
Producing the majority of Bossman’s 2004 album Law and Order, including the local radio smashes “Off the Record” and “I Did It,” One Up was a major ingredient in Bossman’s success. One Up gave Bossman’s hard-core East Coast hip-hop lush beats and high-end production values, which attracted the attention of major-label execs like Jermaine Dupri, who signed Bossman to Virgin last year. And although Hots isn’t a part of Bossman’s NEK crew, they’ve become frequent collaborators, with Hots set to appear on Bossman’s Virgin debut, due out later this year.
The Bossman/Hots collaboration “Blam Blam” is a prime example of the chemistry between the two MCs and their producers, trading rhymes back and forth as the backing track’s bells and whistles complement the lyrics, like the metallic echo that accompanies Hots’ reference to RoboCop. Hots attributes those kinds of creative touches to the integrated working environment One Up encourages between MC and beatmaker. “It’s not even like they make beats and then rappers rap on it,” he says, noting that he’s often in the studio writing lyrics at the same time One Up is creating the beats.
Right now, though, Hots is eager to get his name out there with a new mixtape and connect with Baltimore’s hip-hop scene beyond Bossman. He name-checks Little Clayway, Dirty Hartz, and Skarr Akbar as a few local artists that he respects and would like to collaborate with. But as for production, he’s happy working exclusively with his home team. “I don’t even like a lot of producers that’s even in the game right now,” he says. “You got some people that’s hot, don’t get me wrong. But on a consistent basis, I’m not even gonna lie to you, One Up is the future.”