After a lot of shuffling, Cooli Hi finds his place as the new knave in Sisqó's deck
Baltimore MC Cooli Hi sounds like a smooth operator on his recently released solo debut, Crown Victoria. With a deep, booming voice and a relaxed, almost casual delivery, Cooli comes across with a polished poise, comfortable in any setting--over smooth-jam R&B ("Crazy Luv"), booty-shake bump 'n' grind ("The Setup"), or banging bass sing-alongs ("My Life"). For a debut album on an independent label, the Holla Bak imprint he co-founded, Cooli sounds as confident and composed as a veteran.
And that's the sort of guy he comes across as in person, too. Cooli (born Dwayne Jones) is soft-spoken and attentive in conversation, pausing a moment before answering questions to provide thoughtful responses, as if each question were posed to him for the very first time. The tall, lean 29-year-old may have been born and grown up on the city's west side, but he comes off like he went to music-industry finishing school.
And in a way, he has. In the almost 10 years since he started performing in hip-hop groups around Baltimore, Cooli has gone from a passionate fan getting onstage at open-mic nights to a hard-working artist spending his downtime working on his craft. He's seen record-deal promises turn sour, been passed over because he didn't quite have the skills, and got back into the game as both an artist and a businessman, taking charge of his career rather than leaving it up to pimping middlemen. And along the way, he received words of encouragement and criticism from a friend who knows a thing or two about the highs and lows of the industry, Sisqó.
Cooli reports he first got into hip-hop when he was 10 years old, but he didn't consider it a potential career until 1994, when he spent a year at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne. He did a couple of shows and "felt a little spark," and came back to Baltimore after one year and formed a group.
He and two other friends--including Steve Campbell, Sisqó's cousin--formed Shock Trauma, a trio Cooli says was very much a product of the times. "That was during the Wu-Tang and that era, so it was that real grungy, grimy hip-hop," he says. "Helter Skelter, Black Moon, that whole movement. That was what was happening back then. And we were moving right along with 'em."
Shock Trauma performed in clubs around Baltimore during its two- to three-year lifespan, and even released an album on its own label, Jiggy Blah Entertainment. But the group never reached beyond Baltimore, and when an opportunity to venture outside the 410 came, the group--or at least one member--jumped at it.
"Actually, what sprung Shock Trauma apart is when Sisqó wanted to form a hip-hop group," Cooli says. "At that time, Sisqó really wasn't feeling Shock Trauma because Sisqó was R&B, and hip-hop at that time was the whole Wu-Tang thing, and Sisqó wasn't a big fan of that. So he called his cousin out of our group and asked him to join his group. And we wasn't going to be selfish. This was his foot in the door. So we told him to go ahead, just look out for us on the back end."
The back end was a long time coming. At the time, Dru Hill, the R&B group Sisqó was in, was still grinding it out like any number of aspiring groups. But soon, the group's "Tell Me" single started climbing up charts, and Dru Hill blew up. The group was in demand, and Sisqó was grabbing people to go on the road. He took his cousin, then the other member of Shock Trauma. Then when Campbell was no longer interested, Sisqó grabbed another one of Cooli Hi's rapping acquaintances, Marquis Collins, aka Da Kidd. He was interested in everybody but Cooli.
"Sisqó didn't like me when he first heard me," Cooli says. "And he told me why. I have a deep voice, and at that time I spoke very fast. I kept it rolling, and you couldn't understand what I was saying. And what I needed to do was fall into the pocket of the beat more. What I learned from Sisqó was that, whether singing or rapping, you don't won't to clash with the track. Your voice needs to be another instrument on the track. And I'm glad he told me that, because that made me work harder."
So while practically everybody he knew was working with Sisqó, Cooli was at home working on his rhymes, lyrics, and delivery. And every time Sisqó came back to Baltimore on a break from touring or recording, they would all get together at somebody's house--"laughing and talking with couple of females over"--somebody would eventually put on an instrumental tape, and Cooli would show off his still developing chops.
He finally got Sisqó's attention--just as Sisqó's solo debut, 1999's Unleash the Dragon, was about to drop. And after "Thong Song" hit, Sisqó became virtually unreachable.
But he hadn't forgotten Cooli. He was looking to produce a new R&B group, and he invited Cooli to audition. Called the Associates, it included Cooli and Da Kidd, and when it came time for Sisqó to record his follow-up, 2001's Return of Dragon, he used Cooli on "Can I Live" and the Associates for "Off the Corner."
Sisqó also gave the Associates money to record an album, which earned the group a contract with RCA Records in early 2001. Cooli and the group thought they had caught one of those elusive breaks. The group was on tour with the Backstreet Boys during September 2001, however, and in the aftermath of Sept. 11 RCA records shut down its black music division, leaving the Associates--and many other artists--floating in the wind.
"We finished the tour in October," Cooli remembers. "And we came back to Baltimore and reality hit us. So I started working on my solo album, Da Kidd started working on his solo album, and Sisqó's basement studio had just been finished, and we spent every night in there banging out songs. But we really didn't have any direction."
A Washington, D.C.-based independent A&R rep got wind of Cooli's demos and started shopping him around. Yet after the RCA fiasco, Cooli and Kidd were skeptical of relying on other people to represent them. So they decided to form Holla Bak to represent their prospective projects.
Holla Bak eventually came into being last December, and Crown Victoria is its debut joint. The new label is putting a professional enthusiasm behind its small enterprise--you may have seen Cooli's posters around town--and the album is a bouncing slice of indie hip-hop, not so bargain-basement that it sounds like the backpack crews, and not so crisp and clean that it sounds like mainstream sheen. Kidd's solo debut is slated to come out later this year, and he and Cooli have already started to expand Holla Bak's reach while keeping it in their musical family. Sisqó recently became the president of Holla Bak, and everybody involved is gearing up for Holla Bak's first promotional push behind one of its artists.
"Right now we have a whole line of things coming out," Cooli says. "We've got some dates with Dru Hill. We got shows all over the city, D.C., Virginia. I just finished doing a movie called Under Pressure with a guy named Floyd Harris. There's just so many things going on right now. And, honestly, if Sisqó didn't tell me back then that he didn't like me, I wouldn't be at the level that I am today."