B Rich Gets Set to Take Baltimore Hip-Hop to the Nation
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From the median on Druid Park Lake Drive on the south side of the park, the instantly recognizable "We finally got a piece of the pie" refrain from The Jeffersons theme song can be heard over the traffic. But the tune shakes different--less '70s, with more grind in its bump. The hand-clap rhythms dance with a funky backbeat that skims across the reservoir, pumped out of a PA set up next to a jam-packed gazebo on the north side of the lake; the gazebo itself is ensconced in a horseshoe of movie-tech trucks and light trees. The playful, digable pulse steers the beat into a cheered chorus--"whoa now"--that is the song's title and credo. It's a shout out to chill out.
At the gazebo, the crowd moves to the bouncing beat. Hands raise imaginary roofs. Young ladies' hips make motions their mommas probably wish they wouldn't. Young men in hoodies nod and bob in approving nonchalance. Kids' lips unzip smiles that take up half their faces. And out in front of the fray, a wiry, slight, but sprightly young man lip-syncs to a movie camera a few feet away.
His face wears a sleepy ebullience that makes you think he was ordering a cheeseburger rather than starring in his first music video. Dressed in an all-white sweat suit, he pops off the sea of colorful clothing framed by Mobtown's characteristically gray-blue March sky. He's so fresh and so clean that he looks like the toothy sparkle in an Orbit Gum commercial. He is Baltimore native B Rich, the personality powering "Whoa Now." And Atlantic Records believes he is gonna bring this track--which as of April 10 was the No. 2 and No. 5 most played song at WERQ (92.3 FM) and WXYV (105.7 FM) in Baltimore, respectively--to the entire country.
New York-based video director Gil Green sculpts the set. Green made Three 6 Mafia's "Choices" gleam on the small screen, and he has been pegged to make B Rich the shit. The scene being shot is the required party shot. You know the one. Petey Pablo getting North Carolina to raise up. Mystikal bumpin' against the wall in N'awlins. Ludacris rolling out with the top back in Atlanta. Green checks the blocking in the monitor and informs his assistant director what and where changes are needed.
"This is the Baltimore shot," the assistant director says through a megaphone, telling the gathered extras what he wants them to do, how to look, and when to toss a required hands/air/not-care jive. "This is where America is going to see what Baltimore is all about."
The video may be the message, but Rich is the messenger who's going to get shot or not. "I've never done anything like this at all," he says of the three-day production a few days after its wrap. Rich carries himself with a quiet confidence and speaks with a casual flair that tricks you into thinking he is a few Z's away from a nap. But his speech trickles out of his mouth with succinct clarity.
"It was a lot of fun," he continues. "Not sleeping much. Waking up all confused. The world's been spinning so fast I never get a chance to look around or look back. But I'm very adaptive, and I just jumped into this environment and started working. I really haven't sat down and thought about it. I thank the Lord a lot. But I'm not like, 'Look what happened.' I'm just ready--what's next? Because it's a business and I want to succeed in it. This is my career now."
Four months ago B Rich was 22-year-old Brian Rich, who didn't have a career. He was a University of Maryland-Eastern Shore senior majoring in criminal justice and crashing at his sister's house in Woodlawn between semesters. He has been making music since middle school, but it was always something he did on the side. On Christmas night, he and his producing partner, Dukeyman (Ron Hall), completed the track that has put Rich's life in a whirl.
"I was working on this little underground CD, and 'Whoa Now' was the single to help me sell it out of the trunk," Rich says. "[Music] was like a hobby to me at the time. And it blew up faster than I could imagine."
The day after Christmas, Dukeyman passed "Whoa Now" on to WXYV, which played it twice that night. By January, 92Q started airing it too. Dukeyman also sent some copies out to other regional stations, copies that eventually landed on a few major-label A&R desks. Once the track stared generating word-of-mouth response in Baltimore, labels came calling, but nobody was able to entice Rich to leave college mere months away from graduating.
A call from Atlantic changed all that. "I wasn't going to do it unless I thought it was secure," Rich says. "'Cause it's a big step. I spent four years in school and I'm getting ready to leave my last semester? You know there's got to be something concrete on the other side if I'm going to jump."
After signing in January, Rich and Dukeyman went out to Los Angeles in February and laid down 19 tracks for his album debut, 40 Dimes, slated for a July release. Department of Film, a New York-based production company hired by Atlantic to oversee the video, awarded the directing gig to Green. And Rich was on the fast track to taking hip-hop by storm.
But Baltimore has heard this story before: albums boasting one hot single that don't translate into a long-haul career. (What up, Sisqó?) Hip-hop and pop music are littered with one-hit wonders that become VH1 Pop Up Video punch lines mere months after topping the charts.
What is different about "Whoa Now" is that it's blowing up from the inside out. Sisqó had already made his mark in Dru Hill before flying solo, and Unleash the Dragon was on shelves for six months before 2000 became the summer of "Thong Song." But B Rich is being marketed as distinctly regional. Like Petey Pablo's "Raise Up" and North Carolina, Lil' Troy's "Wannabe a Baller" and Houston, and Trick Daddy's "I'm a Thug" and Miami, "Whoa Now" is being sold as a slice of Baltimore bling.
The strategy is not entirely imposed on the rapper. In the first verse of "Whoa Now," Rich says he's going to show you Baltimore--"partying like it's my birthday/ drinking until Thursday." The video shoot captured local flavor: Druid Hill Park, Mondawmin Mall, the Peachtree Car Wash at Fulton and Monroe streets. Sure, it is an outsider's view of what Baltimore represents. (The locations were scouted by Green and Department of Film.) But the whole shebang-bang may be just the ticket to take Charm City's curious club sound--a letting-loose mix of house's basement quake and hip-hop's carefree attitude that's not quite East Coast hard or Dirty South odd, but somewhere in between--out of the mid-Atlantic and into the mainstream.
Now Rich and his label have to see if the rest of the country is going to bite. "Whoa Now" is already getting airplay in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, Houston, Shreveport, La., Denver, Los Angeles, Alabama, and South Carolina. The video should hit music channels in the coming weeks. Rich recently finished a photo shoot for a July appearance in The Source magazine. He starts a promotional tour in May. And with a July release, Atlantic has positioned Rich's debut CD to sink or swim with the music industry's competitive summer sharks. (Eminem, Wyclef Jean, and Nelly are the among the proven sellers who also have summer releases scheduled.)
And the variable remains Rich. More so than rock or pop, hip-hop's sizzling success stories are fueled by personalities. Most people couldn't tell Coldplay from Travis, Linkin Park from Papa Roach. But Jay-Z, Kool Keith, or Outkast's Andre 3000? They are characters who are synonymous with their sound.
"It's a lot of weight on my shoulders," Rich admits. "I just want to put the light on Baltimore for a little bit. Because lately everything we do is like a fluke. We win the Super Bowl and that was luck. We knock the champ out and that was luck. So when the world looks at Baltimore, I want them to think, 'What have we been missing?'"