It was 2002 and Nappy Roots was on top of the music world.
The Kentucky-based hip-hop quintet was enjoying multi-platinum sales for its major-label debut, Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz. Nappy Roots member B. Stille thought the follow-up, Wooden Leather — featuring production work by the likes of Kayne West and Lil Jon —would be even better received.
Then their fortunes changed. Their label, Atlantic Records, merged with Warner Bros. and Elektra. Many people, including those tasked with promoting Nappy Roots, lost their jobs. Suddenly the machine that had been behind the group was no longer there.
During a recent phone interview, Stille explained that that was a confusing period in the life of Nappy Roots, but that, "By God's grace we were able to sustain."
Instead of folding, the act re-evaluated its path, which included turning down a couple new record deals they feared would devalue their integrity. Eventually they formed their own imprint, N.R.E.G. (Nappy Roots Entertainment Group) and signed a distribution deal with Fontana/Universal Music Group. Stille says their goal is to have something like Def Jam Records did in the early '80s or Diddy's Bad Boy label in the late '90s — a familial company that puts out solo records and music by hand-picked artists.
"This was our plan from the beginning," Stille said. "(Atlantic) gave us a fan base that we probably couldn't have gotten ourselves. But we're in a great position now. We're blessed to have had this roller-coaster ride – the ups and downs and corkscrews and loopty-loops."
Since then Nappy Roots have released a mix tape and a couple studio efforts, including this year's The Pursuit of Nappyness. Full of bouncy, beatifically organic rhythms, Stille calls it their best and most honest work yet.
"Everything we do we feel like it's the best (at that time)," he said. "This album is no different. We don't put out music we don't feel good about."
Times have changed since the members of Nappy Roots — including Skinny Deville, Fishscales, Big V. and Ron Clutch (R. Prophet left for a solo career) — first started laying couplets on each other in college. After going pro, they became used to A&R guys feeding them beats, which they'd use to write lyrics before meeting up in the studio to record. Now technology is such that each member has his own home studio, allowing him to write anytime and all the time and present the results to the rest of the collective. Files were often exchanged over the Internet while the new album was coming together. It made it easier, considering Deville and Fishscales now live in Atlanta while the other three are still in Louisville.
"That process was different for me, but I liked it because I could do it in the comfort of my own home," Stille said. "I could wake up at 5 in the morning or 5 in the afternoon and drop the verse whenever I felt it. That helped us grow as men because we had more responsibility to make that happen."
And they've taken the responsibility to speak on behalf the working man, on behalf of their neighbors.
"It's like no man's land and every man's land," Stille said of Kentucky, which he called "the charm on our nation's chain."
A lot of today's rap, he said, may be hot in the clubs, but it's nothing the average person can relate to.
"I think it's more about life experience," Stille said. "You can't expect a 17-year-old to rap about the issues going on in the world or to relate to adult problems. Those are things someone who has experienced them will have a better song about."
It doesn't help that so many labels are perpetuating what Stille calls "cookie-cutter" music. many younger artists quell their creative instincts for fear of rejection. As a result, Stille said, you get a saturation of songs about sex, money and drugs.
"That's kind of where hip-hop is at right now," he said. "It's back in the disco stage; everyone's trying to do the same thing because it's hot."
But Stille also sees emerging artists like Drake and B.o.B. breaking from the norm. Stille says that one of Deville's lines from the new song "Live & Die" sums up what Nappy Roots has always stood for: "Ain't nothin' wrong with being smart, black and proud." And Stille is ready for the rest of the hip-hop world to put away childish things.
"It's kind of like a scale – it's got to tip so much to the left that people need it to balance back out," Stille said. "Hip-hop's going through the next phase right now, and I feel like Nappy Roots is one of the groups leading the charge."
Free download of "Nappy University" mixtape (feat. tracks from The Pursuit of Nappyness).
Promotional video for "Ride" from The Pursuit of Nappyness: