Rappers finding that life is good in the Poconos

SAYLORSBURG, PA. — Saylorsburg, Pa. -- Mention the Poconos and certain time-burnished images of that Pennsylvania area come to mind. Hotel suites named Fantasia II. Stock-car racing. Candle factories and Christmas shops on Route 611 as it climbs to the town of Mount Pocono, sometimes called the honeymoon capital of the world.

But one image not likely to occur is this one: two African-American men, young musicians in hip-hop gear, bobbing to a ground-shaking beat in a recording studio.


"Not the kind of setting you'd expect hip-hop to come out of, is it?" said Mark Sexx, smiling a greeting from behind big shades and a black hat that looked like Batman's cowl.

Mr. Sexx -- Queens bred, street savvy and appearing on Interscope Records, the home of Tupac Shakur and Snoop Doggy Dogg -- is a happy, even boosterish resident of the Pocono Mountains. Yes, the same Poconos in northeast Pennsylvania that gave the world the champagne-glass whirlpool bath.


In a landscape of almost unredeemable kitsch, Mr. Sexx and a posse of other rap performers have established an outpost of inner-city music and style.

"They all thought I was crazy when I said I was going to the Poconos," said Mr. Sexx, a member of No Face, whose latest single, "No Brothers Allowed," was released last year. "Now they're all coming up."

Local residents include the Shah, also of No Face, and Shock G, the leader of Digital Underground, which had a million-selling album, "Sex Packets," a few years ago.

Three members of the Force M.D.'s, who first rapped on the Staten Island ferry, live in the town of Tannersville, hard by tourist traps like Tie-Dye Dave's Hippy Gift Shop.

Numerous other rap stars -- Ice Cube, Mary J. Blige, Flavor Flav -- have vacationed at local resorts. Flavor Flav wrote the Public Enemy rap about a G, or gangster, getting away from the city and going to the Poconos.

Mr. Sexx, 28, moved to the small town of Effort 2 1/2 years ago from Hollis, Queens, to escape crime and high housing costs. When he told friends he was moving to the mountains, they thought he would soon be rapping about bears and berries.

"A lot of people think when you move up here you live like Grizzly Adams," said Mr. Sexx, whose given name is Mark Skeete. "But you've got a recording studio here, Japanese restaurants, Kentucky Fried Chicken."

Groov-E, a rapper and singer who moved from South Central Los Angeles, said: "It's peaceful here, not like the big city. I'm learning to enjoy nature."


Groov-E, 25, has pretty much gone native. Saturday mornings, he said, instead of hanging out on a street corner, he goes whitewater rafting and jet-skiing.

Groov-E and Mr. Sexx have been producing a number of records in the Menagerie, a recording studio on a horse farm, for 80 West Entertainment. The independent label is named for the interstate highway linking New York to the Poconos. Their first release, "U," is a hip-hop-flavored single by the former Supremes singer Mary Wilson.

Blacks came before

Resorts in the Poconos have a history of booking black comedians, and the walls of the Mount Airy Lodge in Mount Pocono hold old photographs of Flip Wilson and Bill Cosby. About eight years ago, the singer Freddie Jackson bought a house near the Camelback ski area.

Shortly afterward, the Force M.D.'s arrived, fleeing the drugs and violence that had infested their once-peaceful Staten Island neighborhood. "We were just about to wrap up our fourth album, but we couldn't concentrate because every day somebody was getting hurt or shot," T.C., a group member, said. "We were going to wakes and funerals regularly."

Three members, all brothers -- T.C., Stevie D. and Khalil -- bought houses on the same block, where they are raising families. "For children, the schools are beautiful," T.C., 32, said. "It's a nice place to be if you've lived in the city long enough. You can feel yourself growing up here."


One issue for the rappers is how to stay connected to the source of their music -- inner-city life. They say they make regular forays into New York.

"Once you've lived in the 'hood, it's in you," said Groov-E, whose group, Parlay, is to release its first record next month. "You can take it with you."

The Pocono rappers say they have felt little racial animosity from local residents, almost all of whom are white. Census data from 1990 showed that Monroe County, the heart of the Poconos, was 95 percent white, 1.8 percent Hispanic and 1.6 percent black. The number of minority-group residents has increased since then, local officials say, because of affordable housing and proximity to New York City, an hour and 20 minutes away.

"When I first came up here I thought it was going to be real racist," Mr. Sexx said. "But the Poconos are cool." Late one night, he said, he passed an elderly white woman counting cash as she left a bank machine. She looked him square in the eye and said, "Hello, son."

It's different

Mr. Sexx recalled: "That really blew my mind. It's a different vibe up here. People aren't knocking people over the head and robbing and stealing, and they're not publicizing that black people are committing crimes, so you don't have all the hostilities."


But others report some evidence of tension. Groups of skinheads, overtly racist, have been spotted in the area. The Pocono Record, the local newspaper, recently reported a fight with racial overtones between teen-agers.

In response, the Force M.D.'s are organizing an outdoor concert for next month called Unity in the Poconos. "We want to have hip-hop music, alternative, rock 'n' roll and country, then have somebody speak about the situation," T.C. said.

Still, the mountains are a long way from the streets of New York, where last weekend the rapper Queen Latifah was the victim of a carjacking in Harlem, in which a companion was shot and critically wounded.

The shooting was a reminder that even in neighborhoods where rap stars are heroes, they are not immune from the violence they often describe in rhyme.

"That's exactly why I stay up here," Mr. Sexx said, leaning on a fence outside the Menagerie studio, surrounded by seven horses, two goats and a half-dozen dogs and cats. "I ain't got time for that."

When he hits a snag inside the studio, Mr. Sexx likes to step out and contemplate the big green lawn that the studio's owner, Jeff Boyer, keeps trim with a riding mower.


Mulling over his recording problem, Mr. Sexx said absently, "I got to get my lawn like this."