They rap about fighting to avoid the drugs that saturate their bleak neighborhood streets, about staying alive in a community rife with guns and violence.
The subject matter is conventional rap fodder. But the menacing environment the new rap trio Faces of Funk gets lyrical about isn't Compton or the South Bronx.
But rather ... Annapolis Gardens.
Yes, Annapolis. The starchy, historic-with-a-capital-H city many view as a more likely breeding ground for a German polka troupe than the next It-group in hip-hop.
"Some people say, 'What are they gonna rap about? Shopping at the mall?' " says one member of Faces of Funk, Orlando "Smallz" Craig, a 24-year-old Annapolis native.
"If you're from New York and people hear you rap about drugs, they can believe it -- when people think of Annapolis, they think downtown, waterfront," adds Irvin "Papoose" Crowdy, 28, the other group member from Annapolis. Jermaine "Big Milk" Lowe, 26, lives in northwest Washington. "If you're from Annapolis, people just don't know what to expect."
Well, expect this -- a surprising debut.
The group's first album, "Tales of the Funk," was distributed to Annapolis and Anne Arundel County stores in November and ran up record sales for a local band on an independent label at Tower Records in Annapolis Harbor Center. The sales manager, Lovell Brown, promptly dubbed it "Annapolis' No. 1 Rap Group."
Moreover, Brown said the album became the sixth best-selling rap album in its first week, higher than recent releases by major-label artists like Method Man and Jay-Z. The album sold more than 70 CDs and cassettes at Tower and a total of 500 throughout the county.
Normally, "for a person who doesn't have a major-label or minor-label distribution, we'd be lucky if we sold five a month," Brown said. Selling albums is cool and all, but group members have their egos set on something far bigger: making their home turf the next hip-hop nation a la Master P, whose rap empire has cast the spotlight on his hometown of Baton Rouge, La.
"You've got Ice Cube out west, you've got Master P down South, but as far as Maryland, Virginia, D.C., Baltimore, there's been no one person that's come out and said, 'Just follow us and we're going to take us to the top,' " Crowdy said. "We want to put this little area on the map."
Well, Faces of Funk sales are "not that impressive," says Minya Oh, music lifestyles editor at Vibe magazine.
"People like Too Short [out of Oakland] and Master P were selling much more despite selling it out of the trunk of their cars," Oh said. "But this is a good beginning." She said it helps that Maryland has not been tapped as a hip-hop source.
"The one thing about hip-hop is that you have to really take charge of your area and be proud of it," Oh said. "There was a time when Atlanta wasn't the huge black music mecca that it is now. People there saw that the local groups weren't trying to imitate New York or L.A. -- they were saying, 'It's all about us.' And people have loyalty to you when they feel you're really representing them. At some point in the 21st century, who knows, Annapolis could become a huge hip-hop market."
And Faces of Funk is doing its best to represent its side of Annapolis -- quite different from the Frommers guide's view of this capital city.
Take the album's first song, "Fastway": "I wanna do right, but my mind thinks crime. I'm caught up in this game, ain't no telling when your last day is."
The violence, the drug-dealing is a running theme in Faces of Funk's songs -- apart from the ones "for the ladies" that are really profanity-speckled odes to their women.
It ain't exactly part of the hazelnut latte culture down by the city dock.
The three men say they grew up in the public-housing communities of Annapolis and Washington, began stumbling upon drugged-out people sprawled on neighborhood streets before they even hit middle school, ran with the proverbial wrong crowd for years before making an about-face -- at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center in Parole, no less -- and surviving to rap about it.
Crowdy and Craig grew up in Annapolis Gardens and Newtowne 20 and knew each other through mutual friends. Crowdy graduated from Annapolis High School in 1988 and Craig in 1991. Crowdy is known as "Papoose" in his neighborhood because his grandfather thought he looked like a "little Indian baby" when he was born. Craig's nickname, "Smallz," is a shortened version of "Biggie Smallz," which friends called him because he was big-sized. He dropped "Biggie" after Notorious B.I.G., a k a. Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace, burst onto the rap scene in 1994.
Both remember being into hip-hop since elementary school, challenging other boys to impromptu rap competitions and idolizing Ice Cube and Tupac Shakur. Five years ago at a party they met Lowe, whose brother's girlfriend lives in Annapolis Gardens. (Lowe's name, "Big Milk," also stems from his childhood: He used to walk to the corner store to buy cookies and milk.) Lowe graduated from Washington's Northwest High School in 1989.
The three began rapping together and "Da Funk" was born. For a few months, anyway. They tried to register their group name, but it was taken.
So, Faces of Funk it was.
Even though they were rapping together at neighborhood parties and had occasional gigs at Anne Arundel Community College, the group didn't gel enough to produce an album until last year. The trio won't go into specifics, but they say they were occupied with life on the street. Ironically, it was the very existence that ultimately provided inspiration for their music career.
Their rap sheet covers charges of everything from drug dealing to assault. But Crowdy and Craig say they had a turning point: In 1994, they found themselves in Anne Arundel Detention Center charged with attempted murder.
According to Anne Arundel Circuit Court records, Craig, Crowdy and another man had a skirmish. Crowdy fired a shot that hit the man's right hand. Court documents show the charges against Craig were eventually dropped, and a jury found Crowdy not guilty, but not before both spent months behind bars.
"When I was in there, I said if I get another chance, I'm going to do something different," Crowdy said. "I said, once I get out of here, I ain't going back there again. The next time they see me, it's going to be on a music video."
They say they helped each other stay out of trouble, working for an Annapolis moving and storage company. Lowe got a job lifting bricks at a Prince Georges County construction company.
Last year, they finally got seven songs together and roped in a friend -- Lovell Logan -- to help produce, manage and market them, and everything just fell into place.
They have done gigs at the Eastport Clipper Cantina, neighborhood parties and even driven to Atlanta to perform in the spring Freaknik, an annual block party that draws thousands of African-American college students. Three weeks ago, Logan began circulating the group's album among Baltimore-area stores and he's hoping they get picked up on local radio stations, apart from Morgan State University's station, which already has. They also have a gig scheduled at the Annapolis Gardens Boys and Girls Club.
"If we succeed, kids growing up [in Annapolis Gardens and Newtowne 20] are going to know that there's another route to take," Craig said. "They'll know that if you keep your mind focused, you can end up being somebody."
The group hasn't caught on with people from the starchy side of Annapolis, but that's not to say they aren't supportive.
"I'm glad to see they're doing something in their life that may turn out to be positive," said Lt. T.J. Harrington, of the Annapolis City Police Department.
Alderman Herbert H. McMillan, a Republican who represents the ward that includes Newtowne, said he thought it was "neat" that a rap group could come out of his community.
"I'd be very happy for somebody who's doing well and on the straight and narrow," he said. "I'm always happy when anybody from the city of Annapolis is a success."
And they're praying they will be. With ads out on BET and the word slowly spreading, they're hoping they have what it takes to go platinum, double platinum, produce, develop and manage local talent, work with Ice Cube, and while they're at it, heck, why not throw acting into the mix?
Faces of Funk "Tales of the Funk" (317 Records ANN 001) You've heard of gangsta rap? Say hello to petty thief rap. In its stunningly unoriginal debut, the Annapolis rap trio Faces of Funk operates on the theory that those with no ideas of their own should take from those who do. So they borrow blatantly from Slick Rick ("La Di Da Di," a cover) and Marvin Gaye (even the title: "What's Going On"), and openly imitate 2Pac (in "All I Know") and Dr. Dre (in "They Wanna No"). As rappers, the three deserve respect for their crisp articulation and competent flow, though their rhymes sometimes verge on the tasteless (in "Fastway," they boast that their crew will "blow up like TWA"). But that hardly makes up for the boring, repetitious loops, or the tuneless caterwauling that passes for singing in "They Wanna No." Sun score: -- J.D. Considine
Pub Date: 2/20/99