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Walking deliberately with a slight limp past vacant storefronts and over grimy gray asphalt, the inimitable Dr. Dre raps:
...By some nigga wit' a Tech 9, tryin' to take mine / 'You wanna make noise, make noise' / I make a phone call, my niggas come in like the Gotti boys...
A video camera catches it all. In the background, Li'l Brian Terry, baseball cap askance and the cuffs of his baggy jeans collapsing in small piles around his ankles, gangsta-leans on a building facade. He cocks his head back. Black sunglasses folded in his hand. (Nobody wears shades in Compton.) His accordion dangles at his side.
Dre continues rapping:
...Rollin' in my '4 with 16 switches / And got sounds for the bitches / Clockin' all the riches / Got the hollow points for the snitches...
Li'l Brian stands up and falls in line behind Dre, still focused on the camera. Dre, rapping, pauses to shove a fist mockingly into the lens (to help accentuate a point) when Li'l Brian, also concentrating on the eye of the video recorder, accidentally bumps into Dre. EEE-whoot!Li'l Brian's accordion bleats. The director screams, "Cut!" Dre turns and looks Li'l Brian up and down and glowers at the squeezebox. Dre raises an eyebrow and frowns. Li'l Brian giggles nervously and apologizes. And apologizes. And promises the instrument won't make a peep the rest of the shoot. Spinning round in the direction of the camera crew, Li'l Brian announces: "It won't make a sound! Not a peep! My bad!" Dre shakes his head.
Since art imitates life and all that jazz, this fictional scenario is probably a good reflection of how things will go once Li'l Brian makes a particular dream known to Dr. Dre, he of N.W.A. and multiplatinum solo fame: Li'l Brian wishes to mix zydeco with rap in a radio-friendly manner. And Dre will be just the man to help him do it.
Dre just doesn't know it yet.
Though Li'l Brian, via his publicity company, has announced to the world -- and freely admits to -- his Dre-centric zydeco-rap intentions, he hasn't contacted his would-be accomplice directly. Being in the middle of a tour and having just released his second Rounder effort, Funky Nation, Li'l Brian doesn't have the time or need to get hold of Dre this moment. Which doesn't mean Li'l Brian can't send a feeler out.
"Take a listen to The Chronic," said Li'l Brian in a phone conversation last week, referring to Dre's killer 1992 solo debut. "And listen to Funky Nation. The two are rap, but the two can also transcend rap. The way rap changed music, I think Funky Nation-[styled zydeco] can do the same thing."
"And Dre's the king of that crossover shit," he continued. "Like the man says, 'If your album sales ain't right, go see the doctor.' "
What? Li'l Brian's sales can't be thatbad. The 27-year-old zydeco champ has had no problem spreading his self-proclaimed Z-funk all over creation. Signed to influential independent label Rounder in 1994, after only a few years of performing, Barrett Station-based Li'l Brian with his Zydeco Travelers has built a substantial national following.
And while Li'l Brian is on the upswing, Dre is spiraling downward. These days the rapper-producer is merely another story in which today's superstar has become yesterday's has-been. (Name a still-breathing rapper or rap act that has been a popular and critical favorite for more than a half-dozen years. You can't.) Everything after The Chronic has been chronically bad, and Dre, older and as defensive as ever, has given up rapping about the thug life to concentrate on choice weed as his identifying lyrical conceit.
Known for his microphone abilities as well as his soundboard skills, Dre is still considered a major player -- at least in rap. He has rarely ventured into non-genre territory; his lone excursion was as co-producer of Nine Inch Nails' 1999 album, The Fragile.
And understandably so. Lyrics like those above (taken from "Let Me Ride," the biggest commercial and critical hit from The Chronic) sound natural only in extreme, aggressive sonic contexts like rap or heavy metal. They probably wouldn't have the same impact being spoken over wheezing accordion riffs.
"Not all zydeco bands can do what I'm tryin' to do," says Li'l Brian, a fan of Dre's since the mid-1980s, when Dre was breaking out with raucous upstarts N.W.A. "But [with] our style and the style I play, I think myself and my band can fit perfect. It's not for all of zydeco, which a lot of 'em are repetitious; they're based in tradition. We want to venture off."
By the time Li'l Brian got to Rounder, he had perfected Z-funk, a mostly R&B and hip-hop-based sound. An excellent player, Li'l Brian hasn't completely eschewed traditional zydeco -- he still takes time, when the need arises, to spin long yarns on the accordion over skipping beats -- but he has toned down the genre's earthy flavor considerably, mainly by turning down his accordion. In most of his newer songs, Li'l Brian uses his instrument merely as an accent. Instead of being the band, Li'l Brian's accordion is one aspect of it.
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