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Brown Suga Suga

Roots reggae, doo-wop, Tom Petty -- and bales of ganja -- fuel Baby Bash's Latin rap

There's more than one thing that's pretty old-school about Baby Bash and his hit single, "Suga Suga." First, there's the song itself: a sticky-sweet praline of a summer jam with a caramelized guitar line running through Bash's singsong raps and former Kumbia King Frankie Jay's crooned chorus. The tune has a chance of breaking out of the Southwestern region and becoming a national hit. There's something indefinable about it that reminds me of doo-wop, and Bash says he's not surprised when I tell him so.

"When I was really little, like in seventh and eighth grade, I was like a little cholo, ese-type guy," he says in his excited rapid-fire voice. "All I would listen to was doo-wop and oldies.

"I wrote that song basically for all my Houston fly folk. It's gonna be 2004, so it's time to get fly instead of trippin' and bullshittin'. Just get fly and live life to the fullest 'cause the shit's crazy nowadays."

The second old-fashioned thing about "Suga Suga" is the way it has become a hit. Bash (who also goes by Baby Beesh) and Frankie Jay cut it as independents, they submitted it to radio -- specifically KPTY. Radio played it and the people dug it, at first only here in Houston and then regionally and now nationally. Since they recorded the song, both Bash and Frankie Jay have signed major-label deals, Bash with Universal and Jay with Columbia. It's an example of a somewhat rare phenomenon in the music business: the hit that bubbles up from the bottom rather than tumbles down from the rarefied air in the Los Angeles label offices at the top.

Bash says the song's success took him by surprise. Or maybe that's not quite right -- he seems more surprised when his songs don't hit. "I recorded 'Suga Suga' about a year ago, and I was hoping it was gonna be a hit but, no, I didn't know," he says. "I think I have a lot of good songs and I was thinking maybe the same old thing would happen, but then this one hit."

Even with "Suga Suga" still climbing the charts, it's not too early to start looking for a follow-up on his major-label debut, Tha Smokin' Nephew, which came out on September 23.Luckily, there are plenty of candidates, especially from among the 12 cuts produced by Happy Perez, who learned his craft in New Orleans under Master P. Of the Perez tracks, the R&B-like "Shorty Doowop" and "Changed My Life," which sounds a little like Beck circa Odelay, both stand out, as does the James Bond at the Jamaican dancehall-style remix of "Suga Suga." (The remix features vocals from local reggae singer Major Riley and is already getting airplay in New Zealand.) Local MCs Angel Dust and Doom help out on the bumping club-thumper "Stay Perkin," as does the incomparable Chingo Bling, who delivers a hilarious message to his many overzealous fans. (Quoth the Tamale Kingpin: "Get outta my face, move around, circulate, puto…") Mario Ayala's track on the wake-and-bake anthem "Early in the Morning" calls the Meters to mind with a Nocentellian hard funk guitar line, and also De La Soul's "Magic Number" in its overall flow. Of the 17 tracks, only "Yeh Suh!" and "Weed Hand" fall short of a very high standard, but oddly, they're the second and third cuts on the record.

There may be a lot of variety musically, but Bash's delivery is always laid-back and singsong -- Snoop Dogg's a decent comparison, as is Simpleton's B.C. -- and he's more of a lover than a fighter. The man does like his herb, too, as attested to by several tunes on and the very title of Tha Smokin' Nephew.

"My album is a ganja record," he says. "That word ganja is a good name."

That he favors the Jamaican word for weed is telling. "I like Steel Pulse, Aswad, of course the Marley stuff. I don't even like the dancehall stuff -- I like roots reggae. To me, Steel Pulse is one of the best ever." Worked up, Bash breaks into song. "'Cause I'm steppin' out!' That's my intro when I come out," he says, returning to his speaking voice, and referring to the opening track of Steel Pulse's 1984 album, Earth Crisis. "They sound so dope. Youngsters in the crowd are all movin' their heads goin', 'Damn! That's hard!' and they don't know it,s early''80s reggae."

Bash -- who cops to digging Too Short but says he doesn't listen to that much rap -- is also a big fan of a certain aging classic rocker. "I get a lot of inspiration from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers," he says, in what is perhaps a first in hip-hop history. "When I play him, some people don't know him. My parents used to listen to all that. It was always cool to me, too. Tom Petty was always so high and he was damn near rapping with that Southern drawl, kinda croonin'. And I consider myself a crooner, not really a rapper. I don't do freestyle, I don't battle nobody, that ain't my thing. I just like to make hits. There's a difference between rapping and freestyling and actually making songs. I'm more of a songmaker."

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