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Black-Ass Fleas

Are they sellouts -- or just really bad rappers?

The Black Eyed Peas -- man, where the hell do you begin?

It appears there isn't a more qualified group to write about for this particular column. Their transformation from boho hip-hoppers to party-pop rappers (which entailed their bringing in photogenic white girl Fergie to sing hooks) has made them a continuous subject for the scorn of both critics and hip-hop enthusiasts. If that weren't enough, the Peas (or, as one of my friends calls them, the Black-Ass Fleas) also don't mind selling their songs to Best Buy or the NBA to use in commercials.

Of course, they aren't the first performers to change up their style to gain a wider audience, only to be greeted with invective from die-hard fans. In a well-mythologized incident, Bob Dylan switched from acoustic to electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and, as the story goes, was pelted with boos. The same thing happened with Ray Charles, first when he began setting salacious lyrics to gospel backdrops and later when he began flirting with country and western music. And at almost exactly the same time the Peas introduced their new poppy sound on their 2003 Elephunk album, fans of ballsy, indie-rock goddess Liz Phair were ready to burn her in effigy when she released a self-titled, radio-friendly pop-rock album of her own.

Ultimately, it all boils down to one question: Are the Black Eyed Peas sellouts -- or just really bad rappers?

In the pages of this very alt-weekly, the Peas' original hook girl, Kim Hill, was the first to lash out at her onetime creative partners. In the piece "Sweet…and a Little Sour" (November 21, 2002), Hill, who performed on the 1998 breakout single "Joints and Jam," saw that the Peas' organic hip-hop style was getting watered down by outside interference.

"Like, you know, all these Jewish and white folks were taking control of our music, our soul, our hip-hop, and telling us how we could market it and sell it," said Hill. "And at that point, it got to the point of selling out, and that's when I had to go."

However, there are those who feel that the Peas are neither sellouts nor really bad rappers. Instead, they think they're misunderstood. Local hip-hop spinner DJ Witnes says he understands how the Peas would want to shake things up in order to stay relevant in the music biz.

"They still have hip-hop involved in their music," says Witnes, "but at the same time, they're trying to keep the newer, young audience…trying to cater to that Britney Spears-Gwen Stefani kind of following" -- the Peas open for Stefani at Toyota Center on Thursday, November 10 -- "where they can play both sides of the fence…"

Even though he admits that the Peas aren't great lyricists, Anthony Frazier, owner of High Volume Music Online and lead guitarist for the R&B band Collective Hallucination, is another cat who supports the Peas' crossover efforts.

"I'm sure there are a lot of people in Houston -- rappers, poets, musicians, singers -- who would love to be in the position that they're in," says Frazier. "There are some poets out here who will tell you in a heartbeat, 'Oh, I'm not gonna change for anything.' But if there's a check sitting on the table, a nice, fat check, and they're saying, 'Hey, we want you to drop some lines on so-and-so's CD,' and it's a pop star, chances are they're gonna drop those rhymes. Because money talks!"

Adds Witnes, "I don't think they forgot where they came from, but at this point, I guess it's just like trying to get their foot in just any market they can. And, if they happen to be successful with that, they're obviously doing something right."

Well, it seems like the sellout-or-not-a-sellout issue will always be open for debate. But even the most sympathetic supporter has to admit that the weak-ass duet they did with Earth, Wind & Fire at this year's Emmys was over the line. One of them even danced with Marg Helgenberger. Seriously, what the hell were they thinking? -- Craig D. Lindsey

EVERYTHING'S KEEN-O IN RENO

You could play it straight when you talk to singer Miles Zuniga about how the rock opera he and Fastball buddy Jeff Groves were writing evolved into the hilarious rock/cabaret act Small Stars (who take it to the stage Saturday, November 12, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck). You could talk to him about his love for both the glitz of Sinatra and the glam of Bowie, and how these two disparate strands of pop culture are interwoven in the Small Stars. You could get to the bottom of why he hates being compared to Richard Cheese, or you could ask him if their manager is really a greedy Englishman named Vic Odin. You could do all that, but it wouldn't be as fun as a mock interview with Zuniga's ruffle-tuxed, woozy Small Stars alter ego, Guy Fantasy, based on the lyrics of their songs. So here goes.

Wack: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

GF: Who am I? Just another guy. But I am big as life when it is showtime. I make my face, and change my name, they dim the lights…Let's rock and roll!

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