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 that bad. 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.
Collaborating with Dre would be, in Li'l Brian's opinion, the best way to take the Zydeco Travelers' Z-funk mainstream. Other producers need not apply...yet. "It's like Michael Jordan," Li'l Brian says. "When he walks on the court, it's like, 'Me and Mike'll take on all ten of y'all.' It has to be Dre."
"Or I could get with Rap-A-Lot," Li'l Brian says almost quizzically, referring to Houston's answer to Death Row Records. "I'm lookin' for the whole hip-hop connection, whether it's through Dre or Rap-A-Lot. Let's make this happen. Let's get this across here."
In the aforementioned press release, Li'l Brian even goes as far as to compare his hometown, which is near Houston, to the incomparably destitute Compton. "Oh, yeah," he's quoted as saying, "we have gang wars and drive-by's too -- it's the 'hood alright."
...Bitches relax while I get my proper swerve on EE-EE-EE-EP! Bumpin' like a mo-fucker ready to get my serve on EE-EE-EE-UP! But before I hit the dope spot, gotta get the chronic, the Remy Martin and my soda pop EE-EE-EE-EP!...
Zydeco-rap? Let's remain skeptical.
Li'l Brian and the Zydeco Travelers perform Saturday, April 8, from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the American Stage at Sam Houston Park as part of the Houston International Festival. For more information, call (713)654-8088.
Filming for an upcoming VH-1 movie of the week is set to begin here Monday, April 10. Casting for Exodus Live, a tale about white rappers, is already under way, and I-45 is one of the acts under consideration for the marquee role. Funny, but aren't the Hispanic guys from I-45 always complaining about being mistaken for white boys? Being white boys on screen probably won't help this misconception any.
Chances that the movie is satirical in nature are good. White guys plus rap equals funny. If this is the case, manager Mark Reed says, I-45 won't participate.
Legend Gets Local
Gitane "Don't Call Me Christian Death" Demon returns to Houston for a performance Thursday, April 6, at Instant Karma. We say "returns" because it wasn't too long ago that Demon (who got her start with gargantuan gothers Christian Death nearly a decade ago) was at ToneZone Records' studios laying vocals on the Bamboo Crisis track "Sentinel." "She nailed it in one take," says ToneZone's Bobby Joe Rose, who also handles some of Demon's business affairs. The glamour-puss Demon has already said yes to a ToneZone-produced dance record.
About half a year out of open-heart surgery, Greg Wood leads his band Horseshoe back to the stage. The band plays a CD release party Saturday, April 8, at Rudyard's, 2010 Waugh. For more information, call (713)521-0521. Nas-T will appear on Jenny Jones (which airs at 11 a.m. on KRIV, the local Fox affiliate) Friday, April 7. The seven-year-old R&B quartet will perform its single "Ladies and Players' Night Out." "It's a big step," says Clyde Bazile, the group's manager. -- Anthony Mariani
E-mail Anthony Mariani at anthony.mariani@ email@example.com.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.