Like a lot of us in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Micah Nickerson and Damien Randle of local hip-hop duo the Legendary K.O. (formerly K-Otix) were consumed with horror and full of compassion for the tens of thousands of displaced New Orleanians in our midst. Both Nickerson and Randle have Louisiana relatives, so they were feeling the tragedy on a more personal level. And, also like some of us, they did something about it.
The first thing they did was just to conceive of a song. "We had a feeling at the time that a lot of these people's stories were overlooked, but that didn't really come to pass," Randle says. "But we just kinda talked about and didn't really know how to approach the song, and then that Friday rolled around with the telethon."
Ah, yes, the telethon. The massive Katrina-ganza that aired on almost every network on Friday, September 6, kick-started their project. "I was watching the TV -- or the TV was watching me," says Randle. "I was just kinda foolin' around with the computer, and I heard what Kanye said just kinda out of earshot. And I was like, 'What?' And a few minutes later a friend of mine e-mailed me the video clip and I sent it over to Mike. And we were both just kinda trippin' on it."
The Legendary K.O.
Perhaps some of you have been spelunking in Mammoth Cave for the past two months and don't know what Randle is referring to. It was, of course, Kanye West's off-the-cuff statement that "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
"The thing is we weren't really shocked by what he said -- we were just shocked by the fact that he said that," says Randle. "It was pretty contrary to what a lot of the other people were doing: They were reading scripted statements and so forth. But we just thought that he had pretty big nuts just to go off-script and actually speak his own feelings. It didn't really matter what he said -- just that he went off-script to do so."
The next day, both Randle and Nickerson worked in the city's massive impromptu shelters -- Randle in the convention center and Nickerson in the Dome. They came home that night with even more ammo for their song, heartrending stories they had heard from the evacuees themselves.
Randle, who works by day as a financial adviser, asked the evacuees lots of questions. "I wanted to understand why people couldn't get out of the city. From the outside looking in, everybody would just say it was common sense for them to leave. But realistically a lot of people did not have the means. A lot of them said, 'I had to work; if I didn't work I wouldn't eat the next week, so I had to wait until the last possible moment. We left it up to our faith in the local, state and federal government to get us out.'
"This is the part that really gets me in a soft place. A lot of those people who were stranded in their homes -- they didn't have any media outlets. They didn't know what was goin' on. Every once in a while somebody would pass by in a boat and say, 'Okay, we're just making sure everybody's okay, we'll send somebody for you,' and then they wouldn't see anybody for another two or three days. So a lot of people were starting to feel abandoned."
And once they got to Houston, they started to get angry. They were mad at how they were portrayed in the media -- often, as idiots too feckless and/or lazy to leave New Orleans. And they were hideously furious at President Bush. "A lot of them didn't realize that Bush had done a flyover a few days before, and a lot of them were insulted by that," Randle says. "They would say, 'You know, I probably saw his damn plane fly overhead.' It's fine to get a photo op, but if you're looking down and seeing people stranded on their houses, something needs to be done immediately. That shit won't fly. And then the next thing they saw when he finally did touch down was him shaking hands and kissing babies, and again, they were taken aback. They were like, 'We're down here starving, and it's just blatantly obvious this guy's just trying to get a bunch of photo ops.' They saw him playing golf, they saw him with the guitar This is bullshit. With all that in mind, we decided it was time to do this song."
Three days after their day at the shelters, Randle returned from work at 6:15 to find a message on his answering machine from Nickerson. "I've got the song," it said. "Hit me back when you get home." Randle called Nickerson, Nickerson texted his verses over to him, Randle added a verse he rattled off in ten minutes, and by 6:30, their song "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People" was on the Net.
The tune, which is available for free downloading at www.k-otix.com, recycles the Ray Charles-inspired beat from the current Kanye West/Jamie Foxx hit "Gold Digger" and augments it with freestyle verses like "Five days in this attic / I can't use a cell phone I keep getting static / Dying 'cause they lying instead of telling us the truth / Screwed 'cause they say they're coming back for us, too / But that was three days ago and I don't see no rescue." (And the chorus? "George Bush don't like black people I ain't saying he a gold digga / but he ain't messin' with no broke niggas.") "Everything that we put into the song, we basically heard from the people in the shelters," Randle says.
As is the story with many hit songs, Randle and Nickerson didn't believe they had a smash on their hands once it was done. "We just posted it on the Net to a few of our friends who also make music as a kind of 'Look at what we did' kind of thing."
And those friends sent the tune to some bloggers, and it was Katy bar the door after that. "It just snowballed once it hit the blogs," Randle says. "Within 24 hours we were getting e-mails from people saying, 'Oh, your song is so great. I posted it on my blog, and that goes out to X number of people.' Matt Sonzala posted it and sent it to some industry contacts, and that catapulted things a lot."
Since then, it has been downloaded more than a million times. It has been called the most important freestyle ever written, and Tom Joyner played it on his syndicated morning show coast to coast. Several directors have spliced the song in with footage of Katrina's aftermath and made videos, and U.S. News and World Report's habitual harrumpher John Leo even felt compelled to imply that Randle and Nickerson were race baiters and to directly call them "opportunistic," which is a particularly odd charge, since the Legendary K.O. is not receiving a dime from the recording. (West's lawyers would have dropped the hammer on them if they'd tried, but they never did.) To my eyes, it's far more opportunistic to slur people who have actually worked in the relief effort in order to spin a disaster back in favor of the very people who bungled it, but that's a true believer for you.
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Back at the beginning of the year, if you had told me that Slim Thug, Paul Wall and Mike Jones would all perch near the top of the charts, I definitely would have believed you, but for the Legendary K.O. to have this kind of success -- even if it's not financial -- is really astounding. In a city where meaningful lyrics have dwindled from the heady early days of often political gangsta rap to near-nonexistence today, I wouldn't have believed that the Legendary K.O. would have a chance.
That they did it on the Internet DIY-style is no coincidence. The labels see these guys as non-factors, as Randle acknowledges. "Even if this were an, as I call it, non-seasonal year for Houston, I think this song would have had an impact," he says. "But this is pretty fortunate timing. I think it's good that we shed some more light on the Houston scene. Hopefully people will just pick up on the whole I don't like to call it conscious music, but 'middle-class music.' Our music reflects what we go through as middle-class citizens. We're not the prototypical rap group that everyone sees on MTV. And to be honest, as far as 'underground' goes, there are probably a lot more people in this country who mirror our ideals than those who talk about muddy rims, lean and so forth. Not to take anything away from them, but a whole musical ethos is largely ignored because I guess it's not as marketable, so to speak."
Former Nightfly columnist Brian McManus returns to his former hometown with his band the Fatal Flying Guilloteens on October 21. They will play at Walter's on Washington with DMBQ, the Life and Times and Sharks and Sailors 30footFALL's retirement didn't last very long. The band will play an October 21 benefit for sufferers of Angelman Syndrome at Fitzgerald's with Simpleton, Vatos Locos, Superfuzz, Hit by a Car and Under Stone.