It's one thing for Cypress Hill's B-Real to rap "A to the muthafuckin' K, homeboy," but put the same phrase in the mouth of a child and it complicates matters. Is it cool for a kid to compose rhymes about "sippin' 40's" when he/she is still a good five years shy of legal age? Not that law-abiding citizenship is heavily endorsed on most hip-hop records. But even given that concession, it's still striking, at least initially, to hear artists like Houston's Cedric White, a.k.a. 2-Low, discussing such themes with ease and command -- at age 14.
In the mid- and late '80s, Run DMC's success spawned the first wave of major-label commercialization in rap music. Some of the hottest properties to walk through the newly opened mainstream door were the ultra-danceable beats and cute MTV-ready mugs of Will "Fresh Prince" Smith, Kriss Kross and ABC. But while the lyrics of the Fresh Prince's runaway hit "Parents Just Don't Understand" might seem mildly subversive, they're mere ear candy compared with the hardcore vernacular of 2-Low and his peers. The Fresh Prince might have crossed mom and dad when he took their car out for a spin, but the mere presence of parents puts the Fresh Prince in a world of comfort rarely reflected in the new hardcore kid rap.
In 1994, 2-Low is joined in the effort to "hardcorize" juvenile rhyming by such performers as the Wascals on the West Coast, Shyheim on Staten Island, and Malik and Jamal of Atlanta group Illegal -- all of whom display verbal skills and subject matters far beyond the reach of their forerunners. In February, 2-Low, the youngest representative of the H-Town sound, released his first Rap-A-Lot record, Funky Li'l Brotha. During the recording of the album, 2-Low was 13. He had, until that time, been leading a rather adventurous life for a man of his or any age.
The highly energetic 2-Low has oscillated between legitimate and illicit outlets as a kid who, on the one hand, was an all-state running back last year, but who in the opinion of his parents and others has teetered on the tightrope in an often precarious urban environment. In regard to his background and nascent career, 2-Low has expressed a combination of excitement, relief and appreciation that he hasn't been alone through the rapid changes of the last few years. "You couldn't tell me nothin' a couple of years ago," the artist says of his increasing maturity. "But 'Face made me realize that I was doing some things that weren't going to last too long."
"'Face" is how close friends often refer to Mr. Scarface, the most compelling and commercially successful rapper to emerge from the Houston scene. At a crucial point in 2-Low's young life, a family friend introduced him to Scarface, who had been informed that 2-Low was potentially on the edge. As the folklore goes, Scarface handed 2-Low a $100 bill and told him to buy some juice from the store and return with change and a receipt. 2-Low returned with the requested item, plus a 40-ounce malt liquor he had picked up for himself. The incident escalated Scarface's concern, and his interest, in the teenager.
With a friendship that is in many ways similar to the mentor relationships between the Wascals and The Pharcyde, 2-Low and Scarface are close both personally and professionally. If Scarface isn't producing a track for 2-Low, he's likely discussing with him the realities not just of growing up, but of maturing in an unconventional and accelerated fashion.
The day-to-day realities of 2-Low's life in Hiram-Clarke provided plenty of interference with academics, long before a record contract entered the picture. Unlike many kid rappers, who use tutors, 2-Low attends public high school. He tours on weekends and writes and produces in the time left over.
It wasn't just the sight of Kriss Kross kicking a Sprite commercial that inspired these underage artists to pursue rapping careers. It was the simple fact that they'd been immersed in this style of expression since the time they began speaking. "I'm makin' it clear that I ain't no Mack Daddy or Daddy Mack," Shyheim insists, convincingly, in regard to his popular predecessors, Kriss Kross.
"Older guys get set in their ways," says Kevin Wales of Rowdy Records, home of Illegal. "Kids aren't necessarily set. They listen more and can make more things happen."
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Youthful creativity isn't the only reason for the proliferation of major-label record deals with high school-age kids around the country. "Ever since Kriss Kross," says Shaw, manager for the Wascals, "labels have been looking to sign kid groups to sell to kids. They see a future in young acts -- the audience will follow them longer."
But the new hardcore kid groups aim to succeed beyond the gimmick of their youth. "We be slayin' grown men on the mic," explains Buckwheat of the Wascals, even if the group's concept, taken from the Little Rascals mythology, may make it difficult for listeners to separate them from their "kidness." These kids are interested in the serious nature of their art form, and in its function as an alternative to the paths they've watched others in their neighborhoods travel. "2-Low is mature for his age. He's serious at 14," says Akwanza Gleaves, Rap-A-Lot's national director of publicity. "He's a practical joker, with a little attitude, but he never has to be crazy because he's looked out for. A year ago, 2-Low was a very quiet observer. It's good to see him having an opportunity to be a kid, and it's good for him to be around diverse, real people. It's cool to see him laughing."
Like most at Rap-A-Lot, Scarface and Gleaves express mixed excitement and concern about 2-Low. As they grow up, 2-Low, Shyheim, the Wascals and Illegal are learning the craft and the business of their trade. And although a lot of hardcore hip-hop fans still hesitate to take the new breed of kid rappers seriously, the kids have time on their side, time to make real what many in the industry speculate is the future of hip-hop: artists developing into producers, distributors and owners of the music. And in rap -- which is, like early rock and roll, still surrounded by an air of faddishness -- that's a real career pursuit in an environment that offers few.
2-Low is at the head of a pack of underage rappers tapping insistently at their elders' musical door.