Brown Suga Suga

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."

For a long time, Bash was making those songs for Dope House Records, South Park Mexican's label. SPM, who is now serving out a 45-year sentence for sexual assault, met Bash at a tour stop in New Mexico, where he persuaded the Northern California native to move to Houston. When Universal came calling, that association officially came to an end, but Bash still has some love for the Second Ward label.

"Yeah yeah yeah, I still rep Dope House, that's my family, know what I'm sayin'?" he says. "I'm still trying to hold everything together for them, you know. I've got all the Dope House family on my album. Basically Dope House still has all the talent as far as Latin rap goes. Dope House still carries the weight. Even if Carlos ain't here or not."

Some speculated that Bash would return to California after SPM was sent to Huntsville. Bash wasn't one of those people. "I'm an H-town representative from now on," he says. "I love the people here, I love the atmosphere. They embraced me as one of theirs here, so I love 'em. The weather sucks, but I love the down South hospitality and the restaurants."

Bash ranks Ninfa's, Kingfish Market and a few steak houses as his favorites, and he has a somewhat unusual method of choosing where to eat on a given night. "Depending on what kind of herb I smoke, I crave different stuff," he says, laughing.

Sounds like the plot to a Cheech and Chong flick. As it turns out, he could be one half of a new version of the venerable pot-smoking comedy team, because Bash and Chingo Bling are now making movies. "Me and Chingo have a DVD movie coming out called The Adventures of Chingo and Bash," Bash reveals. Bet it won't be much like Tango & Cash, or Lilo & Stitch…"We went out to Vegas, California, Arizona, every city in Texas. Chingo's a real funny guy, so we got some comical shit in there. I'm kind of a funny guy too, but more of a straight funny guy, you know?"

And so the multimedia empire begins. But whether you see him at one of his concerts or at a premiere, don't expect him to sign his name on your stuff. "After shows, I want to meet all the fans and shake their hands," he says. "I don't understand why people trip on autographs, though. I don't get autographs -- what do people want my name on a piece of paper for? What the hell is that, what the fuck is that? I'd rather shake their hand and say hello!"