Around the Fifth Ward they call it the circle. It's not a gang or a posse. It's not some hoodoo religion, empowerment philosophy or activist movement. The circle is love -- tough love, at times. It's a refuge from the realities of the street, and yet it's all those realities spun into one loose web of support.
"[It's] about helping others -- staying down with your own," says honorary circle member Andre Barnes, a.k.a. 007. "It's not like no gang with killin' and none of that; it's a group of people who just show love for each other."
With his heavyset frame, close-shaven dome and gruff ghetto dialect, 007 makes for an unlikely advocate of peace and understanding. But he tries to do his part for brotherhood as the most outspoken third of the streetwise hard-core rap trio the 5th Ward Boyz, one of the newer additions to Houston's Rap-A-Lot Records empire.
While the Boyz will admit to being an integral link in the Fifth Ward circle, don't expect them to try to take credit for running it. At 400 strong, the circle is too widespread for any definitive leadership -- though the Boyz, with their national audience, do give it a certain hip-hop credibility. But maybe more important, the 5th Ward Boyz give the circle some positive role models.
"We've got little kids looking up to us," says Richard Nash, a.k.a. Lo-Life, lounging with Eric Taylor, a.k.a. E-Rock, and 007 in the tiny back room of the Boyz's unofficial Fifth Ward headquarters, Jammin' Records on Lyons Avenue. "I like the glamour and shit, but I also like to sit and talk to [the kids]."
One thing the 5th Ward Boyz have little problem taking credit for is their brutal honesty and the success it has brought them. With little attention from radio or MTV, the 5th Ward Boyz have topped more than a quarter of a million in sales in four years. Most of that, they say, has come through live promotion and word-of-mouth buzz on the streets. On their latest full-length release, Rated "G", the Boyz once again have little problem calling things as they see them -- in often blunt, profane detail -- while offering a glimmer of hope among the ruins. It's a message that, while universal, is also sprinkled with plenty of hometown references. "We're tryin' to paint a picture," 007 says. "Whether it's in the Houston hood or whatever, it's the same thing but in a different environment."
The 5th Ward Boyz may be role models to some, but they're far from saints. All three freely admit to varying levels of mischief over the years -- sampling life at both ends of the spectrum, if you will -- and they make no excuses for their mistakes, or for their fondness for marijuana. In fact, it was a year-plus jail sentence that kept Lo-Life from his duties on Ghetto Dope, the Boyz's 1993 Rap-A-Lot debut. Talking at Jammin' Records, Lo-Life points to a publicity poster made during that period. In the photo, a rottweiler in a studded collar sits in Lo-Life's place. "That's me," he says with an embarrassed chuckle.
At first, Lo-Life tries to brush off his prison time with jokes. "I was in for delivery -- [I was] a mailman," he says, as the others erupt in laughter. But when asked for more detail, Lo-Life confesses that he served time for cocaine possession (in his words, "that white snow"), and points out that life behind bars is no joke. His misery, and the misery of other friends doing time, inspired Rated "G"'s "Concrete Hell," a wrenching first-person account of prison life humanized by 007's touching plea, "Send some pictures / You know a nigga miss you."
Though its themes are often depressingly downbeat, Rated "G" still has an uplifting quality to it. It's less abrasive and more musical than Ghetto Dope, with an inherent catchiness that could be interpreted as a sellout -- or a necessary step in the Boyz's growth as rappers and songwriters. The CD was recorded in Houston -- much of it at a mysterious locale dubbed the "hippie house." And aside from collaborations with the Geto Boys and a few hip-hop and R&B semi-notables, Rated "G" is hardly a star-studded, big-budget affair. Musical backing ranges from the reclined comfort of simmering funk, soul and R&B grooves to aggressive, Public Enemy-inspired sensory assaults.
Unlike on the 5th Ward Boyz's debut and their EP Gangsta Funk, sampling on Rated "G" is kept to a minimum, with the exception of the first single, "One Night Stand," which cops a chunk of the Bar-Kays' "Hit and Run" for its hook. Replacing the borrowed bits are live instrumentation (much of it played by producer/collaborator Mike Dean) -- a welcome trend in hip-hop these days -- and original, if mildly repetitive, melodies. The CD's most memorable track is "Situations," a philosophical reflection on fate that effectively brackets spoken verse with the calming vocals of Virginia, a Houston R&B up-and-comer. The group just finished shooting a video for the tune, which will follow up "One Night Stand" as Rated "G"'s next single.
"We were looking for a song for the radio," says Lo-Life, frank about the group's desire for a hit, "something with a positive message."
Still, little on Rated "G" is overtly radio-friendly. The rapping is unforgiving in its descriptions of ghetto life and blunt in its calls to action. But instead of eye-for-an-eye vengeance, the Boyz plead for tolerance, wrenching the songs from their depressing environments (prison cells, the site of the Oklahoma bombing, the bloodied streets and litter-strewn crack houses of the Fifth Ward) and attempting to overwhelm reality with intensely humanistic idealism. The wordplay varies in speed -- from a sedate low-key mumble to the rapid, slip-tongue delivery of "Death is Calling."
The 5th Ward Boyz tout Rated "G" as their most true-to-life portrayal of the ghetto lifestyle to date, its stories touching directly on the experiences of the group's members -- good and bad -- and their differing outlooks on what it takes to survive on the streets.
"You get three different aspects of things," says 007, referring to the picture of the sweat-drenched trio on the CD's cover. "You got one person who's always lookin' [over his shoulder]; you got another who's always stressed out; and you got one guy who's just livin' life and chillin'. There's a lot of positive things in the ghetto, and there's also a lot of negative things that are made to be positive."
All graduates of Wheatley High School ("We always like to point out that we did graduate," Lo-Life says), the Fifth Ward Boyz had their fill of the negative early on, turning to rap and hip-hop as a way to make some money and stay alive. Now in their early twenties, each began with his heart set on a solo career. But when all their roads reached a dead end in 1992, mutual friend Dewey Forker, now the group's manager, convinced them to try rapping as a trio.
"At first, we really weren't together," Lo-Life explains. "We were just trying to get a record deal together."
But as time went on, Lo-Life adds, "some decisions were made" and the group's personality slowly began to gel. With Forker's help, the 5th Ward Boyz got in the door at Rap-A-Lot, and they've been label favorites ever since. "It took a lot of brain power and a lot of heads coming together to come up with what we did," 007 says.
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While 007 helps produce the band's CDs and does most of the talking in interviews, the 5th Ward Boyz maintain they're a democracy. All three are prolific writers, so they share songwriting credits. That egalitarian vibe spills over into the rapping, which is divided more or less equally among the members, who often trade verses a couple of times in a single track.
As for the 5th Ward Boyz's immediate future, more touring is a distinct possibility. The group recently finished up a small string of dates around the South and isn't ruling out more traveling in the coming months, especially if "Situations" catches fire on the rap charts. As for their impact on the future of hip-hop in the Fifth Ward, the Boyz have assembled their own production company, Swing Wide, to help younger acts get their careers together. The Boyz plan to pitch one of those acts, a still-unnamed female group, to Rap-A-Lot for its new R&B label, Sing-A-Lot.
"We don't just go around killing each other out here," says 007. "Why kill each other when we can get together and do something constructive?"
But don't expect all that positive energy to soften the 5th Ward Boyz's gangsta stance. "We have explicit lyrics, and we're always gonna tell the real story," 007 adds. "We can't sugarcoat it. This is how it is.