Tonight, January 18, 2011, is the video-release party for The Niceguys' "Toast." You likely do not know The Niceguys because you likely do not listen to underground Houston rap.
The Niceguys are a four-person group that started in 2007, while all of the members were enrolled at the University of Houston, and released their first LP, The Show, last September. The elements are simple: Two producers, the demure Free and showy Christolph; DJ Candlestick, who's thin enough and hot on the wax (or something); and one rapper, who's chosen to call himself Easy Yves Saint. The first three are from Texas, the last from New York.
In Houston: With Blu, J*Davey, John Dew, Mantis, Dough Beezy and Ro Spit, 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 15, at Groundhall, 1515 Pease, 832-377-8286 or www.groundhall.com. At SXSW: 8:50 p.m. Thursday, March 17, at the Scoot Inn, 1308 E. 4th St.
All four will be onstage in House of Blues' Bronze Peacock Room in a few minutes, and will give a performance that will later draw praise from everyone in attendance. Fans include but are not limited to Killa Kyleon, who opened for them as a favor, and Bun B, who will join them onstage and receive some boudin for his troubles.
Bun will perform a song, the crowd will go crazy and The Niceguys will silently view it as a cosign. The night will be a large success, and will help propel The Niceguys toward next week's SXSW showcase with Talib Kweli, Strong Arm Steady and Hieroglyphics Nottz, among others. But, again, that will all begin in a few minutes.
As it is, Yves Saint is sitting on the arm of a love seat in a lavishly decorated ancillary room in the venue. And he's perplexed.
The MC feels this way because he's just been asked a question that, in varying gradations, has made its way inside his ears before. It's not as prevalent as the "They only rap about clothes, so why should I be interested in them?" pseudo-analysis that's lazily (and erroneously) been thrown at The Niceguys since they began marketing their music online in 2009, but he's heard it before.
Here it is: Have The Niceguys, who have already received more acclaim from various high-trafficked music blogs than local veteran groups like H.I.S.D. or the G.R.I.T. Boys, prospered more from their deep-pocketed professional backing and packaging than from their actual music?
This has been a fundamental topic among Niceguys naysayers hoping to pick at the group's buzz.
The short answer is no. But Yves, the face of the group and the embodiment of its undeniable, occasionally irksome hyperbolized coolness, has probably never given the short answer to anything.
Say that he raps like he talks, or that he talks like he raps — either way, it means the same thing: His words will be fast, confident, calculated and, most of the time, complicated. Consider the second half of the first verse of "Not at All," a satiric diss track aimed at no one in particular but crafted to address those specific barbs:
"Oh, you can't feel a buster? Well, I'ma wait
it out; that's a filibuster.
And I'm spilling mustard.
To be frank, I relish the heat. Catch up.
Your dog only getting plumper.
I'm a Ball Park figure, spitting ball park
And I park balls and a Ball Park in a broad's
And Laurent not lyrical?"
Yves favors a letterman jacket with a large "Y" stitched on the front and an even larger "The Niceguys" logo stitched on the back. In seven or so days, he'll be standing in this same venue drinking warm tea out of a tiny teacup prior to a performance. It's always the long answer with Yves, and, by extension, the group.
"Let me ask you a question," asserts Yves, who is fond of answering questions with questions.
He leans forward some. His left elbow is on his left knee, because his left foot is resting on the cushion of the couch. His forehead is wrinkled up because his eyebrows are inching towards each other.
Free and Christolph are sitting on the couch as well, and not surprised by any of this.
"What backing do you think we have?"
It's a simple question asked in a complicated way, and serves two distinct, discernible purposes.
First, it implies the asker is kind of a twit for asking that question. If you've ever asked your wife something that she answered with, "How long have we been married?" you understand the subtext of this situation.
Second, it answers the question without answering it at all. All of the guys who are nice will do this in any conversation about their music, except maybe Free, who appears to offer his insight only when he feels it's vital.
The Niceguys are professional, but no more professionally funded or promoted than their songs are explicitly about clothes. The artwork, presentation, production and videos are managed in-house. Guest musicians on The Show — gritty and perpetually underutilized R&B singer Jack Freeman, angelic-voiced Leelonn and Nicholas Greer, brilliant front man for indie-rockers Mantis — are all locals.
If something does not feel right about a song or a video or a project of any sort, The Niceguys either fix it or make it disappear. The Show took more than a solid year to package together in a manner that pleased them all. There are no half-hearted steps. It is the traditional Houston rap hustle caked in modernity: Work, work, work; eat, eat, eat.
The type of backing that they possess is little more than the foursome's collective will and an understanding that lackluster efforts will produce lackluster results. That they appear so polished or ready-made for success is because they specifically work on appearing polished and ready-made for success.
"Not to take anything away from other rappers, but we put a lot of work into our music," Christolph says. "Have you ever had too much music from an artist? It sucks. We don't want to flood the market with our music, so we only put out what we really like."
Fact, their view of themselves is not above being fish-eyed — there is a song on The Show that's called "Cave" (pronounced cah-VEY) and they are not entirely avant-garde.
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Yves: "Sometimes we rap clichéd things because sometimes life is clichéd,"
But The Niceguys are more accurate and innovative than one might initially assume. And that's sort of the point.
In a few weeks, Free will stand in the middle of a crowd of people listening to another producer's beat and remark, "I used that same sample two years ago. And I did it better."
And then he will laugh and walk away. Belief in oneself is a prerequisite for even the nicest of The Niceguys.