Love it or hate it, the music-buying masses love the taste of D4L's 'Laffy Taffy'
When you hear it on the radio, D4L's "Laffy Taffy" sounds like a silly novelty record. Most of the explicit version's strip club references have been carefully edited out, leaving only the chorus — "Shake that laffy taffy/That laffy taffy" — to ring out over and over again. Meanwhile, the music is as bare as a Thelonious Monk piano solo, with producer K-Rab plunking down a simple keyboard fill. (Back in the day, they used to call beats like this "Casio beats." It wasn't a compliment.)
"Laffy Taffy" currently sits at No. 1 on the Billboard singles charts. D4L set a new sales record during the last week of 2005 when more than 175,000 digital downloads of the song sold, nearly twice what the previous record-holder, Kanye West, sold of his "Gold Digger" single. But if you're one of the millions of dissenters who can't stand "Laffy Taffy," you have to see D4L in concert to understand why it's so popular.
Last November at the Dirty Awards, a ceremony sponsored by Radio One celebrating Southern hip-hop, D4L took the stage for a short performance, causing most of the onlookers to excitedly jump out of their chairs. While Mook B., Stoney, and Shawty Lo rapped the words to "Laffy Taffy," Fabo danced and popped in what may have been the most thugged-out Michael Jackson impersonation in history.
It was an infectious scene. The audience — not the celebrities and industry cogs sitting at the banquet tables in a roped-off VIP section near the front of the stage, but the several hundred seated in the back of the room who had paid $40 to see their favorite urban music stars — swayed back in forth in a massive line dance. Some even tried to mimic Fabo's moves. D4L didn't win any awards that night, but the group served notice that its appeal may run deeper than a novelty hit.
D4L is from Bankhead, a working-class neighborhood in Atlanta pocked with large, sprawling apartment buildings. For the past several years, a music scene has fomented around the Poole Palace Café, a bar and nightclub on 2555 Donald Lee Holloway. There's even a single on the radio called "Do the Poole Palace" by K-Rab, who produced "Laffy Taffy," and his rap group BHI.
"Wednesday night is talent night [at the Poole Palace]. That's when you're going to see all the groups," says Fabo, who sits with Stoney during an interview at the offices of their management company, Dee Money Entertainment. Fabo, who hides his eyes underneath his now-trademark white sunglasses, sports a Dickies jacket and pants, brown Atlanta Braves cap and, weirdly, yellow and blue socks. More conservatively, Stoney wears a simple black T-shirt with his alias, "Stuntman," emblazoned on the front.
"If you can make it at Poole Palace, you can make it anywhere in the world. D4L is proof of that," says Fabo.
D4L has performed spot dates around the country for the past several months, and returned to town for a short holiday. "We just did Pittsburgh, and that was off the chain!" says Fabo. "Girls, girls, girls, girls, girls I do adore," he sings, laughing.
"I had to go to church on New Year's," says Stoney. "Last year around this time, we was struggling, trying to just hustle to get money, get Christmas presents and all that. But this year, we just laid back and played Santa Claus. Man, I felt good for that. Everybody got what they wanted for Christmas."
In person, Fabo and Stoney exemplify congenial and polite Southern hospitality. But they are also tattooed and street-hard, and allude to various stints in prison. Both have been on the Bankhead scene for years. Unfortunately, like so many rap acts, they're somewhat vague on dates and facts, so nailing down the exact year when D4L formed (which seems to be 2001) proves difficult. They focus more on the present and future than the past.
"We were cats who were just fed up with the neighborhood, and wanted to do something positive and different," says Fabo. "We started putting everything we felt like doing — all the aggression, anger — on tracks instead of using the gun or selling dope or whatever to do it."
The phrase "snap music" describes how the music sounds: It's percussive, as if you are rhythmically snapping your fingers together. Then there is the snap dance. "We call it 'doin' it,'" says Fabo. "It don't look like a dance. You're just shakin' and you're poppin'." It's the way you move your body to the music, he emphasizes, as if you have the Holy Ghost in you.
With "White Tee" in 2004, Dem Franchize Boyz became the first Bankhead group to land a snap music single on the R&B charts. "Laffy Taffy" conquered the pop charts a year later. Since then, other Bankhead acts have emerged. There's Ben Hill Squad (whose "Do Your Dance" is currently climbing the charts), Trap Squad (whose "What's Happenin'" made some noise last year), BRC/Baker Road Click (who have an underground hit called "Blockhead"). And countless others wait on the sidelines.
"It's kind of funny how it just blew up," says Johnnie Cabbell, who co-manages D4L with Dee Money, of the Bankhead scene. He also represents Crime Mob, Trap Squad, and Ben Hill Squad. "All of these artists were together and doing stuff together. That's why a lot of their music sounds alike. K-Rab did tracks for all the groups. DJ Buck, who is in Trap Squad, produced [Dem Franchize Boyz's] 'Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It.' He did 'White Tee.'"
Cabbell adds that snap music offers a refreshing change of pace, and is more dance-oriented and less violent than crunk. "People get tired of hearing killing and beating somebody down. The females like something they can dance to. ... It's fun. It doesn't really have a lot of violence in it." Even Lil Jon, the self-proclaimed king of crunk, released a new single called "Snap Your Fingers."
D4L first released Down For Life itself in the summer of 2004. Its local success, thanks to the single "Betcha Can't Do It Like Me," snared the group a deal with Asylum Records, a division of WEA International. The label issued a new version of Down For Life, including the new track "Laffy Taffy," last November. Now, it's re-releasing "Betcha Can't Do It Like Me" for a national audience.
D4L's success has made the group both stars and a target, not only by people who hate on "Laffy Taffy," but also Dem Franchize Boyz, whose 2004 single "White Tee" is widely considered to be the first mainstream snap music hit. In a November 2005 issue, a writer for XXL magazine reported that Mook B. claimed he wrote "White Tee." "I was the one takin' care of them, buying shoes, hotel rooms, until they got a deal," the writer quoted Mook B. as saying.
Then, during the Dirty Awards, Dem Franchize Boyz's set descended into chaos when the backing track for "White Tee" sped up abruptly, causing the group to rap off cue. After the show, the group publicly accused D4L of sabotage.
When asked for his thoughts about Mook B.'s XXL comments, Buddy of Dem Franchize Boyz said, "They were trying to do a little publicity stunt for their album. But it didn't work, 'cause we didn't respond to it. Like I said, fuck them niggas."
In recent weeks, however, Mook B. has amended his statements, too, claiming that he recorded "White Tee" at his studio, but didn't write it. During the interview, Stoney echoes that, saying, "Mook B. just recorded the vocals onto the [studio] computer. [Dem Franchize Boyz] was down with us."
"This is how it is every day, just between me and you," says Fabo. He lifts up his shirt, revealing a bulletproof vest. He then digs into his pants and pulls out a .22 caliber pistol, then slams it on the table. "We grown men," he says. "They're little boys to us, because we were in school before them. So when they came to our camp, we showed them our love. We still like their music. We wished they liked our music, too."
"A person always wants you to mess up. But we ain't going to blow this for nobody," adds Stoney. "Franchize, they cool with us. I don't care what they say bad about us. Let it be."
Only time will tell if D4L is a true star or one-hit wonder. One thing is for certain: The group's snap music sound is radically different than anything that has hit the pop charts in years. "You can't really call it hip-hop," says Fabo. "We're entertainers."