What women dare do

Call hip-hop soul duo Slick & Rose any other name and they still sound street

Slick & Rose have changed.

Although you probably wouldn't notice any signs of a metamorphosis if you saw the Atlanta-based hip-hop soul duo walking down the street or shopping in a thrift store. But watching the slender, eclectically clad ladies at work in a recording studio, it's easy to see that they've made some drastic changes.

Peep the scene: Nikki "Slick" Ervin sits in front of a huge mixing board calmly scribbling lyrics on a yellow legal pad. As she writes, her partner, Sabrina "Rose" Harvey, belts out vocals in a booth to the left. Behind the mic, Harvey confidently sings various variations of the same vocal arrangement. She doesn't flinch when Ervin's voice pops in her headphones saying, "That don't sound right." After effortlessly spitting a dozen more variations, Harvey emerges from the booth and passes the mic to Ervin, who quickly throws down with her own freshly written stanzas.

A year or so ago, this process probably would not have popped off so smoothly.

"Before, it was a lot of being unsure and nervous," says the Bronx-born Harvey. "Now, I feel like we've become more professional in the studio and more ­­-- "

"Definitive," says Ervin, finishing her teammates thought. "We're still developing musically, but we're a lot stronger than we were before."

No, these aren't the same green singers who joined forces in 2000 and quickly found themselves whisked away on tour in Japan. They aren't the neophytes who recorded hooks on solo tracks for A Tribe Called Quest's Phife or the ones who scraped together a small stash of cash to record and release a critically lauded debut album, Objects in the Mirrors. Hell, they aren't even the same chicks who were surprised to learn they were named one of five "artists to watch" in 2005 by Billboard magazine.

"We kind of call it 'The Next Level of Slick & Rose,'" says Ervin.

The next level doesn't just represent a progression in how Slick & Rose make music; it also marks a growth in what their music sounds like. Currently at work on two new CDs, the duo's first project — a mix tape titled The Winter Spells — is due in January. It combines smooth harmonies with boom-bap-flavored beats provided by local hip-hop collective Vintage Imperial. Winter Spells — which they will sell through a handful of retail shops and bestow on some lucky folks for free in person — comes off like one small step away from the DJ Premier-meets-Zhane rhythms found on Objects.

"These are fresh new songs, different styles and a different approach. At the same time, [Winter Spells] is a cleansing of sorts," says Harvey. "We had a lot of old business creatively — old songs that we never finished, old concepts. We thought it would be good for us to get these songs out of our system."

While the tunes on Winter Spells only slightly differ from the group's earlier works, the second new CD in the pipeline — their still untitled, official, full-length sophomore album — promises to plunge Slick & Rose deep into uncharted musical territory whenever the unannounced release date finally arrives. A good chunk of the project is set to be produced by the man known only as Seven, who crafted the hit "Roses" for OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. The tracks he's recorded with S&R so far ring with an undeniable freshness laced with a rock-skewed but still funky sensibility.

With such a pervasive air of transformation lingering about, one has to wonder: What sparked Slick & Rose's current crop of changes? Part of the shift can be traced to a reorganization in the duo's business affairs. Almost two years ago, they parted ways with their original manager, Vonico "Don" Johnson, so he could focus on personal issues that needed his immediate attention, Ervin says. After managing themselves for six months, S&R once again gained outside management in the form of renowned DJ/producer Rasta Root. Rasta Root, who also manages Phife, has been affiliated with S&R since the group's inception, so the move into his new role was an organic one.

"He was already helping us out so much. A lot of the work we got in the past came directly through him," says Ervin. "He can maneuver in different ways than we can. And since he started managing us, we've been open to a lot more opportunities."

Another element that's helped to push the pair to the next level is simply time. When the ladies originally formed the duo, they, like many doe-eyed wannabe recording artists, thought that landing a major-label deal was the proverbial pot of gold. But, after spending time in the trenches — performing at shows, establishing relationships with retailers, securing radio play and coverage in the press — Slick & Rose admit that now they're in a better position to negotiate with the big boys.

"Although we didn't think so at the time, it's better this way," says Harvey. "Because when we sit down at a meeting now, I'm not telling you what I think as an artist about our music, I'm telling you what I know for a fact. I can back this up with CD sales, hits on the website and the people that come up to us on the street."

This better, stronger, faster version of Slick & Rose goes forward into a big, bad music industry with a new sense of self-confidence. "When it comes to Slick & Rose," says Harvey, "nobody knows better than Slick & Rose."