The long road to 40 Akerz
On their way down, Nappy Roots found new inspiration in a producer on the come-up
Her name is Sheila. She's a Ford E-350 series Super Duty van purchased for the sole purpose of touring. It's 12:31 a.m. on a Thursday, and Sheila's passengers are filling into her cramped confines. Outside, William "Skinny DeVille" Hughes is examining Sheila's rear, where duffle bags, audio equipment, and other assorted luggage are sandwiched into the world's smallest road trip storage space. Inside, Melvin "Fish Scales" Adams is mentally prepping himself for driving the first leg of a 15-hour trek from Atlanta to Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest. Sound guy Marvin "Rello" Terrell sits in the first row and, in the backseat, producer Blake "808 Blake" German's on the phone trying to get an ETA on the crew's one straggler, tour manager Ali Kareem.
"I told him I was leaving the house at 11, he must've thought I meant 12," Skinny DeVille says.
"Well, he doesn't take your word for much," 808 Blake says. "Y'all have definitely not showed up on time before, so I'm sure he tried to gauge it like that."
The van floor is littered with empty drink and fast-food containers. Wires run under the seats in every direction. The side panels are stuffed with crushed Dutch Masters packets, weed pipes that look like they haven't been smoked in years, and old hotel key cards. Kareem arrives around 1:15 a.m., and Sheila's engine gets going. There's a shake, rattle, and bumpiness to her ride as she hits the road for another tour — one of about 80 over the course of the last year for Fish Scales and Skinny DeVille, one half of Nappy Roots, aka 40 Akerz.
On May 5, the two MCs and 808 Blake will release their self-titled debut, The 40 Akerz Project, though it's technically the sixth album in Nappy Roots' discography. Past Nappy Roots releases featured multiple personalities rapping country boy charms over acoustic-backed melodies and hooks. Partnering with 808 Blake, a producer known for fusing elements of Southern bounce, dance music, and hardcore hip-hop, on this latest offering is as ambitious as it is risky. 808 Blake, one of the creative minds behind SMKA Productions, is almost a full decade younger than his collaborators, who are approaching their 40s. Skinny DeVille and Fish Scales first heard of 808 Blake's production when Aleon Craft performed his raucous nightlife jam "Donkey Kong" while opening for the group in Athens, Ga., a few years back. They were determined to find the guy behind the beat.
On paper, it reads like a couple of old guys trying to tap into young talent to make themselves appear hip, relevant to today's listeners with their short attention spans. Some might call it selling out. Others may call it a leap of faith.
The current tour will take 40 Akerz from Atlanta to Austin to Louisville and back for four shows in three nights, only one of which will be paid. In the van, we start off listening to and debating Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly and Drake's If You're Reading This It's Too Late.
"If you don't like it, it's because you're not deep enough," Kareem says to 808 Blake of Lamar's record. "You just don't like talking about race, that's why. He's on some Andre 3000 shit."
"Yeah, without any jams on here," 808 Blake says. "Well, there's a couple of jams. 'Alright' is the most riding-ass song on that shit. That's the highlight of the album to me."
Skinny DeVille interjects, agreeing about the talents of Lamar and Drake, as well as J. Cole. But being that he's the elder statesman in the debate, his perspective is a bit more studied than his younger co-passengers.
"With Dr. Dre and Nas and shit like that, you can damn-near rap verses line for line," he says. "This shit coming out now — there's so many fucking words and shit you can't remember it all. You can't sing along with the motherfuckers even if you like to hear it."
After the back and forth subsides, we switch to Neil deGrasse Tyson podcasts. At 4:32 a.m., Fish Scales needs a break after veering off the road a few times. He pulls into a McDonald's. Rello takes over the driving duties. Fish Scales, Skinny DeVille, and 808 Blake decide to finalize the set list for their first show in Austin.
It might seem odd to handle business in a parking lot during the wee hours of the morning, but it's here, on the road, where the two Grammy-nominated musicians and their relatively unknown producer have found the inspiration for most of the material on The 40 Akerz Project. In the last two years, the three have spent 18 months touring and then taking their experiences, wild stories, and biggest doubts with them into the studio. They've met almost every Tuesday at different studios in Atlanta with a six-pack of Red Stripe, a fifth of New Amsterdam Vodka, and enough weed to get them through marathon recording sessions.
In 1995, a year after OutKast released Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, and the same one in which Tupac Shakur dropped his career-changing Me Against the World, the original Nappy Roots sextet was formed at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. Kentucky natives Skinny DeVille, Ron "Clutch" Wilson, Brian "B. Stille" Scott, and Vito "Big V" Tisdale linked up with Oakland, Calif., native Kenneth "R. Prophet" Ryan, and the Milledgeville-born Fish Scales, who was attending the school on a full basketball scholarship. With mutual interests in rap music and partying, the six college kids came together as Nappy Roots. They found their inspiration in Wu-Tang Clan's 1997 classic Wu-Tang Forever.
"Wu-Tang Forever, shit that gave us the vision," Fish Scales says. "It was like damn, these dudes got about eight to nine rappers ... they're all characters. Who doesn't want that? I wanted to be Inspectah Deck!"
Nappy Roots released its first album, Country Fried Cess, in 1998. The album's buzz caught the attention of Atlantic Records and its executive vice president of A&R at the time, Mike Caren. For four years the group sat in a label holding pen, with Caren repeatedly sending them back to the musical drawing board until he heard something Atlantic was ready to invest in.
"We hung out with T.I. and Jim Crow," Skinny DeVille says. "A lot of people came through Patchwerk Studios when it was just one room. Motherfuckers was sharing pizzas and struggling and really trying to make something happen back in the early 2000s."
Up-and-coming producer James "Groove" Chambers moved to Atlanta from Kansas City in 1999. He was introduced to Nappy Roots' manager in a Sprint store. Three weeks later he met the group and, being a kid from the Midwest with no coastal rap allegiances, he was hooked.
"It was six dudes at the time, and everybody was bodying every verse," the multi-platinum producer says. "These dudes have the country accents, but the verses? These dudes have balls! The biggest thing to me was that they sounded like characters. All the best rappers have always been characters, whether it was Method Man, Redman, or Busta Rhymes. It's kind of crazy in a good way."
Each Nappy Roots MC added a different voice and perspective: Big V was the booming bass. B. Stille, the black cowboy. Ron Clutch was the philosopher; R. Prophet, the oddball; Fish Scales, the charismatic big fella; and Skinny DeVille, the best rapper ever to come out of Kentucky, according to the group's remaining members.
Chambers and Nappy Roots worked on what would become the group's major-label debut and highest-selling album, 2002's Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz. Armed with the hit singles "Awnaw," "Po' Folks" featuring Anthony Hamilton, and "Headz Up," the 21-track debut was the year's most commercially successful rap group release.
"If you were into Goodie Mob and OutKast, that organic kind of hip-hop, you'd be like, 'OK, I like this too,'" Chambers says.
In post-9/11 America, rap music was defined by the Eminem Show, Nelly's catchy singles, and Ja Rule's rapper-meets-R&B-diva formula. Songs were either dead serious, or just too damn goofy.
"The world changed, and I think audiences were ready to hear our message at that point in time," B. Stille says. "Tragedy set Nappy Roots' music in motion because ears were ready to listen to the type of music we were talking about."
When the organ kicked off "Awnaw" and Fish Scales started rapping — "My first song was like 48 bars with no hooks/you hear me flippin' through the pages of my favorite notebook/the microphone was in the closet/no head phones, we lost it/Niggas scared to get some water, roaches hangin' over the faucet" — Nappy Roots accomplished something many of its contemporaries didn't: being relatable. The group didn't glorify success or violence. It was about having fun, and making do with what you have.
"Everybody was talking about money and diamonds and shit like that," Ron Clutch says. "We were talking about splitting six packs of beer and the struggle. It wasn't cute, wasn't fancy, but it was the truth."
Writing for Rolling Stone at the time, current New York Times music writer Jon Caramanica hailed the group for taking Arrested Development's "humble South" approach one step further. Nappy Roots spoke about the black experience through the lens of whiskey-guzzling, Backwoods-smoking MCs, who seemed more comfortable talking shit on front porches than in the club's VIP section.
On the single "Po' Folks," each rapper shared tales of being humbled by life's financial pressures, but not being defined by them. Hamilton's hook sums it up: "All my life been poor, but it really don't matter no more/and they wonder why we act this way/Nappy Roots gon' be OK." The song earned the group a Grammy nomination for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. (The award would go to Beyoncé and Jay-Z for "Crazy in Love.")
Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz was a multi-platinum success, making stars out of the boys from Bowling Green, as well Chambers. The album has also been credited with being the mainstream world's introduction to Grammy-winning R&B singer to be Hamilton.
A year after its release, Atlantic Records wanted to piggyback on the success of Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz. Nappy Roots' second major label album, Wooden Leather was released in August 2003. Nappy Roots had a new deal in place, thanks in part to their first lawyer, Kasim Reed, Atlanta's future mayor.
Upon reviewing the group's first contract with Atlantic Records, Reed, whom the group lovingly refers to as "one slick motherfucker," was appalled.
"He said, 'This might be the worst deal I've ever seen,'" Skinny DeVille remembers. "I said I know but is there anything in there we can pull from that makes sense? He said something about elephants and peanuts, and they wouldn't eat the peanuts. I didn't get the shit, but I didn't want to hear it so I probably wasn't listening." Nappy Roots did pick up on one bit of advice from the future politician.
"He was like, 'Hey, you can bitch about these percentages all you want, but a percentage of something is better than a percentage of nothing,'" Skinny DeVille says. "I carry that with me to this day."
On Wooden Leather, industry politics and a $2 million deal phased Chambers out of the production picture; in came Kanye West, Lil Jon, David Banner, and Raphael Saadiq. The group recorded the album in L.A., ate like kings, and got too comfortable, Skinny DeVille says. The album went gold and was critically well received. It was the last project Nappy Roots made as a full group.
We arrive in Austin around 3 p.m. on Thursday. 40 Akerz has a show that night at the Blind Pig, a venue Nappy Roots has played the last six years during SXSW. Gone are the posh hotel suites provided to major-label acts. Instead, the six of us are staying at a Hampton Inn 15 miles outside downtown Austin.
As 40 Akerz, Skinny DeVille and Fish Scales are more honest than they've ever been on any Nappy Roots record, and that's saying a lot. If there's anyone who has consistently played the role of Nappy Roots realist, both inside and outside the studio, it's Skinny DeVille. Almost a foot shorter than his partner-in-rhyme, the 5-foot-9-inch Skinny DeVille rocks his hair in a small blowout he keeps hidden under knit beanies and Kangol bucket hats. He's a married father of three and has an encyclopedic knowledge of music and weed. Though the group has an actual manager, it's Skinny DeVille who's kept the Nappy Roots train running the past 20 years. On tour, hotel rooms are booked under his name, the gas card stays in his pocket, and it's usually Skinny DeVille who's the first to tell someone, "No." Fish Scales — "Scales," as he's often called — has a power forward's physique, speaks in a slow South Georgia drawl, and is always ready to pour up a shot of vodka, pop a molly, and roll a joint.
A week after the road trip, Skinny DeVille, Fish Scales, and 808 Blake are prepping for a pre-recording ritual at Castle Hill Studios in Castleberry Hill. The countdown has officially begun on the release of the new album, but there's still some mixing and mastering to be done. Skinny DeVille lines up three vodka shots, cracks open a Red Stripe, and proceeds to spark the first of several blunts smoked over the course of the session. The discussion eventually turns to the name and theme behind 40 Akerz.
"To me, after traveling with them and being with them for a year, 40 Akerz is the black man's American Dream," 808 Blake says. "I think as a black man in America 40 Akerz to us is having that American Dream, having that little piece of pie and being able to kick it with whoever you want ... do whatever you want to do, find what you love, and follow your passions and work hard."
After the success of Wooden Leather, and seemingly reaching its career zenith, harsh realities set in for Nappy Roots.
"Fame is a motherfucker, man, and that's the trap most artists get caught up in," Skinny DeVille says. "You like people calling your name and knowing your name ... Everybody knows who you are because of something you've done, or didn't do."
What Nappy Roots didn't do was put out an album from 2004 to 2007, but they did start their own label, Nappy Roots Entertainment Group. Between 2008 and 2012, the group released three albums, including Nappy Dot Org, a project with legendary production collective Organized Noize of the Dungeon Family. A solid, 11-track collaboration, the album was released without much fanfare, with the exception of the singles "Congratulations" and "Hey Love" getting some Internet buzz.
One of Nappy Dot Org's production minds, Ray Murray, whom Dungeon Family's members refer to as "Yoda" for his extensive musical and creative wisdom, remembers a group trying to figure itself out.
"I think that they as a group were in a transition at the time; trying to determine where they were going, who they were going to be, and how they were going to be," he says.
Skinny DeVille and Fish Scales now seem to have found a musical spirit guide in 808 Blake.
"We learned from Groove Chambers — find one person who's hungry," Skinny DeVille says. "Groove changed our lives and made a lot of shit different for us on Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz, whereas if we fucked with everybody we'd have been too scatterbrained, with no focus."
40 Akerz's lanky, outspoken producer made a name for himself producing singles and mixtapes for artists such as Aleon Craft and Jarren Benton. The 40 Akerz Project shows the Decatur native, who grew up listening to Nappy Roots, taking risks as a producer. Skinny DeVille jokes that "he was on the way up, and we were slowly but surely parachuting our way down."
Working with longtime Nappy Roots engineer Joel "Hop" Hopper allowed 808 Blake to experiment with electronic music without making records that seemed forced or out of place (hello, The Pursuit of Nappyness). Together, 808 Blake and Hop worked on "Party for the Ages" and on the latest single "Doesn't Matter," which features Micah Freeman of Awful Records and WERC Crew doing some crooning over a track that goes from R&B to straight-up dance in less than five minutes. It's also the album's closer. Typically, 808 Blake runs his song ideas by Fish Scales first, and then the two men present the concepts to Skinny DeVille.
"One thing we all understand is Southern music and bass," 808 Blake says. "As long as I got some good drums and a melody they can kick with then we're usually on the same page."
At the Blind Pig in Austin, 40 Akerz performs in front of a few hundred people on the venue's rooftop. They run through a string of Nappy Roots hits before transitioning into singles from The 40 Akerz Project. The crowd throbs, fists pumping as the house-music conclusion to "Doesn't Matter" blares over the club's speakers. If there was concern about two guys approaching middle age rapping over soundscapes more in tune with the parties of today's twentysomethings, it's not evident during this set.
Skinny and Fish Scales work the stage like the pros they are. 808 Blake, who also works as the tour DJ, ad-libs along. He might be the most energetic person in the entire building, jumping, screaming, and adding a youthful spark to the show. Fish Scales offers his American flag scarf to a young woman in the crowd. Everyone's sweating and clamoring to get closer to the two stars. It's 2003 all over again.
After the show, things get heated. Earlier that day, we'd been greeted at the hotel by what can only be referred to as Band Moms: three longtime fans waiting with snacks and booze. One of the band moms got so wasted pre-gaming that she had to be carried to and from the venue. At one point she grabs Skinny DeVille by his backpack, almost pulling his small frame to the ground with one drunken tug.
"Did this motherfucker just grab me?! You don't ever do that shit!"
Her antics cause some of the group's younger fans to leave, which pisses everyone else off.
"Man, your drunken fucking friends ruined the end of the night for everyone," 808 Blake says to Skinny DeVille.
"Really?! Really, Blake?! What the fuck do these chicks have to do with what's going on with you," he yells.
"Man, fuck you! Nobody told you to call those chicks," 808 Blake says.
It seems almost certain that a punch will be thrown.
"Man, those motherfuckers hit us up, and I'm not thinking about them. I only give a fuck about five things: my family, my friends, this music, my money, and my rims!"
Everyone pauses and then bursts into laughter about Skinny DeVille's rims being that important to him.
"We fight like brothers every tour. The music wouldn't be this good if we didn't," Skinny DeVille says.
There are also teaching moments on the road. Skinny DeVille and Scales often use their experiences to educate their younger, more brash producer. A couple of days later while driving around Louisville en route to Skinny DeVille's parents' house for a barbecue, he talks about the time he went broke trying to open a studio in his hometown.
"We were on our way to a show and my wife calls me and says the sheriff showed up, we've got a day to get out, and that was the next day," Skinny DeVille says.
808 Blake leans forward in his seat behind Skinny DeVille, who's looking out of the front passenger-side window as he speaks. 808 Blake watches Skinny DeVille, listening carefully to every word. It's clear he values these kinds of moments just as much as he does working in the studio.
"My wife went and got the U-Haul, pulled it up, and we all just moved out the fucking house. I moved everything I could into three or four storage units. They had my fucking Cane Corso around the neck with a fucking noose. That was probably the lowest level of my fucking career. Chasing my dreams — I lost everything."
"You learn about the man a lot on the road," 808 Blake says, explaining how the 40 Akerz collaboration changed once the guys invited him on tour. He says in the last two years he's spent more time on the phone with Fish Scales and Skinny DeVille than with his own mother. That quality time has made for quality music.
"Albums come out so fast these days," 808 Blake says. "Even though two years is a long fucking time, it's a time where you build with somebody, you build some shit that becomes incredible because you tinker and toy and you go back and forth on things."
After listening to The 40 Akerz Project it becomes clear why Fish Scales and Skinny DeVille are taking a break from the country rap tunes that made them multi-platinum stars. It's as if they've found comfort in being brutally honest. The album is arguably the group's best since 2008's The Humdinger. And it has more crossover potential than anything they've ever done. Sure, genre-hopping doesn't always pan out — you'll either love or hate "No Idea" — but you'll appreciate any slight missteps when you hear what does work, such as the drum-and-bass feel of album opener "Party for the Ages."
It's hard to pick just one standout from the The 40 Akerz Project, but a song that will warrant repeat listens is "The Ditch," which tells the story of when Fish Scales almost died on Dec. 18, 2014. The man known for his legendary partying drank a fifth of vodka by himself to cope with some things, as he says, and drove his car into a ditch on the way home from a party. When he came to, a man was pulling him from the wreckage, saving his life.
"Me and Skinny, we both kind of agree on a certain sound, always have from the day we met. This is kind of a continuation of that. I've been through a lot of stages in Nappy Roots so I think this is me finally getting closer to what I want to be as a rapper," Fish Scales says.
Though B. Stille and Ron Clutch each make a cameo on a song ("Ms. Cleo") and skit ("The Ron Clutch Theory"), respectively, the album doesn't feel like a one-off Nappy Roots release. Instead, it comes across as a necessary step in the musical evolution of one the South's most beloved rap groups.
At the one SXSW showcase Nappy Roots was invited to — headlined by Atlanta upstart K-Camp — there's maybe a handful of people present to take in the group's 10-minute set. The trio normally plays at least an hour. After some back and forth about which Nappy Roots/40 Akerz songs should get played, the three men hit the stage. They launch into "Po' Folks" and dope boys and hardcore hip-hop types rush the stage at the sound of the familiar tune and remain for the three songs that follow.
Afterward, Skinny DeVille's smoking a joint and reflecting. Not just on the set, but on why he, Fish Scales, B. Stille, and Ron Clutch still bother making music.
"You're not going to be the hottest thing since sliced bread forever, but you've still got to make a living off of it because you can't afford to go get a job somewhere else where everybody knows you didn't do it or you gave up your dreams," he says. "You'll never retire because you love to do it."
If there's any worry that their latest endeavor won't work out, you won't hear it from the rap veterans.
"We've made good decisions as a business and we've fucked with good people over time," Skinny DeVille says. "At the end of the day we don't compromise who we are. We never have. We never will."