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Not to stereotype anyone, but Amery “Big Herk” Dennard looks like he would beat yo’ ass. He’s big, and wide. Somewhere in the range of 200-230 pounds, he stands about 5 feet 10 inches, with dark skin, a gruff beard, and small round eyes. Not to pound similes into the ground, but he looks like the football player who just found out he didn’t get drafted.
Again, not to stereotype anyone, but he’s also got weed lip, that darkened maw that p(uff)essionals acquire after partaking of the earth for too long. Metro Times doesn’t know whether he smokes. Hell, who knows if he’d even welcome the question. But the look is there.
Then Big Herk talks, and impressions change. Not to sound too impressed, of course, but he’s got that Detroit-like confidence, the coolness that makes his slang sound like the King’s English. And he’s generally concerned about his community.
His demeanor breaks every stereotype that his big frame supports.
Don’t get me wrong. He still looks like he would beat yo’ ass, but only if you’ve got it coming.
Looks deceive. Case in point, you see that photo? Imagine that dude breakdancing. You know: backspinnin’, pop-lockin’, up-rockin’, the whole nine.
Herk used to do that. “I was about 150 pounds,” he explains. “I just, like, grew up in the ’80s era, with kids smoking blunts, seein’ who got the biggest gun.”
What a minute. Blunts and gun comparisons were not common activities in ’80s-era hip-hop culture. Unless, that is, you grew up on Woodrow Wilson on Detroit’s West Side. Herk, now “thirtysomething,” did, and the hardcore lifestyle that characterized his neighborhood made it easy to walk the line between the free expression of breakin’ and the grim reality of post-Young Boys Incorporated Detroit life.
“X-Clan. PE [Public Enemy]. I was intrigued with that,” he says.
But he was strictly a Detroit cat, equally influenced by local musical peers like Smiley, Awesome Dre and B. Def & Poncho.
“Growin’ up for me was just like everybody in the D,” says Herk. “Tough, man, like now. Crack, heroin got elevated. It was easy to make the switch to hardcore hip hop for me.”
Detroit hip-hop fans unfamiliar with Herk’s name are probably more inclined to know the camp with which he’s affiliated. Rock Bottom, the collective of solo artists and duos, has captured the hearts of Detroit’s hip-hop community like no other local group in recent history.
As is the case with many independent releases, Soundscan figures could never tell the truth about the number of CDs Rock Bottom has sold. But Herk’s manager, Emil “Moe” Abner, estimates that the group sold somewhere in the range of 20,000-30,000 copies of their album, Who is Rock Bottom? Their single, “No,” has also enjoyed heavy rotation on WJLB and WDTJ for the past year.
Herk is the camp’s elder statesman, a street-hardened moral stalwart whose hardcore raps delve beyond superficial boasting. Herk wants it that way, because mainstream hip hop’s macho status quo turns him off.
“I’m willing to cover a lot of bases,” he says. “Parties, politics, the streets. It gets boring when you have the same things [in music]. You might like steak. But sometimes you gotta eat chicken. I ain’t limited.”
Herk says Rock Bottom’s success attracted the attention of several record companies, but a solid deal has not yet been signed. In the interim, he got tired of “sittin’ around,” and recorded his solo debut, Guilty as Charged.
Two singles from Guilty, “I’m a Boss” and “Gangstas Only,” which features Rock Bottom’s J-Nutty, have helped strengthen his buzz.
He’s staying true to his hardcore following, but Herk has tried to do with this album what he feels other artists fail to even try doing. He wants to make real life interesting again.
“A lot of young cats don’t know about taking care of a wife, kids and a family,” he says. “I think more rappers should talk about that. The shut-off notices, the roaches.”
Where many artists appoint themselves de facto street reporters, Herk is more sensitive to the needs of people in Detroit’s streets.
Many Detroit artists even concede that Herk’s solo and group success, along with his maturity, makes him a people’s champion around town. “He got so much credibility in the streets,” says Bareda, who recorded “Murda Mitten” for Herk’s album, “in terms of speaking on what niggas is going through. He kinda like the voice of Detroit right now.
“He just came outta nowhere and took over the independent game. So a lot of independent artists look up to him, like, ‘He did it, I can do it.’”
Herk, for his part, says his music ought to reflect the fact that he lives in the ’hood, not the mountains somewhere. People, Herk says, should feel like they can touch him. And touch him they have. His raspy voice and drum-heavy production has garnered audiences in Indiana, Michigan, and in the South. He estimates about 9,000 albums sold, and is following the current project up with Still Guilty, a two-disc DVD/mix tape that will hopefully keep his momentum rolling until he achieves his ultimate mission, the one that extends beyond showing versatility.
“I get frustrated with the lack of respect we get in the D,” he says. “No knock to Chingy, but I sit around and hear 10 guys a day better than him. I got a problem with the industry blockin’ Detroit. This is Motown. What makes you think the talent left? We can compete with everybody.”
Herk says his ideal hip-hop state is akin to the National Basketball Association, where the players hail from all over globe, but are all respected for their talent, which qualifies them to play in the world’s most competitive league.
Rap music, he says, should adhere to the same standard.
“Music is universal,” he says. “Good music is good music. The same guy that buys my tape buys Jay-Z.”
Herk brings his stage show to the Hamtramck Blowout on Friday, March 5, at the New Dodge (9122 Joseph Campau, 313-874-5963). He headlines the bill that includes, DJ Babe, Cashada, Bareda (aka Mr. Wrong), J. Hill and Cysion.
Khary Kimani Turner is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.