Cover StoryChamp's town
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It’s a Tuesday night at Bev’s Backstreet topless bar, a dim, living-room-warm East Side den. The handful of house girls are bored, sitting at the bar chatting up a few middle-age gents nursing sour marriages or holiday cheerlessness — the kind accustomed to walking out of places like this alone, down a C-note and smelling like vanilla. There’s a couple bikers in boots and denim.
A sylphlike white dancer in crack-revealing lavender hot pants moves across the small kidney-shaped stage slowly, languidly. She caresses the center pole with bored indifference. Taking long, self-obsessed glances of herself on the mirrored back wall, she could be Christina Applegate’s porn-star kid sis. She spins slowly on her heel, bends backward and takes a quick tally of the men in the room. It’s still dead. It’s still early.
James “The Blackman” Harris is DJing tonight; it’s a gig he’s had for three months. He’s been DJing in one form or another for more than two decades. He spins Snoop, 50 Cent, Talib Kweli, Blondie, Guns N’ Roses and his own custom retooling of a Doors tune. He’s thin and graceful, dressed in black, a single gold chain around his neck, sports specs and a thick, sculpted Fu Manchu.
Brian “Champtown” Harmon, the brusque-speaking vet Detroit rapper and head of his own Straight Jacket records label, scans the room. He’s looking for girls to include in a booty video he’s keen on shooting for an artist on his label.
Squint your eyes and the thickset Champ might resemble LL Cool J — block-jawed and round, dark-brown eyes, warm-up jersey.
Listen to him converse and it’s obvious he’s been rapping since he was 8 years old; sharp comments shoot from his lips in concise, percussive blips. Every nuance of every word designed to hit. His choppity-chop argot is constantly on; day and night — there’s no off switch. He’s shrewd and witty, drips of the gravitas of the East Side streets he grew up on. He has a remarkable capacity for incendiary, outspoken opinionating. The braggadocio is thick, and well it should be; rap was built on hyperbole and the art of the crow. And Champ can crow.
And why not? It’s said that Eminem gleaned bits of Champ early on (Em’s music video debut was in Champ’s 1992 clip for “Do-Da-Dipity” — images from which turned up in the earliest Em’ vids). There’ve been rumors that Insane Clown Posse nicked Champ’s early jester shtick and ran with it. He influenced Kid Rock.
As 50 Cent extends the in-house woofers, a zaftig Nubian with an impassive expression steps on stage and soon completes a miraculous gravity-defying twirl on the pole. She slows her spin to a drop-stop on the stage floor as the music yields, finally, to its inevitable fade-out.
Champ shakes his head. Nope, not that one.
Two comely dancers take a seat at the end of the bar. Champ moves in and strikes up a conversation. “I own Straight Jacket records,” he says, offering his hand.
A bespectacled fortysomething white guy standing close by — who says he “works in medicine” and is here for his “chocolate fix” — overhears Champ’s video rap. He chimes in. “What, you couldn’t afford a business card?”
“I don’t need no business card,” Champ says in a swift quip. He leans in closer to the dancer and stays on the video tack.
The stripper nearest Champ, a wide-eyed black beauty in full-length sheer pink with a whisper of visible nipples, blinks once slowly and nods. She works her hair. She’s heard lines like this before, but listens attentively. Soon she asks Champ a few questions. A moment later she scribbles her phone number on a torn piece of paper and hands it to the rapper. The other dancer follows suit.
Champ can work the angles. Some local backbiters dismiss him as an audacious charlatan. Many say he’s a brilliant talent scout, a gifted emcee and a record mogul in waiting.
But there’s something about Champ that draws people to him. It’s an innate charisma, not some fabricated rap persona assembled for street cred, as would be first guess.
If anyone, this rapper/label owner and this strip-bar DJ are key figures in the early development of Detroit rap. You need a broom and dustpan to sweep up the names these guys drop. But, hey, they were there.
By his teens, Blackman was a touring DJ with major acts. He did the first Lollapalooza tour and DJ’d Kid Rock’s first major tour. He’s kicked around the city for years, worked with George Clinton, joined Enemy Squad and Soul Clique. He’s currently working on a solo album, and sometimes appears with white funk-soul revivalists Detroit City Council.
Blackman’s East Side house was home to an underground collective called the Beast Crew, a gaggle of kids who logged myriad hours in Blackman’s basement learning rap’s ropes and emcee battles and working the decks.
Blackman talks about the Beast Crew’s basement sessions at his house in the early ’80s. How the kids did the dozens. “We ragged on each other, talked about each other’s mother, dad, whatever.” After a moment, in a voice barely audible above a booming drum loop, he adds, “We gave Kid Rock his ghetto pass. We’re black, all about the love.”
Rock and Em’ are two cultural sponges who swooped in on Detroit ghettos, appropriated black music and its aesthetic, and raced straight past Go to Park Place. So it is, as history has taught us, that it takes whites to popularize black music. Champ and Blackman are OK with that. They understand the playing board and know they can’t change the rules. But Champ says he doesn’t want to be written out of history.
Champ’s self-belief is huge. He doesn’t want their help, or fiscal assistance. Nah, he’s prideful, he can launch his label by himself.
“I know the street game; learned the beauty of patience,” Champtown says in his patented riff style. “I’m 30 years old.” He pauses, and adds before heading out of the strip bar, “I gotta make sure my shit is hittin’ by the time my daughter graduates high school. I got family values. Yep.”
Champ says, frequently and without prompting, that he loves his mother, his daughters and Keasha (his 29-year-old girlfriend of 12 years) very much. He has to succeed; music is all he knows. His mother is unemployed (pop died when he was a teenager), and he has a family to feed.
Champ’s a dude driven, wants his piece of the American dream, and he’s well-aware of the disparity between what he has and what he wants. He reeks of calculated self-advancement, but his motivations aren’t completely tainted with self-interest. Calling him “focused” would be an understatement.
He’s learned the music biz ropes well, and understands how to slickly (re)package rebellion and humor and auction it off to the highest bidder.
His Straight Jacket “family” is impressive. A bounty of local talent from various corners of Detroit, the years-in-making label roster could, overstatement aside, surpass the urban talent on many of the majors.
Champ’s presence over this close-knit group extends beyond the label/artist relationship into the paternal. It is a family. Think a hip-hop Island of Misfit Toys. There’s the unlikely Asian boy-band pop duo Yang Ku, female rapper D’Phuzion, rappers Mike Spear and Tekneek, the buff DJ/dancer/rapper Shortcut and Champtown himself. Keasha is the label’s glue, its in-house den mother and aesthetic director.
Each Straight Jacket artist shares an unwavering belief in Champ, depends on him for guidance.
What exactly does Champ bestow on these teens and twentysomethings? He teaches them performance, how the music biz turns, and “educate(s) them on how to come in and do records in 20 minutes flat, just furious. So, I put them through a major crash course on recording, muthafucking performing, learning how to respect others and all that.”
Straight Jacket works the DIY idea that owning your own music is the way to break out of the lower-middle class — financially speaking — as a label head. And Champ has a keen sense of marketing, can decipher even the most gibberish-ridden publishing contract. When an artist signs to his label they’re getting his hard-won wisdom, a stop-at-nothing-to-get-his-artists-heard work ethic. Since the label has no real operating capital now — all money is on the back-end, provided things go as planned — the odds are stacked high, and Champ doesn’t bat an eye.
Ice T and Public Enemy admire Champ enough to have him as a tour mate. Champ’s song (with D’Phuzion) — the poppy, old-school tip-of-the-hat — “Bang Bang Boogie” spent months quietly hovering on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Rap singles chart, peaking at No. 21 in spring 2000. The accompanying (big-moneyed) video was a top request on The Box video network and was in regular rotation on BET and Canada’s video outlet, Muchmusic. The single sold close to 70,000 copies with no real distribution and got heavy love on radio in major markets including Atlanta, Philly, New York and Boston, but not in Detroit.
Champ’s persuasive nature got him into Prince’s Paisley Park Studios before he was old enough to drive. He gave a few budding Detroit emcees, DJs and producers (Eminem, Uncle Ill, Shortcut, Manix, Chaos Kid, the Beast Crew) their first taste of a big-time recording facility. He befriended Prince there.
Champ is no millionaire. No, he struggles to feed his family; what money he had is now about gone. As a slew of Straight Jacket releases are readying to hit in early ’05, Champ has yet to line up new national distribution for his label. No big deal, he says, adding that he thrives when the chips are down.
In fact, his career is riddled with subterfuge, local beefs, fucked-up label investors and sour distribution deals. He’s seen as many lows as highs.
As a rapper and producer, Champtown is gifted; his hyperactive rhymes on his own Straight Jacket releases have always been fizzy and shtick-heavy (he simultaneously trades in and mocks street frenzy, but is seemingly immune to it), mixing up old-school with contemporary, and propped up with burly singsong choruses.
Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Public Enemy’s Chuck D have been Champtown trumpeters. D and cohort Flavor Flav appeared in the “Bang Bang Boogie” video (as did hip-hop linchpin Kool Herk). D likens Champ’s very Detroit indie ideals to Berry Gordy. “Champtown is the tragic black man story of a mind that needs his control in a business that doesn’t give back,” D says. “Champ gives back and he has nurtured a nice stable of Detroit artists in recording, performance and interview. They don’t do that anymore in the music business. Finding funding should be no problem if this was a sensible industry. So from the floor up, Champtown and Straight Jacket ease the common sense back in.”
East Side Detroit rap in the early-to-mid-’80s couldn’t have been more subterranean. Kids stayed close to their neighborhoods. They had to. Few had cars, much less money. Many weren’t old enough to drive. No mainstream press was documenting this splintered and neighborhood-specific scene. The crack epidemic was just kicking down East Side doors, and neighborhoods were in slow decline.
Champ came up in the Fairport neighborhood — his parents settled there from Mississippi (via Ohio) in the ’70s. He hung with the notorious Detroit drug crew “Best Friends.” They went to the nearby Detroit Boys and Girls Club together, where Champ would kick it on the basketball courts. Champ says he could have easily drifted down the drug dealer route, but the “music kept me straight.” Most of his friends are either dead or in jail.
“I was a pallbearer so many times before I was 16 it wasn’t even funny,” Champs says.
He remembers getting called “nigger” walking to and from the Boys Club in his neighborhood, which was still predominantly white then. “We were prepared to get into it with racist muthafuckers every day.”
Champ’s older half-brother, John, took the budding 8-year-old rapper to his first rap show, the Fresh Fest, featuring Run-DMC, Whodini, the Fat Boys and Melle Mel.
Champ was kicked out of high school, spent time in youth homes for B&E and stealing cars — though his mother says she had no idea the trouble her son was getting into — and eventually earned a GED.
“I’d advise everybody who’s gonna do crime to give it up by the time you’re 15,” Champ says.
Herman Yancy was Champ’s gym teacher at Fleming Elementary. “Brian had personality, that charisma, but he was no angel. As a fifth-grader he would have been one of them guys that I would question whether or not he’d make it. A lot of these kids are dead.
“I still got his first tape. He brought me a tape one day a few years later and said, ‘I wanted to let you know that I’m doing good.’”
Champ loved LL Cool J and Run-DMC. “If Run-DMC wore Adidas, I had Adidas. If LL came with Kangol, I had a Kangol on. I thought that’s what solo rappers wore.” Later on, he started wearing jester hats and dyed his hair to avoid comparisons.
But it was Run from Run-DMC who cooked his head with the power of lyrical rhetoric and rapid-fire rhymes. He started rapping in fifth grade. “You can put this shit with rhymes and dog muthafuckers all day? Shit, this shit is for me,” Champ says about rap’s appeal.
Soon high schools kids were showing up on the Von Steuben Middle School yard to battle Champ. It’s said that he never lost a round.
Champ and future acid rapper Rashaam “Esham” Smith met in the second grade at Fleming. By middle school, Esham was Champ’s human beatbox. They were performing anywhere and everywhere; rapping into the order-call mic at Seafood Bay on Gratiot, where Champ says certain “customers would come just to see if the niggers are rappin’!” They were the youngest, and the pre-eminent, on the East Side.
One drug dealer called The Hammer would force Champ and Esham to perform on command by pulling out a gun.
“Me and Esham just clicked, basically,” Champ says. “Then me and him became a pair; it was like he had no choice, really. He was so good at what he do, there wasn’t nobody to take him to the next level to get noticed. So us getting together was a way to make us both known. Even back then, I made sure he got his props. Made sure he got his solo. Like he’d be beatboxing and I’d be like, ‘Tell ’em your name,’ and he’d like make a vacuum cleaner noise and he called himself ‘Rockbox.’ We always was capping on muthafuckers too. It was like we needed each other, honestly.
“As it grew, he was like, ‘Fuck this.’ Beatboxing was like playing second fiddle. People started playing him like he was a sheep. And he got really frustrated. Then he started writing his own rhymes undercover.”
Randolph Gear was an art teacher at Von Steuben. He remembers Champ and Esham well. “Champ was the class clown and he was always interested in the music industry as a little kid. He really admired Prince. Esham was a troubled kid, always getting into fights.”
The pair split up (Esham has since sold hundreds of thousands of records) their first year in high school after a beef erupted when Champ was accused of having a part in beating up Esham’s brother, which Champ denies.
“I didn’t even touch the muthafucker. We actually broke up because he was telling me how he worshiped the devil. Period.”
Rap for Champ was, as a street rat with a fake ID, his way into something — gave him purpose and direction and sense of competition. Kept him from sidling up to his hit-for-hire neighbors and fueled his methodology.
The Beast Crew has been described as a kind of ghetto Motown. It began around 1984. Its main purpose was to showcase neighborhood kids’ skills and talents. They were a collective of DJs and emcees drawn together out of boredom and a love of music, and a desire to sidestep dope-selling clichés. The belief was if somebody would get signed to a major record deal, they could pull everybody else along. It was also a way to meet girls.
Too young to get into clubs, the only place they could convene was in the basement of Blackman’s East Side house near Six Mile Road and Gratiot Avenue. Blackman describes the crew as “controlled chaos.”
It was all about basement rapping, backyard parties, on-the-cheap demos and videos, and the occasional show at rental halls such as the Holiday and the Odyssey, and later, shows in Mount Clemens.
Detroit shows entertained crews of drug dealers, street hustlers and local kids — boys mostly.
Blackman was a street-savvy teen then, called himself “The Blackman from New Jersey.” As a teenager, he’d done national tours with LL Cool J, Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, MC Shan, Marley Marl, Rock Master Scott, Roxanne Shanté, and U.T.F.O. He was the teenage spiritual godfather of the Crew. (He says he never came home with money from touring. “There wasn’t any.”)
Terence “T-Bone” Jones was a teen DJ in the Crew.
“Black’s was the only place you could go to tighten up your skills,” he says. “Back then, Black was the only one that was really working with major artists. He was like maybe 16, 17, and we’d seen the future in it through him. He was trying to get people to start doing the music thing. Black would skip school. He would skip school and try to persuade you to come along with him. It’d be negative and positive at the same time. Most of all of us went to Osborn High and skipping school was negative, but he’d be taking you to something that’s real positive. We was out gangbanging and doing all the rest of the stuff you do in the neighborhood. He was telling us, ‘Look, leave that alone and come do this.’
“We wasn’t really impressed till Black started introducing us to Curtis Blow and Cool J,” Jones continues. “He knew these people. That was a big influence on us. He introduced me to Curtis Blow, Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three, Real Roxanne — and that was only in the beginning. I was blown away since then. I was following him to make music.”
With the 10-year-old Champ involved, the core of the Beast Crew was T-Bone, Blackman, Blackman’s kid brother Mr. Glide, and Ben “Hot Mix” Koyton. Champ says there were Beast Crew hangers-on coming and going, “thugs who’d get popped and jailed for rape or for shooting somebody. It was always the floaters that hung around us that always got into heavy street trouble.”
“Blackman gave us all a shot.”
Hot Mix, who had a job and could afford to buy records, says Champ introduced rap into the Crew’s “progressive” music mix. “There was a lot of music that Champ was familiar with, different rap stuff like KRS-One and early Ice-T stuff like that that I wasn’t familiar with,” Hot Mix says. “We were floatin’ in off the tail end of disco.”
Champ, with his hyper-rhyming, freestyling mouth, was the Crew’s star. Nobody could believe this kid could be so skilled at such a tender age.
Jones and Glide backed the emcee at parties and shows. “We pulled Brian in ’cause he was a spitfire, and he was young and we’d never seen nobody that young that could rap like that,” Jones says. “Like Twista do in raps; Champ raps real fast. When me and Glide would DJ, we’d have four turntables, and then we’d have little Brian in front. No backup behind him; he was just in the front by himself. It really was a little kid showcasing us. We worked with Brian and we went into the studio and put out tapes and had a whole lot of shows, man. That was pretty much it until Kid Rock got into the picture. And that was in ’87.”
Blackman, Hot Mix and KDC were DJing a “cabaret” party in Mount Clemens when Kid Rock appeared wanting to spin. Blackman gave him a shot. Turns out Rock’s mad DJ skills floored everybody. After that, Blackman brought Rock “down to ghetto,” put him up at his house and used Champtown as an example of how to rap.
“Bob [Kid Rock] got Champ in him,” Jones says. “When we first met him he was spinning. He wanted to get into the rap part, so he came and Black was trying to show him. By showing him it’s like, ‘Watch Brian. You want to be an emcee? Watch Brian. Watch what Brian’s doing.’ And that’s what he would do. He would watch Brian and study Brian. Brian’s a real silly kid, too. So he [Rock] became a silly person himself, you know, to put that into his act. Brian had it. He was a little kid, but he had it. I don’t know how he got it, but he was born with it.”
“Kid would get a little flustered when they would make comparisons,” Hot Mix says. “I think Kid was intimidated. He would never take the challenge to battle Champ.”
The Crew knew it was inevitable when Rock landed his first major-label deal with Jive, though the label had interest in Champ. Blackman (who was managing Champ then) says that since Rock was white, he’d get the record deal. Period. That’s just how it was. (Rock romanticized his days with Blackman and the Beast Crew on “I Wanna Go Back,” from 1996’s Early Mornin’ Stoned Pimp).
After squabbles and divides within the Crew, Champ split in 1990 to start Straight Jacket records. Rock later tracked Champ down at his pizza-making gig and took him on tour. On and off for three years — from 1993 to 1996 — Champ — sporting a big, green ’fro — toured as Rock’s hype-man, dubbed “Champtown the Incredible Green-Headed Negro.” He brought Rock on at the storied 1996 State Theatre show that landed Kid his Atlantic deal.
(Kid Rock did return this writer’s phone call but kept his comments brief. “I love Blackman and Champ and the Beast Crew, but I don’t want to talk to Metro Times. They never helped me when I was coming up.”)
As hip hop’s popularity rose, the shows would move to the suburbs, at high schools, where white kids were actually buying the music.
Certain radio DJs championed Detroit rap on specialty shows. Billy T was one, and he spent 11 years (between 1986 and 1997) on Detroit airwaves. His hip-hop shows such as “Billy T’s Basement Tapes” and “The Rap Blast” gave budding local acts needed exposure.
Marc Kempf edited and published a rap magazine called Underground Soundz in the early ’90s, and owns a music distributor, Long Range Distribution. He says there were just a handful of rap records that Billy T could spin in the early days.
“Billy T was a supportive DJ and he was playing Dice, he was playing Kaos and Maestro, Kid Rock, probably did play Champtown,” Kempf says. I gotta give him his props.”
“There was no payola shit then,” Champ says. “Billy T was very instrumental in bringing the music out. He was all about Detroit love; his ears was on the street. It hasn’t been right since he left. Now DJs think they’re celebrities.”
Too, radio helped bridge the sociological line drawn between the East and West sides, that time-honored split based on class distinction clichés.
“I think the overall Detroit rap sound didn’t have a big difference between East Side and West Side,” Kempf says. “But I think a lot of people were a little hesitant to venture too far off their block. I mean, everyone was hearing JLB [WJLB-FM]. I think JLB inspired the Detroit sound in ’88 and ’89 as much as anything. They were the only station. There was no college radio. This was ’88, ’89, till 105.9 [WDTJ] came around four or five years ago.”
“The East Side was a totally different country,” says Motsi-Ski from Detroit’s Most Wanted, an early ’90s gangsta group that transcended the East-West borders. “As far as it being divided, I don’t know what it was.”
“I can’t put a finger on what it is,” Jones says. “I can tell you this — they think they’re more important on the West Side because a lot of their parents come from the East Side back in the early ’70s. They moved to the West Side to raise their kids. They were showing their kids something different. But they grew up in the Black Bottom and the rest of the spots over here on the East Side. They thought they was better than we were. We’re grimy, we’re from the East Side.”
Champ is munching on a bologna sandwich in the two-bedroom East Side apartment he shares with Keasha and their two daughters — Ciara, 15 (Keasha’s before Champ), and 10-year-old Makala.
Champ talks about his days with young Em’ and the conversation is littered with phrases such as “Em’ should tell the truth,” and “Em’ jus’ erased these five years out of his memory like they don’t exist,” yet his demeanor is that of a man entirely in control of his career and life.
Is this bitterness talking, then?
“It’s not bitterness,” Champs says, “it’s just the truth should be heard. I respect Eminem, straight up. I’ve never seen anybody work so hard on a single verse. But I don’t like it when muthafuckers don’t give me my props.”
Champtown was featured in the February 2004 issue of The Source magazine in a heavily publicized story that attempted to tag Eminem as a racist, using old tapes and comments from Detroit hip-hop scenesters as evidence. In it, Champ accuses Em’s manager (Paul Rosenberg) of keeping Em’s black crew (D12) down and explains how he introduced Em’ to his side of 8 Mile Road.
Shortcut has been pals with Champ (is signed to his label) since meeting him around 1990. A somewhat diminutive dancer/rapper who’s built like a Mr. Universe competitor (and whose live persona is built on flippant, bling-blingy strip-bar sleaze, old-school booty that would do Lil’ John proud), Shortcut was hanging with Bassmint Productions then, Em’s crew. Shortcut says Em’ liked what Champ was doing and “they started working together.”
“Back then he [Em’] never had a hook to a song,” Shortcut says. “It would be like he was just telling a story. He never had hooks. Champ was one of the people who brought him in and showed him things, showed him hooks and humor.”
Hence the “Do-Da-Dipity” single and video, and Em’s appearance on various Champ songs.
Champ always had a video camera rolling in his posse. Early ’90s video footage from a suburban high school is telling; it reveals a young Em’ finding his legs as a showman; a spindly kid immersing himself, and wanting to be accepted by, black culture. He soaked up the transcendent force of black music from a myriad of sources, Champ included. Another from a performance at 1515 Broadway (circa 1993) sees Champ standing on stage next to Em’ as protection at an all-black show.
There are videos of a Champ recording session at Paisley Park in 1992 that show Em’ as a nose-picking kid, looking no less a threat than Kid ’N Play’s Kid in House Party; high-top fades and Hammer pants.
Champ lets loose a high-pitched chortle followed by rapid-fire tirade: “Can you believe how he got America fooled like he’s some tough-ass muthafucker?”
Hot Mix says, “Oh, man, it’s so funny that Kid never mentions him, that Em’ never mentions him. They would emulate things that he would say, things from his character. It’s kinda sad, but you never know what goes through their heads once they hit big. Especially Em’ and Kid.”
Jones: “But the people that are really major out of Detroit are Marshall [Em’] and it’s Bob [Rock], man. And they’re not telling it all. Why do these guys got all these skills?”
Detroit’s Most Wanted’s Motsi-Ski — who’s Jackie Wilson’s grandson — knew Em’ and Champ then. “This isn’t about fuck Kid Rock or fuck Em’. It’s like Em’ and Unkle Kracker and Rock — all these muthafuckers is on but Champ ain’t on? Shiit. He should’ve given Champ more props.
“I look at all the shit my grandfather went through. Michael Jackson stole from my grandfather, ya know what I’m sayin’? Em’ is the biggest entertainer in the world. The. Biggest. Star. And I have no bitterness with Em’, he deserves all the success he has. But he need to put niggers on. Just give Champ his credit.”
Uncle Ill met Champ in 1990 when the two worked at Little Caesar’s Pizza (Champ launched Straight Jacket using profits from making pizza). They were partnered throughout the early ’90s, doing recordings and shows. Among other things, they can be heard together on Champ’s first solo Straight Jacket release, the EP Call Me Joker. Ill was Champ’s hype-man, at first, and soon started rapping lines. Ill later split with Champ’s on-again, off-again pal rapper Hush and formed Da Rukus. The split was bitter on personal and business levels, and Champ felt betrayed.
“He took me to the real studio (Paisley Park) and I appreciate that,” Ill says. “I kept waiting for Champ to get the big deal. Kid Rock got a deal. But not Champ. Then Uncle Kracker got a deal. But not Champ. Em’ got a deal. But not Champ. Obie Trice got a deal. But not Champ. D-12 got a deal. But not Champ. And Champ knows everybody in the business. It goes back to where the music is. Hopefully he’ll get a deal soon.”
“You get both sides,” Shortcut says. “Like what people say about Eminem. One side says he’s a hater and a racist. The next minute he’s down to the end. I think it’s just jealousy. I mean, Champ’s had opportunities with different record labels that because of investors and poor partners it never happened the right way. If Champ was full of it, he wouldn’t have the connections that he has.”
Then there’s the beef. Around 1995, Em’ accused Champ of trying to get into his wife Kim’s pants. Champ and others interviewed say it wasn’t true. Their friendship ended.
After The Source piece ran, D12’s Proof (another one who looked up to Champ) dissed Champ on a mix CD. Champ responded with a scathing rap that rips Proof up one side and down the other. The dis is available for download on the Straight Jacket Web site.
In the small recording studio situated in a dimly lit half of Champ’s basement, D’Phuzion is putting finishing touches on her debut album Murder Death Kill. Keasha, who could be anyone’s young mom in orange sweats and blue slippers — sits in the engineering chair. She’s fiddling with sound levels on a computer screen.
Champ, who “discovered” D’Phuzion at an East Side open mic night in 1997, stands nearby, nodding to the playback music pumping through the studio monitors.
D’Phuzion resembles a youthful Florence Ballard, beautiful with arched brows, thick lips, dark eyes. She’s shy but polite — has a habit of turning her face away when she smiles.
With lyric book in hand, she slowly pulls herself up from her chair to confront the mic that’s suspended from a ceiling pipe. When the track is cued, her reticence vanishes, and a coarse, commanding rat-a-tat vocal shoots from her lips: “Cut-throat-bitch-crazy-mu-tha-fuck-a” — her rhyming and meter spot on — “Bitch-I’m-thug-I’m-thug-I’m-gutta.” Her left hand slices the air on vocal accents. Sweat quickly forms on her brow. Her body sways in half time to the distorted meter thumping from her headphones. There’s simmering sexuality beneath her fury. She nails the vocal in less than 10 minutes.
D’Phuzion makes gangsta rap high-art: Though her lyrics are crammed with spongy themes of self-assertion, street injustice, identity issues and plenty of fuck-you’s — familiar territory certainly — in her grip, they’re all her own. She takes her personal experiences and fantasies and turns them into real-life mayhem. It might not have been an overstatement when Chuck D called D’Phuzion the greatest female rapper ever.
Her forthcoming album is wildly diverse, from Southern crunk to club-floor fodder, old school and contemporary, capped with a slight whiff of soul. She’s tongue-in-cheek (takes on ersatz gangstas: “You are so Gangsta”) and cheeky (tackles Donna Summer on a disco remix of “Your Finger on the Trigger”). A between-song skit, “The Hater,” is a brilliant piss-take on local rap beefs.
It’s obvious that D’Phuzion looked up to Detroit rapstress Boss (the nation’s first female gangsta rapper, who had a Top 40 chart hit in the ’90s). There’s even a duet with Boss in “Street Cred.”
The East Side-bred D’Phuzion started rapping at age 6 and says her father tipped her off to music, namely the Sugar Hill Gang, Run DMC and Kurtis Blow.
When Champ and D’Phuzion did the 1999-2000 Public Enemy tour, it was the only time Flavor Flav ever arrived on time for his own shows. He came early to see D’Phuzion perform.
Within a week, Yang Ku and Tekneek pretty much finish their respective albums.
Tekneek, a spliff-happy, sleepy-eyed 19-year-old, has a tattoo of himself etched into his left forearm. He has just enough arrogance to piss off teachers and parents, and it’s reflected in the blips, beats and laconic raps of Listen to the Book I Wrote. Mom raised him in Port Huron and he grew up on soul music, mainly because he wasn’t allowed to listen to rap. Inspiration, he says, comes from the writings of James Baldwin, Poe and Tupac. His raps are inspired.
Yang Ku — Bruce Kue and Downie Yang — the dancing, coo-crooning Asian boy duo with matching streaked coifs, are first-generation Americans. The songwriters say they both adore, of all people, Richard Marx. Champ spotted them one day while shopping at the Guitar Center. Yang was just tapping on a keyboard.
“When I saw an Asian muthafucker playing urban soul music on a keyboard, I said that’s it,” Champ says.
Champ brought in a vocal coach for Yang Ku, who spent eight months fine-tuning their throats. They rehearse every dance move to every song before every live show, which includes a cadre of break dancers. They pipe tricky harmonies with aplomb, sound like angels: File their brand of downy R&B somewhere between Boys II Men, Prince and Usher. They’re calculated, sure, but completely indie in spirit; they’ve learned everything, they say, simply by observing American culture, particularly MTV.
“They grew up in the hood,” Champ says. “They saw the struggle. They went through some of the same racial tension.”
Champ and Keasha have been working these and other Straight Jacket projects for a number of years. Grooming, guiding, polishing. They’ve enlisted ace beat-makers including Quincy “QD3” Jones III, Hank Shocklee prodigy Abnormal, and Detroiters Ghanz, Moking and Sony urban artist Frankie Biggz for all the new records.
Champ insists that all the Straight Jacket artists will be mixed, mastered and ready for release “at the top of the new year.” And that includes Mike Spear’s From Out of Nowhere, Champ’s own Racial Profiling and Shortcut’s aptly titled Jump, Ride, Hump, Hop.
It’s a Sunday afternoon and there’s a label meeting at Champtown’s place. His crew is relaxing in chairs and couches in the living room. Faygo and Pringles are set out on the dining room table for refreshments. Shortcut’s kid mans the PlayStation.
Champ begins by lecturing his crew about showing up on time, then about personal presentation and marketing.
Keasha weighs in about her disappointment that the Yang Ku guys haven’t completely rid themselves of their soft midriffs. She tells them that they aren’t looking quite like stars yet. “If it’s anything to do with Straight Jacket you look the part.” The Yang Ku guys nod in agreement.
Shortcut gets a pithy lecture about spending more time on his craft, creating raps that aren’t recycled. “Everything can’t be a retread here,” Champ tells him. “It can’t happen. You got to get down and put time aside to make it right.”
Tekneek swears he’s given up weed. Tempers flare at times; even Keasha, D’Phuzion and Champ get into it. (A row that escalated a few days later at the Metro Times shoot for this issue’s cover; D’Phuzion stormed off before the photog snaps started.)
The meeting’s focus is on rapper Mike Spear. He was suspended for what Champ calls letting his ego get the best of him, and for making a rude gesture toward Keasha. Spear is a lanky, high-cheekboned and good-looking 21-year-old, a guy ready for his Total Request Live close-up. He wants back into the label’s fold.
Each Straight Jacket artist has a say about Spear. And they talk, one after the other, letting the dirty laundry air. Spear sits in a folding chair, listens quietly, often staring at his feet.
When it comes time for him to speak, he does. The long apology is accepted. He’s back in the crew.
The two-hour meeting is over when Champ solicits $25 from everybody for a new computer hard drive to store recordings.
Later on, a woman stops by the apartment with her 13-year-old daughter named Sweets in tow. Sweets is a pretty, soft-featured rapper/violinst, and she’s here to audition for the label.
The Straight Jacket crew moves to the subterranean studio to hear the girl rap. She offers up a surprisingly well-constructed and droll ditty called “School Ho Rock” (after “School House Rock”) that skewers playground hip sway and riffraff. The crew listens closely and politely. When the girl finishes there’s resounding applause. Sweets is, of course, the next addition to Straight Jacket label. And what would Berry Gordy think?
Go to straightjacketrecords.com for info on the artists.
This story is the 15th part of our Century of Sound series, tracing Detroit’s musical heritage over the last hundred years.
Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.