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Its a quiet Thursday evening at Hermans Old Town Grille in Plymouth. A handful of middle-aged women sit gabbing and drinking coffee while a few others lob darts. Neato has his eye on an empty pool table.
Moments later, the 29-year-old rapper (who once called himself J-Neato) launches into a tirade: These other white dudes thats rapping; God bless em, but they aint got no longevity. Im here to change the game for the mainstay. I wanna be the hip-hop version of James Dean.
The hip-hop version of James Dean? Sporting a white T-shirt, jersey, jeans and a Fuck with me if you want to swagger? Man, thats some bravado.
This guy Neato (born Jason Nieto) hails from Adrian, a small town 75 miles out of Detroit. He has the same hard luck story that so many of his Detroit counterparts have. His father was killed when he was 5, and Mom raised him in a rough neighborhood.
Aries Street was a crazy, Neato says of his old hood. It was nothing for someone to get murdered or get the shit beat out of them.
Every sleepy, Midwestern town still has its wrong side of the tracks. On my street, everybody was poor, Neato says. There were Hispanics, blacks and whites all together just trying to make it.
Neato grew up surrounded by blacks and hip hop, but he wasnt the only white kid in the hood. It was growing up there that motivated me to do my thing.
Heres a quick historical Neato factoid: He graduated from Tecumseh High in 1994 and claims his shot at a basketball scholarship was derailed by a hater coach. But to hell with that because once Neato heard Redman flip similes, he made it his mission to be an emcee. By spring of 1998, he was affixing his own fliers and stickers on mailboxes and street lamps all over Adrian, pimping his debut CD, Robert Denato.
By years end, Neato was the slickest thing in Adrian since Norman Bel Geddes.
I was having CD signings at Sam Goody, radio stations, the mall, man, just everywhere, Neato says, grinning. The emcees got some Adrian pride. Between Adrian and Tecumseh, my shit was hot!
The CD sold 4,000 copies and was followed with the Forbidden Suspect EP a year later. That one sold 3,000 big numbers for Adrian. By 2000, Neato was itching to move it on up.
Neato stands, stretches. And then he says, I wanted to make a name for myself in Detroit. People were getting on, and I felt I was good enough to run with em.
His first plan was to holler at Detroit local legend Esham.
Man, he was doing it big, and he was the only cat that was coming down to Adrian doing shows, Neato says.
I went to like six of his shows, stayed in his face, freestyled on his answering machine, but he never hit me up.
Determined to find somebody to help him get into Detroits rap game, Neato turned to former Esham protégé, Dice.
Dice had just dropped the single, What Up Doe, and he got me a gig with his label, Fallen Angelez, passing out fliers. But once they found out I could flow, they signed me.
With a dark street sound (similar to Esham) and wicked emcees, Fallen Angelz were making heaps of noise in 2001, with the release of Dices Black Monday album. Neato was accepted immediately (though his style is much lighter) and paired up with Fallen Angelz vet Arcane to form the group E.A.R.T.H. (Evil Angelz Running Through Hell).
Their style was darker but I made it work, Neato says. I was staying with Russ Culvin (CEO of Fallen Angelz), getting a feel for Detroit. Neato pauses. His eyes widen, and his voice grows serious. But when youre the only white dude on a black label doing black music, other emcees be in the cipher like, Who the fuck is the white boy?
So Neatos like a young Eminem, a white guy battling for respect and cred on Detroit streets. The rites of passage for white emcees in Detroit havent changed? I had to shit on a lot cats to gain respect, Neato says, but afterwards I would get dap.
Its interesting to watch Neatos energy. It flows like his music laid back to mildly roused to quick and insightful. Fallen Angelz utilized Neatos skills on several songs, including E.a.r.t.h.s club single, Gimmie What U Got (which featured MC Breed and Kourrrpt). He performed some shows. But after two and a half years, Neato says he had nothing. He says the Fallen Angelz guys were cool, but there was no movement. He had to bail.
Then, as soon as he mapped his exit strategy, he ended up behind bars.
I got locked up for fines cause my plates was dusty, Neato says. He claims that the label didnt offer to help him get out of jail. That they tried to play it like, since Neato is gone, then lets move on.
Russell Culvin CEO of Fallen Angelz paints a different picture: He got pulled over for a bad taillight and police found out that he had a warrant. ... He had been on the run all along.
When Neato emerged from jail, he says his lawyer called Culvin to request money he claims that he was owed.
No lawyer ever called, Culvin says. [Neato] was paid a $3,500 signing bonus, a $500 check to buy clothes for a video shoot, and another $500 he was given to get his car fixed. Plus the whole time he was with me I was feeding him.
Neato: I got sent $100 to buy some gym shoes for a video that we were supposed to be shooting in Cali.
Neato soon left the label. They had a good plan but there were too many holes in the ship. All I got was some pizza and some hos out the deal.
Culvin: He never got no hos. I never heard from him when he got out of jail. His mamma called and told me that his relatives didnt like him hanging around black people. Neato is still obligated to his contract. The E.A.R.T.H. CD will be released in early 2006; since Neato left; Arcane will get double money.
With nowhere to go and no money, Neato moved in with friends in Ann Arbor. He found work as a house painter. Hes been restructuring his music career.
The biggest difference is my maturity. Im still boastful and cocky but Ive been making serious songs, not just shooting people and selling crack on records, he says.
DJ Killo (from G-Unit) just added a Neato track to his soon to be released mixtape. And Neatos new CD, Dont Shoot The Messenger is set to drop later this month. The album is a well-arranged piece of work; three parts radio-friendly, two parts message, five-parts ego, with a pinch of urban primitiveness.
Neato pulls a square out and rolls the box back into the sleeve of his T-shirt. See, Neato the James Dean is one hell of a confident emcee.
I got two A&R guys on the line. Its serious like that, so Im confident that Im gonna be the next big shit outta Michigan.
Kahn Davison is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.