You donâ??t know what they do

Nappy Roots
with Grey Matter, DJ Kittybat
9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 9
The Social, 407-246-1419

"I was thinking about what kind of news report would come up when they find out that a flight has crashed today and onboard was the Grammy-nominated artists the Nappy Roots," says B Stille, a rapper from the Kentucky-based hip-hop quintet. He's talking about the thoughts that flashed through his mind when his plane suffered a severe bout of turbulence while flying home from Salt Lake City. His mind first raced to his family, then to his home, before he considered the group's musical legacy in the aftermath of such a disaster.

"Matter of fact, I think the fans would fall in love on another level once they discover the music we put out through a type of situation like this" he says. "Unfortunately, it seems like it takes something bad to happen before everyone comes to a group like us."

With that he laughs — the plane landed safely. For now, his thoughts are focused on preparing for a 10-date tour to promote the group's fourth album, The Pursuit Of Nappyness. It was released last June to muted reviews, which don't reflect its quality, but rather the struggle the Nappy Roots face to gain wider recognition while they're still around to see it.

Despite being a hip-hop group from the South, the commercial ascent of southern rap has passed the Nappy Roots by. Comprised of four members from Kentucky (Stille, Skinny Deville, Ron Clutch and Big V), and one from Georgia (Fish Scales), the group's back catalog brims with soul-warming, down-home hip-hop grooves topped with intelligent and humble rapping. Deville claims their latest album will "put you in the mood to clean your house on the weekend if it's dirty." It's a formula that's left them as commercial outsiders.

After their major-label debut in 2002, Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz, Nappy Roots has watched other southern artists and regions grab a moment in the mainstream. In 2003, Lil' Jon's rowdy, club-centric crunk broke out of Atlanta. This was followed in 2005 when the spotlight swept through Houston and found Swishahouse alumni Paul Wall, Chamillionaire and Mike Jones (a rapper with a mush-mouthed cadence whose gimmick was to give out his personal phone number in verse) who were lauded for their funky-but-languid sound. Then it was New Orleans' turn, with one-time Hot Boys member Lil' Wayne's transformation into a solo superstar. Even Memphis' Three 6 Mafia scored its own reality TV show.

Today, the radio-friendly formula Atlanta trap rappers T.I. and Young Jeezy have perfected exemplifies the tag "southern rap," along with the supposedly fictional gangsta boasts of Miami's Rick Ross, a rapper with a background as a corrections officer. It's music for the clubs, not a lazy Sunday-morning cleaning session.

Nappy Roots' closest brush with widespread acceptance was 2002's "Po' Folks." Released during their spell on Atlantic Records, the song is an ode to modest living, with earnest raps burnished by a soothing chorus from R&B singer Anthony Hamilton; it earned the group a Grammy nomination. But humble odes don't often win big in rap.

"All people saw was an image that put us in the category of being country-dumb and slow, even though we have `college` degrees and are very active in the community," laments Deville.

Since then, they've gradually come to terms with being critically acclaimed and admired by their peers. On 2003's Wooden Leather Nappy Roots collaborated with Kanye West, Lil' Jon and David Banner, and in 2008, Deville recorded with the Dave Matthews Band. But they have yet to benefit from a larger artist's co-sign — like Jay-Z rapping to the world, "If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli," or Kanye West showing deference for his Chicago roots by masterminding Common's rise from critic's darling to mainstream face and executive producing Common's breakthrough album Be.

But Nappy Roots isn't bitter about their circumstances; it's simply enhanced their unpretentious nature. Instead of lamenting the lack of a "million dollar budget to push various songs and see what sticks," Deville says they're enthusiastically embracing the way the Internet enables them to form bonds with fans.

"With iTunes you can instantly see what songs the fans really like and want to hear at shows," Deville says. "And on YouTube, they post their own videos of the song they like."

From another group, this might sound like publicist-prompted lip service, but Deville is eager to talk about homemade videos.

"Someone put together a slide of our songs called "Dreamin'" and spliced in pictures of Hurricane Katrina and the people down in New Orleans," he says. "It was really moving. I watch it all the time."

Stille says that, in return, he's noticed fans embracing the idea of a genuinely close bond between artist and audience.

"For the fans that keep up with our music, the really devoted ones," Stille says, "it's like a secret gift to them."

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