Hip-Hop Gets Mellow

Mr. Cheeks, homeboy turned homebody, loves the quiet life in Miami

"I can relate to that," he says with an appreciative nod as Matchbox 20's singer mournfully wanders into the street and begins flailing his arms. "He's scared he's gonna break apart and not be able to put himself back together again."

You can identify with Matchbox 20?

"Sure, that's how I'd feel if my girl left me." He shakes his head quickly: "I don't even want to think about that."

Kulchur is still trying to mesh this professed love of Hallmark-card pop with John P. Kelly's braggadocio when Cheeks moves on to even stranger terrain. "You know what this song reminds me of?" he asks, then begins softly crooning: "Sailing takes me away to where I wanna be...."

Please don't tell me you're a Christopher Cross fan.

"Oh yeah, that's what I put on after I have an argument with my girl. I just get in the car, put him on, and drive." He adds with a laugh: "Sometimes I think I get into a fight just so I have an excuse to get out on the highway and listen to that stuff."

Aesthetic diversity is one thing, but this is a bit much to digest. Behind hip-hop's grim veneer, could there be a secret love for pure pop? When the dressing-room doors are safely locked, is Snoop Doggy Dogg lip-syncing to Seals and Crofts? Is Dr. Dre grabbing for his phone whenever Time-Life airs its commercials for The Best of Bread? What is it in these sugary melodies that Cheeks is connecting with?

Kulchur's musing is interrupted by the clock -- it's about time for Apocalypse Now Reduxto start at Sunset Place's cinema. Surely this is a slice of life closer to a streetwise MC's heart than Christopher Cross.

Post-film, Cheeks says little. As Kulchur drives him back to his Kendall home, Cheeks occupies himself with rolling a thick joint in his lap. Perhaps he's simply overcome by the sheer spectacle of Apocalypse Now; several weeks before the attacks of September 11, that film still seems more surreal than cautionary.

Finally, after much prompting, Cheeks offers up only one terse observation: Lawrence Fishburne looked "crazy young" onscreen.

Maybe it's a frustrated response to Cheeks' less-than-illuminating comments, maybe it's the effects of a contact high -- Kulchur launches into a grand soliloquy on Apocalypse Now's depiction of Vietnam, the senseless slaughter of that war, and the civilians caught in its free-fire zones. Aren't there parallels here with America's urban ghettos -- perhaps even South Jamaica?

Cheeks is silent for a long time. Then, after a barely audible sigh, he turns to Kulchur and says pointedly: "No." After what seems like another eternity, he goes on: "I've been reading Tupac [Shakur's] book (the posthumously published The Rose That Grew from Concrete). "He talks about black and white folks being scared of the same things. Those black stickup kids that makeyou nervous?" He cocks an eyebrow. "They make usnervous too."

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