By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
In short Roosevelt Franklin -- a supergroup comprising former Company Flow DJ Mr. Len and Masterminds rapper Kimani Rogers -- is an unknown commodity, invisible like Invisible Man, mostly forgotten like Roosevelt Franklin, the first black Muppet on Sesame Street. Mr. Len concurs, though, that complaining about how backpacker hip-hop is shunned by the media in favor of major-label rap is passé; he would rather talk about the music itself. "The fact that people want things predigested is slowing down the progression of hip-hop music," he explains. He notes how rock music successfully revamps itself every five years while hip-hop culture is seemingly stuck in the same crossover debate first begun in the mid-Nineties. "Meanwhile everything else is speeding by us ... and we're still arguing about underground is better than commercial," he laughs.
So let's focus on Something's Gotta Give, released on Rogers's own record label, Third Earth Music. Rogers claims that, far from yet another anti-rap screed, it's a black comedy full of bitter truths and sharp jokes that cut uncomfortably close to the bone. "I'm a very pissed-off kind of person, so everything pisses me off," he says. He denies that there's a concept behind the name Roosevelt Franklin or the album title. "[Len and I] were talking on the phone one day about how frustrated we were about a bunch of stuff," he remembers, "and it just came out. I think Len actually said it. There's really no grandiose story as to what goes on here."
But in reality, the album is much more mordant, part staking of territory, part diatribe, part confessional. "I'm feeling like I'm going slightly out my head," raps Rogers on "Lately," a chronicle of his travails as a musician and single parent. For him, life as a young adult is pure frustration: The responsibilities are weighing him down, the bills are piling up, and -- worst of all -- the music is getting wacker. "If you listen closely, you'll notice that they're making the same old songs over and over again," Rogers warns as someone declaims in the background, "Something's gotta give!" "Do they even notice?" he asks.
Meanwhile Mr. Len's beats are low-fi, scuzzy funk, raw and fuzzy-sounding, like they were recorded in someone's basement (and probably were). On "I Am So Rich" he speeds up a sample from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Art Star," then segues into a monologue from Adam Sandler's Billy Madison. Roosevelt Franklin heralds what it calls "Small Nigga Music": "Small nigga music, that's what they label it/As if we should be ashamed for just saying shit/Plus, the radio stations, they ain't playing it/But I don't care man, I'm a stay making it."
Rogers plays the classic mad rapper role, offering track after track that are little more than attacks against the thug-pop junk food clogging the hip-hop community's arteries. It's familiar territory for anyone who followed Rogers's previous group, the Masterminds (whose recent breakup he discusses on "The Long Road and Still Walking"). But his anger seems heightened on Something's Gotta Give, as if he's fighting for his life. He tackles love songs ("A Meditation on Why Love Sucks," "Muppet Love") with the same intensity. He even imagines himself robbing MTV talking head Kurt Loder at an ATM machine. It all comes to a head with "Insomnia 411," which also features guest raps from Jean Grae and Slug from Atmosphere. "Here I stand/A man apart/Broken down/Life's so hard," raps Rogers. "Who would have thought that it would come to this?"
The stakes are certainly higher than when the Masterminds made a brief splash with their Live from Area 51 EP in 1999. Back then Mr. Len was the DJ for Company Flow, a crew that was hailed for its classic full-length debut, Funcrusher Plus. Both groups earned plenty of coverage from mainstream rap magazines such as The Source and Rap Pages. But would they get the same love today in an environment where it's all about being as thugged out as possible? "To me, how we did [Funcrusher Plus] was affected by the times and what we hated," says Len, who just released a greatest-hits album, Class-X: Tribute to Company Flow, on his own Dummy Smacks Records. "I still think a Funcrusher 2004 would still have the same impact.
"People get it confused," he adds. "They won't play underground records [now] because we don't have the money to pay for [radio and television airtime]." He dismisses the notion that underground rap isn't as good as mainstream rap. "I don't think those people even actually listen to it to criticize it," he says.
So what's the solution to all of this madness? Rogers admits that he doesn't know. "I'm hoping there's a way to overcome all of this," he says. "Otherwise we're going to go out of business. I think like we've just got to push it even harder, and it will balance itself out in the end."