Hip or Hop?
Holly Robb slinks past the large graffiti mural on the corner of Fourteenth Court and Fourteenth Street in Miami's Overtown district. The tall, curly-haired supermodel is immaculately primped, wearing a translucent orange top with a visible black bra and a short denim skirt that shows off her oiled-up and impossibly long legs. As she saunters by, two smiling preadolescent girls beam lovingly at her as if she were some ghetto-fabulous Venus. Apollo Kid, meanwhile, is off to the side, half staring at Robb and half looking around to see if Naomi Campbell and Christina Milan have arrived.
And just when it seems as though the VIP section from Prive has descended upon Overtown, a hoarse, masculine voice screams "CUT" and temporarily shatters this world.
"We need you to hopscotch," music video director R. Malcolm Jones instructs Robb, pointing to a multicolored chalk outline on the sidewalk. The model looks down at her skin-tight mini and her golden boots with four-inch heels, and then glares at Jones, her soured expression seemingly saying "no fucking way am I hopping anywhere." Eventually, the two reach a compromise. Robb explains: "We decided to do something called the hot-scotch. Basically, I just wiggle [my ass] from side to side for a li'l bit."
Apollo Kid is on the set of Cool and Dre's new video, "Naomi." And in an era of hip-hop history when knob-twiddlers such as The Neptunes, Kanye West, and Lil' John are more critically lauded and commercially celebrated than the artists they're working with, production duo Cool and Dre are arguably Miami's hottest homegrown hip-hop commodity. They've produced for 50 Cent, Ja Rule, Juvenile, Lil' Wayne, Mary J. Blige, and Fat Joe among many others. And with the duo's success, and the migration of Timbaland and Scott Storch to the Magic City, Miami has become ground zero for hip-pop production. Like Cool says, "If you want a hit record these days, you got to come to Miami."
But unlike their peers, Cool and Dre aren't linked to one particular style or sound. From the bluesy swagger of G-Unit's "Hate It or Love It" to the Gothic-kitsch synth swells of Ja Rule's "New York," there isn't a common sonic denominator that runs throughout their songs, and it's oftentimes hard to pick Cool and Dre's work out of a Top 40 lineup. They can churn out dance-floor bombast as easily as they can produce sultry R&B numbers, and, if Dre has his way, they'll soon be producing for rock bands such as The Darkness and Good Charlotte. "Eighties rock and roll is some of the greatest music ever," Dre comments. Oh, you mean like Sonic Youth or Fishbone, maybe? "My favorite records are by Phil Collins, and, oh yeah, The Last American Virgin Soundtrack."
"It's a gift and a curse," Cool comments of the duo's versatility. "When you have a certain sound, you can make an immediate impact and go on a run, but you fall off eventually. But when your music touches on a lot of different sounds, you may not be on top at any one moment, but you're going to stay vital for years and years because no one associates you with one particular sound."
This broad sonic palette can in part be attributed to the fact that while Cool and Dre may be best known as hip-hop producers making their debut with Fat Joe in 2000 their roots are in the R&B world. In the mid-Nineties the duo left their North Miami homesteads and ventured to Atlanta's music world as the R&B group Basic Unity. Unable to find producers who both suited their tastes and were affordable heroes Organized Noize were well out of their price range Cool and Dre began to make their own beats. And while Basic Unity never fully got off the ground, the experience instilled a basic understanding of music that would prove invaluable.
"Starting off with R&B definitely helped out a lot," Dre confides. "We have a great understanding of vocal arrangements and pitch. And after that, the hip-hop side of things came naturally."
After giving up on Basic Unity and returning to Miami, the duo were introduced to Fat Joe. Like so many next generation hip-hop acts in Miami, Cool and Dre cut their teeth working with Joe's crew, The Terror Squad. From there they branched out and began to work with P. Diddy, Trick Daddy, Trina, Buju Banton, Juvenile, and Killer Mike among many others. But while they consistently found work on major label projects, it wasn't until the 2004 release of Ja Rule's "New York" that they fully established their name to the hip-hop fans. That song almost single-handedly rescued Ja Rule's career a fact that we'll try not to hold against them and became the unofficial summer jam of 2004. "'New York' was such a big record for us," Cool says. "It was so different and so weird people had to pay attention to us after that."
Stepping out from behind the boards for "Naomi" and Dre's subsequent solo album (tentatively scheduled to be released early next year) would seem like the next logical step for the duo given their history as R&B performers and the general trajectory for hip-hop producers in this decade, but Cool and Dre were initially hesitant. Cool was the most reluctant he calls himself a "lab rat" and still claims to have no plans to pick up the mike while Dre admits that he only considered it after Scott Storch and Fat Joe heard one of his freestyles and assured him of his talent.
It also makes sense that Dre would be the first one to release a solo record. In person, he's the quirky, loud one exhibiting a goofy dynamism that he shares with fellow producers Kanye West and The Neptunes' Pharrell Williams. And, apparently, he has been auditioning for this moment all his life.
"I always figured that Dre would want to do more than just produce," Dre's mom, Hazel, confides to me during the video shoot. "When he was a kid, he used to sing along and do this little dance routine to 'I Want Your Body.' It was cute."
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