"When we first started, everybody was like, 'Y'all ain't goin' nowhere. We do the real shit. We do real rap,'" group cofounder Darrell "the Saint" Thomas explains. "But it is real. You've never been happy? You've never given your mama a hug or nothin'? You can't just be one flavor all the time."
Verbal Contact formed in 1993 as a hardcore-rap unit known as Parole, consisting of Thomas and his longtime partner-in-rhyme, Blaze-1. Parole made enough headway to enter into discussions with Capitol Records, which informed the act that its smutty lyrics hindered any chance it might have of nabbing a major-label deal. Parole kept its roguish aura but renamed itself Verbal Contact and permanently dropped the fucks, shits, bitches and hos.
"It was harder to write the lyrics, but it was more of a challenge," the gravel-throated MC recalls. "Instead of throwing a cuss word in, we'd substitute it with something else that was just as hard. We want to give you the same flavor the street has. We just don't want to use any profanity. It was also a way to be different from any other group, 'cause at the time, everybody else was hardcorin'."
It's a situation filled with irony: Area stages overflow with MCs battling to be the hardest or most outlandish, but Verbal Contact is fighting to be the most family-friendly. Thomas is critical of supposedly curseless local hip-hoppers who use technicalities to sidestep the issue, such as inviting foul-mouthed guests to appear on their albums. Others, he asserts, merely claim to be profanity-free and let the f-bombs fly anyway.
"I don't want to start no beef," Thomas says. "Rap tends to do that, and I don't even want to deal with that kind of stuff. But there are artists that claim not to [swear], but then they got cussin' on their albums or they cuss at shows. We recently did a show with a guy who was on the news -- 'He ain't got no cussin' on his stuff.' And I'll be danged, when they got out there performing, they was cussin' like a mug. Some people will use whatever advantage they can use to get their music goin'."
Thomas insists that Verbal Contact's approach hasn't taken away from the music. After all, rappers regularly issue radio versions of their material, many of which take on a life of their own. D-12's "Purple Pills" blew up the national airwaves as "Purple Hills," and local listeners tuned into get crunked up with the 57th Street Rogue Dog Villians.
"It can be done and still sound just as good," Thomas says. "['Can I Get a ... '] by Jay-Z, everybody liked the what-what version better than they liked the fuck-you version. We want to make music that everybody can appreciate. I don't just want to make music for one gender [or age]. I want everybody to be able to hear and feel where I'm coming from. If your delivery's real and it's raw, people are gonna feel it."
That was certainly the case with MTV's Ultimate Hip-Hop Talent Search, a worldwide contest that received thousands of entries from aspiring rap artists. In 1999, Verbal Contact was one of only 32 acts chosen to compete in the finals. The increased attention led to the May 2000 release of VC's debut, Poetical Checkmate, issued on Thomas' startup label, LokJaw. With Checkmate in stores, VC began showcasing its live set anywhere and everywhere, including some truly offbeat gigs: rocking diners at Grace's Soul Food; opening for Jaheim at the Scottish Rite Temple; and performing during halftime for KC Krunch, the city's female football league.
"I take on all gigs pretty much," says Thomas, who holds an associate's degree in business management from Penn Valley Community College. "When you can master those shows -- where people are full of liquor and don't know who you are -- if you can do those shows and people love you, you're doing good. It's almost like the Blues Brothers when they was trying to sing country and they had the beer bottles thrown at 'em. We have a lot of video footage of us doing places like that."
To its credit, VC staunchly refuses to stack the deck in its favor.
"You see some artists up there performing, and all these people are cheering for them, but they just brought their whole neighborhood. Verbal Contact comes with just Verbal Contact. If we rock the crowd, we know we got love, 'cause we don't know any of the people."
In February 2002, VC brought its profanity-free ruckus to 10,000 fans at the Winter Olympics. The historic gig came about by way of yet another off-the-radar show, a National Association for Campus Activities conference held at Nashville's famed Opryland Hotel. A Utah promoter caught VC's set and immediately offered the group a slot in Salt Lake City.
"At first we were like, 'Yeah, right,' but we kept in contact, and before I knew it, we were on our way out there," Thomas says. "You never know what show is gonna lead to another. You just never know who's gonna be out in the audience."