the diff-hop. by Nadia Pflaum
So the members of the hip-hop group Deuce Fontane, Smoov Confusion and PL got together for a brainstorming session. But the process was tiresome. Icons such as records, turntables and microphones were all done to death. Marcus Johnson, aka Smoov Confusion, was getting frustrated.
"Man, just decide on something! We can use a spork, for all I care!" Smoov blurted.
"A spork?" asked Leronta Austin, who goes by PL. "Done."
"Seriously? I was just kidding," Smoov protested.
But the decision was made. The eating utensil seemingly spawned through intercourse between a spoon and a fork (and found at seafood and fried chicken restaurants anyplace where coleslaw is dished out) became the hip-hop group's talisman.
So when the group performs at the Peanut, the News Room, the former Kabal (the venue where Smoov and PL work as bouncers, which is soon to be the Skybox) or any of the other venues that host hip-hop in town (which are becoming few and far between), they come packing sporks. PL sticks sporks between his locks. Smoov tucks sporks so that they poke out from under the brim of his black hat. Deuce fills the pockets of his cargo pants with the plastic-pronged implements and hands them out at shows. Their MySpace pages which have supplanted the group's Web site as the Servers' main means of electronic communication with the world feature pictures of people wielding sporks with mock menace.
Smoov's spork source is Charlie D's catfish restaurant. Deuce goes to Popeye's. PL gets his sporks for 15 cents apiece at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The spork is a perfectly odd symbol for a perfectly odd threesome. Rapper Deuce (government name: Cormel Lee) is a beefy 27-year-old who favors extra-large T-shirts and jokingly refers to himself as the President of the Unemployed Rappers Guild. PL, 31, is a witty, sloppy teddy bear with short dreadlocks who used to sing in musicals at Lincoln High School. And Smoov is a charismatic entertainer who dresses stylishly in mostly black, rocks chunky silver jewelry, and loves Outkast and the related Dungeon Family so much that he vaguely resembles Andre 3000. He says he's 25.
The group started performing together in 2001. Before that, Smoov and PL met while working at at Sports Fever in Ward Parkway Center. The two formed a hip-hop duo called Rough Draft, snagging beats and learning tricks of the trade from veteran producer JKR70 of the Human Cropcircles.
After leaving Sports Fever, Smoov got a job with Teletech, the company that staffs the U.S. Postal Service's information line. Deuce worked there, too. Everyone there knew that Deuce rapped; fellow employees dared him to write a rap about the post office, and he did it. He and Smoov hit it off, and the Soul Servers were born.
What immediately sets the Soul Servers apart on the KC hip-hop scene is the group's infectious harmony. All three members rap, and Smoov and PL have been singing since they were itty-bitty, but the Soul Servers were skittish to sing at first. Not everybody likes rhymes with harmony on the side.
"A lot of hip-hop has R&B hooks or style in it. But Little Brother was the watermark, for me," PL says. "They were the first to incorporate real harmony in their vocals and be accepted wholly as hip-hop.... And so fuck it if you like it, you like it, and if you don't, you don't."
But you can't not like it. "Diff-hop" is the term the Servers have coined to describe their music. It's hip-hop, obviously, but they're not afraid to mess around with elements of funk, rock and country. "I wrote a song with Anthony Hamilton in mind, but Garth Brooks can sing it, too," PL says.
Their most recent release, called Lo-Carb Mixtape, is full of surprises, the first being that it sounds decent despite having been recorded at Smoov's house. The song labeled "Dreamin'" starts off with a Kanye-esque, sped-up soul sample that sounds like the Chipmunks. The beat, created by a producer known as Identity Deleted, then melts into an infectious, harmonized hook that sticks in the head for days: I was down and out, strugglin, wondering how I was gonna make it through. A sample of the classic blues song "Stormy Monday" is featured on the second track, and Blondie's "Call Me" is sampled throughout the most rugged and high-energy song on the mix, "Rollin' Rocks."
The song "Bucket Fly" turns out to be a perfect summer anthem, an ode to riding around in a rust bucket with the windows down, not giving a shit who's rollin' on dubs. PL's verse goes: I roll an '84 LaSabre with some matching tags/No shocks in the back, and the tailpipe drags/The radio works when I'm not turning left/I got a short in my lighter that might spark you half to death. In unison, the Servers reference Will Smith's "Summertime," a nod to an original warm-weather car song: Two miles an hour, so everybody sees you.
Recently, the Soul Servers met up with the Pitch at a KFC in KCK for a spork-reconnaissance mission. The same fine-tuned chemistry that allows them to put on an action-packed stage show has also given them an uncanny ability to deliver jokes around a fast-food booth, usually at each other's expense. Or, today, at Smoov's expense.
"Uh-oh, I feel another short joke coming," Smoov says.
"You mean a joke about you being short, or a joke that doesn't take long to tell?" PL asks.
Smoov says, "Probably the latter."
PL: "You need a ladder? We sitting down!"
Between bites of Original Recipe, the subject quickly returns to summer rides.
"Like we talk about in 'Bucket Fly,' my '88 Escort, the house speakers in the back went out on it," Smoov recalls. "So I used to have a little portable player in the back. Me and my brothers and sisters, all the way out to school, they know [Outkast's] 'Southernplayalisticadillacmusik,' like, front to back."
PL jumps in. "Now, you do realize, you telling that story and you being in high school when 'Southernplayalisticadillacmusik' came out, people are going to go to the beginning of the article where you say you're 25, and they'll realize something is not right. People aren't fools. They can figure it out. I'm a tell 'em, mmm-hmm, this guy's 36. He older than Jay-Z."
Deuce piles on. "You been 25 for the last 15 years!"
PL: "Fool's pushing, like, 43. He about to collect Social Security."
Deuce: "You still got your Model T?"
In the midst of this brotherly bickering, several sporks fall out of Deuce's hand.
"I did that with my mind," Smoov says. He eyes Deuce's discarded piece of chicken, looking for viable meat still hanging. "I used to get beat for leaving that much meat on the bone."
PL continues on the car theme. "I had a cool first car. Boomin' system in the back. That's right, four-by-sixes, son!" Everyone cracks up. "You had to press the end of the radio knob to get it to turn on. Took me a minute to figure out. Then, after about three months of pushing it in, the radio knob was, like, PLOINK!"
It's too bad you can't hear the Soul Servers on the radio, other than the odd play on the local Show-Me Mix Show on KKFI 90.1 Saturday nights.
"Hey, fuck KPRS [103.3]!" PL says. "They're, like, the biggest radio station here, allegedly, for Kansas City, but you don't hear nothin' by Kansas City."
Smoov says, "Hey, let's give 'em a fair shot. You know half of the artists here don't have their stuff together."
"But what about those of us who do have their stuff together?" Deuce asks.
PL continues: "And it's not that the artists here don't have their stuff together. But KPRS don't want to play it. That's the bottom line. How do you play [D4L's] 'Laffy Taffy' simply because other stations in the nation are playing it, and you don't play Reach? You don't play Sounds Good, and you don't play Approach, and you don't play C.E.S. Cru? I don't even eat Laffy Taffy anymore because of that song!"
The Soul Servers expect to release a full-length album by the end of the year; until then, they'll perform at places such as the Peanut downtown (where they'll be on Monday, July 10). And Deuce will soon release a solo effort that marks his roots with the Soul Servers: Deuce Fontane: Sporks Gone Wild! The temporary solo act is "mainly because I don't like Smoov," Deuce jokes.
If the music thing doesn't work out, the Soul Servers could go on the road as a new-millennium Three Stooges. But as long as fortune smiles upon them and the three MCs keep turning out sporktacular beats and rhymes, they won't need comedy routines to fall back on.