“It’s really just me apologizing for being a dickhead,” explains Naledge, the M.C. half of hip-hop duo Kidz in the Hall. We’re being chauffeured up the West Side Highway in a roomy SUV with the group’s new album, Land of Make Believe, blaring out of the car stereo. Double O, the production half of Kidz, is riding shotgun, adjusting bass levels and muting the sound when it’s time to talk. The current track, “Do It All Again,” is a candid one, with Naledge addressing a litany of girls he’s wronged (“Real names,” I’m told), and the UPenn grad is offering a rambling, impassioned explanation as we cruise, touching on his personal failings and the expectations of his parents. It’s unconventional as far as listening sessions go, but effective; we’ve been driving around for over an hour, and the two have barely deviated off message: This is our best, most personal album. This is the one that’ll show people why we’re different.
The duo released their debut, School Was My Hustle, in 2006 on Rawkus Records, the indie hip-hop label that was home to Mos Def and Talib Kweli in the nineties, but had gone dormant in 2004. New York interviewed the group at the time, anticipating both the introduction of new underground-rap darlings and the rebirth of Rawkus. Neither happened.
“They stalled out,” Naledge says of the label and its founders, Brian Brater and Jarrett Myer. “We were discovered by this guy John Monopoly who was managing Kanye West at the time, and I think they put all of their faith into him. They figured, he had success with Kanye, I was from Chicago. … [They thought] ‘we’ll give them 10,000 and they’ll make something happen.’” “And then they were like, ‘we need a hot crazy radio record!,’” adds O, still incredulous. “We were like, what? You’re Rawkus … what are you talking about?”
Eventually, Kidz realized their vision of reviving Rawkus was one-sided. “They wanted to take people who already had a buzz and use this business model of giving them a shitty amount of money, and hopefully just staying out of the red,” Naledge says. The Rawkus team has since shifted its focus altogether, purchasing a small network of hip-hop blogs to generate ad revenue. According to O, “Once they realized they could make money and not be in the music industry anymore, they were gone.”
Kidz in the Hall jumped to Duck Down Records for their second album, The In Crowd. The single “Driving Down the Block” (the nominal impetus for this ride) was a modest success; the group eventually landed an endorsement deal with Reebok and placed music in the video games Madden and NBA Live. But they now see it as a miscue. Says O, “That was the album that people really first saw us from, but they didn’t get a good idea of who we were.” As Naledge puts it, “We got lumped in with the movement of hipsterism.”
He’s referring to the wave of eclectic hip-hop acts, including Cool Kids, Kid Cudi, and Wale, many of whom have commercially eclipsed Kidz in the Hall. The two are extremely conscious of their peers and their own financial worth (Naledge on “I Am”: “I’m not a millionaire, this is something I can’t take”). That they’ve been passed by can be credited to a branding failure, they explain, one they vow to correct with Make Believe. “We confused people,” says Naledge. “’Yeah, they’re in it, they’re amongst these people, they’re on the short list, so obviously they must be good … but who are they?’ We straddled the line with the first two albums. This is where we define our sound.”
And so they’ve made an album on which they reflect upon their professional woes. Make Believe is a loose sketch of a boom-to-bust-to-hopefully-boom-again cycle for a rap group on the come-up. (It’s also completely sample-free, with large, warm, genre-hopping beats from Double O.) It tries to capture the frustrations of being somewhere between buzz and breakthrough, and the fear of being washed up in your mid-20s. (The fake Lester Bangs line from Almost Famous — “a mid-level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom” — keeps coming to mind.)
We’ve run through the album and the SUV pulls up in front of the New York offices, idling. Before we exit, we ask the group what it would take for them to consider Land of Make Believe a success. Double O answers: “I care about people hearing it. We can say all day we don’t want to be associated with Drake and Cudi and all that, but that’s not the reality. When they come out, they’re gonna be blasted everywhere. For us, it’s about making a loud enough noise so that people will give it a chance.”