How a group of early-’90s rappers left the big time and rediscovered themselves in D.C.
“Today is going to be a sad day,” Kim Sharpton says, getting out of his black Jeep as his youngest boy, 7-year-old Bilal, runs toward him with a shoe box. “This morning, my son tried to save a baby rabbit who was being eaten alive by a cat, and I don’t think he’s going to make it.”
Bilal sadly shows his dad the box; inside, a rabbit the size of a hamster is curled up and still. Sharpton is silent. “I’m hard as nails, but this gets me every time,” he says, shaking his head.
Around back, Sharpton’s mom, visiting from New York, is building a swing set for his three kids: Bilal, 9-year-old Sheneay, and 11-year-old Todd. Sharpton, his wife, Tina Sharpton, and the kids just moved into the Temple Hills, Md., house last October. Part of what brought him to the area from his previous home in New York was that here he would be able to own a houseand you can tell that he loves fixing it up: He points out the stone path he recently installed, which leads to the back yard and the tiny fish pond he put in out front.
This idyllic suburban setting is hardly where old-school rap fans would expect to find one of the stars of early-’90s hiphop, but it is, indeed, the new home of former UMC’s member Kool Kim, born Kim Sharpton in 1972.
In 1991, the then-19-year-old Staten Island kid hit the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s rap charts with the catchy “Blue Cheese.” The track had been included on a demo that Kool Kim and his musical partner, Haas G, made in a bare-bones basement recording studio and used to net a two-album deal with New York’s Wild Pitch Records. It was the golden age of hiphop, and Cinderella stories like Kool Kim’s were the norm.
“Everybody called us ‘the happy rappers’ ’cause we smiled in all the pictures,” Sharpton remembers. “I was like, ‘Hey I’m 19 and I’m famous!’ It was like a dream come true.”
Naturally, it didn’t last. Thanks to some shady record-label goings-on, Sharpton says, the UMC’s never saw any profits from either of their two albums. And after a member of their entourage took out his frustrations by assaulting a Wild Pitch executive, it was all over for the boys. They were ordered to complete the second album fastforced to write as many as five songs a weekand were then dropped from the label. Hard times followed: a couple of years when, Sharpton notes, “all we did was drink 40s, smoke weedtrashy women coming through; it was just bad.”
By 1995, Sharpton had married his longtime girlfriend, they’d had three kids, and he had finally decided to get out of music and get a real job. He earned a degree in tech support from New York’s Chubb Institute, moved to D.C., and started working as a computer technician for UUNET, a tech-service company under the WorldCom umbrella, where he still works.
“I hate computers, aside from what they do for my music, but I went to the information-technology side of things because I was able to make money, so I did it,” Sharpton says. “But all the while, I was finding my way back into music. Every year, I was doing something to get my name into The Source orI’m a good rapper, so I would just show up somewhere and tear the place up.”
Now, 10 years after his one hit, Kool Kim is one of a growing list of one-time rap stars who have resurfaced in the Washington area. D.C. is fast becoming the hot spot for the granddaddies of hiphop, a place for folks like Kool Kim, Jarobi of A Tribe Called Quest, and Biz Markie to make a transition to the next phase of their musical careers by starting record companies, managing new acts, and DJing.
Kool Kim, for his part, has just launched Final Verdict Music, a record-production company whose first album is his own: the archly titled The Haz Been.
Sharpton’s living room is large and, because of the recent move, sparsely decorated. With the exception of his recording equipment in the corner, the room’s focal points are its only wall decorations: two framed posters of the covers of the UMC’s albums.
But, posters aside, Kool Kim seems to be looking ahead more than he’s looking back. About a year ago, he hooked up with Darryl Willard, a former UUNET co-worker with his own business on the side, a multimedia start-up called Urban South Networks, and enough money and interest to invest in his production company. Kool Kim already has a handful of artists whose albums he’s set to produce after his own; the first will probably be by a honey-voiced, Tevin Campbell-esque 19-year-old D.C. native named Kenny Moore, who has already laid down a few tracks in Kool Kim’s living-room recording studio.
But, first, Kool Kim has to try to make things happen with his own album, currently available only on Final Verdict’s Web site and on www.wherehiphoplives.com. “I’m the guinea pig,” says Kool Kim, who’s busy sending out feelers for a distributor for The Haz Been and throwing listening parties to generate some buzz.
“It’s rough going,” he admits. “I want to be a production company, not a label, but right now I have to run around and sell records, too, so now it’s taking away from the time I’m supposed to be making music, and that ain’t right. Now my artists are starting to feel neglected. It’s like having a bunch of girlfriends.”
And there’s more riding on this, too. Kool Kim envisions this as his last chance to make it as a rapper himself. “If this [album] doesn’t jump off, I’m not gonna be rapping anymore, and it’s not ’cause I’m mad, it’s just ’cause I don’t want to be 33 and trying to get my rapping out,” he says, launching into a comical impersonation of an old guy rapping about young-guy things.
“That’s just regressiona grown man out there talking about young girls,” he says. “At that point, I’m supposed to be the executive.” So his plan is to get Final Verdict going, produce some albums by new talent, and eventually expand the company and train up-and-comers to produce. Along the way, Kool Kim would like to change D.C.’s attitude toward its homegrown rap talent, too. “I want to start establishing a central figure for D.C.’s rap music,” he says. “I’m trying to help jump-start what’s already bubbling under in D.C.”
“The D.C. hiphop scene is very strong; there are a lot of good groups, but it’s still really underground,” says Jarobi (né Jarobi White), who came to the District back in 1993, around the time he left A Tribe Called Quest. “The problem is go-go music. People aren’t willing to listen to anything else. Nothing else is big in D.C.”
Despite his frustration with the local music scene, Jarobi is dedicated to promoting D.C.’s native hiphop talent. Not long after moving here from his native Brooklyn, where he still spends half his time, Jarobi hooked up with D.C.-based producer Heady, whom he had met by chance in his Capitol Hill neighborhood. Heady had recently started Infinite Loop, a Wu-Tang Clan-style collective of 10 Washington-area artists who break down into three groups and a few solo performers. For the past two years, Jarobi has managed all the individual acts as well as lent his business skills to the group. And he’s kept up with performing, too. Right after he started working with Infinite Loop, Jarobi went out on the last A Tribe Called Quest tour, with the Beastie Boys; he’s now about to head out on a summerlong 46-city tour with former Tribe member Phife.
Nonetheless, Jarobi says, “I’m trying to wean myself off of performing.” When he returns from touring, he plans to divide his time between management duties with Infinite Loop and…cooking. When Jarobi first moved to D.C., he worked as a chef at the Northwest jazz bar Takoma Station. Now, the 29-year-old hopes to turn more attention to his culinary ambitions. “I love to cook. Whenever I have down time, I always find a restaurant to cook for,” he says. “I don’t have enough time right now, but after the tour, I really want to focus on my cooking careercooking is really my thing.”
While some of his peers are settling down and moving away from
performing, rap elder statesman Biz Markie, aka Marcel Hall, 37, who hasn’t released any new material of his own for nearly a decade, is ready for a comeback.
It’s no wonder Biz has let so much time pass since his last album. His 1991 disc, I Need a Haircut, sparked a relationship-detonating battle with his then-record label, Warner Bros.
Hall says the conflict arose because the label wanted him to sound more like Ol’ Dirty Bastard and less like, well, Biz Markie, but that was the least of his problems. In what became a landmark case in the music industry, the rapper was sued for copyright infringement by songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan after he used a sample of O’Sullivan’s hit “Alone Again (Naturally)” in his own “Alone Again.”
In 1993, still reeling from the suit, which was ruled in favor of O’Sullivan, Biz released one more album for Warner Bros., All Samples Cleared. Then he made some major changes. Because the Harlem native had long been working with manager Monte Wanzer of Bizmont Entertainment in Maryland, a move to this area seemed like a good way to escape the frustration he had experienced in New York. He bought a house in Laurel, started his own label, and made the conversion from hit-maker to DJ, becoming a major presence on the national club and party circuit.
“I had already built an empire here. I was making so much money as a DJ here. I loved the D.C. area. I loved the Maryland peoplethey appreciate what you give them,” he says. “And when you’re a DJ, you just don’t have to go through a lot of the stuff an artist has to go through.”
But, Biz says, he couldn’t stay away from doing his own music forever. His first album in eight years, Weekend Warrior, is due out at the end of the summer. “I just had a feeling, and I couldn’t get rap out of my system,” he says, admitting that the transition back will have its tough moments. “It feels a little rocky, but I think once I get back into itI think I won’t be as dusty, you know what I mean?”
Despite their shared interests, none of these former stars are in touch with each other, nor have they hooked up with the other rap expatsC-Note from Digable Planets, Grap Luva, Kurious Jorgewho have also settled in the area. They’re all immersed in their own new ventures and focused on getting those off the ground, though it seems it would be logical for them to seek each other out, help each other, use each other. Sharpton says he’d be happy to work with some of these other folks in the area, but he just hasn’t had a chance to see who’s out here. He’s got a family, a new house, and a day job, and he isn’t getting out every night. He has a different life now.
“I never really rapped the way I can rhyme on any of those [UMC’s] albums,” he says about the old days, after playing a few tracks from his new CD. “I’m like Mike Tyson or Muhammad Ali, where you missed my prime. No one really heard me when I was at my best.”
Sharpton, ready to give a bit of attention to some younger artists, calls his children in from outside, where they’re running around playing tag with the neighbor’s kids. His three little rappers have an elementary school talent show at the end of the week and need to clock a little rehearsal time. They assemble in the living room, standing still, with their hands at their sides or folded across their chests, seemingly ready to perform, just waiting for the music to start. But Sharpton shakes his head at them with mock disapproval.
“What’s that?” he says with a smile and a warm laugh. “C’mon, you’ve got to be ready to boogie! The show is Friday.” Bilal, Sheneay, and Todd all instantly hold up a fist clenched as though holding a microphone, loosen their posture, and are ready.
“OK, here we go,” Sharpton says. He cranks up the kids’ ultraproduced background track and they launch into an original rap, grooving and dancing to the music, each one rhyming into an imaginary microphone. Though it’s hard to make out all the words, except when Bilal steps up to rap the alphabet, it’s pretty clear that the children have a good chance of blowing the competition out of the water. Sharpton looks on, smiling proudly.
Later, he pulls out the first-place trophy the kids took home from a recent talent show in New York. “Before they entered I told them, ‘If you want to do this, then you’re going to have to practice, and you’re going to do it right,’” he says. “‘If you’re going to do it, please take it seriously and do it right. This is important to Daddy.’” CP