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Poem-cees Darrell Perry, aka naturalaw-dp, and Patrick Washington, aka Black Picasso, probably spend more time on U Street NW than they do at their own homes. On any given night, as the smell of deep-fried soul wafts from the kitchen of Webb’s on the corner of 14th and U Streets, Washington and Perry can be found nearby, passing out fliers, performing their poems, or beatboxing in an impromptu cipher.
On the last Friday in April, rhyme aficionados pack the dance floor of State of the Union to hear the Poem-cees perform tracks from their new CD, I.O.U. Street. The crowd, unlike those at most rap shows today, holds as many women as men. Heads nod and hips shake as the Poem-cees’ band warms up the audience with the instrumental from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation.”
With its emphasis on melody and lyricism, the Poem-cees’ brand of hiphop has that back-in-the-day flavor, from the time when party music and storytelling rhymes held sway. It makes a strong case for reviving the poetic elements that rap has lost as the music’s priorities have skewed toward cars, couture, and cash.
“Veins clogged with traffic/City had massive biceps/Covered in chalk outline tattoos/And pimpslapped lumpen proletariats…wearing Radio Rahim rings/Love on the left. Hate on the right,” Perry raps on “Cities,” one of the CD’s more slammish tracks. Throughout I.O.U. Street, Perry and Washington produce an array of off-kilter internal rhyme schemes—and richer metaphors than are found in most of today’s commercial rap.
During the recording process, which took close to six months, Perry, Washington, and their DJ, Rhome Anderson, aka DJ Stylus, decided to go on a haircut strike. Even after the project’s completion, the trio showed up shaggy to the CD-release concert.
“I think I started it,” Washington says by phone. “It began by just being busy. I was like, ‘If I’m gonna look bad, you’re gonna look bad.’ Me, dp, and Stylus decided not to cut our hair.”
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Washington calls the process of making I.O.U. Street “plagued.” The Poem-cees tried several times to put together a live record, but they weren’t quite prepared and got mired in technical troubles. Yet they ultimately managed to assemble a mix of live songs and studio sets that do them justice. “Sha Sha,” arguably the CD’s most infectious tune, with its funky drum ‘n’ bass and unforgettable hook, appears in both live and studio versions.
Washington eagerly takes credit for coming up with the hook for “Sha Sha.” “I challenged dp to a beatbox battle, and I started with that sound like I was stalking him—that Jason [from Friday the 13th] sound. And we kind of went with it.”
Perry, however, tells a different story: “We were experimenting with drum ‘n’ bass, and at the end of a beatbox I would add a ‘sha sha.’ It was, like, a rhythmic thing,” he explains, demonstrating on the phone.
When informed of his partner’s version of the song’s history, Perry responds diplomatically: “I still think I came up with it. But I’ll make the concession that we came up with it in a beatbox session.”
Moments later, Washington is on the other line. Apprised of Perry’s side of the story, Washington feigns insult: “Darrell’s lyin’. Tell him I said he’s a no-good dirty liar, tryin’ to take credit for everything.” He pauses for a moment to think.
“Actually, he did come up with it,” he concludes.
Whoever authored it, the band’s self-proclaimed “world’s easiest hook” easily joins the pantheon of memorable but meaningless lyrics, alongside Little Richard’s “wop bop a loo bop, a whop bam boom” or Michael Jackson’s Swahili-ish “Mama se, mama sa, mama ku sa.” The difference is that the Poem-cees aren’t already famous; if they were, “Sha Sha” would be a hit single.
Fact is, they’re regular guys with real jobs. Perry, who graduated from Georgetown University Law Center, works on contract for various law firms; he describes his occupation as “glorified temp work.” Anderson serves as the Webmaster for the hilarious and controversial comic strip The Boondocks. And Washington works for the Prince George’s County Police Department as a 911 dispatcher.
The 9-to-5 grind makes for good song material. On “Good Morning,” the Poem-cees rhyme about being late to work, but they do so with a range of deliveries, from Kurtis Blow’s old-school, one-syllable-per-beat style to Eminem’s nasal laissez faire. The production, a seamless assemblage of quirky rhythms by Carl “Kokayi” Walker, would make one of the Poem-cees’ heroes, Prince Paul (of De La Soul fame), proud.
Walker also produced the complex drum ‘n’ bass track for “The 180,” an eight-and-a-half-minute batch of free-form rhymes featuring guest Isabella Jenkins, another U Street mainstay formerly known as Baking Soda, who left the scene for a stint in the U.S. Navy. A hidden track features Anderson’s well-placed cuts and scratches while the band riffs on the Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round” and the bass line from De La Soul’s “The Business.” Like De La Soul’s work, I.O.U. Street moves through several musical and lyrical styles—often within the same song—some executed more convincingly than others.
Perry and Washington find themselves most at ease onstage. With their band and Anderson backing them, the two poet-rappers make a dynamic duo in the tradition of Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Gregg Nice and Smooth Bee, or even Kid and Play. And like those old-school rappers, the Poem-cees put on a solid live show, even if it means making fools of themselves.
From the beginning of a show, they mock hiphop stereotypes. “Here’s the part of the show where Patrick grabs his dick!” Perry announces to the audience. Washington stands with his legs wide apart, hand raised dramatically overhead before beginning a slow descent toward his crotch. The hand almost reaches its target, but, at the last second, Washington’s true nature—as the quintessential nice guy—takes over. “Nahhh,” he says, shaking his head.
During a hardcore punk version of Bobby McFerrin’s “Thinkin’ About Your Body,” Perry fetishizes the mike stand, pumping the slim upper rod up and down as if he were jerking off. The electric guitars, bass, and drums play faster and faster, building to a crescendo that leaves the duo on their backs and breathless. “Hey, haircuts ain’t the only thing we gave up trying to put out this CD,” Washington quips to the audience.
A riff on Nice & Smooth’s “Dwyck,” thank goodness, doesn’t become one of those endless let’s-go-back medleys to which most rappers would devote half a show. And the Poem-cees don’t have to coerce the audience into participating; when the folks in the State crowd are divided into two groups and told to make some noise, they oblige with aplomb.
Defiantly upbeat, the Poem-cees follow this ruckus with Bill Withers’ classic “Lovely Day,” which they render as a love song to the audience. The only quiet moment in the show comes when the two request a moment of silence for Filli Villaroma, a much-loved local MC whose life was cut short by asthma earlier this year.
When the Poem-cees start up with the lines “I owe U Street, you owe U Street,” the audience happily joins in. It should be I.O.U. Street’s title track—except it doesn’t appear anywhere on the CD. While the hook continues, Perry and Washington give shoutouts to open-mike hosts they know, as well as to their comrades who help keep D.C.’s poetry scene alive.—Holly Bass