There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The Outsider Click says: Don’t believe the hype—even about the band.
From age 11, when Maurice “Teddy” Halder first incorporated heavy-metal guitar riffs into the accompaniment of his mother’s gospel church choir, he’s seen himself as an iconoclast in the music business.
Halder moved on from Metallica to Bob Marley with his first reggae group, Special Effects, which, he says, often opened for big acts at the former Kilimanjaro in Adams Morgan. Eventually, he landed a money gig promoting rapper TQ for Sony Records. Working for the big boys, Halder says, he witnessed firsthand how creative types in the industry get treated like disposable Schicks. “Even when you work for them, you really don’t count,” Halder says.
So he ditched the mainstream and moved underground to form Simple City Records, whose first album, Puttin’ DC on tha Map, by the Outsider Click, will be released this spring. Up to now, D.C. hasn’t been known in the hiphop industry as fertile ground for aspiring artists. The local scene is quite small, because almost any group with any amount of potential quickly moves to a city, such as New York or Atlanta, that has a better reputation for supporting underground music. Simple City and the Outsider Click, Halder hopes, will change all that.
The label’s name says everything, Halder notes. “The whole way we’re doing it is simple,” he explains when I meet him one Friday afternoon at the Au Bon Pain in Union Station. As a producer plotting to put D.C. on the hiphop map, Halder engages in a little cultural geography as well: Simple City, as many locals know, refers to a specific collection of streets around the Southeast public housing complex Benning Terrace. In the early ’90s, warring factions of the notorious Simple City Crew made the area around 46th Street SE a contemporary Wild West. After the gang-related abduction and murder of a 12-year-old boy three years ago put municipal floodlights on the carnage, the Simple City factions known as the Avenue and the Circle brokered a truce to stop—or at least significantly curb—the violence.
Halder says that the name pays tribute to the people in the neighborhood, though he himself, as well as the other members of Outsider Click, grew up elsewhere. “They live life lovin’,” Halder explains. “They help each other out. It’s not the best neighborhood in the world, but they stick together.”
Sitting on Halder’s immediate right this afternoon, sipping a Nantucket Nectar, is Eric Ford. Ford’s conventional hiphop uniform contrasts starkly with Halder’s earth-toned pseudo-Hawaiian shirt: Ford wears a black “Weed Week” cartoon T-shirt over a red long-sleeved jersey and a black nylon cap hiding underneath his bright-red Yankees baseball cap. He’s known to his friends and family as TRIFE, an acronym that stands for “The Real Is Forsaken on Earth.” Sometimes, TRIFE says, he also goes by TRIFE, the Messenga, because he sees himself as a rhythmic truth-teller. TRIFE’s 2-year-old daughter accompanies him, as well as his younger brother, Anthony, aka Little Ant.
Just as I fill out the scorecard, Halder adds a late substitution: “For purposes of the story, I’d rather be known as Lefty,” he says.
Lefty and TRIFE form roughly one-third of the Outsider Click. Last year, Lefty met Rodney Walls, aka Big Rod, who had been informally rapping with some buddies from his stint in the military—Melvin “Memphis” Beverly and Jason “Malik” Kaiser, as well as TRIFE. At that time, they had simply referred to themselves as the Outsiders.
After compiling about 20 tracks, Lefty says, he put the best of them together for an album. On Jan. 31, Simple City Records issued a press release announcing the album’s issue. The name alone caught my attention, but it was the second sentence that reeled me in: “The project was delayed when Snuff (Anthony Richardson) one of the group’s rapper [sic] was arrested for the robbery and kidnaping [sic] of a Virginia area cab driver in November last year,” the news release read.
“He was part of the group, and then he got locked up,” Lefty hesitantly admits as Amtrak passengers grab last-minute croissants at the cafe. “He did some bad decision-making.”
Simple City Records is housed in the Carriage Hill section of Suitland, over the District line in Prince George’s County, about three miles away from its namesake community. A development of low-rise brown-brick garden apartments, Carriage Hill has erected a sign with yellow smiley faces telling visitors to “Have a Nice Day” and to “Hurry Back.”
The press release lists the address as a “suite,” but “apartment” would be more appropriate. The Thursday following our rendezvous at Au Bon Pain, Lefty escorts me past the giant-screen TV in his living room and into a small bedroom that has been converted into Simple City’s studio.
TRIFE, Memphis, Malik, and Lefty huddle around the computer monitor, sitting on living-room chairs. It looks like a Microsoft ad designed for The Box video network. Two rectangles of egg-crate foam hang from the ceiling above the computer monitor for makeshift soundproofing.
The week before, Lefty gave me a cassette with a sample of the Outsider Click’s songs. He apologizes for its poor quality and plays a few tracks off the computer as we wait for Big Rod to make his appearance.
We start with “They Think They Like That.” TRIFE, gripping a Steel Reserve 40-ouncer, starts singing along:
They think they like that
‘Cause they got a record deal.
They think they like that
‘Cause they cop half a mil.
They think they like that
‘Cause they drive fancy cars.
They think they like that
‘Cause they spit a few weak bars.
It’s quite catchy—a good hook, TRIFE explains. He says he came up with the song while walking to the corner store near his house in Arlington. I conclude that it’s about the difference between mainstream—Sean “Puffy” Combs, say—and underground hiphop, but TRIFE remains diplomatic. “I’m not targeting nobody—[like the] people that I’m seeing on video, hearing on the radio, [who are] spinning like they’re on top of the world when we’re doing something a lot more epic,” TRIFE says. The other songs—”Marijuana” and “Fallen Soldiers,” for example—contain more standard hiphop fare: an obsession with niggas, guns, and drugs.
The Hit Factory it’s not. The group uses a small microphone that looks like an Itty-Bitty Book Light to record lyrics on the Cakewalk multitrack audio software program housed in Lefty’s computer. The monitor sits atop a stereo system that farms the music out to the speakers on the right and left. A drum machine adds the beats and bass.
Cakewalk obviates all the big money and high pressure surrounding studio time, allowing the group to approach recording sessions as an opportunity to just kick it and have some fun. Tonight’s no different, apparently.
Between grabs for the computer mouse, Lefty reaches for the 40-ounce Schlitz Malt Liquor bottle. Malik downs a Guinness. For the time being, Memphis sticks to a few Newports and bumming Malik’s lighter. I suddenly feel transported back to my college dorm: Out come the paper corner-store bags, Philly Blunts, and Ziploc baggies, which I appreciate as much as the next person. After all, they’re just “keeping it real,” as Lefty is wont to say.
Soon, Big Rod shows up, wearing a black Tupac memorial T-shirt. “Underground groups are usually going to be themselves, and they’re not going to conform to what you want them to be,” he says. “They’re going to make music that they enjoy, not music that someone else is going to enjoy.”
“Everybody in here are poets, writers, lyricists,” adds Big Rod. “That’s one thing with the commercial stuff you hear. That’s stuff that’s put together. They sat there and said, ‘I’m going to write a song for the club. I’m going to write something that follows a formula, that will make money.’”
The group decides to throw together a song freestyle. All of a sudden, it’s Final Jeopardy: Big Rod whips out his five spiral notebooks, Malik his large binder; Lefty, Memphis, and TRIFE all grab pieces of paper. Pens in hand, they stare at the sheets with intensity.
Voices fall silent, and the beat Lefty has created for the verses plays in the background. Memphis strokes his chin, engaged in a staring contest with the lined paper. TRIFE writes slowly, Lefty furiously. Five minutes later, Lefty’s already starting to record his track. Memphis’ sheet is still blank.
Whatever you feel keepin it real
Blowin shit up like Remington Steele
The Outsider Click’s feelin good tonight
Smokin weed, gettin high, feelin all right
Still smokin, still chokin, smokin up all
your dope an…
Tryin to put D.C. back on tha map
With the dope-ass beat tha shit is fat
Big Rod say do whatever you feel
That’s why the Click is keepin it real.
“Let me do a beat track,” TRIFE bugs Lefty.
Lefty doesn’t even turn his head. He watches the bars and waves of the Cakewalk program slide across his screen.
TRIFE presses him. “It just took you five minutes to do this,” he says.
“It would take you longer, trust me,” Lefty mutters.
Big Rod argues that, for the Outsider Click, it’s not all about money and fame. “First of all, all those people you see in videos are people who went to [producers] and didn’t have anything other than music to fall back on,” he says as he fills in for Lefty at the computer. “Every one of us has a road that we have followed—we have proven ourselves in other fields than just music. So when [mainstream rappers] go to them, they make them in their image—what’s going to make money.”
He rolls the mouse around in circles with some frustration. “Teddy really needs to get a new mouse pad,” Big Rod says. He knows his equipment: During the day, Big Rod works as a senior Novell administrator. Fellow rappers Memphis and Malik also work as propellerheads during the day and moonlight as hiphop heads at night.
“Wasn’t nobody saying we’re going to do this to make a living. We had to be for real,” says Big Rod. “We have jobs….We had to do careers first. We still have to make sure our families are taken care of.”
At Au Bon Pain, Lefty handed me a bunch of materials on Simple City, including biographies of himself, Big Rod, and TRIFE. After reading them over, I’m still unclear about TRIFE’s career path, so I ask him about it in a later phone conversation. TRIFE says the first time he saw the biography was at our first meeting at Au Bon Pain, and he wasn’t too impressed with Lefty’s prose on his behalf. “I don’t see a good thesis. I don’t see a good summary. I don’t see a good paragraph,” TRIFE critiques. He especially focuses on Lefty’s topic sentence: that TRIFE dropped out of high school. As a writer and poet, TRIFE objects to Lefty’s minimalist approach. “Give me some adjectives; give me some verbs; give me some metaphors,” TRIFE suggests.
The bio wasn’t the only surprise TRIFE had that Friday. The inclusion of Snuff’s criminal justice credential in the news release was shocking to him as well, especially because Little Ant was with Snuff when the robbery occurred.
According to TRIFE, Little Ant and Snuff, who’s a friend of TRIFE’s and Little Ant’s from way back, hopped in a cab in Virginia to head back to D.C. Snuff then pulled a gun on the driver, Mohammad A. Hassani, according to both TRIFE and Fairfax County court documents.
Snuff is now awaiting trial at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center.
TRIFE believes the press release gives a false impression of the Outsider Click. “I think [Lefty’s] like, ‘Well if I put this in there, it’s gonna catch notice,’” says TRIFE. “People are gonna be like, ‘One of the group members got locked up—man they’re rough.’”
TRIFE explains that Snuff appears only once on the album, in a single verse on the song “Fallen Soldiers.” He’s been over to Lefty’s house only once, the night the “Fallen Soldiers” track was recorded.
Though Lefty insists that everyone who sings in any of the songs is a member of the Outsider Click, TRIFE says that neither Snuff nor Little Ant thinks of himself as part of the group. In fact, when Lefty called TRIFE to set up our first meeting, he was surprised that Lefty asked him to bring Little Ant along. Now, TRIFE admits, it all makes sense: “I think that’s why [Lefty] asked me to bring him [to Union Station],” TRIFE tells me. “He said, ‘Bring your little brother, too.’”
Lefty denies any ulterior motive in crafting the press release. “In doing PR, everything is not roses and candy,” he says.
There’s fallout from the Thursday session, as well. Lefty chastises Big Rod for sending me a follow-up e-mail after our meeting. I hear from group members that Big Rod has threatened to quit the group. When I inquire about the exchange, Big Rod replies on e-mail: “Recent developments had surfaced that made me see that Teddy and I could not perform proper business together so I informed Teddy that he should promote his own project and I would focus toward promoting my own project.”
Lefty downplays the dispute: “There’s no problem creatively; it’s just the business end. It’s about protocol,” he says.
Big Rod implies that Lefty has taken the fun out of the Outsider Click. Big Rod says Lefty sees himself as a big-time producer, but he, Big Rod, doesn’t. TRIFE agrees. “I don’t know what label [Lefty’s] talking about,” TRIFE admits to me. “I never knew [Lefty] had a label.”
“I wouldn’t even call it an album. I want to know where these songs are coming from,” adds TRIFE. “He has an industry going around in his head, and nobody else really knows what’s going on.” CP