The Wicket World of Natas

Natas are caught between rap and rock

Posted Mar 02, 2000 12:00 AM

Because he's a rapper from Detroit, Natas' Esham Smith sometimes gets compared to Eminem, Kid Rock and the Insane Clown Posse. But Esham himself suggests a different subject for comparison -- Korn. "Really," he asks, "what's the difference between our shit and Korn?" You asking me?

Esham: Yeah! You really rap.

Esham: They're rapping, too. Limp Bizkit, they're rapping. Kid Rock is a fucking rapper, dude! Put the issue out there -- I can tell you when I look in the mirror.

It's race, he says without saying. Esham, who's black and twenty-five years old, has sold over half a million records without the benefit of national distribution. He's made fourteen full-length albums over ten years, heavy metal-fueled hip-hop records, and he's ready for them to get played on MTV next to Korn's and his old friend Kid Rock's.

"The rules and regulations are different for us and them," he says. "They can go out there and say anything they fuckin' want, and everybody scrutinizes everything we do." Case in point, Eminem's song "Guilty Conscience." "Here's a song where somebody raped a fifteen-year-old girl and they play the shit on MTV," he says, exasperated. "They'd be kickin' my fuckin' door down!"

For the longest time no one had been kicking Esham's door down, particularly the major labels. But Wicket World, the latest album by Esham's band, Natas, will be nationally distributed by TVT Records. This is a first for Esham, who released his first album Boomin' Words From Hell while still in high school, in 1990. The subsequent flow of LPs and EPs that followed never managed to make Esham a major player in hip-hop. But he has cultivated no-nonsense business skills and a killer reputation. He and Natas have honed a musical attack somewhere between Tupac Shakur, Onyx and Ozzy Osbourne, which places them on a propitious if uncertain piece of prime pop music real estate. He's also become a bit paranoid.

"We been out here for so long, the shit is like aviation -- we can't afford to make a mistake," he says of the pressure. "We'll crash and burn. We didn't have no help, no advertisement, no fucking nothing. All our shit was strictly word of mouth, people sayin', 'Yo, that's a good record.'" Esham lists Detroit radio, large record stores, and the hip-hop industry in general as being especially unresponsive.

"The hip-hop world is distant from what we do, because they can't put our music in no particular category," he explains. "We got rock guitars on our shit. The urban stations say it's too fucking hard. The pop stations, they like, 'No, it's too rap.' It's out there in the middle. We give it to the people, who love it."

Esham grew up in the Seven Mile neighborhood of East Detroit. He studied piano, guitar, flute and trombone in high school and formed Natas (which stands for Nation Ahead of Time and Space) with two friends, MCs called TNT and Mastamind. "Detroit is rock city," he says. "I was listening to all kinds of music -- Ozzy Osbourne, Kiss, and then all that urban shit. It's all rap to me -- a drum beat and a singer. It's all just music to me." Esham made a classic Midwestern move: he crossed the beats and raps of hip-hop with the riffage and horror flick gore of death metal, and dubbed his concoction Acid Rap. "Acid Rap was basically, boom! You pop some acid and it's hallucinatin' rap," he explains. "I was doin' the shit that Eminem's doin' right now and they said I was crazy as hell. But I wanted to make a record that didn't sound like nobody's record."

If Esham keeps mentioning Kid Rock and Eminem, don't get the idea that he begrudges them their success. "Back in the day I used to record with Kid Rock, show him how to write raps. He's been doin' his craft for a long time. He's a good, down-to-earth guy." And while only white rappers from Detroit seem to make the big time, Esham resists the temptation to dismiss their music. "I kinda love it," he says. "They grew up listening to our raps, so the intensity and the fierceness of their style was cultivated and developed from the things that we were doing."

Despite the connection between Kid Rock and Natas, Esham's group firmly sounds like hip-hop, rather than rock with rappers. Natas' take on hip-hop is wired, in every sense: to the Internet, to the guitar amp and just generally electrified. Wicket World opens with the sound of a modem dialing up and soon gives way to a claustrophobic beat powered by a creeping, insect-like bassline. TNT, Mastamind and Esham rhyme with fierce, almost neurotic intensity, spitting, "Niggas kill me/They wanna kill me/They fucking with the real in me/They wanna see the ill me!" Pumping up their flow is an unending barrage of grimy beats and lots of distorted guitars -- everything from ominous arpeggios to full metal riffs. Songs like "Cyberkill" and "Metropolis" evoke the violent fantasy raps that Esham made his name on. But on Wicket World, he casts his net much wider. The sexed-up "Oriental Spas" playfully quotes the wistful 1972 soul hit "Everybody Plays the Fool," by the Main Ingredient. And the final track, "Motivate" shines a sunny piano line over a tough-as-concrete beat and some triumph-over-adversity-type lyrics -- it's a striking contrast of emotions that artfully eludes the cheese factor.

Another artful move is Esham's truly off-the-hook choice in album cover. The Garden of Early Delights by 15th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch is a trippy tryptich (it's got three panels) representing heaven and hell and everything in between, including humans being raped by rabbits and demons and pigs, all in a late-Rennaissance style. Much of the painting is colored differently than it was originally, with some figures colored blue, red or green. "Some people can't even get past the cover," says Esham. "You gotta get hip to Bosch. He's got some ill shit like that. Detroit is the most diverse place I know. You got blacks, whites, Mexicans, Chinese motherfuckers, Arabs. All these people listen to our music and they all kick it the same way. They all say, 'What's up? How you doin'?' That's really what the wicket world-wide is about: everybody communicatin' the same way. It's all open."

(February 22, 2000)



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