Ugly Duckling is an unlikely trio of fun-loving Anglo hip-hop weirdos consisting of one stoner party dude, one crate-diggin’ record-collector obsessive who still dresses in Puma gear, and a 6-foot-6 teetotalin‘ born-again Christian former basketball player, the three of whom originally came together to rock their hometown house parties in Long Beach.
Amid early review twitter about Old School this and Old School that, the trio’s full-length follow-up to last year‘s promising debut is currently out. Journey to Anywhere (1500 Records), even more than its predecessor, the worthy Fresh Mode EP, is an unapologetically hook-laden guilty-pop pleasure. With at least 2.5 potentially commersh singles, the new CD showcases the considerable musical advancements of DJ Young Einstein (a.k.a. Rodney Pleasant) and MC-lyricists Andy Cooper and “Dizzy” Dustin McFarland.
This may or may not be good news for the local underground: The point has arrived where a hip-hop group is breaking from the confines of the lyrically dominant two-note-loop aesthetic and is bidding for a broader audience with sassy pop hooks, actual choruses and clean lyrics, but with deep soul love for hip-hop tradition behind the barefaced cheekiness. Dawg, if the Ducklings don’t do it, somebody else will.
While there‘ve been grumblings about Einstein’s potential being stunted by wack MCs with weak flow, killjoy critics be damned — sometimes Andy and Dizzy‘s insolent rhymes are engaging, sometimes they’re even hilarious, and their combined input enables this crew to slide from hard-bumpin‘ backpack b-boy shit into some sleekly funky soul-pop-lite terrain, as in the digable “A Little Samba,” a bar mitzvah DJ party track that bridges some phantasmic netherworld between Will Smith and Warren G, thanks to Einstein’s superb record collection and ear for a great loop. “Pick Up Lines” and a few others are catchy, too.
Though there are more than adequate signs that the Ducklings could become an enduring and great album band, they may finally come to rest critically reviled as a sort of Smashed Sugar Mouth of hip-hop — but not before they create 1.5 immortal SUV-sportsbar hip-hop classics and get the keys to Long Beach during some cute civic ceremony.
“We‘re not about shooting ourselves in the foot over business,” says Andy, “and if there’s gonna be a hit song from the local underground — and it‘s now just a question of who and when that happens — we wouldn’t get sick if it happened to Ugly Duckling. And if not, we‘ll still be happy kickin’ it in the studio . . . and we‘ll always enjoy touring, meeting different people as much as we can.” a
While obviously committed to the vinylsoul ethic of the underground, the Ducklings may only be there for short-term dorm partying, which is of course a heroic mission in and of itself. Though Andy is zealous enough to have worked at a Christian bookstore, he says religion or any other type of moral grandstanding is not in U.D.’s program.
“We personally know probably 60 percent of our fans, who‘ve all been over to Diz’s pad at one time or another when we used to hand out free mix tapes. We‘re counting on their forgiveness if we blow up with a hit song, and face it: All the best rap tunes are produced in pop-song formula anyway, and rap as a genre is cartoonish to begin with — it’s one of the things we most love about it.”
Not that becoming a dumb-pop “guys just wanna have fun” group was on the agenda around ‘93, when former Jordan High student McFarland (same class as Snoop Dogg) hooked up with Pleasant and Cooper. The three gestating Ducks thought they were the only white kids in L.B. listening to psychedelic party rap of the sort produced by the East Coast’s Daisy Age and Native Tongues, while being simultaneously exposed at school to nascent West Coast gangsterology.
Says Dustin, “I remember Snoop as this tall, skinny, braided guy always wearing this old burgundy-colored Taco Bell nylon jacket, no G thang happenin‘ yet. And Warren G was there, too, still wearing tight Gap cords in ’89 — he had these huge, scratched-up glasses that made him look like a mole . . .” Dustin, who has a thank-you credit on a record by Compton‘s Most Wanted, says, “I hung out with D.O.C. at Dre’s during the recording of The Chronic, watching Warren doing a lot of uncredited work, but my style and vibe was way in a different direction.”
Meanwhile, as for the old gibes about white guys putting on hip-hop airs, Andy says, “Beware the egalitarian premise of rap: that anybody can get on the mic and bust it, ‘cuz look . . . they just did! We’re basically three nonviolent, suburban, middle-class white folks who don‘t think we’re black, who don‘t think we’ll ever be black, but who still love hip-hop to the bone.”