“If we tried to be like Snoop Dogg or 50 Cent, I don’t think it would work for us,” explains rhymer Andy Cooper of Long Beach throwback outfit Ugly Duckling. “Then we would be wack and broke.”
The aptly named Ugly Duckling — filled out by DJ Young Einstein and rapper Dizzy Dustin — are, give or take a shade, about as white as they come. Like the Beastie Boys before them, Ugly Duckling just have to carry that weight; race and class are as much a part of the hip-hop equation as beats and rhymes. But Long Beach has always been a place where worlds collide, and Ugly Duckling — who formed out of high school around 1993 — have learned the city’s lessons well.
“Long Beach is one of the most diverse cities in America,” says Cooper proudly, “so we have, for the most part, grown up ignoring stereotypes and expectations. If anything, Long Beach gave us lessons in diversity and flexibility. Being raised there taught us how to get along with just about every type of person.”
And, as anyone from Long Beach will tell you, the easiest way to do that is to throw a house party. Like Ugly Duckling, I grew up a white kid in the LBC at the dawn of hip-hop. Some of my friends came from the nicer parts of town; some of us walked to school at Long Beach Poly past the fucked-up winos, pissed-off gangbangers and Jehovah’s Witnesses. But we all gravitated to the pot-hazed house parties the city rocked, and reveled in the camaraderie, beefs and altered states they incited.
And that’s precisely what Ugly Duckling have tried to do on the hopeful new Bang For the Buck, a loose collection of call-and-response jams, turntable dexterity and lyrical show-offs. In a recent four-star review, rock bible MOJO raved, “This wonderful record sets out to put the fun back into hip-hop.” (Ugly Duckling are fun, all right: Their previous effort was a fast-food concept album titled Taste the Secret.) Whether it’s the amped-up “The Breakdown” and “Let It Out” or the rollicking team-up with People Under the Stairs called “Shoot Your Shot,” Bang For the Buck is all about the old-school rhyme flows steeped in pre-crunk drum structures, cheese-ball similes and shout-outs to their DJ, something rap stars can’t seem to be bothered with anymore, although it is a cornerstone of rap that goes back farther than Eric B. or Jam Master Jay.
“We wanted immediacy and action,” explains Cooper — “We wanted the record to sound like a karate movie, an old Western and Saturday-morning cartoons combined. Crazy explosions; funky breaks lines and horns. Fun lyrics, kicks, punches and people falling off of balconies — but no one getting hurt. Rock the mic like Cal Worthington.”
Which is ultimately what separates Ugly Duckling from Long Beach’s native rap son, Snoop Dogg. Tha Doggfather’s entourage recently busted up London’s Heathrow Airport and put some cops in the hospital. In Ugly Duckling’s more nonviolent cosmology, “Our sound system is world-renowned/Until the cops come around, then we turn it down.” Sometimes you want the drama, sometimes ?you don’t.