Newark's Hiphop Outsidaz

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:53

    The Outsidaz I look at the Outsidaz and I see a bunch of hyperactive boys. They mug and pose, trying hard to make their faces scowl and frown, but what they really want to do is smile. They're pups. They amaze me because of their ability to stay perky and boyish despite what they've been through, and the violence that surrounds them all the time. Slang was 25. The others are all pretty much the same age, or younger?early to mid-20s. The internal Outz-mythos says that the group formally came into being on New Year's Eve 1990, which means that nearly half their lives have been spent together rhyming. Hearing the beat start up, getting inspired, then fighting everybody else in sight to rule the mic. They're battle rappers, and that's their most essential aspect. Their debut was on "Cowboys," a standout track on the Fugees' 1996 album The Score. Last spring they saw one of their auxiliary members, Eminem, become a god. Then Slang won a Blaze battle in Philadelphia. Pace Won got a solo deal and recorded an album (Won Life; held up in contractual disputes, to be released later this year). Their one sista member, Rah Digga, already a member of Busta Rhymes' Flipmode Squad, got a deal for herself and started recording her own solo debut (Dirty Harriet, on Elektra, out April 4).

    And then the Outsidaz themselves got a deal with RuffNation, a Warners-distributed label Chris Schwartz founded after leaving Ruffhouse. The Outsidaz's debut EP, Night Life, is out now, and shortly they'll be opening on the Method Man/Redman tour; their full debut album is due in May.

    The Outsidaz's passion and talent are undeniable, but they're an unstable bunch of young guys, and the brotherly energy that keeps their music so lively just barely keeps them together. When I met them I felt like their mic?they were always pushing each other out of the way, screaming at me, sometimes five or six at one time, testifying how they keep it real and how their music is true hiphop, free from the bullshit that corrupts commercial rap. "Yo, yo, yo! It's like this! Yo, hiphop is my LIFE! DO YOU UNDERSTAND? MY LIFE!"

    None was more vociferous or convincing than Slang Ton. "It's like, I'm a ton," he explained, slowly leading me against a dark wall in their studio, his voice rising with every word. "Back in the day, everybody was calling themselves 'one' something. KRS-One, Pace Won, like that. But I'm Slang TON?I am a TON of Slang, in your FACE." He was literally in my face, gesticulating wildly and bending his 6-foot-something frame to speak to me at my level, which means he was crouched down, hunched and bent over, his arms completely extended to make his red jersey like a giant tent around me.

    "You see, your life, it's journalism," he said, slowing down a bit, scratching his hairy chin and watching me take notes. "That's what you do, that's cool. You go to sleep at night, you think about journalism. I respect that." I didn't have the heart to correct him. "Me, hiphop is my life. I get on the mic and I think about hiphop. All the time."

    He gave me a tour of their house, on S. 20th St. on the west side of Newark, near Irvington. They call the area "Outworld," and they're proud to say that it's one of the roughest neighborhoods in town. Stolen-car traffic from the nearby suburbs peels down the street at all hours. Bullets do the same. Each of the Outsidaz had a story to tell about a relative or friend who was mowed down in the prime of life right in front of them, outside this house. (Redman grew up down the street over that way, they hasten to mention.) Their building was once a crackhouse; the Outsidaz management took it over and had them all live together, like an army or kids at summer camp. Upstairs are the bedrooms, every inch of every wall covered with hiphop posters, most of them their own. Downstairs is the studio, a combination office, temple and romper room. The walls are painted in an elaborate mural, telling an Outz-centric history of hiphop from its origins to the present day. The climax is in the vocal booth, where a cartoon character of Eminem faces off against a drawing of Pace Won, holding his cape and floating on a gray cloud in the far depths of outer space.

    It's hiphop as comic book, and the Outsidaz are a more boyish version of the Wu-Tang Clan, with their own set of character names, insignias and origin myths. It reminds me of how comforting a world of comic book fantasy can be, not only because it provides a fictional alternative to a frustrating and repressive world, but because life in that sphere is so hyperbolic and gratifying, with awesome god-figures involved in constant battles where plumage and spectacle replace real conflict.

    Conflict became real for Slang on a night in early June, when he went to a nearby restaurant and got into an argument with a couple of guys there. Nobody's sure exactly what it was about, since the only witnesses fled the scene. It was probably just something stupid. Slang had seemed to be looking for trouble lately, members of the group say. He had been feeling a lot of pressure lately, watching his friends Pace Won and Young Zee?together, the three were the leaders and visionaries for the Outsidaz?go out on tour with Eminem. They would call from the road and talk about orgies and screaming crowds. And the group was negotiating a record deal that could potentially make them stars, yet none of them had any money. They were laying low in the Outhouse, and Slang's frustration was building up. He let it out in a song he had recently recorded, "Solo," which portrayed him outside the group, but also freaked out the other Outsidaz because it was spooky and spiritual, as if he were leaving the group for the afterlife.

    So one night he went out looking for trouble. Hennessy and beer. He was shot once in the leg and once in the chest. The gunmen fled and it was a long time before Slang was found, maybe hours. He was taken to the hospital, went into a coma. He lay there for almost two months. Apparently his lungs had been badly weakened by his excessive marijuana habit, resulting in a painfully drawn-out fight with death. He finally succumbed on Sept. 5, 1999.

    I heard about Slang's death not long ago. I had changed phone numbers, so the group's management couldn't reach me, and I found out about it the same way everybody else did: from the dedication on the back cover of Night Life to Slang from the rest of the Outsidaz. "You will forever remain on the tip of our tongues, rejoice in peace our brother Salih Scaife P/K/A Slang Ton. Not only this CD but the remainder of our lives are dedicated to you."

    Salih Ibn Al Bayyinah Scaife was born on March 25, 1974, in Cincinnati, but his family moved to Newark when he was young. He was raised without a father, and his mother died when he was 22. He had a sister, Shareen, who had been homeless until recently, and two brothers, Infinite Allah and Jason. "He had some family," said Vincent Carroll, the Outsidaz's manager-parent. "They came to me after he died to find out if they had any money coming to them. That's about all any of us heard from them." But Slang's sister says that he had been living with her for several months, since she got an apartment, and that he had been on the skids with the Outsidaz, frequently staying with her instead of at the house on S. 20th St. One night he had a dream that he had been shot by someone he knew, and he freaked out and started talking about how he didn't have much time left and that he had to see a lawyer as soon as possible to make a will and sort out everything for his imminent demise (though he had no money).

    Night Life is dedicated to Slang, but it's not a tribute. It's a scratch version of the album they've had in them for years, and Slang is no more represented on it than any other. His most prominent appearance is on "Rush Ya Clique," which, like most of the songs on the EP, is basically a free-form forum for competitive boasting. On "Clique," Slang says to sucker MCs: "If you ever want to get a deal, you need to either OD on skill pills or steal my reel-to-reels. Most of you MCs ain't as tight as you should be, when I'm tighter than the jeans that show your hoochie chick's cootchie prints." It's the Eminem style: quick insult-jokes thrown at the listener faster than he can possible consume them.

    Eminem makes his one appearance on "Rush Ya Clique," coming right after Slang's line, and it's textbook Slim Shady: "I'm so weeded I can freestyle for 16 bars right off the top then go back to the top and then repeat it, write it down on a paper and still be able to read it. I can't read but I still write to my penpals. I can't fly but I still float on cement clouds. I can't see 'cause my eyes have already been gouged out. I've been down with the Outz for ten thou-sand-years."

    The Outsidaz's stories are straight Brick City life, with charmingly childish boasts ("Outz in the area, tearing things up"; "Outsidaz's services cost more than Johnnie Cochran") and unembellished worries about "Money, Money, Money" ("I'm trying to keep money, I need quick money, seed money, trip money, weed money"). "Fuck Y'All Niggaz" is an hilarious battle-of-the-sexes call-and-response that pits Rah Digga and her girls against Young Zee and his boys. "Representing for all my bitches across the globe," she announces. "All my bitches that had it up to here, say fuck y'all niggaz! Every one of y'all niggaz! Don't trust y'all niggaz!" The response from the boys: "Fuck y'all bitches!"

    The juicy stuff comes in the verses. Digga says: "Let's take their bail money, make it hair and nail money, Chanel money, Nike/Adidas Shell money! Bitches about to shut down your whole launder game. God, now you're gonna put some shit down in MY NAME?" The male reply is cruel but fun: "Niggaz pile girls up in back of Zee's truck, but we ain't goin' nowhere till after we fuck. We might not touch how that's soundin'; I don't give a fuck if a girl's stomach is growlin'. Tell your girls to fuck every one of us. Then you hoes can eat till your motherfuckin' stomachs bust."

    People complain about how profane rap has grown in the 90s, but it's only become more grownup and realistic. This is how people talk and think. Listen to the rhymes from rap's golden age and you'll hear a lot of wholesome crap about watching The Flintstones and eating Reese's peanut butter cups.

    As for Slang, I can think of no better epitaph than the one I saw last May, painted on an Outsidaz mural outside a laundromat in Newark. Spray-painted delicately on a scroll-like border in the middle of a sprawling scene of the Outsidaz themselves rising heroically out of craggy mountaintops like comic-book gods, the inscription read: "History will not erase its past nor its present, for history remembers all... All the breakbeats that refuse to be forgotten... All the freeze-frame motions that were and shall forever echo throughout the rhythms and handclaps. For we are the sounds of life. History feeds us and we need our/story to become and infinite mic check 1-2 further our contributions beyond any and all barriers, beyond the horizons, beyond all yesterdays and tomorrows, beyond time and space beyond our/stories and his/stories too...always reach back so that you can push forward."