Shifty Shellshock is, well, shell-shocked.
Actually, it’s more like he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“I have butterflies in my stomach right now,” the Crazy Town singer said just before his band’s smooth “Butterfly” hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in late April.
“I’m so used to things going wrong,” Shellshock said. “Now that something good has happened to me, I’m just waiting for it to hit the mountaintop and roll back down.”
Maybe he was worried that Crazy Town’s plan to scale the charts appeared to have fizzled out. After two hard-edged singles, the band had come up empty: no hits and anemic record sales.
At which point most labels would have thrown in the towel and either dropped the band or asked them to move on to their next record.
But something weird happened to the Southern California hip-hop rockers: They floated a third single from their debut album, The Gift of Game, nearly two years after it came out. And “Butterfly” hit — big time.
They’re not the only ones taking the slow road in a land of hyperspeed careers when a “pump it or dump it” search for hit singles has reversed the trend of nurturing artists until they find an audience.
In the ’70s and ’80s, many artists were allowed to build a following over the course of several albums before their labels decided whether to pull the plug or not. Bruce Springsteen and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to take two notable examples, were not big sellers right away, but their labels continued supporting them and were rewarded years down the line with multiplatinum sales.
Joining Shifty and company on the list of recent second-wind success stories are such diverse acts as sensitive singer/songwriter Dido, art rockers Incubus and Kid Rock sidekick Uncle Kracker, as well as singer/songwriter David Gray and R&B diva Jill Scott.
But unlike Sting and Moby — who, when little interest was displayed in their most recent albums, broke the platinum ceiling by licensing their songs to commercials — these artists did it the old-fashioned way: through hard touring, dozens of public appearances and, in one case, an unlikely duet with a hard-core rapper.
“Stan”’s The Man
Dido had already delivered a solid hit album with her solo debut, No Angel. The ethereal collection of songs quietly chugged toward platinum status (“Here With Me” becoming the theme to the TV show “Roswell” helped) more than a year after its June 1999 release. The album finally cracked the Billboard 200 at #144 on May 21, 2000. Meanwhile, the one-time singer for trip-hop group Faithless toured as an opening act for the Barenaked Ladies and Sting, among others.
Then Eminem stepped in.
The X-rated rapper sampled Dido’s “Thank You” as the hook for “Stan” on his May 2000 Marshall Mathers LP. When “Stan” became a hit in late 2000, Eminem took Dido on the road and invited her to perform with him on “Saturday Night Live” in October.
Dido’s album subsequently soared, cracking the top 40 and finally reaching its peak in February, when it hit #4 after almost 10 months on the charts. The album is firmly lodged in the top 20 and has sold 3 million copies to date.
The road was even steeper for rap-rockers Crazy Town. Their debut, The Gift of Game, was released in November 1999 to little acclaim and scant attention. Two early singles, the metal-rap “Toxic” and the new-wave rocker “Darkside,” failed to break big on the radio. The group struggled with Shellshock’s drug relapses and room-trashing outbursts, which got them yanked from last summer’s OzzFest tour. It looked like their ride was over.
By cleaning up and toeing the line, however, Crazy Town got that rare third shot and hit a home run. Two years of touring with the likes of Buckcherry, Methods of Mayhem and the Red Hot Chili Peppers was about to pay off.
Their uncharacteristically poppy tune “Butterfly” became a smash radio hit, first breaking alternative radio’s top 10 in October 2000, then crossing over to top 40 and adult-alternative radio in December. Less than two months later, The Gift of Game sneaked onto the Billboard 200 chart at #9.
Not wanting to be pigeonholed as a pop group, band and label purposely released two harder-edged singles before hitting fans with “Butterfly.”
“We wanted to put out songs that represented us correctly,” said Shellshock of the risky strategy. “If we had just come out with ’Butterfly,’ then who would really know what we’re all about? Before we let you see our sensitive side, you have to know our dark side. It’s better to be feared than taken for granted, right?”
But it was the “Butterfly” crossover that finally exposed the band, a scenario the manager of fellow slowpoke group Incubus argued is one of the few ways an unknown rock band such as Crazy Town can break wide open.
Sensitive rockers Incubus toured, toured and toured some more while building an audience fan by fan. And, like Crazy Town, Incubus broke massive only when their third single crossed over to pop radio.
“It sounds self-serving to say it,” said Incubus manager Steve Rennie, “but the plan was always to get to ’Drive.’ We just didn’t think it would take a year to do it.”
The band’s first two singles, “Pardon Me” and “Stellar,” did well on rock radio and helped their October 1999 album, Make Yourself, sell nearly 1.5 million copies during its year-and-a-half chart climb.
It wasn’t until the band released the mellow “Drive” that the album climbed into the Billboard top 50 after hanging below that level for more than a year. In fact, Make Yourself is currently one of only four albums in the top 100 to log more than 70 weeks on the charts.
When the single crossed over from rock to pop and adult-rock formats, the group suddenly found their video airing on both MTV and VH1, which exposed the band to a new audience.
Kracking The Code
With production and rapping courtesy of megaplatinum hip-hopper Kid Rock, you’d think Uncle Kracker’s debut, Double Wide, would have been a sure-fire hit. Kracker, who came to prominence as Kid Rock’s DJ, released his southern-rock-hip-hop album last June to a collective shrug. The poppy first single “Yeah Yeah Yeah” failed to hit the charts and a follow-up single, “Follow Me,” seemed headed for the same dead end.
Then, earlier this year, “Follow Me,” with a video featuring a cameo from pal Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray, began to pick up steam. Suddenly the soft-spoken Kracker was camping out in the top 10 and prepping his first solo tour. Again, the key for Kracker was landing a more radio-friendly cut on pop radio.
But the rapper admitted he was bummed when his solo bid didn’t make much noise. “There was no radio, no MTV, no nothing in the beginning,” Kracker said. “And all of a sudden, as soon as there was radio and MTV and VH1, it takes off.”
Just as Sting and Moby proved no one blinks an eye at the rock/advertising connection any longer, Rennie said he hopes the success of bands like Incubus and Crazy Town prove that going pop doesn’t mean going soft.
“A number of rock bands say, ’No, we won’t go to pop radio,'” Rennie said. “But you know what? It’s strange to discriminate and say who can and can’t be part of your world. Can you do it without losing your rock edge? Absolutely.”
For full-length interviews with Crazy Town and Uncle Kracker, check out (“Crazy Town: Butterfly High” ) and (“7 Questions With Uncle Kracker” ).