NEW YORK "I was born July 22," Petey Pablo said last week, three days after his birthday. "I'm twentysomething ... I forgot." Surrounded by champagne bottles and birthday balloons in his hotel room, the North Carolinian is playing the jokester. "I was born on the cusp of Cancer and Leo. I'm half man, half fool."
Petey's upbeat disposition shines through in his debut video, "Raise Up," which was shot in Raleigh, North Carolina. In it, the MC dances around with the track's producer, Timbaland, exhorting locals used as extras to "take your shirt off, twist it 'round your hand, spin it in the air like a helicopter."
"Beside Timbaland, that was everybody's first time in a video," said Pablo. "I call that video 'a happy to change my damn life.' You know how you not used to something and something happens? You be extra pumped."
Pablo is indeed ecstatic at being able to spit bars for the masses. In fact, he feels lucky just to be alive.
"I'm a won't-supposed-to-be-nothing n----," he said stoically. "Probably dead before I'm 20. Everything people said about me, all the sh-- they said would probably happen to me, I beat all them odds. I was a f---ed-up individual. I'm still crazy but not as crazy as I was."
Although Petey wouldn't disclose his loco actions over the years ("that would have me so far under the penitentiary"), he admitted to serving six years of a 14-year prison sentence for selling drugs and discovered his true calling while doing time in the big house.
Petey, who struck out on his own at age 13 because he thought it would make life easier on his mother, wrote his first rhymes after praying for guidance. "I wrote all three verses without picking my pen up from the paper. Right then I knew. I used to throw concerts in the pen and have the whole compound out there, the guards and everybody, telling me how talented I was."
He got into trouble again when he stopped pursuing rap several years ago and started hustling.
Upon his release in 1998, Petey (who picked up "Pablo" as a tribute to his deceased best friend) refocused his energy on his regained love of rhyming. He traveled to New York and followed up on some music-industry contacts made in jail. Things didn't work out as fast as he'd hoped they would, however.
"I went back home for a minute," he admitted, "and found myself getting into that same situation. So I shot back up to New York."
There he found a manager and joined rhyme clique the Alumni after meeting their founder, Black Rob, in a club (Pablo appears on Rob's "Whoa!" remix). Pablo's break came when a Jive Records executive heard him freestyling in a club bathroom along with Black Rob and Dougie Fresh.
His Southern accent and wild rhyme style have earned Petey comparisons to his friend and labelmate Mystikal ("that's my dog"). But with his debut, Diary of a Sinner, hitting stores this fall, he hopes to carve his own niche in the hip-hop game. Timbaland, who met Pablo through Missy Elliott, produced two other tracks on the album, including "I," on which he raps with Petey.
Being down with Tim and the producer's musical affiliates is something Pablo literally dreamed of. "I remember so many nights in the penitentiary, with my headphones tied around my head with a sock, listening to Timbaland, Magoo, Missy, Ginuwine and Aaliyah," he recalled. "I thought, 'One day I'm going to work with these kids.' You don't understand how blessed I am right now."