Flipmode Squad Plan Assault On Music Mainstream

The rap sextet is planned as a launching pad for the solo careers of its members.

Spliff Star, Rampage, Lord Have Mercy, Rah Digga and Baby Sham -- not exactly major players in the hip-hop scene, or even names that ring a bell for many fans.

However, if their crewmate Busta Rhymes has his way, they soon will be.

Individually, the names of the first five rappers mentioned may not mean much to most hip-hop fans, but Rhymes, the Flipmode Squad's most high-profile member, believes that the crew's debut, The Imperial Album (Sept. 1), will change all that.

"We've got something for everyone on this album," Lord Have Mercy, 25, explained from a Smokin' Grooves tour stop in Los Angeles earlier this month. "We've got a song like 'Run for Cover,' and it sounds brand-new. There's nothing like that in hip-hop. Then we have more pop songs, like 'Cha Cha Cha' (RealAudio excerpt) and 'Everybody on the Line Outside,' which everyone can relate to," he continued. "We made this a universal album that everyone can like."

The members of the Flipmode Squad first came together as acquaintances in their stomping grounds in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. Rampage is Rhymes' first cousin, while Spliff Star lived down the block and Lord Have Mercy was a kid from around the way. Rah Digga, meanwhile, grew up in Newark, N.J., and came to know members of the group through her performances at the revolving-venue hip-hop showcase known as the Lyricist Lounge.

Lastly, Baby Sham was incorporated into the group after impressing Busta with a freestyle during a break in filming for the video to Rampage's "Take It to the Streets."

While members of the group have appeared on both of Busta's solo albums, 1996's The Coming and 1997'sWhen Disaster Strikes, they have thus far maintained a relatively low profile by paying their dues in the hip-hop underground. According to Lord Have Mercy and Rampage, both of whom declined to give their real names, the initial inspiration to put together an album as a group came from Busta Rhymes, who wanted his more underground colleagues to gain some mainstream exposure before venturing off to their own solo projects.

To achieve the "universal" sound they were after, the crew members hunkered down in the studio for six straight weeks, a marathon session that Rampage, 25, said, "made us concentrate on our goal, which was to show us all off individually yet come together strong as a group."

Working with such producers as Tony Touch and Da Beatminerz, they came up with an album that ranges from the rough-edged rap of "Run for Cover" and "Do for Self" to the radio-friendly pop-rap of "Cha Cha Cha" and "Everybody on the Line Outside."

"The fact that we worked for six weeks straight on this says a lot to me about our determination," Rampage explained. "This is a group project, you know what I'm saying? This isn't us as individuals, this is us as Flipmode Squad."

The hyperactive rap sextet has been touring the country this summer as a part of the all-star Smokin' Grooves tour and, by all accounts, has seen a warm reaction to the new material. At the Aug. 16 show in Concord, Calif., the Flipmode Squad stormed the stage in matching light-blue jumpsuits and performed "Cha Cha Cha" and "Everybody on the Line Outside," in addition to a bevy of songs from Rhymes' two solo albums. The audience reaction was especially notable for "Cha Cha Cha," with its infectious chorus easily leading to a shoulder-wiggling dance.

"That song was really fun," 16-year-old Jennifer Wright said of "Cha Cha Cha." "I mean, I would have rather heard something I was more familiar with, but I still really liked it."

Asked to sum up their overall impressions of The Imperial Album, Rampage and Lord Have Mercy took different paths.

For Rampage, it was most important to note that the group was looking to reach as many ears as possible. "We trying to do everything to hit in every area -- universal, underground, market-friendly, happy radio sh--," Rampage said. "We was trying to hit every glob, every land, every sea, every bridge -- everything."

Lord Have Mercy, however, won't be forgetting the group's roots in the underground. "Every MC in this group is a grass-roots MC in terms of the tradition of what this music originally was," he said, "but we also have the evolution which comes with the time."

"We follow the rules of what this thing was," he continued, "but then we have innovation added to the tradition itself."