NAAM Brigade are all about bringing the streets back into the Philly hip-hop scene.
Not that the city's fallen off the musical map or anything, with the likes of the Roots and Jill Scott representing for the City of Brotherly Love. But not since Schoolly D has a hip-hop act come with such aggressively street-oriented lyrics as the ones on Early in the Game, NAAM Brigade's debut album.
Fresh off a summer tour opening for LL Cool J, NAAM Brigade dropped the album on September 24, and the title track's been making waves at radio and video outlets. Their name might be new on the national scene, but the group's been making music together since Eyse da Supastar, Sonni Blak, Rambo, Q-Don and Meek Millz hooked up in Philly's southwest 58th Street neighborhood more than a decade ago.
"We used to cut class and play hooky down at the park," Eyse said. "Sonni and Rambo always rapped together. I didn't rap, I mostly played ball, but we hooked up and realized that we had something special."
In the '90s the group put out a series of mixtapes that caught the attention of Elektra Records, who signed NAAM Brigade in 1998. They completed their would-be debut that year, only to have the release shelved after Q-Don — the group's musical and spiritual leader, the one who christened the group NAAM (N---as All About Money) — was struck down by a stray bullet at a Philadelphia nightclub. The group decided it couldn't go on without him.
"We felt like it was over," said Eyse, a soft-spoken guy who doesn't feel the need for a hard-edged gangsta persona when he's not rapping. "But then we realized that if Q-Don could come down and smack us in the head, he'd tell us, 'Y'all better keep going and doing this for my family, for real.' We hit the ground harder for him."
The group kept making mixtapes; one, NAAM Brigade Mix Tape Volume 2, sold 20,000 copies in Philly. All the while they kept trying to make ends meet and get back in the music-industry game. It wasn't easy, Eyse said.
"We were in one of the biggest drug 'hoods in the city," he said. "It was real, real, real rough. You had to be on your P's and Q's to the fullest, you couldn't be caught slippin'. It would change your life or end your life."
Complicating matters was the fact that all the group's members had kids to support by the end of the decade. "You stop thinking about yourself, you're not doing it for you anymore," Eyse said. "You're doing it for them."
That's not to say they all stayed away from the dark end of the street; Meek Millz is awaiting trial on a murder rap, one that Eyse said Millz doesn't deserve. "He maybe did a few things, like selling narcotics, but he didn't kill anybody," Eyse said.
For the most part, though, NAAM Brigade followed a classic hip-hop template: take the experiences of the streets, turn them into larger-than-life drama and marry them to hard-hitting beats. The title track and first single (on which the group is joined by Roc-A-Fella's Freeway) finds each member taking his turn at laying out the drama he's experienced and his determination to rise above it; the guitar-heavy "Gangsta" and the edgy "We Live It" keep it up.
But there are several tracks on Early in the Game thick with radio-ready hooks and production, like the bouncy "What You Doin' Wit Dat" (featuring Juvenile) and the hip-hop ballad "Can't Let It Go," the album's next single. "We set out to keep a street sound but have a commercial feel," Eyse said. "A lot of people have songs that can't be played on the radio, but we've got some party music, too."
Eyse said the tour with LL Cool J was a chance to work with one of their idols. "That was a lovely experience," he said. "A lot of the show we got we got from him and those other folks, like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane and Run-D.M.C. But we came at him hard, too, so he had to keep his game up."
NAAM Brigade's break from the road won't last long. They kick off the "Paid in Full" tour with Cam'ron, M.O.P. and N.O.R.E. Thursday in Atlanta.
NAAM Brigade tour dates, according to ArtistDirect Records:
- 10/10 - Atlanta, GA @ Clarke Atlanta University
- 10/11 - North Myrtle Beach, SC @ House of Blues
- 10/12 - Miami, FL @ Bayfront Park Amphitheatre
- 10/13 - Orlando, FL @ Hard Rock Live
- 10/15 - Minneapolis, MN @ Quest Club
- 10/16 - Chicago, IL @ House of Blues
- 10/17 - Detroit, MI @ State Theatre
- 10/18 - Beebe, AR @ Arkansas State University
- 10/19 - Washington, DC @ Howard University
- 10/23 - Boston, MA @ Club Skyline
- 10/26 - Danbury, CT @ TBA
- 10/26 - Buffalo, NY @ TBA
- 10/28 - New York, NY @ TBA
- 10/31 - Boca Raton, FL @ Florida Atlantic University
- 11/1 - Raleigh, NC @ North Carolina State University
- 11/2 - Dover, DE @ Delaware State University
- 11/3 - Greenville, SC @ Escalade
- 11/7 - Norfolk, VA @ Norfolk State University
- 11/8 - Blacksburg, VA @ Virginia Tech
- 11/9 - Providence, RI @ Dunkin Donuts Civic Center
- 11/10 - Geneseo, NY @ SUNY Geneseo