March 9-15, 2006
cover storyRoots to Riches
Dice Raw gets rocked by Nikki Jean and Nouveau Riche.
: Michael T. Regan
Or that Nouveau Riche wasn't a hip-hop act at all, exactly. More like this lo-fi, trippy, dub-rock-hop thing, poppy and piano-filled, buzzing and super fragmented like a fuzz-tone, hip-hop version of Bowie's Low. Or a Just Blaze mix of a Psychedelic Furs record.
No matter the reasons why, it was one hell of an entrance, right? "That's starting on a high note," admits Dice.
The 27-year-old Logan native, whose mom calls him Karl Jenkins, hasn't had many low notes. So, maybe "restarting" is a better word for where Dice is now, lighting up a career that's had only one previous notch 2000's solo release Reclaiming the Dead in his thick, wide belt.
Bring on Long Tail, the first in what the quintet promises will be an experimental series of 10-song EPs. Gauzy, chatty and brash think a wordy, ghetto Cocteau Twins Nouveau Riche is as different from The Roots as you can imagine.
Despite the unexpected notoriety achieved from verses on "The Lesson, Pt. 1.," "Lockdown" and "Adrenaline," Dice never considered himself an actual Root.
It sounds like he never wanted to be: "I was always solo."
He's quick, however, to point out his contributions throughout the Roots catalog. "Every album since Illadelph Halflife: writing, producing, arranging. Check the credits." He's also willing to note that there were creative differences from all sides "internal beefs between me and a few members of the group, problems with Interscope and [its CEO] Jimmy Iovine."
Still, he says, none of the tensions has made for bad blood between himself and any Root. Dice knows that the music biz has no safety nets. But family's family. "You may fight and go out on your own but you still sit down and eat dinner together," he says.
Dice practically lives at The Studio, the Larry Gold structure on North Seventh Street where The Roots hold court. When Tariq Trotter (Black Thought) heads out to a studio in L.A. to record, Dice is on the plane. "He flew out the other day with Tariq. Those two are family," says Nikki Jean of The Roots' communal vibe. "We're Dice's band. But he's their brother."
Calling it "complicated," Dice claims he became so successful through The Roots that he had no reason to release material prior to Dead. And between MCA evolving into Interscope (famously entangling The Roots), his career producing other artists and generally "vibing" time away, the years just passed.
But he never stopped creating. Since Dead, Dice has recorded more than 80 tracks that will see the light on his digital label, Raw Life.
That time spent in The Studio experimenting brought him close to two Studio stalwarts, bassist Khari "Ferrari" Mateen and drummer John McGlinchey, who are co-producers of not only Nouveau Riche but the next Roots CD, Game Theory.
Hanging and working daily, they simply fell into becoming a band. Alex Paik soon joined in on guitar. They called themselves The Disease.
Nikki Jean, 23, was on her way back to Minneapolis when she met the guys from The Disease at The Roots' annual Labor Day barbecue in West Philly. It was only supposed to be a week's visit, the final item on her agenda being a quick pit stop at The Studio before catching her flight home.
See, before she arrived in Philly, Jean had been a singing, piano-playing composer who self-financed her own music for five years after all her prospects working with Mint Condition, Van Hunt and Nona Hendryx fell through. She was ready to head into grad school when her mom talked her into staying the course for one more year.
"September 2005 was the end of that year," she says, giggling.
Jean got to The Studio. Began to play. Then sing. Listening to her sessions was an epiphany for Dice and the band.
"That's why we changed it from The Disease. I knew as soon as I heard her we were going to be rich," he laughs.
Her rapturous voice. Her deeply felt lyricism. Something clicked. The Disease asked Jean to stay, readying her within a week for the Kimmel debut, during which she dropped her own verses on the slow eerie raps of "Burning Down," "I've Been Waiting" and "Wait a Minute."
"Dice is all instant gratification," she laughs. "From the way he lives to how he writes to the approach to his day, he's freestyling. He writes, then tweaks."
Meanwhile, she painfully mines her experiences and truths until they crystallize. "Then, stupidly I'll take a week to perfect that line," she says.
Both Dice and Tariq tipped her off to their tricks: Don't take yourself too seriously. Give it a deadline. "Got to meet the deadline," both Dice and Jean say.
Of course, Nouveau Riche's subject matter and the language used by each to dissect those stories come under scrutiny by the other.
"I've never had to write to a topic before," says Jean about many of her pairings with Dice. "It's like a homework assignment."
On songs that touch on socio-political material, the MC and the singer are pretty much in the same corner. But when it comes to relationship or gender-issue songs? "We are on opposite sides of the street," laughs Dice.
When Dice got a glimpse into how women felt about men from "Save Me," Jean claims he was scared.
"Usually when a woman speaks about her emotions, it's about our relationship, the way she wants to be perceived," says Dice. What scared him about "Save Me" was that it was an unfiltered, cuticle-chewed look at what loving a man she hates says about him. Sung with a gently unnerving quiver in her voice, you can practically hear her spitting out her nails.
"That's what makes it interesting bringing my side too," says Jean, who sneaks a refrain of "escapism costs" through Dice's breathy verses. "While he's being his 'most extra Dice self,' I bring my tender realism. That's our conflict."