Do Or Die determined to be exception to hip-hop rule


February 20, 2005


When it comes to appreciating its history, hip-hop is the most unforgiving genre in popular music. Sure, lip service is paid to honoring "the old school." But many rappers' careers are over almost as soon as they've begun. Rather than being seen as an asset, longevity actually works against many artists.

In the mid-'90s, when Chicago hip-hop was treated as a mere footnote to the sounds being made on the left and right coasts, the West Side trio Do or Die scored a rare hit and attracted the national spotlight with the single "Po Pimp." Its success inspired and helped open the doors for speed-rapper Twista and superstar Kanye West, who finally assured the Windy City's status as a hip-hop mecca with the platinum success of their 2004 albums, "Kamikaze" and "The College Dropout."

Now, after eight years of flying under the radar, the members of Do or Die -- emcees Belo (Darnell Smith), A.K. (Denis Round) and his brother, N.A.R.D. (Anthony Round) -- have returned with their sixth album, "D.O.D." The disc finds an impressive roster of high-profile names showing their respect and lending their talents to back the groundbreaking crew, including vocalist Syleena Johnson, producers Traxster, Toxic, No I.D., and DJ Quick, R&B giant R. Kelly (who crafted the single "Magic Chick") and West (who has already delivered a hit with "Higher").

Do or Die is determined to prove that it can be a hip-hop exception, soaring higher than it ever has in the past.

"With us, it's basically been 15 years of just grinding and trying to get into the industry, not because of the money, but because of the love," Belo says. "We feel like Michael Jordan: He had the love for the game of basketball, and even though he knew he was the greatest player, he knew that, 'Hey, I have to stay consistent. If I quit right now, I'm not going to get my just due.'"

"Hip-hop does have a short attention span, but my response to that is that you have to believe in you," A.K. adds. "The whole music industry could be against you, but when it's your time, it's your time. Back in the day when you had your Run-DMC or your Common Sense, people would run out and buy [their albums] with no questions asked. Now, whatever is hot, that's what they run with, so you have to prove yourself over and over and over again.

"You have to believe in what you do so that people understand where you're coming from. If you come from Chicago, you have to stay with your roots, because that's where your story is coming from."

Inseparable since they met in grammar school and grew up on the West Side streets around Chicago Avenue, the three rappers came together as Do or Die in 1984. "Po Pimp" was initially released on a small Chicago label, but when it began to hit in 1996, the group signed to the Houston, Texas-based Rap-A-Lot Records because there wasn't a hip-hop label in town that could provide the national distribution.

The single, which featured a cameo by Twista and gave him his first major national exposure, peaked at No. 22 on the Billboard singles chart. The group followed up with the "Picture This" album, which went platinum. But it wasn't all smooth sailing.

The new video for "Around Here" opens with a revealing skit that flashes back to '96, when the crew was introduced to the cutthroat mechanics of the music industry. Although they've already scored a national hit from D.I.Y. origins, the rappers are pressured by a silk-suited shark to sign to an unnamed record label for a paltry $60,000, a deal they'd later regret.

"We wanted to show people what really went on in our first deal ever," A.K. says ruefully.

The group eventually found itself locked in a protracted battle to break free of Rap-A-Lot; for a time, it even lost the rights to its own name, hence its rebirth as "D.O.D.," though it is now free to use either moniker. Although the trio continued to release albums such as "Headz or Tailz" (1998) and "Victory" (2000), it lost the attention of the fickle rap media, prompting many fans to think that Do or Die had broken up.

"Actually, we have been putting out albums the whole time," Belo says. "This is our sixth album, but there wasn't much awareness because of a lack of publicity."

"We had a deal with Rap-A-Lot that we had to come up out of," A.K. says. "There were some legal issues that we had to get straightened out, and a lot of people thought we were just sitting back. But we weren't."

"Back then, it wasn't our time," Belo concludes. "We had to go through these trials and tribulations because we had to bleed for other Chicagoans so they could do their thing. We paid a heavy price. A lot of people would have fallen off after going through the stuff Do or Die went through trying to achieve success in the music industry, yet we're still going strong.

"We pray every day. We believe in the Lord, and He strengthens us, and we stay together. We have our differences, but we reconcile, and we grow stronger."

Now, the group has entered a new deal that gives it a 50/50 split of net profits with its longtime friend, real estate developer and fellow West Sider Rudy Acosta. His new independent label The Legion has already secured widespread national distribution through WEA, and Acosta is optimistic that Do or Die will put the company on the map.

"I felt like there was no one better to fit that slot to help me make my move in the industry than a Chicago pure-bred group like D.O.D.," Acosta says.

"We made a deal where he would back us up financially, and we would bring his company to the industry's attention," Belo says. "He's behind us 100 percent."

In its first week of sales after a Feb. 1 release, "D.O.D." debuted at No. 40 on Billboard's Top 200 albums chart, an impressive feat for an indie disc.

"We were very proud of that, because you have to understand that out of 200, we came in at 40," A.K. says. "A lot of first-time independent labels in their first week don't even make it to 200."

"D.O.D." is not an unqualified artistic success. In contrast to West's emotional and self-deprecating tales of middle-class struggles in the Africa-American community, Do or Die's rhymes sometimes fall prey to cliched gangsta scenarios rife with tired macho bragging and sexism. The artists counter this criticism with the familiar defense that they're "keeping it real."

"All of us come from the streets," Belo says. "We've all lived in the ghetto, we've all lived in the projects, we've all been in gangs and gone to jail and gone to the penitentiary. Our street roots are very, very deep."

But the album's best raps show a lighter and more playful side to the trio, whose ability to deftly spin complicated rhymes at breakneck speeds easily rivals that of their old pal Twista. Witness the hit "Higher," a multi-layered track that expresses undying devotion in the language of a suave but sincere lover wooing his paramour.

"Me and you, baby girl, like best friends," the group raps. "Let me hit you when I get the notion / On I-55, you and I / Let's ride, hit the motion."

The track isn't a love song to a woman, however.

"Actually, the whole song is about weed," Belo says, laughing. "We used it subliminally, as if we were talking about women, but if you listen, when I say, 'Let me kiss your lips,' I was talking about lidro [marijuana]."

The group's most significant link to West -- and its biggest strength -- is its grooves and its hooks, rather than its lyrics. Long before West established a new Chicago sound by reworking passages from old soul and R&B songs, Do or Die turned to similar "dusties" for the basis of their tracks.

"Back in 1996, we were using slow, laid-back, soulful beats, and Kanye will let you know now, 'I do the same thing, but I do it in a different fashion,'" A.K. says. "If we got him on the phone right now, he would tell you, 'Do or Die is the reason I'm here.'"

Indeed, West has praised Do or Die and fellow Chicago rapper Common (formerly Common Sense) as two of his biggest inspirations, and he has returned the favor by working with both of them. (Common's new album "Be" is scheduled for a spring release.)

"We went down to L.A. to do the song, and Kanye was like, 'I have the right single for y'all right now,'" A.K. says of working with West. "He went in there and made this beat in five or 10 minutes, and when he was done, he was like, 'This is the rebirth of Do or Die!'

"He had me do an eight-bar [rhyme], Belo do an eight-bar, and N.A.R.D. do an eight-bar, then he had us do it again and he found the hook and that was it. Kanye was like, 'Man, I made y'all a hit right here!'"

Based on a Teddy Pendergrass sample and building to a grand finale that incorporates a gospel choir a la West's "Jesus Walks," "Higher" was an instant add on many radio stations' play lists. "When I heard this song, there was no question that it should be on the radio immediately," Elroy Smith, operations manager of Chicago powerhouse WGCI (107.5-FM), says in Do or Die's electronic press kit.

"It was great to see them reinvent themselves with a song that I know -- Teddy Pendergrass' 'You're My Latest, My Greatest Inspiration' -- and what Kanye and Do or Die did with it was just remarkable."

The members of Do or Die credit their success and their longevity to two factors. The first is that the three rappers think as one.

"We can be in different rooms when something comes up, but we'll all say, 'We're gonna handle it this way,'" Belo says. "We can hear a beat and go home and never discuss the topic or the title, but when we all come back, our verses will come as one."

The other factor uniting the group is its untiring Midwestern work ethic. "When you're working at stuff, no one can do it like you do it," A.K. says. "We all have the attitude that we're gonna do it ourselves and we're gonna get the job done, whether it's tomorrow, the next day or that night."

To that end, the group intends to promote its new album "for as long as it takes."

"We're going to stay on the road, get in touch with our fans, do the shows, hit the radio stations, go to the stores," Belo says. "It's a big, giant hustle, and if you sleep on the hustle, you're not going to get anywhere. But if you stay with the grind, eventually something will come in. It may not come in as soon as you want it to, but if you hang in there, you'll be the hottest thing in the nation."

In fact, the group is so confident that its hard work will pay off that it has yet to schedule a record-release gig for "D.O.D." in its hometown, and it doesn't intend to perform here until the album goes gold.

"It won't be that long, and once we hit gold, we'll take it to platinum," A.K. promises. "Just watch the Billboard, and you'll see what Do Or Die is about. It's going to be one of the biggest grooves Chicago ever laid down."