Dressed in baggy Iceberg jeans -- worn more for comfort than fashion -- a plain white T-shirt and matching sneakers, Backbone drags slowly on a Newport. As he exhales thick clouds of smoke that swirl about his thicket of hair, he meshes perfectly with the gritty urban landscape.
Like on the streets, the spirits of the hustler and the saint live within him. Backbone reveals that those two seemingly opposing influences actually work toward one goal -- to teach hard lessons learned in the dope game, the music game and the game of life. His message seems to be getting through. "5 Deuce-4-Tre," his debut single, is already an ATL hit. His album Concrete Law is No. 28 on Billboard's Top R&B Albums chart less than three weeks after its release.
"A lot of people don't know I'd been doin' this until they saw me in the 'Get Rich to This' video (Goodie Mob, World Party) a couple years ago," says Backbone, who penned and rapped the catchy hook and the lead verse. "But I'm not one of those that's gonna be runnin' 'round here talkin' about it either. I'm gonna stay humble about the situation."
His experience as a charter member of the Dungeon Family -- the collection of artists including OutKast and Goodie Mob birthed by Organized Productions in the early '90s -- has helped him remain modest.
His contributions to the Dungeon Family date back to 1995 when he started writing and rapping his lyrics on a variety of projects beginning with "Rite Tonite" from Society of Soul's Brain Child LP. That was followed by appearances on "Angelic Wars" from the Set it Off soundtrack; "I Refuse Limitations" from Goodie Mob's Still Standing; and "Slump" from OutKast's Aquemini. He also staked lyrical claims to "Hit Man" from Cool Breeze's East Points Greatest Hits and "We Luv Deez Hoez" from OutKast's Stankonia before catching the attention of Universal Records, who signed him earlier this year.
Raised in southwest Atlanta in a neighborhood not much different from the one he lives in now, Backbone didn't grow up with a lot of money, but his home was filled with love and music. His father and mother played a variety of woodwind instruments. His father died during his childhood, but Backbone's love of music couldn't be erased.
"Music was a part of my family. I always knew I wanted to entertain," he says. Backbone formed his first rap group, Slic Patna (of which he is still a member), with friends Oddball and Shawdy Putt in junior high school. "I remember one day when I was a young lad, I told some of my counterparts that I was going to make a record and they laughed at me. Now they're askin' for the album."
At a time when hip-hop seems more about money than music and more flash than substance, the arrival of a voice like Backbone's is like a feast in a famine. Concrete Law sucks listeners into Backbone's wild world of gangstafied antics where only the wise survive. But instead of spewing tired tales of thuggish braggodocio, Backbone speaks in matter-of-fact terms that anyone who has struggled for something and still beat the odds can appreciate.
"Concrete Law represents and relates to everything and everywhere because we all have to hustle on these streets to some degree," he says. "You can't be in the streets and not know the law of the streets, and the law of the streets ain't in no book."
Street smarts are very apparent on Concrete Law. In the title track, Backbone raps, "Any way you wanna handle this see we can handle this/I heard dem boys talkin' somethin' 'bout some gangsta shit/Don't over sport yaself/Just work ya clientele/I walk the sidewalk and watch the shit sell itself/Walk that walk/Talk that talk."
Backbone says, "One thing I want to make clear is that hustlin' isn't always something illegal. I do talk about a lot of illegal activities on the album, but that's to get these young cats to listen so they can learn how to survive by turning one hustle into another."
Backbone supports his lyrical lessons with a lush soundscape of diverse instrumentation. Here, the trunk-bumping bass of Atlanta's slums meet dramatic string arrangements one would expect in the most elegant symphony hall. Latin rhythms collide with rock 'n' roll guitar licks and the soulful influence of Dungeon Family is ever present.
"I tried to make sure that I represented where I was from, but at the same time make the music digestible for people who weren't from here. By touring all over with OutKast and Goodie Mob, I got to see what different people liked, and so I do a little this and a little that. But I always put that Atlanta twist to it," says Backbone, who is known for peppering his music with indigenous Southwest Atlanta slang.
To Backbone, music isn't about selling the most records. It's about teaching lessons through self-expression. He says, "For me, rap ain't a competition. I'm not tryin' to outdo anybody, but while I'm here, I'm gonna make 'em know about this music I got. I'm gonna speak my piece, do my songs and get the hell on."
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