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Moving violation 

For emerging Southern rapper I-20, there's no need to brake

Despite sharing a name with the interstate that belts together the Southeastern United States, locally bred hip-hop artist I-20 is not merely about cruising the road most traveled. After idling for almost 10 years, the MC with the menacing, gruff voice is finally breaking into the fast lane with his solo debut, Self Explanatory.

Those who know of the Decatur native may remember him on local underground gems including "Catch Up" and "Got to Sleep." Most people, however, recognize his bold bass voice from his cameo on "Move Bitch," the song that, thanks to conservative TV commentator Bill O'Reilly, ended Ludacris' Pepsi endorsement. On "Move Bitch," I-20 spits, "Grab the peels cuz we robbin' tonight/Beat the shit outta of security for stompin' the fight," and later, "I'm from the DEC, tryna to disrespect DTP/And watch the bottles start flyin' from the VIP." His "'bout it, 'bout it" demeanor on Ludacris' chart-topping anthem carries over to I-20's debut.

After carpooling for so long, I-20 is eager to take the driver's seat. As with modern R&B singers such as Anthony Hamilton, who sang hooks on others' albums, guest verses can establish a career or revive an old one. But whether it goes into overdrive or fizzles is up to the individual lyricist.

For I-20, it's about drive.
With Atlanta peeling eye-catchingly across the musical map, I-20 is now poised to see his time in the start-stop traffic of the industry pay off. Upgrading from guest spots on Ludacris' platinum singles to Atlanta's next biggest hip-hop coup is an uphill battle, but the boom-voiced rapper, whose given name is Bobby Sandimanie, is up to the challenge -- not only for himself, but for Decatur. Initially dubbed "Infamous 2-0," I-20 changed his moniker to something locals were more familiar with and that represented where he's (coming) from.

While he cruised the local scene, I-20, or 20 as he's more commonly called, was introduced to a equally passionate MC named Ludacris by a mutual friend around '97, long before Luda hit hip-hop's national radar. Since that meeting, Ludacris' stature has grown in leaps and bounds, from radio personality to independent artist to Def Jam South mega-platinum recording star to budding music executive, heading his own Disturbing Tha Peace imprint,which debuted with 2002's Golden Grain. I-20 has been there for a lot of the bumps.

Disturbing Tha Peace's latest entry in the game, 20 so far may not appear to blaze new trails, but he has stood out. To some surprise, his album is seeing light before Shawnna, DTP's female artist highlighted on Ludacris' songs and videos. Even though 20 duets with her on Self Explanatory, Shawnna -- like Da Brat, Atlanta's other Chi-town transplant -- is not from here, and the music industry is all about Atlanta right now. Although 20 has been active on the scene, he's still (pleasantly) surprised by Atlanta's musical explosion.

"One of the best things about here is that we have so many different people from different cities coming down here and everybody leaves a little mark when they leave," says 20. "There are so many different trends and cultures going on that I knew that we all had an opportunity if there was just one group that could come out for what we're doing down here."

Watching Ludacris explode taught 20 "to believe," he adamantly says, "I didn't really need Cris to be successful for me ... but it didn't hurt, either."

Ludacris' success has underscored 20's faith in remaining fiercely individualistic, even if it's against the grain of what people typically assume Southern music constitutes.

LIKE HIS NAMESAKE'S SPAN, I-20's influences stretch from Georgia to Texas and connect rural roots to the South's new urban realities. According to 20, despite Atlanta's national attention, the scene has a long way to go.

"It may appear to the rest of the country that we are a big city," says 20. "We're not. We are definitely the most known city in the South, but for all practical purposes, we're still not a big city."

Because of that, it has taken longer for Atlanta and other Southern rappers to get their just due. This is certainly the case with the Texas rap duo Underground Kingz, who commanded the utmost respect from other Southern rappers long before Jay-Z featured them in "Big Pimpin'." Working with UGK's Bun B was a dream come true for 20, as UGK set the bar toward which 20 aspires.

"Outside of [Houston's] the Geto Boys, UGK were probably one of the first groups out of the South to really get notoriety in terms of lyricism, deep production and just basic independence," says 20 with rare enthusiasm in his voice. "They get respect across the board, not just in the Southeast or the Southwest."

Aware of how difficult it remains for aspiring Southern rappers, regardless of increasing national recent interest, 20 put a lot into Self Explanatory. Despite the title, 20 still speaks on the debut.

"I want people, when they get finished listening to my album, to feel like they know me better as a person, where I'm trying to go with music, but not just music -- where I'm trying to go with my life," says 20.

With producers including Salaam Remi, Heatmakerz and Craig Love, and guest MCs such as Ludacris, Juvenile and Ruff Ryder's Styles and Sheek, 20 has laid his muscular punching verses on tracks aggressive to introspective. To that end, one of 20's favorite cuts is "It May Sound Crazy." According to 20, it "is my description of what it was I was willing to do and what it is I had to do just to get to this particular point in my life or in my career."

Other songs, personal or not, also stand out. Thanks to its hypnotic bass line and familiar subject matter, "Fightin' in the Club," featuring DTP members Lil' Fate, Tity Boi and Chingy, is quietly rotating on local radio stations. Like "Move Bitch," it's rowdy and catchy. Visually, the video, whose treatment was provided by 20, also is reminiscent of "Move Bitch" -- which was filmed at The Bounce. In 20's case, Vision is the backdrop.

The legacy of Ludacris' ability to move the club/crowd is certainly something 20 aims for. But despite his famous associations, 20 is not content to stand in anyone's shadow. As a result, he looks forward to stepping it up for the local stop of the Ludacris-Chingy tour. "At the end of the day, there is nothing like performing for your hometown because if you don't have support from your own hometown, nobody else is going to give it to you."

It's been an interesting road trip for 20. As others have traveled in, he has traveled out and back again. At the end of the day, this is still home, but as his name suggests, interstates reach beyond one ZIP code.

music@creativeloafing.com

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