The Buddy System

Working an hour behind the scenes for every minute on the mic, Lil Buddy strives to make it big

Buddy McLain is talking to me, but his gaze never wavers from the hairdresser's mirror opposite him. "I listen to everything. All kinds of music," insists the 24-year-old MC born Andre Locke but best known as Lil Buddy. Great. The standard, insipid response to the standard, insipid interview question "So what kind of music do you listen to?" All kinds of music, sheesh. So does that mean both R&B and hip hop?

Despite my doubts, however, Lil Buddy stands by his claim of musical omnivorousness. And to prove it, or maybe just to butter up the white boy with the tape recorder seated beside him, Buddy waxes enthusiastic about Randy Travis.

"I want to do a song with Garth Brooks," he quickly adds, his lips pursed thoughtfully. "It'd be the bomb. They talk about me crossing over--let 'em be mad at that."

Kong, the burly, tattooed barber running the electric razor along the fringes of Buddy's junior 'fro, laughs. So does Henry Hassan, Buddy's bald, stocky business partner in Clientele Ntertainment, the independent label that has recently released Buddy's disc Major to national attention. This is apparently the first either Kong or Hassan has heard about their associate's duet fantasy. Still, it's obvious both men are used to hearing Buddy's grand schemes voiced in just such a deadpan tone, and equally obvious that both are used to Buddy holding court in this fashion, answering questions with a polite, but, slightly aloof, noblesse oblige.

It's early evening, and Buddy is being shorn at Hair Police, a boho-chic Lyn-Lake salon only slightly more street than Garth himself. Not the place you'd expect a tough-talking Twin Cities MC to seek slight adjustments to his fade. But Kong--who hardly blends into the environs himself--is a member of Buddy's crew the Igloo Knobs and Buddy is the loyal type. He's been getting a trim from Kong for the past seven years, ever since first hitting the Twin Cities.

Buddy drifted up from Chicago in 1993, in search of a rap gig or, failing that, a decent day job. Part of a northward migration that has transformed the Twin Cities' demographics and infused the hip-hop scene with newer, harder blood, he and his cousin found themselves unemployed and homeless. Undiscouraged, Buddy started hanging out at local venues, showing up at the Entry or Arnellia's, jawing his way onstage between acts and making a name for himself with his freestyles. Eventually he was befriended by New Power Generation rapper Tony Mosely, made it to the Glam Slam club stage, and caught the eye of Prince. Buddy has cultivated that particular relationship carefully over the years. "Prince, my mentor, talks to Henry and myself every other month, like two or three hours at a time," Buddy explains.

Buddy's rapport with Prince might be helped by the fact that they see eye to eye: Standing at less than five-and-a-half-feet, Buddy lives up to the adjectival half of his moniker. But he's more muscular than first glance suggests, with forearms (each sporting an "IGLOO" tattoo) that expand beyond their expected bounds when folded across his chest.

That cautious stance carries over into conversation. Buddy is a careful interview, with a habit of repeating questions and breaking them down as follows:

 

Me: "What is your impression of the hip-hop community as a whole?"

Buddy: "What is my impression? Of the hip-hop community? As a whole?"

 

And then he pauses, as if debating which, if any, segment of the question is worth answering. But when his answers finally emerge, they are straightforward and considered. When it comes to the bottom line, he has learned from his mentor. "We own all our own masters," he adds as Kong spins him away from me in the chair.

As an independent hip-hop business, Hassan explains, Clientele has tried to create a supportive infrastructure in a region that has lacked just that--a set of clubs, established promoters, and commercial radio stations capable of nurturing a mainstream hip-hop act to financial maturity. (In addition to Major, Clientele is also sitting on upcoming records from local MC Shotty Boo, NYC-born reggae performer Don Steppa, and the Igloo Knobs). "Due to the level we've stepped up to, we do private shows that sell out with six or seven hundred people showing up just to see us," Hassan says.

If Buddy doesn't break nationwide, then, it won't be for lack of trying--either on his part or on the part of his high-profile well-wishers. Major was given a respectable three-and-a-half mics (out of five) review in the Source a month before its June 20 release date. Buddy has had a long relationship with the rap mag: First noted in its "Unsigned Hype" column in 1997, his budding career has been chronicled for the past seven months as part of "Diary of a New Jack," a feature describing the ins and outs of the biz. For an independent label, Clientele has drawn attention, and MCs citywide are hoping that Major will be the sort of regional hit that draws big-money scouts to come fishing for local talent.

 

Right now those prospective hopes are riding on "Woo Woo," a single that peaked locally last summer (thanks initially to KMOJ's ardent support, then to overwhelming listener requests). That track is just hitting the national mainstream now, with a video in rotation on BET. As mnemonic as the crunkest Cash Money booty chant, the summer bump slyly integrates a Steve Arrington sample into an irresistible sing-along ("Game recognize game when it's all good/Woo woo when you're pumping Buddy Buddy in the hood.").

Like the rest of the album, mostly produced by versatile hip-hop trackmaster Macnass at A440 Studios, tucked away in the Grain Belt building in northeast Minneapolis, the track is hooky without coming off as pushy. Meanwhile, Buddy's slices of street life express few details that distinguish Minneapolis from Baltimore or Houston or Omaha. And that's one of my few reservations about Major: Though its bid for universality might be good business sense, as a result, the disc isn't quite Minnesotan enough.

And what precisely does that mean? Your guess is as good as mine. No one seems to know. While Minnesotan hip hop has managed not to sound overly dependent on East or West Coast trends--avoiding both the minimalist bump of the New York underground or Cali's P-Funked gangsta boogie--the music has hardly coalesced into a regional style of its own. Buddy has made a start by referring to "the Igloo," the name for Minnesota that Mosely and drummer Kirk Johnson used to toss around in NPG days. On Major, some colorful imagery has started to emerge from that term.

Take, for instance, "Eskimoe Pie," a sweet new euphemism for a particularly squishy part of the female anatomy to which Buddy helps himself liberally. (Coo the ladies in the background: "Just put your mouth up on it/And baby you can bone it.")

Maybe it's the freak in him that makes Buddy a hometown boy. Though I've heard that this sexual practice has its devotees even outside of Minnesota, there's a tang to such stimulating words that has always lent Twin Cities dance music its particular regional flavor. From Prince to Next, after all, our rhythm adepts have never feared to be freaky, or woman-centered, or eager to please.

Hey--neither has Garth! After all, what is Brooks's "Ain't Goin' Down Till the Sun Comes Up" but a down-home take on the same subject? Suddenly Lil Buddy's hypothetical duet starts to make sense!

In 1997, on the heels of another hit local joint, "What's the Haps?!" Lil Buddy was positing in these very pages that he would soon "make history" ("It Takes a City of 366,000 to Hold Us Back," August 27, 1997). Three years later, he's on the verge of, at the very least, adding a hefty footnote to the annals of hip hop. Not wit, not personality, not rhythmic acumen--though he surely possesses and employs all these qualities--but a supreme determination to get over has been Buddy's primary engine toward success.

"When did I start rapping professionally?" he muses, repeating my question as usual. His somber face cracks into a rare smile. "I was professional when I started."

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