CONTAC'S RIDE IS in desperate need of pimping. The side mirror of his 2002 Nissan Altima has been smashed off.
"Did that happen recently?" I ask.
"Uh," he says, smiling hesitantly.
"The reason I ask, there's a cracked mirror on the street around the corner from Digital City Music."
Contac opens the driver side and laughs. That might well be his mirror, he says. Digital City is where he's worked since 1997, when the West Broadway CD store was still called Classic Records. His wide, gentle features soften as his 5X frame piles in.
"You got to excuse the car," he says, clearing the passenger seat of toys and CDs and tossing them on the baby seat behind him. "I'm a family man. I've got three children." He pronounces the word chirren.
"Got a newborn that's almost two months old. That's why I got to drop the car off to my girl, so she can get the kids, go to Bible study, and everything can go on like a regular Wednesday."
Today is anything but a regular Wednesday for Contac, whose curled braids are still wet. In a few hours, on November 9, 2005, he opens for Atlanta's Young Jeezy, one of the biggest names in rap music, at Myth, the palatial new club in Maplewood. Contac has never been there, or not exactly.
"I been to it when it was a Just For Feet, years and years ago," he says. "I remember when they was going out of business. Everything was on sale, man. Cats was coming back to the Classic Records with shoes for everybody. Like, 'What size you wear?' Everybody had the same K-Swiss."
Like most Contac stories, this one touches on themes close to his heart: community, resourcefulness, and humble good humor on the north side of Minneapolis. Born in Connecticut and raised "over North," Contac is the local rapper everyone knows in his neighborhood, with three albums to his name reflecting the Southern styles favored by customers at the store. "He was the first person in Minneapolis to really start doing bounce and crunk," says B96 host Chuck Chizzle, who grew up with Contac. "And when it wasn't popular to do so. Hand-to-hand, I think he sold something like 4,000 copies of his first CD with no internet sales, no advertisements, nothing."
Contac is also the only local rapper to have collaborated with Kurupt of the Dogg Pound and Lil Jon. He's opened for Black Robb and DMX, and some think he'll headline the big venues himself one day. "But I'm still at the record store," says Contac. "The same place you could have found me five, six years ago. In my mind, I ain't did nothing."
He starts the engine and pulls out of the parking lot, nosing toward the intersection of Cedar and Riverside. We're leaving Contac's home base when he's away from the North Side, the West Bank recording studio he opened nine months ago, ATM ("All for the Money" or "All for the Music"). Located above the Red Sea, where Contac hosts Tuesday hip-hop nights with his partners in ATM, Sandman (Onyx Johnson) and A.K. (Arvesta Kelly, Jr.), the studio is a haven for first-time recording artists. As we speak, a teenager named Come Up is back at ATM laying tracks for a forthcoming CD with his older brother, Get Down.
"We charge $30 an hour, but at the same time we give them input," says Contac. "Because we didn't have studio access when we was coming up. Nowadays Sandman is certified to work Pro Tools." Sandman, who put out his first CD when he was still a senior at North Community High School, has since earned a degree in production from IPR, the Institute of Production and Recording. He's from the North Side, says Contac, while A.K., a former basketball star at Cretin-Derham Hall, is from St. Paul.
"We're trying to bridge the gap between Minneapolis and St. Paul," says Contac. "Breaking bread in ghetto terms is making money together."
Meeting this soft-spoken businessman, born Londell Anderson, you can't help noticing how different he is from the outsized "Smeezy Weezy" persona of his music. Contac's latest album of rippling, clacking party jams, Anutha All Nighta (Lazyeye Entertainment/ATM Recordings), contains his catchiest refrain yet in the line: "I'm the king of the city, man/You bitches bow down/Hail to the king." (He pronounces the last word kaaayng.) The humility evaporates on CD.
"I have to ask," I say, glancing at the baby seat, "when you say you're a pimp on the album, is that for real?"
Contac smiles, and turns to me with his lazy eye.
"It's like this. I'm not no gangster. But I got gangster ways. The average person rapping ain't no pimp. If you was a pimp, you wouldn't be rapping. I just keep it real nutritious, you know what I'm saying?"
"Actually, I have no idea what you're saying."
"Exactly!" he says, laughing. "You know what I'm saying?"
We both laugh at this. Plenty of rappers are coy about criminal activities mentioned in lyrics, but Contac seems genuinely sheepish about being wholesome in real life. "I'm not married," he says. "I've been with my girl for 10 years, but don't tell nobody that." (He later gives permission to print this.) "If I was like B2K, they wouldn't be telling everyone that they married. But at the same time, I am a family man."
We pull into an industrial-looking lot, and Sandman's car, following behind us, comes to a stop nearby. Out of a building with a glass door walks a woman with a round and pretty face.
"Hey, honey," says Contac, suddenly sounding proper and stately. "I'm dropping the car off to you because I have to go to sound check."
"You look nice," she says, kissing him through the window. "Hope it lasts."
Contac begins moving a few things from one car to the other, and I join Samantha Sharp inside the office of the printing company where she works.
"He's a good-hearted person," she says, gazing out the window. "A big ol' kid, if you ask me. He likes to have fun. But who doesn't like to be happy? He's pushing himself all the time. That's one of the things that everyone admires, is his determination."
Contac pokes his head in and looks at her. "I know you ain't in here lyin' about me," he says.
"Whatever," she replies. When he's gone, she shakes her head. "I don't know if I could do it, personally. I don't have his drive."
CONTAC'S MOST DISTINGUISHING trait as an MC is the odd timbre of his voice. It sounds a little like Larry Blackmon doing a Donald Duck impression, or Twista possessed by the ghost of Howlin' Wolf. Contac calls it "the Waggle," and it couldn't be more different from his speaking tone, which is deep and luxuriant. His dad, Don Anderson, says young Londell started using the Waggle when he was a kid, imitating his father. The b-boy had been dancing in the park from the age of four, but was slower to pick up the mic.
"He got into rapping when he was 16," remembers Dad. "It was his older cousin, L.P., the one that got murdered, that had 'em all into it."
Lyrical Poet, born Armell Antonio Pate, learned rapping from Londell's older brother, Gary Robinson, but ended up being the one to push Contac and his friends to stay focused on music.
"Rapping was their answer to the gangs," says Don Anderson. "Londell's age group was getting into gangs, and his cousin formed a little clique called the Mackilot. They used to throw parties every week so all the gang-bangers didn't mess with them, 'cause they liked coming to the parties. That kind of kept Londell out of the gangs."
The elder Anderson, who recently organized a benefit for Katrina victims at the Red Sea featuring rappers from the North Side, remembers the hole left behind in the community by L.P.'s death. The two cousins appeared together on an AIDS awareness CD in 1998. When L.P. was murdered the same year--allegedly for disrespecting his killer's gang--everyone involved in the project felt adrift.
"L.P. dying was like a message for our whole family," Contac told me at the time. "We've got to come together. And I feel I've got to be the one to bring us together."
Within a year, Contac had recorded "I Can't Talk," his first solo CD single, spitting rapid verses over a sample that sounded like air escaping from a bass cabinet. "Y'all 'd rather see me crying, singin' the blues, man," squawked the young rapper. "I lost my cousin in '98/That just gave me more ambition to bust some heads with the microphone and continue on with the mission."
Contac performed the song at the Juneteenth festival, where he shared the stage with Sandman, and has since built a career mostly on decadent party music--he still shouts out L.P., but never calls for vengeance, as Sandman did on 2000's "Dear LP." (Contrary to rumor, the shooter is still behind bars.) In some ways, Contac is a dose of mainstream fun in a city known for inspirational serious types such as Brother Ali, another North Side rapper who couldn't be less crunk. Contac even tried to move to Atlanta in 2001 to blend in better, but returned six months later, missing his family. He scored a Lil Jon guest vocal (purchased by the local rapper's then-label, Wild Side Records) for 2004's "Do Something," but that hasn't done much. (Resurrected in remixed form on the new album, it's a rare moment of Contac seeming to feel obliged to act tough.)
Contac's low profile might also reflect the growing isolation of the North Side, the heart of black Minnesota, from the rest of the scene. Local hip hop was born here, with a legacy stretching from the Minneapolis Body Breakers to the Northside Hustlaz Clic. Yet you only had to attend Digital City's recent in-store rap battles, where every participant was black, to notice how cultural segregation persists. "We treat it like it's its own city," said rapper Unknown of the North Side, speaking through a mouth full of diamonds at one bout before handing me a flyer for his next gig at the 200 Club.
"When people say 'North Side,' they go, 'Oh my God, I don't want to go over there,'" says Chuck Chizzle. "But it's really a loving community. We look out for each other and we support each other. Because pretty much that's all we got."
AT THE YOUNG JEEZY show, the headliner turns out to be hours late, and Contac goes out in front of a crowd disappointed to see anybody else. But the opener brings the raw energy he's known for, pacing around Sandman like a lion, sparking cheers from the audience for the duo's melodic blur of lyrics on "Set It Off." At one point, Contac throws money at the crowd--ones, fives, and twenties--and one woman jumps over the security barrier.
"It was a big show for me," he says afterward. "When it comes to local talent, the crowd off the top is ready to boo, or ready to be like, 'Okay, you're garbage, get off stage.' So I want to let 'em know that I ain't garbage. I'm not heard from a lot. But I do got something for y'all."
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