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It’s not every day that Phoenix Media Communications can lay a claim to having fomented a hip-hop insurrection. But in the case of FannyPack (who come to Matrix this Friday), the bootlylicious Brooklyn-based bubblegum-rap girl group responsible for two of last summer’s most distinctive radio confections, "Cameltoe," a Salt-n-Pepa-styled warning against the perils of the title fashion faux pas, and "Hey Mami," an irresistibly saucy Miami-bass chant that the group have been referring to as "kinder-booty," we plead guilty. Former Phoenix Web-site intern Cat Hartwell, 21, is the oldest of the group’s three frontgirls (the other two, Jessibel Suthiwong and Belinda Lovell, are still in their teens). Former Phoenix contributor Kalefah Sanneh, now at the New York Times, provided the group with their first hit of breakout national press, back when "Cameltoe" was tearing up the airwaves on NYC hip-hop powerhouse Hot 97’s morning show and FannyPack’s debut, So Stylistic (Tommy Boy), had yet to be released. And the TRL-charting video for "Cameltoe," with Saturday-morning-cartoon animation by the Woburn-based Ducharme Brothers, was directed by former WFNX program director Kurt St. Thomas. Matt Goias, one of the two behind-the-scenes FannyPackers (he and long-time pal DJ Fancy founded the group on Fancy’s roach-infested Brooklyn couch), even claims that his dream job is "to be editor-in-chief of the Boston Phoenix."
As for me, I’ve loved FannyPack since the moment I laid ears on ’em. How could anyone not? "Three hot girls! Old-school booty! Trash talking! Blazing beats! All about fun! Two genius producers! The most fun album out! Always booming! Number one fun mix! Style and fashion! Regular girls! All bangers! It’s like Kraftwerk trying to score with JJ Fad and the Waitresses while listening to dancehall in a strip club!" And that’s just what they have to say about themselves in their press releases. Goias names as his two favorite hip-hop albums of all time Nice & Smooth’s Ain’t a Damn Thing Changed (Priority) — a 1991 disc that was already a throwback when it was released — and Biz Markie’s 1988 Goin’ Off (Cold Chillin’), which begins with a song called "Pickin’ Boogers."
So Stylistic is wholly immersed in the teen spirit of mid-’80s hip-hop — the years between the music’s explosion as a regional urban phenomenon and its adoption, a few years later, as an artistic and socio-political tool. The PG-13 nursery-rhyme cadences of "Cameltoe" ("Is your crotch hungry, girl?/’Cause it’s eating your pants") and "Hey Mami" ("Skanky, cranky, foogly, oogly/Slammin’ dudes who wanna do me") hark back to the era of hip-hop as parent trap — a musical free-for-all notable mostly for its insane dance crazes and novelty hits like "Jam on It," "Pack Jam," and "The Rappin’ Duke." In other words, it was an era analogous to the Nuggets years of garage rock: puerile and derivative, yes, but also free-spirited, brash, totally loco. "Cameltoe" gets this across even before the first word is spoken: its salt-shaker swish of percussion is an unmistakable homage to Salt-n-Pepa’s "Push It," and the opening seesawing synth figure mocks you with a two-note melody familiar to anyone who ever uttered the schoolyard taunt "Nyah-nyah!"
"You know why it sounds old-school?" says Goias over the phone from Brooklyn. "It’s because Tommy Boy made it really clear to me and Fancy that they’re not a hip-hop label anymore. They said, ‘We’re a dance label, can you do a dance record?’ So the question was, how do we trick Tommy Boy into thinking they got a dance record but still have it be something we like? We thought, okay, ‘dance’ means ‘fast,’ and the music that we like is rap. So should we make ‘fast’ ‘rap’ music? What does fast rap music sound like? So Fancy and I were going through our mental glossary of what we like that was fast-dance-music-rapping, and it sort of just came out like that. There was never a point that we said [he adopts an Erkel voice], ‘Dude, we should be totally ’80s.’ If it was up to us, we love just regular contemporary hip-hop stuff. Jay-Z is my favorite rapper ever. But I also love the [FannyPack] attitude — and once we found the girls, we knew the attitude of it had to be light."
The story of how Goias and Fancy, old friends from the NYC DJ circuit, found their girl group has become its own kind of DIY fairy tale. Hartwell, who’d completed her Phoenix internship, graduated from BU’s film-studies program, and moved to Brooklyn as an aspiring DJ, met Goias through a common acquaintance: Prince Paul. Goias and Fancy overheard Suthiwong screaming at a friend in the mall and approached her on the spot. "It’s funny, because girls in New York, especially little Puerto Rican girls, they’re so skeptical and get-the-fuck-away-from-me. So I had to be like, um, ‘Excuse-me-hi-my-name’s-Matt-I-make-music-I-have-a-production-deal-with-Tommy-Boy-records-you-know-the-label-with-De-La-Soul-and-Coolio-and-House-of-Pain.’ But I think the way it came out, because I was trying to say it so fast just to get to the part where she’d be interested, was, ‘Hi-I’m-Coolio!’ I’m like, ‘Yo, have your mom call me.’ So her mom called me, they came over. I think she just wanted to see that I wasn’t crazy. So I totally fooled her. And we actually recorded ‘Hey Mami’ that first day — the first day we ever took Jessibel into the studio."
The studio, such as it was, consisted of an old T-shirt stretched over a coat hanger for a spit guard and hung strategically in front of a microphone installed in Fancy’s closet. Not long after, Jessibel recruited her classmate Belinda, and a concept was born. "It started out as Cat’s the singer, Belinda’s the rapper, Jessibel’s the attitude," recalls Hartwell over the phone from her gig volunteering for Amnesty International in NYC. Fancy and Goias had been lucky enough to find a representative voice from what any pollster will tell you is America’s next great youth target demographic: Hispanic teenage girls. The funniest moments on So Stylistic belong to Jessibel, who does for sassy, gum-snapping, wise-cracking, around-the-way Latinagers what the Donnas did for punk-rock Valley Girls on American Teenage Rock N Roll Machine. The music that Goias and Fancy created for So Stylistic echoes the minimalist art-school electro of Adult and Le Car as well as the raunchy strip-club chants of Miami bass (a combination that, on "Do It to It," sounds like a sanitized version of Detroit ghetto tech). And though their beats alone might have endeared them to subcultural fetishists, the album succeeds on the personalities of its frontgirls, imbued with an infectious innocence and insouciance.
All of this would have been but an interesting exercise if "Cameltoe" and "Hey Mami" hadn’t charmed their way onto the mainstream hip-hop airwaves — making So Stylistic, with the possible exception of a few songs on Missy Elliott’s last two albums, the only commercially viable expression of hip-hop nostalgia in recent memory. "For us to be sitting at Hot 97 was the ultimate, ultimate compliment," says Goias. "Because I’m not a person who goes, ‘Oh, the public is so stupid, they only like the lowest common denominator.’ That’s a cop-out that untalented underground cats will say because they don’t know how to make a good song. There are so many underground rapper guys that are like . . . [he imitates the carteroid-artery-busting, thesaurus-wrecking flow of anonymous backpacker MC]. And that’s great, and if you wrote it down, it would be terrific literature to see your perfect couplets and your extended metaphors. But you know what? It’s a stupid song. Because it’s bad. And sometimes you don’t need that in your music. Sometimes music is ‘Louie Louie,’ and ‘Louie Louie’ is like three notes. It’s harder to make fun, stupid music. I mean, if it’s so easy to make ‘Louie Louie,’ go make one.
"Don’t get me wrong, I love Sun Ra and John Coltrane and a lot of really weird stuff. But as a person who is making music, when you sit down and try to make fun stuff? It’s hard, dude. It’s a pain in the ass. And for us to be validated by New York hip-hop kids and the secretaries in Queens and the kids on the block in Brooklyn — that to me is the highest possible honor."
Of course, in post-electroclash New York City, FannyPack have had the best of both worlds — like Justin Timberlake and OutKast, they’re as much loved by indie-rock kids as they are by hip-hop’s proletariat. "My day job before this was in marketing," Goias says. "I know the hipster guys. They’re easy, dude. If you put on the right outfit and get in the right magazine and have the right logo, they like you. It has nothing to do with the music. And all those kids in Williamsburg who are into electroclash and stuff — it’s like the guys who used to think punk rock was trendy and cool mixed with people who used to think dance music and raving was trendy and cool, and now they live in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn. Because of the radio play that we got, we get booked in some places that trendy hipster people — even though I know we’re pretty trendy to a lot of people, I guess — we get booked in places that those kinds of bands never get booked. We got a gig at Foxwoods once. It was all these total guido people, which I love, and then 40 total hipster weirdos who drove to Foxwoods from Boston. And I so get off on that whole idea — here we are in the cheesiest place in the world, and it’s like ‘Ah-hah! I made you come here!’ It’s the same thing with the name: ‘Ah-hah! Dude, I made you say FannyPack!’ "
It goes without saying that novelty isn’t a dirty word in the FannyPack camp. "Some of my favorite songs of all time are novelties," Goias explains. "I mean, name another Laid Back song. The thing that’s very heavy with me and the girls is that So Stylistic is this thing we did on Fancy’s couch while drinking El Presidente beer and eating Twizzlers. We wrote these songs in like eight seconds, sitting in Fancy’s bedroom. The girls recorded them in his closet. And like last week we were in Helsinki — we’re next to Russia, and there’s people singing along to this thing we did in Fancy’s closet. And the girls know this isn’t going to last forever. We’re probably going to do a [new] record now and then tour and then that’s it. Jessibel is applying to colleges. I tell them that you have to think of it as a job at some point, and I always have to remind myself, too, like, well, I could be working at McDonald’s. So we’re very grateful."
And they’re already a half-dozen songs into their next album. "This is gonna sound so gay, but we found the FannyPack sound, sort of," says Goias. The key, he says, was a steady tempo of 150 bpm. "It’s a tempo where it can be crazy-get up-go-nuts booty, and it can also be really laid-back-crunk-dirty-straight-up hip-hop. This time we don’t have to trick Tommy Boy into a dance record."
FannyPack perform this Friday, February 27, at Matrix, 275 Tremont Street in Boston's Theater District; call (617) 931-2000 or (617) 542-4077.
Issue Date: February 27 - March 4, 2004
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