They rap about fighting to avoid the drugs that saturate their bleak neighborhood streets, about staying alive in a community rife with guns and violence.
The subject matter is conventional rap fodder. But the menacing environment the new rap trio Faces of Funk gets lyrical about isn't Compton or the South Bronx.
But rather ... Annapolis Gardens.
Yes, Annapolis. The starchy, historic-with-a-capital-H city many view as a more likely breeding ground for a German polka troupe than the next It-group in hip-hop.
"Some people say, `What are they gonna rap about? Shopping at the mall?' " says one member of Faces of Funk, Orlando "Smallz" Craig, a 24-year-old Annapolis native.
"If you're from New York and people hear you rap about drugs, they can believe it -- when people think of Annapolis, they think downtown, waterfront," adds Irvin "Papoose" Crowdy, 28, the other group member from Annapolis. Jermaine "Big Milk" Lowe, 26, lives in northwest Washington. "If you're from Annapolis, people just don't know what to expect."
Well, expect this -- a surprising debut.
The group's first album, "Tales of the Funk," was distributed to Annapolis and Anne Arundel County stores in November and ran up record sales for a local band on an independent label at Tower Records in Annapolis Harbor Center. The sales manager, Lovell Brown, promptly dubbed it "Annapolis' No. 1 Rap Group."
Moreover, Brown said the album became the sixth best-selling rap album in its first week, higher than recent releases by major-label artists like Method Man and Jay-Z. The album sold more than 70 CDs and cassettes at Tower and a total of 500 throughout the county.
Normally, "for a person who doesn't have a major-label or minor-label distribution, we'd be lucky if we sold five a month," Brown said. Selling albums is cool and all, but group members have their egos set on something far bigger: making their home turf the next hip-hop nation a la Master P, whose rap empire has cast the spotlight on his hometown of Baton Rouge, La.
"You've got Ice Cube out west, you've got Master P down South, but as far as Maryland, Virginia, D.C., Baltimore, there's been no one person that's come out and said, `Just follow us and we're going to take us to the top,' " Crowdy said. "We want to put this little area on the map."
Well, Faces of Funk sales are "not that impressive," says Minya Oh, music lifestyles editor at Vibe magazine.
"People like Too Short [out of Oakland] and Master P were selling much more despite selling it out of the trunk of their cars," Oh said. "But this is a good beginning." She said it helps that Maryland has not been tapped as a hip-hop source.
"The one thing about hip-hop is that you have to really take charge of your area and be proud of it," Oh said. "There was a time when Atlanta wasn't the huge black music mecca that it is now. People there saw that the local groups weren't trying to imitate New York or L.A. -- they were saying, `It's all about us.' And people have loyalty to you when they feel you're really representing them. At some point in the 21st century, who knows, Annapolis could become a huge hip-hop market."
And Faces of Funk is doing its best to represent its side of Annapolis -- quite different from the Frommers guide's view of this capital city.
Take the album's first song, "Fastway": "I wanna do right, but my mind thinks crime. I'm caught up in this game, ain't no telling when your last day is."
The violence, the drug-dealing is a running theme in Faces of Funk's songs -- apart from the ones "for the ladies" that are really profanity-speckled odes to their women.
It ain't exactly part of the hazelnut latte culture down by the city dock.
The three men say they grew up in the public-housing communities of Annapolis and Washington, began stumbling upon drugged-out people sprawled on neighborhood streets before they even hit middle school, ran with the proverbial wrong crowd for years before making an about-face -- at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center in Parole, no less -- and surviving to rap about it.
Crowdy and Craig grew up in Annapolis Gardens and Newtowne 20 and knew each other through mutual friends. Crowdy graduated from Annapolis High School in 1988 and Craig in 1991. Crowdy is known as "Papoose" in his neighborhood because his grandfather thought he looked like a "little Indian baby" when he was born. Craig's nickname, "Smallz," is a shortened version of "Biggie Smallz," which friends called him because he was big-sized. He dropped "Biggie" after Notorious B.I.G., a k a. Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace, burst onto the rap scene in 1994.