Hip-hop on a rising tide in Hampton Roads

Civic pride swells as local artists gain national attention

Postcard: Virginia Beach

April 04, 2004|By Ricardo Baca | Ricardo Baca,DENVER POST

The coastal area of southeastern Virginia, home to generations of sailors and a modestly priced spot for beach lovers, has somewhat surprisingly emerged as a powerhouse music town.

In the past five years, some of the nation's top hip-hop tastemakers have begun sharing the neighborhood with Naval Station Norfolk and Naval Air Station Oceana.

"I don't know what it was or how it exactly happened," said Virginia Beach native Chad Hugo, one-half of the Neptunes and one-third of N.E.R.D., two of the most blazing, on-fire, buzzed-out musical entities on the planet. "All I can do is share what Pharrell [Williams, his partner] and I went through, really."

Hampton Roads is home to 1.5 million people. Among them are rapper Missy Elliott, who hails from Portsmouth, and her collaborator, uber-producer Timbaland, of Virginia Beach. The Neptunes, made up of producer/musicians Hugo and Williams, also represent the Beach. Add their childhood friend Shay into the mix and you have N.E.R.D., the rawked-out embodiment of the Neptunes.

The Riley factor

There's also the inspiration, the Man himself, Teddy Riley, who brought Hugo and Williams into the studio for the first time when they won a Riley-sponsored battle of the bands in high school. ("He didn't really show us the ropes," Hugo said, "but in a way, just being there allowed us to learn what we did.")

There are also the proteges - the hot Beach hip-hoppers Clipse and the up-and-coming Norfolk MC Fam-Lay. Both record on the Neptunes' Star Trak label.

"The Virginia Beach music scene is basically the `NOW!' (`That's What I Call Music') CD series," said Kendall Nicholes, aka DJ Kendall, sitting on the Peabody nightclub's stage at 3 a.m. after a recent gig.

Mix it all up, and you have the latest and greatest uniquely American music scene - mainstream enough for a "NOW!" CD, but artistic and creative enough to garner respect from critics and peers alike.

"Ultimately, it's all about Virginia," said Hugo, who credits local public schools and band programs for giving him a love for music and an intense work ethic. "It's where we started our vibe, where we started creating music. We always used to come to our home studio, and our studio is still there and I love it there. We also work in New York and L.A. - it balances us - just to see how other scenes are. But then we come back in town, and that's where we worked with Justin [Timberlake], Busta [Rhymes] and Snoop Dogg."

Hugo's not name-dropping. He and Williams are actually known for their humility as well as their ear for talent. They let their work do the bragging. Some tracks that were fortunate enough to benefit from their production: Britney Spears' "I'm a Slave 4 U," Nelly's "Hot in Herre," Busta Rhymes' "Pass the Courvoisier" and Timberlake's "Rock Your Body," "Senorita" and "Like I Love You."

Sound of pride

Any Virginia Beach bar you walk into will undoubtedly throw down the played-out but still brilliant "Like I Love You." It might as well be the city's anthem, since the Neptunes produced it and recorded it in Virginia Beach and Clipse adds a rap that includes a N.E.R.D. reference. Every time it hits, be it at Peabody's or at the Neptunes' haunt, the Beach House, a mile up the road, the crowd is always overcome with pride and enthusiasm and the need to move.

"Pharrell has everyone coming to him, and when Justin Timberlake was here working on the album, that was a really big deal," said Dorrie Williams-Wheeler, a Virginia Beach-based author and editor of ThaBiz.com.

"Pharrell is the most influential person in the scene because when he would get on MTV, he would always rep Virginia Beach, and he was proud he went to Princess Anne High School. Then he brought out the Clipse, and he was really trying to hype up the area."

Missy made her splash with hits such as 1999's "Hot Boyz," 2001's "Get Ur Freak On" and 2002's "Work It." But although she's a fierce talent behind the mike, she owes much of her success to her good friend Timbaland.

Timbaland, born Tim Mosley, is responsible for Timberlake's other mammoth hit, "Cry Me a River," which just reeks of Timbaland's signature gritty production. His list of production credits is as impressive as his Beach brethren, what with Genuwine's "Pony," Jay-Z's "Big Pimpin'," Ludacris' "Rollout (My Business)" and almost any hit from Missy, Aaliyah and his protege Bubba Sparxxx in the bank already. He's so accomplished, he recently told MTV, "I'm tired of making hit songs. I done made 20 No. 1 hit records. That's old to me."

Timbaland's most recent solo record, last year's "Under Construction, Part II" (a reference to his work on Missy's "Under Construction"), kicks off with "Intro/Straight Outta Virginia," no doubt his East Coast allusion to N.W.A.'s gangsta epic "Straight Outta Compton," with shout-outs to Pharrell and Clipse and, most importantly, his home state.

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