|SUGA POP 2005|
"Everything I do, it comes from dancing." This isn't a quote you'd expect from a musician but it's the guiding force behind the artist known as Pop. His new album, Caramel '76, channels many styles of music, from hip-hop to reggae to rock to pop, but at its foundation, at the root of Pop's ideology, is the art of the dance. Think of hip-hop as a musical genre and a culture that spawned from dancing - it was the "break" of the record that the dancers loved and which motivated DJs to keep spinning them back to back - and Pop's words make sense. "Everything is from dance, from the movement," explains Pop. "Even when I'm playing the keyboards, it's like I'm dancing on the keys. That's how I envision it."
It's Pop's story that gives Caramel '76 context. As a young teen on the West Coast, Pop hooked up with a street dance group called the Electric Boogaloos. The youthful, rebellious clique is famed for inventing "Poppin'," the robotic-funk dance style associated with early hip-hop, and their spectacular performances on the television show "Soul Train."
While in LA, Pop took a job dancing and acting on the television show Sesame Street. The gig moved him back to New York at the age of 15. The time was right. When he first emigrated, New York's concrete landscape was a Petri dish for a new urban culture - hip-hop. That culture was in full bloom, and Pop was right in the middle of it.
He fell in with the Rock Steady Crew, whose members, Crazy Legs, Fabel, and Mr.Freeze, met Pop dancing in Times Square. Hip-hop was unrehearsed, says Pop. Sometimes it was raw street culture, other times it was art-scene fetish object. "There was no blueprint for it," he says. "We'd get hired out for a party to dance somewhere and you'd see Deborah Harry or Andy Warhol. Some guy on stilts would be walking around the room. And then it'd be Jazzy Jay or Bambaataa DJ-ing. It was wild."
At 18, Pop left television and started dancing on concert tours, shows, and music videos. He went on tour with Shalimar, and Lionel Richie, and appeared in music videos by Michael Jackson, just at the time when the King Of Pop's lavish choreography was captivating the world through the imaginative medium of MTV.
The next year, Pop's career would take an even bigger step when he hooked up with percussionist Sheila E. She had just been asked to go on tour with Prince for Purple Rain. "That was an amazing time," Pop remembers. "I was young. I'd run around with my backstage pass and get into trouble. There was lots of craziness happening everywhere. But Prince? I watched him every night."
It was that experience that galvanized Pop to make his own music. Pop learned how to play a variety of instruments through dance. As a dancer on tour, he'd sometimes jam with the band, particularly towards the end of a nation-wide trek. "But after Purple Rain," Pop says, "that's when the music bug bit. I bought a drum machine. I already had a guitar. I just started playing around with this stuff, getting bands together, playing by myself. Anything. I wanted to be a musician."
Pop put together some of his own demos but what he really enjoyed was working in the studio with other artists. Producer Joe "Da Butcher" Niccolo (Cypress Hill, Fugees, House of Pain) served as a mentor for a couple of years. Pop also worked with the Boo Yaa Tribe, who were signed to Island Records, and that project led him to a fledgling, LA-based hip-hop group named Cypress Hill. Pop served as a jack-of-all-trades studio consultant on their breakthrough, self-titled debut, helping the group demo tracks in his living room and working with live instruments, drum machines and samplers. Pop would go on to work as a producer with other groups like Brand Nubian, Third Bass, and Fisbhone. "I like creating in collaboration," says Pop. "I think you get the best ideas that way."
The early '90s were being good to Pop's own solo musical pursuits as a rock front man. He formed a band called Pop's Cool Love, which released an album, A Man, in 1991. It was a rich mix of hip-hop rhythms, pop psychedelia, and spangled rock. The album was critically acclaimed, and took Pop on tours with artists like Beastie boys, Pearl Jam, and Fishbone. In 1992, his band backed LL Cool J, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest for the first hip-hop MTV Unplugged. The now legendary performance (LL's "Mama Said Knock You Out") was a prescient look to hip-hop's development toward live instruments. The transition towards the mid-90s would be tougher.
Pop took a dedicated break from music to concentrate on other things in his life, catalyzed by the loss of his younger brother, who died in a tragic car accident in Nevada. Music was secondary to making his own life right. It took a handful of years for Pop to move from a sense of despair to a position of strength. As the '90s came to a close, Pop started to get back to music again. It came through the same method it started with in the first place: dancing. "Mr. Wiggles (of the Rock Steady Crew/Electric Boogaloos) called me, and we just talked about dancing. Within six months, he just asked me to do some shows with him and I did, without thinking much about it. That's what got me back. And then the music came naturally from that, just like it did in the beginning." And his music is better for it. On Caramel '76, Pop utilizes the techniques of mixing and matching styles he always relied on. A hip-hop sensibility colors the record but it mixes in guitar riffs and bubbling dance tracks, a roots vibe ("Reggae is country music to me," Pop says) with a progressive musical approach. It's unlike any record you'll hear today. "That's always been how I make music," Pop says. "Throw everything in the pot and stir it up. That's the island in me, I guess."