By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
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"We can't wait for people to know that St. Louis got something like this," says Cat, one-half of the St. Louis hip-hop duo Bits n' Pieces. "Nelly's doing a good job up there by himself, but (other cities) got so many other cats." The extrovert of the two sibling emcees, Cat speaks urgently, in a thick drawl, about his group's new single, "The New Breed." Jia, two years Cat's senior, approves or checks answers that his brother offers, never speaking more than a few words. But you can feel their closeness, how well they fit together. Inside their modest, clean studio in the Central West End, fresh kicks abound, a few photographs hang on the walls and furnishings are sparse. They know this city and want this city to know them, though the duo doesn't seem interested in instant fame and easy cheese; all the expenses related to this release are coming out of their own pocket. It's pretty simple: Cat, a student at St. Louis Community College-Meramec, and Jia, an employee at the Forest Park campus, have got things to get off their chests. Explains Cat succinctly: "We're gonna give St. Louis some vertebrae."
"Y'all never heard, I'm from where bellies growl loudly ... I'm achin' for the piece I deserve, my words slur"; with his lulling flow, Jia rocks "The New Breed" bass line like a sleeping baby. Just above it, a field's worth of crickets chirp, a church bell rings and drums crash, all interwoven by producer DJ Crucial. The 12-inch is selling "out the trunk" right now, and the CD is scheduled to drop in late October.
Also known as Dink, Jia started writing rhymes to rap instrumentals when he was 10. He urged his brother to do the same so they could perform together. When they were 14 and 16, respectively, Cat and Jia entered a talent show at the Clarion Hotel with the original track "Chemical Reaction." A couple of years later, the two went into the studio to try to record a live drum album, but that fell through when a third emcee moved to Detroit in the middle of the project. Rapping gradually became more important to the two brothers, and they began to do shows whenever they got a chance.
"When we first started getting on stages, it was like a one-time deal," Cat says. "Nobody knew who we were, and the crowd would give us a good response, clapping and all that, and you see you've got something, so you just keep doing shows, and keep doing shows, and doing shows." Moving a crowd is one of the greatest highs, and Bits n' Pieces can move the crowd, with all the kids yelling their name and responding to the calls -- "When I say "Bits,' you say "Pieces'" and "Do we run this muthafucka?" Their name is known solely because of their live shows at this point. But it's not just the duo's lyrical skills or the beats (they've often used other artists' instrumentals as a live backdrop) or their energy but, rather, the amount of heart that they express that moves people. A lot of current rap lacks honesty, humanity and creativity. It's either "commercial," club rap that centers on a life of excess; or "underground," bitter, cynical rap that usually just complains about the radio rappers. The artists who step outside these patterns stand out like a jazz soloist in the middle of a melodic rapture, too busy with the music to be concerned with what others are doing, yet still in tune. The purity of rap in the '80s, like that of soul and jazz in the '50s and '60s, is sorely missed by the educated hip-hop listener. At the mention of the Temptations, which the pair reference as their greatest influence, Jia perks up and offers to throw on a movie about them right at that moment:
"Our first music wasn't rap. We grew up to Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, stuff like that. (Soul music) is our roots, where we at. In a way, we take it back to that." Not in sound, Cat clarifies -- Bits n' Pieces won't be sampling a Diana Ross hit anytime soon -- but the content of their music evokes these precursors, music that everyday people can feel. The two evade classification in this way and don't discriminate in announcing who should listen to their music. "Whether you goin' to Harvard and getting' your Ph.D. or a thug, a young black boy, a young white boy, whatever, you can listen to Bits n' Pieces," Cat says.
The B-side of "The New Breed" single contains two other tracks. "Cloud IX" is a soulful, stratospheric flute and guitar track, also produced by Crucial, over which Cat spits a rhyme about dealing with stress in a positive -- not negative, like most rappers -- manner: "(I) don't follow the paths that the suckas have/Look up to my brother, my love is to see my mother laugh." "Urban to Suburbia," produced by Ant, has a bouncier, old-school feel; the interaction between Cat's and Jia's vocals is more evident as they attempt to reach out to that diverse audience. "The New Breed" includes scratches by the group's DJ, K-9, 1999 DMC Midwest finalist, who adds more dimension to their shows as well, and dissonant vocals by Cat and Jia's sister, Toyy, who also raps. The group has another single due out in a few months, with three new tracks.
So what is the new breed, according to Bits n' Pieces? Cat has the answer: "This is the new breed because ... there's so much (music) to choose from right now, but you've never heard anything like this before. Ain't nothin' like this in your CD case."