Master of the universe

Feb 20, 2008 at 12:00 am

Detroit's greatest MC isn't white and he isn't from Detroit. No, he's from Pontiac, although these days, he calls Cairo, Egypt, home. As do his wife and four kids.Sure, the commute's a bitch, but for the better part of last December, One Be Lo was in Seattle, setting up the details for the release of his new record, R.E.B.I.R.T.H. (The artist also played early December shows in Pontiac and Detroit and had a release party at Ann Arbor's Blind Pig on Dec. 28.)

Utilizing a pretty genius guerrilla marketing routine, Lo — who signs his e-mails Nahshid Sulaiman — has been setting up shop for short periods of time in the various cities that have shown him the most support in the past 10 years. Hence, Seattle.

"I'm out there working," Lo says. "This is how I take care of my family. I do radio interviews, press. I work with producers, get a couple of beats, set up in-store appearances. So when I'm gone from that city, I still have a presence and the album's set up and ready to go. I try to do it in every region."

His next planned stops were Colorado and California — states where Lo's moving brand of underground hip hop has been embraced since he first hit the scene a decade ago as half of the Detroit rap duo, Binary Star. What that brand sounds like might best be described as jazzy, soulful beats (ones that could make Kanye West blush) pulsating under clever but moving rhyming and narratives (think Common by way of Biggie and Jay-Z or Q-Tip by way of Gangstarr's Guru).

Binary Star's 2000 disc, Masters of the Universe, is still an iTunes underground hip-hop favorite, and One Be Lo is arguably the biggest underground emcee in the country right now. That's not based on him selling crunk hits from his car trunk at swap meets. Nor is it based on him getting the kudos of more established hip-hop royalty, which has resulted in gold albums. And it's certainly not based on respect in Detroit, where turnouts were modest for his December shows. After all, this city tends to favor more party rockin' hip-hoppers like Paradime or DJs like recent L.A. transplant Houseshoes.

But based on reaching a base of hip-hop fans who vividly remember and respect the message of Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" and look to hip hop to be as eye-opening as it is ear-opening, well, in that group, One Be Lo is your man.

Producer DL Jones remembers first hearing Lo rhyme at his Pontiac studio in 1997.

"Right away I could tell he was rhyming on a whole other level," Jones says. "He had the street cred. The way he was setting up the punch lines, he had a battle style. But he had the abstract thing down too. He wasn't just rhyming; he was saying something."

And Lo's always had a lot to say. It just isn't, however, the stuff that rappers usually talk about. On his latest single, "Gray," Lo offers, in three distinct acts, a meditation on that wistful feeling that can best be understood by those who've spent time in Detroit's purgatorial gray — the first act about soldiering on while dwelling in lower-middle-class ghetto life; the second about a biracial woman struggling with identity and acceptance; and the third about not knowing where he stands in the fickle music industry. Whatever conclusions he draws from the third act, however, Lo resolves to stay focused on the song because "it's my job."

It's also his calling.

Lo doesn't like to talk about it, but he did find God and Islam while in prison for armed robbery in the mid-'90s. That stint, however, brought focus, discipline and purpose to his life, as well as his rhyming.

"We sold dope and went to prison, but we didn't rap about it," he says of his days in Binary Star. "That's why I don't want to put it out there now. You can ask me about all these things I've been through in my life, because all journalists ever wanna talk about is, 'So, you were in Binary Star; you got a record coming out; and you went to prison for armed robbery?' But what does that have to do with anything?

"I ain't trying to come off like some self-righteous dude. But it's like, I didn't move to Egypt just so you could ask me a question about it and about living there. It's not a big deal to me. It's my life. And if you want a piece of my life, then just listen to my music."

Indeed, as he raps in the Jake One-produced "Smash": "A starving artist recited, feel the hunger inside it ... I didn't write it/I lived it."

The move to Egypt, he explains, was for his family. "We could have stayed in Inkster," Lo says. "But we had the opportunity to go over there, and so now my kids are growing up being exposed to a lot of different cultures and languages. I'm not saying it's better. But, again, it's my life. And that affects my music. But it's just a piece of the puzzle — the same way being in Binary Star was a piece of the puzzle or talking to you right now for an article is a piece of the puzzle. I gotta say something relevant. People need to hear something real, and I have these experiences, whether it's being prison, having children or living in Egypt."

Various U.S. hip-hop blogs have mostly keyed in on the harder tracks on R.E.B.I.R.T.H., which makes the aforementioned effervescent "Gray" — with its David McMurray horn solo and electric piano tinkles — an unlikely choice for a first single.

"But that's a song for the whole world, not just one kind of listener," Lo explains. "I get e-mails and messages every day from somebody talking about how much that song means to them. I just got a text from a homegirl in Miami. And she just wrote, 'Thanks for making that song.'"

Much like his life and persona, Lo's music is all over the place — worldly, intense and, most of all, sympathetic. This is even true of the album's rougher cuts, including the Texture-produced "Headlines" on which Lo imagines a thawed caveman coming to New York: "He said 'They got technology/And they got democracy/But all I can see is chaos, monopoly/Robbery, mockery, hypocrisy, debauchery.'"

Lo also occasionally goes by the name One Man Army. For the past three summers, on the Vans Warped Tour, he has been just such an army — driving himself from gig to gig, handling all his own merchandising, and booking all his own shows. He didn't get paid for the shows but instead used them as a springboard for selling merch and hooking up solo shows along the way. Last year was the first tour on which he actually had the comfort of a tour bus, a perk of being on the prestigious Fat Beats label, home to his 2006 album S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. But he's now used to being able to take his message straight to the people immediately — which is why — after a year of waiting for Fat Beats to finally release R.E.B.I.R.T.H. — Lo finally decided to do it himself, releasing it on his own Subterraneous label, direct from his official MySpace page.

"I had to put myself in a position where I was either gonna wait for people or not wait for people," he says. "But when it's time for me to roll, I roll. A lot of things pop up last minute for me, like, 'Can you get on a plane and get to Times Square to open up [a show] for Rakim?' That's how I got on the Warped Tour in the first place, just by being out there, by being accessible."

Still, you gotta wonder, what do his wife and kids think of living halfway around the world while dad lives the rhyming life often in the United States.

"We have an understanding," Lo says. "I have a responsibility to my family and to my community. A lot of artists can't balance the two. When I go on a Warped Tour, it's not to save the world. It's to pay my bills. This is my job. But if I don't go to a high school and talk to kids as well, then I'm not delivering on my responsibility. Now, what other emcees do, that's on them. But I remember how hip hop affected me growing up in Pontiac. I wasn't listening to my parents. And when I wasn't listening to my teachers, I was listening to emcees. And you know what? They were saying the same things my parents, teachers and uncles were saying.

"People hear this music and they're not sayin', 'Oh, I like that verse right there.' They're sayin', 'That music changed my life.'"

He continues, "I did that show in Pontiac in December. I'm 31 years old, and there's my mom in the audience. People I grew up with were there. And I'm thinking, 'What am I doing here? I should be dead right now.' I'm not trying to be special, I'm just trying to work hard. I want people to hear me because my music needs to be heard. And if I gotta get in my car and drive to just one person's house so they can hear it, well, then, I'm gonna do it."

Hobey Echlin is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]