The fight comes on first,” Hush says. The 32-year-old Detroit-bred emcee-producer born Dan Carlisle is sitting on his bed in a schmancy West Hollywood hotel suite right off the Sunset Strip this cool spring Sunday night in Los Angeles.
It’s just after 9 p.m. and Hush and his road manager Big Snik are glued to The Contender, the reality show that follows the struggles of boxing hopefuls trying to balance their drive to succeed with their responsibilities to their families. A shopping bag from the Hustler Store up the street on Sunset is a pretty good indicator Hush hasn’t been all business this trip to the coast. Tomorrow, he starts shooting the video for “Hush Is Coming,” the first single from his major label debut Bulletproof set to drop nationally in June on Geffen/Universal. Eminem, Hush’s old roommate from back in the day, produced the track, which features a chorus courtesy of Nate Dogg from L.A.’s Dogg Pound. Both gents are set make cameos in the video.
There was a time, just a few years ago, when Sundays for Hush meant getting Chinese food with his girlfriend before starting another week loading furniture at Art Van. But these days, with a major label deal, even watching TV on a Sunday night is work.
NBC’s The Contender, besides being a hit reality show from producer Mark Burnett (who’s currently one of Hollywood’s It-men; see Survivor and The Apprentice) also features Hush’s music. Not full songs, mind you, the way, say, The OC sells indie rock downloads. But through a little luck, a little good karma, a lot of hard work and, literally, being in the right place at the right time, Hush has managed to become The Contender’s in-house rapper of sorts. So far two of his tracks, “Fired Up” and “Put ’em Down” have been featured on the show. That’s pretty rare; reality TV isn’t known for having original sound tracks. In fact, a hungry unknown like Hush getting his music on national TV is its own reality show. And Hush’s show begins during the two-hour Contender finale on Tuesday, May 24, where he is scheduled to perform live from Caesars Palace. It could be Hush’s launchpad to hitsville.
“That’s my bread and butter,” Hush says, his blue eyes behind thin-rimmed glasses fixed to the TV. “Now the real work starts all over again. Now I’ve got shit to prove.”
When Metro Times last checked in with Hush, back in the summer of 2003, he had even more to prove. After false starts with his group Da Ruckus and two solo indie albums, he was getting ready to move to L.A. to get closer to the industry wheels and deals. He had just finished recording an album, Roses and Razorblades, with executive producer Greg Weir. He had a new manager, Paul Fishkin, a music industry veteran who managed Stevie Nicks and Foghat over the years, and more recently, ’80s hair metal acts like Kix.
The two met after a Hush trip to Atlanta to work with an R&B producer, which yielded laughable results. Hush headed to a bar before catching his flight home. A friend of Fishkin’s happened to be in the lounge, heard Hush’s story and put him in touch with the manager. “He hasn’t had an artist that hasn’t been gold or platinum,” Hush told MT back then. Fishkin now oversees Hush’s career.
In August that year, Hush had a going-away show at Alvin’s. “I gotta do this for my family,” he told the crowd. The show was an emotional free-for-fall of thick-voiced rap-rock, propped up by his band Black Magic Crossing. It felt as much an end as a beginning.
A lot has changed since that show almost two years ago. Hush never moved to L.A.
Instead he played two showcases that September. The first was at New York’s Don Hill’s. More than just a showcase, the night turned out to be a revelation — both to the A&R people who showed up and to Hush, who obviously has a soft spot for family.
“I took my mom with me to New York two days early,” Hush says. “We went to a Yankee game, the top of the Empire State Building, the tourist stuff. We just really vibed, and I didn’t get the chance to do that before.”
He turns his attention away from the flickering TV and takes off his glasses. “The showcases I played before were like potlucks — you didn’t know whose interest was real; is this the mail boy telling me he likes my shit or a real A&R guy?
“This time, it was real. Paul had worked with these people. I felt pretty confident.”
But then something happened onstage that had never happened to Hush before. MC Hush, the almost-there-but-not-quite local rapper with a career of clever tracks like “150 MCs” and well-thought-out braggadocio like “Knuckle Up,” the guy who once wanted to sign with Shaquille O’Neal’s Twism label just to get his name out there, became Dan Carlisle, the single dad with the weight of the world on his shoulders, right there onstage, in front of his mom and the music industry.
“The last song was ‘Roses and Razorblades,’ and I just started baaawwlling,” he says, sighing. “I had to stop the song. I said to the crowd, ‘You have no idea how important this is to me.’ I got off the stage and went up and hugged my mom.”
Was it melodrama or true emotion?
“I was so emotional I couldn’t remember the words to the song,” he says, cracking a smile. “I went up to the drummer, ‘What’s the next line?’ And he just looks at me and goes ‘Two, three, four …’ and into the song! Fuuucckk.”
Hush finished the set. He’d made his mark and impressed the record company suits.
“These people had seen a thousand showcases. They were like, ‘When you broke down, that was the realest shit I’ve ever seen onstage.’” By the time Hush and Black Magic Crossing played L.A.’s Viper Room later that month — not far from his hotel this April night, actually — word had spread. By December he had a record deal with Geffen Records. “Christmas 2003 was perfect for my kids,” Hush says, laughing.
Geffen wanted Hush to go out to L.A. in April 2004 to start work on his record. He went out a month early — on his own dime — to begin recording.
“The label wanted me to work with [Limp Bizkit’s] Wes Borland. They figured it would be like ‘Nookie’ and ‘Break Stuff,’ but more rap. I wanted to show them I could do it myself.”
Hush began work with producer Julian Binetta, son of Smoky Robinson producer Pete Binetta, another Fishkin homey, whom he met at the Viper Room showcase.
The Binetta sessions produced eight songs for Bulletproof, including “Fired Up” and “Put ’em Down,” both of which wound up on The Contender.
“My manager knew Clyde Lieberman, the show’s music supervisor, and told me they were looking for theme music for the show,” Hush says.
Before the meeting, Hush and Binetta worked up a theme. “I knew what the show was about, and started thinking like Rocky, ‘Eye of the Tiger.’”
Show producer Mark Burnett and Lieberman were blown away. “I had Hush in my office showing him a promo clip, and he had this idea he was already working on — on his own time. Mark was literally walking by, and usually I don’t call the boss in on a first meeting,” says Lieberman, a former BMG A&R man who signed Wu Tang Clan and the Roots to their first major label deals.
“These guys were talking about Hush’s dad [a Detroit 1st Precinct homicide detective] cracking cold cases. Mark was really into that — he’s really into human drama. They just talked about being people. Later that afternoon Mark came in and was like, ‘Hush seems like he had a pretty good work ethic and he gets it,’ and I told him he and his producer already had a track — ‘All I Got.’ In fact, Hush will probably be performing it on the finale.”
Burnett was impressed enough to include “Fired Up” and “Put ’em Down” on the show. “Hush is very edgy and talented, but beyond that, he’s a really smart business guy and really good at getting things done,” Burnett says. “He provided music for the show in almost light-speed fashion — so fast compared to what I’m used to. Contributing to a show with major deadlines and a way of doing things, he came through hugely. I’m glad to be working with him; I consider myself a friend of his.”
“It wasn’t magic,” Lieberman says of Burnett’s choice to include Hush on the show. “Mark is very attuned to the message of his shows and Hush is attuned to his message: To aspire, to be the best you can. There’s a line at the beginning of The Contender when Sylvester Stallone says, ‘Everyone gets knocked down; it’s about how fast you get up.’ A boxer and a rapper have the same aspirations. That’s what Hush is about. He’s a not an 18-year-old kid; he’s a man, he’s responsible. He’s saying, ‘It doesn’t matter so much that I make it but that I do it.’ The Contender is the same message: Not everybody is going to win but everybody’s gonna leave with dignity. I hear the doubt in Hush, the vulnerability.”
Bulletproof picks up where, say, Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” left off. Where past Hush efforts may have tried too hard, vacillating from underground clever or too aboveground calculated, this time he sounds more naturally intense — comfortable being uncomfortable.
The track “Hush Is Coming” was produced by Eminem — the first time Mr. Mathers has produced for a non-Shady Records artist who wasn’t Biggie Smalls or Tupac.
“People ask Marshall for help all the time — ‘Can you give me a track?’ But I never did,” Hush says. The two have a textured past; Eminem once broke Hush’s nose in his pre-Slim Shady days. Hush opened for Eminem at his first post-”My Name Is” Detroit show at the Aftermath rave in 1999, but the two grew apart. Now that Hush has a major record deal, the two are contemporaries again.
“Em’ sees that I got to where I am now on my own; he respects that. He can give me advice and now I’m in a position to actually use it,” Hush says, laughing.
Lyrically, “Hush Is Coming” is something of a homage to Em’s over-the-top style between guest Nate Dogg’s choruses. “I’m crazy and a little zany, a lyrical Scorsese on a track from Mr. Shady,” he raps, referencing his Lebanese heritage in the same sentence as Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein while likening himself to a suicide bomber.
Hush’s work with producer Binetta is less bombastic, but in that sense even more affective. “Fired Up” has murmuring synths and guitar stabs that echo the string and horn stabs of the best hip hop. Instead of rap-rock, Bulletproof sounds like rock-rap, classic hip hop made from a broader but just as effective set of tones, tight and punchy but still very much Detroit.
Hush still has his clever moments; “Real TV” does what his five-year-old “150 MCs” did: It name-checks, rather ironically, reality TV shows in an exhaustive narrative.
As an emcee, Hush is at the tip-top of his game. “Put ’em Down,” for instance, is a series of verbal paradiddles that take the internal rhyme schemes of Eminem and Biggie Smalls out of the freestyle flippancy and into a written tautness. “See I float like a butterfly/You can float like a bee with a stinger/but you can never fight me/Call it bulletproof/Teflon with a voice on the mic that’s hard to put it through/Call it a banger/Coming in showing the middle finger/once I begin to flow you’ll know anger.” He continues with witty tongue and language twisters before ending on, “When your dog’s too limp for biscuits, call for this shit.”
So how has Hush’s life changed since the Geffen deal? He owns an H2 Hummer, his one big signing gift to himself. He has a new fiancee and new son; he lives in Sterling Heights and is looking to buy a house. “I have more responsibilities now, but I have more control of my life now,” he says.
How the music industry, with its rigid genres and single-sentence blurbs, will react to a white rapper from Detroit who isn’t Eminem remains to be seen.
“Me and Marshall were talking a while ago and I said, ‘At some point you went from being 24 to 29, like, overnight and nobody said anything,’” says Hush, who’s proudly 32 and the father of three sons.
“I’m the blue-collar guy everybody watched work his way up. Em’ — and I’m not taking away from his success — nobody knew who he was before ‘My Name Is.’ His fanbase was rappers. With me, actually families watched me grow. I’ve been the rapper you could reach out and touch.”
Lieberman, for his part, is candid about Hush’s appeal. “There is no way Hush is going to have the connection with 12-year-olds that Eminem had. He was about being a kid being mad at his mom. Hush is talking about the human experience, not the kid experience. But that’s why we’re having him perform at the finale. We could have had superstars, but he has the right message. That’s what we believe, and I think that’s really pretty cool.”
Hush performs live from Caesars Palace on the season finale of The Contender on May 24. Hobey Echlin is freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]