The quintessential rappers' rapper, One Be Lo lights up crowds and wins fans with no gimmicks. The catch is that there's no catch. Instead, Lo's undeniable stage presence, articulated clearly through even the worst PA systems, radiates an aura that is easy to grasp right away. There's really only one thing separating him from tons of other hip-hop stars. He's really, really good at rapping.
Born Raland Scruggs, Lo rose from Pontiac, Mich., as one half (with emcee Senim Silla) of underground darlings Binary Star, a group with one full-length album (Masters of the Universe in 2000) and one classic (same album, bro). If the He-Man-style world-domination title and Senim Silla's name ('all is mines' backwards) doesn't spell it out for you, Binary Star worked in a familiar hip-hop tradition, aspiring to boldly save the world (or at least rap) through lyrical cleverness alone.
At the time, Scruggs was OneManArmy, an emcee bent on mastering all rap styles: imagistic storytelling, extended metaphor and simile magic, and all forms of phrasing and breath-control tricks. Masters of the Universe also introduced the Trackzoids beat crew, a team with a limitless supply of the organic, sampled beats. The star of the show, though, was OneManArmy and his amazing verbal circus.
Then Binary disbanded and Scruggs, now Nashid Sulaiman, found Islam. Going by One Be Lo (OneManArmy is a punk band that doesn't want to share the name), he's now known for something more enduring than cleverness: work ethic.
Solo forays came with 2003's F.E.T.U.S. (For Everybody That Understands, self-released on Lo's Subterraneous Records), and a high-profile 2005 debut on New York tastemakers Fat Beats Records, S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. (Sounds Of Nashid Originate Good Rhymes And Music). S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M. was praised by rap outsiders (The Onion's AV Club) and insiders (RapReviews.com and pretty much every hip-hop Website); it established One Be Lo as a true one-man show. On his tireless tour, he schlepped new material in the form of S.T.I.L.L.B.O.R.N. (Something To Interest Lo Listeners Beyond Original Recorded Networkings). The undisputed king of acronyms is set to release two discs in 2007, L.I.F.E. and R.E.B.I.R.T.H. (on May 25).
Constantly on the road since 2000, Lo's life is the touring life, and it's not pretty. He drives around by himself in a van across the country, packing his own equipment, stopping to headline smaller shows, open larger ones, network with regional producers and regularly host emcee battles like Seattle's famous Brainstorm competition. DIY to the core, Lo is completely in control of his own destiny, prideful of self-sufficiency like few other hip-hop stars.
As the RIAA wrings its hands over dismal record sales (a trend that shows no signs of slowing), hard-touring artists endure and even thrive by willingly cutting out any and all middlemen. Call it Download Darwinism: a harsh evolution has been imposed, weeding out the weak and focus-grouped with no remorse. The music market, like life, is a battlefield, and survival is more difficult than ever. For living musicians, there is no rest for the weary, so Lo navigates America like a shark, always moving, living in the dark light of Nas' famous quote: "Don't sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death."
Lyrically, things have changed very little since Raland became Nashid. There is more socially conscious content, but Lo isn't preachy or dogmatic. For him, religion is like rap: a conduit to actualize inner potential. He plays the role of a reformed sinner with believability, recalling past transgressions like eating pork and selling drugs out of his mom's house with equal regret. On S.O.N.O.G.R.A.M.'s "The Future," Lo spells it out in terms of simple self-awareness: "See, every action has a consequence, but then / I didn't beware or prepare or really care [...]"
Ever intertwining life and music, Lo lives for today, and today inevitably involves a lot of rapping: "Now in the present day, I'm blessed to say let the record play / Usin' my music as a movement to correct mistakes / Knowin' my death awaits, I hesitate to question fate / Boys and girls, this world is nothin' but a test of faith."
A man of many words, Lo is an important figure in the current hip-hop landscape for more than thoughtful, well-executed lyrical feats. Leading by example, his actions speak louder. Bouncing around the stage and sweating like crazy, he expends maximum energy every night, often incorporating intimidatingly cohesive freestyle improvisations into set lists (the mark of a thorough emcee), genuinely set on connecting with audiences. Following extended metaphors like "Lyrictricity" is a joy in a live setting, as Lo sucks active listeners into his rhymes like a star collapsed. A rap athlete, he stays loose, seemingly recording new music every off-stage second, forever working on future projects and selling mix-CDs in the interim. He speaks for a living, but his living speaks for itself.
Lo's all-in commitment to hip-hop harks back to a key influence, KRS One, whose timeless maxim "Rap is something you do, hip-hop is something you live" has no truer incarnation. And aspiring rap artists from Pontiac, Spokane, or any second-tier rap market can take comfort in Lo's supreme justification of the phrase, "It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at."
One Be Lo, Tom Foolery, Cosmic Dust, Freetime Synthetic, Jaeda, Wildcard, Dead Poet and Rod Mac at the Zombie Room on Saturday, May 12, at 8 pm. $6. Call 456-4515.