Nappy Roots stand out at Sylvia’s like pork ribs at a bar mitzvah. Loud, sloppy, and blissfully liberated from the tyranny of table manners, the Bowling Green, Ky., sextet are causing a bit of a scene at the famed Harlem eatery, which generally attracts a more urbane clientele (sample overheard conversation: ”Oh, you’re reading James Baldwin? Yeah, I knew him…”). Still, Nappy Roots and Sylvia’s do have one important thing in common: soul food. The rappers behind the current hit single ”Awnaw” turn out to be serious connoisseurs of chicken-fried chow.
Just ask them about the tasty title of their breakthrough second album, Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz, and you get a real mouthful. ”It’s three foods that just about everybody in this world eats,” says Ron Clutch (the other Napsters are Big V, B. Stille, R. Prophet, Skinny Deville, and Scales). ”Oh, you don’t get a lot of grits up here? You need to get on them grits! You eat grits in the morning, man, it’s gonna stick with you all day. You can have them in the morning, in the afternoon, at night — it don’t matter. I like mine with sugar and butter.” As for the chicken and watermelon, ”Chicken got to be fried or smothered,” says Big V. ”The chicken is the soul of the album. In the South, we kind of communicate with food. If somebody fixes you a good plate, there’s a lot of love. And watermelon — oh, boy. When it’s good and cool, that Southern red watermelon that’s real sweet, not a lot of seeds… Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz is just refreshing soul food that’s gonna stick to you. Everybody in the world can relate to one of these three items.”
Nappy Roots began as a casual gathering of rapping friends while most of its members attended Western Kentucky University. ”We were just making tapes after school and work,” says Big V, a non-student townie who befriended the group. ”Eventually, we got a CD together ourselves, and two months later Atlantic Records come looking for us. We didn’t have no SoundScan, no radio, no video. It was word of mouth. A cat from Atlantic called and was like, ‘We want to sign y’all.’ We were like, ‘In Bowling Green, Kentucky? Quit playing,’ and hung up the phone. He called back five minutes later. We just never dreamed it could happen.”
When the food finally arrives (Big V: a pair of fried, gravy-smothered pork chops with a third chop on the side, plus garlic mashed potatoes and collard greens; Ron Clutch: BBQ salmon, plus collard greens and mac and cheese), everybody settles down to eat, quickly proclaiming the grub to be the real deal. The sweet tea is ”right as rain,” says Big V, dropping a chop to suck grease from his fingers. ”I’m killin’ this corn bread,” he says. As Clutch puts it, ”If I told my mama how good this is, she might get upset.”