March 09, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Even as we speak, the nation’s checkout lines are full of girls clutching copies of Crazy Town’s debut, The Gift of Game. The crunchy rap-rock album has busted into the top 10 thanks to ”Butterfly,” a smash that’s putting a female-friendly spin on a genre that typically tends more toward misogyny. ”You filled that empty space … and it don’t get better than this,” coos sensitive-guy Seth ”Shifty Shellshock” Binzer in the hit’s waning moments. ”So, butterfly, here is a song and it’s sealed with a kiss/And a thank you, miss.” Shucks! For Crazy Town, every day is Valentine’s Day.

Seconds later, in the opening measures of the next track, the pace has changed. ”I get drunk and I stumble to the phone/And conjure up a bitch to bone,” Shifty raps. Where the hell art thou, Romeo?

Welcome to Crazy Town, where the gap between LFO and Limp Bizkit shrinks with little warning. It’s the love song that’s more the anomaly here. Amour is so alien to the aggro hip-hop-rock world that cofounder Bret ”Epic” Mazur, 31, admits they had qualms about recording a straight-up love song — ”for a second.” But the romanticism ”is why people love it,” he says. ”You can’t second-guess everything. When you do, it’s over.”

”Over” nearly described Crazy Town last year. The album came out in November 1999, and although everyone pegged ”Butterfly” as their ace in the radio hole, the band and its label, Columbia Records, decided to release two more-bellicose singles first, fearing an introductory love song would send the wrong message to the Korn crowd. ”We had to put out some of the heavi- er stuff first to let kids who are our kids discover us,” says Shifty.

Smart strategy — except ”Toxic” and ”Darkside” didn’t make even a modest impact. ”We were going for respect,” says Shifty, ”but respect is just respect if the album disappears. Was it too late? Did we, by doing what we wanted to do as artists, mess up this project? I was terrified.” Not to worry. Love did finally save the day, as strategized, after just a few more months of delays related to drug-induced breakdowns, arrests, and enough pre-breakthrough band turmoil to fill a three-hour Behind the Music.

Who IS that?” A stumped Shifty is trying, with the help of new guitarist Kraig ”Squirrel” Tyler, to figure out who’s rehearsing next door at the Los Angeles studio where they’re working up tunes for a sophomore album. The 1991 hit ”Just the Way It Is, Baby” bleeds through the walls, and then comes the Friends theme. ”It’s Crowded House!” announces Squirrel, misidentifying the Rembrandts.

You can’t blame ’em for not being up on their power pop. Most of Crazy Town’s six members are ”hip-hop kids,” as Shifty, 27, puts it, raised in L.A. on Run-DMC, even if Tool also takes over their decks these days. The tattooed, multipierced Shifty met the less flamboyant Epic in 1992. Epic was earning money as a producer, and Shifty was between his first job, typecast as a teen skateboarder in Levi’s and Nintendo commercials, and his second, dealing drugs. Not until the late ’90s, after Shifty had done three months in California’s Chino State Prison on a burglary rap and sobered up from a drug habit, did the pair get serious about their Beasties-style dual raps and put a real band together — rounding up guitarists Rust Epique and Trouble Valli, DJ AM, drummer James Bradley Jr., and bassist Faydoedeelay. By then, the rap-rock hybrid Shifty and Epic had spent years toying with was the rage, thanks to Kid Rock and his kin.

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