At the age of 21, Edward Anderson, better known as the rapper Ed O.G., was living large. “I was real young,” he remembers over lunch in Quincy, “and we were traveling around the world and getting paid thousands of dollars to do something that I love — perform.” That was 1991, when Ed O.G. & da Bulldogs’ debut disc, Life of a Kid in the Ghetto (Mercury), garnered the Boston MC an international fan base, close to a half-million in album sales, and a #1 single on the Billboard Rap Singles chart. Four years later, Ed O.G. was back in Boston, with no record deal, no management, and no clue.
Ed had released a second album, Roxbury 02119 (Mercury), in 1994, but in what’s become all too common a story in the fickle music business, big changes at Mercury left him out in the cold, and his career fizzled. The aftermath was difficult: “I was all screwed up. I didn’t know where I was going from there. I had to take a couple of years just to get my head back together. We started doing this seriously in about ’89, we signed the deal in ’90, and the first album came out in ’91. From that point on we were like gone. Period. Everyday, every weekend, we were outta here. I had to take a step back and re-evaluate my whole life and get it all together again.”
Ed spent a portion of that recovery time “just chillin’,” but he slowly worked his way back into the industry, releasing an independent EP in ’96, making a few cameo appearances on other rapper’s albums, and contributing to a couple of compilations. Now in 2001, he’s making a full-fledged comeback with his third disc, The Truth Hurts (Ground Control/Nu Gruv; out April 17), and a national tour that will bring him to the Middle East this Friday, along with Aceyalone, Rasco, and the Masterminds.
In the years since Life of a Kid in the Ghetto, Ed’s gone through a lot of changes. He’s no longer a kid: he has a partner, a daughter, and a newborn baby son, plus a steady job with the local hip-hop distributor/label Landspeed Records. His voice is also noticeably deeper. But as an artist, Ed O.G. is very much the same. Even as an youngster, he came off as a wise and sage observer: his best-known track, “Be a Father to Your Child,” urged men to support their children financially and emotionally. There are similarly “conscious” lyrics on The Truth Hurts, plus the same no-nonsense flow, ear for hooks, and ability to illuminate the struggles of inner-city life without glorifying or minimizing the issues.
Spending a couple hours with him on a gray afternoon makes it clear that the biggest transformation Ed’s had to make since his days as a rap star isn’t psychological or artistic, it’s financial. He’s got a business plan now. Ed O.G. & da Bulldogs debuted during what’s fondly known as hip-hop’s “golden age” — a brief period (roughly ’88-’92) when rap blossomed into the multi-faceted, sample-heavy, self-referential mainstream commodity it is today. Knowing next to nothing about recoupable expenses, video budgets, or distribution deals, Ed and plenty of his peers got royally screwed by the industry in those days, finding themselves with nothing but “a box of Newports and some Puma sweats,” as 3rd Bass put it a few years later.
“I’m pretty sure, at that particular time,” Ed recalls, “if I had just got back in the studio and recorded like a madman and did this and did that, then I could’ve got another major deal straight off the bat. But I didn’t even go down there. I was kinda depressed and I had to cut everything off. I wanted to do everything myself. I wanted to bring it all back to me, so I wasn’t calling somebody else to find out what’s going on with my shit. I wanna be the one knowing about my own shit.”
It’s this drive for economic and artistic self-empowerment that’s led Ed and many of his contemporaries (like KRS-One) into the world of independent or underground hip-hop. Although hip-hop blew up big-time in the mid ’90s, it also burrowed deep in the other direction, absorbing a DIY æsthetic snagged from punk and indie rock. Independent/underground hip-hop is a now distinct market with its own touring circuit, fanatical ’zines, and radio shows. Lots of aging b-boys — Kool G. Rap, Bumpy Knuckles, and Ed, to name just three — are flocking to this scene, which affords them a second chance, along with a higher degree of control, respect, and profit.
“For artists of our caliber it’s the best way to go,” argues Ed. “Either do it yourself or do it with an indie that has a little money. Partly it’s the type of music that we make, which caters to the indie fans, but you really benefit much more financially. At the point where I’m at, I don’t even want a major deal. After my contract is up with Nu Gruv, I’ll probably put everything out myself — and make a ton of money doing it that way. Selling 10,000 records on your own, you can make about 80 grand. As opposed having to be on a major and having to reach a certain quota or see ya later.”
But Ed’s still interested in transcending the indie milieu of college radio airplay, club tours, and a primarily white fan base. The man wants to be heard on all sides of the hip-hop nation. “It’s kind of a different thing, trying to attract white and black fans. Partly because black people like to dance off of rap and the indie crowd just doesn’t dance. At all. So if you’re an artist and you’re black, then it’s natural for you to make that kinda music, because that’s what we like. But then the indie crowd will jump on you, like, ‘You’re selling out, you’re trying to do some mainstream stuff.’ But that’s not the case. They gotta understand, that’s how we are.”
The Truth Hurts balances the demands of the two worlds. There’s lyric-heavy, retro-leaning, message-heavy tracks for indie hip-hoppers, plus plenty of hardened attitude, ghetto tales, and hyper-glossy beats for the mainstream fans. Underground heads, who “listen with a fine-tuned ear,” as Ed remarks, will appreciate classic jazz-laced production from DJ Premier and Pete Rock, cameos from Black Thought (of the Roots) and Guru, and lyrics that bypass thug posing and flashy materialism for basic braggadocio (“Ed O.G. is to rap what Pedro is to pitching”) and mature reflection (“Too Much To Live Fo’ ”).
There are also parts of The Truth Hurts that wouldn’t sound out of place on urban radio or in a sweaty dance club. It boasts plenty of mainstream rap’s crisp beat science — all sharp string stabs and curt synth flourishes — without straying too far from hip-hop’s basic boom-bap. It also offers the type of he-said/she-said relationship drama that’s been a black-pop mainstay from the days of Marvin Gay and Tammi Terrell through Method Man and Mary J. Blige. “Bitch up off Me” is a R&B-laced beatdown to golddiggers and skeezers with a g-funk groove and a brutal hook: “I gotta get this bitch up off me/’Cause she wanna get rich off me/Birds out for cheddar and they wanna live flossy/Every time we argue, it costs me.” But “Just Because” gives the fairer sex an opportunity to respond. A duet with BET VJ and Boston-native Free, the track mulls over the complications and resentments of a failed relationship, only this pair have more than broken hearts and hurt feelings to worry about — they’ve got a kid to raise and child-support payments to meet. It’s the kind of even-handed, emotional storytelling that Ed excels at, and it’s hot enough to be a hit single.
Not that scoring a radio hit will be easy for Ed O.G. at this point. Even though Boston hip-hop is booming — it’s at its best since the mid ’80s, Ed remarks — the growth is mostly in the indie scene (where artists like Mr. Lif and Akrobatik are thriving), and that’s far from the type of rap that makes it to MTV or the Billboard charts. The Hub could use a big, across-the-boards hit to bring attention to Ed and his buds — Krumbsnatcha, Big Shug, the Kreators. But that requires mainstream-radio airplay. And outside of college radio, local stations aren’t showing Ed a lot of love.
“It’s a business and I can’t be mad at them, because that’s how they make their money. But radio stations aren’t into breaking records anymore. I remember when radio stations wanted to break that new record. Now everybody’s a follower. So if this station is playing it in NYC, then we’re playing it. They kinda feed off each other and no one wants to be a leader anymore.”
Ed realized a long time ago that if he moved to New York or Los Angeles, his job would be easier. “I would’ve been in a better position musically than I am here, but I have family here and I couldn’t see myself just up and leaving. My family is more important than my career.” Throughout his trip from the bottom to the top and back down again, Ed’s remained a down-to-earth family man, with love for his home town, his neighborhood (the ’bury), and the Red Sox. Being from Boston might be a disadvantage for a hip-hop act on the rebound, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m psyched about doing all this stuff now. All I had to do was get the door cracked this time. I can take it from here. Everything is in my own hands and I know where I want to go.”
Ed O.G. joins Aceyalone, Rasco, and the Masterminds this Friday, March 9, downstairs at the Middle East. Call 864-EAST.