It's the bedrock story line of hip-hop: Four rappers are down on their luck, plagued with financial woes and girlfriends who leave bloody Maxi Pads in the toilet, not exactly humble but definitely hungry. The artists in question — Smooth Rick "the Chosen," Chachi Harlem, Tyrone Shoelaces, and Felix "the Gully Champion" Livinglow — are all pretty convinced of their own sex appeal and blithely unaware of all their shortcomings. Smooth Rick says he's come up with the perfect scheme. He's come by a cell phone family plan, and thinks the four of them should launch a "Hot Velour" sex hotline for which they would, well, objectify themselves. It's a fabulous epiphany that goes horribly awry.
Such is the premise for Tales from the Velvet Pocket, the 2009 debut album by Bay Area rap comedy group Kalri$$ian. The group formed in 2004 as a camp response to their hip-hop forebears. In its first iteration Kalri$$ian included three emcees (Livinglow would arrive from London the following year) and two producers, Keylo Venezuela and "Uncle" Tony Highrise. Each member cultivated a persona and inhabited it: Chachi and Smooth Rick donned 1970s pimp apparel and took the libertine values of hip-hop to the next level of scandalousness. Keylo Venezuela acquired a Spanish accent and linked himself to a fictional drug cartel. Tyrone Shoelaces was a swindler with a lengthy CV who started pimping in the third grade. Tony Highrise presented himself as a "liquid asset" with a lot of useful connections. That year they recorded the track "Lobby Room," a woozy mélange of 1960s lounge samples, over which Smooth Rick and Chachi rapped — in a rather drugged-out, disinterested way — about their dissolute lifestyle. British-born Livinglow joined Kalri$$ian in 2005 and created his own personal myth: He was a failed hustler with a weakness for chapped-lipped hookers.
Sometimes, their elaborate fiction gets the better of them. Take the recent Monday night when Kalri$$ian arranged for an interview at Secrets Adult Super Store, a sex-toy shop in downtown Oakland. Their manager Jacob Battersby (better known by his emcee name, Celsius 7) had said it would be convenient, since one of them supposedly worked there. So at 8 p.m. five of the six artists (sans Tony Highrise) were clustered around a dildo display in full regalia: leather jackets, aviator sunglasses, handlebar mustaches. Smooth Rick had flecks of white powder stuck to his nostrils. They were accompanied by sometime manager and accountant Bernie "the Touch" Goldsmith, a bumbling Bernie Madoff caricature who didn't seem slick enough to actually be embezzling finances, but who aroused suspicion nonetheless. The whole cabal could have been transplanted from a really bad British spy film.
In person, though, the emcees were chivalrous and accommodating. They offered to lead an impromptu tour of the shop, starting with the copious porn collection — which ran the gamut from gang-bang fantasies to fat-girl porn to MLFs — then moving on to the dildos. "That's me on the beach," said Chachi, pointing to a giant coffee-brown prosthetic with a curved tip. "That's me in Brazil." Someone else chimed in: "Do you want anything? We'll give you the employee's discount." Over at the counter, a clerk was glaring at the group. Other patrons averted their eyes. It quickly became apparent that nobody in the band actually worked there.
Kalri$$ian borrows its MO from Sasha Baron Cohen, in the sense that each emcee is so thoroughly convinced of his own persona that he never steps out of it. They often travel in a pack, usually in costume, usually with a group of girls (the "Kalri$$ian Kitties") in tow. They flirt inappropriately, make mysterious trips to the restroom, and frequently get kicked out of places (or flee right on the verge of that) for having a bad attitude. Take the Fat Lady Restaurant in Jack London Square, where the emcees sought refuge after the sex shop episode. Convinced that the Fat Lady was actually a brothel for obese women, they marched up to the bar and asked to see the goods. "What time does she work?" demanded Smooth Rick, pointing to the Fat Lady logo on a bar napkin.
Their whole act is a bit of a put-on, but the emcees manage to stage some kind of altercation anywhere they go. Battersby said he signed the group to his label, Psychokinetics, after meeting them in a Vegas nightclub a few years ago. "I saw these dudes in a bar with cigars, all these rubbers hanging out of their pockets, sunglasses on, hanging around with all these girls," he said. "It reminded me of Prince Paul and De La's old shit — fully engulfed characters." Indeed, the guys are fairly good at holding a long, involved conversation without breaking character. "We have a multitiered corporation going here," Tyrone explained to the bartender at Fat Lady. "We're starting a cellular service that calls only to our sex hotline. It's kind of like Metro PCS." He later elaborated on the group's business plan, saying they occasionally hire themselves out for bachelorette parties.
Tales from the Velvet Pocket takes the sex hotline plot in all kinds of funky directions. (They even sample an office phone ring in several beats.) The opening is a parody of Raekwon's 1995 album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, which also featured an inspiring, feel-good narrative about rappers on the come-up. The Kalri$$ian version is a little more complicated. Their Velour Hotline ultimately attracts a lot of perverts and fetishists. Felix Livinglow contracts an STD from one of the callers — some exotic strain called "siphylisgonomydia," which results in his dismemberment. After three months, Chachi is still wearing his PE uniform from middle school. They try to advance the scheme with a casino scam, which only gets them in deeper hot water. Toward the end, Smooth Rick's penis — an alter ego named Perseus — takes over his brain. At the end they end they magically figure out how to optimize their revenue stream, and make a profit after all. They celebrate with a forty-ounce of specialty malt liquor.
Even then, the future seems unclear. The emcees of Kalri$$ian have a knack for storytelling and a ready-made niche carved out by ultra-libidinal rappers Dirt Nasty and Mickey Avalon (who both cameo on Tales from the Velvet Pocket). But they continually surround themselves with venal managers and inept financiers. Asked to comment on the group's status, Bernie the Touch politely declined, using Battersby as an emissary. "Bernie told me 2 tell you he cant talk today," Battersby wrote in another text message. "He is in the midst of negotiating a central american real estate deal. sounds shady. if I can help further, holler."
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