Netta Be Good 

Berkeley R&B star boosts her career by running with rappers.

PK knows a hit when he sees one. A former business major at the University of Southern California, the lanky 28-year-old parlayed his degree into the rap game, managing famed San Jose producer Traxamillion, self-proclaimed "mixtape kings" the Demolition Men, and most notably, a popular East Bay rapper named the Jacka — whose name derives from his talent for robbing and burglarizing. Over the years, PK's company, Golden Mean Management & Music, LLC, has become a staple in the East Bay hip-hop scene, known for working with hardcore-but-commercially-viable turf artists. Only recently did PK set his sights on a genre he never thought he'd touch: tender, feminine R&B.

Specifically, he found a young woman named Netta Brielle, whose pink nail polish and girlish giggle belied her grit and hustle. Brielle, who goes by the alias Netta B, was studying musical theater at San Jose State University at the time she first encountered PK. Both were recording music at 17 Hertz Studio in Hayward. Netta came during the hours that she wasn't in class or working one of several part-time jobs. She used her financial aid money to bankroll a mixtape.

"We were open to doing something else but we weren't even really bringing in other artists," PK said. Nonetheless, he was charmed by Netta B, and thought he saw real commercial potential in her music. After all, R&B all but took over "urban music" in the past few years, with hooky ballads supplanting rap songs on most hip-hop radio stations. Even harder, street-oriented rappers like the Jacka tend to sing, rather than speak their lyrics. Given the genre's popularity and the apparent dearth of celebrity R&B artists in the East Bay, PK thought Netta would be an easy sale. "Actually," he said in retrospect, "I was absolutely wrong."

Indeed, they made a bit of an odd couple. Pretty, bird-like Netta oscillates between two poles: Sometimes she's sweet and well mannered, other times she's fresh and tarty. The singer grew up on Ward Street in Berkeley — the middle child in a family of female exhibitionists. Her older sister was an aspiring singer who later switched to accounting, her younger sister was a rebel who wound up getting shot on the Berkeley/North Oakland border. Netta's mother was a doting single parent who ensured that her daughters got a well-rounded fine-arts training during their formative years.

Thus, Netta started developing her résumé at a pretty young age. As a young girl she played Zonia Loomis in an early Berkeley Rep production of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, and cameoed in movies like Mrs. Doubtfire. At age six, she danced onstage with MC Hammer at the Oakland Coliseum. (Hammer and Netta's mother got their hair done at the same Oakland salon.) In fourth grade she learned to play flute and joined the school band. In sixth grade she met and rapped for Tupac Shakur in a San Leandro Hotel (an event significant enough that Netta still highlights it in her CV). In high school she earned a full scholarship to American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and kept advancing her theater career while singing and dancing at school talent shows.

She was, in other words, a surprising addition to the Golden Mean brand. But PK had no trouble putting together the cottage industry that became Netta B. The singer came with her own loose coterie of makeup artists, fashion designers, dance choreographers, and another manager named K9, who were all eager to help her create an image: "Kind of Vanity 6 meets 2009," she said. Netta B wears frilly tutus and corsets, and keeps her hair in an asymmetrical side cut. She teeters around on pointy stiletto heels. Her songs incorporate crunchy new-wave beats and woolly synthesizers, allowing chords to accrete along an unwavering tonal center. They fall in line with the hard, metallic form of hip-hop that's come to characterize the work of Timbaland, Kanye West, and even Snoop Dogg — all of whom appear to be listening to a lot of dub step and electronica. Netta B's version is a little less inspired than that of her predecessors. What makes it interesting is that she's paired the heavy dance beats with such high, fragile female vocals — the kind that might shatter if placed too close to a snare and high hat.

For all her arts training and nice apparel, Netta B had a pretty hard life, and apparently it softened her. She grew up in a single parent home without a lot of money. During college she worked up to 35 hours a week, drove to San Jose State every morning from her South Berkeley home, and recorded music at night. She skimped on sleep. In 2007 her younger sister Kikhiesha Brooks was killed in a drive-by shooting on 59th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. "We put an obituary together and a CD together in the same night," said Netta. For a while, Netta had a promising acquaintanceship with Def Jam executive Shakir Stewart after winning "The Def Jam Mega Star Search" competition in April 2008. Then Stewart committed suicide. By the time Netta B got on board with Golden Mean, she was searching not only for resources, but for stability.

But Netta is nothing if not unflappable. The single for her new Electric Rebel Sounds EP comes with a video that shows exactly how the singer is positioning herself within the combative world of hip-hop. Called "Dirty Boyz," it has the singer rapping in a whispery, come-hither voice about the type of guys who turn her on — "'hood nerds" with skateboards and aerosol spray cans. A departure from the bouncy, new-wave sound that characterizes most of her material, "Dirty Boyz" is buoyed by a minimalist, industrial beat courtesy of Traxamillion — a serial brander who gives himself a shout-out on the track (and on every track he produces). In the video Netta wears short shorts, a glittery halter top, and sneakers. She sidles up to a line of tattooed skater guys — among them rapper Erk tha Jerk, who produces a lot of Netta's music and is also part of the Golden Mean cabal. I like dirty boyz and dirty boyz like me, Netta purrs on the hook. She goes on for four minutes about her weakness for questionable, low-class men, despite protestations from her family and friends who think she might get burned. It's an ode to the female libido, and a bit of a put-on.

"Dirty Boyz" is an anomalous presence on an LP that's mostly up-tempo dance songs and ballads. But it's indicative of the Netta B brand identity that PK has worked to create. Here, she's robust and carefully packaged, made more powerful by her association with popular local rap acts. In fact, Netta B makes the perfect female counterpart to her rapper brethren. "Dirty Boyz" is a very aggressive song, and an obvious stab at real commercial success. It might actually work.

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