Retro Fabulous 

Oakland sexpot Baby Jaymes channels Prince, tackles race relations.

Even in junior high, Oakland singer Baby Jaymes carried himself with enough show-style razzle-dazzle to make every cell in your body list toward him. Larry Batiste, cofounder of the Pure Delight Music publishing company, can vouch for that. He met Baby Jaymes at the Grammys in 1990, when the 13-year-old Jaymes sneaked in by strutting through the gates in a Michael Jackson suit, looking like somebody important, even if you couldn't put your finger on exactly who.

"Security was always tight at the Grammys, even back then," Larry concedes, "and it would be hard to get in unless you really played it off right." Baby Jaymes did. He dressed up in glitter and rhinestones, which clothed the body of a miniature Prince or LL Cool J, even though, in all likelihood, he could barely prop his elbows on the bar if he stood two inches away from it.

Larry approached Baby Jaymes at the Grammy after-party in LA's Biltmore Hotel, where the young singer was schmoozing with industry gurus. "Where are your parents?" Larry queried, to which Jaymes answered that he'd come by himself. Jaymes went on to explain that he was a manager representing three different R&B groups at East Oakland's King Estate junior high.

Thus, back when current hot-artists-du-jour were still singing nursery rhymes, Baby Jaymes was the biggest music mogul in the Oakland public schools. Even when the groups he managed fell off and got mired in normal junior-high kinda things (like, you know, puberty), Baby Jaymes kept pushing. Eventually, out of necessity, he decided to go solo and be his own boss.

It was that pluck and hustle that caught Larry's attention and held him in thrall: Within five minutes of meeting Baby Jaymes, he knew the kid was gonna be a star.

That star hasn't exactly escaped Oakland yet, but he's definitely trying.

The zeitgeist of hip-hop is slowly changing, as artists move from an '80s-era collective siege mentality to a more poppy, genre-straddling frame of mind. On that tip, Andre 3000 is exemplar: The Love Below blends funk, rock, soul, and rap influences, sound-wise sharing as much in common with Frank Sinatra as it does with Outkast's 1996 album, ATLliens. Equally worth noting is the video for Andre's ubiquitous hit single "Hey Ya," in which the singer performs on an Ed Sullivan stage before an audience of clamoring, screaming teenage girls. It's as though Andre and his contemporaries are recasting the figure of the MC: The erstwhile badass thug has evolved into the kind of spangled heartthrob who could make young girls and their grandmas swoon.

Few would debate that Baby Jaymes falls into that lineage. He admits, as we drive from San Leandro BART down to International Boulevard and wind through his East Oakland neighborhood, that perhaps he "should have been born in another era." Certainly, Baby Jaymes would have fit cozily into the bubbling club scene of the '70s and early '80s, when Larry Batiste and his partner, Claytoven Richardson (so christened because he's a "Beethoven" of urban entertainment), were playing Battle of the Bands events at East Bay joints like Ruthie's, Lucky 13, and Eli's Mile High Club.

In that scene, not only was it cool to take the stage in hot pants, a high collar, and towering natural hairdos, but the overall atmosphere was more conducive to live bands. Whereas nowadays we slap the "live band" moniker onto any schmo who busts out with two turntables and a microphone, in previous decades -- up through the En Vogue and Tony Toni Tone era, in fact -- Oakland was a mini-Harlem for funk and R&B outfits. In those days, as Larry or Clay might tell you, the now-flat-as-poster-board landscape of East Oakland was checkered with local hot spots for people to get their groove on.

Baby Jaymes seeks to recall and reclaim that era: He calls his style "ghetto retro," and says he thinks the term is fairly self-explanatory. "I ran into this girl at a gas station," he says, "and when she asked what kind of music I make, and I said 'ghetto retro,' she understood right away. She asked me, 'Oh, you mean singing and rapping?' So the term just reads, sticks, says something on its own."

The "retro" element, in other words, is the glossy, doo-wop-driven sound of Baby Jaymes' music, which harks back to older pop and funk acts like the Stylistics, Parliament, and early Prince. This combines with Jaymes' "ghetto perspective," lyrical topics ranging from Iesha on the front porch shakin' that ass to having a thing for a white girl ("Miss Taboo") -- it even bleeds into the cadence with which he spits his stories: Kids in the hood say 'J, you lightweight flowin'.'

Ergo, "ghetto retro," the bastard child of a Keak Da Sneak and P-Funk tryst.

While Baby Jaymes isn't beholden to trends in hip-hop and R&B, his music isn't above emulating them. In fact, his forthcoming Ghetto Retro LP (due out later this month) represents a new style and language that's gaining currency within hip-hop -- one that digs a bit deeper into relationships and their attendant emotions. Oakland-reared keyboardist and primary Ghetto Retro producer Uglyfingers says one of his favorite songs on the album is "The Black Girl/White Girl Theory," because the lyrics "play on relationship scenarios" in a way that sounds personal, without moralizing. The hook, You just a black girl, who grew up without your daddy/Your relationships, they be shady/But I forgive you when you try to play me/Just like a white girl, who grew up without her father/Her relationships, they be harder/But I know she could take it farther, is about "realizing that you're doing your man like this because of how you came up," Uglyfingers explains. It's a song that "recognizes the need to be more patient," but also tells the story like it is without casting judgment.

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