Last summer you could barely escape the thumping beats of the monster hit anthem "Riding Dirty'' by Houston-born rapper Chamillionaire. The hypnotic tune (which also featured rapper Krazyie Bone) took shots at police for using racial profiling to pull over cars they thought were carrying drugs, guns or stolen items (i.e., riding dirty). The title became a catchphrase for the masses of hip-hop fans who could easily relate, and the song made a full-fledged rap star of Hakeem Seriki, a.k.a. Chamillionaire. His debut album, "The Sound of Revenge,'' won several MTV awards and a Grammy for best rap duo for "Dirty.'' Now the 27-year-old, who started making mix tapes and selling them at independent record stores in his hometown as a teenager, is releasing his sophomore album, "Ultimate Victory,'' on Sept. 18. No small feat given his album just narrowly escaped being caught in the middle the hype/sales face off between Kanye West and 50 Cent. But is Chamillionaire worried about his album sales suffering in the aftermath of the two motor-mouth giants? Not in the least. Here he tells NEWSWEEK's Allison Samuels how he got into the rap game, how he got his mother to finally listen to rap music and why he knows he'll be around for the long haul. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: "Riding Dirty" took off like wildfire. Were you surprised at the response and its success?
Chamillionaire: Yes and no. I knew that I had what it took to get a hit, and I knew the song was talking about something for real, something that any young brother has been through a few times if not more. It was important to me to come out with something to say and give the people buying the records something to listen to and think about. You know, there's enough mindless stuff out there. I think it took off because it spoke a type of truth that isn't being told in hip-hop anymore. People miss that … hip-hop should tell a story—not the same story again and again.
That's an interesting take on rap right now, given that it does seem to be stuck in a rut. Was there no pressure to go along with the typical subjects of girls, bling and guns by your record label?
That's the great part of doing the independent thing for a while before you get signed by a big record company. You've already proven you can sell the type of music you want to make with the type of stories you want to tell on the streets. I tell all the young cats trying to rap to do it the independent way first. That's the best way to learn the rap game. You see the good and bad before you get into the big leagues, and you skip a lot of the BS because you already know the games the big guys in suits play.
You often refer to yourself as the "mixtape messiah." What does that mean?
It means I came from the mixtape game, spitting a lot of freestyle lyrics—and I dropped one of the most successful independent records to come out of Houston before I hit mainstream radio. After that, I was featured on so many mixtapes that I lost count. I was always hearing myself on the radio down there. But those mixtapes got me my record deal. It got people to pay attention even though I was in Texas and not in New York or L.A.
Any concerns over the sophomore jinx for second label album? Rap, and music in general right now, can be a fickle game.
I'd never sell a record if I worried about that. None of us would. I put together some solid, good tracks that I think people will feel. People respect you if they know you're keeping true to what you do and what you have say. I'm not switching up to follow trends or anything like that. I just made sure to use people who you don't hear on every record—like Slick Rick. That was important to me, because it's really easy to go for the guy that's on everywhere to make sure you have a hit. I don't roll like that. I was writing a song—and Slick Rick came to mind for this particular track. He's not all over the charts, but he's the guy I wanted. He lives outside the country, so I knew it might be hard to get him, but I got him.
What do you think of the 50 Cent and Kanye West album-sales battle going on now. Is it good for hip-hop?
As long as people see it for what it is—a great campaign. I don't get into beefs with other rappers any more. I used to when I was young, but now it's like—whatever. We're all living a good life with the fame and the cash in the rap game, so I—or we—would be foolish to throw all that away because of a beef. I know those guys feel the same way. It just brought some of the attention you hadn't seen in awhile back on hip-hop.
You've said that when you were growing up, your parents didn't let you and your younger brother listen to music much in your home—and certainly not rap. Was it because of religious beliefs?
Nah—people like to say it was because of that, but we didn't listen to secular music either, really. With rap, my parents didn't like the message some of it was putting out, and they didn't want us getting caught up in it. They were worried that me and my brother would get into some type of trouble from just listening to the words of it. But it was the music of my generation, so there wasn't much they could do to stop us from hearing it at some point.
[Laughs.] My mom listens to me all the time now and loves it!