Ugly Duckling are one of those bands where you hear their music and are instantly happy because of it. They have a funky, fresh vibe that’s infectious and fun. Their first album contained such tunes as Pick-Up Lines and A Little Samba. The former lambastes the stereotypical wannabe ladies’ men, whilst the latter an amusing send-ups of hiphop braggadocio. The second album was Taste the Secret, which celebrated “Meat Shake”, a restaurant where the gimmick is everything has meat in it. Throughout the album the trio explain their woes at working, the fight between “Meat Shake” and “Veggie Hut”, and a whole host of other funny and clever songs, such as ‘Mr Tough Guy’ that pays out the idiot who acts tough at hiphop events, and Potty Mouth, a song with the wonderful line “All you really wanna do is make a fast buck / That’s why rap sucks, it’s too limited / Potty mouths wanna keep hip-hop primitive”.
To my surprise, and perhaps even horror, I discovered that Meat Shake is actually real, and that the boys did work there. Although not a massive corporation as portrayed on the album, Meat Shake is a very small, family-owned establishment Andy Cooper, aka Andy Cat, one of the MCs of the group, explains. “So this has been fun for all of us. I’ve heard that (the Meat Shake) business has picked up considerably in the past year, and they loved the song and the album”. Given the topic of the last album, I had to ask if anyone in the band was a vegetarian. “I’m not even sure if anyone in the group has been a vegetarian for a day!” replies Cooper. “That’s not a judgment against veggie-people, and the point of our album was not to pick sides as much as contrast two different points of view. Actually, the ‘meat shake’ thing was more a metaphor than anything else. We were really talking about western culture and more specifically music culture, and, more importantly, we were trying to be funny.”
And funny it is. Some might say fucking hilarious, but not UD, who try not to swear on their albums. “All of our music is ‘kid tested and mother approved!’” Cooper laughs. “It’s something that is important to us – there are plenty of groups that talk dirty so we liked the idea of being different. Plus, we wanted to be able to play our music for our families and not feel uncomfortable about it. I have to say that this is not revolutionary,” he adds, “in fact, most of us love early De La Soul, Rakim, Biz Markie, Jungle Brothers, Run DMC, and those bands were, for the most part, squeaky clean.”
Not only do they like those bands, but also there are very similar elements to them in their music. Although they had the questionable fortune of forming in late 1993 in Long Beach, home of gangster rap, they took a decidedly different path down the road of hiphop. The origin of Cooper’s stage name is rooted in the gangster mentality, being that everyone, including Andy’s gym teacher, referred to themselves as “dog”, so he chose Andy Cat in order to be different. “We never entertained the idea of going gangster,” Cooper says. “We wouldn’t have gotten anywhere with that because I don’t think anyone would believe that we were thugs. Being different has worked, for the most part, to our advantage so we can’t complain too much. One thing about us that is often overlooked is the fact that we grew up around gangs, violence, drugs and all of that stuff.” Dizzy, the other MC in the group, was even thanked on the first Compton’s Most Wanted album, Straight Checkin’ Em’ record. “Ironically, we are much closer to that culture then a lot of the people who make fun of us for being so un-street,” Cooper says.
Their sound is often called retro, or old school, but that tag is unfair as it’s almost as if people are saying they don’t like to look forward or progress. “Certain people love to label bands and the “old school” label has stuck with us because we have a traditional sound. That perception is out there and it has been harmful to us. For example, we didn’t make a single reference to old school on our latest album and, in my mind, we put together one of the most creative records in years, yet often, Taste the Secret was categorized as a throw-back thing.” Maybe it was the fact that it was a theme album, or maybe that the tunes were simple yet deep, but either way the album certainly sounds different to the new school rap that poisons our airwaves. “But we’re not ashamed of our roots,” he continues. “On the contrary, we’re extremely proud of hip-hop heritage and we will continue to draw from that well, but we, more than most groups, combine new ideas with traditional rap values, and if that’s a terrible thing then I’d rather be terrible.”
Following a theme album is often a hard thing to do, with the expectation to follow it with something equally quirky. Ugly Duckling has given us Taste the Secret, a mini album that “closes the book on meat shake, although we may make mention of it on future albums,” Cooper explains. “But, honestly, making a concept record was extremely difficult and I for one am looking forward to making a normal album next time. It’s hard enough for us to get anything done as it is!” he laughs.
UD’s hiphop heritage shines through from the album to the live shows. “Our show is all turntables,” Cooper begins. “It costs more money to put of our stuff on wax but we feel that it is well worth the trouble. Turntables are to hiphop what drums, bass and guitar are to rock. Hiphop began with the DJ and we would feel funny doing anything else. In fact, we just got an offer to do a live, radio set in Australia but we were told that we couldn’t use our DJ and would have to rap over a CD… we politely declined,” he says with a wry smile. I ask about the possibility of CDDJs… “It’s very convenient isn’t it? Kind of reminds me of the guitar-style keyboards smooth-jazz guys play with a strap over their shoulders. It just isn’t right. The possibility of the needle skipping is part of the thrill!”
Another thrill is seeing these guys live. They give it their all, and they have a similar presence to the Beastie Boys. Last time they hit Adelaide they played a rather short show, and left us wanting more. But it was on a Tuesday night… “We’ve really tried to step it up for this tour!” Cooper exclaims. “The show is much more theme-oriented and crowd participatory as well so, hopefully, people will be pleased. We will do everything we can to entertain you good people… we’ll come to your houses and force meatshakes down your throat if we have to!” he laughs