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It was MC JB, Fro2000, the Glutton, Fresh Produce, Danasty J (pronounced like “Da Nasty J”), and Kid Charm. They were friends from high school. Fro2000 rapped, was at times called “irrelevant,” and had an afro. The Glutton rapped and listened to excessive Soulja Boy. Fresh Produce produced. Danasty J sat in the corner or played darts most of the time. Kid Charm got made fun of a lot—he really should never have told anyone about having a crush on Kelly Ogrodnik during middle school—and had a very large beard.
The project officially started during the summer between JB’s freshman and sophomore years of college, but really it began the previous summer, or perhaps the spring before. If you knew JB in first grade, you knew that he would one day come out with a series of mildly entertaining yet wholly disconcerting albums that displayed his talents across anti-folk music and rap. Actually, in elementary school he spent most of his time reading The Chronicles of Narnia at recess.
Throughout high school, Robbie always wanted to get one more detention than he had gotten the previous year. Senior year he picked up his third and final detention of the year when one of the school security guards caught him dancing for money in the hallway. It was the third time that week.
It began with “Something About Coffee.” He wrote the song in a red Mead composition book. The day after writing it, he discussed the song with his friends at school. He wanted to record this song. He had experience making music in his bedroom; they didn’t. Once, for a project in AP Government that year, he presented a history of the U.S. Department of the Interior through rap. Fro2000 had been in that class; he presented on the Department of State with a PowerPoint slideshow.
“Something About Coffee” would be different, though. “You’re the cream in my coffee/You make it taste good/And without you/My Coffee would suck.” This one would blow up.
So JB—back then, he was Jerk Butt, a name the origins of which have been lost to the sands of time, hopefully—got Fro2000 and Kid Charm to come over and make beautiful music. JB was on the keyboard. Kid Charm was on the Tupperware. Fro2000 was on vocals. They practiced the song until Fro2000 knew most of the words and JB could play something reasonable for about three minutes, and then they recorded it on the microphone JB had bought at Wal-Mart for $15. “Obama Nation,” as they decided to call themselves, was born.
Their school sponsored an arts day called Make Your Mark and set up an open mic in the cafeteria; JB wanted to perform “Something About Coffee.” Fro2000 didn’t want to play it, but JB couldn’t resist the open mic. They walked onto the little stage, JB with his keyboard, Kid Charm with his Tupperware, and, in an episode that Wheeling, IL, sociologists are still struggling to understand, people liked it. Then they played a song about getting kicked in the balls.
Later, they made more songs. They made a song about taco salad. They made a song about the Teletubbies. They made a song about the Utah Jazz. They were always talking about which songs could be hits and which songs couldn’t. “Something About Coffee”—obviously a hit. “Life in Salt Lake City”—probably not a hit but still an excellent song. They even got a girl to sing on that track. They made an album called I Hate Floppies, Vol. II that people bought—maybe because the proceeds went towards curing cancer.
In eighth grade, Robbie was voted best male dancer at Holmes Middle School. Also, best female dancer. He had campaigned for the latter.
Printing CDs isn’t cheap, as it turns out, so JB went to his closest friend, Danasty J, who was and continues to be a pizza-delivery guy, treading the earth on the north side of three hundred pounds and listening to Slayer cranked up to 11 in his Ford Taurus. He and JB, along with the Glutton and Kid Charm, had been friends since day care, and JB couldn’t mention himself without mentioning Danasty J. In this case, JB and Danasty J had a business model, and it was called Magic Mower.
JB, Danasty J, Fro2000, and Gary from school orchestra set out to make some money for the group. It made sense for JB and Fro2000, since they didn’t have jobs. At 19, JB still didn’t have a driver’s license—he doesn’t to this day—and Fro2000 was far too busy with band camp to get a real job. They posted fliers around the neighborhood, and JB changed his voice mail message to accommodate Magic Mower clients. They had new equipment to buy: a microphone, a stand, headphones, a computer array. So they packed up two gas mowers into Fro2000’s Camry and mowed a whole lot. Mostly they worked for a guy named John McGowan, who, when calling to hire a lawnmower, started his message with his address instead of his name: “Uh, 326 Maureen. John McGowan. I’m calling for a lawn-mower.”
Robbie founded an underground society called the Junior Stonemasons in high school. The group met secretly in an English classroom, and they planned their own spirit days. For one of those days, Robbie shaved his head and eyebrows completely so that he could dress up as Krillin from Dragon Ball Z. He was 18 years old.
The next summer, JB wanted to make a rap album. The group had talked briefly about switching from anti-folk—that’s what Fro2000’s brother called I Hate Floppies—to rap music. Having studied the works of Kanye West, A Tribe Called Quest, Atmosphere, NaS, Jay-Z, and Lupe Fiasco, JB started writing rap music. They decided to record two CDs simultaneously. By day, Obama Nation would sing songs about stealing cake from someone’s refrigerator for their second album, It Hurts to Pee. By night, they would become “JaQman Entertainment”: a rap group, but also an entertainment and recording syndicate. JB liked to say the groups were separate, but JaQman consisted of the same people as Obama Nation.
They were together nearly all the time. They played basketball at the park, like most normal 18-year-olds. They drove around, often without a target location, also like a lot of normal 18-year-olds. They played capture the flag in the park at midnight every few weeks, like some normal 18-year-olds? When the weather was bad, or even when the weather was fine and they didn’t have anything else to do, they spent their nights walking around Dominick’s grocery store, occasionally snatching two or three jelly beans from the Jelly Belly dispenser and often buying cheap dessert mixes to bake at home. They sometimes sang karaoke, holding an annual championship after which the winner took home a wrestling-championship belt that they had bought at Amazing Savings. Fro2000 won three times, even though JB was, by most neutral accounts, the better karaoke singer.
There was nothing extreme about anyone in the group. They were, on average, very average. JB was the kind of guy who other kids joked with in class but never called on the weekend. Kid Charm could make a case for being the kindest person at Wheeling High School, but “nice” has never equaled “cool.” Fro2000 tried to keep himself busy enough with extracurriculars that he could ignore his inability to socialize sincerely.
For the most part, though, those summer nights were about the music. JB, the Glutton, and Fro2000 made rap music that one might expect from a rap group with only three-quarters of a black person. These were things that they talked about in planning the CD. Their album featured 14 tracks about staying on their grind and etc. The Glutton and Fro2000 paired up for a ditty called “I Do What I Want,” a track that even they couldn’t listen to afterward. In another song, Kid Charm threw down a line about breakfast, something about Denny’s being where he spends his pennies. JB would later remark that simply hearing the line made him want to punch Kid Charm in the face. Fro2000 would later remark that he liked the line for that same reason.
The group’s subject matter was limited. They were bad on love songs, because Fro2000 didn’t have the voice for ballads, and JB was still eight years from losing his virginity. Two years ago. They were acceptable on songs about struggle, but none of them had ever dealt crack or grew up on “mean streets” or had to do too many chores at home, so they didn't feel right acting like they knew the world. They had never even seen a crack rock. Who ever went hard without at least knowing what crack looks like? They also never used profanity. They never rapped about race. Never rapped about the government. Never rapped about drugs. Fro2000 just wanted to scream “Fuck the police,” but he didn’t much like swearing in front of the rest of the group, and he didn’t even have a problem with the black-and-whites. He didn’t even like N.W.A.
JB carried the group. He rapped furiously in his bright Hawaiian shirt. On “Above the Rest,” he spoke poetically on the subject of fairy tales. “Yeah, I kissed a frog princess/I turned her into Jessica Alba in a dress/Then all of a sudden, Jessica Alba is a mess/Jessica Alba undressed, Jessica Alba impressed.” Eventually, they finished a product. They didn’t think it was good enough to be considered “the product,” the one that they would have been really proud of, but it was a product. They printed out the cover design and slipped the low-ink-laserjet artwork into several dozen CD cases. Obama Nation released its second album, but JB preferred JaQman’s CD, Lion in the Concrete Jungle. It was a start.
After finishing high school, Robbie left his group of friends to go to college at Northwestern University. He commented after his freshman year, “I dominated high school. Now I just need to dominate every other aspect of life.”
The next record had to wait until the following summer. In the meantime, JB, Fro2000, and the Glutton decided to come up with a real name. JaQman existed as their record label, but now the trio needed its own handle. “Lowered Expectations” was the idea Fresh Produce threw out first, even posting the name announcement on Twitter and MySpace. (JaQman had a Twitter account.) But JB wanted something to better capture the essence of the group. Of course, they didn’t exactly have an essence, but that wasn’t important. They settled on “The Barbaloots”—the bear things from The Lorax who pull themselves into the sky when everything goes wrong. The name didn’t mean anything more than any of the other names they had considered, but to them it was mildly entertaining, much like everything they did. They were entertaining, mildly.
Robbie’s dad died during his senior year of high school. The people who knew at school found out only because the debate coach e-mailed the team. He didn’t tell anybody; he didn’t miss any class.
The Barbaloots went back to work. They made a song about the economy. They made songs about reincarnation, about Robin Givens, about lunch. Sometimes they recorded in JB’s basement instead of the garage. His mom would always ask him if he had eaten yet—usually he hadn’t—but other than that, she didn’t say much. She never objected to the screaming in the basement. She was not unlike the rest of the parents. Fro2000’s parents told him that as long as he didn’t murder anyone, they’d be happy.
There was a power struggle. Fresh Produce wanted money. JB just wanted music, so he and Danasty J agreed to pay for beats. Of course, that wasn’t what the struggle was about; it was never about superstardom or musical legitimacy. The group didn’t gather in Robbie’s basement and change their names from Jake, Jeremy, Rawlins, Danny, and Mike to Fro2000, Kid Charm, the Glutton, Danasty J, and Fresh Produce, respectively, because they thought they were going to “make it.” (Though, incidentally, they did have a song called “Gonna Make It.”) They started off as a high school group and somehow encountered the same problems as a real music group.
For the most part, there was very little disagreement. Production demands aside, the group stayed close even after they left for college. Almost all of them went to schools in Chicago, and JB kept everyone together. He three-, four-, and five-way dialed people. He organized Friendship Meetings around the city, hoping to bring everyone back together. Most of the time, people came. They ate food and argued and remembered stories and made plans and “acted” scared around girls. Of course, they really were scared around girls, but JB started to invite some girls from school. Kelly Ogrodnik even showed up a few times.
On the final day of recording, JB was tired. His attention span never lasted longer than four or five minutes, and he was especially bad about paying attention when he was asleep. Just before the Glutton and Fro2000 were about to record the intro track, he woke up. He had written a few lines for a possible introduction to the album over the previous week, and now he woke up and made magic.
“This is it,” he was yelling. “This is the beginning—the beginning of something special.” Everybody else in the room held back laughter. “You are all witnesses to the birth of the greatness, the magnificent miracle, the lyrical linguistic leviathan, the hip-hop hive mind: the Barbaloots!” Then Fro2000 stepped up to the mic. JB had been yelling, so Fro2000 yelled, “I got the Barbaloot vibe and I can’t get rid of it/I’m too legitimate to quit-imate/Yea, I said ‘legitimate,’ it’s got four syllables/And Fro just one, but I’m still unkillable…” and the Glutton jumped on a few bars later “I know you can’t believe it, yes we’re back/We’re like a group of crows ‘cause we murdered the tracks” and now JB closes his eyes and rhymes invade his mind like radio signals and they fill him up with strength so that he feels like Lou Ferrigno, “Made something out of nothing, I defy the laws of physics/The theory of entropy can’t hold back my lyrics/Tides rise and fall by the sound of my voice/Civilizations collapse when I make the choice/To satisfy me there is only one way/Put in the CD and then press play.” For 10 minutes, they were great—the Barbaloots were all the way great. And still, for one minute and fifty seconds they are great as many times as you want to listen to them on repeat.
They finished the last few songs, finished the mixing, finished the CD. It was self-titled. They paid to have CDs pressed and packaged in plastic wrap with a bar code. They decided to sell the albums for five dollars apiece.
They sold 84 CDs.