Young Buck 

A local rapper rises above the cycle of poverty, violence and drugs to become the best-selling rap act outta Music City

A local rapper rises above the cycle of poverty, violence and drugs to become the best-selling rap act outta Music City

By Michael McCall

David Brown got the nickname "Young Buck" when, in his early teens, he graduated from hustling change at North Nashville gas stations and car washes to selling small amounts of marijuana and crack cocaine on Buchanan Street near Cumberland View Apartments. Better known as "Dodge City" due to the prevalence of gun violence there, these public housing projects were a place where drug users from all over the city cruised when they were looking for a quick, cheap fix.

David Brown got the nickname "Young Buck" when, in his early teens, he graduated from hustling change at North Nashville gas stations and car washes to selling small amounts of marijuana and crack cocaine on Buchanan Street near Cumberland View Apartments. Better known as "Dodge City" due to the prevalence of gun violence there, these public housing projects were a place where drug users from all over the city cruised when they were looking for a quick, cheap fix.

As Brown tells it, an older street hustler nicknamed Priest pulled him aside, sat him down and asked what a 13-year-old "young buck" was doing turning dime bags of dope on streets. When Brown refused to quit, Priest advised him on how to avoid run-ins with the police or pistol-toting competitors who might not take kindly to a young upstart working their turf. Priest, whose name evokes the respect he drew on the streets, put out the word for others to lay off Young Buck and keep a watchful eye out for him.

Nearly a decade later and still using the name Young Buck, Brown, who eventually took up rapping, has catapulted into mainstream pop culture by selling nearly 300,000 copies of his album, Straight Outta Ca$hville, in the seven days after its Aug. 24 release. Only the new releases by superstars Tim McGraw and R. Kelly topped Young Buck's album in sales last week. In the process, Young Buck has become the best-selling hip-hop act from Nashville to date—indeed, the best-selling African American artist out of Nashville since gospel-pop singer CeCe Winans had a hot streak a decade ago.

Right as the Country Music Hall of Fame is promoting an exhibit honoring the undervalued contributions of Nashville R&B musicians of decades past, a 23-year-old who describes himself as "somebody who comes from nothing—the poorest of the poor" just put Music City on the rap map. Not only that, instead of heeding the advice of those who suggested he hide his ties to Nashville, Young Buck has gone out of his way to let the world know that his hometown has more to offer than country music.

"I never considered not doing it," he says. "I didn't care if somebody thought it was a bad idea. I knew I was going to identify myself as being proud of my city."

From the title of his album to the details he packs into his gangsta rhymes, Young Buck broadcasts that Nashville has a vibrant hip-hop and R&B underground with enough talent to go mainstream and thereby change the world's perception of Music City U.S.A.

From the title of his album to the details he packs into his gangsta rhymes, Young Buck broadcasts that Nashville has a vibrant hip-hop and R&B underground with enough talent to go mainstream and thereby change the world's perception of Music City U.S.A.

"I come from a city that's not known at all for hip-hop," Buck says, talking by phone from Manhattan's Meridien Hotel the day after making his first appearance on MTV's Total Request Live. "To be able to bring the whole world of hip-hop to my city, that's a major deal, man. You know what I'm saying? It's not just me I'm bringing. It's the biggest, largest hip-hop artists of the world that I'm involved with, and the whole industry that's behind that. It's on, now, man. I'm going to make Nashville known for something it ain't never been known for. It's going to shock the world."

Over the course of a 60-minute interview, Young Buck kept coming back to how it's about time a rapper from Nashville got a chance to make a big-budget hip-hop album—and that it's taken too long to happen. On one hand, he wants to lead the way for others, he says. On the other, he wants the city to stop ignoring the gifts of the African American community living within walking distance from some of the best recording studios and the biggest record companies in the world.

"I want people to know that I'm serious about dealing with some issues concerning Nashville," Buck says. "There's a discrimination toward the hip-hop scene, and in a bigger way, a discrimination toward poor people. It don't matter if you're black or white or Hispanic or Asian or whatever. I think Nashville has tried to hold hip-hop back a little bit. But now it's going to be so big they can't stop it. I'm only the first. I know for a fact there's going to be more. I'm the one who popped the bubble, but it's a big bubble."

This bubble has threatened to burst before. Significant hip-hop artists like Count Bass-D, Me Phi Me and Pistol signed with major recording labels in the '90s. Ruffhouse Records, a subsidiary of Sony Music that launched the careers of the hit acts Fugees, Nas and Cypress Hill, flirted with setting up an office in Nashville to mine local R&B and hip-hop talent. The rap quintet Utopia State, progressive hip-hop artist Iayaalis and R&B singer Ruby Amanfu have also garnered interest and development deals, but no big-budget recordings. More recently, Haystak signed with Def Jam South in 2003, but so far hasn't emerged with a new record.

Local organizations have tried to promote Nashville hip-hop from within the city too, among them SOBA (The Society of Black Artists) and the regular nightclub showcase The Spot. Until now, however, Nashville has failed to join what the hip-hop world calls The Dirty South, a loose coalition of rappers from Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans, Houston and even Mississippi (David Banner) and Bowling Green (Nappy Roots). Buck puts himself squarely in that circle, constantly working the phrase "Dirty South" into his lyrics. He even duets with Banner and Houston's Lil' Flip on a song called "Welcome to the South," which includes the lines, "The dirty, dirty baby / Show 'em how the South do / We pop pills, shoot to kill / You know what we about."

Straight Outta Ca$hville opens with the sound of Buck taking a deep hit on a joint or a pipe, then coughing. Gunfire follows, and then a threat: "It's about to go down—welcome to Cashville, mothafuckas!" Set to a spare, slowly bouncing rhythm, the first track, performed in unison with 50 Cent, begins, "I'm a soldier / I done told ya / Don't make me fuck you up."

Those rhymes illustrate what separates Buck from most of the Nashville rappers and hip-hoppers to get a shot before him. Where Count Bass-D or Utopia State broke beyond gangsta rap, addressing social ills and raising consciousness, Buck sets himself up as the hardest of the hardcore street hustlers. His connection to G Unit, the hottest rap production team in the nation, also ties him to some of the most violent street poets of his generation. His sound falls in line with that of 50 Cent and Eminem, using details from his life, hometown references and the conventional gangsta imagery of gun violence, drug use and boasts about being the baddest on the block.

Straight Outta Ca$hville opens with the sound of Buck taking a deep hit on a joint or a pipe, then coughing. Gunfire follows, and then a threat: "It's about to go down—welcome to Cashville, mothafuckas!" Set to a spare, slowly bouncing rhythm, the first track, performed in unison with 50 Cent, begins, "I'm a soldier / I done told ya / Don't make me fuck you up."

The album's first hit single, "Let Me In," is reminiscent in theme and structure to 50's massive 2003 hit, "In Da Club. "Brilliantly produced, using the sparsest of elements to create the catchiest of tracks, the song is about a hustler hitting a club, drinking cognac and champagne, and pulling in the women and putting off the men. I know you gonna let me shine and get mine," starts the chorus, another duet with 50 Cent. "I know you gonna let me in with this 9 / I know you gonna let me smoke all my weed / I know you gonna let me drink with no I.D."

The scenario Young Buck depicts in "Let Me In" is a far cry from toughing it out on the streets of Nashville, and he could hardly be blamed if he wanted to his put memories of the city behind him. He grew up in two of the city's roughest housing projects—J.C. Napier Homes in East Nashville and the aforementioned Cumberland View, or "Dodge City." His mother, Audrey Horn, raised six kids on her own, four of them belonging to her sister. She worked at Meharry until she was laid off as part of the merger with General Hospital.

"Mom was doing all she could to hold it down for the family," Buck says. "But when she lost that job, it took a little bit of her pride away. She still kept us all together as best she could."

Today, despite her son's encouragement to quit and live off his earnings, Horn continues to work as a nurse for shut-ins. "She don't have to work now if she should choose not to," says her son, who bought her a new home last year. "She just loves doing it. I be like, 'Mom, what you doing? You don't got to work!' I don't really condone it. I told her, 'If anyone just looks at you funny, you quit.' "

Buck's father, whose name is James Brown, is a different story. As the rapper puts it in "Let Me In," "My daddy's a dope fiend / I don't really miss him / Ain't seen him in 10 years / And the nigga's still living."

Buck already was selling drugs by the time his mother was laid off from Meharry. "I felt like I had no choice," he says. "I was too young to get a 9-to-5. But I had to get some money, least that's how I felt."

He hid his dealing from his mother, knowing how she'd react if she found out. "It wasn't like I was taking the money straight from the street to home," he says. "I had to hide it from my moms. You can't come in the house telling mom you just made some money selling some drugs. You'd get your ass whooped. But at the roughest points, when she got laid off and there wasn't no lights or no water, I came out with some of my money. She couldn't really tell me no. It was going to be two weeks before she got a check for her unemployment, and I gave her money so we could turn things back on for all of us."

In hip-hop, coming from the projects and having hustled of course gives thug rappers street cred. Buck's publicity team openly cites his criminal past, which includes getting shot home-invasion-style at age 19, and the MC talks about it circumspectly in interviews. Yet when pressed about his contacts or what corners he worked, he cuts in, asking, "What is this, a police interview?"

Nevertheless, a music industry insider who knew Buck in his teen years confirms his story. Former Nashvillian Jeff Pringle, a onetime booking agent who started an independent rap label here in 1999, met Buck shortly after the shooting incident. Pringle financed some recording sessions that led to a minor underground hit. Buck's history as a hustler and his brush with death were common knowledge among his peers.

"He absolutely is who he says he is," says Pringle, who now lives in Florida, where he manages Lennon, a rock singer who used to live in Hendersonville. "It's all true. Buck was never a big user. He was always sober and very business-minded, even then. But among the people he hung out with in the studio, there was a lot of talk about what he had done as a kid coming up, how he was totally a self-made street guy."

"Basically, my partner Little Jimmy—he's in the penitentiary now—called me to come to the studio, and I rapped for Baby," Buck says. "He immediately seen something he liked in me. The next day I had a flight, man, all the way down to New Orleans. It was my first plane ride. It was a totally different experience for me."

Pringle was impressed by his drive and his talent, but even then, he knew Buck traveled in dangerous circles. "Frankly, he's lucky to be alive," says Pringle. "Rules didn't mean anything to him. He knows the system is not in place for him, and he just believed in himself and he's going to do what it takes to get what he wants. I always said back then that he'd either end up in jail for life or be a platinum artist."

Buck attended a number of schools in Nashville, including Dalewood, Hume-Fogg, Hillwood, Overton and White's Creek. Music was part of his life all along; he was always working on his rhyming skills. He dropped out of school at age 16, when he got his first musical break. Brian "Baby" Williams, one of the founders of the New Orleans production team Cash Money Millionaires, was in town for a show and dropped by a studio to hear some local music.

"Basically, my partner Little Jimmy—he's in the penitentiary now—called me to come to the studio, and I rapped for Baby," Buck says. "He immediately seen something he liked in me. The next day I had a flight, man, all the way down to New Orleans. It was my first plane ride. It was a totally different experience for me."

For three years, Buck spent extensive periods living in Williams' home in New Orleans, working on Cash Money recordings and tours. Despite promises, he never got past being a background rapper for other artists' projects and concerts. By age 19, he cut ties to Cash Money and returned to Nashville.

"It just got old not ever having anything work out," he says. "They had some artists blowing up, but they weren't doing nothing on me individually. I was frustrated then, but I don't consider it wasted time. I learned a lot."

At home, Buck returned to the streets. He was an adult now and he had a reputation—his neighborhood knew he'd spent years on the Cash Money roster, which included big names like Juvenile and Lil' Wayne. Yet Buck still needed money to finance his ambitions, and selling drugs was the fastest way he knew to collect. He used the money to make some recordings, and he worked on cuts by other local rappers, including Pistol and Boogie, two of the city's best-known MCs at the time.

"I started making my own CDs to sell," Buck says. "It would only cost me $300 to press up 1,000 CDs. I was selling them for $10 apiece from the Citgo gas station beside TSU. At that price, I started making more money selling music than I was selling that illegal shit and putting my life on the line. So I started seeing things differently. The illegal game was out for me then. I converted totally over to just music."

Before he got out of the drug business, though, he had a frighteningly close call. One night while stretched out on the floor of an apartment watching TV with some friends, a group of men kicked in the door and started shooting. Buck jumped to his feet and was heading toward the kitchen when bullets pierced his arm and thigh. His friend, a rapper by the name of D-Tay, grabbed his pistol and shot back, hitting one of the intruders.

"When you selling drugs, cats want what you got, and they want to take it," Buck says. "So I got hit. My homeboy D-Tay saved my life."

Once healed, Buck hooked up with Pringle, who says he saw Buck's potential right away. Pringle's rap label, Next Level Records, put out Thuggin' to the End, an album by Buck and D-Tay (who also appears as a co-rapper on Straight Outta Ca$hville). The independent album sold decently in Nashville, turning about 8,000 copies. But without radio play, it never took off beyond the local rap underground.

"I liked him a lot, I always thought he could do something big," says Pringle, who recently repackaged the independent CD with new artwork and rereleased it as Young Buck—The Underground. "He's a genuinely decent, kind, hardworking guy. He had more determination than anybody I ever met. He reminded me of someone like Garth Brooks or Kid Rock. He just absolutely believed in himself, and he was going to find a way. He wasn't going to wait for someone to do it for him."

Buck looks back on his experience with Next Level much as he does his time with Cash Money: once he realized it wasn't going to lead to stardom, he moved on. "I know now that it was the wrong way to go," Buck says. "I just want to tell people to be careful what they do. You can sign the wrong paper and it will hold you up."

From there, Buck reunited with rap singer Juvenile, whom he'd met when both were young rappers with Cash Money in New Orleans. "I hit the road with Juvenile for a year-and-a-half," Buck says, performing as one of the leader's vocal partners onstage. During a New York stop in 2001, rappers 50 Cent and Lloyd Banks visited Juvenile on his bus.

"It was before 50 had his deal with Eminem and Dr. Dre," Buck says of the meeting. "We started freestyling with each other on the bus, and we hit it off good."

Buck played one of his recordings, a track called "Bloodhounds," for 50 Cent. "He went crazy for it, and he said he had to have that one for himself. He paid me for it, and giving him that song changed everything for me."

50 Cent promised Buck that if he got a record deal, he'd come back for him. True to his word, when 50 Cent formed G Unit Productions and signed with Interscope Records, he called Buck. He also put "Bloodhounds" on his debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin', which has sold more than 11 million copies.

"Once 50 got in that position, he come back to me and said, 'Yo, Buck, you ready?' All of a sudden, Young Buck from Nashville, Tenn., is standing with 50 Cent and Eminem and Dr. Dre. You know what I'm saying?"

50 Cent first arranged for his friend Lloyd Banks to release an album through G Unit and Interscope. That record, The Hunger for More, became a No. 1 seller and has been in the Billboard Top 20 all summer. Buck's Straight Outta Ca$hville is the third G Unit release.

"I know I had to branch out of Nashville to make something happen," Buck says. "But I don't know why that is, and I want to change that. That's why I insisted on having my city in my album title."

In fact, he wanted to call it Straight Outta Nashville, putting a Southern twist on the title of NWA's Straight Outta Compton, the album that established gangsta rap as a market force. But Buck's business associates thought that the Nashville tag could be detrimental.

"They told me that to the average hip-hop person, Nashville means country music, because that's all we're known for," he says. "But in Nashville, on the street level where I'm from, the hip-hop scene is as strong as the country music scene is on the other side of town. But the outside world don't know that. We got rock stars here and everything else, but don't nobody know that."

Buck stuck to his guns, although he agreed to put a twist on the title to escape the stereotypes typically associated with the city's name. "Someone said we could call it Blastville, but I said not everybody in town shoots guns," he says with a laugh. "Someone said to call it Racistville, but I said not everybody in town is a racist, even though it's here."

Buck came up with the alternative himself. "I wanted a name everybody could relate to," he says. "A lot of people in Nashville got money. A lot of the music in Nashville is all about money. No matter who you are, money is involved in your life. You're waking up and working and trying to get it. So that's what my city is based on, cash. So that's why I call it Ca$hville."

Young Buck hoped for a groundswell of support from the city, especially in light of his enthusiasm for promoting his roots here. "I want to give back, I want to benefit my city," he says. "I want to bring more music money to Nashville. I want to bring more artists who are in Nashville to the nation. I want to throw events, and my people are already looking into ways I can donate to college funds for kids in the projects and how I can put money into helping these housing projects."

Buck feels support from the residents in his old neighborhoods, but so far he thinks the city's larger political and business communities have yet to realize the positive potential of what he can bring to Nashville. He was denied permits, for example, to shoot the video for "Let Me In" in the Dodge City projects. He still made the video in town, and it's now airing on MTV and BET. Nevertheless, he couldn't get closer than 50 feet to his former public-housing residence while filming the promotional clip.

"I don't think they would have turned me down if I was a country music singer," he says. "People in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit and all these other cities, they shoot videos in the projects. There's videos shot all the time in Queensbridge in New York City, the biggest projects in the United States of America. Why can't I [do it] in Nashville? It's hard for me to understand."

Young Buck says he'll be back to ask about producing videos on the streets where he used to run. "We deserve respect, and we deserve a hip-hop scene that gets support," he says. "But we can't do it without the mayor, the politicians, the business leaders and the music industry. They're the ones who can turn the boat. Maybe they're afraid of hip-hop, afraid of the content on my record. But it's just entertainment, even if it reflects things that are real and that scare them. But they should be aware of all the good things my success can do."

Now that he's proving just how monumental that success is, he hopes the city's attitude will change to one of acceptance. "I'm saying, 'Yo, let's sit down and talk and straighten this out, because you're dealing with a young individual who really has his head together. You're not dealing with a drug dealer; you're dealing with a young entrepreneur who's very smart. I'm not leaving. But if I feel betrayed, I'll get involved more politically and apply pressure. I'll go on national television and talk about what's wrong with my city if I have to. Things are going to change in Nashville. They can't stop it now."

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