May 18, 2006

Being With Smooth Dre Is Like a Mini-Vacation

Rapper Andre Smith, an unlikely star of Dave Chappelle's 'Block Party,' isn't the type to rush, but he's aspiring to greatness. Or perhaps a laundromat.

Alex Tilney

In a setbreak during the free concert he organized in Brooklyn in 2004, Dave Chappelle pulls a member of the audience on stage to freestyle. Up comes a big guy with a mohawk and a "Free Tibet" t-shirt, and Mr. T, as Chappelle instantly dubs him, half-swaggers, half-limps through a few lines. After he's finished, Chappelle turns to the crowd and yells, "Time out, everybody. First, don't ever boo a rapper on my stage. And the way he rhymed 'late' and 'gate?' It was genius!"

Dre and Mos Def
Dre took this photo of himself and Mos Def out of his jacket pocket and handed it to me.
The documentary that Chappelle made about the event then flashes back to the day before the concert, with Chappelle standing next to a skinny waiter in a white shirt, black vest, and black bowtie. We are at Junior's, the iconic cheesecake restaurant in downtown Brooklyn. The waiter asks for a beat, and Chappelle beat-boxes while the waiter rolls into his freestyle. "I only date girls with men or relations / so being with me is like a mini-vacation," the rhyme goes, ending with: "You never have to worry that I lie / cause I don't have to: cause I'm the nigga on the side." (See full lyrics and listen to Nigga on the Side.) Chappelle sticks his head in the frame with his eyes bugged way wide. Mr. T isn't Brooklyn's best; Chappelle has just found a guy who can rhyme.

The waiter is Andre Smith, age 37. He's billed in Block Party, Chappelle's film about the concert, as "Andre 4000," but prefers the stage name Smooth Dre. That's what he tells me when we meet one spring weekday evening at the Applebee's on Fulton Street and New York Avenue in Bed-Stuy, across from the Tastee Pattee Jamaican Bakery and a store called the Gospel Den ("a Unique Experience," according to its sign). Dre's loose jeans fall straight from his skinny waist to his feet, and he wears a Navajo-pattern T-shirt under a black windbreaker. He moves unhurriedly, not only because he's laid-back—even when he raps right at me—but also because he's recovering from a car accident last year that forces him to carry a black aluminum cane with a foam handle. He hasn't worked at Junior's since the accident. The cane embarrassed Dre at first, but now he thinks it might work as part of his onstage persona.

Although I'm the first person to interview him since the movie, he talks eagerly about himself and seems to have prepared some of his answers. When I ask him his future plans, he says "OK, now..." and rattles off the dates he had been waiting to tell me. In the Applebee's, he re-creates the movie cameras rolling into the restaurant. "I wasn't afraid. I was never afraid. When [Chapelle] actually came through, I was like"—here he thumps the left side of his chest a few times—"but I was ready. The problem I had was to decide which song I would do." Dre was considering MC Breaker Battle but decided that he didn't want the hard-core lyrics to upset the ladies eating with their granddaughters just off-camera. This also definitely put Dickmaster out of the running, because, Dre said, "I didn't want those grandmas chasing me down to have sex with me."

After Dre finished rapping Nigga on the Side, Chappelle stayed and talked for about an hour, asking Dre about his life and what inspired him. Chappelle also asked how Dre liked working at Junior's. When Dre hesitated for a beat, Dave shouted in front of all the managers in their white shirts, "Dre don't like his job!"

Chappelle was not the first famous customer to see Dre perform. In 1992, while Dre was working at a Red Lobster, he rapped for LL Cool J, and later, at a TGI Friday's, for Ice Cube. Dre started rapping at 13 when his cousin Tiger called him from Alabama with a short rap about Jordache and Sergio Valenti jeans. Not to be outdone, Dre wrote a whole piece with a beginning, middle, and end (for his solid grounding in structure, he thanks his high-school English teacher, Mrs. Beratta) about outdoing Tiger: "I'm in the mood, to rock the groove / and all you sucker punks, will have to move..."

Slick Rick, Tupac, and Rakim are Dre's top three influences. But Biggie, whose music is still thumping out of the Expeditions and Camrys outside the restaurant almost 10 years after his death, gets no respect. Dre says, "If Biggie was alive, and I had Puffy behind me, I could have burned Biggie too; I don't care what nobody says."

Dre was stabbed in the abdomen during high school. "[Going to the hospital] was the first time I ever got into a taxi, and the driver didn't charge me." His mother sent him to live with family in Alabama, and the move disrupted everything, including his rapping. But he's been performing sporadically since then—battling with frat brothers at Tuskeegee University, winning contests in the army, and opening up for friends with regular comedy spots in Manhattan. After Dre's two daughters were born he cut back again, but when Chappelle came into Junior's, Dre told himself he had nothing to lose. Dre was hoping to perform at the Block Party concert the next day, but he had to work instead.

A little more than a year after performing for Chappelle, Dre woke up from a nap on his 37th birthday and listened to his answering machine. Julie, a producer on the movie, was calling to say that he was appearing in the movie and he had been invited to the premiere with Chappelle and the rest of the cast.

Dre went with his brother, and after running the paparazzi gauntlet, he sat trying to contain himself in the darkened theater as Lil John, Lauryn Hill, and the rest of the performers filled the theater. Dre sat in front of ?uestlove, the globe-fro'd drummer for the Roots. The movie started, and Dre had no idea when his part was coming until he saw the outside of Junior's and heard ?uestlove say to the person next to him, "Hey, check out this guy!" After Nigga on the Side finished, the whole theater cheered, and Dre felt himself shivering with pride. When the movie was over, Chappelle asked all of the performers to stand up, and, unsure of what to do, Dre half-lifted himself out of his seat. When he sat back down, his brother told him how proud he should have been: "Man, you tip-toed. You should have jumped."

He and his brother walked the 10 blocks to the after-party because they didn't have money for a cab, and when they got there Mos Def came up to Dre to shake his hand. Chappelle came over too, and although Dre's brother had been taking pictures, he couldn't resist being in a picture with Chappelle. A club photographer snapped the picture, but Dre has never found it. (If you are that photographer, please email the photo to Gelf and we'll pass it on to Dre).

Response in the neighborhood and among his friends started slow but picked up when bootlegs of Block Party started coming out: So far, Dre has signed three autographs. He has been trying to keep up the momentum and has organized an event at Food 4 Thought, a juice bar on Marcus Garvey Avenue and MacDougal Street in Bed-Stuy. Dre recruits performers, and whoever gets the loudest cheers receives $25 and a Smooth Dre T-shirt. Between acts Dre raps, and although the first event was sparsly attended on the night of a bad storm, Dre is organizing another one soon. He also doesn't have a mix-tape out yet but he's working on one now with local producer Mike Dread at Uptopstudio.

Dre doesn't try to act hardcore. Most of his lyrics are erotic rhymes, developed when he worked in a strip club for a while, wrote about what he saw, and rapped for the girls there. Dre takes events from his life and mixes in some fiction to come up with material. Nigga on the Side, for example, is about a girlfriend who cheated on him. After moving all his stuff out of the apartment overnight, he promised himself he would never date anyone who he could actually end up with. He isn't married to either of the mothers of his two daughters and he refuses to see anyone for more than two years. He's with enough women right now that, by coincidence, one of them was in the restaurant as we were talking. About this self-enforced solitude he says with a sly laugh, "I guess I'm scarred, huh?"

Dre wants to keep his options open. "I want to eventually own a laundromat and a house, probably in Atlanta, have two, three apartments over it, make some money," Dre says. Another idea is a movie career; he's been approached by an intern named Danny at Universal who wants to write a movie featuring Dre, Chappelle, Mos Def, and Steve Martin. Dre hasn't seen the screenplay yet but he says Danny is sending it soon. There's been talk of an appearance of the Conan O'Brien Show. More than anything, though, Dre just wants to make it. "I don't think nobody's better than me right now, I really don't. It's like, you have a lot of Michael Jordans out here. Michael Jordan is good, but he had the opportunity to go to college, and he got to stick to a certain path. You have a lot of Michael Jordans out here who never had the opportunity and they was better than his ass. That's how I feel. You understand? And now, this is my one chance. I think I'm gonna ride it."

Nigga on the Side

Many women tell me my style is so different
It is kinda good, but let's be specific.
I'm not the type to be rushing,
I'm not the kind of nigga who asks a whole lotta questions
Like: where ya goin where you been and can we
have sex all the time? that's not important to D.
I only date girls who have men or relations
So to be with me is like a mini-vacation.
But I don't let no ho's spend my money like she's crazy,
Half on drinks on the room and the baby.
I don't argue I control myself
Cause I don't have to be loud or physical to be felt,
Cause after it's all over we realized it was nothin
I walk away and later return and still be fuckin.
You never have to worry that I lie
Cause I don't have to: cause I'm the nigga on the side.

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- Film
- posted on Aug 06, 13

Thank You! This cat is dope and needs to be heard

Article by Alex Tilney

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