Ugly Duckling is nothing like any popular hip-hop group that is out there today. Like the main character that turns into a swan in the children's story, the hip-hop group's beauty is that they are very different. Funk is the feeling. Humor is the theme. Old school beats are the fuel. The 2 emcees, Andy Cooper & Dizzy, rock the mic with zany antics that are both cartoonish and clever. Meanwhile, Einstein's beats have all the qualities of a cartoon while also having thick bass lines, pounding drums, and those crusty, rare loops.
They first put out the "Fresh Mode" EP and then the critically acclaimed "Journey To Anywhere" LP, which featured collaborations by Cut Chemist of Jurassic 5 and Double K from People Under The Stairs.
In 2003, Emperor Norton Records released Ugly Duckling's new concept album "Taste The Secret". The whole album is a cinematic narrative about a L.A. fast-food place where every single thing they serve has meat (even the fries). "Taste The Secret" has many funny songs like "Opening Act" (about the terrors of performing for a crowd who wants to see someone else), "Potty Mouth" (about profanity), "Tough Guy" (which pokes fun at people who act hard) and "I Want To Go Home" (about the need to leave work during a horrible day).
Throughout the album, a story unravels. The workers at the carnivorous Meat Shake have some serious problems with the expensive hippy Earth-loving vegan herbivores of Veggie Hut. By using commercials, skits, and very cinematic interludes, "Taste The Secret" is one of the weirdest, silliest, and most intricate hip-hop concept albums ever made. With a strong respect to funk and the old school, Ugly Duckling has made a hilarious album that also stands as a metaphor for popular music and culture.
Ugly Duckling has never conformed to what is popular. They maintained their credibility by being themselves, not being afraid to take chances, and making interesting music. Ugly Ducking is here to make hip-hop fun again! On a hot evening in July 2003, I had a cross-country conversation with Andy Cooper, emcee of Ugly Duckling. In these competitive times where music is like fast food, Andy Cooper of Ugly Duckling has discovered the secret sauce of good, fun hip-hop!
MVRemix: What goes on?
Ugly Duckling: I just met this crazy guy on a train who told me that he made $Millions a year as a blues musician. If he's making that much money, why is he singing the blues? Why is he taking the train?
MVRemix: Your new album is called 'Taste The Secret'. Tell us about it.
Ugly Duckling: We decided this time around that we wanted to do something really interesting for our new album. Our first album was called 'Fresh Mode' and it was very straightforward old-school hip-hop. We had an okay reaction to that. The next one was 'Journey To Anywhere' and that time, we used a lot of old school hip-hop but we also tried to do some stuff a little more adventurous. A lot of people liked it and we got kind of a lukewarm reception to it. This time around, we decided that we were going to do something completely adventurous, all cartoon. We wanted all of the songs to be very theme oriented and we wanted a narrative running throughout the album so it would work on 2 levels. At the end, we wanted something that would go down in history as a very interesting approach to hip-hop. We wanted that same feel as '3 Feet high and rising' by De La Soul.
MVRemix: Do you have a favorite song on 'Taste The Secret'?
Ugly Duckling: The song 'Goodnight Now'. I like the hypnotic melodies in it. I just think it's a very well-done track musically.
MVRemix: Tell us about MeatShake
Ugly Duckling: MeatShake was a place where we all worked. The gimmick to the fast food place was that everything had meat. Even the fries had meat in it.
MVRemix: The new album 'Taste The Secret' is somewhat a concept album (about the fast food restaurant MeatShake) with a loose narrative throughout the LP. How did this idea come into fruition?
Ugly Duckling: We all worked there and it really was just a small place. The actual MeatShake is more like a soup than a shake. We always thought it was funny and people never believed that it really existed. So, we always wanted to do a song about MeatShake. Then, we did a couple of more skits and songs about MeatShake. Soon, we had tons of MeatShake songs. Some of our people had to stop us and say, 'Hey, you guys are getting a little out of control with this whole MeatShake stuff. It's getting out of hand.' They had to perform a MeatShake intervention.
MVRemix: On the MeatShake website, there are all of these addresses for chains nationwide. Were these streets and numbers made up or are there specific places that mean something?
Ugly Duckling: They are actual places. The MeatShake on the web is the real small one in L.A. It's like a mom and pop store. A lot people don't believe that it's actually a real place.
MVRemix: Do you get many people thinking that MeatShake is real?
Ugly Duckling: Yeah, actually, it's funny. I talked to somebody yesterday who listened to the album and liked it but he got sick of the MeatShake stuff. Then, he found out that it was real and now he loves it. We thought that was pretty funny. So, it brings it to life for some people because there is truth behind it. That's the debate we try to spark. Especially, the exaggerated theatric MeatShake stuff we present on the album as opposed to the reality of MeatShake. On the album, we tried to make MeatShake sound like this glorious world of carnivorous eating that is opposed to all vegetarians and vegans. It's kind of a culture clash thing too in the sense that it is a metaphor for music as fast-food music. 'Just give me some ready to order, In-Sync, something real simple. I'll eat anything.' Then, there is the other side of it. There are musical elite people who tell us that we don't know about the latest fusion prog-rock band that nobody knows about. There are those people who feel that they are in this upper-echelon of music. 'We're better than you because we're selective with what we listen to.' So, we used it as a metaphor to poke fun of music and culture.
MVRemix: So, how did the owners of MeatShake respond to the album?
Ugly Duckling: They liked it. They really did.
MVRemix: How did you get the name Ugly Duckling? What's the meaning behind the name?
Ugly Duckling: Diz came up with it. The name was a reaction to the place where we grew up. When we were starting out as a group, living in Long Beach, the thing of the day was the word 'Dog' or 'Dawg'. There was Nate Dogg, Snoop Dogg, Dogg Pound and even more. Even my basketball coach, Coach Atkins, he went by Ant Dog. That's why I go by Andy Cat, by the way. I ain't no dog, I'm a cat. I just wanted to be clever. Anyway, Ugly Ducking was a reaction to all of that gangsta stuff because that stuff was not us. We don't fit in with that. We're so far away from that sort of stuff that maybe we don't belong. They won't play with us. We never get to join in on their reindeer games. We figured that it would be a good statement to tell our story.
MVRemix: How do you think 'Taste The Secret' is different from 'Journey To Anywhere'?
Ugly Duckling: 'Taste The Secret' is definitely a more cohesive record. The narrative aspect plays an important role and that was not on our last album. Also, the skits are there. Personally, I think our skits are some of the best produced skits I have ever heard.
MVRemix: Why did you choose Emperor Norton Records?
Ugly Duckling: Choose? (laughs). Yeah, they chose us. (laughs). Actually, they give us a the creative freedom without some goofy A&R man trying to tell us to sing a bridge like Nelly or something. They are a very diverse record label. They have us, Senor Coconut and Pepe Deluxe. We are all very different from each other.
MVRemix: Do you go into the studio with pre-written rhymes, lyrics and themes or do you hear the beat first and write then and there?
Ugly Duckling: We always hear the music first. Most of our recording is actually put together before we go into the studio. We construct all the music and do all of the writing first. Then, we go into the studio to make it sound good. When we're there, we experiment with a lot of stuff but we leave some stuff open-ended. Especially, hooks. It's for a performance angle too. We ask 'what kind of attitude does the song have?' and 'How is the sound of the song going to be?' We generally have all of our lyrics well written by the time we get there. For this album, 'Taste The Secret', we had lots of collaborators. We had singers come in. We had a gospel band. We had our friend Fathead and our boy, Double K from The People Under The Stairs. We had 80's pop star Stacy Q do some commercials. She did '2 Of Hearts'. (singing) 'I need you! I need you!'. When those people came in, we had to leave it open-ended. We couldn't get too mad at them because we weren't paying them. We couldn't say 'Do this!'. We let them hear the groove and see what was funny to them and work with them.
MVRemix: Andy, tell us about Crankcase.
Ugly Duckling: Crankcase is a group of some of my buddies that I've known from church for a long time. They have this real, real, real bad funk band. I thought it was real funny because they aren't like these traditional funk dudes that wear bellbottoms, have afros, and use wah-wah peddles on their guitar. 'Let's play Shaft!' I hate all that stuff. Those are the kind of white boys I hate. 'Hey, check us out, we can play Superfly!' That is real irritating funk. But, these guys are like into the real stuff, The Meters, the real crusty, kind of crappy funk. Their favorite prog-rock band is Yes. They loved early Yes. I was really intrigued by their musical taste and their disgusting approach to recording. Ugly Ducking is very meticulous but Crankcase, those guys think if it takes 10 minutes, it's too long. So, when I got involved with Crankcase, it was a real departure for me. We thought that we would do something very interesting with hip-hop. Usually, funk bands have pretty bad rappers or pretty bad funk. I see myself as a decent rapper and I thought their funk was adventurous. That's what it's all about in 2003, adventure. Let's go out on a journey to see if we can do something different. The whole thing was the opposite of Ugly Duckling. It was still real, dirty funk but it was real raw and low budget. 'Model Arithmetic' is more like a punk record in some ways because of the packaging and stuff. They like a lot of Euro progressive rock with weird timings. I think one of the first songs we did were 'The Tale Of The Stolen Funk And How We Stole It Back'. Then, we recorded the 'Model Arithmetic' album (on Pete Records). I'm on like half of the songs.
MVRemix: The song 'Opening Act' is a hilarious track about the lack of respect a group gets by being an opening act. When you were starting out, what was the worst show you ever did? What happened?"
Ugly Duckling: One time, we had Double K be the announcer at the start of 'Opening Act'. He did this impression of this guy who is an announcer. We were excited to do any show early on. It was supposed to be a bikini contest but it was a real ghetto bikini contest. There were like only 26 people there. Alkaholiks were supposed to show up and do a show. We were in L.A. and The Liks pretty much play every other night. They didn't show up. Nobody showed up. There was a really bad host who was like 'Yeah y'all! We're gonna bring you deez guys! They are from Long Beach! They go by the code of Ugly Duckling!' He was dressed in this Steve Harvey pimp suit. Everyone was oblivious of what we did. We did this straight up old school type set. There were these Black people expecting to see this bikini contest. They were like 'Oh my gosh! If these people don't stop playing, I'll start breaking something!'.
MVRemix: Was there one specific event or show that inspired the song 'Opening Act'?
Ugly Duckling: We wrote that song 'Opening Act' when we opened up for Basement Jaxx, a dance act. Some of those early shows were real tough to get through for us. A lot of people were like 'Man! This music is too slow! I just took some ecstasy and you're messing my high all up! Please! Hurry up and finish your set so the gay dance DJs can come on and entertain us.' So, we thought that we should do a song about being the opening act.
MVRemix: Death Penalty - For or against?
Ugly Duckling: I have to say that I am for it. I am pro-death penalty for one reason. I am not pro-revenge but I have to say, even though it may sound funny, I think the death penalty makes the statement that life is very valuable. If you take somebody else's life, you should be held accountable for that. The life you took is so extremely valuable. You had no right to take it. So, I think it makes the statement that society will not tolerate that behavior.
MVRemix: What CD or LP has been in your CD player or turntable recently?
Ugly Duckling: You know, with my girlfriend, it's hard to listen to what I want in my CD player. I guess that is irrelevant. She listens to Justine Timberlake. You know what, I thought about getting my girl into hip-hop. When we first met, my girlfriend liked me, so she pretended that she liked hip-hop. I found out really quick that I prefer a girl who doesn't like hip-hop. I don't want to talk about emcees and stuff. My girlfriend is a pretty wacky girl and the stuff I turned her on to was stuff like Brand Nubian, like that early 90's hip-hop stuff that was all fun. She likes Powderpuff Girls and cartoons. She knows what she likes. Actually, it's her fault that we did this stupid album because I'm always trying to make her laugh. She actually rapped on the album. She's Brianna. As for turntables, I have a horrible record collection. Einstein is sick with his records. I have some good ones but my collection is nothing like Einstein's. I'm going to look like a geek but I'm DJ-ing a party for my buddy this weekend and I am mixing 'The New Style' by Beastie Boys with 'Oh Sherrie' by Steve Perry. There's this a cappella part of the Steve Perry song and I'm mixing in beats and Beastie Boys' vocals on it. I'm gonna rock the Steve Perry at the party. Also, I have been listening to a lot of Brazilian music. There back rhythms and beats are very intricate.
MVRemix: What emcee/group or musician would you like to collaborate with in the future?
Ugly Duckling: We did a b-side with Grand Puba. I think it's called 'It's Going Down Tonight'. The beat was real fast and we wanted to see if Puba could still rhyme real fast like he did on the old Brand Nubian stuff. He did. The song was hard because we were trying to take something he said and make it the chorus, and put it together after we got his version. We had to construct it. We're still working on the title.
MVRemix: On 'Journey To Anywhere', you had an incredible remix version of 'Eye On The Gold Chain' remixed by Cut Chemist. How did you hook up with him and what was that collaboration like?
Ugly Duckling: Einstein and Cut Chemist go way, way, way back. They've known each other for a very long time. This was when J5 was just starting out.
MVRemix: What is your favorite part of your live show?
Ugly Duckling: It probably won't sound cool because you have to be there. The bit that works the best is when we do this bit. We ask the crowd 'Do we have any tough guys in the crowd tonight? Do we have any gangstas or thugs?' We've been doing it for years. Mostly nobody says anything but sometimes, one or two people say something and sometimes, we do have thugs in the crowd. A lot of people think that in order to be hip-hop, you have to act like you're a gangsta or a thug, act like you are from the Bronx or Compton when you're actually from Omaha. You may think you're cool, walking around with a scowl on your face, looking like this. Then, we'll play something like Dr. Dre or Snoop Dogg and I'll do a really bad impression of a thug, grabbing his crotch, mad dogging the crowd. Diz would go, 'You may think that you look cool walking around like that, young man, but this is how stupid you look.' Then, we will play the gayest song we could find like anything by Wham or Michael Jackson. We've also used C&C Music Factory or Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch. I dance around like a fruitcake. Diz says, 'That's what you really look like.' It's a pretty cheap way to get a cheer. But, I like dancing like a fruitcake anyway. Also, we do 'Turn It Up' at the end. Most people like the more upbeat tracks like 'Eye On The Gold Chain' and 'I Did It Like This'. We end the show with 'Turn It Up' and even though it's brand new and not many people know it, it sounds great and it really moves the crowd. 'Turn It Up' is at the end of the show. We get a good response.
MVRemix: Your albums and styles do not include drugs, guns, sex, or even profanity. By being not only unique but almost the antithesis to typical rap music, has this caused obstacles for you?
Ugly Duckling: Well, we do have some gun noises in one of our songs 'La Revolution' but it's old time turn of the century like guns. But, to answer your question, yeah. It is mostly the obstacle of indifference because I was talking to Einstein today about the Jimmy Kimmel show where he had Joe Budden on. I was watching Joe Budden and he was wearing all of the stereotypical clothes that hip-hoppers and rappers wear. He was wearing the retro-jersey, the headband, the oversized hat, the jewelry, the big watches. Everybody has old NBA basketball warm-ups. They are on stage with towels and the DJ is not really scratching or anything, he's just standing there, yelling into the mic. My point to Einstein was this: that is what people think hip-hop is. In the late 80's, everybody assumed Warrant, Poison, and Winger were rock & roll because for those 10 years, all you saw were those guys with gigantic hair and spandex. After a while, you accept it and think that is what rock & roll is. I think a lot of people are the same with hip-hop. They think that is what hip-hop looks like. They think it is Joe Budden with all of that stuff, standing on stage, yelling at the same time. Ugly Ducking is very much different. We're not Black. We're zany and we're not tied into that whole scene, that approach, that look or vibe. So, a lot of people think that we're not even hip-hop. They think that we are a joke. They don't throw stuff at us but they dismiss us as something for weird people. From our standpoint, we think that we are very much hip-hop.
MVRemix: What do you think hip-hop or music (in general) needs these days?
Ugly Duckling: Diversity. Our mission is not to transform all hip-hoppers to Ugly Duckling. Our mission is to be ourselves and I hate to hark back to the days and use that type of language but even when N.W.A. came out, they co-existed peacefully and did shows with Slick Rick, an English storytelling emcee. Also, De La Soul were kind of hippy and funky hip-hop. There was Public Enemy, a politically active group. Flavor Flav wore a big clock and Chuck D talked about Marcus Garvey. EPMD were the standard, sort of, 1-2, mic check stuff. All those groups were co-existing peacefully. There were girls too like Monie Love. You watched Yo! MTV Raps and you could watch and enjoy any one of those videos. That's all I want in hip-hop. I want diversity. It's more than just one attitude or style.
MVRemix: What was the last incident of racism you experienced by being a white hip-hop group?
Ugly Duckling: Most of the people at our shows are white. In the beginning, black people actually went to underground hip-hop shows. Now, we do tours with Del, The Funky Homosapian, Prince Paul, and Aceyalone, and 90% of the audience is white. We're goofy white kids.
MVRemix: Word association time. I'm going to say a name of a group/emcee and you say the first word that pops in your head. So, if I say 'Chuck D', you may say 'Revolution'. Okay?
Ugly Duckling: Sure.
Ugly Duckling: Manifest. You know, I thought the way Guru looked in the early 90's would have made a better Malcolm X for that Spike Lee movie. Spike Lee obviously knew Gangstarr. He used their song in 'Mo Better Blues'. I was disappointed that Spike Lee chose Denzil and not Guru.
MVRemix: Del The Funky Homosapian
Ugly Duckling: Disgusters. We toured with him and he's very fickle. Anytime he didn't like something, especially food, he would say 'Ugh, disgusters.' Anytime we see something bad, we all go 'Disgusters!' and then think of Del. That was one of the gifts he gave us.
MVRemix: Wu-Tang Clan
Ugly Duckling: Extreme gold teeth.
Ugly Duckling: Extremely mad.
MVRemix: Beastie Boys
Ugly Duckling: Old.
MVRemix: Dead Prez
Ugly Duckling: Painted faces.
MVRemix: 50 Cent
Ugly Duckling: Emergency room. Again, I think of him as the Winger or Warrant of hip-hop. Coming in, he just proved that hip-hop is redundant. 'I got shot! I got tattoos! I'm a gangsta!' It's not that he's bad or any worse than anybody else, and I don't have anything against gangstas, it just feels like 'Oh, here comes another one.' He's like the Winger or Warrant of hip-hop.
MVRemix: Gil Scott-Heron
Ugly Duckling: Beard.
MVRemix: George Bush.
Ugly Duckling: Megaphone. Actually, I'm going to say Texas.
MVRemix: The song 'In Da Tub' is a parody of 50 Cent's 'In The Club'. How have people responded to that? Do you think 50 Cent will ever hear it?
Ugly Duckling: Yeah, actually, we did it before 50 Cent. He jacked us. (laughs). Nah, I may beg him to shoot me. Maybe there will be a beef, he'll shoot me, and we'll sell more records. 'Shoot me in the leg!'
MVRemix: What was the worst show you ever did? What happened?
Ugly Duckling: Once, we did a charity auction where somebody booked us and it was all old people. They had Dockers, casual dress, and they were sipping martinis. Before we went on, the announcer was like 'Ok, we want to congratulate Mr. Thirstin for winning the boxing glove signed by Mohammad Ali. Now, here's Ugly Duckling!' I think it was a charity event for retards or something. I don't know. It reminded me of a scene in one of those Fat Boys movies where the Fat Boys bust in on some old person's home and they start rapping. Magically, music appears. (rapping) 'I don't care if you call me fat!'. Another time, someone pulled a fire alarm at one of our shows. We had to stand outside for an hour but we came back and did a good show.
MVRemix: The song 'Dumb It Down' talks about… being stupid on purpose. Do you think hip-hop glorifies people to be dumb?
Ugly Duckling: When you post this interview, make sure that you edit the phase 'You know what I'm sayin?' in between every sentence. (laughs).
MVRemix: You know, I used to love A Tribe Called Quest, I still do, but I remember seeing Q-Tip on Rap City when 'Midnight Marauders' came out. Between every single sentence, he said 'You know what I'm saying?'.
Ugly Duckling: I remember seeing that! You know who is kind of like that too? Eminem. He gives a really bad interview sometimes but he obviously has tons of personality and charisma. Maybe that is what you are suppose to do in hip-hop. There are so many catch phrases. It's kind of like that for athletes too. They are always saying 'One game at a time' or 'We just come together as a team'. I hear those phrases over and over again. I don't want to say too much and get in trouble.
MVRemix: Do you have a drug of choice?
Ugly Duckling: It's called Cherry Coke, my friend.
MVRemix: There is a song called 'Potty Mouth' which is about how everybody is cursing these days. Do you swear that often or do you try to stop yourself? What is your opinion on cursing?
Ugly Duckling: I used to be a terribly foul-mouthed young man. Then, I made conscious decision that I wasn't going to swear anymore. Occasionally, I still do it. Dizzy is a pretty foul-mouthed guy. Einstein is kind of average. The song wasn't an indictment on cussing but there is definitely a great line in the song where we say 'Profanity should not be a crutch.' People use profanity to shock and sell records. One of my favorite examples is that Limp Bizkit and Method Man song 'N Together Now' where they say 'Shut the F*ck up' over and over again. It's the dumbest song ever. Premier did the track and it worked on that level but Fred Durst, or any of those kind of guys, are the biggest a-holes ever. Without the f-word, I don't know where they would go. It is like the climactic point of every one of their songs.
MVRemix: What producers or emcees that are out now are you feeling or respecting?"
Ugly Duckling: I really like the stuff that Outkast does. Musically, they are very interesting to me. Hip-hop wise, I like The People Under The Stairs. They do a lot of real interesting stuff. When it comes down to it, we always like something that is funk oriented. For the most part, it is hard for us to listen to modern music because not that many people are into using funk anymore, especially that crusty, nasty funk. We like our funk dirty."
MVRemix: I read this article about you and they called Ugly Duckling, The 'Weird Al' of hip-hop. How do you feel about that? How do you feel about Weird Al?
Ugly Duckling: That's funny. I had some of the old Weird Al tapes. I actually liked his non-parody songs more than his blatant parody tracks. He's completely silly. I mean, he has a song about watching too much TV and being on life support. We're silly and goofy but we are also a little more serious and down to Earth. There's more of our personalities in each song. While every single Weird Al song is supposed to be funny, we do have some songs that aren't overtly funny but are still Ugly Duckling.
MVRemix: The "Taste The Secret" album has a strong pro-meat message. Even though it is done for humor, are you a big meat eater?
Ugly Duckling: We didn't make this album to be a pro-meat album. We are not running for the Meat Party. We don't want to start a meat revolution and we are not against vegetarians in anyway. It was all done out of fun and for fun. We thought it was funny. Still, meat is pretty much an important part of our diet.
MVRemix: What is the biggest mistake that you have made in you career?
Ugly Duckling: Ooh, that's a good question. I think in the beginning, we were a little scared and cautious about doing stuff that was too out there. Some of the early songs, even though they are good, they aren't as wild or out-there as some of the stuff we're doing now. We had all of these ideas and we thought they were hilarious but we, kind of, stopped ourselves, and didn't push our own boundaries.
MVRemix: What are some major misconceptions that people have of you?
Ugly Duckling: I think some people think that we are just a joke. I think that some people think that is all we are. I think people think we are a joke when in fact, we are deep crate diggers and our music is incredibly intricate. Like I said before, the skits and interludes and scenes on 'Taste The Secret' are extremely well produced. Our songs have, for lack of a better word, meat. We are really good crate diggers. We make sure our loops are not only dirty and funky, but our songs are very intricate. Sure, we are a bunch of goofy white guys. Still, we love good, funky music and that old hip-hop. I don't care if some teenager, with a backpack and a backwards hat, thinks that I'm a dork. I read some reviews where they think that we replaced talent with humor or use humor as a crutch. I actually read some review that called us 'too 70's' and 'too silly'. I know were are a good group and I don't care if people think that we are goofy, silly, or dorky.
MVRemix: What is next in the future for Ugly Duckling as a group and you guys as people?
Ugly Duckling: 'Rio De Janeiro' is our next single. No one really knows what the future holds. It's weird but we're really living in 3-6 months intervals. I mean we are living around 3 months at a time. We have shows booked for the next couple of months but you never know what could happen. We look at it like this, if this album doesn't do well, we may have to think about re-thinking our career. There is a lot riding on this new album.
MVRemix: What do you want on your epitaph (your gravestone)?
Ugly Duckling: That's interesting. Well, I don't think that I would go burial. I think that I want to do one of those ashes at sea type of things like in 'The Big Lebowski' where the ashes went all over his face. I don't think I would do epitaph. I'm never gonna die! I'm a rock star! Yeah, me and Jim Morrison.
MVRemix: Any final words for the people who are reading this?