Last Wednesday evening might have looked like your typical foggy summer night outside, but inside the Rickshaw Stop things heated up into a muggy spring break atmosphere. Loud packs of girls with cocktails tipping in their hands teetered into bathroom stalls, hair sweat-matted to their necks. A dude built like a snowman melted his jiggling middle against his partner's wiggling backside. The humidity was high as a couple hundred bodies performed wobbly, inebriated workouts to hip-hop from opener Trackademicks and his Honor Roll crew.
The place was the embodiment of an MTV reality show: 18-to-24-year-old party kids everywhere, the legal drinkers chugging alcohol and living up a Wednesday like a Friday. (I had to rescue my discarded coat from one drunk trying to use it as a gym towel to wipe her forehead.) This particular night of bacchanalia was building specifically for a local duo called the Cataracs, the headliners who'd packed so many people into the place by 11 p.m. that the bouncer warned the door guy, "Don't let any new people into the club. We're a full house now." Not only had Cataracs fans grabbed every available ticket before the doors opened, but their parents had flooded the club with calls that afternoon, to ensure, one booker tells me, that "tickets bought with their credit cards could be picked up by their kids at the door."
The Cataracs have an abundance of young fans. If MySpace is still a valid indication of popularity, the duo of Cyrano (aka 19-year-old Niles Hollowell-Dhar) and Campa (20-year-old David Singer-Vine) has amassed more than 10,000 friends. Their single gets play on Wild 94.7. Their label owner shoots me regular e-mails on the group's current status: video by a local director named Taj, who also shot a video for Rihanna; glowing write-up in the Chronicle; a breathless e-mail from a journalist who saw the recent sold-out show at Berkeley's Ashkenaz.
I get that these young guys have a strong following — not only is it in the press kit, it's also in the Rickshaw, fans screaming at the stage as though it's Justin Timberlake up there instead of two Berkeley High grads with a live backing band. Cyrano and Campa milked the crowd all night, clean-shaven studs in tight jeans trading corny banter about the girls named in their songs, or instructing that the ladies give them a Hell ya. Every call provoked an immediate crowd response.
But the one thing I don't get: why the Cataracs' lyrics are stuck in such obvious mediocrity. For all the group's musical and marketing savvy, when they open their mouths, their words are equivalent of cheap pickup lines: passable for getting your foot in the door, I guess, but hardly charming for guys who seem performance savvy.
Take the Cataracs' hit single, a song called "Baby Baby (The Lover's Anthem)" that made it on local radio. It's a poppy '80s R&B jam with simple drum machine beats and subtle vocal distortion. If you dig that kind of stuff, it's a musical earworm that'll burrow in your brain for days. But when the words kick in, the song's a remedial love poem.
I don't got work and you don't got school/I can take you out for dinner, we can go get some food
Imma call you on your telly and see what it do/We can hit the deli and go get a room/'Cause I don't got work and you don't got school
Baby baby, you're my baby baby baby/Thinking of you is driving me crazy.
Today's mainstream hits aren't penned by little Bob Dylans, I realize. Earlier in the evening, DJ Disco Shawn spun a stack of chart toppers about such basic stuff as getting licked like a lollipop (Lil' Wayne) and jumping around (House of Pain). But those acts got huge because they also worked clever wordplay and a little humor between the lines. The Cataracs play it way too straight, especially if all they're gonna detail is dates to the deli, and hearing one dull cliché after another started driving me crazy.
When Cataracs performed "Baby Baby" at the Rickshaw, a woman next to me threw her plastic cup on the ground. "I grew up on Bay Area hip-hop," she leans in to tell me, "And this is crap." But she and I seem to be in the minority in our aversion to this by-the-book come-on. Other females in the club were scrambling onstage — at first just one or two, but by the end of the song, a whole gaggle of them were up there, lifting their shirts to reveal flattened midriffs or leaning in to Cyrano's mic to add their chorus of baby babys to the mix.
That wasn't the group's only crowd pleaser. The Cataracs had a full set list of them. Another Rickshaw audience fave: a track about having sex to a Cataracs single — called, go figure, "Freakin Ta Ma Song." Sample lyrics:
We lyin' on the floor, it's gettin' to my verse/The next thing I know, she's lip synchin' my words
They say that life, you should never fear it/even when you see the light, you can persevere it/She wants advice so I let her hear it/ Girl, you don't need no ice, all you need is my lyrics.
I can't help but get Vanilla Ice and Color Me Badd flashbacks here: slick wannabe lady killers who deliver empty bravado in earnest (these predecessors, of course, got very popular for a minute because of it). While folks still love this sort of dancefloor fondue, in 2008 this straight-faced Romeo fantasy works best in Saturday Night Live skits. Watching Cyrano in his dark shades, or Campa call out to the ladies in the house, though, there seems to be no self-awareness about the cornball lines in these tunes.
There's a reason people talk about mainstream radio being formulaic — a certain combination of elements keeps the familiar fun for a large number of young listeners. The Cataracs are two young song hustlers reconstructing those formulas from synth-pop and hip-hop playbooks. Their following is impressive, but they still have a ways to go. Onstage they work the crowd like ring announcers, but pop music's real contenders give more than just the play by play. Even Lil' Wayne knows a song about licking lollipops only gets really sticky when there's as much fun in the wordplay as there is with the lil mama who inspired it.