"Do you wanna be an MC or do you wanna serve? Do you wanna be dope or do you wanna deal it?"
— "The bizness," Common w/ De La Soul
It's a sunny day in O-T-R, and the block is hot. Dope boys linger on corners, and Five-0 is in full effect. Kenny P is waiting for me at Tucker's Restaurant, and I'm 10 minutes late. Impatient and suspicious of the scene outside, he dips. It's not about what could happen to him but what he'd do if someone tried to pull his card.
"Man, I'm sitting on 20s, got on $20,000 worth of jewelry, I can't be out there like that," Kenny says later on his cell phone from a car wash. "The boys is out, and niggas was looking at me crazy."
I hook up with Kenny P at Frisch's on Central Parkway. He looks like the anthem "Dope Boy Fresh," rockin' baby blue, red and white Air Force Ones color-coordinated with his Reds hat, jeans and shirt.
The fear of being jacked is valid. Kenny P is dipped in diamonds and gold from his mouth, wrist, neck and hands. Finery aside, Kenny — known by most heads as Cincinnati's version of Juvenile — is an affable cat. Instead of lunch, we tip on four fours around the city running errands while the local legend chronicles his Rap repertoire.
Back in 1995 when Biggie was begging for "One More Chance," when Bone Thugs-N-Harmony glorified welfare checks and when Swisher Sweets were the blunt of choice, Kenny Pruitt decided Rap was his exit from the clichés of street life.
"When I saw Jabari's video on BET, I felt like I could do it," he says.
He hooked up with local producer Carr Dee and recorded his first tape, Unfadeable. Following the same business plan as Master P, Kenny P sold tapes from the trunk of his car, flipping the profits to fund his next project.
Two years later, he released Starting from Scratch. That CD contained the single "Don't Look Any Further," which sampled the classic bass line from the Dennis Edwards duet with Siedah Garrett. The song was a hit, receiving heavy radio and club rotation.
Suddenly, Kenny P became a local Hip Hop celebrity, cementing his spot among the city's greatest rappers. During the late '90s, it was hard to roll through the city and not hear his intoxicating beats bumping and blaring from every pimped-out ride
He's arguably the hardest-working rapper in Cincinnati, releasing six albums in 10 years and making guest appearances on other local projects, including K-Riley's "Get Out Da Club."
In 2001, Kenny P took an unplanned hiatus from Hip Hop. He did a two-year bid in federal prison for conspiracy to traffic, returning full circle to the cliché he'd hoped Rap would help him escape.
"My past came back to haunt me," he says, referring to a federal investigation that extended back to 1996.
Prison didn't stop his flow.
"I was performing on the yard and in the chapel," he says.
He was released in late 2003 and immediately went to the studio. His latest CD, Time to Floss, was produced by K-Riley and Young Rizzy and showcases a more mature Kenny P. His smart, witty and often socially conscious rhymes flow perfectly over the exceptionally produced gritty and imaginative beats.
"This is that one album I always wanted to do," he says.
The CD is jam packed with blazin' songs like the title cut, a sure-fire club banger, and "U Got That," featuring 9-year-old Kenny Jr.
"Still Breathing," the album's best track and, featuring the singer Dawnisha, is a beautiful poem set to music. Rhyming over a haunting Hitchcock-esque melody, Kenny P details his struggles and redemption.
"This ain't the way this shit is supposed to be
Nigga on the stand, raised his right hand to testify on me
I'm only facing three
I ain't have no crack, so it's just enough time to get my life
on track. "
Young Rizzy has worked with Kenny P for 10 years and describes his music as "authentic Cincinnati street music with nationwide appeal."
Radio stations in cities like Atlanta and Miami give local artists mad play, the kind of exposure that often leads to a record contract. Here, local artists get little or no love at all, strangled as local programming is by corporate programmers operating from other cities.
"I get so upset with the lack of local support, 'cause I'm doing so much," Kenny says, shaking his head in disgust.
Prison and the rapper's dogged determination ensure that he doesn't have to depend on local radio play to further his career. In April, he landed a coveted spot on a national college tour opening for well-known artists like Young Jeezy and Juvenile.
Bid Magazine, whose owner, Michael Churn, was imprisoned with Kenny, sponsored the tour. Last month, Kenny also opened for 50 Cent protégé Tony Yayo at The Ritz.
And he recently teamed up with Boss Visionz to shoot his first music video for the song "Time to Floss." The low-budget video was stylishly directed, creatively edited and looks better than some of the cookie-cutter videos in ad nauseam rotation on BET.
Despite all his hard work, talent and success, Kenny P remains unsigned by the majors.
"I'm just starting to look for a deal," he says. "I can't go back to the street route." ©