The Man Who Wasn't There

Napoleon Maddox is the type of brotha who, at his funeral, would run down the aisle to jump in the casket right before they closed the lid. He'd be apologizing eloquently the whole way, dropping kno

Nov 29, 2001 at 2:06 pm

Napoleon Maddox is the type of brotha who, at his funeral, would run down the aisle to jump in the casket right before they closed the lid. He'd be apologizing eloquently the whole way, dropping knowledge about the hereafter, his legacy and the Most High and giving props to Jack Walker and Matt Anderson, his bandmates.

Despite his propensity for always hurrying and scurrying, Napoleon gets it done — despite himself and even in his own absence.

Napoleon's group, Iswhat?!, snagged a Cincinnati Entertainment Award (CEA) Nov. 26 in the Hip Hop category. In my sanctified imagination, I believe his self-eulogizing would sound like the acceptance speech he didn't give.

Hip Hop was the first category of the evening, which at any awards show is a barometer for technical glitches, audience participation and the whole nine. The presenters announced the winner, and there was that pregnant pause. Heads turned and eyes scanned the aisles watching to catch a figure making his way to the podium.

I was standing up front by the organ at Old St. George, where the CEAs were held this year. After a few seconds, I ran up and grabbed the award, yelling something in the microphone about "accepting the award on Iswhat?!'s behalf."

It sounded OK — like every other acceptance speech in absentia I'd ever heard coming off TV. Really, though, it was serendipitous.

Napoleon and I have a funky love thing, and we have since the beginning. We met years ago at The Loft Society after his group Social Committee played there.

It's been a mutual admiration society ever since, marked by rambling, tangential conversations about popular culture, black folks, white folks, relationships, family and God.

I have followed and championed Iswhat?! since its inception. Mostly it's Napoleon's on-point, poetic, profanity-free lyricism, Matt's wild bass-slapping and Jack's flirting sax playing that gets me.

Napoleon still beat-boxes à la The Fat Boys or Biz Markie. He spits all over the mic, spraying audiences with vowel movements so quick-witted and thickheaded sometimes I don't get it until days later.

No disrespect to Kim, Napoleon's girlfriend, but he ranks high on My Baby Daddy List. It's a running joke we have, but it's rooted in sincerity.

Napoleon is a black man who isn't threatened by black women, nor does he use them as accessories. He might even be a feminist. That's because he loves women unabashedly without sexualizing or objectifying us.

And you're wondering what any of this has to do with music and award shows. Very little.

It's just an example of how an artist translates himself into his art without losing himself or believing the hype about his persona. Better yet, it's a testament that fans can recognize a reasonable person and admire him for it in a category often marginalized by the media yet populated by other talented and deserving artists. (Like most CEA categories, the Hip Hop award was determined by a public vote.)

Hip Hop in Cincinnati is a lot like Jazz in Cincinnati: Fans know it exists, but fanatics like to think that keeping it "underground" means "keepin' it real."

Artistic starvation has nothing at all to do with success and acceptance. In fact, they're mutually exclusive. And it's OK to be successful and to be accepted, two endeavors Napoleon and Iswhat?! work hard at.

People in New York and Atlanta know these cats, and they clamor to work with them.

Sometimes we hear the same Rock lick, the same Blues chords and the same cover songs so much our eyes glaze over and we forget about originality. However, by virtue of putting Hip Hop on the CEA ballot — and sometimes it's hard to find acts to fill it — and with Iswhat?!'s win, we're saying we dig and celebrate originality.

Napoleon's absence wasn't a snub but a condition of exhaustion from a gig-heavy weekend. I spoke to him later to tell him how goofy I was onstage and to chastise him for not showing up.

He was typically humble and gracious. He went on some tangent theorizing why Hi-Tek didn't take the category. I told him it's because Iswhat?! is here and visible and there might be some player-haters who don't want to give Hi-Tek a local slap on the back.

We don't need no hateration, to quote Mary J. Blige. What we need are more folks who, even in their absence, still make a showing.