Surrounded by gold and platinum records hanging on the wall, Beanie Sigel is leaning back in the Conshohocken offices of Ruffhouse Records, talking about his "Expensive Taste."
That's a song on This Time, the Philadelphia rapper's sixth album and the first release from the newly relaunched Ruffhouse, the hip-hop label that put out multimillion-selling CDs in the 1990s by Lauryn Hill, the Fugees, Cypress Hill, and bubble-gum rappers Kris Kross.
This Time goes on sale Aug. 28. Fifteen days later, Sigel - the 38-year-old "Broad Street Bully" born Dwight Grant, who grew up near Sigel Street in South Philadelphia - will begin serving a two-year prison term. He was sentenced in July in U.S. District Court for failing to pay more than $700,000 in federal income tax.
Or as his news release puts it: "Rap star Beanie Sigel to release 'This Time' just prior to doing time."
This will be the third jail stint for the rapper, who served for a weapons charge in 2005 and returned to prison after a succession of parole violations in 2008. But for a man with a sentence to serve - and who lost the opportunity to fulfill the promise he makes to himself on the album to "make up for lost time" - Sigel seems remarkably relaxed.
Dressed in black from Phillies cap to gym shorts, he says that the smooth, soulful "Expensive Taste," a tasty production on an album that leans to the introspective end of the thug-rap spectrum, is "a feel-good record."
"It's a motivational record," Sigel says. "Expensive Taste" is one of the cuts on This Time showing that, whatever his legal woes, the rhyming skills of the MC who was once Jay-Z's right-hand man are intact. "It makes you want to achieve more, instead of settling. A lot of people settle with what they have. I make music for the have-nots that don't want to be have-nots."
Is it Sigel's "Expensive Taste" that got him into trouble? Considering how deeply in debt he is to Uncle Sam, it seems like a fair question to ask the rapper, who owns a house in a gated community in Lansdale. In "Expensive Taste," he drops such brand names as Lanvin and Ferragamo, and the chorus rhymes: Lobsters and shrimp in the marinade / Top it all off with some chardonnay.
Sigel doesn't see it that way, however.
" 'Expensive Taste' is about having the finer things," he says. "It's fine for people to wait for their welfare check and their EBT card and go to the market. Expensive taste is anything you acquire from your hard work, and just wanting better. . . . It's about ambition."
Sigel has always earned his daily bread in the rap game with his "realness," the ability to spit unexpurgated rhymes with utmost conviction and report "what I see on the streets of Philadelphia" with incontrovertible authenticity.
At his best, he has been so good at it that when a song on his 2000 debut album, The Truth, included a frighteningly detailed depiction of life behind bars, it was naturally assumed that Sigel had already done serious jail time, though he hadn't.
A way with words
His flair for narrative goes back to when he was kid attending Delaplaine McDaniel Elementary School in South Philadelphia. At that time, he recalls, Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter of The Roots was his first rhyming partner. (Sigel will perform Sept. 6 with the Roots on NBC's Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, as part of a pre-prison promotional flurry.)
"I was a good storyteller as a kid," he says, remembering the days when he used to see South Philly MCs like Jazz Fresh and Smooth at barbecues and block parties. "I remember how people used to crowd around them. I like that attention that they got."
In school, Sigel says, "you would get 10 or 20 spelling words, and you had to write each one in a sentence. But instead of just writing a sentence, I would write a story. I remember getting an award for that."
Sigel's way with words is on display on This Time on cautionary tales like "Bang Bang Youth." It evokes a world of daytime shootouts, nighttime cookouts / Teddy bears where a n- got took out. On the unvarnished "No Hook," he describes himself as a menace to the streets who is quick to let the pits off the leash like Vick.
He may live in Montgomery County, but he's not completely "out the hood," as he once put it in "Remember Them Days," a duet with fellow Philly rapper Eve. "I say it on one of my rhymes," he says: I'm in the hood every day / I just rest my head in a different zip code.
"That's where my music comes from," Sigel says. "I wouldn't be able to paint the pictures I do in my music if I was in the suburbs every day. What am I going to talk about? Squirrels and deers and possums and chasing raccoons out of the garbage?"
It's Sigel's street authenticity that makes him an ideal artist to reintroduce the Ruffhouse label, says its CEO, Chris Schwartz. He owns the label with producer-engineer Phil Nicolo.
"He's perfect," says Schwartz, who co-owned Ruffhouse in the 1990s with Phil's brother, Joe, until they sold its catalog to the label's then-parent company, Sony.
"Because if you go out into the street and talk to any kids who are hip-hop aficionados who live, breathe, and eat culture, Beanie falls into a small group. Jay-Z, Nas, Tupac, Biggie. Is he as commercially successful as them? No. But in terms of credibility, that's what it's really about. And he's got major credibility."
Ruffhouse's offices are across the street in Conshohocken from Studio 4, where the Nicolos, known as "the Butcher Brothers," recorded many of the label's platinum albums. Schwartz continues to work closely with Lauryn Hill, whose 1998 album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, was the last album Ruffhouse put out before dissolving a year later.
The revived label will release an album in the fall by Canadian R&B singer Glenn Lewis, and launch a local-artist imprint called Made in Philly. Sigel was signed in December. And while snarky observers may note that few things could be better for a rapper's reputation than serving time, Schwartz says it's "never good."
"It's unfortunate. I had one agent who wanted to put him on this big tour starting in September. The reality is, the record is coming out at the end of August, and the single is blowing up at radio. The setback is not having him here to support the record."
That snappy single, "The Reunion," gets Sigel back together with State Property rappers Young Chris, Freeway, Sparks, and Peedi Crakk, with whom he made two rap-sploitation movies in the '00s. The song samples Sly & the Family Stone's "You Can Make It If You Try."
As he prepares to go to prison, Sigel says, "I would love for this album to be successful," but he doesn't need it to be. "I can make music forever. I'm the people's choice."
'I won't be Beanie Sigel'
When he's away, Sigel says, "I won't be Beanie Sigel. I'm a different person. I'm going to be 57613-066," the number he was assigned in 2005 at the Federal Correctional Institution in Fairton, N.J. That time away, he says, was calming.
"I wasn't Beanie Sigel. So that was a good thing. I don't like being Beanie Sigel. Beanie Sigel is a headache."
The only thing he's dreading about prison is "missing all the money I'll miss on tour." He smiles. "But I'll get it again. I've been rich four times, and broke forever."
Some lyrics from This Time make it sound as though Sigel has bottomed out: I went from caviar dreams to champagne sippin', back to . . . four wings, fried crispy.
No worries, he says: "I'm rich." He points to his head, and then his heart. "I'm rich in here, and I'm rich in here."
He rubs his thumb and fingers together. "So it's easy to get that."
VIDEO: Beanie Sigel talks about his new album. philly.com/beanie