Retro Fabulous

Oakland sexpot Baby Jaymes channels Prince, tackles race relations.

Even in junior high, Oakland singer Baby Jaymes carried himself with enough show-style razzle-dazzle to make every cell in your body list toward him. Larry Batiste, cofounder of the Pure Delight Music publishing company, can vouch for that. He met Baby Jaymes at the Grammys in 1990, when the 13-year-old Jaymes sneaked in by strutting through the gates in a Michael Jackson suit, looking like somebody important, even if you couldn’t put your finger on exactly who.

“Security was always tight at the Grammys, even back then,” Larry concedes, “and it would be hard to get in unless you really played it off right.” Baby Jaymes did. He dressed up in glitter and rhinestones, which clothed the body of a miniature Prince or LL Cool J, even though, in all likelihood, he could barely prop his elbows on the bar if he stood two inches away from it.

Larry approached Baby Jaymes at the Grammy after-party in LA’s Biltmore Hotel, where the young singer was schmoozing with industry gurus. “Where are your parents?” Larry queried, to which Jaymes answered that he’d come by himself. Jaymes went on to explain that he was a manager representing three different R&B groups at East Oakland’s King Estate junior high.

Thus, back when current hot-artists-du-jour were still singing nursery rhymes, Baby Jaymes was the biggest music mogul in the Oakland public schools. Even when the groups he managed fell off and got mired in normal junior-high kinda things (like, you know, puberty), Baby Jaymes kept pushing. Eventually, out of necessity, he decided to go solo and be his own boss.

It was that pluck and hustle that caught Larry’s attention and held him in thrall: Within five minutes of meeting Baby Jaymes, he knew the kid was gonna be a star.

That star hasn’t exactly escaped Oakland yet, but he’s definitely trying.

The zeitgeist of hip-hop is slowly changing, as artists move from an ’80s-era collective siege mentality to a more poppy, genre-straddling frame of mind. On that tip, Andre 3000 is exemplar: The Love Below blends funk, rock, soul, and rap influences, sound-wise sharing as much in common with Frank Sinatra as it does with Outkast’s 1996 album, ATLliens. Equally worth noting is the video for Andre’s ubiquitous hit single “Hey Ya,” in which the singer performs on an Ed Sullivan stage before an audience of clamoring, screaming teenage girls. It’s as though Andre and his contemporaries are recasting the figure of the MC: The erstwhile badass thug has evolved into the kind of spangled heartthrob who could make young girls and their grandmas swoon.

Few would debate that Baby Jaymes falls into that lineage. He admits, as we drive from San Leandro BART down to International Boulevard and wind through his East Oakland neighborhood, that perhaps he “should have been born in another era.” Certainly, Baby Jaymes would have fit cozily into the bubbling club scene of the ’70s and early ’80s, when Larry Batiste and his partner, Claytoven Richardson (so christened because he’s a “Beethoven” of urban entertainment), were playing Battle of the Bands events at East Bay joints like Ruthie’s, Lucky 13, and Eli’s Mile High Club.

In that scene, not only was it cool to take the stage in hot pants, a high collar, and towering natural hairdos, but the overall atmosphere was more conducive to live bands. Whereas nowadays we slap the “live band” moniker onto any schmo who busts out with two turntables and a microphone, in previous decades — up through the En Vogue and Tony Toni Tone era, in fact — Oakland was a mini-Harlem for funk and R&B outfits. In those days, as Larry or Clay might tell you, the now-flat-as-poster-board landscape of East Oakland was checkered with local hot spots for people to get their groove on.

Baby Jaymes seeks to recall and reclaim that era: He calls his style “ghetto retro,” and says he thinks the term is fairly self-explanatory. “I ran into this girl at a gas station,” he says, “and when she asked what kind of music I make, and I said ‘ghetto retro,’ she understood right away. She asked me, ‘Oh, you mean singing and rapping?’ So the term just reads, sticks, says something on its own.”

The “retro” element, in other words, is the glossy, doo-wop-driven sound of Baby Jaymes’ music, which harks back to older pop and funk acts like the Stylistics, Parliament, and early Prince. This combines with Jaymes’ “ghetto perspective,” lyrical topics ranging from Iesha on the front porch shakin’ that ass to having a thing for a white girl (“Miss Taboo”) — it even bleeds into the cadence with which he spits his stories: Kids in the hood say ‘J, you lightweight flowin’.’

Ergo, “ghetto retro,” the bastard child of a Keak Da Sneak and P-Funk tryst.

While Baby Jaymes isn’t beholden to trends in hip-hop and R&B, his music isn’t above emulating them. In fact, his forthcoming Ghetto Retro LP (due out later this month) represents a new style and language that’s gaining currency within hip-hop — one that digs a bit deeper into relationships and their attendant emotions. Oakland-reared keyboardist and primary Ghetto Retro producer Uglyfingers says one of his favorite songs on the album is “The Black Girl/White Girl Theory,” because the lyrics “play on relationship scenarios” in a way that sounds personal, without moralizing. The hook, You just a black girl, who grew up without your daddy/Your relationships, they be shady/But I forgive you when you try to play me/Just like a white girl, who grew up without her father/Her relationships, they be harder/But I know she could take it farther, is about “realizing that you’re doing your man like this because of how you came up,” Uglyfingers explains. It’s a song that “recognizes the need to be more patient,” but also tells the story like it is without casting judgment.

Similarly, the song “Miss Taboo,” which opens Ooh, Mr. Farrakhan, you’re gonna be so mad at me/I met this bad one, she was gray, but I just had to see/I pushed up on her, then I boned her/When I was through she thought I owned her/Okay, well I guess that happens when you young, hung, and mackin, represents hip-hop’s new penchant for personal testimonials that end up sounding more pithy and self-deprecating than the old agit-prop stuff. (Though there’s still plenty of “boning.”) Given the genre’s recent foray into songs about that forbidden fruit called “white girl” (Z-Man’s raunchy “White Girls with Ass” comes to mind), it seems condonable now for MCs to talk about interracial relationships both as a cultural shibboleth and, in this case at least, a personal vice. (Indeed, Langston Hughes might have called “Miss Taboo” a testament to the raciness of race.) Reflecting on the lyrics, Jaymes says: “I’m not tripping that way. It’s not necessarily my story, but it’s very real.”

Jaymes realized the reality of both the artistic and business sides of his chosen profession ridiculously early in life. At age four, the now 26-year-old Baby Jaymes became the staple entertainment at his family’s Christmas parties and dinners: He’d crank up old 45s of his favorite artists — Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Prince — and lip-sync to them while sashaying across his mom’s living-room floor.

A familiar image, but less than ten years later Jaymes was a dead-serious aspiring artist. In junior high he kept abreast of California tour dates for hot old-school stars like Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, and the Four Tops; whenever they came to the Circle Star Theater in San Carlos, Jaymes would call all the nearby hotels and pretend to be a business manager or PR contact to find out where the artists were staying. Then he’d take BART and the bus to San Carlos so he could drop his makeshift press package — artist snapshots, CD demos, and a typed-up proposal for his pending book on the history of Motown — under their hotel room doors.

In fact, Uglyfingers notes, “Jaymes would go to LA with no money, no place to stay, and the faith that he’d meet someone at a stoplight, and make a contact. He always did.”

Actually performing live involved even more danger to life and limb. Geoffrey Pete, founder of Geoffrey’s Inner Circle Club in Oakland, recalls that when Luther Vandross tried to hit it big himself, the star joked, “My memory of the Apollo is great, even if I was getting tomatoes thrown at me at the time.” It takes a certain type of person to survive and thrive in an environment where people will boo you off the stage just for being boo-able. Jaymes knew he had the guts to withstand the sordid and unruly world of local talent shows, but he couldn’t find many people his age who would cooperate. He sallied from one R&B group to another at El Cerrito High School, first performing in an all-guy outfit called the Bomb, and then in a doo-wop group called Soulfulistics. With the latter, Baby Jaymes started getting his feet wet — Soulfulistics performed shows at local clubs, auditioned for record labels, and sang at San Francisco’s Pier 39 on weekends, with a hat out to catch people’s quarters.

Still, Baby Jaymes’ old high-school brethren gradually began falling by the wayside. Thus, in 1999 the singer confided to Larry that he was tired of being cut adrift as his pals got tangled up in regular-kid things. His solution was to take the biz alone, and head-on, by performing solo and forming his own label, which he dubbed the Ret Network. “I can’t find anyone who’s really gonna stick with it,” Baby Jaymes said to Larry, “so I guess I’ll just have to do this by myself.”

You’ll understand why Baby Jaymes calls himself “the black Beck” when you see him onstage. Like the famed loser-boy icon, the singer has a kind of unflappable, impish charm that would make plenty of gals want to squish him into a Coke bottle and take him home. What’s more, with his leather jackets, shades, and perfect Jackson 5 swagger, Baby Jaymes will have you wondering how, in a friend’s words, “did such a big spirit get trapped in this little body?”

If you haven’t already seen this guy perform at Shattuck Downlow, or Cues Lounge in Jack London Square, you need only imagine a half-pint Pootie Tang with an oozy falsetto voice, à la Raphael Saadiq. Jaymes seems most at home in Vegas lounge-style venues with rotating mirror disco balls and women in mink coats, but he’ll occasionally play a benefit for Hard Knock Radio or Prison Activist Resource Center — usually at Oakland’s historic Sweets Ballroom or a Senegalese restaurant packed with Mission fashionistas. He’ll be the most decidedly not-activist-looking person in the joint, usually playing solo (though he’s been known to sing with a five-piece funk band on occasion), with his hype man Butta in tow, singing not-so-conscious songs about tarty ghetto girls and white chicks with Mandingo syndrome.

Such themes may be staples in R&B, but Baby Jaymes takes them in all kinds of funky directions. Not to mention he works the sexpot angle so adroitly, he’ll have the Bay’s most irony-deficient feminists swooning and howling.

Admittedly, Jaymes exudes a much stronger sex vibe than even Beck can manage. All the same, he still never approaches the barrio Lothario stereotype that characterizes so many R&B divas. Which is not to say his songs don’t ever get lewd, but instead it’s the primacy of race and social class in Jaymes’ so-called “relationship” numbers that’s more apt to turn heads than anything R. Kelly ever sings about. Apparently, unlike his contemporaries, Jaymes isn’t a jump-in-the-haystack (or the chalet) kinda guy. He’s bringing back an old form of relationship song that’s more like telling a story, and blending it with a hip-hop-influenced ghetto perspective that connects the individual story to larger social narratives.

This is a more poignant and provocative kind of ghetto love affair, where interwining social issues are as much a part of the romance as intertwining bodies. For Baby Jaymes, aspiring superstar, nothing’s sexier than social politics.

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