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She'll Take the Rap

Jazz artist Dee Dee McNeil is credited with starting the genre in early '70s.

March 06, 1997|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Dee Dee McNeil, the persuasive jazz-rooted singer whose repertoire is based on such timeless tunes as "Stardust" and "Good Morning, Heartache," owns a footnote in pop-music history. For her once-revolutionary employment of poetry over surging rhythmic beats with the Watts Prophets in the early '70s, McNeil has been called a founding figure in rap.

"She really is the mother of all rappers," Amde Hamilton, one of the Watts Prophets, has said. "She was the first one to rap." In his book, "The Black Music History of Los Angeles," Tom Reed describes McNeil in similar terms.

This bit of hubbub came about in 1971, when McNeil performed with the spoken word Prophets, first simply playing piano behind their poetry, later reciting her own words, both in person and on the Prophets' album, "Rappin' Black in a White World."

At the time, McNeil had an inkling of the potential popularity of mixing poetry with insistent beats, but few others did. "I wanted to get the kids to dance to poetry," says the Detroit native who lives in Los Angeles. "I went from label to label, but nobody thought it would take off." She laughs lightly, not at all ruefully.

Performing with the Prophets led McNeil to jazz singing. It had never been her intention to sing; her career had been as a songwriter.

"I decided to get serious," McNeil says of the time she began to sing. "I took classical training, then studied with Eddie Beal, who coached Lena Horne and Peggy Lee."

McNeil, with her rich alto voice and dynamic stage presence, has been a steady performer in Los Angeles jazz clubs for over 20 years. She appears Sunday (and the rest of the Sundays in March) at Monteleone's West in Tarzana.

McNeil's show, which will be backed by pianist Lou Forestieri's trio, mixes all her talents. She sings classic songs such as "Stardust." "That was my mom and dad's favorite song," she says. The artist may do an original, and she'll definitely recite some poetry, which she has been writing all her life.

McNeil, whose debut album, "Where Can Our Leaders Be?," is due out this week, feels that being a performing artist allows her to make a difference. "I think we need a lot of positive energy in this world," she says, "and I try to do that from the stage."

*

Bobby's Bubbling Beat: Trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez first played the Moonlight Tango Cafe last Nov. 7, and drew 700 people. Well, he was part of radio station KLON's first Latin Jazz Caravan, which accounted for the crowd.

Still, Moonlight owner Lenetta Kidd thought Rodriguez's music was delightful. And since she wanted to try Latin again at the club, she's hired the trumpeter for several consecutive Thursdays. Rodriguez's Latin Jazz band appears tonight, 8 and 10 p.m., at the Tango, 13730 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; $5 cover; $9.95 food or drink minimum. (818) 788-2000.

"Bobby's great," Kidd says. "He plays a lot of Ellington, so that the music swings, but also has other Latin elements. Listeners can either dance or listen. And since Bobby's a terrific entertainer, he gets people into the music, makes it very accessible."

BE THERE

Dee Dee McNeil appears 7-11 p.m. Sun. at Monteleone's West, 19337 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana. No cover; without dinner, $9.95 food/drink minimum. (818) 996-0662.

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