Gangstas of cheese

10cc's `I'm Not in Love' seems unlikely material for three New York rappers. But the Fun Lovin' Criminals' cartoon pastiches - mixing Scorsese with Scooby Doo - is their idea of fun. By Nick Hasted
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The name fits. The Fun Lovin' Criminals are the most gentlemanly, joyful trio of John Gotti-admiring, Scorsese-worshipping rappers you're ever likely to meet. Their debut album, Come Find Yourself, is a study in similar contrasts, songs about methadone addiction paired with Louis Armstrong covers, ominous rap slipping into soundtrack sleaze, menace and mental investigation matched by smooth mood music. Their re-released single, "Scooby Snacks", snatches scorching dialogue from Reservoir Dogs for a song about a robbery powered by children's TV delicacies. It's backed with "I'm Not in Love", a 10cc cover that redefines "insincere". Bouncing off each other's words in a plush London hotel, backed by the faint tinkle of muzak close to their own cheesy-listening tastes, the trio - rapper Huey, multi-instrumentalist Fast and drummer Steve - are equally ambivalent in person. In the middle of touring with U2 in American heartlands that have yet to understand them, they're getting off on the adventures of life on the road. At the same time, they don't want to be taken in. "We're just doing what we do," says Huey. "We're just three guys from New York who make music and, quite honestly, we really don't give a fuck. Some guy at EMI saw us at a club and thought he could make money out of us. That's why we're here."

It's a mixture of satire and straight talk, machismo and modesty, which was inevitable from the minute the Criminals met. They all brought a love of hip hop to the band, sucked in from the New York air. But they loved the music their mothers played as well, on New York's equivalents of Radio 2. "We got cheese from our parents," Huey says proudly. They watched TV, too, including stylish British shows like The Avengers (John Steed is namechecked on the album, James Bond is adored, and the band's on-stage suits suggest hours spent ingesting Swingin' London cool). When the trio moved in together in 1993, movies completed the pastiche-crazed picture. Reservoir Dogs was just out on video, and was rented religiously. In its undercurrents of real criminality and cackling cool, it's the Criminals' screen equivalent. Tarantino's insistence on a 40 per cent cut of the royalties from "Scooby Snacks" for its samples, though, has cooled their admiration. "He's like the Milli Vanilli of movies, stealing plots from Hong Kong," Huey steams. "We're pissed off at him. We wanna throw him a beating."

Scorsese still gets their vote. GoodFellas and Casino are on their tour bus at all times. Typically, their attitude to him blurs admiration with absurdity. "When we go the video store, my girlfriend says, `I wanna see a comedy'," says Huey. "I say, `Let's get Raging Bull'; she says, `That's not funny.' When you walk the walk, you can look at his films and go, that is kind of funny, because it borders on reality." "From loving Little Italy and being round bosses at clubs who are mad straight-out-of-the- movies Italians, we all see the humour in Scorsese, we all admire him," agrees Fast. They've clearly got a sneaking admiration for Scorsese's models, too. "When you grow up in a neighbourhood like that you see how society works," Huey considers. "You have the municipality, and you have the boys. The boys seem to run it better, a lot of the time."

It's their insistence on seeing the ludicrous side of such monsters that, once again, saves the Criminals. It's an attitude that until recently prevailed in gangsta-rap, too. Huey sees the recent deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls (both big Mob fans) as evidence of an unfortunate loss of perspective. "They go for this fantasy vibe, and it ends up being their downfall. A lot of people get killed over it, just because they don't understand reality in its truest sense. If you're in a world that you created and you're the mask, but outside that world you're just a regular punk who thinks he's a badass, then you're gonna get shot. That's what happens." The Fun Lovin' Criminals have deliberately taken a step back from such excess. Their image may be as cartoon rappers. Huey sees that as evidence of their realism. "It's obvious that we're just poking fun, but that's our outlook on life, that's how we look at shit. We'll laugh in the face of a cop pulling a gun on us because that shit is funny. What's he gonna do? Is he gonna kill us? Big deal, that's the worst he could do. And that's not that bad," he concludes, as if talking about stubbing his toe. "We try not to disassociate our music from ourselves, so it really comes from us, it's how we feel. It's facets of how we are."

The diversity on Come Find Yourself may have something to do with the Criminals' backgrounds. The way they describe their roots, it sounds as if they all escaped into the band, from places that couldn't have been more opposite. Fast and Steve paired off first. Both came from deadening suburbs in upstate New York. Fast couldn't wait to leave school, losing himself in music and movies, living for escape to the city at weekends, for the techno and hip hop that brought him to life. Steve saw a life stretching out for him of beer and TV, of marrying the girt next door and working where his parents worked before him - small-town hell. Huey's need to escape was a little more pressing. He was raised in the Lower East Side, and came closest of the three to finishing as a criminal, fun not an option. His turning point came when a judge gave him a choice between the marines and jail. He chose the marines, fought in the Gulf War, and straightened out. But even before that, he was burrowing out of his circumstances, reading and visiting museums, building his own education in secret. "The library hated me," he snorts. "They thought I was in there stealing." When Fast and Steve came to his world to live, Huey knew what they were risking. "I think these boys were pretty courageous, just for dropping in the shit like that. That's why I liked fringe material a lot when I was reading people like William Burroughs. People who are living normal lives, big fucking deal. It's their loss. People like these boys who seek out the fire and walk right into it, that takes balls. People at 12 now are doing the same thing Burroughs was doing when he was writing Naked Lunch, trying to work out who's the man, pulling people's coats, trying to work out what their racket is." It's a novelistic fervour you can hear in Huey's most intense lyrics, the ones that won't be singles, like the soul-searching monologue of Come Find Yourself's title track. "I think if you try to write something that's not true, it ends up being true," is all he'll say.

Listen to Huey long enough, to his tales of gangsters and grave choices, and you could be forgiven for thinking the Fun Lovin' Criminals are as macho as their bragging peers after all. That would be because you haven't heard "I'm Not in Love". Recorded in a day, released by their record company in a cynical attempt to resell "Scooby Snacks", which the band seem only dimly privy to, it's a recording their parents would be proud of. Huey sang the lyrics straight off a 10cc CD. The band sang its falsetto choruses with the smirks learnt from lounge-singers plastered on their faces. They played with "James Bond goes to dinner" music racing through their heads, according to Fast. "The Pink Panther movies, too," he adds, "because that's how we're living now." A throwaway moment hardly worthy of the band, it also sums them up. They're laughing at a song they love. "You can think something's funny and goofy, and still love it," says Huey, with unexpected conviction. "That's the idea, That's the whole idea" n

The Fun Lovin' Criminals headline at the TUC `Respect' festival, Victoria Park, Hackney, London tomorrow; on Sunday, they play `T in the Park', Glasgow