Whodini leader Jalil Hutchins is thinking of including this message on the sleeve of the Brooklyn rap group's next album: "Torch of life always burns, I've watched you well and yes I've learned, but please step aside because it's my turn."
This none-too-subtle note would be directed to rap's forefathers--the Kurtis Blows and the Grandmaster Flashes. Hutchins spent much of the early '80s learning the rap trade from Blow and Flash. But now he and his two partners, Ecstacy and Grandmaster Dee, feel Whodini is ready to claim the rap crown.
"I used to look up to them, now I just look at them," Hutchins said of his mentors during a recent phone interview. "We've passed their level because they've back-stepped. It's not cockiness. It's just that they're so worried about us that they're losing their own.
"I appreciate and love them for what they've done for the funk. I learned a lot from Kurtis and Flash. It was Flash who taught me to go for mine. All we're saying is that it's our turn."
In terms of record sales Whodini may already be rap's kingpins. The trio's second album, "Escape," has sold nearly 1 million copies since its release in 1984, making it the best-selling rap album ever, according to Arista Records. Propelled by the single "Funky Beat," Whodini's recently released third LP, "Back in Black," already looks like a hit.
It seems only their friends in the group Run-D.M.C. block Whodini's path to the rap throne. Though Whodini's record sales are impressive, Run-D.M.C. has been a greater media attraction and a bigger critical favorite. Whodini is the second act on Run-D.M.C.'s current arena tour, which includes a Sports Arena date Friday night.
One advantage Run-D.M.C. has is that it fits more comfortably into the hip-hop culture--the mixture of rap, break-dance and graffiti that has attracted mainstream attention in the last several years.
The street exuberance of the New York hip-hop scene has been promoted in films like "Beat Street" and "Krush Groove," benefiting youth-oriented rap acts like Run-D.M.C. (which had a starring role in "Krush Groove") and Afrika Bambaataa more than Whodini.
Hutchins believes much of Whodini's material falls into the "club-ish, adult rap" category rather than hip-hop. Though tunes like "Funky Beat" have strong street credentials, others, like "One Love" and "Friends," have a more R&B; feel than most rap tunes.
The trio's slick and sexy image also serves as a magnet to the post-adolescent audience. Hutchins, 25, and Ecstacy, 21, don't mind at all rapping about life's sensual pleasures.
"That's the title they've given us, the sex symbols of rap," observed Hutchins matter-of-factly. "We've tried to promote it in a way. The last sex symbol in rap was Kurtis Blow. But now you've got three for the price of one!
"But I don't think I would want to hold onto that (image) for a long time because after a while it would get stagnant, especially for guys. I think you lose a big majority of the male crowd. The more sloppy the Fat Boys look, the dressier we want to be. My point is, everybody has to be themselves."
Hutchins says it's been rap's ability to expand musically that has kept it alive since its inception in the late '70s, despite several false alarms that the form was about to die. Whodini hasn't been afraid to experiment. The group's 1982 debut single "Magic Wand," co-produced by Thomas Dolby, was the first rap song to incorporate synthesizers. And "Fugitive" on the new album is anchored in some heavy-duty rock guitars, a la Run-D.M.C.'s "King of Rock."
"Rap is now probably the most flexible form of black music today," Hutchins said. "When it started out it was like the early stages of rock 'n' roll; it was underdeveloped. Rock 'n' roll started out with just drum beats, and so did rap. Then the singers started to go with it. Now ,the more music grows the more rap grows along with it. Rappers are just now getting into using computers and Synclaviers.
"There'll always be another group to change it. Rap has gone through the disco style, the street style, the ad lib style. It's gone through an electro phase, a rock 'n' roll phase and then a heavy bass phase. And now it's going back to the old days when they used to rock. It's going to keep on being elevated to different stages."