Rap music's rapid-fire lyrics and booming beat used to grate on Vivian Smallwood's nerves. And the "cuss words" in the songs would send the 59-year-old grandmother from Hawthorne up the wall.
"I hated it," she said. "It gave me a headache. Some of it is raunchy too."
Smallwood, a longtime singer in her church choir, preferred gospel and other more traditional musical forms. But her taste unexpectedly changed one day as she lectured her son, Leonard Lewis, on the foolishness of rap.
"I said: 'Gimme a break. This rap is no big deal. I'll bet I could write a rap.' "
And she did.
Since that day seven years ago, Smallwood has become a rap devotee. She closely follows all the latest releases, keeps her ears open for cutting-edge, teen-age slang and spits out original rap lyrics under the stage name "Rappin' Granny."
Listen to Vivian Smallwood now:
My hair may be gray/And my legs a little weak
But I can put some words together/To knock you off your feet
Rappin' Granny first tested her skills in the mid-1980s at a rap contest held at a South-Central Los Angeles roller rink. The young contestants roared when they spotted her decked out in a bonnet and shawl and carrying a cane. Smallwood, however, got the last laugh when her spirited anti-drug rap won first prize.
Rappin' Granny received another honor in 1988 when she was won the Grandmother of the Year pageant in Pasadena by singing her own rap version of the song "Little Old Lady from Pasadena."
Since then, Smallwood and her 26-year-old son--who calls himself DJ Len and acts as a backup singer--have performed in numerous schools and nightclubs throughout Los Angeles.
One song explains how she "(chills) with my homies in the old folks' home." Another--titled "Take a Bath"--encourages proper hygiene. She also sings about the tough streets of South-Central Los Angeles with her own older person's view and never fails to remind listeners to respect the elderly.
She dedicated one song to Bob Hope, Della Reese and the actresses on the "Golden Girls" television show. And in the middle of each act, after rapping and dancing for a while, she stops to pop a Geritol tablet.
Earlier this year, Smallwood signed with Tandem Records, a small independent label, and released a single titled "You Didn't Use Your Blinker Fool." The witty song is a response to a rap by D. J. Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince about a "wrinkled old bag" in an old Pinto coupe who smashes into Fresh Prince's speeding Mustang.
"The only thing stopping me from breaking her nose," Fresh Prince sang, "was that I was 21 and she was 90 years old."
But Granny didn't take that:
Fresh Prince, hold up/Now I heard your rhyme
Right now it's Granny Time ...
Cruising down the boulevard/Moving kinda slow
Trying to do 35 in my old Pinto
Then all of a sudden/Here comes this fool
Rollin' with a female/He thought he was cool.
Granny's manager, Tim Greene, says that her lyrics have enough edge to appeal to the younger crowd without offending her generation.
"She's gone up against hundreds of rappers, and when she goes on stage she always gets an amazing reaction," said Greene, a former disc jockey for KKBT-FM. "When they hear her flowing the mike, they say, 'She's one of us.' Nobody has seen an old lady who seriously raps."
Those who follow rap say Granny's rise shows the widening appeal of the music, which was once an alternative style heard on the streets but has in recent years burst into the mainstream. Why not have a rapper defending those in their golden years?
"Anything with a twist of humor or comedy works in hip-hop," said Orlando Aguillen of Priority Records, which has signed Tone Loc and other rap artists. "Rappin' Granny is getting well-known on the West Coast. She's catching on among the hip-hop crowd. At first it was more of a joke, but she's kickin' some decent lyrics."
Added Steve McKinnie, who sells her single at the Sam Goody's outlet in Hawthorne Plaza: "I would put her in the 'about to happen' category. She's not major popular but a lot of kids see her as their granny."
Smallwood, a spry, gray-haired woman with three children and 10 grandchildren, still works nights sorting mail at a local post office and plays bingo with her contemporaries every Tuesday night. But on weekends, she becomes the oldest homegirl around.
And she insists that she won't step aside until everyone catches what she calls "granny fever."
"People look at me and think I'm a gimmick--I'm not," Smallwood said. "I'm a real rapper. After I finish a show, other rappers come up to me and say: 'Gimme five. You're dope.' "
Smallwood's youngest son couldn't be happier about the transformation.
"She used to yell at me to cut the music off," Lewis said. "Now she comes into my room and joins me. . . . She's like a 20-year-old in a 60-year-old's body. She's as hip as they come."
Selected Granny Lyrics Granny's back and if wondering w hat I do with my
time All I do is kick back a ll day and write rhyme
I take a break sometimes w hen I wanna roam I chill with my homies in the old folks home --From "Rappin' Granny"
Fresh Prince, hold up, now I heard your rhyme Right now it's Granny Time ... Cruising down the boulevard, moving kinda slow Trying to do 35 in my old Pinto Then all of a sudden, here comes this fool Rollin' with a female, he thought he was cool. --From "You Didn't Use Your Blinker Fool" (a
response to "You Didn't See My Blinker" by D. J.
Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince)
Time to change, stop the tears from flowing Mothers out there just knowing That every knock on the door might be a cop Tape stretched out where their son got popped --From "Streets of LA"