A Sweet Debut for Bad Boys
Bad boys need love too. At least that’s the message in Crazy Town’s “Butterfly,” the sexy rap vamp that’s catapulted the band’s debut album, “The Gift of Game,” up the charts and helped them snag a slot on the main stage of this summer’s metal melee, Ozzfest.
They’re covered in tattoos and piercings, and their pasts are more than a bit checkered-the Los Angeles-based band’s leaders, Seth “Shifty” Binzer and Bret “Epic” Mazur, have both seen their share of gangs, jail and rehab. But the sweet ‘n’ sensuous hit shows a tender side to these streetwise toughies, and the song has connected with everyone from the aggro-rock crowd to hip-hoppers and pop fans.
“It’s a song that a guy could feel cool enough to say to his girl, ‘This is our song,”’ explains the spiky-haired Binzer, 27, who wrote “Butterfly” for his then-girlfriend (she’s in the video for the song, which was filmed before they broke up). “I think the realness of it and the fact that I wrote it about a girl that I really cared about comes through.”
While “Butterfly” might suggest another group of scruffy rockers hopping on the rap bandwagon, Binzer and Mazur are no strangers to hip-hop, or to the kinds of lifestyles that have inspired rap’s provocative expression. They’re also no strangers to the music industry. Binzer’s dad, Rollin, was an art director for Chess Records (he also worked on the cover art for “Game’), and Mazur’s father, Irwin, was a manager who worked with Billy Joel early in his career. Binzer traveled all over the world before settling in L.A. at age 12, while Mazur moved to California from New York around the same age.
Binzer was a skater punk who wrote about his experiences and wasn’t afraid to share them at freestyle rap competitions around town, even if he was one of the only white kids there. Mazur chose to make his mark behind the scenes, as a young producer on tracks for MC Lyte and Bell Biv Devoe.
The pair met nine years ago through a mutual friend, Will Adams of the L.A. hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas. They wrote and collaborated on and off over the years, but were often sidetracked by the very experiences that seemed to give their music its edge. Binzer says he paid the bills by selling drugs and stealing, in addition to movie-extra work, and he eventually ended up doing three months in the California Institution for Men in Chino on assault charges-an experience that not only provided him with lots of time to write, but also served as a reality check.
“Until I got caught for everything, I kind of felt like I was this invincible Biggie Smalls bad-ass comic book character,” remembers Binzer, alluding to the late rap star. “All of a sudden it went from using drugs to being a drug addict, and it turned from robbing people and beating people up because that was the thing to do, to going to jail for it.”
After jail, Binzer was required by the court to undergo rehab, where he says he was “caught between good and evil.”
“Part of me was like, ‘Why do I have to change for these people?’ But then I realized I needed to change for myself,” he says. “I didn’t want to be some guy who sticks needles in his neck in county jail and gets arrested every six months.”
While Binzer was getting it together, his pal Mazur went through similar troubles with drugs and also ended up in rehab. When they were both out and ready to work on their music in the late ‘90s, they had a new perspective and soon decided to put a backing band together: DJ AM (Adam Goldstein), drummer James Bradley Jr., bassist Doug “Faydoedeelay” Miller, and guitarists Antonio “Trouble” Valli and Rust Epique (who has since been replaced by Kraig “Squirrel” Tyler).
By the time they started shopping around their punkish, guitar-anchored hip-hop in early ’99, the melding of rap and rock was already a bona fide craze.
“That made us feel stupid,” says Binzer. “But we came to realize that we weren’t going to get a medal for being first. Anyway, all it did was make us get focused and then it made every label in town look and listen.”
“We’re way more hip-hop than a lot of those bands,” Binzer adds. “We’re more like the Beastie Boys than Limp Bizkit.”
Still, in choosing their first singles when their album came out in October 1999 on Columbia Records, the band did try to attract the Korn/Bizkit crowd. Though they knew the potential of the romantic “Butterfly,” which glides on a sample of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Pretty Little Ditty,” they decided to release more aggressive cuts first: “Toxic,” a riotously fitting introduction that represented their mix of swift rhymes and noisy metal, followed by the similarly heavy “Darkside.”
Because of an overflow of rap-rock releases at the time, both failed to make an impact. But the group stands by the strategy, which reflects the complex choices facing bands who mix more than one genre.
“If ‘Butterfly’ would have been our first single, rock radio wouldn’t have broke it,” says Mazur, 31. “We had to build a foundation of fans that were going to be down for us regardless of that song.”
“It’s a huge hit,” says Michael Steele, music director for L.A.'s KIIS-FM (102.7). “It’s one of our most played and most requested songs.” The pop station has also added songs by such bands as Limp Bizkit to its play list, but Steele cites “Butterfly” as “the one that completely crossed over from the rap-rock genre.”
Even with their crossover ability, the band was hard enough for the second stage of last year’s Ozzfest. But Binzer was breaking up with the girl who inspired “Butterfly,” and he relapsed into drugs. After he trashed his hotel room, the band’s management pulled it off the tour.
“I ended up sitting home all summer,” says Mazur. “I felt like my dreams were being thrown away.”
Since then, the group has been clean and focused, and it looks as if its dreams are coming true after all. “The Gift of Game” has sold more than 1 million copies in the U.S., while “Butterfly” has reached the Top 10 of the Hot 100 Top Singles chart, Top 40 Tracks airplay chart, and the Modern Rock Tracks chart.
Its next single, “Revolving Door,” an anthem to promiscuity that’s the lyrical antithesis of “Butterfly,” has a similarly hypnotic groove that should appeal to new fans.
The group will be headlining its own tour in April and then gets another crack at Ozzfest, which comes to Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion on June 30. Will Crazy Town live up to its name again? Just as its lyrics represent both sides of the coin-lust versus love, honesty versus deceit, wild living versus serious consequences-so, most likely, will the band find a balance that works for it, on and off the stage.
“I’m not saying I’m going to be sober forever,” says Binzer. “But I think the universe wants me to be this way right now. I’m looking forward to completing Ozzfest and having the fun that we missed. I’m looking forward to accomplishing that and moving on.”
CRAZY TOWN, at Ozzfest, Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion, 2575 Glen Helen Parkway, Devore. Date: June 30, 11 a.m. Price: $33.25 to $136.75. Phone: (909) 886-8742.