Rapper on the rise

June 14, 2006

Posted on Tue, Jun. 13, 2006

Saigon has an album due soon, a role on HBO's "Entourage" – and a mission: To avoid the one-sidedness of hip-hop, glorifying thugs and druggies.
By Dwayne Campbell
Inquirer Staff Writer
Most people know Saigon as the actor who plays the lyrically smooth, up-and-coming rapper on Entourage.

It turns out that Saigon, who goes by the same moniker on the HBO series, is simply playing himself.

How much more Saigon will appear on the show (episode two of the third season will be shown at 10 p.m. Sunday) is in the hands of HBO, but it's clear that he is becoming one of the most promising and prolific progenies of hip-hop.

Saigon's music, witty and intelligent, is straight from the rough side of Brooklyn, and the penitentiary where he served time, yet it mostly comes with a message. He's adamant he's not in the business to sing "radio jingles" or cop a quick buck and a piece of bling.

"A lot of artists and labels do it cookie cutter instead of trying something new," says Saigon, 28, during a recent appearance at a fund-raising and outreach event at Camden's Morgan Village Elementary School.

"What they say is, 'If it worked for Nelly, it'll work for Chingy, and if it worked for Chingy, it'll work for that one.' The record companies don't really care about us and our kids and what our kids hear."

Such philosophies, and, of course, his driving beats and smooth flow perfected in prison yards, have made Saigon (real name, Brian Carenard) a hot and sometimes controversial property.

Last year, Newsweek placed him on its "Who's Next 2006" list of future power brokers, alongside such notables as Harvard physics professor Lisa Randall, fashion designer Doo-Ri Chung, and Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe, the MySpace.com guys.

All this hype for a man who's had a few episodes on a funny TV show, but hasn't officially released an album yet.

Saigon's major label debut, The Greatest Story Never Told, isn't expected from Atlantic until August. He's been releasing successful mix tapes since 2002, among them The Yard Father, parts one and two; Warning Shots; and the latest, Welcome to Saigon.

The tracks on the highly anticipated work tackle subjects such as crooked preachers and the false beauty of guns and drugs – necessary words, the rapper says, to counter the wave of music that doesn't tell youth about the consequences of poor decisions. The album will bear the beats of super producer Just Blaze with cameos from Q-Tip and others.

"Depending on how much label support I get, it could do very well," Saigon says. "It's not just a bunch of 'I shot this one.' There is a lot of message in the music that I think is missing from hip-hop right now."

Musically, Saigon will do well because he appeals to both "the Talib Kweli crowd and the 50 Cent crowd," says MTV's Sway Calloway. "He has wide appeal and his music has more relevance than a lot of stuff I've heard recently… as much drama as he's gone through, he has this big conscience."

At the Camden school for a car wash to raise money for a class trip to Washington, Saigon is dressed in the typical rap uniform of boots, baggy jeans, T-shirt and a somewhat understated example of neck bling. The students gather around him, but don't release the teenage euphoria reserved for rappers in heavy rotation on radio and TV music videos.

"They don't really know me, yet," Saigon says, chuckling. "I have no videos out yet."

And they're probably too young for Entourage.

Saigon snagged the role over Young Jeezy and a few other rappers, he says, though he had no label association at the time. "For real?" is what he asked show creator Doug Ellin when he got the role.

He credits Entourage for exposing him to "a new demographic, people who probably wouldn't have known about me," a coup for a rapper/actor with no albums on store shelves.

With a rough past behind him, Saigon believes it's still important to rap about the reality of street life ("do we really know where the guns come from?" and "crackhead cookin' up a batch") but do so without seeming to endorse doing wrong.

"Hip-hop is really one-sided right now, you only hear one side about the street life," Saigon says. "You only hear the side glorifying 'I'm a hustla, I'm a gangsta,' this and that. But they don't talk about the reality of the situation that we hustle one another, we shoot one another."

But rap has a long track record of sex and violence songs that go to the top of the charts and make money.

"Most of these guys are doing what sells, and the record companies support that position," says Kevin Chiles, the Don Diva magazine chief executive officer who has known Saigon for several years. "What Saigon does is conscientious, insightful rap. The question is, is the climate ready for his kind of music?"

Hip-hop cannot sit back and wait, Saigon says, because the audience, especially children, take to heart so much of what the performers spout.

That's part of what brought him to Camden. He knows the town's not-so-pleasant recent history, he's spoken to kids at the school before and believes they can benefit from his outreach organization.

The outreach group is the social arm of Abandoned Nation, Saigon's entertainment company. In Saigon's native New York and in a few other cities, the outreach program works with nonprofits and visits schools to push reading programs and assist children with visiting their incarcerated parents.

"We realize the challenges kids face coming up in these communities," says Cherron "Che" Johnson, the Camden-born, Harvard-educated Abandoned Nation executive who accompanied Saigon to Morgan Village. Johnson's mother is a teacher at the school.

"We feel we are a little bit cooler than the teachers and can have a different kind of influence over these children's lives," Johnson adds.

For Saigon, childhood was often a battle in tough neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Upstate New York, and New Jersey. At 15, he got into an argument, shot a man, and wounded a bystander. It was his second serious brush with the law and sent him to prison for nearly seven years.

"I regret what I did even though at the time I thought this person was going to harm me," Saigon says. "When I think about it now, I say, 'Why was I walking around with a gun?' I can't say I was doing it to protect myself because I wasn't. I was walking around looking for something to happen and if something happens, I'm popping off. That's the mentality you grow up with when you hear these songs."

Saigon doesn't blame all the ills of urban youth on music, but he believes that all musicians are role models. Showing off a Scarface poster on your wall on MTV Cribs, instead of one of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X, he believes, sends the wrong message.

"If you don't want to be a role model, don't make a video, don't put yourself out there to the masses," Saigon says. "It's part of the territory. It's part of being in the music business."

Contact staff writer Dwayne Campbell at 215-854-5315 or dcampbell@p