Yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of the release of Coo Coo Cal‘s Disturbed. The sophomore record by the Milwaukee rapper (a.k.a. Calvin Bellamy) was his one and only release on Tommy Boy Records, just months before the once-prominent hip-hop and R&B imprint fell apart and prematurely ended his five-album deal. Even with the lack of support from the former Warner Bros. Records subsidiary, Disturbed climbed to No. 45 on U.S. charts (and as high as No. 15 on U.S. R&B charts), largely behind the strength of the record’s single, “My Projects,” which cracked Billboard‘s Hot 100 and climbed to No. 1 in Billboard‘s rap single rankings before the album’s cycle was through.
Though the estimated 800,000 units Disturbed sold make it one of the most commercially successful albums released by a Milwaukee-affiliated artist not named Violent Femmes or The Promise Ring, Bellamy failed to repeat the success of the 2001 effort. Fewer than nine months later, Coo Coo Cal released Still Walkin’ on a label called Infinite. That record flirted with awareness on rap charts, but by the time the 2004 album All Or Nothin’ was released, it appeared listeners had decided on the latter option.
From there, Bellamy says he battled drug and alcohol addiction, went to rehab, and served four months in jail on a cocaine charge. In 2009, he told Shepherd Express music writer Evan Rytlewski he wanted to be a legitimate entrepreneur and return his focus to making music. Ultimately, the prediction that his 2009 return, the Baby Drew-affiliated Cocaine Cowboys, was “going to be big,” proved to be incorrect. Fifteen years (and one day) since Disturbed‘s release, Coo Coo Cal has never matched the success of the record and is unlikely to ever release another single with the minor mainstream appeal of “My Projects.”
Perhaps that makes Bellamy a one-hit wonder. To some, this grizzled Milwaukee rapper is a footnote or a deep pull on a game of Hip-Hop Jeopardy. However, when looking at the fruitful state local hip-hop exists in today, it’s likely some of what’s happening right now was set into motion on September 18, 2001. Yes, there were countless rappers in town before Bellamy picked up a mic, but Disturbed help turn a portion of the music industry’s attention Milwaukee’s way—if for only a nanosecond—and work against the city’s long-held stereotypes of beer, brats, and ’70s sitcoms by giving a voice to a section of Milwaukee that was ignored, even by many of its own residents.
“Ninety percent of what I’m kicking is real,” Bellamy told MTV in 2001. “I know people get tired of hearing it, but it is what it is. You can’t talk about something you don’t know about and still make somebody else feel it.”
In Coo Coo Cal’s heyday, noted rap names like Trick Daddy and Twista “felt it,” as did crowds throughout the world. As small as it was in the grand scheme and as quickly as it closed, Disturbed was a portal to Milwaukee rap; specifically, it was a piece of evidence to outsiders that there was rap in Milwaukee. Similarly, it gave local lyricists an indication that with talent, work, and the right voice, people would occasionally avert their gaze from more renowned rap markets and look in the direction of Milwaukee for at least a few beats.
Today, Milwaukee hip-hop is in a great place. It’s not outlandish to suggest it’s never been better than it is now. Last year, Vice‘s music site, Noisey, called Milwaukee “a DIY Hip-Hop Haven”—and, yes, Coo Coo Cal was referenced two sentences in. Mentioned in that article are talents like WebsterX and IshDARR, who have earned national attention and assembled impressive opening credits. Lorde Fred33 (who, with WebsterX, helps anchor the New Age Narcissism collective), Wave Chapelle, Von Alexander, and many others are making waves beyond state lines. Whether under the name Milo or Scallops Hotel, Rory Ferreira is wowing critics and winning fans in droves with his incomparable style and voice.
Love him or hate him, Juiceboxxx is inspiring novels and touring the world with his Thunder Jams. Queen Tut recently made the move from Milwaukee to New York. Klassik put out the best album in the city last year, and the records Mike Regal and Vincent VanGreat released in recent months have them in the running for this year’s list. Of course, Rusty Pelicans and AUTOMatic continue to put out great music after all these years. Conversely, Zed Kenzo‘s highly anticipated debut and the inception of youth-oriented outlets like Freespace signal better days ahead.
It’d be lazy and, well, flat out wrong to attribute the burgeoning state of Milwaukee hip-hop to a rapper, an album, and a single that all came into regular rotation when many of the above-mentioned emcees were in grade school or, in some cases, diapers. However, 15 years ago, a north side rapper named Coo Coo Cal introduced America to his projects and, in doing so, hoisted Milwaukee hip-hop on his back and carried it to new ground. Maybe he didn’t carry it for long before handing it to a new crop of musicians, but he certainly left it in better shape than he found it.