Jay-Z taps hip-hopper with local roots as next 'Tastemaker'
The artist known as Pittsburgh Slim (a k a Sied Chahrour), a former Pittsburgher and Allderdice grad.
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It's not every day that a kid from Greenfield gets to stroll through the door of Jay-Z's New York office.
Sied Chahrour, aka Pittsburgh Slim, got the chance and made the most of it, coming out of the Def Jam president's headquarters with a five-album deal that begins on Dec. 4 with the release of the debut album, "Tastemaker."
The biggest selling point for Pittsburgh Slim was "Girls Kiss Girls," a salacious rock and hip-hop track that became a phenomenon in dance clubs and on stations across the country over the summer.
Although it's on track to make Pittsburgh Slim an overnight sensation, he didn't just appear out of the blue. Chahrour was once part of the Pittsburgh-based hip-hop crew Strict Flow, which hit its peak opening for 50 Cent at the Mellon Arena in 2003.
Chahrour was born and raised in Greenfield and played hockey for Allderdice High School and baseball in Swissvale. His music tastes ranged from hip-hop to alt-rock like Nirvana. "My influences were all over the place," he says in a phone interview from Los Angeles.
Pittsburgh Slim performs at 7 p.m. Nov. 30 at Diesel, South Side. Tickets: $12 at ticketmaster.com.
And so is his ethnicity. His father is Algerian, his mother part Mexican. "Black people would say, 'Well, he's kind of black,' and white people would say, 'He's kind of white,' so I got by on default. People didn't know if I was white or black, so they didn't mess with me on that."
Chahrour started working on beats and rhymes with Masai Turner in high school around 1993 and then formed Strict Flow three years later with Turner, Chad Glick and Eric Dan. They signed a deal in 1999 with a national indie label, Rawshack, and released a single titled "People on Lock." Their debut record, "Homegrown," moved 6,000 copies, which was unprecedented for a hip-hop act from Pittsburgh.
They became the go-to group for local promoters, who put them on shows here with the likes of Nelly, Jurassic 5, Usher, Nas, the Roots and Ja Rule. In 2003, they released "Without Further Ado," which they considered to be their real first album.
Soon after, though, Strict Flow went their separate ways, with Turner, who declined to comment, forming Formula 412, and Chahrour heading to Los Angeles in 2005 to work on his music profile while waiting tables to pay the rent. It was a much better environment for a rapper, he says.
"The reason there haven't been successful artists out of Pittsburgh is that there's no industry out of Pittsburgh. There's a lot of very talented people in Pittsburgh. But if you're trying to sell snowmobiles in Phoenix, it's not going to work."
Sex, though, sells anywhere, and Chahrour surely knew that when he wrote a rhyme about a favorite male fantasy.
"I came up with the hook in my head and said 'I should write a song about the topic.' I wanted it to be something that appeals to people to make them get into the song. I'm not sayin', 'I make girls kiss girls,' or 'Girls kiss girls for me.' It's not about me. I'm just sayin' 'I like when girls kiss girls.' It's just one of the many things I love about females. It's what happens when you watch Internet porn religiously and you rap," he says laughing. "The two are bound to mesh."
For production help, Chahrour turned to a seasoned pro, David "Ski Beatz" Willis, who produced tracks for Jay-Z's debut, "Reasonable Doubt," and has become active again, working out of his home base of North ' Carolina.
Along with the song, they cut an "American Pie"-style video with Penthouse cover girl Krista Ayne that became a YouTube sensation, and within two weeks they were getting radio spins around the country, starting with KISS-FM in Pittsburgh.
Bonics, a KISS deejay, was sent a link to listen to the song and quickly realized it was Chahrour, whom he knew from Strict Flow. His first take on it, he says, was, "It's not changing the face of hip-hop, but it's a catchy pop song. At first, it started off I would stab it in at night. Then we started getting pounded with requests and it went in my countdown."
From there it went to monster stations like Power 106 in L.A. (the second-biggest station in the country), Power 96 in Miami and Wild 94 in San Francisco. It's the kind of thing that just doesn't happen anymore -- a throwback to the free-form radio of the '50s and '60s. They next thing he knew, Chahrour had 11 offers for single deals.
"The overwhelming majority of rappers are getting offered only single deals, because of the state of the industry now," Chahrour says. "A lot of it is because people are whack and they put out whack albums. They need to talk about that when they talk about why record sales are down. You can only get burnt so many times by putting your socks on, getting in your car and driving through traffic and going to the mall to buy a CD only to find out there are only two good songs on it out of 18."
Everyone from Interscope to Randy Jackson (of "American Idol") offered him a single deal. "But," Chahrour says, "I'm in this for the long haul. I'm not taking a single deal."
By holding out for a few weeks, the album deals started pouring in, so in July he was waiting tables and meeting with executives from major labels.
One of them was Jay-Z, who lately has been busy with his own album, "American Gangster," released just last week. In his role as a producer, he brought Pittsburgh Slim to New York with Ski.
"I'm not even going to lie," Chahrour says. "He did have me starstruck for about three seconds. But he's such a cool guy, I got past that real quickly. We were in there for about two hours, drinking wine and playing music. We played Jay three songs off of the mixtape and four songs off of the album. And that was it."
While the single may be something of a novelty track, a bit of a sell-out for a former indie hip-hopper, Chahrour says he's much more than a novelty artist.
"Anybody who listens to that mixtape will think twice about being a hater," he says. "Jay is pretty smart, wouldn't you agree?"
Chahrour strolled out with the sweet deal, which seemed meant to be. It was actually from a Jay-Z song that Chahrour derived his street name about four years ago. On "So Ghetto," Jay-Z rapped "Ice burg, slim, baby ride rims."
"I'd be like 'Pittsburgh Slim, baby, ride rims,' " says Chahrour, whose family no longer lives here. "I'm pimping the city of Pittsburgh. Like it or not, people know about Pittsburgh and they ask me if I'm from Pittsburgh, and I'm happy to say I am."
Jay liked the moniker, too, regardless of whatever stigma there may be connected to hip-hop with Pittsburgh roots. He's even high enough on Pittsburgh Slim to drop his "Tastemaker" right in the middle of the Christmas rush.
"I'm coming out in the fourth quarter," Chahrour says, "which is really unusual for a new artist. It's like a rookie starting in the Super Bowl."
Being from Greenfield, Pittsburgh Slim knows a thing or two about Super Bowls.
First Published November 11, 2007 12:00 am