music_4 (2006-29)

Why You Ain’t Got a Deal On?

Blu Chez, Deal Wit It Records and STJ Productions showcase Knoxville’s rap game

by Kevin Crowe

"The name Blu Chez came from my brother,” Edward Cannon says of his nickname. “He’s locked up. He was a gang-banger, a Crip. I wanted to be in the gang with him. I wanted to be just like him. He said, ‘No, you just keep me out of trouble.’ He wore blue. So, of course, I wore blue every day. And his girlfriend was like, ‘Eddie, man, you wear an awful lot of blue, but you don’t be out there with them doin’ all this other stuff, you just about your cheese. I’m gonna call you ‘Blue Cheese.’

“I said, ‘You know what? I’m gonna make that name famous someday.’”

And more than 15 years later, Cannon is beginning to make a name for himself. He grew up in East Knoxville, but he’ll tell you that—East, West, North or South—he’s at home.

“It was real hard,” Cannon says of his childhood, “the poor side of Knoxville. I try not to talk about that in my music. When I do my music, I’m having fun. I try to stay away from what I did in my childhood. I didn’t want to get stuck in that one spot. It will get you stuck, or in jail or whatever else. But I got out of that, and I got a goal to reach.”

In ’94, his voice first reached audiences not as a rapper, but as a DJ for Knoxville’s seminal rap station, KJAM, an AM broadcast that showcased primal beats, music that allowed for seemingly endless experimentation. Those first sound mutations that came out of New York in the ’70s set the stage for what KJAM was doing, all the turntablism and beatboxing, followed by heavy rhythms unapologetically set in deceptively simple 4/4 time.

These were the sounds that groundworked breakbeats, scratching and, eventually, hardcore hip-hop. And that 4/4 time became much more complicated as it started to swing, like a jazz beat, as DJs employed complicated syncopations and heavy polyrhythms with acid house precision. This is where Cannon thrived, where the beats started to come together. Back then, he was known as “Little E Eternal,” testing his mettle with artists like Sister Zock and Ludacris.

“I’ve always been a music lover,” Cannon says. “I knew once I didn’t make it in basketball that this was my love. Music. I didn’t have nobody to teach me anything, so I kinda went out there and experienced it all. Then, I finally got out of my shy-mode, started getting out there and doing it myself, letting people hear the music I was writing and putting together.

“If I could sing,” he jokes, “I would probably be a singer, but I can’t sing.”

Since KJAM went off the air in 2002, Cannon has devoted himself to his craft. Donning his childhood nickname, he’s become Blu Chez, the “Gangster Pimp,” the “King of da K.”

“That was a theory I came up with,” Cannon explains, laughing. “I came up with King of the K because I felt like I’ve put in a whole lot of work for this music.” After seeing Atlanta-based DJ Drama’s Gangsta Grillz , a mixtape series that chronicles what’s happening in the rap world today, Cannon thought, “Why not here in Knoxville?” and, “Why not now?” The result was a documentary that focuses on East Tennessee rap. Cannon, along with Shannon Grier from local STJ Productions, completed the project, entitled Hard Hitters , in June. And, in November, Blu Chez, The Dinero Boys, Yo Thugg and many more rappers from East Tennessee will be onscreen at the New York Independent Film Festival.

“I think Knoxville’s music has its own….” Cannon says, pausing mid-thought. “I don’t think we sound like nobody else. It’s very different, and you can’t really compare us. I think it’s the new sound that everybody’s looking for right now. And once somebody do catch a hold of it, it’s gonna be a lot of people coming out here and making it real big.”

Sitting in his apartment studio off of Central St., Cannon and his Deal Wit It crew contemplate the next verse while listening to the first bars of a new beat. Ideas are exchanged freely, as the beat comes together, like organic, pounding, spiritual communion. Like Frankenstein, perhaps. Nothing’s a bad idea in this room. Everyone has a voice until it finally comes together. There’s no rule for the beat. It just happens. Here, rap just happens—it would be strange if music wasn’t being born in this studio on a daily basis.

I want a fresh beat!

The beat comes out upbeat, with a slight Caribbean edge.

I know y’all liking this shit!

Fame and fortune are never too far out of their minds. In the studio, when the music comes together piece by piece, you can feel it. It’s there. So close. There’s possibility in the sound. It’s ugly. It’s lovely. It’s what you want it to be. You can bend it, and you can break it. And, sometimes, it can do the same to you.

“In my early career, I used to write and then listen to the beat,” Cannon says. “But now I want the beat first, ’cause you hear the beat, you can go back and change the beat, add to it, take what you want out, break it down. I want the beat first! Pen and pad, I’m ready. The beat talks to you, tells you what to say.

“When other rappers hear what we’re doing, they ask ‘Why you ain’t got a deal on?’” he continues. “They’re like, ‘You need to be gone.’”