Local rapper Reginald Smith, who goes by the name Lil' Bit, likes to call himself the President of Knoxville, or, sometimes, El Presidente. It's a somewhat backhanded boast, considering how small and underground Knoxville's hip-hop scene is, and Smith's new mixtape, Tennessee Lottery, isn't the sort of definitive statement that will allow the 21-year-old rapper to take an uncontested spot on top of the heap. It's a mixtape, after all, recorded quick and featuring guest spots from several other local artists. But it's a solid statement of purpose, a marked improvement over his previous album, and a teasing preview of what Smith says is still to come.
"This is my second album in a year," he says. "First I did Knoxville Dungeon and now I'm putting out Lottery to keep the name going. Then I hope to get my next album out in November ....With Knoxville Dungeon, I couldn't really do what I wanted to do. Now I've got more means and I know more people. Hopefully this can put me on a level where people will give me some respect."
Smith isn't a virtuoso rapper. He is, however, an emphatic one—his style is declamatory, his rhymes measured, and he has a thick, rich, mid-range voice. His showcase on Tennessee Lottery is "At It Again," a dark, solo crunk anthem produced by HourGlass with synth strings and high hat and a menacing chorus of fragmented background vocals, punctuated by sirens and gunshots. Smith keeps a relentless string of brags and threats with an undercurrent of dark humor going for a full five minutes: "My rap's all scientific, step into the laboratory/In the booth or on the streets, I tell the same story;" "Some say they bought my album just to break it/I'm still at the bank, it's all money, I'll take it;" "I hypnotize like a Pokemon/I wouldn't say I'm crazy, but I'm borderline."
On the sing-song "Barry Bonds," Smith is even funnier, turning the seven-time MVP's name into a verb for what you do to rivals with a baseball bat. "You know the bases fully loaded/Fastball or curve, I hit it all/So be careful what you throw/...Barry Bonds the 'ho." And it's all set to a sample of the steel-drum track from Soulja Boy's "Crank That."
Smith says his performing name—a nickname that's stuck with him since grade school—is a good fit for what he's trying to do. "I try to have a little bit of this and a little bit of that, some hard stuff and some R&B," he says. He and HourGlass, who produced most of Tennessee Lottery and has a couple of prominent features on "Tennessee (865 Remix)" and "Remember You," also selected some surprising samples for the mixtape—Tears for Fears' "Shout" on "Shout," and Metallica's "Unforgiven" on "Torture Chamber." He anticipated that such a wide-ranging approach would open the way to some radio airplay, but that hasn't worked out yet.
"I tried to get a couple songs on the radio," he says. "But they wanted some songs that were aimed more at women, some softer stuff. I'm too male-oriented, I guess."
But he senses that things are starting to change for rappers and producers in Knoxville. The success of Mr. Mack, the increasing number of out-of-town artists coming here to perform, and the fact that recording and distribution are easier than ever have made the scene more crowded, if not necessarily better.
"Since Mr. Mack had a little success, a lot of people have been trying to come out and do it, too," Smith says. "But we've still got a lot of work to do hip-hop-wise in Knoxville."