“I still feel like I’m 25,” a svelte Greg Nice, two days removed from a master cleanse, tells me over wings and red wine at the South Street Seaport Pizzeria Uno. Actually, it’s his rap career that’s at the quarter-century mark. Originally a beatboxer, the South Bronx native made his wax debut on T La Rock’s “Bass Machine” in 1986. Nice & Smooth, his enduring partnership with Smooth B., debuted the following year, contributing “Funky for You,” the Partridge Family–sampling “Hip-Hop Junkies,” and the still-ubiquitous ’92 Gang Starr collabo “DWYCK” to the Golden Era rap canon. The Beatnuts (“No Escapin’ This”), 2Pac (Nice was working on ‘Pac’s never-completed One Nation project and living at the late rapper’s home when he died), and moonlighting stylist O’Neal McKnight (2008’s “Check Your Coat”) have all tapped the charisma-oozing MC for hooks and funky adlibs since.
But Popcycle, Nice’s first solo LP, is not exactly a rap record. More LMFAO than ATCQ, the album’s electro-hop ditties are concerned with “White Girls” and “Vegas”—to name two of the album’s more self-explanatory tracks—not the streets. Producers include house masters Little Louie Vega and Todd Terry, not to mention the Disco Fries, a Jersey duo known for their work with Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino. There’s even a pseudo-dubstep track (“That’s What’s Up”). Grumpy-old-man rap this isn’t.
“If it feels good to me, I don’t give a fuck,” says Nice between nibbles, decked out in an Acapulco Gold T and Kansas City Royals fitted. “That’s how I live. That’s how I could be at a party on the Lower East [Side] where Nick Catchdubs is spinning and, in the same night, in Teaneck with Kid Capri, where it’s all dope dealers and killers. That’s the same way 2Pac was.”
Popcycle‘s flavor shouldn’t be a complete surprise. The biggest windfall of Nice’s career came from the Wiseguys’ “Start the Commotion,” the 1999 big-beat smash that repurposed lines from his white-label single “Set It Off” into checks from Mitsubishi and Zoolander. He has dallied in bridge-and-tunnel-friendly club music since the early ’90s, guesting on records by Latin freestyle diva Lisette Melendez (“That was the first time a freestyle artist got on Arsenio,” Nice boasts of 1993’s “Goody Goody”), C+C Music Factory, and New Kids on the Block.
Even in Nice & Smooth, Greg was more hype man than lyricist, his verses typified by singsong-y, supremely quotable non sequiturs. (From “Hip-Hop Junkies”: “Rickety Rocket was my favorite cartoon/After marriage, the honeymoon/I’ll be damned, gag me with a spoon/Who loves Popeye? Alice the Goon.”) In a sense, he’s the true-school link between the nursery-rhyme emceeing of hip-hop’s earliest masters of ceremony—Lovebug Starski, DJ Hollywood—and the call-and-response chants of Lil Jon and New Orleans bounce music.
Though they haven’t released new music since 1997’s IV: Still Blazin, Nice & Smooth still perform together regularly. Two decades past their prime, they remain one of hip-hop’s must-see live acts, thanks largely—no shots at melodious straight man Smooth Bee—to Nice’s outsize personality and spastic physical presence. “Greg is what hip-hop’s all about—he can move any crowd,” says Ralph McDaniels, the host/creator of local hip-hop TV institution Video Music Box, recalling a Sunday-afternoon taping when Nice—the now-27-year-old show’s first and most frequent guest—whipped a crowd of small children into a frenzy, all in his church clothes.
At Uno’s, Nice shows me a trailer for Strangeboy, an alter ego/multimedia project he’s developing. He’s completely unrecognizable, his features obscured under green and blue makeup. “It’s a brand, it’s a character—something that could be fun for kids, and grown-ups, too,” he says, referencing Josie and the Pussycats and Shrek. “It could be comic books, it could be cartoons. A lot of different shit.”
Greg Nice performs with Nice & Smooth at the Circle of Sisters Expo at the Javits Center October 30