Not long after Jovan Campbell started elementary school, his father had him in the boxing ring. Staying long enough to win a couple of Golden Gloves titles, the young man learned a thing or two about fighting for recognition.
Campbell, however, ultimately managed to win that battle with his words, not his hands. If you didn't spend last summer vacationing at one of the polar ice caps, you probably know the 16-year-old Campbell as the rapper Jibbs, whose massive hit "Chain Hang Low" made a G-rated paean to bling, using a melody your great-grandmother once twerked it to.
But despite creating the feel-good hit of the year, Jibbs continues to spar at his hometown gym.
"I look at music the same way I look at boxing -- like, it's a discipline thing, and you just gotta keep your guard up," the teenage pugilist offers, via phone from St. Louis. "And my opponent is the music industry, and I just gotta knock out the competition."
He's getting his chance at the moment as part of Scream Tour V. The annual urban music package -- dubbed the "Ruff and Ready, Young and Sexy" tour for 2006 -- features teen heartthrob Omarion and Def Jam singer-songwriter Ne-Yo. Crooners Mario and Pretty Ricky are also on board, while Jibbs and fellow rhymer Yung Joc fill out the hip-hop portion of the program.
The Georgia rapper Joc, who had his own huge 2006 smash, "It's Goin' Down," has become friends with Jibbs and acknowledges the crowded Scream Tour lineup can be a challenge for the young MCs. "But with a 25-minute set, the key for both of us is to give the audience what they came to hear," says Joc with a laugh.
Jibbs, meanwhile, admits he's doing as much note-taking as counterpunching at the moment. "I just wanna see how everyone does their set," he says. "See what kinda ideas it might give me."
Still, the artistic drive that helped send "Chain Hang Low" to the top of the charts goes almost as far back as his boxing career. When Jibbs wasn't in the ring as a kid, he was also spitting verses -- and being corrected by his mother, an aspiring MC herself.
"That was tight, man!" he enthuses. "Just imagine, walkin' around writin' rhymes, and your mom can give you some tips."
Meanwhile, one of Jibbs' older brothers was laying down tracks on recording gear his parents had purchased in order to keep the boys off the streets -- a bigger issue after the family relocated from Chicago to the south side of St. Louis, an infamously dangerous neighborhood. Jibbs' brother would later become DJ Beats, half of the production duo Da Beatstaz, who would go on to helm tracks for such St. Loo rappers as Nelly and Chingy.
But Beats' biggest success to date was within earshot years before he even capitalized on it. In 1999, a nine-year-old Jibbs joined his brother in the family's home studio to help sing the hook for an early version of "Chain Hang Low," which was then being shopped to other artists. At the time, Jibbs had no clue as to the melody's history: "Turkey in the Straw," a 19th-century American folk song that was once a staple of minstrel shows, later became even more widely known when Walt Disney used it in the first-ever Mickey Mouse feature, 1928's Steamboat Willie.
"I just heard a hit," he says. "I kept tellin' my brother, and he said, 'Yeah, yeah, we'll do it again.' But he ain't never manage to get around to it. He took his time, man."
In fact, he took long enough for Jibbs -- by then a teenager who was wowing older St. Louis rhymers with his quicksilver verses -- to get his own label deal. With some big-name credits under his belt, DJ Beats was able to get Jibbs' demo to Geffen, which snapped up the precocious youngster. Back in his brother's bedroom studio, Jibbs once again made his pitch for a rerecorded "Chain Hang Low." Beats acquiesced, with spectacular results. The single dominated the airwaves during the summer of '06, making Jibbs a refreshingly old-fashioned success story in an increasingly X-rated genre, which led to Jibbs enjoying one major I-told-you-so at his older brother's expense.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, man," he admits with a laugh. "It was pretty sweet."
Despite a couple of big-name cameos -- Chamillionaire guests on "King Kong," the woofer-worshiping follow-up to "Chain," while Lil Wayne and Yung Joc appear on the latter's remix -- most of Jibbs' debut was recorded at home, with his brother providing the backing tracks. The humble beginnings haven't deterred some hip-hop heavyweights from paying homage. Jibbs has been shouted out by his idol, Jay-Z, and his hometown hero, Nelly, has also been supportive. "They like what I'm doin', man," he says.
At the same time, Jibbs doesn't want to be pigeonholed as a proponent of the St. Loo sound -- if such a thing still exists, post Chingy, J-Kwon, et al. Ranging from syrupy chopped & screwed beats to hyperactive crunk, with the vocals to match, the breadth of styles on Jibbs' album should militate against that.
"If I'm ever compared to Nelly, then you can't do nuthin' but take that as a good thing," Jibbs says. "But I'm tryin' to come out and do my own thing -- be completely myself."
That's the thinking behind the best album title of 2006: Jibbs Feat. Jibbs. It sounds like a jab at the hip-hop world's penchant for guest-star excess, but Jibbs insists it was actually suggested by his younger sister. "She just said, 'You got so many different styles, it's like you're the guest on your own album.'"
Of course, Jibbs hopes to use the success of "Chain" to allow him some guest spots on TV and in film. He's already mulling a couple of movie scripts, and an animated TV project is being kicked around. But anytime he drifts too far from music, there's always his brother's studio, as well as his competitive and talented family, to keep him focused.
"I got three albums' worth of stuff already, but that don't mean I'm gonna stop," he says. "Like I learned boxing -- keep punchin', man. Keep punchin'."
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