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For 71 North, the road to success is best traveled with a loaded trunk.

71 North - WALTER  NOVAK
"This is small-time gettin' big," sighs a member of ribald Cleveland rappers 71 North. The band's driving around in circles on the outskirts of campus in Columbus, looking for radio station WCKX-FM/107.5, where 71 North is scheduled for an interview.

If they can find the place.

Ten people are packed in the weary Dodge van, which looks like it should be hauling elderly types to bingo. Instead, it's loaded down with burgeoning rap stars, who have just finished performing at the mammoth Polaris Amphitheater, opening for Usher and Nas.

Judging by 71 North's performance, you'd think the group would be traveling in limos. Though it was relegated to the side stage, 71 North quickly drew a throng of mostly teenage girls, undulating to the group's booming, bass-heavy grooves and squealing at the pelvic thrusts of its four male backup dancers. When the band broke into its signature song, "Boodie Bounce," the girls' butts followed the order. Afterward, 71 North autographed arms and wrists, then piled into the van.

That was over an hour ago. When WCKX is found, the band is greeted by an overenthusiastic DJ.

"Your song is bumpin' in like every single club in the Capital City, man, and everybody does this line dance," says DJ Shawn Anthony. "I really feel like you guys are going to blow up in a major way with this joint."

In Cleveland, they already have. Fronted by producer/MC Mucci and his cohort J-Nasty, 71 North dropped "Boodie Bounce," its first single, in '99, and the song soon became one of the biggest Cleveland club hits in years. A randy ode to rump-shaking that comes with its own line dance, the song has become so popular that certain Bally's fitness centers have taken to teaching the Bounce in aerobics classes. Hip-hop superstar Petey Pablo has been seen doing it. It was even featured during halftime at Miami Heat games last season. The cut has helped spark a resurgence in hip-hop line dancing, which has taken Cleveland clubs by storm and is spreading nationwide. "You know how, back in the day, everybody used to dance? Now, it's like the guys are too good to go ask a girl to dance, or the girls think they're too pretty," Mucci says. "But with line dancing, you can do it by yourself, you don't need a partner. So, like with an ugly girl in the club that nobody wants to mess with, or all the pretty girls who are like 'I hope he don't come over here,' when the line dance comes on, you don't got to worry about nobody."

For Mucci, dancing has long been second nature. His childhood dream was to get on Soul Train, and he studied ballet at the Cleveland School of the Arts. ("Everybody be rankin' on me because I took ballet," he says.) As a Marine, he traveled the world for three years in the early '90s, and he saw how hip-hop culture had infiltrated places like Japan, Micronesia, and the Middle East. It was then that Mucci realized he had to pursue a career in the field.

"I went to Thailand, we're walking around, and they're playing some old Fresh Prince and stuff like that," he says. "I go to clubs, and they dress hip-hop -- they're breakdancing and everything. I'm like 'This is where I need to be.'"

Mucci came back to Cleveland and brainstormed "Boodie Bounce" one night at a club. After its success, he created another smash in the "Cleveland Shuffle," which caught the attention of the new local label Critical Music, which signed the group. On the strength of the signing, Critical recently landed a distribution deal with white-hot Warlock Records, a Sony subsidiary that's helped break stars like Trick Daddy and Trina.

"I tell people it's like knowing what the winning lottery numbers are going to be," label co-founder Mark Breault says of 71 North's mounting success.

The group is about to hit the road with Nelly, B.G., and DJ Quik, and has become a strong draw throughout Ohio and in spots down South. Last year, 71 North attracted a crowd of 7,000 at a block party in South Carolina. Still, Mucci has his sights set higher.

"I'm trying to get the key to the city," he says in all seriousness. "That's what my goal is: the key to the city from the mayor."

The only thing bigger than his ambitions? The boodies.

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