In spite of the appealing name, the Nicetown area of Philadelphia is not a pleasant place to grow up. It's a dangerous neighborhood full of drugs, gangs and poverty that drains the spirit out of nearly everyone who lives there. Which makes the story behind the Young Gunz moniker all the more astonishing. Despite the obvious violent allusions, according to Hanif 'Neef' Muhammad--who, along with partner Christopher Ries, comprise this up-and-coming rap duo--the term has more to do with basketball than the violence these childhood friends lived through as youngsters.
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"You know what they call 'gunning' in basketball?" asks 19-year-old Neef. "It's taking the rock, going down and shooting. You just take advantage and take over. That's why we call ourselves the Young Gunz. We're just gunning at anything."
That single-minded determination is key to the pair's success. Adopting an "all for one, one for all" attitude, Chris and Neef have been gunning at their craft for nearly a decade, honing their talents on both the mean Philly streets and, more recently, the Roc-A-Fella studios.
"Around the time I first met Neef, me and my other homeys went to his crib," recalls Chris, also 19, adding that the two were first introduced in middle school and have been tight ever since. "He was in the crib writing to some beats or whatever. He started up some rap song, and I just got going with my joint."
Soon after that, the pair took their newfound abilities to school, and the action really began to heat up. "Neef used to have crowds around him at the lunch table, with the girls going crazy and all that sh*t," laughs Chris. "He started a rap off for me and told me to spit that motherf*cker. I just kept going with it, and it got crazy."
Their reputation for spitting out hot rhymes grew, and by their freshman year in high school the Young Gunz had rounded up a manager and began attracting interest from major rap labels including, of course, Roc-A-Fella Records. That attention, plus the challenges and distractions that can come with being touted as "the next big thing," only deepened the duo's determination to stick together.
"This game is crazy, but as long as we're together, nothing can break us up," says Neef. "It's a game that makes a weak n*gga break, and if we'd have been weak n*ggas, we'd have been broke. I learned that we're real strong, and nothing can take us apart."
Whether recording as Young Gunz or as part of fellow Philadelphia native Beanie Sigal's STATE PROPERTY posse, that cohesiveness remains evident. In fact, though the pair appeared on the initial STATE PROPERTY soundtrack--and had bit roles in the film--their first large-scale hit, "Can't Stop, Won't Stop," emerged from the STATE PROPERTY 2 album.
"We were at Dame [Dash's] office one day and a guy brought in some beats," remembers Chris, noting that, though "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" is the debut single from the recording, he and Neef, together and separately, perform on most of the disc's other tracks, too. "It was some old school party sh*t, and when the beat came on, that's what came up in our heads. We went over the bass line, and laid that down in like 20 minutes. That's all it took. The verses weren't hard to do, and once we came up with the hook, that's all we needed, because the hook is what makes the song. The hooks and the beats, that's how it went."
Early next year, Chris and Neef will also release their premiere Roc-A-Fella solo CD, tentatively titled TOUGH LOVE. Though that tag could readily refer to their rough-and-tumble upbringing, or perhaps the fly girls of their hometown, it actually carries a deeper, far more personal meaning for the duo.
"At one point in my career, I fell from who I was and got mixed up in the street life," reveals Neef. "I fell back and gave Chris the torch. He was doing what he had to do, and he did this song. One verse on the song was called 'tough love,' where he was talking about me and how things were going and that I needed to come back in it. Then I did a verse talking to him about everything. It's a crazy song, and it's probably the toughest thing we ever did."
Growing up in Philadelphia (the so-called City of Brotherly Love) plainly affected Chris and Neef in more ways than one. The bond between these two young brothers-in-arms is clearly tight, and the Young Gunz are determined to tough it out--together--in the hard-hitting hip-hop arena.
"Ain't no young cats out here like us, talking about the stuff we talk about," boasts Neef. "In Philly, you grow up early, and you learn everything. Ain't no young boys bringing it about the girls, about the street stuff, about whatever. It's real. Real rap."
They're young, they're tough and they're hungry. With that combination of talent and drive, it's only a matter of time before these Young Gunz and their brutal beats will be blazing from speakers around the world.
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