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Shirley Pearlman is a short, white Jewish woman with your grandmother's figure. She's also the most successful 75-year-old rap musician in America.
One afternoon last week, over a cup of decaf at a Pembroke Pines Denny's, she and her male rapping partner spontaneously showed why: "Laddy daddy," she rapped. "I'm the Granny at the party/I don't cause trouble/I don't bother nobody."
When the rap wrapped, the crowd went wild, which is not saying much, considering the audience consisted of one momentarily disarmed reporter, a little girl devouring a plateful of French fries, and two middle-aged women sitting with Pearlman.
"That was wonderful," one of the women beamed.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," Pearlman politely replied as if she had somehow ruined the decorum of the local Denny's.
"No, no," the lady insisted. "It was great."
There is little doubt, of course, that on any given day Pearlman, who goes by the moniker Granny Rapp, and her 33-year-old partner, Malik Kalonji, could charm audiences just with the oddity of their performance. Indeed, Granny admits it's hard for people to believe a gray-haired suburbanite can compete in an industry dominated by urban youths.
But Pearlman and Kalonji, who go by the name of Granny Rapp & 725, aren't just karaoke stars or weekend entertainers rapping for kicks. They're the real deal with ambition to hit the big time. And, they believe, the talent. With 28 songs written, Pearlman and Kalonji have spoken with recording stars Kool and the Gang about producing their first album, and Granny has hired a West Coast manager -- Ernest Thomas, the former actor best known for playing the lanky and bespectacled Raj on the hit '70s show What's Happening!! To date the pair has also performed on the nationally televised Rosie O'Donnell and Jenny Jones shows, and live at the Apollo Theatre, the Harlem house of soul, funk, and R&B that amplified the careers of such musical luminaries as Luther Vandross, the Jackson 5, and James Brown.
But performing at the Apollo, where musicians get booed off the stage with grim regularity (Granny didn't), was nothing compared to the challenge of last year's performance at Studio 183, one of the toughest clubs in Miami-Dade County. The duo arrived there late one night with Granny's adult son and manager, Cleveland Brown, and Kalonji's 11-year-old son, Simba, who often performs with the group as a dancer.
"They had acts come on and they were booed. One, two, three," says Kalonji who speaks in a blunt staccato as if creating rhyme and rhythm in his head. "Her son said, 'You sure you want to be here?' But we got out there. And the crowd -- they didn't know what to expect."
"They started to boo until I opened my mouth," Granny says.
"Then they went bananas!" her partner howls with laughter.
"And they went, '725 in the motherfuckin' house,'" says Granny in a soft, lilting voice that sounds more elementary school librarian than hard-core rapper. "And my son, he was jumping up and down like a kangaroo. And I said, 'Say 725 in the motherfuckin' house!'"
"They were going crazy!" Kalonji exclaims with a broad grin. "And, on the way out, one of the guys said, 'Hey Granny when you gonna flip a disk,' which is slang for putting out a record. See, we complement each other, but she's the Granny!"
Pearlman's been the Granny since the end of the '80s, when she became interested in rap music through her family's long-time friendship with Kool and the Gang, the band responsible for "Fresh," "Ladies' Night," and the favorite party tune of every child of the '70s, "Celebration." Granny had been a fan of the band for decades, and, in the late '80s, she heard a song the band wrote about her son, Cleveland, that included a short rap segment.
"I liked everything about it -- the music, the rhythm -- and I asked the man who wrote the music how it was done," she recalls. "He sang it for me -- on the phone -- and it kind of lingered. And I put some things down on paper and thought I'd give it a shot. Then I decided it would be nice if we could write some socially conscious rap -- teaching the children what's right and wrong."
Although Granny says she could have rapped on her own, she realized she would be more successful with a partner. With a few songs already written, she headed to Miami in early 1990 with her son Cleveland to check out a few clubs and find herself a costar. That's when she met Kalonji, who was rapping on stage at a local club.
"She came to me and introduced herself as Granny Rapp," says Kalonji, who goes by the name "K-Love" and refers to Granny as simply "G."
"And I laughed. And I said, 'Pleased to meet you Granny Rapp.' She said, 'I like your style of rap.' And I said, 'Thank you.' And I tried to move on. And she grabbed me. And said, 'No. I also rap.' And I said, 'Great.' And I tried to move on. I was trying to be polite. But then she started rapping. And now she had my attention."
The two rappers found they had a lot in common. They share a birthday -- July 25 -- a fact later used in the creation of the group's formal name: Granny Rapp & 725. And although Granny lists Tupac Shakur, Queen Latifah, and LL Cool J as her main influences, she and Kalonji found that they could offer something a little bit different to rap music -- beyond the obvious -- in the form of rap lyrics with a social conscience.
One song, which Granny rapped at Denny's -- her finger wagging in that maternal way that inspires unearned guilt -- warns against discrimination: "Not the essence or the tissue or the color of your skin/But the person to the person that's the person who's within."
In 1994 a doctor found one more issue for Granny Rapp & 725 to rap about -- a small lump in Granny's breast that would have been undetectable had she not seen her doctor for an annual mammogram. Doctors removed the malignancy and put Granny into chemotherapy. As she recovered she wrote a song about the experience and included a lesson: "Jam, jam, jam/Get your mammogram."
Granny Rapp & 725 performed the song last October, on the last day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, on Rosie's TV show. Last week the duo performed it again at Max's Beach Place in Fort Lauderdale for "Friends of Gilda," the charitable arm of "Gilda's Club," a South Florida support group for cancer patients and survivors.
Granny, Kalonji, and Simba were dressed in army camouflage for the performance, and before the show sweet-voiced Granny chatted and greeted acquaintances like the guest of honor at a country club social. An elderly woman, a long-time friend of Pearlman, approached her with a big smile and squealed, "Oh, Shiiiirley! I can't believe you're doing this."
Granny laughed, and a moment later she grabbed the mic and started rapping. Her soft voice, now amplified, suddenly took on an edge. And despite technical gaffes with the sound equipment, the crowd took notice of the new, albeit older, face of rap music.
"It was good as far as rap is concerned," concluded 28-year-old Jennifer St. Thomas. "But you can't compare it to other raps because the message is so different."
Four years ago, when the group performed for the Florida Marlins at Don Shula's Golf Club, Granny rapped about safe sex and tossed condoms into the crowd. The athletes started laughing, but Granny was dead serious.
"I went over to Gary Sheffield," she says, "and I said, 'Don't be a wise ass, Gary. Use it.' He just picked me up and hugged me and kissed me.