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Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010

Rapper Ray Nitti Flirts With National Breakthrough

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Milwaukee rapper Ray Nitti didn’t get much of a heads up from V100 when DJs from the radio station called to tell him they were going to premiere his single “Bow” on their local segment “Heat From the Streets.”

“They told me I had five minutes before it was going to be broadcast,” Nitti recalls. “I wanted to call everyone I knew and tell them my song was going to be on the radio, but I was at Chuck E. Cheese with my daughter, so I didn’t have any time to do that. I figured I’d just sit back, then, and get some honest feedback on the record without skewing it by promoting it myself.”

The response was immediate. Listeners called in requesting the song, which the station soon added to its regular rotation, an improbable feat for a local single. “Bow” is now one of the station’s most played tracks, the first genuine local rap hit in years.

A jubilant club cut with a lascivious chorus (“I like her!/ I wanna wife her!/ I wanna take her home and pull an all-nighter!”) and an infectious, whistling synth hook, the song quickly showed legs outside the city as well, finding airplay in Southern markets like Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee.

YouTube users have viewed the single well over 500,000 times, and now that Nitti has signed to the Universal Records satellite label Next Plateau, it’s on the brink of a larger, much more aggressive national push.

“I knew I came up with a good record, and I knew it would have some sort of local success,” Nitti says of the song, which he wrote in a day on a whim. “But I didn’t predict the magnitude of it. I wasn’t expecting it to go national. You always really dream about it and pray that one day this will happen to you, but now that it’s happened I’m trying to deal with it. It’s especially striking when you go out of town to perform. I’ll be in front of a crowd of people I’ve never seen in my life and don’t know anything about me except for this one song, but their response will be so intense. I had a grown woman start crying in front of me, acting like I was Michael Jackson or something. I’m still learning how to deal with those situations.”

That success comes with a bit of a local burden. For most of the last decade, Milwaukee rappers have raced to become the first to put Milwaukee on the map. Nitti is an unlikely and sometimes unwitting front-runner for that honor, averse to the internal politics of the rap scene.

“Everybody wants to be responsible for putting Milwaukee on the map, but that means that everybody’s fighting with each other and beefing with each other instead of supporting each other,” he says. “So I don’t want people to say Ray Nitti put Milwaukee on the map. If you look at the globe, Milwaukee is already on the map—we were never not on the map. I look at myself as just a small piece to a bigger puzzle at the end of the day.”

Nitti’s preference for cheerful dance music over beefing and braggadocio also makes him an odd candidate for the Milwaukee throne, but he explains, “It was never my image to be a street dude, and boast, ‘I’m in the streets, I got guns, you don’t wanna go to war with me’ and all that.

“That’s not the type of person I am,” he says. “When times were hard I had to go to the streets to feed my family, but it was nothing I glorified. It was just to make sure my daughter had Pampers and the lights stayed on. It’s not a lifestyle I enjoyed.”

And there are, of course, other advantages to staying above the fray of street rap.

“Now every time I do a show it’s for all women, and what real dude doesn’t want to do a show for all women?” he says with a laugh. “The male audiences that I do get at my shows are there just because they appreciate the girls dancing to the song in the club. They’re like, ‘Oh Ray, thanks for making this song! I ain’t never had a girl dance on me like this before!’”