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In Virginia Beach, an unlikely hip-hop hotbed

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- As a grandmother of two, Meyera E. Oberndorf doesn't usually pay much attention to rap music. But the four-term mayor of this seaside city plans to soon issue a proclamation honoring four local residents who were up for a total of 14 Grammys last night: hip-hop stars Missy Elliott, Tim "Timbaland" Mosley, Pharrell Williams, and Chad Hugo.

"It will be Recording Arts and Sciences Day in honor of these extremely gifted young people," Oberndorf said.

The mayor's kudos will cap the unlikely rise of this southeast Virginia region -- home to colonial Williamsburg and the nation's largest naval base -- as a creative hotbed for music traditionally linked to America's tough urban streets.

Elliott, who grew up in nearby Portsmouth but recently bought her mother a home here, was up for five Grammys, including album of the year for "Under Construction" and best female rap solo performance for the single "Work It," which was nominated for best rap song.

Hugo and Williams, who attended Princess Anne High School here together and played in the school band, had six nominations between them, three for their work as the hit production duo the Neptunes and three for solo projects.

Timbaland had three nominations, including two in the album of the year category -- one for his work on Elliott's "Under Construction" and one for his contributions to Justin Timberlake's "Justified."

Not since the heyday of onetime Virginia Beach residents Scott McKenzie, best known for the 1967 hit "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)," and the '80s pop-country star Juice Newton has this city of 430,000 enjoyed such celebrity.

Yet music executives and local residents say the thousands of students attending the area's half-dozen colleges and the tens of thousands of young recruits at the nearby Norfolk Naval Station make the region an ideal incubator for popular music.

"This is a place where artists are free to experiment, because you don't get pigeonholed," said Eric Spence, general manager of Beat Club Records, whose founder, Timbaland, has collaborated with artists ranging from Ludacris to Destiny's Child. "Because this area is dominated by the military, people come from all over. In high school, you can find kids from California or Dallas. They bring styles from all around the country."

The region's ascent as an urban music center began in the 1980s when New York music producer Teddy Riley relocated to Virginia Beach and won a huge following for his infectious "New Jack Swing" beats. Entertainers from Michael Jackson to Whitney Houston made the pilgrimage to Riley's studios to get an infusion of the New Jack Swing magic. "I relocated here because I loved the city and it was best for my kids to be here," Riley said. "You get the best of both worlds," he added, calling it a resort town with an urban influence. "Virginia is a quiet, untapped place. When Michael Jackson was here he loved it."

After New Jack Swing yielded to hip-hop, Philadelphia 76ers star Allen Iverson, who grew up in nearby Hampton, drew attention to the region by signing to make a controversial rap album for Universal Records in 2001 called "Misunderstood," on which his hometown buddies would back him up. But the basketball bad boy dropped the project after receiving criticism from NBA management that the album's lyrics offended homosexuals, women, and parents.

Before last night, Riley, Elliott, and Newton had already won five Grammys among them. And if Elliott, Hugo, Williams, and Timbaland won the bulk of their 14 Grammy nominations, Virginia Beach could wind up near the top of the Grammy heap in terms of popular music awards per capita.

That's not to suggest that Virginia Beach is another Detroit or Nashville -- or even Athens, Ga., or Austin, Texas, two smaller towns known for their music scenes. Athens, which Rolling Stone magazine calls the No. 1 college music scene in America, is working hard at capitalizing on its roots as the birthplace of rock bands such as R.E.M. and the B-52's. But visitors to Virginia Beach would hardly sense its rise as a music mecca.

Riley and Williams and Hugo have separate production facilities in the area, but they're quietly tucked in nondescript buildings. And the artists, some say, are similarly low-profile when it comes to announcing their Virginia connection. That stands in contrast to rappers such as Jay-Z, Ludacris and Snoop Dogg, who routinely pepper their lyrics and music videos with references to their hometowns of New York, Atlanta, and Long Beach, Calif., respectively.

What's more, Virginia Beach has yet to find a Prince or Eminem to memorialize it on the big screen, as those stars paid homage to their hometowns in their films.

Still, local musicians have made important economic and cultural contributions to the city, says Donald L. Maxwell, director of the Virginia Beach department of economic development.

"Hip-hop has really transformed us culturally," Maxwell said.

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