Drumline -- Nick Cannon marching to his own beat

Eons before Nick Cannon made a star turn in the hit movie "Drumline," and ages before his eponymous sketch comedy show began airing on Nickelodeon, and way before he was polishing his upcoming rap album and two more major motion pictures, he was just a teenage wannabe comedian.

The San Diego native's stand-up routine didn't always go over well. "My mother didn't think I was funny at the time," Cannon recalled this week. Once, "I got booed off the stage. ... I try to forget about that."

It has been only six years, but forgetting has become easy for the 22-year-old as he cruises Los Angeles in his shiny new Cadillac Escalade, his pockets fat with a $1.5 million check from Miramax for another film.

These days he might be found chilling in New York with P. Diddy's Bad Boy crew one minute, jetting to Aspen for his mentor Will Smith's posh New Year's bash the next -- all the while watching the returns come in for "Drumline."

The critically hailed film about a black college's marching band is in its fourth week and has pulled in nearly $50 million -- impressive considering that it's showing on 1,600 screens, about half as many as the rest of the Top 10 movies.

Cannon plays Devon Miles, a hardheaded Harlem drum prodigy who is recruited to the fictional Atlanta A&T.; There, he loses the ego (mostly) and gains much-needed discipline.

"It's a solid coming-of-age story," Cannon says, on the phone from his home in Los Angeles.
He didn't always feel that way. Before "Drumline," Cannon, like much of the world, was stuck on the "band geek" stereotype. "When you first hear about a movie about marching bands, you're like, 'Yeah, that's exciting,' " he says. "That's corny."

Many a romantically challenged band geek is thanking Cannon right about now for his portrayal of Devon, whose street-but-sweet persona and chemistry with the love interest crackle across the big screen.

Marching band musicians have long been big cheeses on black college campuses. Since integration, those schools' athletic programs have suffered as bigger, richer programs at majority-white colleges raid the most talented prospects. As a result, sassy, spirited marching bands belting out the latest hits and doing elaborate formations at halftime have come to rival -- and often replace -- athletes as the main attraction.

Other elements of black college subculture were mainstreamed by Spike Lee's 1988 movie "School Daze" and the 1987-93 TV sitcom "A Different World."

"I remember watching 'School Daze' and thinking, 'Wow, there are schools like that?' " Cannon recalls. "It was hot for that time. 'Drumline' is this generation's urban college film."

Cannon figures "Drumline" -- directed by Chuck Stone, who launched another cultural phenomenon with his "Whassup" Budweiser campaign -- may even surpass "School Daze" and "A Different World."

"It was done with so much class that it kind of stepped out of ... the 'urban film' boundaries," he says -- just what the actor-rapper-comedian is trying to do with his triple-threat career.

Cannon's career
Cannon graduated from high school at 16 so he could work California's comedy circuit full time. Talent scouts for Nickelodeon saw his act and hired him in 1999 to warm up the live audiences while it taped programs.

He soon graduated to contributing to the variety show "Kenan and Kel," then became one of the youngest staff writers for "Cousin Skeeter," a comedy with Bill Bellamy as the voice of a street-smart puppet.

Rapper-turned-actor Smith also signed him to a development deal and executive-produced a show starring Cannon, which was finished in 2001 and sold to the WB network but never aired. (Smith also gave his protege his blessing to join Lil' Romeo and 3LW in recording an update to "Parents Just Don't Understand," Smith's hit with DJ Jazzy Jeff that produced rap music's first Grammy in 1989.)

Last January, Nickelodeon decided to take Cannon up on his offer to executive-produce and star in "The Nick Cannon Show," a weekly program. The show, which airs Saturday evenings, is part of a block of programs that outperforms its network and cable competition among Nickelodeon's core demographic of 2- to 11-year-olds during that time slot. On the show, he interviews celebrities such as Mary J. Blige and Britney Spears using different personas. A new season begins airing next week.

"Nickelodeon has really been a training ground for me," Cannon said. "An actual playground. I've been able to do anything I can think of on that network."

Nickelodeon has also delivered to Cannon a very young but devoted fan base -- one he hopes will follow him on his foray into music. It worked for Disney Channel alumni Spears, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera.

"What's amazing about youth programming is your fans grow up and then you get more fans who grow into you," Cannon said. "If they are your fans when you're young, they really try to stick with you."

Nickelodeon made a similar calculation and signed Cannon as its first artist on a new label that is a subsidiary of Jive Records. Cannon produced half the tracks on with the album, which will be released in March. He has been dabbling in music through his church, the Crenshaw Christian Center in Los Angeles, and he has always dabbled in production and rapping.

His mentor Smith has proved that a high-profile acting career combined with a bubble gum "hip-pop" record will move units. But that doesn't mean you'll get respect in hip-hop circles. History has shown that guns and crack-slinging aren't necessary, but rappers must have an edge.

"All I want to do with my album is to take hip-hop back to its essence," Cannon says. "To what it was: about fun. The early '80s and Slick Rick rapping about children's stories and LL doing 'Big Ole Butt,' it was just fun. You can still have a clubbanger where there's no negativity involved. At the same time, it's not corny."

Well, stranger things have happened: Now band kids are cool.


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