Nearly four years after signing with Atlantic Records, Bowling Green, Ky.-based hip-hop collective Nappy Roots is seeing the light of day. The sextet's long-awaited debut, "Watermelon, Chicken, and Gr

Nearly four years after signing with Atlantic Records, Bowling Green, Ky.-based hip-hop collective Nappy Roots is seeing the light of day. The sextet's long-awaited debut, "Watermelon, Chicken, and Gritz," arrives Feb. 26.

"The world wasn't ready for Nappy Roots in '98, '99, or 2000," member Skinny DeVille (aka William Hughes) says about the group, whose 1998 independent album, "Country Fried Cess" (Deep Rooted Productions), established a local fan base and caught the attention of Atlantic reps. "The world wasn't ready to accept a group of guys being country and being nappy, being cool and being humble. Cats are getting tired of hearing the same old s*** -- 'I got this and I got that.' People want to hear something fresh."

DeVille and fellow Nappy Roots members Big V (Vito Tisdale), Scales (Melvin Adams), B. Stille (Brian B. Scott), R. Prophet (Kenneth Anthony), and Ron Clutch (Ronald C. Wilson) relish their Southern roots, upbringing, and experiences. For them, Nappy is synonymous with reality and the antithesis of the glitz that defines today's hip-hop. "It's so easy to be nappy," Clutch explains. "Just be yourself. But folks make it so hard to be real."

Coalition of Independent Music Stores president Don VanCleave thinks the time is right for an organic hip-hop group like Nappy Roots. "They're very Southern, very country and hip," he says. "And on top of that, the music is incredible."

Recording in a studio located in the back of the Nappy Roots-owned record store ET's, the group amassed nearly 100 songs in preparation for its Atlantic debut. Two original tunes from the group's first album made the final cut.

Nappy Roots is proud that its album is not formulaic. "Because we're six individuals, we look at things from a lot of different perspectives," R. Prophet says. "Nappy brings a universal sound-something that appeals to people in Thailand, Baghdad, the Bronx [N.Y.], Oakland [Calif.], and Atlanta."

"If you're looking for a lot of rappers and cameos, this ain't it," Big V says about the group. "This is Nappy Roots, and we kept it all in the family."

That family includes Noontime/Atlantic labelmate Jazze Pha, who's featured on "Awnaw," the first single released commercially on vinyl and sent to urban and crossover radio the first week of this month. "Ho Down," a funky ditty produced by Michael Caren, Atlantic's senior VP of A&R, features the Bar-Kays. James "Groove" Chambers produced most of the 20-track set, including "Awnaw," "Ballin' on a Budget," and "Hustla." Also on the guest-producer roster is Mike City, who contributed "Sholiz," and Carlos "Six July" Broady, who produced "Life's a Bitch."

The Lenny Bass-directed "Awnaw" video was sent to BET and regional video outlets last October -- the same time Nappy Roots embarked on a club and black college promo tour. The group hits the road for another six-week promotional tour of the South and Midwest Jan. 15. It runs through Feb. 23, coinciding with the album's release and that of the vinyl version of second single "Headz Up."