20061220

Hyphy Holidays




Bay Area lays down the top 10 albums of 2006
Plus: What really happened at the BARS Awards?


Hyphy Holidays

by Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian December 12, 2006

A few weeks ago while writing a story about Fillmore rap, I called JT the Bigga Figga, only to be greeted by a long outgoing message informing callers he was in Nigeria on his Mandatory Hyphy tour with Snoop Dogg "for the next 48 to 72 hours." Though the message was largely a public self-congratulation delivered in the veteran rapper-producer's bigger-than-thou banter, even JT sounded surprised, as if the content of his boast for once exceeded his formidable powers of expression.

And in truth, it was big: as recently as last year, such a feat would have seemed impossible. But JT's association with Snoop — forged by the pair's recent DVD, Mandatory Business (Get Low) — and the idea of so ambitious a tour under the rubric of hyphy indicate just how far Bay Area rap has come over the course of 2006. Perhaps encouraged by Lil Jon's example, big names have begun to stick their toes in the Bay, though whether Diddy found any rappers during his largely restaurant-based visit is unknown. MTV stirred the waters with video hits by the likes of E-40 ("Tell Me When to Go," "U and Dat"), Big Rich ("That's the Business"), and Bailey ("U-C-It"), while the Bay sent three Best West Coast DJ nominees to the Justo Mixtape Awards: Demolition Men, DJ Juice, and 40's DJ E-Rock. Upcoming major-label releases by Mistah FAB (Atlantic), the Team's Clyde Carson (Capitol), and the Pack (Jive) promise 2007 will continue to build on the momentum of the past couple years.

The best thing about the past 12 months has been the sheer amount of world-class music released. The signal event of the first quarter was, of course, the March release of E-40's My Ghetto Report Card (BME/Reprise), which generated national curiosity about the hyphy movement and set the stage for much that ensued. April through June saw a flood of amazing discs that resumed in late August and hasn't abated since. These periods of activity were symbolically separated by the entrance of Mob Figaz's Husalah, who was given 53 months in federal prison for possession with intent to distribute more than five kilos of cocaine. The loss of this Mac Dre–level talent is a definite blow to local rap. But given six months of freedom after his sentencing to put his affairs in order, Hus recorded several albums' worth of material, two of which — Shower Posse, a duo album with the Jacka, and Explosive Mode III, a quartet with Jacka, San Quinn, and Messy Marv — have just appeared from FriscoStreetShow.com and rank with his finest work.

This year's activity was set to culminate in the second annual Bay Area Rap Scene (BARS) Awards on Dec. 2 at the San Mateo Event Center. Every rapper I spoke to was excited about the event: those who had money bought suits, those who didn't rented, and even those who clung to white T's — or T's with massive airbrushed representations of themselves — approached the affair with respectful seriousness. "The idea was great," said Mistah FAB, who brought his mom to the event. "But the ordeal was a mess."

Despite a stiff cover charge of $50 to $250, the attendance of national press and industry figures, and the promise of performances and presentations by many of the Bay's finest, the show was shut down after short sets by San Quinn and Messy Marv, two impromptu songs by E-40 and Keak Da Sneak, and roughly four awards. Fans were angry, the national press was unimpressed, and Bay Area rap was embarrassed at a delicate moment in its resurgence.

Vibe, for example, posted its online coverage under the headline "BARS Awards Shut Down after Crowd Gets Too Hyphy," a misleading statement immediately contradicted by the story's first paragraph, which blames the event's premature end on "lack of security and poor planning on the part of promoters." The latter assessment is much more accurate. The allegedly "too hyphy" crowd consisted of the accumulated entourages of rappers who refused to leave the stage. Yet with the possible exception of Numskull and the Caliban (who briefly hijacked the show to perform one song), artists' behavior could hardly be called "hyphy" — it was more a sullen milling around brought on by boredom with the show's slack execution.

"If there's a big pause in something that's supposed to be entertaining, of course there's going to be problems, because no one is paying attention," said the Jacka, whose much-deserved Underground Artist of the Year Award was announced to a near-empty hall. "It's like, 'Let's walk around. Fire up some weed. Let's get onstage. They're letting everyone else on.’”

"Last year it was better," he concluded. "They had the kind of security people respected."

It's difficult not to agree with this assessment. Google's cache of a Dec. 1 Craigslist ad page seeking security guards for the next-day event hardly inspires confidence, and the responsibility of securing the stage and choreographing a smooth sequence of events surely lies with the organizers, not the participants. Despite vigorous rebuttals posted by awards staff and promoters on Vibe.com and other sites, the overwhelming impression was that a lack of preparation to deal with what was admittedly stubborn but ultimately nonviolent behavior contributed to the blurry line between performers and spectators so typical of rap events.

"If you're organizing a thousand personalities with a million egos, you've got to give yourself room to deal with things you didn't plan for," said FAB, whose scheduled appearance with Too Short was among the evening's casualties. This was particularly unfortunate as Short has done all he can for hyphy of late, including his single, "Keep Bouncin'," on which Snoop name-checks the movement. Now based in Atlanta, on a major label, and still highly successful, $hort doesn't need the hyphy movement but has taken it under his wing, seemingly out of love for the hip-hop scene of which he is universally acknowledged as the founder.

"Short's a visionary," FAB said. "His sponsorship and persona allow us to get into certain spots. But it's up to us to be accountable for what we're doing."

In any case, it would be a mistake to blame the artists for the collapse of the awards. There were no arrests and no incidents of parking-lot mayhem among cheated fans — just disappointment. The entire scene has worked hard to get to its present level of success and has conducted itself with infinitely less violence since Mac Dre's death.

The rappers deserve a celebration, because whether or not the scene explodes in 2007 on the national level, the impressive collective output of Bay Area rap over the past two years already represents an extraordinary artistic achievement. The following is a strictly chronological list of personal favorites of 2006, culled from a huge stack of worthy contenders.


TOP 10

(1) Demolition Men, The Animal Planet Mixtape (starring Husalah and the Jacka of the Mob Figaz) (Mob Figaz)

(2) E-40, My Ghetto Report Card (Reprise/WEA)

(3) The Team, World Premiere (Rex)

(4) Bullys Wit Fullys, The Infrastructure (SMC)

(5) Husalah, Guns, Dope, and Religion (Sumo)

(6) Beeda Weeda, Turfology (Hieroglyphics)

(7) Traxamillion, The Slapp Addict (Slapp Addict)

(8) Dem Hood Starz, Band-Aide and Scoot (SMC)

(9) Big Rich, Block Tested Hood Approved (Koch)

(10) J-Stalin, On Behalf of the Streets (Livewire)



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Shock G corrects the record

[update coming soon]

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20061202

The 'Moe Show -- San Quinn, Messy Marv, Big Rich, Will Hen leading out from the Fillmore

by Garrett Caples
San Franciso Bay Guardian November 22, 2006


If you don't know about the Filthy ’Moe

It's time I let real game unfold....

Messy Marv, "True to the Game"

I meet Big Rich on the corner of Laguna and Grove streets, near the heart of the Fillmore District according to its traditional boundaries of Van Ness and Fillmore, although the hood actually extends as far west as Divisadero. "Me personally," the 24-year-old rapper and lifelong ’Moe resident confesses, "I don't be sticking my head out too much. But I make sure I bring every photo session or interview right here."

At the moment he's taping a segment for an upcoming DVD by the Demolition Men, who released his mixtape Block Tested Hood Approved in April. Since then, the former member of the San Quinn–affiliated group Fully Loaded has created a major buzz thanks in part to the snazzy video for "That's the Business," his E-A-Ski- and CMT-produced single. It was the Jam of the Week in August on MTV2 and added to straight-up MTV in time for the Oct. 3 release of the Koch full-length Block Tested Hood Approved. (Originally titled Fillmore Rich, the album was renamed to capitalize on the mixtape-generated hype.)

Presented by E-40 and featuring Rich's dope in-house producer Mal Amazin in addition to heavyweights such as Sean-T, Rick Rock, and Droop-E, BTHA is a deep contribution to the rising tide of Bay Area hip-hop. While Big Rich's gruff baritone delivery and gritty street tales make his music more mobster than hyphy, the album is not unaffected by the latter style's up-tempo bounce, helping the movement hold national attention during this season of anticipation before Mistah FAB's major-label debut on Atlantic. "I don't necessarily make hyphy music," Rich says. "But I definitely condone it. As long as the spotlight is on the Bay, I'm cool with it." Coming near the end of a year that has seen landmark albums from San Quinn, Messy Marv, Will Hen, and fellow Fully Loaded member Bailey — not to mention JT the Bigga Figga's high-profile tour with Snoop Dogg, which has taken hyphy all the way to Africa — Rich's solo debut is one more indication of the historic district's importance to the vitality of local hip-hop and Bay Area culture in general.

THE EDGE OF PACIFIC HEIGHTS

The Fillmore is a community under siege, facing external and internal pressures. On the one hand, gentrification — in the form of high-end shops and restaurants serving tourists, Pacific Heights residents, and an increasingly affluent demographic creeping into the area — continues to erode the neighborhood's edges. "If you grew up in the Fillmore, you can see Pacific Heights has crept down the hill, closer to the ghetto," says Hen, who as a member of multiregional group the Product (assembled by Houston legend Scarface) moved more than 60,000 copies of its recent "thug conscious" debut, One Hunid (Koch). "Ten years ago there were more boundaries. But the Fillmore's prime location, and I'm not asleep to this fact. We're five minutes away from everything in the city. That has to play a role in the way the district is represented in a city that makes so much off tourism. You might not want your city portrayed as gangsta, even though it is."

Hen has a point. The notion of San Francisco as gangsta is somewhat at odds with the way the city perceives itself. As an Oakland writer, I can attest to this, for even in San Francisco's progressive artistic and intellectual circles, Oakland is usually understood to be beyond the pale in terms of danger and violence. Yet none of the Oakland rappers I've met talk about their hoods in quite the same way Fillmore rappers do, at least when it comes to their personal safety. As Big Rich films his section of the DVD, for example, he remarks on the continual stream of police cruisers circling the block.

"They slowed it down," he says. "Now they only come every 90 seconds. Right around here is murder central — people be shooting each other every night. By 7 o'clock, we all gotta disperse, unless you want to get caught in the cross fire." He waves his hands in mock terror. "I ain't trying to die tonight!"

“BUSTING HEADS”

Though Rich is clowning, his statement is perfectly serious — indiscriminate gunfire among gang members, often in their early teens, makes nocturnal loitering a risky proposition at best. As of September, according to the San Francisco Police Department's Web site, the Northern Police District, which includes the Fillmore, had the city's second highest number of murders this year, 11, ceding first place only to the much larger Bayview's 22. For overall criminal incidents, the Northern District led the city, at more than 10,000 so far.

Though Fillmore rappers might be given to stressing the danger of their hood, insofar as such themes constitute much of hip-hop's subject matter and they feel the need to refute the city's nongangsta image, no one I spoke to seemed to be boasting. They sounded sad. Hen, for example, reported that he'd been to three funerals in October, saying, "You hardly have time to mourn for one person before you have to mourn for the next person." While the SFPD's Public Affairs Office didn't return phone calls seeking corroboration, both Rich and Hen indicate the neighborhood is suffering from an alarming amount of black-on-black violence.

"Basically, it's genocide. We're going to destroy each other," Hen says. "It used to be crosstown rivalries rather than in your backyard. Now there's more of that going on. If you get into it at age 15, the funk is already there. Whoever your crew is funking with, you're in on it." The ongoing cycle of drug-related violence — the Fillmore's chief internal pressure — has only ramped up under the Bush administration's regressive economic policies. It's a fact not lost on these rappers: as Rich puts it succinctly on BTHA, "Bush don't give a fuck about a nigga from the hood."

"Everybody's broke. That's why everybody's busting each other's heads," explains Rich, who lost his older brother to gun violence several years ago. "If you don't know where your next dollar's coming from ..."

To be sure, the rappers give back to the Fillmore. They support large crews of often otherwise unemployable youth, and Messy Marv, for example, has been known to hand out turkeys for Thanksgiving and bikes for Christmas. But Bay Area rap is only just getting back on its feet, and while the rappers can ameliorate life in the Fillmore's housing projects, they don't have the means to dispel the climate of desperation in a hood surrounded by one of the most expensive cities on earth. Moreover, they are acutely aware of the disconnect between their community and the rest of the city, which trades on its cultural cachet.

"It's like two different worlds," Hen muses. "You have people sitting outside drinking coffee right in the middle of the killing fields. They're totally safe, but if I walk over there, I might get shot at. But the neighborhood is too proud for us to be dying at the hands of each other."

HOOD PRIDE

The neighborhood pride Will Hen invokes is palpable among Fillmore rappers. "I get a warm feeling when I'm here," Messy Marv says. "The killing, you can't just say that's Fillmore. That's everywhere. When you talk about Fillmore, you got to go back to the roots. Fillmore was a warm, jazzy African American place where you could come and dance, drink, have fun, and be you."

Mess is right on all counts. Lest anyone think I misrepresent Oaktown: the citywide number of murders in Oakland has already topped 120 this year. But my concern here is with the perceived lack of continuity Mess suggests between the culture of the Fillmore then and now. By the early 1940s, the Fillmore had developed into a multicultural neighborhood including the then-largest Japanese population in the United States. In 1942, when FDR sent West Coast citizens of Japanese origin to internment camps, their vacated homes were largely filled by African Americans from the South, attracted by work in the shipyards. While the district had its first black nightclub by 1933, the wartime boom transformed the Fillmore into a major music center.

"In less than a decade, San Francisco's African American population went from under 5,000 to almost 50,000," according to Elizabeth Pepin, coauthor of the recent history of Fillmore jazz Harlem of the West (Chronicle). "The sheer increase in number of African Americans in the neighborhood made the music scene explode."

Though known as a black neighborhood, Pepin says, the Fillmore "was still pretty diverse" and even now retains vestiges of its multicultural history. Japantown persists, though much diminished, and Big Rich himself is half Chinese, making him the second Chinese American rapper of note. "My mother's parents couldn't speak a lick of English," he says. "But she was real urban, real street. I wasn't brought up in a traditional Chinese family, but I embrace it and I get along with my other side." Nonetheless, Pepin notes, the massive urban renewal project that destroyed the Fillmore's iconic jazz scene by the late ’60s effectively curtailed its diversity, as did the introduction of barrackslike public housing projects.

The postwar jazz scene, of course, is the main source of nostalgia tapped by the Fillmore Merchants Association (FMA). Talk of a musical revival refers solely to the establishment of upscale clubs — Yoshi's, for example, is scheduled to open next year at Fillmore and Eddy — offering music that arguably is no longer organically connected to the neighborhood. In a brief phone interview, Gus Harput, president of the FMA's Jazz Preservation District, insisted the organization would "love" to open a hip-hop venue, although he sidestepped further inquiries. (Known for its hip-hop shows, Justice League at 628 Divisadero closed around 2003 following a 2001 shooting death at a San Quinn performance and was later replaced by the Independent, which occasionally books rap.) The hood's hip-hop activity might be too recent and fall outside the bounds of jazz, yet nowhere in the organization's online Fillmore history (fillmorestreetsf.com) is there an acknowledgement of the MTV-level rap scene down the street.

Yet the raucous 1949 Fillmore that Jack Kerouac depicts in his 1957 book, On the Road — replete with protohyphy blues shouters like Lampshade bellowing such advice as “Don’t die to go to heaven, start in on Doctor Pepper and end up on whisky!” — sounds less like the area's simulated jazz revival and more like the community’s present-day hip-hop descendants.

How could it be otherwise? The aesthetics have changed, but the Fillmore’s musical genius has clearly resided in rap since Rappin’ 4Tay debuted on Too $hort’s Life Is ... Too $hort (Jive, 1989), producer-MC JT the Bigga Figga brought out the Get Low Playaz, and a teenage San Quinn dropped his classic debut, Don’t Cross Me (Get Low, 1993). While there may not be one definitive Fillmore hip-hop style, given that successful rappers tend to work with successful producers across the Bay regardless of hood, Messy Marv asserts the ’Moe was crucial to the development of the hyphy movement: “JT the Bigga Figga was the first dude who came with the high-energy sound. He was ahead of his time. I’m not taking nothing away from Oakland, Vallejo, or Richmond. I’m just letting you know what I know.”

In many ways the don of the ’Moe, San Quinn — reaffirming his status earlier this year with The Rock (SMC), featuring his own Ski- and CMT-produced smash, “Hell Ya” — could be said to typify a specifically Fillmore rap style, in which the flow is disguised as a strident holler reminiscent of blues shouting. While both Messy Marv and Big Rich share affinities with this delivery, Will Hen, for instance, and Quinn’s brother Bailey — whose Champ Bailey (City Boyz, 2006) yielded the MTV and radio success “U C It” — favor a smoother, more rapid-fire patter.

What is most striking here is that, with the exception of fellow traveler Messy Marv (see sidebar), all of these artists, as well as recent signee to the Game’s Black Wall Street label, Ya Boy, came up in the ’90s on San Quinn’s influential Done Deal Entertainment. Until roughly two years ago, they were all one crew. While working on his upcoming eighth solo album, From a Boy to a Man, for his revamped imprint, Done Deal, Quinn paused for a moment to take justifiable pride in his protégés, who now constitute the Fillmore’s hottest acts.

“I create monsters, know what I’m saying?” Quinn says. “Done Deal feeds off each other; that’s why I’m so proud of Bailey and Rich. We all come out the same house. There’s a real level of excellence, and the world has yet to see it. Right now it seems like we’re separate, but we’re not. We’re just pulling from different angles for the same common goal.”

“We all one,” Quinn concludes, in a statement that could serve as a motto for neighborhood unity. “Fillmoe business is Fillmoe business.”

myspace.com/bigrich

myspace.com/williehen

myspace.com/sanquinn


Making Messy Marv

One of the most extraordinary products of recent Fillmore history is Messy Marv, a rapper whose life reflects the neighborhood's struggle with a half century of urban renewal and the ’80s-era introduction of crack into America's ghettos. In 1996, when he was still in 10th grade, he released his first album, Messy Situations (Ammo). Though it sold around 15,000 units, Mess admits he didn't take music seriously at first.

"I dropped out of high school due to family issues," he says. "I had to grow up real fast and do the man thing, but I started doin' the street thing."

Nonetheless, Mess's rap reputation grew, and in 1997 he hooked up with San Quinn to record Explosive Mode (Presidential, 1998), which has sold more than 50,000 copies. "There was a lot of hype around the hood about how he was better than me or I was better than him," Mess says. "We decided to come together, and we made a classic."

"At that time, I was really on the street, living outta cars, doing real bad things," he recalls. "So Quinn and his mom took me in."

Despite his success when few in the Bay were moving many units, Mess was unable to leave the dope game, partly due to his own addiction. "I inherited a cocaine habit," the rapper says. "I been clean for a while, but I had a really bad habit. All I can say is 'Say no to drugs.’” Though he won't go into details, Mess confirms his triple life as rapper, dealer, and user came to a head one night at an out-of-state show in 2001, when he was forced to jump out a fourth-floor window. "I broke both of my legs, crushed my left foot, lost a lot of blood," Mess says. "I was in a wheelchair for six months. The doctors said I'd never walk again."

"It gave me a whole new respect for handicapped people. I was doing shows in my wheelchair, and I rocked the whole crowd. It was a hell of a feeling that they still accepted me," he says. "That gave me the strength to get up and walk. I learned how to walk all over again, by myself, in four months. After that I decided it was time to go somewhere else with my life."

As if to atone for time lost, Messy Marv has since pursued his talent with a vengeance, recording a slew of projects for his own label, Scalen LLC, and labels such as Frisco Street Show, which released a reunion with Quinn, Explosive Mode 2: "Back in Business" (2006), and just dropped Explosive Mode 3 with Husalah and Jacka. In 2004, Mess inked a distribution deal for Scalen through Universal/Fontana, helping him move more than 20,000 copies each of Disobayish (2004) and Bandannas, Tattoos and Tongue Rings (2005). While he spent much of 2005 in county jail on a weapons violation, he still managed to score one of the big radio hits of the hyphy movement, "Get on My Hype," produced by Droop-E. Most recently, he's been on MTV and other airwaves with the E-A-Ski- and CMT-produced "So Hood," from The Infrastructure (SMC), his album with Hunters Point rapper Guce, released under the name Bullys Wit Fullys. A self-conscious bid to end hood rivalry between the ’Moe and HP, the Infrastructure project shows Mess's awareness of the power of his position as a role model even as he continues to spit with the most defiant swagger of any rapper in the Bay.

While Mess admits he has major deals on the table and plans to release the first of a two-volume opus titled What You Know about Me? in December, he also intends to retire thereafter in a nonbinding Jay-Z sort of way in order to concentrate on the younger acts on his label. This intention seems characteristic of the true spirit of the Fillmore as well as an acknowledgment that despite his youth, Messy Marv has already written a chapter in the district's history.

myspace.com/messymarvonline




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Traxamillion wins a Goldie

All eyes on Bay Area producer of "Getz Ya Grown Man On," "Super Hyphy," and more

Goldies Music winner Traxamillion
by Garrett Caples
San Franciso Bay Guardian November 8, 2006

[pics coming soon]

When I met Traxamillion, the young producer-rapper was in the lab with Balance, recording a faithful cover of EPMD's "You're a Customer" for a Mind Motion mixtape. Naturally, I would have preferred seeing Trax record an original, but watching him vibe to a classic was perhaps more revelatory. Where many producers insist on their isolation from outside influences, Trax is an unapologetic lover of music.

"Everybody's a fan," the musician, born in East Orange, NJ, and raised in San Jose, points out. "Somebody inspired somebody to make a beat, to rap. That's how I go about my beats. I listen to shit. I get inspired. I appreciate it and harness and learn from it. I've always tried to mimic what's going on, on the radio."

Despite this unpretentious attitude toward his art, Traxamillion has developed a highly original sound of his own — bright, downright cheerful noises animate his eminently danceable grooves — and he's already earned a place in Bay Area rap history. In June 2005 he topped the local rap charts as producer of Keak Da Sneak's infectious independent single "Super Hyphy" (Rah), proving the Yay could hang in the mix with big-label megastars while opening up the airwaves to a long-suppressed flood of local talent.

"The beat was inspired by the youngstas," Traxamillion says. "My little cousins came through drunk, wildin' out on a birthday, and started dancin'. I was paying attention to their movements, thinking, 'I gotta make some music for these cats,' because the youngstas are really the hyphy movement. When I was making the beat, I was replaying their dancin' in my head, and 'Super Hyphy' came out an hour and a half later."

Knowing he had a hit on his hands, Trax shot the beat at Keak, who reportedly wrote the song in one session during a drive home from Tahoe. Within a few weeks "Super Hyphy" was all over the radio.

"It took two months to get to number one [on KMEL's list of most requested tracks in June 2005]," Trax recalls. "But it was fresh, and Keak's so abstract when he comes with something — people are fiendin' for it. People loved it, and it still slaps to this day. It's a big club anthem in the Bay."

"It was weird because it was my first time on the radio, period, as a producer," Trax says. "I was, like, 'Man, this is crazy — all these people are going crazy to my song. This is my shit I made in my mother's bedroom.' I be at the club, watching everybody at the peak of the song when they would run it back like three or four times, going, 'God-damn!' Nobody knew it was me."

If Traxamillion's name wasn't ringing bells, "Super Hyphy" was, and in short order he was working with the Team, whose "Just Go" earned the producer further spins. But when he returned to the local number one slot on KMEL's most requested tracks in December 2005, producing "Getz Ya Grown Man On" for East Palo Alto's then-unknown Dem Hoodstarz, Trax proved his success with Keak was no fluke. The remix — with guests Mistah FAB, San Quinn, Clyde Carson, and Turf Talk — has even picked up national airplay and features prominently on Dem Hoodstarz's Band-Aide and Scoot (SMC) as well as Trax's own The Slapp Addict (Slapp Addict). "The Slapp Addict is the soundtrack to the hyphy movement," Trax says of the album. Its single-producer, multirapper format has earned it a reputation as a Bay Area Chronic. "It's basically a Who's Who of the Bay, produced by me. After 'Grown Man,' I was superhot. People were, like, 'I want to work with you.' In turn, everybody did songs for me, ’cause game recognize game. Damn near a year's worth of creativity went into that album."

In addition to spawning singles like "The Sideshow" (Too Short and FAB) and "Wakin' ’Em Up" (Turf Talk and Hoodstarz), Slapp Addict has spun off another huge hit collaboration with Keak. "On Citas" demonstrates the producer's special rapport with the Bay's hottest rapper.

"When me and Keak get together, we make hits," Trax says. "When I first met Keak, he told me, 'Man, your beats and my voice — it's a marriage.' Ain't nothin' I'm doin' or nothin' he doin' — it's just his shit plus my shit equals hits."

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20061108

Method Man at the crossroads

by Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian online exclusive October 18, 2006

When a bumped phone interview with hip-hop legend and platinum artist Method Man mushroomed into a proposed backstage post-show encounter, I naturally jumped at the chance.

Being a devotee of the ultimately more funk-based grooves of Bay Area hip-hop, I tend not to pay attention to the doings of NYC, and I can’t claim to have ever followed the Wu-Tang Clan in general or Meth in particular, though I have always admired both from afar. Yet one needn’t follow the Big Apple's scene in great detail to appreciate its impact, and with Meth’s successful film and TV career, most recently as a recurring character in this season of HBO’s cop drama The Wire, one needn’t even listen to hip-hop anymore to appreciate his.

This situation is exactly what’s troubling Method Man. His very success in the cultural mainstream, he feels, has been held against him by the hip hop-industry, a curious situation considering mainstream success is the perceived goal and direct subject matter of most raps these days. Unlike the recent fashion among rappers like Andre3000 to pooh-pooh their interest in music in favor of their “acting career,” Meth wants to be known primarily as an MC. But Hollywood success has proved to be a slippery slope, paved by Ice-T and Ice Cube -- each in his turn the most terrifying, authentic street rapper imaginable -- to the end of your hit-making potential in hip-hop.

Couple this perception with Meth’s vocal challenges of the effect of corporate media consolidation, and it’s not difficult to imagine why Def Jam released his fourth solo album, 4:21: The Day After, without a peep at the end of August, as if the label had written him off despite his track record of one gold and two platinum plaques.

Still, no one who’s heard the angry, defiantly shitkicking 4:21 (executive produced by the RZA, Erick Sermon, and Meth himself) or saw the show Meth put on that evening (leaping from the stage to the bar and running across it by way of introduction, later executing a backwards handspring from the stage into the crowd by way of ending) could possibly doubt his vitality as an MC. He put on a long, exhausting show, heavy with new material, that utterly rocked the packed house.

Shortly after the show ended, I was brought backstage by Meth’s road manager, 7, to a tiny corridor of a dressing room crammed with various hangers on. A man in a warm-up suit with a towel over his head was sitting alone on a short flight of steps in the center of the room.

“That’s him,” 7 said, before disappearing to take care of other business.

It was like being sent to introduce yourself to a boxer who’d just finished a successful but punishing brawl. The face that looked up at my inquiry was that of a man who’d retreated somewhere far away into himself, requiring a momentary effort to swim to the surface. Quite suddenly I found myself face to face with Method Man, whose presence immediately turned all heads in the room our way as he invited me to sit down for a brief discussion of his new album and his dissatisfaction with his treatment by the music industry.

SAN FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN: I read the statement on your Web site [www.method-man.com] in which you discuss your problems with the industry. Could you describe the problems you’ve been having?

METHOD MAN: My big problem with the industry is the way they treat hip-hop artists as opposed to artists in other genres. Hip-hop music, they treat it like it's fast food. You get about two weeks of promotion before your album. Then you get the week of your album, then you get the week after, then they just leave you to the dogs.

Whereas back in the day, you had artists in development, a month ahead of time before you even started your campaign, to make sure that you got off on the right foot.

Nowadays it’s like there’s nobody in your corner anymore. Everybody’s trying to go into their own little club, for lack of a better word. Everybody has their own little cliques now. Ain’t no money being generated so the labels are taking on a lot of artists because of this at once that they don’t even have enough staff members to take care of every artist, as an individual. Their attention is elsewhere, or only with certain people.

SFBG: Your new single [“Say,” featuring Lauryn Hill] suggests you’ve had problems with the way critics have received your recent work and even with the radio playing your records. How can someone of your status be having trouble getting spins?

MM: You know what it is, man? A lot of people have come around acting like I’m the worst thing that ever happened to hip-hop, as good as I am.

Hating is hating. I’ve been hated on, but just by the industry, not in the streets. They never liked my crew [the Wu-Tang Clan] anyway. They think we ain’t together anymore and they try to pick at each and every individual. Some motherfuckers they pick up. Other people they just shit on. I guess I’m just the shittee right now, you know what I mean?

SFBG: Do you think it has to do with the age bias in hip-hop? The idea an MC is supposed to be 18 or 20?

MM: You know what I think it is? As our contracts go on, we have stipulations where, if we sell a certain amount of albums, [the labels] have to raise our stock. A lot of times dudes just want to get out their contracts so they can go independent and make more money by themselves. There’s a lot of factors that play into it.

SFBG: Are you not getting enough label support?

MM: A label only does so much anyway. It’s your team inside your team that makes sure that you got a video. Or that you got that single out there, or that your tour dates are put together correctly. The labels, they basically just do product placement. They make sure that all your stuff is in the proper place where it’s supposed to be at. They’re gonna make sure your posters are up. They’re going to make sure that they’re giving out samples of other artists that are coming out also. [But i]t’s really up to us [the artists] to make sure our music is going where it’s supposed to.

Right now there’s so many artists people can pick and choose from, don’t nobody like shit no more.

SFBG: Do you think you’re getting squeezed out of radio play as a result of corporate media conslidation?

MM: Absolutely; this shit ain’t nothing new. It isn’t just happening to me. It’s been going on since dudes have been doing this hip-hop music. They bleed you dry and then they push you the fuck out.

That’s why I always stress to the fans to take your power back. I always hear people talking about things like, “Damn, what happened to these dudes? What happened to these guys? I always liked their shit.”

But the fans, not just the industry, tend to turn their backs on dudes. They get fed so much bullshit, they be like, “Fuck it; I’m not dealing with that shit. I’m going to listen to this.”

SFBG: So what about your acting career? Do you feel like you’ve been overexposed as an actor or that you’ve been spread too thin and are readjusting your focus?

MM: Fuck Hollywood, B.

SFBG: But I heard you say on the radio today you wanted to play a crackhead and get an Oscar....

MM: I do want to play a crackhead in a movie. I’m going to be a crackhead who dies of an overdose at the end of the movie, and people cry, and I’m going to get me an Oscar. But fuck Hollywood; tell ‘em to come see me. Tell ‘em to come to my door.

SFBG: Obviously, from what you said during the show and the lyrics on 4:21: The Day After you haven’t renounced smoking marijuana, so could you discuss the concept behind “4:21”? Is it about the difficulties of living the hard-partying lifestyle of the rap artist?

MM: It was just symbolic of a moment of clarity for me. I made a symbol for myself of a moment of clarity. You know I’ve always been an avid 4:20 person. I like to get out there and smoke with the best of them. But I picked “4:21” as like, the day after. I got tired of people running up on me and being like, “You was funny in that movie,” because I was an MC first and foremost. It used to be like, “Yo, that fuckin’ verse you did on that song, that was hot.” Now it’s like, “My kids love you; they love that movie, How High.”

It gets to the point when even when I’m having a serious moment, or a serious conversation, people laugh at the shit like it’s funny. But they laugh cause they thinking of the movie; they thinking of some sitcom shit.

SFBG: Besides yourself and RZA, Erick Sermon executive produced the album. Can you talk about your connection with him?

MM: I’ve been fuckin’ with E ever since I’ve been fuckin’ with Redman. E knows what I like, you know what I’m saying? The same way he knows what Redman likes. And RZA, that’s a given right there. I’ve been down with RZA’s shit A1 since day one.

SFBG: 4:21 also features a collaboration with Ol’ Dirty Bastard. When did you guys record this track?

MM: “Dirty Meth” -- that’s a posthumous joint with O.D.B. It was after he was gone already. I tell everyone that so they know.

SFBG: But he seems to permeate the new album.

MM: He does. Good word, too. He permeates it.

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Too Short -- Blow the Whistle (Short/Jive)

Album Review by Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian October 11, 2006

Although largely recorded in Atlanta with production by Jazze Pha and coexecutive producer Lil Jon, Blow the Whistle is Too Short's most Bay-sounding album in years and certainly his best disc since 2000's You Nasty (Jive). Having rapped professionally since 1983, Short might not bring his utmost to every recording, but Whistle sounds as hungry as the most hyphy debut imaginable. His subject matter has not changed significantly — shouts of “beeyatch!” still abound — but he brings a fresh intensity to his raps, as though reenergized by the youthful Bay Area movement.

Songs like the title track and the Droop-E-produced "I Want Your Girl" (featuring E-40 and Mistah FAB) find Short Dogg perfectly at home with the latest Bay sound, while on "Keep Bouncing" he even gets Snoop Dogg "ghostridin’ the whip." While it may be true that Short's wordplay tends toward the misogynistic, it's equally the case that he receives no credit for his gestures in the opposite direction. Witness his support rap on Kelis's girl-power anthem "Bossy" and the following lines from Whistle's "Sophisticated":
Y'all thought Too Short was all about pimpin'
Foul-mouthed mack just talkin’ bad about women
You heard bitch and cut it off
You ain't even listenin’
All I said was, if the shoe fits wear it
And if it don't apply, act like you didn't hear it.
No one has the right to take away from Short the word that made him famous. And nobody is obliged to take it seriously either.

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E-40 on cover of Modern Luxury's mag, San Francisco

Big glossy E-40 gazing out from the fanciest magazine racks of the Bay this month. The high fashion mag tapped him to lead for the "70 hottest stars, sounds, scenes..."

[pic coming]

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Regaining consciousness --East Oakland rapper Ise Lyfe spreads the word, makes his mark

"I think the only way to do it harder than Jay-Z is to have a real movement... I'd like to be that big but at the same time put a dent in the Earth."

When this article came out, you made Ise Lyfe's album #1 at Rasputin's SF. Your power is recognized!

by Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian August 23, 2006

"I want to be a mainstream artist," says East Oakland rapper and spoken word poet Ise Lyfe, discussing his rejection of the label "conscious rap." "I'm not trying to be some backpack cat performing in Davis. I want to be ..."

The 23-year-old trails off thoughtfully. "I think the only way to do it harder than Jay-Z is to have a real movement, something tangible that will effect change in the world through music. I'd like to be that big but at the same time put a dent in the Earth."

At first glance, it's hard to imagine a rapper less like Jay-Z than Ise Lyfe, whose 2004 self-released debut, SpreadtheWord, is devoid of the big pimpin', cheese-spending exploits that have endeared Jiggaman to millions. But like James Baldwin — who once said he didn't want to be the best black novelist in America, he wanted to be Henry James — Ise isn't talking about betraying his identity for success. He's simply saying he wants to be the best, period. If there's anything common to all four of these artists, it's the awareness that in order to be the best you must change the game. With the rerelease of SpreadtheWord, complete with new artwork, a bonus DVD, and a mildly retooled track list, on fledgling independent Hard Knock Records, in addition to his recently concluded nationwide tour with the Coup, Ise Lyfe is hoping to do just that.

Born in 1982, Ise was raised in Brookfield, deep in East Oakland next to the notorious Sobrante Park. "I grew up as a young kid right when the crack epidemic was flourishing and having a real effect on our families," he says. "My father had been affected by drugs. For me, growing up in a single-parent home was the manifestation of that existing in our community. But I also came up amongst a large level of social justice activity and youth organizing. That influences my music. I think Oakland has a history that unconsciously bleeds into everyone from here."

The legacy of this history — which includes a spoken word scene at least as old as Gil Scott Heron's mid-’70s albums for underground label Strata East — endures in Oakland, where Ise first made a name for himself as a teen slam poet. "I would be three years deep into performing spoken word before there was any place I could go and perform hip-hop," he says. "Hip-hop was all 21-and-up venues, where I was the number one slam poet in the country when I was 19." Repping the Bay in 2001 at the Youth Speaks National Poetry Slam, Ise would achieve a modicum of fame through appearances on HBO's Def Poetry Jam.

"When I started recording," he confesses, "folks didn't even know I was making a hip-hop record. They thought it was a spoken word record, but I fused both in there." The success of this fusion of art forms is all the more apparent on the rereleased SpreadtheWord, the continuity of which has been improved by a few judicious edits. Ise's flow is so dexterous that the moments of purely a cappella poetry enhance rather than disrupt the musical experience. In fact, musicality underscores an important difference between SpreadtheWord and most conscious hip-hop recordings, for most of the beats on even otherwise impressive efforts sound like they were made sometime in 1993. The lack of curiosity about the sound of contemporary hip-hop gives such music a perfunctory air, while the tracks on SpreadtheWord are infinitely fresher even after two years. While it's not exactly hyphy, a tune like "Reasons" still sounds like a Bay Area slap that would work on a mixtape with other new tunes.

"My fan base is predominantly young people of color," Ise says, articulating his other major difference from most rappers who fall under the conscious rubric. "I think it's all good. The music is for everybody. But I'm proud of seeing the music connect with who it's really written to, directly from, and for. I don't want to be distant from the community." In the face of the failure of so many conscious rappers to continue to appeal to their original listeners, it's hard not to attribute Ise's own success to his closeness to both his audience and hip-hop.

"It's important for me to have real community work behind what I say," he explains, commenting on a busy schedule that includes everything from teaching classes to street sweeping to performing at the Youth UpRising community center on the bill with Keak Da Sneak on Aug. 25.

Moreover, his refusal to place himself in opposition to the hyphy movement despite his very different approach to hip-hop lends him a credibility unavailable to others.

"I consider myself just the other side of hyphy," he concludes. "I don't think there's anything different in what I'm saying than what they're saying. Those cats is positive — they're talking about uniting the Bay. I just think it's important that we set a standard for what's acceptable. When we calling a 13-year-old girl a ripper, it's just abusive music. But even in its industrial prepackaged form hip-hop comes from the hood, and I think that going dumb or getting hyphy is revolutionary in principle. I'm-a jump on this car, I'm-a shake these dreads, I'm-a be me. I think that it's a positive energy."


ISE LYFE
Youth UpRising’s "Lyrical Warfare"
with Keak Da Sneak
Fri/25, 4–7 p.m.
8711 MacArthur, Oakl.
(510) 777-9909
Free
www.youthuprising.org


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Confessions of a Gofessional

Free mixtape by Team member Kaz Kyzah scores 7,000 downloads in first week

Things move fast in rap. ...I've been summoned by Kaz Kyzah to discuss The Gofessional...

by Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian August 16, 2006

Things move fast in rap. By the time their second album, World Premiere (Moedoe/Koch), dropped in April, the Team already had a new single, the "Hyphy Juice" remix, which now rivals "It's Getting Hot" as their biggest radio hit. Since then, Moedoe label head K.O.A.B. has inked a deal for Hyphy Juice, the energy drink he co-owns with the group, to be sold at 7-11 stores nationwide, while Team member Clyde Carson just signed as a solo act to Capitol Records. Carson’s ambitious project, Theater Music — consisting of one multisong, album-length track à la Prince's Lovesexy (Warner, 1988) — will appear next year, cobranded by Moedoe as well as the Game's Black Wall Street.

Yet my appearance at the Team's condo concerns none of these matters. Instead, I've been summoned by Kaz Kyzah to discuss The Gofessional, his new mixtape with KMEL managing director DJ Big Von Johnson. Consisting of 19 tracks of mostly original material, The Gofessional is part of a growing trend in the Bay Area mix scene — like Husalah and Jacka's Animal Planet and Beeda Weeda's Homework — of blurring the distinction between the carefully crafted album and the "anything goes" approach of mixtapes. What makes The Gofessional unique, however, is its method of distribution: it's available for free at bigvon.com.

In the first week alone, the mixtape was downloaded 7,000 times on the strength of two singles currently spinning on KMEL: "Cocaine," a soulful love-as-addiction metaphor over a 9th Wonder beat, and the LT-produced original "Love" (featuring Jimmie Reign), an R&B-infused investigation of more serious subjects often neglected by the Bay's current "go dumb" ethos.

STALLED PREMIERE?

Before beginning, however, Kaz clears up the lingering mystery around World Premiere's release, not, as anticipated, through major label Universal but rather through independent powerhouse Koch.

"We were on a label of a Mexican artist, Lil Rob, and it wasn't the place for us," Kaz says, referring to the Universal-distributed Upstairs imprint, which caters primarily to Latino rap. "When we got over there, it wasn't what we wanted. But it worked out where we could use it to get the album done and move on. We didn't have to pay any bread. We actually came out winning."

"At the same time, I was going through legal trouble," he continues, describing continuing fallout from a robbery charge he caught at age 18. "I was worried about going to jail and house arrest. I did end up spending a couple of months in jail, so it was a real hectic time."

While the delays of label jumping and legal woes may have muted World Premiere's impact, the period of house arrest last year proved productive for Kaz, who with West Oakland rapper J-Stalin and East Oakland producers Tha Mekanix formed a side group called the Go Boyz and recorded an album at the condo. These late-night sessions featuring an ankle-braceleted Kaz were the genesis of the current Go Movement, which already constitutes a third front in the Bay's hyphy and thizz campaigns.

"What I want people to understand about the Go Movement," the Hyphy Juice shareholder stresses, "is it's not not about getting hyphy, going dumb. But it encompasses a whole lot more and that's what makes it so powerful. Like when I talk to Dotrix [of Tha Mekanix], we'll use go 1,500 times and have an in-depth conversation.

"It was Dot who said, 'You the Gofessional, man.' And that was one of my favorite movies, The Professional, so I used it for my mixtape. I didn't want to come out with the Go Boyz, and nobody know what Go is all about. I was talking to some people from Marin, they never even heard of the Go Movement. To us it's old, but a lot of people are still catching on."

GOING FOR THE STREETS

The free download format of The Gofessional is proving to be an effective means of spreading the word. (Another 5,000 hard copies have already been distributed for the benefit of those not online, and more are on the way.) For Johnson, who apart from Kaz is the author of this largess, the free mixtape is designed to boost record sales as well as keep the Bay's current buzz alive.

"I got 7,000 downloads in a week, when I know artists who put out records that took seven months to reach that in sales," Johnson says later that day at KMEL. "There are a lot of big artists, a lot of songs on the radio, but sales aren't adding up. So I feel like, give some away. Instead of trying to break a song, I'm trying to break an artist in the streets. I definitely think this will stimulate album sales."

It's refreshing to hear such a statement these days, when the "free download" has been blamed for bringing the recording industry to its knees. To me, Johnson's logic is irrefutable; I'm more likely to check out something for free than for $15, and I'm way more likely to buy a $15 album from someone whose previous work I have and like. As The Gofessional is easily better than dozens of albums I've actually purchased, the odds of me buying an eventual Kaz Kyzah solo album are extremely high. Given the current excitement in Bay rap and Carson's deal with Capitol, the interest in Kaz's mixtape hasn't failed to attract the attention of majors as well.

"I got a lot of labels looking at me," Kaz confesses. "I ain't put out an album. They're checking for me off of mixtapes, which is weird, but it's a beautiful thing. People be, like, this is hotter than people's albums. But I'm a perfectionist, so doing a solo album is going to take a minute, really sitting down and figuring out what I want to do with it. And not being too quick to jump on the wrong deal."

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20061104

Dope, rap, and religion

With two hot collaborations, one new solo joint, and an upcoming reunion with Mob Figaz in the works, Husalah should be on top of the world. Instead, he's spending the next four and a half years behind bars


by Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian July 12, 2006

I'm on the set of the video for "Never Blink," a song off Mob Figaz member the Jacka's 2005 solo disc, The Jack Artist (Artist), featuring Dubb 20 and J-Stalin. The "set" in West Oakland where 10th Street meets Mandela is not sanctioned by a film commission but monitored from a distance by a slowly circling caravan of three police cruisers. A Mercedes SL500 creeps through the crowd and parks in the middle of the road, retracting its hard top with the slow-motion elegance of a moon landing before a familiar 6-foot-3-inch frame unfolds from the low roadster and begins the usual round of hand slaps and hugs. Husalah is on the set.

"I represent the Iraqi Space Program," he announces, then immediately reconsiders. "The Nigga Spaceship Association." He has the air of one whose wit is so fertile he must double-stack its results.

Though Hus doesn't perform on "Never Blink," he has turned up on behalf of his fellow Mob Figa for some whoridin' — that art of dancing, lyric miming, and tough posturing behind the rapper — and for the next several takes nearly steals the show. He can't help it. Combined with his athletic build and strikingly handsome face, his height makes him conspicuous in any crowd, while his desire to "take it further," evident in his innovative, melodic flows and ever-evolving gangsta argot, also animates his appearance. Instead of imaginary bills, Husalah pulls out a stack of new hundreds, fans it to show it's all hundreds, shuts the fan, and begins to count, licking the bills instead of his thumb as he goes while bobbing to the mournful yet light-as-air RobLo production. Fielding an imaginary call, Hus shoulders his phone as he continues to count and dance, gazing off abstractedly as though processing information. It's a performance worthy of a Mac Dre or an André, though more thugged out and unmistakably Husalah's own.

Husalah's been recording for eight years, debuting as a teen with the other Mob Figaz — Jacka, Fed-X, AP9, and Rydah J. Klyde — on "Ride til We Die," the opening cut on C-Bo's Til My Casket Drops (Awol, 1998). Now, at 25 he is hitting his creative stride just as Bay Area rap is making itself felt on a national level. Three hot Husalah projects are currently in stores: 3 da Hard Way (FriscoStreetShow, 2005), a trio with Jacka and hard-spitting MC Marvaless; Animal Planet (2006), a Demolition Men mixtape cohosted with Jacka; and Dope, Guns and Religion (Sumo, 2006), a solo debut drawing on new and unreleased material. With a Mob Figaz reunion on the horizon, the timing couldn't be better, except for one small catch.

In February, Husalah was sentenced to four and a half years in federal prison for possession with intent to distribute "more than five kilos" of cocaine, a charge dating from 2001, when the rapper was 20. At press time, he was set to turn himself in July 10.

BLACK DIAMOND

"Where I come from," Husalah says several days before the video shoot, at the Mob Figaz's studio, hidden away in an upper-middle-class chunk of Antioch, "it's all about getting money, staying fly, being the coolest dude." Born in 1981 in nearby Pittsburg, the young Tito Alston grew up in el Pueblo Housing Project, notorious for its colorful "hood rich" hustlers, who made small fortunes dealing dope and pimping. It's exactly the sort of "subculture that glorifies swagger over work," according to a March 20 New York Times article and "causes the deepening ruin of black youth." Such preferences likely are also the effect of poor education and few opportunities for low-income inner-city families. Pittsburg may not be your classic inner city, but it's certainly no exurban paradise. An inland port first known as New York Landing, it was rechristened Black Diamond following the 1903 discovery of coal in the hills and received its present name in 1911 to honor the arrival of the steel industry. The low-paying jobs available to unskilled laborers (in chemical and power plants and oil refineries and distribution centers) are ones few would wish to take or even consider safe.

As a teen Husalah rapped in talent shows, but his first love was sports. He played basketball and football and even boxed. His hoop dreams were quashed, however, when he was expelled from Pittsburg High in 10th grade after being caught with crack he intended to sell. Following a brief stint at the alternative Riverside High, where he was again busted with his stash, he was expelled for good and sentenced to a year of house arrest. "I used to sneak out at 10 every night, until 8 in the morning [to sell crack]," he recalls. "That was my shift." By 16, Hus was "heavy into the streets. I didn't care about music no more."

"Then one day I was playing basketball in the gym," he continues. "Jacka, AP9, and RobLo came and got me. They was, like, 'C-Bo at the record store — he want to hear y'all rap.' I was, like, 'I don't care about this shit no more.' I got $4,000 in my pocket. To a young ’un that's big." Fortunately his friends managed to persuade the young Husalah to have his date with destiny.

"We weren't even a group," he says. "We were just the tightest dudes in the area. But C-Bo was fresh off 2Pac's All Eyez on Me [Polygram, 1996], selling 300- or 400,000 units consistently. We went into the studio that day and did 'Ride til We Die.' After that, Bo's, like, 'We fittin' to do an album.' We went on tour, dropped the album [C-Bo's Mob Figaz (Git Paid, 1999)], and sold 140,000."

If the number seems small to platinum-conscious readers, consider that this occurred in the middle of Bay Area rap's long commercial decline, when even an album with a radio hit — such as the Delinquents' Bosses Will Be Bosses (Dank or Die, 1999), featuring "That Man!" — only moved 50,000 units. Or that the stir caused two years ago by Frontline's Who R U? (IMG) was based on sales of 10,000. For an independent debut in the Bay, 140,000 would still be huge. The figure was more than sufficient to establish the Figaz as a force in Bay Area rap.

“THIS IS MONEY”

For a couple of years, Husalah says, "I was, like, 'OK, this is money.' But then Bo went to jail and it got stagnated." The loss of C-Bo's leadership coupled with the Bay's commercial misfortunes slowed the group's momentum. "I fell back into [dope dealing] because it was lucrative," Hus confesses. "I've always been the nigga to wear the flyest kicks, the best fits, the best chick, so I gotta keep that standard going." Work on an attempted follow-up album, Mob Figaz, languished so long that the exasperated Warlock Records would eventually release it unfinished in 2003.

As he returned to the streets, however, Husalah began to develop a spiritual consciousness. E-40's remark on In a Major Way (Jive, 1995) advising the listener to "read Proverbs" in times of stress got Husalah perusing the Bible, and from there he moved to the Koran. It was the Koran that spoke to his struggles and sensibility. "It's all about God first," he says. "It ain't about preaching. It's about knowing what's real." His conversion to Islam led him to wrestle seriously for the first time with the implications of selling crack to his community.

"Allah says you can't be judged for what you weren't aware of," Hus comments. "I thought I was doing right as a youth. That's what all the older people I came up under did to make money. You get dope at hoop or be catching long bombs or sell dope. There's not a lot of opportunity here. But once you become a man, you get aware of what you doing. It's not an excuse now that you're aware of it."

The ambivalence Hus developed toward his primary source of income is documented on Dope, Guns and Religion, which despite its celebration of the hustling lifestyle is threaded with contradictory feelings born of his spiritual awakening: "But at the same time I barely touch packages/ ’Cause I believe pushing poison is for savages/ But then again, this shit got advantages/ How could I live if my pockets is Somalian?" As these lines from "Rainman" illustrate, Husalah has tapped into Bay Area rap's 2Pac-inspired tradition of the "conscious thug," using the dope dealer or pimp persona to articulate the dilemmas faced by black high school dropouts — more of whom, by their late 20s, are incarcerated (34 percent) than employed (30 percent), according to the same New York Times article. But where 2Pac was a conscious rapper who adopted the thug persona, partly from his on-screen success in Juice, partly as a way to get his message across, Husalah is a thug rapper who achieved consciousness, seeking a way out of the dope game even as he remained ensnared by its financial rewards.

COKE ADDS LIFE?

Though he scaled back his activities, Husalah was unable to resist what seemed like a quick job for a big payoff in 2001 and arranged to help ferry "a large amount of cocaine" from Chicago to Cali. "That was a decision I made," he explains today. "It wasn't out of ignorance. It was out of a sense of desperation or hopelessness. I felt like I had no other choice."

"Some dude ratted me out; we were being watched the whole time," he continues. "I caught a federal conspiracy charge in Chicago. There was another guy driving the car, but they said I was the one who coordinated, flew him out there to pick something up, to take something around. With the feds, you got to take the charge and do your time. You can't win."

Nonetheless, after posting bail Hus returned to the Bay, hiding out for the next 18 months. "I wasn't really on the run because it was an out-of-state case and they didn't know where I was," he explains. "I'm, like, 'I'm not surrendering until they pick me up.' In the meantime, the grand jury indicted me, and I was snatched up by the task force in Pittsburg.

"I didn't have no criminal record. I'd been to juvenile hall, but this was my first time going to jail and I'm looking at 10 years."

Bailed out again, Hus would spend another three years fighting the case in court before eventually agreeing to plead guilty to possession and intent in exchange for the feds dropping the weightier conspiracy charge. Sentencing him to 53 months in February, the judge granted Husalah a six-month stay to get his musical affairs in order before entering the Federal Correctional Institute in Sheridan, Ore.

"My whole thing now is making music," says Husalah, who, in addition to completing his parts for the upcoming Mob Figaz album, has been hard at work finishing a half dozen projects, including a rock album, The Unusual Suspects; a dancehall disc with Jacka as the Shower Posse; and Harsh Reality, the full-length he was making when his legal woes began. "Plus, I figure I'll still be able to work in there, because in the federal system it's a lot more open. I'm pretty sure I'll have a mini ADAT recorder. There'll be new product." With the group’s business partnership, MobFigaz, LLC, continuing in his absence, Husalah has no fear of losing his musical profits. “I know they’re gonna keep it rockin',” he says. “We gonna make sure our check is in the mail.”

“Husalah is a phenomenal artist,” says Mistah F.A.B., who featured a farewell interview with Hus on the most recent installment of his new WILD 94 show. “He’s very intelligent and his character and charisma leave an impression on people. It’s unfortunate he has to go to jail for his past mistakes, but his stock will rise for doing his time and we’ll be waiting for him when he gets back. It’s going to be a learning experience.”

Husalah, it seems, agrees. “If Allah made me go through what I had to go through, there's a reason. I'm a better person. I learned what not to do. The statistics show it's death or jail for a street nigga, so for me it happened to be jail. I feel like it's a blessing that I'm breathing, I'm healthy."

"When you look at the whole situation, I had a lot of fun," he concludes philosophically. "I rocked a lot of models, rode a lot of rims, dropped a lot of tops, popped a lot of bottles, all that bullshit, so I'm trying to see what I'll evolve into now. I might be heavily religious. I might be into different types of music. Whatever it is, I'm gonna stay a real nigga, keeping this mob shit rocking. I'm gonna lay down and do my time. Then get right back and make money like I never left."

www.myspace.com/husalahofthemobfigaz


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Busta Rhymes -- The Big Bang (Aftermath/Interscope)

Album Review by Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian June 28, 2006

It's hard not to compare The Big Bang to E-40's recent My Ghetto Report Card (BME/Warner): Both are "relaunches" of rappers who never really fell off, and have many more albums left in them. But where 40's hookup with Lil Jon seemed like a stroke of brilliance, the teaming of Busta with Dr. Dre has a slight air of corporate reshuffling, like Clive Davis handing Jimmy Iovine the keys and saying, "See what you can do." Trouble is, Dre isn't as interested in Busta as Lil Jon is in 40. Dre produces five tracks, tweaks half a dozen more, and mixes all, yet he feels fairly remote. Of his tracks, only the Missy Elliot feature, "How We Do It Over Here," is single-worthy, though it sounds like Dre biting hyphy, an impression reinforced by Missy's "Pop ya colla like this/Bottles up like this" chant.

If Dre isn't putting up his best, you can be sure everyone else is. The Swizz Beatz–produced single, "Touch It," is old but retains its charms, although the same can't be said for Swizz's vocalizations on the otherwise fine DJ Scratch track, "New York Shit." Probably the two best numbers are J-Dilla's fat, soulful Fender Rhodes groove, "You Can't Hold a Torch," and Timbaland's frenetically minimalist, quasi-African "Get Down," which makes you wonder what kind of album he would cook up if he had Busta at his disposal. As a whole, The Big Bang isn't disappointing, but it doesn't quite live up to expectations.

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The Team -- World Premiere (Moedoe/Rex/Koch)

Album Review by Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian June 21, 2006

After months of delay, the Team's World Premiere has dropped, not on Universal as expected, but rather on large independent Koch. Whether this label jockeying had anything to do with the disc's belated appearance is unclear, yet the finished product is unquestionably one of the best, if most curiously assembled, albums to emerge under the banner of the hyphy movement.

While not a redo of the Bay Area group's 2004 debut, The Negro League (Moedoe), Premiere nonetheless lifts a pair of tracks, including the ShoNuff-produced hit "It's Getting Hot." The album also raids last year's Team mixtape, Go Music (Siccness.net), for the single "Patron," as well as the star-studded remix of "It's Getting Hot," which amusingly resuscitates MC Hammer. Two other singles from last year, "Just Go" and "Hyphy Juice," round out the familiar material, whereas their current single, the "Hyphy Juice" remix, is nowhere to be found.

All this sounds like a recipe for disaster, the same combination of ill timing and hit recycling that blunted the impact of Keak da Sneak's Kunta Kinte (Moedoe, 2006). Yet amazingly enough, Premiere overcomes its checkered origins and bangs from start to finish. The older material sounds fresh and is even heightened in the context of new tunes like "Top of the World" and "Good Girl," which add an almost psychedelic R&B dimension to the hyphy tonal palette. The innovative qualities of the music make any protest against its lyrical limitations — geared almost exclusively toward the club — beside the point, and the group's lack of gangsta posturing is refreshing in itself.

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The Product -- One Hunid (Underground Railroad/Koch)

Album Review by Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian June 14, 2006


A multiregional force composed of Houston legend Scarface, Young Malice of Jackson, Miss., and the Fillmore District's own Will Hen, the Product is one of the more intriguing new groups in hip-hop. One Hunid is that ultimate rarity: a conscious album made by hood rappers for hood consumption, rather than for the backpack circuit. ’Face's list of thug credentials is as long as anyone's — stretching back to the Geto Boys — so his commitment to such a project is of genuine worth; he reaches a vast segment of inner-city youth who are deaf to the more substantial critiques of, say, the Coup.

Perhaps inevitably, the consciousness on One Hunid is limited to a sense of consequences: "I wasn't trying to kill that man; he was in my way/And now I'll never see the light of day," intones Hen, suggesting fear of prison more than a realignment of values. Consciousness is also apparently for men, as little distinguishes the Product's talk of "bitches" from your average thug's. I've been told by rappers who know that this approach is a necessary exercise in spoon-feeding, but it's hard to recall 2Pac songs like "Keep Ya Head Up" and not wonder if there isn't another way.

Ultimately a record stands or falls on musical merit, and One Hunid doesn't disappoint. The rappers have heat — Hen arguably outshines Scarface himself. Oakland producer and longtime ’Face collaborator Tone Capone, who had a hand in the group's development, contributes five modern-day mob tracks, which serve as a useful reminder that there's more to Bay Area rap than just hyphy.

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20061029

Ruling party -- Rising hip-hop star J-Stalin morphs from d-boy to Go Boy

by Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian April 26, 2006


J-Stalin knows how to make an entrance.

The first time we meet, in November 2004 at the Mekanix's recording studio in East Oakland, he enters nonchalantly, sporting an embroidered eye mask as though it were everyday wear. He walks up to me and shakes my hand. "I'm J-Stalin. I write and record two songs a day," he says with boyish pride.

I had a hard time retaining the notion the rapper wasn't a boy, for though he'd recently turned 21, his five-foot frame and preternatural baby face gave the impression of a raspy-voiced, blunt-puffing, Henny-swilling 14-year-old.

Yet he already had a storied past. A teen crack dealer, or "d-boy," from West Oakland's Cypress Village, Stalin was busted at age 17, spending the next 11 months on parole with weekends in juvenile hall. During this period, to both stave off boredom and possibly escape the multigenerational cycle of dope-dealing in his family, the young Jovan Smith began writing raps, finding out about the other Stalin in 11th-grade history class, and soaking up game at the Grill in Emeryville, where family friend DJ Daryl had a recording studio.

After letting him watch for a year, Daryl put Stalin on a track — the result so impressed Daryl's frequent collaborator, Bay Area legend Richie Rich, he immediately commissioned a hook. Stalin would end up on three cuts on Rich's Nixon Pryor Roundtree (Ten-Six, 2002) and on two as a member of the Replacement Killers, a group that included Rich and Crestside Vallejo's PSD. Several more songs from this period had just surfaced on Rich's 2004 compilation, Snatches, Grabs, and Takes (Ten-Six), though Stalin had since defected to the Mekanix's production company, Zoo Entertainment. By the time we met, the highly productive crew had recorded most of Stalin's upcoming debut, On Behalf of Tha Streets.

He's next

During the next 18 months, J-Stalin would generate no small amount of buzz, thanks in part to high-profile guest shots on projects like the Jacka's The Jack Artist (Artist, 2005) and the Delinquents' Have Money Have Heart (Dank or Die, 2005). Three advance tracks from On Behalf — "Party Jumpin’," featuring Jacka; a clean version of "Fuck You"; and an homage to the classic drum machine, "My 808" — have accumulated spins on KMEL, while the video for "My 808" has more than 20,000 plays on Youtube.com. Too $hort says he's "next," E-40's dubbed him "the future," and major labels like Capitol and Universal are checking him hard.

To crown these achievements, Stalin's copped a coveted spot hosting an upcoming project for the Bay Area's mix-tape kings, DJ Devro and Impereal, alias the Demolition Men (see sidebar).
Named after Stalin's penchant for calling the DJs at 7 a.m., ready to lay verses, The Early Morning Shift is a potent fusion of mix tape beats and Mekanix originals, laced with Stalin's melodic raps and distinctively raw, R&B-style vocals. Taking advantage of the industry's current structure, whereby you can drop a mix tape or two without compromising your "debut" album marketability, The Early Morning Shift will be most listeners' first chance to hear the prolific J-Stalin at length, in the company of stars like Keak, F.A.B., and the Team, as well as Stalin's Cypress Village crew, Livewire. Having generated some 60 tracks in the scant two weeks devoted to recording the disc, Stalin has literally given the Demolition Men more than they can handle: Talk of a "part two" is already in the air, though the DJs are still rushing to finish the first for an early-May release.

The Early Morning Shift comes at a pivotal time in J-Stalin's career. At the very least, the mix tape will warm up the Bay for On Behalf, which Zoo Entertainment plans to release independently in the next few months. With everywhere from Rolling Stone to USA Today catching on to the Bay's hyphy/thizz culture, and major labels lurking in the wings, it's probably only a matter of time before Stalin gets a deal. But the rapper is adamant on signing only as part of the Mekanix's Zoo.

"We don't want an artist deal," he says. "If they give us a label deal, it'll work, because I ain't fittin' to sign no artist deal."

If this sounds a tad dictatorial in the mouth of so young a playa, consider that Stalin left a famous rapper's camp to work with a then-unknown production duo, a decision fraught with risk. But Stalin's instincts regarding his own artistic strengths are sound. He thrives on quantity, and the Mekanix's intense productivity suits Stalin's seemingly endless supply of rhymes and hooks. The duo's ominous, minor-key soundscapes provide perfect vehicles for the rapper's exuberant tales of West Oakland street hustle and melancholy, often poignant reflections on d-boy life.

"I used to listen to their beats," Stalin recalls, "and be like, 'Damn, them niggas got heat!' Plus they ain't no haters. I mean, I'm a leader; I ain't no follower. They allow me to still be me and fuck with them at the same time."

A few months ago I had a chance to watch this process in action, dropping by the studio as Dot and Tweed were putting the finishing touches on a hot new beat, one in tune with current hyphy trends yet retaining the dark urgency characteristic of the Mekanix sound.

"Let me get on it," Stalin says, as he usually does when he hears something he likes.

Sometimes Dot says yes, sometimes no, depending on their plans for a particular session. With a beat this fresh and radio-ready, one they could easily sell, Dot is noncommittal: "What you got for it?"

Without a pause Stalin breaks into a melody, accompanied by an impromptu dance: "That's my name / Don't wear it out, wear it out, wear it out ..." Simple, catchy, the phrase totally works, and in less time than it takes to tell, he's in the booth laying down what promises to be the main single from On Behalf: "That's My Name."

Sitting behind the mixing board, Dot shoots me a smile, as if to say, "See why we work with this guy?"

On the Go Movement

With The Early Morning Shift about to drop, and On Behalf on the way, the only thing Stalin needs is his own catchword, à la hyphy or thizz. Enter the Go movement. Among recent innovations in Bay Area hip-hop slang is a certain use of the word go to indicate a kind of dynamic state of being, widely attributed to Stalin.

"I ain't sayin' I made it up, but somebody from West Oakland did," Stalin says. "Even before there was hella songs talkin' about Go and shit, that shit came from ecstasy pills. We used to say, 'Goddamn, you motherfuckers go.' And then you refer to a female like, 'She go.' I swear it used to just be me and my niggas in the hood. I started fuckin' with the Mekanix and sayin' it at they place. Then, before I knew it, everybody was talking about Go."

Like thizz, Go quickly expanded beyond its drug-related origins, partly because it epitomizes so well the fast-paced environment of rappers' lifestyles. Among the early cosigners of the Go movement is the Team, whose album World Premiere (Moedoe) dropped at the beginning of April. Not only did the group release a between-album mix tape and DVD called Go Music (Siccness.net, 2005), but Team member Kaz Kyzah has hooked up with Stalin and the Mekanix for a side project called the Go Boyz. First previewed on Go Music, on a track also featuring Mistah F.A.B., the Go Boyz have already recorded their self-titled debut, and Zoo is in talks with Moedoe about an eventual corelease.

"Where I'm from, we don't say, 'Go stupid.' 'Go dumb.' We just go," Kaz Kyzah says, explaining the term's appeal.

"Really, it's a way of life for us," he continues. "Me, Stalin, Dot, and Tweed, we'd be up all night just goin'. Every song was recorded at like four in the morning. Listening to some of the stuff now, you can feel it in the music."

Getting in early

Since I began this piece, Stalin, it seems, has gotten even bigger, as word of The Early Morning Shift and the Go Boyz has spread through the scene. People are suddenly lining up to work with him, and he's already committed to new projects with DJ Fresh, Beeda Weeda, the Gorilla Pits, and J-Nash, an R&B singer featured on Mistah F.A.B.'s upcoming Yellow Bus Driver. In a late-breaking development, E-40 confirms he intends to sign the Stalin/Beeda Weeda duo project to Sick Wid It Records.

During our interview, Stalin and I run by DJ Fresh's studio so J can lay a rhyme for an upcoming installment of Fresh's mix tape series, The Tonite Show. Another rapper, watching Stalin pull a verse out of thin air four bars at a time, is clearly awed: "He's amazing. I mean, he's on the records I buy."

Stalin takes it all in stride, though; aside from when I've watched him perform live, this is the first time I've ever seen someone react to him like he was a star. I get the feeling, however, it's far from the last.


J-Stalin
Fri/28, 10 p.m. doors
Club Rawhide
280 Seventh St., SF
$20
(415) 621-1197
myspace.com/jstalinofficialpage

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Bring on the Demolition Men

by Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian April 26, 2006


The Demolition Men, Impereal and DJ Devro, definitely didn't earn their reputation as the Bay Area's mix-tape kings by staying at home. As DJs the duo has performed together and separately at clubs all over the world, from China and Japan to South America and Europe. Native Spanish speakers — Impereal hails from the Colombian community in Queens, NY, while Devro is Southern California Creole — the pair also hosts Demolition Men Radio, broadcast Thursdays from 6 to 7 p.m. on Azul 1063, a hip-hop station in Colombia's Medellin. Yet if you live in the Bay, you're most liable to see them on the street, selling mix tapes out of their backpacks.

"We're like a walking promotional retail machine," Impereal jokes. "If you don't buy a mix tape, you going home with a flyer."

Such determination, coupled with the DJs' high output (more than 30 releases since late 2003, including three volumes each of R&B and reggaeton) and elaborate graphics, has finally kick-started the Bay's once lackadaisical mix tape scene.

An integral component of hip-hop in New York and the South, enabling new talents to be heard alongside vets and vets to issue bulletins with an immediacy unavailable to corporate labels, DJ-assembled mix tapes at their best are the ultimate in no-holds-barred hip-hop. Considered "promotional material" and usually printed in limited quantities, the discs are generally unencumbered by legal requirements like sample clearance.

Until recently, however, mix tapes weren't much of a factor here. While the Demolition Men are quick to pay homage to their local predecessors — like Mad Idiot, DJ Natural, and DJ Supreme — Natural acknowledges the mix tape scene was a bit dead before the Demolition Men began shaking it up.

"Out here DJs were concentrating on clubs," Natural says. "Then they started putting stuff out constantly." Now there's sufficient trade in mix tapes for Natural to move his formerly virtual business, Urban Era, to brick-and-mortar digs at 5088 Mission, making it the Bay's only all–mix tape music store. Yet even with increased competition, he notes, the Demolition Men still routinely sell out.

In addition to their up-tempo release schedule, the success of the Demolition Men's mixes might be attributed to the conceptual coherence they bring to their projects. While they do put together general mixes featuring more mainstream fare — such as the Out the Trunk series, which boasts exclusives from Ludacris — the duo's hottest projects tend to tap into the Bay's reservoir of talent. Aside from their multifaceted Best of the Bay series, the Demolition Men have released mix tapes hosted by Bay Area artists like Balance, Cellski, El Dorado Red, and the Team.

Currently the Demolition Men's most successful disc has been their most ambitious: Animal Planet, not so much a mix tape as music cinema, starring the Mob Figaz' Husalah and Jacka. A mighty 34 tracks — featuring production by Rob Lo, Traxamillion, and the Mekanix, and appearances by F.A.B., Keak, and Pretty Black — Animal Planet is an incredible collection of almost entirely exclusive, original material, seriously blurring the boundary between mix tape and album. Its success has encouraged bold undertakings, like The Early Morning Shift with J-Stalin and Block Tested, Hood Approved, a mix tape/DVD starring Fillmore rapper Big Rich. "I guess we're taking the mix tape to the next level," Devro says.



Demolition Men DJ
Thurs/27 and the last Thursday of every month, 9 p.m. doors
Vault
81 W. Santa Clara, San Jose
$10
(408) 298-1112
myspace.com/demolitionmenmusic

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