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.

Fri/28, 10 p.m. doors
Club Rawhide
280 Seventh St., SF
(415) 621-1197


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
81 W. Santa Clara, San Jose
(408) 298-1112


Prince -- 3121 (NPG/Universal)

Album Review by Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian April 5, 2006

Following his massive Musicology (NPG/Sony, 2004) campaign, Prince was uncharacteristically silent for ’05, though clearly he spent a lot of time working on 3121, named after his new residence-complex in LA. The contrast between the albums is instructive, for where Musicology sounds like something Prince tossed off in a month, 3121 feels polished and composed.

Sony's publicity machine may have heavily exploited the nostalgia value of Purple Rain's 20th anniversary, but the current album is far more evocative of classic Prince.

"Love" directly quotes "Glam Slam." The cheese synth–driven "Lolita" by turns conjures "Soft and Wet," "Raspberry Beret," and the Time, far outshining its Musicology equivalent, "Illusion, Coma, Pimp and Circumstance." "Black Sweat," the hottest track, is like a combination of "Kiss" and "Housequake" — yet its freshness shows how ahead of their time such songs were. Derived from his own past rather than hip-hop's present, "Black Sweat" nonetheless sounds positively hyphy.

Having appeased fans with this high-gloss coat of purple paint, Prince proceeds to go about his business, largely devoted to his faith as a Jehovah's Witness and his desire to launch his new protégé, Tamar. Her slightly raspy, tremulous R&B vocals spice up several songs, including the bluesy title track, which, judging by the other personnel, is a souped-up outtake from The Undertaker (Warner, 1994), a live-in-the-studio power-trio album released only in Japan.

Exactly where 3121 ranks in the pantheon of Prince albums is uncertain, but even a cursory listen reveals a more substantial disc than Musicology.


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Super size me -- E-40's Ghetto Report Card

By Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian March 1, 2006

The suburban sprawl of Pleasant Hill is so generic it looks like it was squeezed from a tube — an unlikely setting for anything more exciting than an ATM transaction. Yet here at the Bay Area's first Fatburger franchise, at four p.m. on a Thursday, there's a throb of expectation beneath the din of its middle-school patrons and its digital jukebox that anticipates the arrival of the restaurant's owner. Reporters and photographers have begun to pile up due to a delay in his schedule, as the owner in question, Vallejo rap legend E-40, is in the midst of a full-blown press junket in preparation for the March 14 release of My Ghetto Report Card, the first album under his new deal with Lil Jon's BME imprint, on Warner Bros.

Following a prolific decade on Jive Records, with whom he released nine solo discs in addition to three with his family-based crew, the Click, and one retrospective, Best of E-40: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (2004), 40's move to the ultrahot king of crunk's label is both a testament to his enduring preeminence in a notoriously fickle industry and an opportunity to reach that upper echelon of rap superstardom inhabited by the likes of Jay-Z and Snoop, Puffy and Eminem.

Not that he isn't already a star, as is immediately apparent from his entrance with a small entourage, which includes his 18-year-old rapper-producer son, Droop-E, his longtime manager, Chaz Hayes, a bodyguard, and a documentary film crew. Visibly exhausted after a two-week promotional blitz of New York City and Los Angeles, not to mention a morning of radio interviews, 40 still radiates charisma, transforming his immediate surroundings through his larger-than-life presence. Unfailingly polite, patient with the steady stream of fans, and acquainted with his restaurant employees down to the busboys, the man born Earl Stevens provides a marked contrast to the crack-slinging, gun-toting, "let-you-have-it-in-the-bladder"-style exploits of his rap alter-ego.

He apologizes for the scheduling conflict. "Just let me knock out this other interview real quick," he says — and he does, with the brisk efficiency of Babe Ruth pointing out where he's about to hit a home run, combined with the Babe's air of infinite leisure in performing such feats.

"I ain't had time to eat a fortune cookie," he says, settling down to a bunless Fatburger with the works and, in an off-menu innovation, a small Gatorade bottle half-filled with burgundy. He touts its antioxidant properties. Newly health conscious after a dentist visit revealed he had dangerously high blood pressure, the inventor of exotic ghetto cocktails with names like "Num Num Juice" sticks to red wine and rarely touches weed these days. After shedding some 50 pounds, and gaining some back, the tall, burly MC looks positively svelte at his current 333. He even works out, though hectic road life can make it impossible.

"Out in New York I did Direct Effect, MTV radio, Music Choice, a bunch of local video shows. LA was all interviews like this. When I'm not doing regular interviews, I'm doing phoners from 10 a.m. to 7 at night. But I'm not pitching a bitch, because it's part of the game."


E-40 speaks of the "game" with authority, for he rewrote many of its rules. Judged "too eccentric" by early-'90s record executives for his high-pitched, high-speed delivery and his compulsive coinage of slang — the very qualities defining his appeal — 40 began his own label, Sick Wid It, selling albums from the trunk of his car; after the label's third release, an EP titled The Mailman (1993), debuted at number 13 on Billboard's R&B chart, deals came to him. Signed through Sick Wid It by Jive in 1994, 40 pioneered the rapper-as-independent-label-head methodology that's since become industry standard.

Clearly the arrangement netted him a lot more money than many a rapper who's moved more units under direct contract with a major label. 40's got the gouda — his current currency euphemism — to invest in things like the Fatburger franchise or the Ambassador Lounge in San Jose, yet he readily acknowledges that the relationship between independent and major labels lends itself to the familiar corporate vice of outsourcing work as a means of cutting costs.

"A lot of A and Rs don't go to the hood like they used to and look for talent," he says. "They know all the rappers is connected, so they don't mind giving a big-name rapper a label deal. It's the smart thing to do. They're watching their money more than ever. They're not shipping as much as they used to. You're not going gold out the box any more."

E-40 himself has felt the pinch. Including the Click's Game Related (1995), 40 scored four gold albums between 1995 and 1998, one of which, In a Major Way (1995), was eventually certified platinum in 2002 by the Recording Industry Association of America. While his numbers, like everyone's, took a hit with the proliferation of Internet file-sharing and the general economic downturn under Bush, his albums continued to debut in Billboard's top-20 R&B chart, and aside from his own childhood idol, Too $hort, who has long since relocated to Atlanta, E-40 was the only Bay Area rapper signed to a major for the duration of the region's turn-of-the-century commercial drought.

"For anybody from the early '90s to still be here, they're keeping in touch with the kids on the street," Oakland rapper-producer E-A-Ski says. "40 don't get caught up in what he's done. He reaches out to what's going on now."


Yet 40 also feels Jive underpromoted his more recent work. "Jive was a good label when they wanted to be," he says. "The first three or four years of the deal, it was excellent. Later, when the pop music started kicking in — no disrespect to Britney, *NSYNC; they made Jive a lot of money — that took the focus away from rap, from people who helped build the label.

"Don't get it twisted: I made a lot of money with Jive," he concludes diplomatically. "But the last few years, I think they dropped the ball on a few hits, a few videos they shoulda did."

Case in point: One of Lil Jon's earliest hits outside the Dirty South was "Rep Yo City," from 40's 2002 album, Grit and Grind. "BET wanted a video, and Jive lagged on it. They said, 'You need to get up to 800,000 spins,' and we was there. It would've been smart because you got E-40, Bun B, Petey Pablo. All three of us were on Jive, so why not do a video? That's what made me think, they ain't even interested.

"Lil Jon used to be signed to Too $hort's label [the Jive-distributed $hort Records]," 40 recalls. "$hort and Jon had a group together, a whole album ready to go, and Jive didn't want to do it. Me and $hort had an album, The History Channel, ready to go. They didn't want to do it. We had someone ready to put money in our pockets. Jive coulda got points, put their logo on it. They just didn't see the big picture. So I turned in my greatest hits and left."

Granted, crunk was so startlingly new — immediately becoming its own subgenre — that Jive's failure to predict Lil Jon's immanent explosion in popularity is perhaps understandable. But the label's inability to capitalize on a collaboration between two popular artists on its own roster, or even to let someone else do it and simply make money without spending any, is incomprehensible. (At press time a publicist for Jive was still tracking down who made that particular call.) Judging from their already classic collaborations like 1996's "Rapper's Ball" and 1999's "Pervin'" (a 40ism for intoxication that's passed into wider usage), a whole album of E-40 and Too $hort would have been a signal artistic event and wouldn't have failed to turn a profit, even if sales were restricted to their own overlapping fan bases.


Jive's decision not to put out the still unreleased The History Channel, if not an act of outright incompetence, at the very least doesn't reflect the best interests of either artist, and one can hardly blame 40 for leaving. Yet, in an undeniably cruel twist of fate, 40's voluntary abdication from his deal came at a time when Bay Area hip-hop began to recover its shine. The transition between labels meant that 2005, the hottest year in the Bay since the mid-'90s, was also the first year since '97 that 40 didn't release an album.

Still, he made his presence felt through guest appearances, most notably on Mistah F.A.B.'s hit "Super Sic Wid It," produced by Droop-E. E-40's oldest son, the young Earl Stevens Jr., made his recording debut, at age three, on his father's 1991 debut, Federal (Sick Wid It, reissued by Jive, 1995), before dropping his first rhyme, at age seven, on In a Major Way. "I didn't force him into none of this," 40 insists, though he does cop to making Earl Jr. take five years of piano lessons. "Just in case he did want to go into it, so he'd know where all the notes are."

Such precautions, coupled with Droop-E's own inclinations, have paid off, as these days he's better known for his production work behind F.A.B., Turf Talk, and Messy Marv. The all-Droop-E-produced Bay Bridges Compilation (Sick Wid It/Navarro, 2005) — one of the best hip-hop albums of last year, period — also yielded a hit by Oakland's BavGate, "On the Radio," which literally exhorted KMEL-FM to "play the Gate on the radio." Such gimmickry aside, Droop-E's success is no joke: Having grown up in rap, yet still a teen, he brings an astonishing freshness to the music that's difficult to summarize but whose unifying characteristic might be a greater emphasis on sounding fun than on sounding hard, beeping or whistling where others simply slam. Yet his beats have no shortage of knock, and the hardest street-rappers — Marv, Keak Da Sneak, Little Bruce — sound perfect over them. Being 40's son may have gotten Droop-E a hearing, but his own abilities have placed him in the front rank of Bay Area producers.


While 40 is clearly proud of his son's success and was otherwise occupied with his club and restaurant, an albumless year must nonetheless have been agonizing for a rapper who, on the 1999 track "Get Breaded," claimed to be "like a pregnant lady, [coming] wit a album every eight or nine months." It's not that 40 lacked offers to leave Jive but rather that he wanted to make the right move. "I kept recording, marinated around for about a year. I prayed on it," he explains. "Baby from Cash Money was ready to sign me. Puffy was on deck, wanting me to sign. But when I went with Lil Jon, they was like, whatever your situation is, it's all love.

"Lil Jon and I powwowed. We knew our chemistry was there. I was, like, 'This might be a good look.' He hollered at his folk, hollered at Warner. They were like, 'Let's go.' We put the paperwork in motion, and there we is right now."

BME was an inspired choice for 40 not simply because it entailed joining forces with Lil Jon, America's favorite rapper since Snoop, nor because the label obviously intends to give the Vallejo vet the major push Jive never quite managed to deliver. But of all of 40's options — significantly, from labels run by rappers rather than by executives — Lil Jon and BME are the most organically connected to his music. E-40 was probably the first Bay Area artist to try his hand at crunk. Having long enjoyed a Southern following, he was only too ready to tackle its homegrown variety of hip-hop.

But on a deeper level, crunk and the current Bay Area sound known as hyphy are intimately related: "cousins," as 40 puts it. The production style of crunk could be said to have evolved from the classic Bay Area mob sound — from producers like Studio Ton, Bosko, Mike Mosley, and Tone Capone — that powered E-40's earlier releases and was immensely popular in the pre–Dirty South. "Everyone in the South was influenced by E-40," Murder Dog editor Black Dog Bone affirms. Hyphy, exemplified by longtime 40 associate Rick Rock, not to mention Droop-E himself, evolved as a Bay Area response to the crunk dominating the airwaves earlier this decade, when KMEL wasn't playing local music. The most obvious stylistic distinction is, of course, vocal, as Bay Area producers stripped away the screaming chants of crunk and replaced them with raps more in tune with local mob music traditions.

E-40's ability to navigate between crunk and hyphy is well documented on My Ghetto Report Card. First conceived as a dozen tracks, half by crunk king Lil Jon, half by hyphy maestro Rick Rock, the project gradually expanded to include tracks by original mob-music makers Bosko and Studio Ton, as well as Droop-E, who has more than proved his ability to hold his own in such company. With the first single, the Lil Jon–produced "Tell Me When to Go," featuring Keak Da Sneak, already creating a buzz, My Ghetto Report Card seems poised to bring 40 to the wider audience his talents deserve. At the very least, as 40 is aware, the new album is sure to extend the present hot streak in Bay rap through 2006.

"I'm the quarterback," he concludes. "I'm the billboard of the Bay, and I'm here to let the world know that we back like hockey."

My Ghetto Report Card will be released March 14. Watch the video for "Tell Me When to Go" at myspace.com/e40.



The Mob Figaz Meet Marvaless -- 3 Da Hard Way (FriscoStreetShow.com)

Album Review by Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian January 25, 2006

Except for a retrospective Best of (Thizz), Pittsburg's own Mob Figaz spent 2005 in divide-and-conquer mode. Particularly hot were Rydah J. Klyde – who dropped two duo discs (El Pueblo Children with Freako and Bang Fo Bread with Johnny Cash as Money Gang) and a solo What's Really Thizzin? (all on Thizz) – and Jacka, whose solo debut, The Jack Artist (Artist), generated a huge buzz in the early part of the year. The present disc, teaming Jacka and fellow Figa Husalah with tough-talkin' Sac Town female rapper Marvaless, is one of the tightest side-projects in hip-hop history. If this were a full-time trio, they'd be a hardcore Fugees. It doesn't hurt that most of the tracks are produced by Rob-Lo, who provides ample evidence of why people speak of him in the hushed tones reserved for Rick Rock or E-A-Ski. He cooks up tracks in every style, yet everything he does is his own.

With all eyes on Klyde and Jacka, picking Husalah as your favorite Mob Figa is a bit like claiming George as your favorite Beatle, but I'm convinced that, like George, whose interest in India added unexpected depth to the band's psychedelia, Husalah is the Mob's special ingredient, bringing a sublime ridiculousness to every track. Witness "Shower Posse," a faux-dancehall gem that Husalah handles in a patois of Jamaican slang and invented nonsense, or "Moblife," where he phones in some vocals from the freeway. This willingness to go the extra creative mile is what distinguishes the Mob from every other thugged-out crew out there.



B-Legit -- Block Movement (SMC/Sick Wid It)

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

Apart from cousin E-40, B-Legit is the most accomplished rapper from Vallejo's Sick Wid It camp, his danked-out baritone providing the ideal complement to 40's high-pitched, hyperspeed delivery. With two mid-'90s discs for Jive, and two on Koch earlier this century, Block Movement is B-La's fifth solo album, and it shows just how far the Bay Area's original Savage has evolved since his most popular release, The Hemp Museum (Jive, 1996). Where that album relied heavily on 40's early blueprint – a solid mob foundation by the likes of Studio Ton and Mike Mosley – Block Movement shows B-La cultivating a distinct artistic sensibility. Other than 40's guest spot on "Guess Who's Back," produced by longtime associate Rick Rock, the album's best tracks – "Sick Wid It" (Damon Todd), "Trap Game" (Bedrock and Clyde Carson), "Get High" (One Drop Scott) – have little resemblance to 40's recent hyphy phase, taking advantage instead of the sheer depth of B's voice to explore more atmospheric vocal effects. This tendency is heightened by appearances from vocalists Harm and Naté on a trio of tracks produced by LJ, recalling his work on BavGate's The InstaGator (Black Mafia/Thizz, 2004).

The only missteps on Block Movement result from the few obvious attempts to ensure regional crossover success: "Block 4 Life," with Jadakiss and Styles P; "Where Dem Hoes At," with Paul Wall; and the crunk snoozefest "Handle Up." That's part of the game these days, but the album gains immeasurably by excluding these. Otherwise, Block Movement shows B-Legit has fully come into his own.



Don't hate the playa ... Hate the game: Mac Dre's murder is still a mystery, but that doesn't mean he ought to be crucified

By Garrett Caples
Mac Dre painting by Eustinove P. Smith
San Francisco Bay Guardian November 16, 2005

VALLEJO'S CRESTSIDE NEIGHBORHOOD occupies a tear-shaped square mile on the northeastern edge of town, wedged between a major thoroughfare and the freeways shuttling tourists to nearby Marine World. Centered on Crest Ranch Park, with bucolic street names like Miravista and Haviture Way, it was clearly designed as suburban space – modest homes with tidy lawns are laid out in traffic-impeding loops and dead ends, at once labyrinthine and insular. But far from being a commuter haven, Crestside is the toughest hood in Vallejo, home to a small, proud, extremely close-knit African American community that contributes a disproportionately large share of talent to Bay Area hip-hop.

The Mac may have been first, and Mac Mall may have been more famous due to his mid-'90s stint on Sony/Relativity, but the undisputed king of the Crest for more than a decade was Andre Hicks, better known as Mac Dre, a pioneer of Bay Area independent rap who scored his first underground hit in 1989 with "2 Hard 4 the Fuckin' Radio." A prolific artist with more than 20 releases – the vast majority released after 1996 on his own Thizz Entertainment/Romp Records label – the 34-year-old Mac Dre had already dropped three solo albums in 2004 and was more popular than ever when he was murdered on Nov. 1 that year, in a Kansas City highway shooting.

A year later, I'm in the Crest for a block party marking the anniversary of Dre's death. The Associated Press's subsequent characterization of the event as a "memorial service" attended by "150 people" fails to do it justice; there had to be a few hundred people in the street, mostly Crest residents of all ages who came together by word of mouth, without a permit, to celebrate Mac Dre in the most spontaneous manner possible.

"Dre loved his neighborhood," his friend and fellow Crestsider PSD told me earlier. "He loved people. As a result, people loved him."

The feeling is palpable in the Crest. I'm riding with another of Dre's friends, J-Diggs, in a van wrapped in an ad for his CD California Livin', Part Two, one of six new albums released that day on Thizz (see "Nation of Thizzlam," page 38). As we approach the block party, Diggs cranks Dre's "Boss Tycoon" and literally dances the van through the crowd, assisted by a half dozen dudes who jump on the running boards to rock us in time to the beat ("Dipped in sauce"–step–"I floss"–step–"I'm a boss"–step-step). People dance, or rather, parade, in front of the van as it struts around the block, and for a few moments I'm in the center of a communal outpouring of love, the kind usually reserved for folk heroes and saints. Dre's charisma had that effect on people, even his closest associates.

"He was the word of the Crest," affirms Dubee, a.k.a. Sugawolf, who started a neighborhood supergroup, the Cutthroat Committee, with Dre and PSD in the late '90s. "Just to get a response back from him was to know your existence in this turf shit was acknowledged."

The party rages on, rowdy but cordial, for a couple of hours: People drink, smoke, dance, and generally testify about Dre. At length, I return to the van, drunkenly devouring barbecue, when I hear two shots pop off. I quickly get acquainted with the floorboard.

Another volley – I count five shots – screams, and then another burst of gunfire. People are fleeing in all directions, by car and on foot.

Diggs packs his entourage into the van and sends us around the corner while he investigates. He immediately returns and pilots us out of Crestside's intricate maze. A 20-year-old Crest resident, Michael Clinton Banks, is dead of a gunshot wound. No one's sure who shot him or why – or even if it was intentional.

"I apologize for all the gunshots around your head today," Diggs later says. "But that's the neighborhood. That's what Dre rapped about. Some people who came to the Crest today was tourists, but tonight was living proof it's not a tourist attraction. To us in the neighborhood, that's routine."

Before the night is over, two other men – including Baygeen of the Crest Creepaz, whose CD The Thizzics Room also dropped that day – are shot near the crime scene. It's a bit much, even for Diggs: "Imagine getting shot the same day your album comes out!"

In the age of 50 Cent, in which being shot is fetishized as evidence of a rapper's street authenticity, being shot might help your career. But Diggs – who carries a bullet in his arm and one in his back, an inch away from his spine – knows it isn't a joke. It might kill you.

'They knew who they were after'

From the world-famous Tupac Shakur to local legends like Plan Bee of Hobo Junction, Rappin' Ron of Bad Influenz, and Eclipse of Cydal, the list of Bay Area rappers to die from gunshot wounds is as distinguished as it is long. The Crest itself had already suffered losses. The first rapper in Crestside, if not all Vallejo, Michael "the Mac" Robinson was fatally shot in 1991. Cecil "DJ Cee" Allison – a local mainstay who worked with both Macs – was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1995. Both incidents occurred in Vallejo, and both were reportedly cases of mistaken identity. In fact, with the exception of Shakur, none of the rappers mentioned above was an actual target – they were instead victims of proximity or misidentification, and the availability of firearms.

Dre's murder is different, however, as he was definitely the intended target of a hit, according to Kansas City police detective Everett Babcock, lead investigator in the case. "They knew who they were after," he says in a phone interview from Kansas City. Over the past year, Babcock has been piecing together a picture of the crime in terms of suspects and motives, though he cautioned it could take years before conclusive evidence comes to light. While he couldn't divulge details due to the ongoing nature of the case, he would confirm that his investigation turned up no evidence of any criminal activity on Mac Dre's part.

This is a detail worthy of emphasis, for the overwhelming impression left by media coverage of Dre's death was that he was a gangster whose criminal past had finally caught up with him. Most reports were based on a single Nov. 1, 2004, AP story, "Underground Rapper from Bay Area Killed in Shooting in Kansas City," which introduces Dre as a "rap star, who police say was also a member of a gang of robbers," before even printing his name. Only eight paragraphs later do we learn that this alleged gang membership was in "the early 1990s," and the story imperfectly distinguishes Kansas City from Vallejo police throughout, making his death seem connected to 15-years-old events.

Granted it'd be unrealistic to expect nuanced coverage of Dre's death on what happened to be the day before the most contentious presidential election in US history. But the way his death was reported not only denigrates Dre's artistic achievements, but also relies on the crudest of stereotypes (black male = rapper = criminal).

Rapper gone bad?

This is not to deny Dre's criminal record. Like many aspiring MCs, Dre began writing raps to stave off boredom in juvenile hall. After his release in 1988, he hooked up with the Mac and producer Khayree, who'd already put out the Mac's The Game Is Thick. (The last album Dre released, 2004's The Game Is Thick, Part 2, on Sumo, is a sequel/homage to his friend and mentor's underground classic.) Building a buzz with songs like "2 Hard for the Fuckin' Radio" and "California Livin' " (1991), Dre was clearly on his way to the majors when his career was derailed by an arrest for "conspiracy to commit bank robbery." Accused of being a member of the Romper Room Gang, responsible for a string of old-fashioned bank holdups in the Vallejo area in the early '90s, Dre wound up doing four years and four months in federal prison. But he maintained he was framed by Vallejo police, whose inability to catch the robbers he had mocked in the 1992 song "Punk Police."

According to J-Diggs, Dre's codefendant, who served eight years on the weightier charge of conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery, "the Romper Room crew was a group of youngsters growing up together – the name 'gang' was attached to us by the media. Our crew was only 11 deep and 9 of us went to the feds."

"I was into the bank robbery game," J-Diggs freely admits. "But not Dre. We was going to Fresno to rob a bank – me, my cousin, and another guy who was an informant wearing a wire. Dre ended up coming down there with us, to go mess with some girls. We had 32 FBI agents following us around for a couple of days.

"All they wanted out of Dre was to say, 'Yeah, I knew they was going to rob a bank. I didn't have nothing to do with it.' He could've went home, but he kept his mouth shut. Out of the crew, Dre is the only person I can say went to prison for nothing, for basically not telling on nobody."
What's really going on

Regardless of how you weigh such testimony – and Lt. Rick Nichelman, the Vallejo Police Department officer named by Dre on his recorded-over-the-phone-from-jail album, Back N Da Hood (Young Black Brotha 1993), maintains Dre was guilty as charged – one thing is certain: If Dre committed a crime, he'd done his time. Friends and collaborators describe the postprison Dre as completely focused on music, to the exclusion of extracurricular income.

"Dre wasn't a criminal," PSD insists. "He wouldn't know how to steal. I heard him denounce pimping, the whole getting supported from a female, three or four Gs every night. He said, 'Man, I just want to rap.' He was dedicated."

Dubee similarly recalls Dre's encouragement to concentrate strictly on music: "I'm a street rapper. He used to get mad at me because I'm so street. 'Dubee, you got to leave this street shit alone sometimes.' We didn't know it, but Dre had stopped looking at us as 'the little cuddies.' He was like, 'Y'all with me now.' "

"He gave a lot of people the opportunity to do music," says North Oakland rapper Mistah F.A.B., who became tight with Dre in the last year and a half of his life. "He was a good dude, a philanthropist. He didn't base a lot of things on the materialist ideology a lot of rappers have. I've never heard anyone say anything bad about Dre."

Such universal goodwill in the notoriously factional world of Bay Area hip-hop is rare, but stories of Dre's own generosity to his fellow artists are legion. Perhaps the most illustrative comes from producer One Drop Scott, who himself was brutally beaten and left for dead in an incident at the Berkeley Marina a couple of years ago.

"When I got out the hospital, I was at Harm's studio at the Soundwave. I ran into Mac Dre. He listened to what I'd been doing since I got back. He was loving that I was still doing my thing. He came back the next day, handed me a fat-ass check. 'Drop, I need you, bro.' He was the first to chisel me off and make sure that I was cool."

Clearly Dre appreciated defiance in the face of overwhelming odds and appalling setbacks. When he was about to blow up, he was sent to prison for what would be considered his prime in an age-conscious industry like hip-hop. When he got out, he had to start over at a time when the Bay was ice cold; even then, he consistently moved around 30,000 units, with the occasional disc selling more than 60,000 copies, according to SoundScan reports. When he started getting hot again after the Treal T.V. (2003) DVD, he warmed up the Bay with him. When he was about to blow up again, he was murdered.

When all is said and done, Dre was the one who was robbed.


Nation of Thizzlam: The Rebirth of Thizz Entertainment

by Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian November 16, 2005

The real legacy of Mac Dre is not his criminal record but rather the music he made and the label he started as Romp Records after his release from prison in 1996. In a characteristically generous move, Dre’s first project was a Rompalation featuring the new generation of Crestside rappers who’d begun to establish themselves in his absence. In 2001, continuing friction with the Vallejo Police convinced Dre to relocate to Sacramento and rename his company Thizz Entertainment, downplaying the association with “Romper Room Gang” (see main article). Originally slang for an ecstasy high, “thizzin’” grew to be an extremely elastic concept in Dre’s hands, encompassing a wide range of hedonistic associations.

While Thizz long boasted an impressive roster of largely Crestside-bred talent, the death of its charismatic leader and best-seller obviously threatened the company’s existence. But Thizz wouldn’t die. Dre’s business partners, Miami Tha Most and Kilo Curt, instead brought in Crestside native Mac Mall as co-owner, flagship artist, and public face of the organization. Though Mall and Dre had fallen out in the mid-’90s, they’d recently reunited to record Da U.S. Open (Thizz 2005), the last project Dre completed, down to its tennis-themed cover art.

“We started doing a lot of shows on the road and bonded our friendship first,” Mall recalls. “Then that record was the easiest I ever made in my life. It was so organic. Me and Dre was getting ready to take over the world, doing projects together and then solos, along with the rest of Thizz. So we already had this in mind.”

“When dude passed, I made a vow; I’m not gonna let this story end. I gotta step up and keep Crestside music alive.”

Thizz has done more than keep alive. The period since Dre passed has been one of the hottest times for Bay Area rap in years, and no label has brought more heat than Thizz. In addition to maintaining Dre’s own vast catalogue, Thizz has dropped one underground banger after another, releasing new albums from its established core of Crestside artists like PSD (The Guru), Little Bruce (Base Rocks & Pimp Socks), and J-Diggs (California Livin’, Part 2), as well as more recent affiliates like former Steady Mobbin’ member BavGate (The InstaGator) and North Oakland’s Mistah F.A.B. (Son of a Pimp), whose Droop-E-produced single, “Super Sic Wid It” featuring Turf Talk and E-40, cracked the top 5 on KMEL, making it the label’s biggest radio success. (Dre’s own Sean-T-produced “Fellin’ Myself,” from his 2004 album Ronald Dregan, continues to play in heavy rotation.) Mob Figaz member Rydah J. Klyde, a friend of Dre from his Sacramento days, already had two big albums on Thizz this year—The Best of the Mob Figaz and a duo album, as Money Gang, with Johnny Cash of Da Hoodfellas, called Bang Fo’ Bread—when he dropped two more: one solo, What’s Really Thizzin?, one duo, with Freako, El Pueblo Children. This doesn’t even exhaust the list, which also includes four Thizz Nation compilations. Taken as a whole, it’s an unprecedented single-year output for a Bay Area independent hip hop label.


The sheer volume of Thizz releases over the past year has been made possible by an increased level of collaboration within Bay Area hip hop’s notoriously cutthroat business environment. Dre’s goodwill extended far beyond Crestside, and the tragic circumstances of his death provided a sudden common ground on which a divided scene could unite.

“Thizz Nation, that’s everybody all put together, because that’s what Dre always wanted,” PSD says. “The Bay Area didn’t know how to come together. But with Thizz it’s starting to happen. A lot of neighborhoods that had problems squashed those problems in the name of Mac Dre and Thizz.”

“We’re trying to carry on what Dre had going on, to put the shine back on the Bay,” he continues. “This is a fire he started. It’s up to us to keep it lit. It’d not only be disrespectful not to; we’d be idiots.”

“Thizz isn’t just a label; it’s a movement,” says Mistah F.A.B. “Of course we want to do ourselves as our artists but really we want to keep Mac Dre’s legacy alive. He started a lot of things that’s taking place right now. We want to put the Bay Area back out front.”

This new spirit of cooperation involves more than just pooling creative resources, though this helps; in F.A.B.’s case he recorded his entire album, including guest shots and producers, for free. More radically, however, has been Thizz’s adaptation of the co-branding principle to local hip hop on an unprecedented scale, teaming with rappers like F.A.B. or BavGate, who often have their own labels and put their own albums together. “We do albums and we bring them to Kilo, who is the C.E.O.,” F.A.B. explains. “Each artist has their own different ways of completing his album. But if it’s an album Thizz feels is worth putting out, putting their stamp on, they’re gonna put it out.” In exchange for a cut of the profits, Thizz lends logistical support and promotional dollars, as well as the “Mac Dre Presents” logo. Ultimately such independent dollars only go so far; as is increasingly the case even with major labels, it’s ultimately the artist’s responsibility to break the record. But Thizz lends the power, infrastructure, and name-recognition of a corporation to artists who otherwise might not be able to push a record without it; it also exposes them to potential new fans through association with other Thizz artists.

“There comes a point of saturation,” F.A.B. admits. “You don’t want people to burn out on the whole movement before it even gets a chance to expand.” What is striking, however, is the sheer quality of the Thizz releases thus far. Obviously Dre’s death has lent an incredible urgency to this music. The effect might best be gauged by comparing PSD’s current The Guru to his 2003 U Ain’t Heard of Me???, both co-released by Thizz and his own Gateway Entertainment. While the earlier disc is an impressive if overpacked collection of a top-notch rapper, The Guru is a true masterpiece of an album, bluesy and soulful, tinged throughout with PSD’s Mississippi roots.

With the addition of Keak Da Sneak, who confirmed his much awaited upcoming album will be a Thizz co-release with his own AllNDaDoe label, Thizz continues to gain momentum. The one hold out thus far is Dre’s fellow Cutthroat Committee member Dubee. While he willingly helped PSD finish the group’s second album, Money Iz Motive, among the final projects Dre worked on, Dubee doesn’t feel ready to drop another album yet. “I put my game on pause,” he says, “out of respect for the cuddie.” While he may not agree, PSD understands his friend’s position; no one wants to exploit Dre even as they want to further his work.

“We could have used more songs with Dre,” PSD says, “But we were like no, save it for his kids. We have to eventually let go; we can’t just keep giving you Dre songs like Dre alive.”


The Luniz: 10 On It!

by Garrett Caples
Luniz 10th Anniversary Special exclusive to hyphythizzgo.com

2005 marks the 10th anniversary of Operation Stackola (Noo Tribe/Virgin, 1995), the platinum debut of Oakland duo Jerold “Yukmouth” Ellis, Jr. and Garrick “Numskull” Husbands: the Luniz. Featuring fat tracks by the likes of Shock-G, DJ Fuze (both from Digital Underground), DJ Darryl, and E-A-Ski & CMT, Stackola is best known for the Tone Capone-produced “I Got 5 On It,” which a decade later remains the weed-smoking anthem of hip hop. The album also established the Luniz’s peculiar brand of outrageousness. At a time when the persona of the millionaire rapper became the norm, the Luniz portrayed themselves as small-time hustlers, usually broke, always on something. Their sense of humor, moreover, was bizarre and inimitable; who but the Luniz would begin their very first album depicting their own death, at the hands of a machine-gun-toting “playa hata” shouting “Fuck the Luniz!”? (About half-way through Stackola, on “5150,” the pair are killed again, floating up to heaven to encounter Jesus, Shock-G’zus, who promptly kicks them out, though in truth Shock would bring them into DU, both on stage and in the studio.)

But what defined the Luniz above all else was the chemistry between Yukmouth and Numskull. Friends since their early teens, the two forged a bond based on their determination to succeed in hip hop. “We was both sleeping on the park bench,” Num recalls, “because his grandma and my mom wanted us to get jobs, and we’re like ‘No, we want to be rappers.’” Such shared hardships infused the pair’s complementary vocal styles, for Yuk’s frenetic flow was a perfect match for Num’s almost talking style of rap. “In every great duo, one partner brings something the other lacks,” says Mekanix production team member Dotrix, who dj’ed for the Luniz on tour for their second album, Lunitik Muzik (1997). “Num’s flow sounds simple, though it’s actually complex, but with him it’s more what he says, rather than how. Yuk, on the other hand, is all style, like a NY rapper, more how he says it than what.” Such differences mirror the Luniz’s distinct personalities. Yukmouth, to invoke a song from his 2003 album Godzilla, is “stuntastic,” rocking jewels and platinum teeth, puffing high-grade weed, sipping Moet; Numskull, by contrast, is laid back and hood, sporting white tees with no ice, no longer smoking weed but still committed to Mickey’s malt liquor.

The history of the Luniz begins in the late ’80s when Yukmouth joined Numskull’s Brothaz Wit Potential as a non-rapping visual artist who quickly became one of the tightest rhymers in the crew. Forming a duo originally called Luni Tunz, their first break came in the early ’90s when they met Chris Hicks of C-Note Records, who was in the process of recording the debut of another Oakland sensation, Dru Down. Hicks put the Luniz in the studio with Dru, where they recorded “Rescue 911” and “Ice Cream Man,” a local underground hit. The Luniz also recorded “5 On It,” which was sufficient to land a deal with Noo Trybe, while Dru’s album, Explicit Game, was picked up by Relativity.

The international impact of “5 On It” should have paved the way for the Luniz’s future. Instead, as if presaged by their multiple deaths on Operation Stackola, the duo was dealt a series of setbacks of the career-killing kind. Hoping to replicate Stackola’s success, Noo Trybe chief Eric Brooks tried to steer the Luniz in a pop direction Yuk & Num stubbornly resisted. Lunitik Muzik thus ended up sounding like the biggest-budget street album ever recorded; lacking a pop hit, the album nonetheless went gold, though it fell short of the label’s expectations.

Industry pressures began to take their toll. Ensnared in bad deals with both Brooks and Hicks, as well as legal difficulties owing to wild behavior on tour, the Luniz began to grow apart, and when Yuk jumped at a solo offer from Rap-A-Lot, their days as a duo seemed over. Yet, though mostly leading seperate lives, the Luniz never really broke up, playing the occasional gig and making joint appearances on various projects, including each others’, as well as the West Coast Mix of P.Diddy’s “5 On It”-based “Satisfy You” (Bad Boy 2000). Gradually they renewed their bond and recorded what was to be their third album, Oakland Blaze. But new complications arose. Noo Trybe folded, leaving Hicks with the rights to the Luniz name, while Yukmouth remained under contract to Rap-A-Lot. Numskull, meanwhile, refused to do business with Rap-A-Lot, as he’d never been paid for his appearances on Yuk’s projects. As negotiations ensued, bootlegs of Blaze began selling all over Oakland, even spawning the underground hit “I’m a Raider.” After endless delays, the album was finally rushed out, with a slightly different track list, in the summer of 2002, as Silver & Black (Rap-A-Lot). Though previous bootlegging resulted in low sales, the buzz the project generated was undeniable proof fans were still hungry for the Luniz, and the Luniz could still deliver.

To celebrate the Luniz’s 10th anniversary in the industry, I touched down with both Yukmouth and Numskull. With 3 solo albums, 2 United Ghettos of America comps, and 1 duo disc with C-Bo as Thug Lordz already under his belt, Yuk is promoting All Out War, Vol. 2 (Smoke-A-Lot), the second mixtape by his crew the Regime. Num, meanwhile, is preparing his first “solo” release, Caliban, named after his own new group, who are featured on the album. While the music on each reflects their respective personalities, it’s hard not to notice that both the Regime and the Caliban have adopted camouflage and fatigues, as if, even at a distance, Yuk and Num are attuned to the same wavelength. Both are optimistic about an eventual 4th Luniz album, but only when the conditions are right. “I wanna do it for me,” Numskull says, “not because of the Luniz name.” Yukmouth agrees: “We gotta build that bond back because that bond ain’t there right now. Soon as we can vibe together as the Luniz, then we can do it.”

(part two: Yukmouth: The Regime Declares War
part three: The Mystery of Numskull)


Yukmouth: The Regime Declares War

by Garrett Caples
Luniz 10th Anniversary Special exclusive to hyphythizzgo.com

You’ve got to hand it to Yukmouth; during the Bay Area’s long post-2pac commercial drought—when E-40 and the by-then-Atlanta-based Too Short were the region’s only major-label platinum acts—Yuk routinely moved several hundred thousand units for Houston, TX independent Rap-A-Lot Records, maintaining a nationwide reputation without radio play, videos, or big-budget promotion. His success is partly due to sheer talent. Yukmouth’s flow is fierce, and while some fans were disgruntled when he smoothed out his voice on his solo albums, it soon became apparent that he was merely expanding his arsenal. His Luniz voice continues to crop up, but as one of many weapons at his disposal, and his continually-evolving technique keeps him current in an industry where styles quickly become dated.

Besides talent, Yuk’s success stems from sheer relentlessness. Having taken it upon himself to don the Thug mantle left vacant by the death of 2pac, Yukmouth has remained faithful to the role. Like Pac, he refuses to be politic, calling the game how he sees it, never backing down regardless of the opponent. As a result, he’s been involved in some legendary beefs: Master P; Scarface; Daz; Snoop (to name just a few). Most recently, Yuk’s been waging a two-front campaign against G-Unit and its erstwhile associate The Game. When we spoke he’d just released All Out War, Vol. 2, on his new Rap-A-Lot/Asylum-distributed label, Smoke-A-Lot. A 2-CD monument to spleen, War is the second mixtape by his multi-region crew, The Regime.

“Our click is from the East, Midwest, South, and the West, so we represent everybody,” Yuk says. “The Regime is Yukmouth, Tech N9ne, Gonzoe, Poppa LQ, Monster Gunjah, Menace, E-Blak, Dru Down, Young Dru, Young Skrilla, Ampichino, Nate Da Nut, Messy Marv, Mark Shyst. It’s the veterans and the young people I’ve discovered throughout my career. A lot of people come to you with CDs, rapping after shows; I happen to be one of the dudes who listens. I picked the best apples outta the bunch and formed the Regime.”

“We’re warming the streets up before we drop an album.. People heard about us from the song on my album Godzilla (Rap-A-Lot 2003), but I want people to feel us as a group; you can’t really see our diversity, our range of music, from just one song. On this new mixtape, we’re giving damn near 50 songs. We mean business.”

Indeed, and in more ways than one. While Yuk’s beefs are unquestionably sincere—fresh anger rises in his voice while discussing them—the budding label tycoon isn’t blind to the marketability of his battle with the whole G-Unit/Shady/Aftermath/Interscope juggernaut, currently the dominant commercial force in hip hop. 50 Cent and Game are even listed on the cover of War, along with more willing non-Regime participants like E-40, Jacka from Mob Figaz, and Guce of Bullys Wit Fullys fame.

“Game’s on the mixtape,” Yuk confirms. “It’s a skit where a girl clowns the shit out of him on the radio. There’s a lot of exclusive shit the average consumer couldn’t get unless you heard it that night. I got the actual shit, where 50 Cent dropped a nigga on Hot 97, the Fat Joe interview where he found out 50 did the song and he’s challenging him to a fight. I got Jay-Z on there when he dissed Game. It’s not only us; it’s a combination of everybody.”

Yuk has a point, for the sheer size of his coalition of the willing, not to mention its geographical diversity, suggests a growing backlash within hip hop against the corporate-funded hype machine that launched both 50 and Game in quick succession. The situation is extremely fluid, however. Game, for instance, takes his share of lumps on War, which features titles like “Playin Gaymez” and “It’s Not a Gayme,” as well as a surrogate, “The Lame,” portrayed with comedic panache by young San Diego rapper/producer Fifth. Yet surprisingly enough, according to Yukmouth, these portions of the mixtape are strictly historical.

“Right now, me and Game squashed the beef. He called me, after I pressed up the mixtape, and I’m like, ‘Yo, shit’s pressed up.’ And he’s like, ‘Ok, I understand. But from now on let’s not get at each other.’ I’m like, ‘Cool.’ Because he used to do the ‘Fuck you, Yukmouth’ at the beginning of every set, but he stopped that. And I respect that, so I ain’t gonna do no more songs about the dude because he’s holding his word.”

Anyone familiar with Yukmouth’s ability to hold a grudge—he’s still dissing now-retired Master P for biting “Ice Cream Man” 10 years ago—might be surprised by this abrupt about-face, but it makes sense, for Game’s war with G-Unit has inadvertently landed him on Yuk’s side of the fence. Word on the street was their beef stemmed from an incident that didn’t even involve Yuk, during a Game appearance in an Oakland record store, and for all the vitrol that’s flown between them, a beef based on a misunderstanding probably isn’t worth the effort given changing conditions on the ground.

In terms of his beef with 50, however, Yuk’s enthusiasm remains undiminished. “I’m willing to do a song with Game shitting on G-Unit,” he says. “I’m about West Coast preservation right now.” Preservation, it seems, is the very issue behind the 50 Cent backlash within the industry; unlike his clash with Game, Yuk’s beef with 50 is a matter of principle.

“50 Cent did a lot of snitching,” Yuk says, reiterating a charge frequently leveled against the G-Unit leader. “I won’t say what he said but he did a lot of dry ratting that got the hip hop industry fucked up. Major underground independent labels getting hit by the Feds, ATF, know what I mean? When dude got on BET and said what he said, he’s fucking with people’s livelihood. He’s got the magnifying glass on everybody, like everybody’s racketeering, trying to launder money. What’s all this shit coming from? Shit some rapper said on TV? When shit like that happens, it’s beef.”

“Murder Inc. ain’t the only label that got hit like that,” Yuk insists, referring to the federal prosecution of label heads Irv and Chris Gotti on money laundering charges, of which they were acquitted in early December. “Go ahead diss the shit out of Jah Rule, that’s not a problem. But when you start fucking with niggas’ livelihood, their money, their labels, it’s like, damn, are you hating on all black entrepeneurs? If you’re doing that, I have something against you, because I’m a young black entrepeneur.”

The connections Yuk makes here are striking in light of how weak the prosecution’s case was, reportedly based on a handful of text messages. The ramifications of 50 taking his beef with The Inc. off wax and into the federal court system would indeed be chilling, given that the Gotti’s are self-made record moguls and 50 is merely the nominal head of a imprint created by white corporate dollars.

“Of course Interscope is behind every move,” Yuk insists. “When Benzino started fucking with Eminem in The Source, Jimmy Iovine instantly put his money into XXL. Now every month all you see is Interscope artists on the cover. Irv Gotti said he was in a meeting with Iovine, because they all have the same parent labels—Universal, Interscope, Def Jam—so they gotta have big meetings and luncheons together. Irv sees the dude [Iovine] at the luncheon, and the dude really don’t want to look at him, talk to him or nothing, like he’s really in the beef. They’re at a table where all the execs have to talk, and Jimmy Iovine won’t look at him, like he’s really down with this beef and shit. He’s got 50 and Eminem’s back on that shit.”

“That’s a crazy way to do it because could it lead to another 2pac/Biggie sort of incident,” Yuk says. “I mean, damn, labels don’t give us life insurance. They’re putting niggas in danger, then a nigga dies and shit, and they get all the money. Same as Pac; Pac died and they got all the money.”

Whether or not Yuk’s conspiracy theories seem plausible or paranoid, it became clear early last summer that G-Unit was feeling the heat, when recent signée Spider Loc—whom Yukmouth had never met—was dispatched to snatch Yuk’s chain. “I got jumped by 6 niggas and they pulled out a pistol. I was by myself. But the very next day, by the time he got to the jewelery store, he got a call to give that shit back. So he hurried up and took his little picture with it, and then gave that shit back. I had his OGs, the people he looked up to, calling. ‘Oh what did I do; I didn’t know!’ He pleading his case like that. I had niggas that if they called the shot he couldn’t walk off his fucking doorstep, them type of niggas calling him. Had his ass on the phone apologizing.”

“As far as money, they’ve got better backing, but gangstas run the streets, man. Not money; gangstas run the street,” Yuk says defiantly. “I ain’t said I’m gonna kill nobody, but they definitely gonna get beat up or their chain snatched. Those dudes think they’re invincible with their bulletproof vans and shit. You still gotta go to sleep. Are you going to sleep in a bulletproof room? Or you still gotta hop on flights. You can have a lot of money and still be touched, man.”

(part one: The Luniz: 10 On It!
part three: The Mystery of Numskull)


The Mystery of Numskull

by Garrett Caples
Luniz 10th Anniversary Special exclusive to hyphythizzgo.com

Numskull is a hard man to pin down. When I first interviewed him in March, he was staying in Sacramento, shuttling back and forth to Reno to work on Caliban—his long-awaited first solo album—with producer C-Dash. Since then, we’ve periodically touched base by phone, at Digital Underground shows, or at the Garage in East Oakland, where former Luniz dj Dotrix and partner Kenny Tweed produce tracks as Tha Mekanix. One night in September in San Francisco, I bump into Num after a DU show, during which he brought down the house with a 3-song set from Caliban, backed by his group of the same name. Thizzing on a pill as well as on the crowd’s enthusiastic response, he gives me hug and tells me the album is done. Then he pulls me aside.

“This is important; you have to put this in the interview,” he says. “I was actually born in Mississippi; my mom moved to Oakland when I was a baby. And on my birth certificate, under race, its says ‘Negro.’”

He doesn’t elaborate further, but, only about a month after Hurricane Katrina, it was easy to catch his drift. Num was born in the ’70s, well after the peak of the civil rights movement when the term fell into disuse, but his birth certificate is evidence of the kind Katrina provided in abundance, that very little in fact had changed for certain black populations in America. If this seems like an atypical concern for the rapper who sometimes records under the name Drank-A-Lot, it does give a foretaste of what Caliban has in store for listeners.

“It’s gonna be Numskull’s solo album,” he says, “but I’m introducing the group so I got ‘em on a lot of songs. The Caliban is basically artists who don’t see the world like everybody else see it. We’re not worried about this club shit. Caliban—we took it from the Taliban, so we bitter about hella shit that’s going on. In the United States and overseas, all the shit. We hate Bush. It’s a Num album. And Num don’t really give a fuck about shit.”

The logistical details behind Caliban are still in flux. One minute Num is in talks with basketball players starting labels, next it’s supposed to be Koch, next he’s releasing it himself on the internet. Even the line-up of the Caliban seems to periodically undergo reassessment, though the core seems to be former No Limit soldier Don P; former Dangerous Crew member F.M. Blue, whose own long-delayed first album, The World Is Blue (FastLife 2004), is largely produced by the Mekanix; Blue’s younger brother Cheese Whosain; and DU member Esinchill, who just dropped his own C-Dash-produced project, a duo disc with King Beef called Choice Cuts (RCeason).

One thing, however, I can say for sure: the music Num played for me during our interview in Sacramento was some of the most advanced hip hop I’ve ever heard. Both Numskull and Esinchill hooked up with the newly-thriving Reno scene through Element, a trio who spent 5 years on the road as DU’s support crew and appear on Shock-G’s solo album, Fear of a Mixed Planet (33rd Street 2004). The beats coming out of Reno these days are wildly futuristic blends of the synthetic and the organic that sound truly like nothing else in rap. Clearly they inspired Num to take his own experimental approach to the vocals; the group tracks feature incredibly tight interplay between the rappers, as opposed to the usual structure of simply trading verses. As half of one of the greatest hip hop duos of all time, Num appreciates the power of group dynamics.

“I don’t like to be alone,” he confesses. “On stage, at home, anything. So I always bring people with me wherever I go. And these cats have talent, so why not put ‘em on?”

Such an attitude goes a long way towards explaining Num’s career in the years since Lunitik Muzik, for while Yukmouth has remained highly visible and productive—preparing to release his fourth solo album, Million Dollar Mouthpiece, in 2006—Num has kept a much lower profile. This has been partly due to circumstance; though he recorded a solo album in the late ’90s for NY-based K-Tel Records, the company folded before releasing it. Yet he also freely admits, “I didn’t think I was ready to do a solo album, at all. I was still into that Luniz shit. When I came out with my own album, I wanted it to be me, not people thinking he gotta make shit like the Luniz.”

Instead of pursuing a solo career, Num spent much of the period between Muzik and 2002’s Silver & Black on the road with the steadily-touring DU. “I was the animal on tour,” he admits. “I’m talking about drugs everywhere every night, drinking. And Shock was kinda coming along with me. But then he was like, we’re not going to take you and Clee on the next one. We understood. We were wild, acting a fool. I was still living out my Luniz fantasies. But Shock told me the reason we wasn’t making good music anymore was that we were partying too much. And I appreciated him for that.”

While the rest of DU embarked on tour, Num and Clee began hanging out in LA with producer Poli Pol, prior to his association with the Black-Eyed Peas. “The guy had a studio,” Num recalls. “We were just kicking it really cause we’d brought some other cats over to work with him. We were making songs that we wanted to hear. Shit that we were going through at that time. Like, you don’t have no pussy, so we made a jack off song. Shit like that. We weren’t even thinking about doing an album together at all. But then he’s like, fuck it; let’s do a whole album.” The result of these sessions was the brilliant but hard-to-find, label-less disc Good Laaawd That’s a Lot of Drank (1999), credited to Clee and Drank-A-Lot.

“That’s a classic album,” Num says proudly. “But we tried to put it out ourselves, and we didn’t know nothing about going independent. We pressed up 5,000 units and sold all 5,000 in stores. We would get the money back from the first sales, and we would try to put it into promotion. Then we’d have no money to press it up again when everybody’s asking for it. But I’ve never heard one person say that they didn’t like that album. I actually want to rerelease it.”

The duo eventually parted on friendly terms, but not before teaming with Money B for his Poli Pol-produced single “Putcha Thang on Me,” a Bay Area hit in 1999. Based on the chops displayed on his video for Good Laaawd’s single, “Knockdiesel,” Clee, now known as Cleetis Mack, went on to direct the successful Sex in the Studio adult hip hop dvd series (Metro Entertainment). Num, meanwhile, used Good Laaawd to help launch his proteges, Hittaz on tha Payroll, whose Mekanix-produced Ghetto Storm (Hitta) was one of the hottest albums in the Bay in 2003. The association continues, as Num co-hosts Sex in the Studio’s second episode (2004) and also features in the soundtrack single, “Drank-A-Lot,” with Money B and Eddi Projex of the Hittaz. Produced by the same Fifth who portrays “The Lame” on Yukmouth’s Regime mixtape, “Drank-A-Lot” generated a buzz earlier this year from numerous spins on BET’s late-night video show Uncut.

After years of crew-oriented endeavors, Num feels he’s finally “ready” to do a solo album, especially as he’s put together a powerful new crew to do it. The quality of the music on Caliban reveals the hidden perfectionism behind Num’s slow development into a solo artist

“Before I was just doing songs just to do them, and I don’t think that that’s my best work. A lot of those songs came from like me dealing with people and they’re like, ‘Num you should put this on your album.’ And I do hella songs by myself. None of it was worthy to me. That’s why I took so long. Out of 60 songs that I have, I’ll probably pick like 7 that I like.”

“I’m trying to make a classic album,” he concludes. “I don’t want an album with 2 good songs and 16 ok songs. I want an album that’s a classic all the way through, that you can just sit down and listen to. And I got something for everybody too. I have a song for this group, but other groups’ll want to listen to that song too. That’s the type of album I want to do.”

(part one: The Luniz: 10 On It!
part two: Yukmouth: The Regime Declares War)



Rick Rock Changes the Game

by Garrett Caples
July 2005

After a prolonged eclipse following its mid-’90s commercial peak, Bay Area hip hop is once again starting to shine. Major labels long leery of the Bay’s reputation for violence off wax as well as on have begun to sign acts, from new groups like The Team (Universal) and The Frontline (Penalty/Ryko) to veterans like Sean T (Interscope) and E-A-Ski (Penalty/Ryko). Anticipation of E-40’s new album for Lil Jon’s Warner-distributed BME has only added fuel to the fire. But the man who perhaps sparked this major label flame is, appropriately enough, a Rock: Rick Rock, the innovative producer who laid the foundation for the Bay Area sound known as “hyphy.”

If the word “hyphy” means anything to you then you’re probably familiar with the Bay’s homegrown alternative to crunk: aggressively uptempo beats serving as vehicles for frenetic flows whose contrast to the more leisurely enunciations of the Dirty South’s chief export could hardly be more apparent. In the amount of time an Eastside Boy will spend stretching a single phoneme beyond recognition, a Bay rapper like Keak Da Sneak will deliver a brief dissertation on the fine art of ballin’. While the influence of crunk had been creeping into Bay Area club music for quite some time, it was the single “Hyphy” by the Fairfield, CA-based trio Federation, featuring a guest spot by 40 himself, that formalized the tendency. Produced by Rock and released on his own Southwest Federation label, “Hyphy” generated sufficient noise both in the club and on the radio to attract the attention of Virgin/EMI, who signed Rock’s label in time to release Federation’s 2004 debut, The Album. Emboldened by this example, or for fear of being left behind, other companies began to follow suit, leading to the present flurry of Bay Area deals.

Tucked away in a semi-rural corner of Sacramento, in a housing tract of relatively recent vintage, the home Rick Rock shares with his wife and baby daughter is a picture of domestic bliss, albeit one decorated with gold and platinum plaques. In person, Rock presents a marked contrast to the behavior suggested by Federation songs like “Go Dumb” and “Mayhem.” Laid back, soft spoken, able to disarm his toddler of a deafening musical Elmo toy without spoiling her sunny disposition, Rock displays throughout our interview an unfailing politeness more evocative of southern hospitality than elbow-throwing in the club.

“I was born in Montgomary, Alabama,” Rock says, “but raised in Suisun and Fairfield, California. Doonie Baby [of Federation] I met in Alabama. He was born in Mississippi. That’s how we came with the name Southwest Federation, because we’re a combination of both. I moved here when I was 15, then I moved back to Alabama until I was 25. Goldie Gold, he’s from Vallejo. And Stres is from Fairfield.”

“When I came here from Alabama,” he continues, “I was really doing East Coast music. SB-1200. I went into a store down there called the Fonkey Chicken, and my friend there said, ‘The type of music you’re doing, they’re not gonna feel it here;. you gotta switch up.’ And I was like, ‘I’m going to do me and have the game switch to me.’ And it’s weird because he brings that up, after what’s happened, and I listen to the radio, and now everyone’s trying to do me.”

Naturally such a change didn’t occur overnight, but rather resulted from patient toil and sacrifice; at this point, Rock has put a solid 10 years into the game.

“I began producing in 1995 with Conscious Daughters, a female group Paris had. Then I did one for 2pac. Most of these records were under the radar and I was just lucky to be on them at the time. I actually got on E-40’s Hall of Game (Jive, 1996). I did ‘Record Haters’ and ‘Circumstances.’ I didn’t charge money because at the time I didn’t have nowhere to live. I was sleeping on the floor, just trying to get my name out. That was two songs; his last three albums I did something like 9 songs on each.”

Though working with E-40 definitely put Rock in radar range, the Bay itself was just entering its lengthy turn-of-the-century drought, a time when many deserving artists languished without major label support or access to the airwaves. What saved Rock from a similar fate was a summons from Jay-Z to produce 4 songs for his Roc-A-Fella family album The Dynasty (2000), including the hit single “Change the Game.”

“When I did Jay-Z, things started heating up for me. Calls start coming in, ‘Who’s this guy? He’s got a different sound. West Coast-type of beat but not your typical West Coast beat, with East Coast rhyming on it.’ That’s when Fabolous came around.” Unlike Jay-Z, a proven star who could score a hit over polka, Fabolous was an unknown quantity, but the resulting single, “Can’t Deny It,” had no small role in making the rookie rapper a mispelled household word in 2001. “It just snowballed from there,” Rock says, continuing his winning streak over the next couple of years with hits like “Make it Clap” (Busta Rhymes), “Automatic” (E-40 and Fabolous), and “I Know What You Want” (Busta Rhymes and Mariah Carey), for which he won an ASCAP pop award.

While extensive collaborations with East Coast artists gave him a level of exposure he couldn’t have achieved in the Bay Area—including airplay on the region’s main hip hop station, Clear Channel-owned 106.1FM KMEL—Rock never abandoned his base in Sacramento. Indeed, his nationwide status as an A-list producer became a source of pride for the local hip hop community at a time when it desperately needed one.

“I love what I’m doing for the Bay Area,” Rock confirms, “for Northern Cali period, because there’s been a drought out here and I’ve been able to work with a lot of people and still represent Northern Cali. It gives people a hope, and me too. Working with different people from different places, like New York, or Atlanta, gives you another perspective and it translates into your music when you come home.” Nonetheless, he admits, being classed among elite hitmakers like Dre, Timbaland, and the Neptunes is “a different type of stress.”

“When you’re not on the radar, it’s cool; you’re getting a few dollars, you’re on the grind. The minute you got a couple of hits, you’re on the clock. Because then it’s like, when’s the next one? Right now, I got 2 or 3 singles in the pipe, and I can’t wait for them to come because my last record was ‘Breathe Stretch Shake’ [Mase featuring P.Diddy] and that’s like 6 months old now. If not longer. You get kinda nervous. And it’s something that new producers, they never feel that pressure.”

In the meantime, Rock hasn’t stood idle, throwing his energies into his own roster of artists. In addition to producing an album by Oakland group Kinsmoke, Rock has accumulated 18 tracks towards the next Federation album. “I’ve already started mixing the record,” he says with evident enthusiasm. What remains in question, however, is whether either album will be released through Virgin. In a textbook case of industry irony, the man who began the Bay’s new round of major label deals can’t wait to get out of his. For Rock was dissatisfied with Virgin’s handling of Federation’s The Album.

“It didn’t do well,” he sighs, like the ace pitcher whose team can’t score any runs for him. “It’s a classic Bay Area album. But what we did I can do independent and make way more.” Among his particular frustrations was Virgin’s decision not to make a video for “Hyphy,” cutting off one of the most likely routes for a regional hit to go national. “I really wanted to make these dudes stars, not just independent, around here stars. There was nothing out here and I wanted to make everything seem bigger than it is.”

“When I signed with Virgin, I was at Mister Chow’s in LA,” he continues, conjuring an image of the elite environment in which superproducers dwell. “Pharrell was there. He was complaining about how Virgin did N.E.R.D. and how they did Lenny Kravitz. And I’m sitting there listening, and it was just crazy that I ended up signing with Virgin.”

“I have to do a few more records for them unless they say we’re cool. They decide. We can’t drop them. I’m supposed to know what they want to do in a minute; hopefully they’ll be like, ‘We should sever ties,” because I’d really like to open another door.”

Fortunately, while Virgin makes up its mind, Rock is by no means in limbo; as a producer, he’s still a free agent. “I knew I couldn’t cross my production with Virgin because more than likely, we’d be off the label soon. I understood going into this that more times than not it doesn’t work.” Among his latest projects: splitting production chores with Lil Jon for the new E-40 album, proving that crunk and hyphy aren’t rivals but more like family.

“That’s gonna be a trip,” Rock says. “Lil Jon’s having the best 2-3 year run. I talk to 40, ‘What’s Lil Jon like in the studio?’ and 40 says, ‘Just like you. He comes from the ground up.’ Like some people, they don’t do nothing. Somebody else might do it and they put their name on it. So I always wonder, does he really turn knobs and hit keys and everything, and 40’s like, ‘Yeah, man. He’s doing it for real.’”



Esinchill cuts

by Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian October 26, 2005

Also performing with Digital Underground Oct. 28 at the Red Devil are Esinchill and King Beef. A relentless freestyler, inventive writer, and habitual stage-diver, Esinchill has one of the tightest flows in the Bay, and if he remains Oakland's best-kept secret, it's due to lack of exposure. After a show-stealing debut on DU's Who Got the Gravy? (Jake, 1998) and extensive touring with the group, E only made a handful of guest appearances, on discs by DJ Quik, the Delinquents, and so forth, before dropping the hard-to-find Everything to Lose! (Rceason, 2002). Displaying an unexpected metaphysical streak, as well as harrowing tales of a mysterious childhood illness, Everything is an astonishingly assured album showcasing E's versatility and eagerness to expand his range.

Having secured distribution for his Rceason label, Esinchill teamed up with childhood pal King Beef for Choice Cuts, Volume One, whose advance single – the Touré-produced "Hip Hop" – began generating a buzz with East Coast radio play earlier this year. Self-designated "hip-hop mood music," Choice Cuts is a frank genre workout of club/party songs that is less ambitious than its predecessor yet in many ways more accomplished. Much credit goes to the duo's main collaborator, Reno's C-Dash, who produced 11 of its 15 tracks, providing a unity of mood absent from so many rap albums. Dash's music is a dense mixture of synthetic and organic sounds with heavy R&B leanings – so crucial is he to the project that he warrants the rare hip-hop instrumental, which fits seamlessly into the album's flow.

As performers, Esinchill and King Beef display the deep rapport of classic rap duos, egging each other on to further audacity. Smooth-voiced and heavyset, Beef makes a perfect verbal and visual foil for E's rapid-fire staccato flow and compact frame. Sharing a disdain for rap's overreliance on guns, crack, hos, and bling, E and Beef concoct distinctive songs that should give less-adventurous lyricists pause. Their material is also untainted by the misogyny endemic to rap – they might joke about the perils of hooking up with the unattractive on a song like "Wing Man," but for the most part they adopt the Romeo approach, if only out of romantic self-interest. "It's just my attitude and gratitude and respect to a queen, and when respect exudes, then great sex ensues," E raps on "Mojo."

With a second single, "If You Want It," on the way, Esinchill and Beef are busy promoting Choice Cuts, as well as working in the studio on E's next solo album, Vigilantism, and Beef's first, The Swing Party, both tentatively slated for release next year on Rceason. Also look for Esinchill to appear on several cuts off Caliban, the long-awaited solo album from Numskull of the Luniz.


Make them party -- T.M.F., a.k.a. Tha Muthafuckaz, return to the Yay

by Garrett Caples
San Francisco Bay Guardian October 26, 2005

GIVEN THE TURN -of-the-century commercial drought in Bay Area hip-hop, a whole generation of rappers disappeared under the radar. Among the crews to reemerge now that the scene is flourishing again is T.M.F. (Tha Muthafuckaz), a trio whose members include Cool Ass Cris, Smoke G Ryda, and Chilli D.O.G. Best known for the anthem "Planet 62nd," referring to their home street in East Oakland's "Avenues," T.M.F. were a live threat in the mid- to late-'90s, headlining their own small club dates as well as opening for artists like E-40, C-BO, and Digital Underground. Their upcoming appearance with DU, Oct. 28 at the Red Devil Lounge, in fact marks a reunion with a group who played an important role in T.M.F.'s past.

"Digital Underground brought us into this game," Chilli recalls. "They gave us shows at Geoffrey's Inner Circle, in Reno, LA, San Jose. Now we're on our own. The parents have raised the kids, and it's time for us to become the parents."

The history of T.M.F. begins in 1994, when then-DU DJ and current Mekanix producer Dotrix was seeking acts to develop. While Chilli and Cool Ass Cris had each separately worked with Smoke G, "Dot basically put us together," Chilli says. "He helped us format hooks, a lot of stuff for our first project."

Smoke G also remembers the discipline of this formative period under Dotrix's tutelage. "We constantly practiced," he says. "Before we got the music, we had the lyrics down. We don't just sit down separately and write verses – we write together. We'll come up with a concept, every time."

Indeed, though it may seem straightforward enough, the name T.M.F. is conceptual. Smoke G drew the initial inspiration from the tag of a San Francisco graffiti group. "T.M.F. can be whatever – 'The Most Famous,' "The Most Fantastic' – but we are 'Tha Muthafuckaz.' It's a fitting name for three brothas." DU frontman Humpty Hump adds, "T.M.F. decided to represent us, like 2Pac did with Thug Life. 'I didn't create Thug Life,' Pac said, 'I just organized it.' To different degrees, we're all muthafuckas, right?"

Cris, for one, concurs. "We're not putting ourselves on another level from average, everyday people," he explains. "If we come into a spot to perform, we're not going to be hid backstage where can't nobody talk to us. You're liable to see us on the dance floor. We might be passing a blunt to you. That's part of the name. We're real muthafuckas."

In an age when 50 Cent needs to mobilize a small army before engaging in the most trivial pursuits, such an attitude is rare, if not outright unfashionable, but it conveys the peculiar essence of T.M.F.'s aesthetic. "We try to keep our music where it starts from," Cris says. "It's always had that real grimy, street touch, but it's not the same as what everybody else is talking about. It's not about getting hyphy or stupid, or shooting someone. We just bring it strictly from reality."

"They were like the Luniz, on some real hood shit," says former mentor Dotrix, who brought the group to DU's Money-B in 1995. As the first signees to his Bobby Beats Records, T.M.F. earned a spot on the compilation Folk Music, Volume One (1996). But despite the impressiveness of their Dotrix-produced theme song, "The Motherfuckas," and the string of successful gigs that followed, the trio had difficulty settling down to the business of making their album.

"We had our days," Cris recalls, "going to the studio, drunk and loaded. We needed to learn the work ethic – it's a job." By the end of decade, when Money-B wound up the label and moved to Los Angeles, the trio found itself without a deal or the crucial access to industry connections DU's presence afforded.

"We had problems that were greater than the group could handle," Chilli confesses, alluding to "vacations at Club County." Frustrated by a lack of progress at a time when Bay Area rap was tightening its belt, the group temporarily split. "I chose to do other things," Chilli says, "like go to work, but music was still in there." Cris began a solo career, while Smoke G, under the name Vulcangundalero, recorded two discs of Oakland Raiders-themed rap as a member of Stadiumkings. Gradually, however, the three realized they missed the tight vocal interplay that characterized T.M.F. Reuniting with penitent zeal, the group banged out a long-overdue debut, Chill wit Us, released this year on Cris's label, Contagiouz Entertainment. While distribution is largely "out the trunk," these days that trunk is also virtual – you can sample Chill on T.M.F.'s Web site (www.myspace.com/contagiouzentertainment) or download it from Artistgigs.com for $6. A stripped-down, street-style party album mingling the pimp talk and social consciousness that traditionally, if paradoxically, undergird Oakland hip-hop, Chill wit Us is hardcore rap unencumbered by the jewels, guns, and Gucci-obsessing of the average MC. While they're still a far grimier act than generally comes to the Red Devil – or to Blake's in Berkeley (Nov. 25) – T.M.F. are confident they can please any crowd.

"Even if they're not the type that would normally hear our music," Cris says, "people aren't intimidated by our group. I guess it's the vibe and energy that we bring. Even though it's on a street level, they feel comfortable with it. And once we on stage, we make the muthafuckas party."

T.M.F. play with Digital Underground (with Esinchill and King Beef) Fri/28, Red Devil Lounge, 1695 Polk, SF. Call for time and price. (415) 921-1695, www.ticketweb.com. They also play Nov. 25, Blakes, 2367 Telegraph, Berk. Call for time and price. (510) 848-0886.