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.