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)

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