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.”
by Garrett Caples