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.’”

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