Get your shit peeled/ Check the murder rate, the shit’s real. Eddi Projex, "Straight from Oakland"
MUSIC/FILM I first met Pretty Black, a member of Yukmouth’s Regime crew, in 2005 at the Mekanix’ studio in Oakland. He arrived with Husalah of the Mob Figaz to record. Goofing off, Hus urged me to get on the song, so I recorded an intro in mangled French, dubbing the pair "les hommes mobs." Black loved the pronunciation (moeb) and thus began one of my least likely rap-world friendships.
For even by rap standards, Black was a live wire. The 25-year-old always had a pistol on him, was always ready to fight, and, with his Range Rover and Lamborghini, clearly made his money off the street, though I didn’t inquire how. He was an angry young man, not someone to piss off. Yet according to Husalah, he had another side.
"Outside the circle, he seemed like the coldest dude on earth," Hus says. "But inside, you knew he was real compassionate. He provided for his niggas. And if you needed something, he was very resourceful."
"Plus," he adds, "if someone tried to fuck with you, he already knocked ’em out before you could even react."
Born in Chicago, Black was christened Ayoola Matthew Odumuyiwa by his Nigerian immigrant parents. When he first came to the Bay, he was known as Verstyle, but soon adopted the more in your face Pretty Black, a pun on the pimp sense of "pretty" (a "gorgeous" man) and his very dark skin. Like albino Jamaican rapper Yellowman, Black transformed a perceived negative his color placing him on the lowest rung of our country’s caste system into a defiant positive.
In 2008, on my birthday, May 25 (not, as sometimes reported, on May 30), Black was shot to death at an apartment complex where his relatives lived, a planned assassination. In other words, not random violence or robbery. Except for the killers, no one knows why. I was shocked because, while I could imagine someone wanting to kill him, I’d never known a murder victim. It’s like a candle flame being blown out: one second, fully here; the next, gone. I recalled, too, the last time I’d seen him, at a show featuring the Jacka. As we were catching up, he said, apropos of nothing, "Remember when we met and recorded that song? That was cool. Le moeb!" While ordinary at the time, this circling back to the night we met took on a retrospective uncanniness, as did one of his last songs, also recorded with the Mekanix, on which Black, playing both parts of a phone call, tells himself, "Don’t go outside, nigga. They’re trying to kill you."
BACK TO BLACK
I’ve been thinking about Black lately, in large part due to Land of the Homicide: The Murders in Oakland, CA (HookerBoyFilmz/HBO), a documentary DVD by Oakland filmmaker Dame Hooker. Brought into the game by veteran director Kevin Epps and multimedia journalist JR, Hooker has manned the cameras since 2001, releasing his first DVD, an overview of the local rap scene called The Bay Got Game (HookerBoy), in 2006. He’s also notched artist-oriented flicks like Mistah FAB’s Prince of the Bay (HookerBoy/InYoFace, 2007), among numerous other projects. Camera on shoulder, he’s a ubiquitous presence at any significant function, constantly accumulating footage of anything from a performance to a sideshow to an ass-whupping in high definition.
"I had a camera, but I was just shooting around the hood," Hooker recalls. "I didn’t know how to edit or anything. But FAB, Stalin, Shady Nate I watched those dudes grow up. I started going to all their shows and they wanted the footage, so I learned how to edit just by watching TV or watching somebody else. Current TV on HBO showed me a lot about how to put it in a format."
Indeed, he nailed the format so well that Current TV licensed some of his footage and hired him and Epps to make content for the program’s Web site, which proved to be the genesis of the Land of the Homicide project.
"We did a pod, a little five-minute segment for Current TV," Hooker says. "It was called Popped in Oakland. I went around to my friends and was like, tell me how you got shot, and they was showing their wounds. HBO wanted me to extend it, and I was doing that already."
Some of the wounds are pretty grisly. One man pulls up a sleeve to display an arm that got sprayed with an AK. The arm is functional but it looks like a tree root, all twisted and gnarled, a permanent symbol of the gun problem in Oakland which frequently leads the nation in homicides not to say the entire country. Hooker himself hasn’t been immune to the violence. He shows me some of his own wounds.
"You got to know how to maneuver around here," he says grimly. "You can get shot just by looking at someone wrong. I got shot five times. Somebody thought I looked at them funny. I didn’t have no money on me or nothing."
As Hooker’s own story suggests, Oakland’s gun violence often has a random quality to it. People get shot, sometimes killed, by mistake, in addition to intended victims like Pretty Black. One of the more notorious accidental murders was Jesse "Plan Bee" Hall, founder of the classic 1990s crew Hobo Junction, who was shot in 1992 while sitting next to the intended target. Among the interviewees are Plan Bee’s parents, his sister, and his younger brother, Bobby "Blu-Nose" Hall, as Hooker provides an unflinching look at the family’s devastation and grief. Before the end of the film, however, he winds up returning to the Hall residence as Blu-Nose himself is murdered, seemingly, like his brother, a random target.
"I got a large family. None of my family members have passed away like that," Hooker says. "Except my first cousin we was real close and my uncle, [and] two uncles, on my mother’s side. All the rest have been friends, but my friends be like my family."
Ordinarily, Blu-Nose’s death would raise a question like what are the odds of someone speaking on camera about gun violence being killed by gun violence shortly afterward? But this being Oakland, the question is: what are the odds of this occurring three times in quick succession? Because this is exactly what happens with Land of the Homicide, separating it from similarly-themed hood documentaries. Another of the main interviewees, a rapper from the East Oakland’s 70s named Hennessey who had many previous wounds to display, is also murdered. Though I hadn’t heard his music, I’d already begun to hear Hennessey’s name here and there; he’d just signed to Thizz for his first major project shortly before his death, and the contrast between his on-camera gregariousness and the extremely dapper corpse we see at his funeral makes a more emphatic argument against the legality of guns than any commentary could.
Pretty Black is the third victim. Although he didn’t have prior wounds himself, Black bumped into Hooker during the filming and agreed to lend his perspective as someone who knew the street life all too well.
"I was going around getting their opinion about the stuff," Hooker recalls. "Most of them was trying to help people, trying to get their hood right. I don’t know if it was a curse doing the DVD or what, but they all died back to back. It was supposed to be about the lives taken in Oakland, but it turned out to be the people that was interviewed."
I don’t think there’s a word for Hooker’s experience here. Obviously the tragic series of murders gives his DVD an authority and authenticity most documentaries couldn’t buy. But the price is not something he would have willingly paid.
"Land of the Homicide, that’s based on really good friends," he said. "DVDs, those don’t matter when it’s someone you know."