Free at last?

Pub date February 8, 2011

MUSIC Deep in East Oakland, in the 80s blocks of MacArthur Boulevard, I arrive at the locked door of a hole-in-the-wall barbershop. A handwritten sign says “closed for a private appointment,” but I knock anyway and gain admittance. Inside, Mistah FAB, a.k.a. the Prince of the Bay, lounges in the chair, getting a mural of a crown and the Bay Bridge shaved onto the back of his head. It’s a very hip-hop ‘do, befitting his present mood. For the occasion of our interview, in part, is his new release, an Internet mixtape of all-original music called I Found My Backpack. As the title suggests, it’s a return to his roots, FAB’s most straight-up hip-hop project since his pre-hyphy debut, Nig-Latin (Straight Hits, 2003).

“I wanted to start off this year with that vibe,” FAB says, over the low buzz of the clippers. “I went into the music I made before I had any success, music that made me happy.”

To be sure, 2010 was a difficult year for FAB. Not only did he have his first child, a daughter, but his mother (“my best friend,” he calls her) died of cancer, leaving him with no parents just as he became one. (His father, as chronicled on his breakthrough album, Son of a Pimp [Thizz, 2005], died of AIDS when FAB was 12.) FAB’s closest cousin also passed away, while his older brother — after a lifetime in and out of institutions — was sentenced to life in prison.

“A party song — that can’t express my pain,” FAB says. “I’m not going to ignore it because when you ignore it, it only grows more. I want to allow people to see the stresses and the pain that I go through.”

For someone who emerged during the Bay’s hedonistic hyphy era, FAB has had more than his share of stress. For the past three-and-a-half years, he’s been signed to Atlantic Records, which never released his projected album, Da Yellow Bus Ryder. Meanwhile, thanks to a dispute with KMEL’s former managing director, Big Von Johnson, FAB got no local radio play from the station since 2006, even when he was on Snoop Dogg’s 2008 hit “Life of Da Party,” which reached No. 14 on Billboard’s rap charts. Finally, as its most conspicuous proponent, FAB was hit hard by the backlash against hyphy that flared up in 2007.

Any of the above qualify as a career-killer, but FAB has refused to surrender, and his persistence is paying off. He’s finally negotiated an end to his contract with Atlantic, and plans to sign with L.A. Laker Ron Artest’s Tru Warrior label to release a full-blown album, Liberty Forever, later this year. His versatility has allowed him to reinvent himself even as he defiantly claims hyphy on Backpack‘s Droop-E-produced opener, “Blame Me.”

“People treated hyphy like it was witchcraft,” FAB laughs. “Like when the townspeople came to hunt for everybody who’d been involved, and everybody was like, ‘No! I did nothing hyphy! I never wore stunna shades!’ But I’m not ashamed of anything we done then. I had to get it off my chest because I wanted people to realize how fake they were being.”

Most significantly, FAB is being broadcast again by KMEL. Backpack‘s hip-hop vibe aside, he hasn’t renounced his commercial ambitions. A new single, “She Don’t Belong to Me,” featuring Universal Records R&B crooner London, has recently begun getting spins, following a regime change at the station; program director Stacy Cunningham was fired last year, while Johnson, though still a DJ, is no longer manager, replaced by assistant program director Kenard Karter.

“If you go around the country and hear Rick Ross, T-Pain, Lupe Fiasco shout out Mistah FAB, then it’s odd that you’re not playing him on the radio station you control,” FAB points out. “But [Karter] is about change and giving artists such as myself a fair shot. He reached out to me a few weeks ago, and they’ve been playing my new record here and there, which is better than never there.”

This development potentially goes beyond FAB to the entire Bay, whose artists are seldom represented on Clear Channel-owned KMEL. But is Karter really about change? In an e-mail interview two weeks ago, he acknowledged that he hopes to increase airplay for local artists. But when asked what’s preventing it, he was inconclusive at best. “Its all about the music,” he wrote. “Quality, mass appeal music that garners passion is the standard for KMEL.”

This is the same line KMEL has pushed for years, implying that Bay Area artists are at fault for not making quality music. For a concrete example of an artist meeting his criteria, I asked about J-Stalin. Stalin has one of the most passionate followings in Oakland; I hear his music slappin’ in passing cars, on BART, even in the elevator in my apartment building. Yet KMEL put nothing in rotation from last year’s The Prenuptial Agreement (SMC, 2010), which debuted at No. 1 on Rasputin’s rap chart.

“I can’t comment,” Karter wrote, regarding Stalin. “I don’t know much about him.”

When I asked about FAB, Karter stopped replying, refusing to confirm even meeting with him. I can’t say for sure why, though I imagine his reluctance to discuss FAB stems from not wanting to acknowledge the ban in the first place.

I don’t want to criticize Karter. I’m thrilled he’s playing FAB, and he deserves some time to show and prove. But the Bay needs the radio. Radio made FAB a star back in 2005 when KMEL was banging “Super Sic Wid It,” while his later lack of airplay gave Atlantic cold feet about releasing his album. With his current single, FAB is merely testing the waters; he has an arsenal of bigger singles to release — if the radio will play them. “I have crazy records people would be amazed by,” FAB says. “Records with T-Pain, Snoop Dogg, Talib Kweli, one with Rick Ross and Jadakiss over a Justus League beat — you know, just playing the power names, like, look what I been doing over the years. So if they give this a run, they gonna love what I have in store for them.”