Nothing’s ever straightforward for Bay Area hip-hop. After the hyphy-fueled buzz of the past three years, the road to major-label glory remains beset by difficulties. The unexpected delay of Mistah FAB’s Atlantic project, the loss of the Federation’s lead single for their Warner/Reprise album due to sample-clearance issues, the lack of a firm date for Clyde Carson’s Capitol disc all have fostered a certain amount of frustration as the Bay waits for a new artist to shine on the national level alongside Too $hort and E-40.
While Bay Area acts try to jump into the majors, however, a major-label act has suddenly jumped into the Bay, as crunk pioneer Pastor Troy has released his new album, Tool Muziq, through local powerhouse SMC Recordings. Departing from Universal after three albums followed by a flurry of underground releases over the past two years, the Atlanta resident has chosen the independent route despite the interest of imprints like Interscope and Cash Money in his continued viability as a hitmaker.
"It’s a fool," Troy says by phone. "I like to say what I want to say without worrying if it’s going to be cut off by the bosses. On an independent label, you’re really at your own discretion."
Well, almost. While SMC allows Troy the creative freedom he lacked on his heavily A&R<\d>ed Universal full-lengths, the rapper narrowly averted a showdown with several retail chains that threatened not to carry the album under its original title, Saddam Hussein.
"I came up with the name because I felt like I’m comin’ back into the game," Troy explains. "I keep that military edge to my music. And Saddam, everything he was going through, as much controversy as his name was sparking at the time I was, like, ‘I’m gonna call my album Saddam Hussein!’ He’d just been executed and everything."
I confess I’ve always been a fan of rappers using the names of dictators notable for their defiance of the United States. In gangsta rap, names like Noreaga and our own J-Stalin are a positive advance in political consciousness compared to the glorification of Italian American mobsters. While Troy insists the title wasn’t politically motivated, the threat of retail censorship raises First Amendment issues not unlike those faced by Paris when he was forced to conceal the provocative cover of Sonic Jihad (2003) portraying a jet on a collision course with the White House under a plain black sleeve.
"It’s no big deal," Troy says. "We just switched the title before we ran into a brick wall." Despite the brouhaha, however, "Saddam," produced by Young Jeezy hitmaker Shawty Redd, remains the lead single. "Who am I?" Troy screams over the intro. "I’m the motherfuckin’ president! And I … will … live!" The recentness of Saddam’s execution, combined with the Pastor’s army-of-one style of crunk, lends an undeniable potency to this invocation. Yet it’s also hilarious Saddam as Skeletor and essentially devoid of political content: like many raps, "Saddam" is primarily about its rapper, though it’s amusing to imagine Saddam shouting, "I don’t want your bitch, nigga!" as Troy does here. But instead of a rock opera devoted to the late Sunni strongman, Tool Muziq is an extraordinarily well-rounded hip-hop album, and Troy’s ability to flow over a wide variety of tracks from the gangsta R&B of "Wanting You" to the conscious-thug, letter-from-jail-themed "Hey Mama" demonstrates a technical virtuosity well beyond that of your average crunk MC.
"Everybody knows crunk is my specialty," Troy says. "But you just can’t crunk ’em to death. You got to give them good listening. I had a 50-year-old woman tell me she’s waiting on the album to drop. Goodness gracious! I gotta cater to a lot of people."
The addition of Pastor Troy to SMC’s roster is an unexpected but welcome event for Bay Area hip-hop, insofar as he lends a national profile to the local label’s increasing reputation. Evolving out of RT Entertainment, which helped Moedoe move 36,000 units of Keak Da Sneak’s Copium (2003), and then Sumday Entertainment, responsible for Messy Marv’s 28,000-selling Disobayish (2004), SMC concentrates on Bay Area acts, even as it looks strategically to other regions. In 2005 the label dropped its first official releases, Block Movement, by B-Legit, and Speaking Tongues, a solo album by Bizzy Bone of Los Angeles’ Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, which sold 40,000 copies. SMC’s connection to Troy goes back to last year, when it served as third-party distributor for his 40,000-seller Stay Tru (845 Ent.). The rapper was so pleased with the label’s performance, he decided to cut to the chase for Tool Muziq.
"We’re going to keep having a relationship together," Troy confirms, as he and SMC are working out the details for a new release by Troy’s group D.S.G.B. "They needed a guy like Pastor Troy to shake it up for real."
And while Troy has no intention of leaving the Dirty South, his new connection to the Bay offers the tantalizing prospect of further collaboration between the regions’ related genres.
"Hyphy and crunk it’s the same kind of music to me," Troy says. "I’m sure SMC will have me get down with Messy Marv. I want to go out there and go dumb!"