After three and a half years chasing rappers for the Guardian, I’ve met, photographed, and finally interviewed Keak da Sneak, but never all at once. Getting ahold of E-40 is a breeze compared to tracking down Keak. One of the only Bay artists whose singles routinely play on KMEL, even hitting number one locally with 2005’s "Super Hyphy," Keak is perpetually hot and therefore elusive. When I recently interviewed Keak by phone, he was a continent away in NYC, under the watchful eye of Koch Records executives eager to promote his new album, Deified.
The release of Deified on Koch, one of the country’s biggest independent imprints, is significant not just for Keak but for the entire Bay Area. While major-label discs by Mistah FAB and Clyde Carson continue to languish, Deified could be the breakthrough everyone’s hoping for. With his diehard local following, plus an instantly recognizable, burbling, volcanic growl spewing out new slang like "hyphy" and "fasheezy," Keak has a real shot at shattering the glass ceiling frustrating the Bay’s national ambitions.
"My fans and the Bay are behind me, but I want to see the world’s reaction," Keak said. "I wanted to make this album much more than a Bay Area album."
Naturally, the question arises: where was this album in ’05 when "Super Hyphy" was peaking? Originally released on the Rah Records compilation Dopegame 2, "Super Hyphy" was such an unexpected hit that Keak had no album ready to follow. Moreover, in 2006, after making national noise on E-40’s "Tell Me When to Go," Keak was in a contractual dispute he claims scuttled major-label interest.
"Right after ‘Tell Me When to Go’ and the hyphy movement, when that wave was going, people expected me to drop," he recalled. "I had [Universal Records executive] Sylvia Rome come to my house and try to give me $1 million. Someone claimed I had a contract with them, but they never sent a copy. They bluffed us for a year, so I missed that deal."
Besides holding up his own career, the delay, Keak feels, also squandered hyphy’s momentum. "The introduction wasn’t right because my album didn’t drop," said the rapper. "40 opened the door with that single, but he still didn’t introduce hyphy. He introduced the hyphy movement."
"But hyphy is a ritual. It’s a Bay way of life," Keak continued, referring to the dread-shaking, ghostriding ghetto culture that shows no sign of waning. "This is what we do every day. So hyphy has never died. The movement might have died because we ain’t sticking together."
Of course, in order to have impact, Deified needs to be tight, and Keak’s releases haven’t always been top-shelf. While there’s been no shortage of Keak titles during the last few years, Keak claims only three previous solo discs Sneakacydal (Moedoe, 1999), Hi-Tek (Moedoe, 2001), and Copium (Sumday, 2003) disowning much of his extensive catalog.
"People said they had me under contract and were just gathering up songs," he complained. "The deals weren’t the right deal, so when I fell back on that shit, these guys put albums out."
Fortunately, Deified is exactly what Keak wants, down to the cover art. Produced almost entirely by Modesto’s Young Mozart, responsible for Keak’s popular "That Go," which is present in remix form and features Prodigy and Alchemist, the album contains the burgeoning radio single, "Nothing Without You," with Messy Marv a rare love song for both rappers and a good indication of how well-rounded an artist Keak has become. Most important, while local rappers often distance themselves from the region’s sound when attempting to go national, Deified is unmistakably a contemporary Bay Area album, even as it looks back to classic mob music.
Since his deal with Koch involves just one album, the disc could be the springboard back into major label consideration. "I didn’t want to get tied up for three or four years," Keak concluded. "I want to drop this album, see how it do, then talk to the majors again." Here’s hoping Deified leads to that conversation.