Garrett Caples

Stalin: Darkness Visible


I remember the day I met J.Stalin, 10 years ago. He bounced into the Mekanix’s East Oakland studio, walked up to me, and shook my hand.

“I’m J.Stalin. I write and record two songs a day,” he said proudly. Rail-thin, barely 5 feet tall, he looked like a middle-schooler. While he’s thickened somewhat in adulthood, the pint-size rapper retains an air of adolescence that’s one of the keys to his enduring success. Kids in the hood love Stalin because he seems like them and his music speaks to them. He looks like what he once was, a d-boy on the corner slanging rocks. Yet his music is versatile, with a profound undercurrent of melancholy to his storytelling and a huge streak of ’80s R&B in his sound, both of which appeal to adults. Even without radio support, this potent combination has made him one of the most popular rappers not simply in Oakland but in the Bay Area, period, and when I hear a car roll up playing a local artist, more often than not these days, that artist is J.Stalin.

“Make sure you put that in,” Stalin says. “I’m the most played person on the streets in cars.”

It reminds me of our first meeting — but only a little, for, despite his youthful appearance, it’s hard to discern the eager youngster of a decade ago in the somber adult he’s become in his late 20s.

We’re sitting poolside in a middle-of-nowhere suburb where J’s tucked himself away with his girlfriend and 2-month-old son. I couldn’t imagine living out here, but it’s the perfect retreat for a rapper, away from the distractions of the hood. Coming from the cramped public housing of West Oakland’s Cypress Village, Stalin can appreciate the surrounding blandness in ways I can’t. And, of course, he’s on the road frequently, fresh from a sold-out West Coast tour with Husalah and Roach Gigz and about to embark on a series of appearances for his new album, S.I.D. (Shining In Darkness) (Livewire/Fontana), which will take him as far afield as Ohio.

Named for his cousin, Sidney Malone, who died in 2008 at age 25 after suffering cardiac arrest during pacemaker surgery, S.I.D. showcases a different side of Stalin’s music than previous releases, even as it leans heavily on production from his longtime producers, the Mekanix, in addition to tracks by Mob Figaz maestro Roblo and HBK member P-Lo.

“With this record, I wanted to get back to making fun music,” he says. “When you come from the streets, and done been through hella shit, sometimes that’s all you want to talk about. It ain’t even like you rappin’. You just expressing your emotions. I love making street music, but my own music be depressing to me sometimes. I’m always going to give you that classic Stalin, but that’s the difference between this album and the last album: I wanted more uptempo tracks you can dance to.”

“I didn’t want to just name it, ‘In Memory of Sid,’ so I came up with Shining In Darkness, because that’s where the Bay at,” he continues. “We shining over here but the industry don’t put a spotlight on it. It’s just a darkness to the rest of the country. The more I started recording on it the more the meaning unfolded to me. Like when you hear it, you’re like, ‘Why don’t the world know about this nigga?’ But at the same time I just wanted to keep Sid’s memory alive; that was my biggest fan.”

In another departure, S.I.D. is Stalin’s first disc since July of last year, when he released his DJ Fresh-produced double-disc Miracle & Nightmare on 10th Street (Livewire/World’s Freshest), his first project to crack the Billboard rap charts, at #60.

“It’ll be like nine months since I dropped a project,” he says. “I’ve been focusing on putting out dope albums instead of flooding the music with quick mixtapes and shit.”

It’s a sign of how much rap has changed since the analog era, when E-40’s innovation as an independent artist was to drop an album “like a pregnant beeyatch, every 8 or 9 months,” compared with the lethargic, every year or two pace of major-label acts. Raised in the generation of the laptop studio, Stalin was among the innovators delivering a constant stream of music to his fans in the form of mixtapes, collaborations, and side projects in between proper solo albums. Waiting nine months between projects is almost unheard of for J, who has something like 30 discs to his credit at this point.

“I’ve been trying to work more strategically,” he says. “Work smarter, not harder. I’ve been doing more of the clothing line, selling Livewire Clothing at all my shows. Been doing a lot of pop-up stores in stores selling them, plus we got the online store. I popped off my website; I be giving away free music on there. My new artists Lil June and L’Jay, you can download they albums on my website.”

This is another key to Stalin’s success: He’s always thought of himself not simply as an artist, but as the CEO of Livewire Records, a company he has conjured into existence through sheer force of will, his own talent, and an uncanny ability to form alliances and develop artists. Even the short list of Livewire artists — Shady Nate, Philthy Rich, Stevie Joe, Lil Blood — is impressive, and Stalin is constantly building the roster. He still talks to major labels from time to time, but the decline of their business model, coupled with his success going through Universal’s independent distribution channel, Fontana, there’s not much the majors can offer him these days.

“Really, if ain’t nobody trying to give me money to put out multiple artists and projects, there’s not really no point. We at the position now where all the things that the label is talking about, we damn near can do ourselves,” he concludes. “Unless they giving out some millions — not one million, millions.”

The secret life of Sylvia Fein


VISUAL ART In 2012, I ran down to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for “In Wonderland,” a massive exhibition of women surrealist artists working in the US and Mexico from the 1930s through the ’60s. Among the artists — from big names like Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington to obscure figures like Bridget Tichenor and Julia Thecla — there were only two living participants: Yayoi Kusama and Sylvia Fein. I was familiar with Kusama’s polka dots and happenings, but Sylvia Fein was altogether something else, a figurative painter whose gleaming egg-tempera-on-gesso works from the ’40s and ’50s suggested at once the allegorical portraiture of the Renaissance and the alchemical surrealism of Remedios Varo.

As it happens, Fein lives out near Martinez, and I soon found myself making pilgrimages to her house. Nor was I the only one, and among the people to have sought her out in the wake of “In Wonderland” are curator Travis Wilson and Jasmine Moorhead, owner of Oakland’s Krowswork Gallery. Together Wilson and Moorhead have mounted an ambitious retrospective, “Surreal Nature,” spanning the whole of Fein’s career but particularly emphasizing her output of the last decade, which has never been publicly shown.

Still using egg tempera on gesso, the spry 94-year-old painter continues to create her most astonishing works today, paintings that defy the usual division between abstract and representational; an eye, for example, might float in the middle of an otherwise wholly abstract cosmos, as in Crucial Eye (2011) or Marble Galaxy (2010). And while the catalog to “Surreal Nature” indicates she has rejected such labels as “surrealist” since her mid-20s, Fein has softened her stance somewhat over the ensuing years.

“I really don’t think that’s the word even though we use it all the time,” Fein says. “I think most paintings are surreal because they’re in another dimension. Sur-real, but in the right sense. Because it is above the ordinary.”



Certainly Fein’s career has been anything but ordinary; while studying painting as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the early ’40s, Fein became part of a six-person group of “magic realists” led by Marshall Glasier and including fellow “In Wonderland” artist Gertrude Abercrombie. Along with group member John Wilde, Fein earned a show at the university’s gallery in 1941, a rare honor for undergrads. World War II brought a period of intense anxiety over the fate of her enlisted husband, Bill Scheuber, expressed in such works as The Lady with the White Knight (1942-43), but it was during a stay in Mexico (1944-46) that her art fully flowered.

“I lived in a place where there was no running water and no flushing toilets,” she laughs, relating such elemental conditions to her artistic maturation. “God, that really fit my personality. And here I grew up in Milwaukee!”

In 1947, after her husband’s return from the war, the couple moved to the Bay Area, where Fein would receive an MFA from the University of California, Berkeley, participating in a pre-Beat bohemia that included the likes of dancer Anna Halprin and composer Harry Partch. But her real education, she maintains, was at the hands of art theorist Henry Schaefer-Simmern.

“He’d been brought to teach at Cal and his ideas were so revolutionary that technically they threw him out and he started his own art institute,” Fein recalls. “I was one of his first students, and he was teaching that there was an evolutionary artistic intelligence, that most art begins with scribbles, then it starts to get formation, it evolves into circles and out of circles children make other lines. Not only that, but if you look at the history of the world and primitive societies, you see the same evolutionary things, whether in caves or rocks, scribbles on hides.

“I worked with him for 20 years. He was writing books; I did research for him, and then I did drawings for his books, in ink, of historical subject matter, so it was like I was studying the history of the world all over again then delineating it for him. That’s like a secret part of my life nobody has ever mentioned.”



At the same time, Fein managed a successful career as a painter. By the mid-’50s, when monumental abstraction was in, she was working nearly in miniature, painting tiny landscapes and seascapes. Nothing could have been less fashionable, but she still sold well on both coasts. Yet in the early ’70s, she began a 30-year hiatus from painting, as she wrote and self-published two books inspired by her work with Schaefer-Simmern, Heidi’s Horse (1976), an analysis of her daughter’s drawings of horses between the ages of 2 and 16, and First Drawings: Genesis of Visual Thinking (1993), a related account exploring the development of visual logic in children, primitive societies, and other artists. Only in the early 2000s did she return to painting, in time for rediscovery by curator Robert Cozzolino, who staged a show of the ’40s magic realist group, “With Friends,” at the University of Wisconsin in 2005. This show led directly to her inclusion in the 2012 LACMA exhibition.

While both “With Friends” and “In Wonderland” focused on the ’40s and ’50s, “Surreal Nature” is the first opportunity to see Fein’s present work, even as the curators have done an excellent job of contextualizing it in terms of her overall development. One need only juxtapose The Lady with the White Knight with her most recent series of memorial “trees” for her husband Bill — who died in 2013 after some 70 years of marriage — to see how her own version of surrealism has transformed from an image-based style to a more directly experiential art of brushwork and materials.

“It sure is flowering in my late age,” Fein remarks. “I’m so lucky that’s happening. You can’t make yourself do this.” *


Jan. 18-Feb. 22

Thu-Sat, noon-6pm and by appt.


480 23rd St (side entrance), Oakl.


Break on through


 I drive up into the East Oakland hills, past 19th century “Poet of the Sierras” Joaquin Miller’s odd little cabin, to visit Michael McClure. Based on his youthful good looks, you’d never guess he was a few days shy of 81, but the trail McClure has blazed through literary history testifies by length, stretching back to 1955 when — alongside Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder — he was the youngest participant in the famous Six Gallery reading at which Allen Ginsberg debuted “Howl.” It was a seminal moment in postwar American poetry. “We all put our toes to the line that night and broke out,” he says. “And we all went our own directions.”

Beginning with his first book of poems, Passage (1956), McClure would find himself going in many directions, writing novels, essays, journalism, and even Obie-award-winning plays like The Beard (1965). As a countercultural figure, he could roll with the times, reading at the Human Be-In in 1967 in Golden Gate Park; associating with high-profile rock acts like Bob Dylan, the Doors, and Janis Joplin (for whom he co-wrote the 1970 classic “Mercedes Benz”); and appearing in movies like Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand (1971) and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1975). In the mid-’80s, he even began performing with the Doors’ Ray Manzarek on piano, releasing such CDs as last year’s The Piano Poems (Oglio Records). And though I’ve come to discuss Ghost Tantras, his 1964 self-published book of “beast language” reissued this month by City Lights, we inevitably touch on the recently deceased keyboardist with whom McClure played over 200 gigs.

“Ray died at a very wonderful time,” McClure says. “He’s 74 and at the height of his powers. People say, ‘You must feel broken up about Ray,’ but I’m actually happy to know someone who stepped out in his own glory. The last time I saw him was [last] November. We had just done a performance at the Sweetwater in Mill Valley. That night Bobby Weir sat in. It was like the Doors and the Grateful Dead embraced.”



But Ghost Tantras predates most of these famous exploits. The origins of what McClure calls its “beast language” can be traced back to his early play The Feast, performed in 1960 at SF’s Batman Gallery.

“The walls had Jay DeFeos and Bruce Conners on them,” he recalls. “The actors were dressed in Indian blankets and torn white tissue paper beards, seated before a long table that carried black plums and white bread, black wine. Thirteen of them performed a Last Supper-like rite and spoke in beast language and English of the melding of opposites and the proportion of all beings, from the incredibly tiny to the cosmic.”

“Beast language” might be described as a roaring deformation of language into something less oriented toward signification and more toward the physicality of the body, poetry as “a muscular principle,” as he writes in the original introduction, rather than as a mimetic text conveying images and ideas. Take, for example, these lines from tantra 46: “NOWTH / DROON DOOOOOOOOR AGH ! / Nardroor yeyb now thowtak drahrr ooh me thet noh / large faint rain dreeps oopon the frale tha toor / glooing gaharr ayaiieooo.” Signification isn’t the prime motivation here, nor is it entirely absent, as snippets of sense emerge and dissolve amid a sea of syllables. Such moments almost suggest reading Chaucer or Finnegans Wake, texts in some distant version of our own tongue, but they just as quickly vanish into phrases that resist intelligibility (“gaharr ayaiieooo”).

Yet despite this resistance, the writing of Ghost Tantras was also bound up in visionary experience. McClure began Ghost Tantras in 1962 while working for the Institute for Personality Assessment and Research, for the University of California.

“My role with IPAR was to give psilocybin to artists and to film them in that timeless state of the high,” he says. “I was probably an ideal person because I had given up the use of psychedelic drugs myself. Already, after a lot of experimentation in psychedelics and several essays that had been published by City Lights in Meat Science Essays (1963), I wanted to write a deep exploration of these highs after reading Henri Michaux’s gorgeous Miserable Miracle (1956), which was his — I felt personally — inaccurate description of the mescaline high. That inspired me to want to write clearly about this experience. Meanwhile, I had begun practicing Kundalini yoga, which is a chakra-centric yoga, and I was beginning to have powerful experiences.”



This desire to convey visionary experience might seem at odds with Ghost Tantras‘s frequent resistance to signification, yet the apparent paradox might be resolved through Abstract Expressionism, which McClure insists was “one of my most profound sources, the art with no edges, the art with no limits.” Viewed thusly, Ghost Tantras aspires to the degree of autonomy accorded to nonrepresentational art by not referring to experience but rather offering it.

“Allen Ginsberg had introduced me to Mark Rothko, and I got Rothko’s phone number,” McClure recalls. “I had Ghost Tantras and I wanted to show them to him but in the meantime I lost his number, as you did in those days. I always thought Rothko would be the right person to see the fields of letters in Ghost Tantras, as you see in one of his field paintings. If you look at Ghost Tantras in a different way, you see that each one is a field, a work of visual substance. Or nonsubstance.”

“I knew I was tangoing with my own personal ridiculousness when I wrote these. I don’t mind that, because in my writing when it’s at its most intensely serious it’s also at its most comic. And I call to mind what I think are some of the most important poems of the 20th century, Federico García Lorca’s ‘Gacela of Unforeseen Love,’ which is among the most intense love poetry I’ve ever experienced. It’s also kinda comic. My own poetry, when I believe in it the most, also has an edge to it that is not serious, or it’s serious, all right, but real seriousness has an edge that breaks on through to the other side.”

“It was part of the massive and inspired creativity that was rushing around me,” he concludes. “That’s probably the best clue I can give to anyone who wants to understand the sources behind Ghost Tantras, as part of the huge energy that was amassing itself and pouring through California at the time.” *


Nov 20, 7pm, free

City Lights Bookstore

261 Columbus Ave, SF


Reality rap: Q&A with Saafir, the Saucee Nomad


Ed. note – this week’s music feature is all about emcee-producer Saafir, the Saucee Nomad. The wheelchair-bound associate of Hobo Junction and Digital Underground (and actor in ‘Menace II Society’) opened up to Guardian music writer Garrett Caples about his recent health struggles, making music, and what’s keeping him in check. Here’s the extended interview we couldn’t fit in the print edition:

San Francisco Bay Guardian Did you have any idea [Digital Underground leader] Shock-G was going to post about you on Davey-D’s blog?

Saafir Actually I had no idea that he was going to put that out. Shock had came and saw me one time and I didn’t really tell nobody that I was in a wheelchair as far as the DU crew. I wasn’t really in contact with anybody. Nobody really stayed in contact with me. If you ain’t really hollerin’ at me, I’m not just gonna call you and be like, “Hey bruh, what’s up? I’m in a wheelchair.”

But I had ran into Money B and he told Shock, and Shock came by and saw me in that wheelchair and it kinda hurt him. He was like, “We really need to do something for you, man. We gotta try to bust a move and do something to make this shit right.” I told him I was down for whatever.

As far as [Shock’s] article is concerned, I’m not really gonna go into it. [Laughs] I’m just gonna say that. The focus is to try to get some awareness up with my condition and my situation. My situation is that I’ll have to have surgery to get my shit corrected. So I’m trying to raise awareness and get as much assistance with it as possible just to make it happen. But shout out to Shock-G for his effort in getting the word out and letting people know about my condition. His way of doing it is unconventional but it’s appreciated.

SFBG But is your condition the result of back injuries or the tumor you had to have removed?

Saafir My back wasn’t really the problem, it was moreso internal. I had a cancerous tumor in my spinal cord and they had to get it out as soon as possible. That was around ’05. The timeline was based off of Shock’s own memories and some of the details got mixed up. I had to have the surgery to get the tumor out. The doctor told me that if I didn’t take it out, by the time I was in my later 40s I would probably be paralyzed. And it’s ironic because I did the surgery and I’m still kinda in that situation. I’m not a paraplegic; my legs are still active and whatnot, it’s just getting the right kind of treatment to spark what needs to be sparked in order to get my legs to work.

I have insurance but insurance only covers so much so I’m trying to make sure I’m able to fully meet the criteria so I can step back into the position I need to be in.

But moreso than that, you have to have a stable environment to even complete the things you need to do with the doctor as far as transportation and living situation. I’ve been out here doing this on my own, but I’m trying to get reestablished into a stable enough situation where I can do the things that need to be done in succession. You have to have a foundation in order to do that so that’s what I’m really focusing on right now, trying to establish that foundation, so that I can complete that.

SFBG Why did you wait so long to reach out to anyone about your condition?

Saafir I didn’t really go into telling people I was in a wheelchair or disabled because a lot of people don’t want to be bothered with it. They pretend like they do but in reality they don’t really want to deal with that shit. And I understand that. I don’t take it personally. So to avoid any harsh feelings or bitterness towards either party, I just keep it to myself and just deal with it. I don’t have a problem with asking anybody for help or allowing people to help me or whatnot but people have their own agenda, people have their own lives. And I need a bit of assistance just to do the basic things, getting into the bathtub, that’s like a marathon for me. And alone it’s damn near impossible. There’s not a lot of people there so I just try to stay concrete and just try to tread through it.

SFBG Why couldn’t they help you at the laser surgery clinic in Arizona that Shock had taken you to?

Saafir At the time I felt that what may have been stopping me from being able to walk was scar tissue surrounding the spinal cord and creating pressure to where my legs wasn’t responding. I had saw that on TV one night on a commercial so I called them. The guy I initially talked to led me to believe that I had action, that it could be done.

My first surgery was like, seven or eight or hours. They split me open. I had to heal for like, 10 months. I was like, “I can’t go through that again.” If I have to I will, but if I don’t have to, I really don’t want to. So I thought the laser surgery would be a good alternative.

Shock helped me get the money together to do the surgery because it’s a private practice. So we get out there and they do a checkup on me and they basically say they didn’t have the facility to do the kind of surgery I needed. I thought that was bullshit. I guess it was more of a situation where they didn’t want to take a chance on messing up something more than what it was, so they just decided, “We don’t really know what was there prior so we don’t want to go in and mess anything up.” And I’m like, man, if you’re afraid to do the surgery, say that. Don’t tell me you don’t have the facility; you just afraid to do the surgery. You know how it is, a lot of them practices are just there to take your money. So we had to come home.

SFBG What’s your prognosis now?

Saafir I got back in touch with the doctor who did the initial surgery. He asked me, “Why you didn’t tell me your legs were going out?” And I was like, “I left messages for you, man, to let you know what was going on with my condition.” I never got a call back so I figured that he couldn’t really do anything for me. And I left multiple messages. But we got past it.

He said, “I think I can get you back walking, we just have to figure out what is the ’cause of the decline.” So that’s what we’re trying to do now. I gotta take a few more MRIs. And from the MRIs they should be able to spot exactly what the decline is and they should be able to work back from there. But again, that shit costs money so I’m trying to raise funds to be able to get that all done.

I keep missing my appointments because I don’t have a car. I try to take the bus to BART but I need assistance getting on the bus. I need to raise funds so I can get back and forth to these appointments and just to help with the basic shit I need every day.

I can’t really move at the capacity I was moving at before. I’m a hustler. I go out and get it on my own, you feel me? But you really don’t understand the blessing you have to be healthy and have access to all your limbs and all your faculties. Don’t take it for granted.

SFBG Have you still been making music at this time?

Saafir I’m trying to get a place where I can complete an album but right now I’m just writing songs and doing little stuff. But I’m definitely writing about my experience, how I’m dealing with it and going through it. A lot of people look at my shit from the ’90s and think I’m going to do the exact same shit now and that’s just not reality. I’ve evolved as a person.

At that time I was a young man and mentally I was in a young frame of mind. Now I’m a grown ass man and I done been through a lot. Life has shown me a lot more shit than it had at the time when I was doing what I was doing. I tried to be innovative and poetic about what I was doing and at the time that was the flavor.

Now, I don’t even feel like that level of dedication or creativity would even be appreciated. That’s not saying that I’m not going to try to do it. It wouldn’t be a situation where it’s a street record or a hip-hop record. I just call it reality rap. I don’t particularly rap like I did in the ’90s anymore. I’m more focused on substance and content as opposed to how I swing a rhyme. But I’m always going to swing a rhyme with flavor. My rhythm has never been a problem. I understand the rhythm and the beat so it’s nothing for me to do it.

For the full story, see: Injured Player in the Game.

YEAR IN MUSIC 2012: Waiting for Four-O


YEAR IN MUSIC I’m at the Marina in Berkeley with J-Stalin around noon, waiting for producer-rapper Droop E to arrive so he and J can shoot a video for his upcoming EP, Hungry & Humble. I was invited, not by Droop but by his “Pops,” Bay Area legend E-40, to do an interview for 40’s epic, two-album collaboration with Too Short, History (HeavyOnTheGrind/EMI, 2012).

“Shiiit, me and you go way back, patna,” 40 said the week before over the phone, recalling prior interviews. “I just gotta film a cameo then we’ll do it there.” But since scheduling the article, I haven’t been able to reach him, either directly or by publicist, so Stalin took pity on me and brought me along to the shoot.

“I’m going on tour with Trae tha Truth,” Stalin says, referring to the Houston rapper signed to T.I.’s Grand Hustle label. “He flew out here and Ghazi from Empire Distribution picked him up from the airport; when Trae got in the car, he was like, ‘Who is J-Stalin? I need to work with him.'”

That word of Stalin has spread to Houston is an encouraging sign in the usually bleak landscape of Bay Area rap, and couldn’t come at a better time as the West Oakland MC prepares his fourth “official” solo album, On Behalf of the Streets, Pt 2. Like J’s debut, OBOTS2 is produced entirely by the Mekanix; the difference six years later is Stalin’s now the second bestselling local rapper after E-40 — according to Rasputin Records — and the Mekanix are among the Bay’s hottest producers, working with everyone from 40 on down. In the absence of local radio or major label support, the stakes continue to increase for the author of Memoirs of a Curb Server (Livewire/Fontana, 2012) and the proprietors of The Chop Shop (ZooEnt, 2012).

The day stretches on, tedious yet fascinating. Droop E’s got a serious film crew here and armed security to boot; the only thing missing is a permit. And 40. Various rappers drift in and out, like Cousin Fik, latest star of DJ Fresh’s ongoing Tonite Show series, or Lil Blood and Boo Banga, who released a syrup-drenched duo disc Cream Soda and Actavis (Livewire) this year. A member of Stalin’s Livewire crew from Oakland’s Dogtown neighborhood, Blood’s prepping his own official debut, Meet the Driver and the Shooter, for February. He takes off his ski hat and shows off his scalp, revealing an entrance wound and an exit wound about an inch and a half apart. Everybody laughs, but they don’t think it’s funny. It’s a stark reminder of how little insulation there is between the industry and the street out here.


Between takes, I get in some questions with Droop E. Besides launching his own career, Droop has had a big hand in his dad’s, co-executive producing four volumes of Revenue Retrievin’ (2010-11) and three of Block Brochure (2012) for his HeavyOnTheGrind imprint of 40’s Sick Wid It Records. Yet the 24-year-old veteran — who, as a teen, was one of the architects of hyphy, along with Rick Rock, Traxamillion, and ShoNuff — lives up to his EP’s title.

“I’m a partner but I’m still a protégé,” he says. “I’m learning a lot, seeing my Pops get into a whole nother mode of beastin’ and just making our own sound.”

That sound, judging from Block Brochure and History, has grown suspiciously more hyphy lately, in the wake of Drake’s double platinum “The Motto,” an overt homage to the Bay Area music of half a decade ago.

“That ended up being beneficial,” Droop says, “because look at the sound now in the Bay and L.A. ‘The Motto’ opened it up again.”

Given the bizarre local backlash against hyphy beginning mid-2007 — forcing its originators to prematurely back away from the sound — this is a remarkably philosophical purchase. Reached by phone, Traxamillion agrees, as his own 2012 disc My Radio (SMC) finds him revisiting the implications of the sound.

“I’m not mad,” he says. “I felt like I had an influence on music on a national level.”



The next night, I’m in a Dublin club, where we’re not allowed to drink, because this is a movie. Sympathetic to my long wait, Droop E’s somehow procures me some Jameson’s and the tawny liquid immediately catches E-40’s eye. “Gable, what you got there?” Dressed in a black pinstriped suit, 40 has finally arrived for his cameo, a series of elaborate tracking shots of him pouring a shot and toasting. Finally, I manage to catch him in an unoccupied moment and remind him about the interview; can we tape a few questions? He fixes me with a look of contempt.

“Nah, I ain’t fuckin’ with you.”

I feel the blood drain from my face. Then, with agonizing slowness, a smile begins to creep across his lips.

“Nah, I’m just playin’,” he says. “Let’s do it.”

Delays are nothing new to the Vallejo MC; he and Too Short first began announcing History in the late ’90s while they were both on Jive, but Jive never let it happen.

“It was 10 years in the making, but it didn’t take 10 years to make,” 40 says. “God work in mysterious ways so now’s the perfect time because we get all the marbles. We superindependent. We got a distribution deal through EMI.”

40’s made the most of his new freedom, only releasing albums in pairs and trios since parting with Warner after The Ball Street Journal (2008). Where BSJ bore clear signs of corporate overthink, 40’s prolific post-Warner output makes it obvious that he does his best work with a free hand. At age 45, the rapper scored one of his biggest hits this year with Block Brochure‘s “Function,” which in turn has provided a convenient new label to replace the toxic term “hyphy.” History‘s two volumes are thus divided into Mob Music and Function Music.

“Function music is more club, party music,” 40 says. “The difference between function music and mob music, function is the feel of the new era; we’re covering two and a half to three decades of music. We been doing it since the mid-’80s and here it’s almost 2013. Some people wish they could have one hit; I have had many hits in my life.”

“There’s people who don’t like me but I’ve carved my name into the history books,” he concludes. “There’ll never be another E-40 ever because I’m too different. One thing about the Bay Area: we some trendsetters and we got haters and they talk about us but they duplicate us later.”


The new old school


MUSIC “When I was growing up, bootsy wasn’t in,” Deev Da Greed says. “I wish I was rappin’ when Seagram [1969-1996] was alive, when Rappin’ Ron and the Dangerous Crew were shining. There were a handful of real rappers back then and if you tried to fake it you were blown out the water.”

I feel him. Being a Bay Area rap critic is heartbreaking. I have nothing for or against Kreayshawn, but it kills me she’s the only Oakland rapper on a major label. Lil B gets the cover of Fader and Wire, but I can’t pretend to give a shit about Lil B when dudes like Husalah are around. Yet just when I’m ready to hang it up, something authentic emerges from the streets to renew my faith in hip-hop, and I find myself rolling with Deev through East Oakland’s notorious Murder Dubs (the 20s off International).

Deev himself hails from the equally infamous “Avenal” hood some forty blocks east, but we’re meeting his production crew—To-Da-T, a.k.a Sir Rich and Quinteis — to hear tracks from his new discs: Dem$Boyz (4TheStreets/RapBay), an eponymous group project with Jacka protégé Bo Strangles and Curcinado from Hittaz on tha Payroll that dropped in September, and GREED, his first solo album, slated for December.

The younger cousin of G-Stack, one-half of Oakland’s legendary Delinquents, Deev first entered the rap game to help Stack run his new label, 4TheStreets, after that pioneering group split in 2007. What began as a little trash talking on intros and outros soon turned into writing verses, as Deev formed a group called the HEEM Team with young label recruits Tay Peezy and Qoolceo, debuting, along with To-Da-T, on Stack’s Welcome to Purple City (4TheStreets, 2007).

“I didn’t really come to be an artist,” Deev says, “but once I tested the waters, the waters felt good.”

By the label’s second comp, Tha Color Purple (2007), Deev was clearly G-Stack’s breakout protégé, able to hold his own alongside old school vets like Askari X and new stars like Beeda Weeda on the Town anthem “Geast Oakland” with his elastic flow, switching effortlessly from rambling and conversational to rapid-fire gassing in mid-verse. By the fourth comp, Abraham Reekin (2008), Deev was sharing top billing with Stack, but was also in legal trouble.

“I caught a [parole] violation for sippin’ on some syrup,” Deev recalls. “They raided my house and found some guns. To get money in Oakland, you got to be a real dude because you can get shot for anything now. I don’t carry no gun thinking I’m gonna do nothing, I’m doing that shit because that’s what time it is.”

Rather than face the charge, Deev went on the run, moving to Atlanta with the HEEM Team and trying to establish an East Coast branch of 4TheStreets. Feeling homesick, the rest of the group soon returned to Oakland, leaving Deev on his own in the city that’s become known as Black Hollywood.

“Hip-hop out there is alive; the heartbeat is flowin’,” Deev says. “Like, going to get a burger, you see somebody famous. I bumped shoulders or shook hands with everybody. It was hella hard because all I had was group songs, and to do shows I couldn’t be doing one verse. I called To-Da-T and was like, ‘I’m gonna fly you guys out here so we can knock out some songs.’ I did like nine songs and we mixed and mastered them in five days. But then three or four months after that, I got knocked.”

Nabbed by the cops in Atlanta, Deev was extradited back to California for a 13-month stay in Pelican Bay.

“By the time I was free in May 2010, I had to adapt to how much shit had changed in Oakland,” Deev admits. “A lot happens in three or four years. So I had to dumb down my swag to act like these youngsters so I could get right and make them respect my mind.”

“I’ve been running these streets now for two years and I got my movement back active,” he concludes. “The streets are feeling me. They know what I’m about. I got no paperwork. I’m gonna do it right this time.”

Smells like team spirit


MUSIC “This is our biggest song by far,” Clyde Carson says wearily at his hotel room in San Jose. The song, “Slow Down,” features Clyde alongside his newly reconstituted group, the Team, and we’re waiting for Kaz Kyzah and Mayne Mannish to show. Mayne turns up, along with “Slow Down” producer Sho Nuff, but Kaz remains MIA, and the difficulty of keeping three rappers on the same page probably explains why the song is credited to “Clyde Carson featuring the Team,” though it appears on the crew’s reunion EP, Hell of a Night (Moedoe, 2012). In heavy rotation on KMEL, and branching out to other markets like LA and Chicago thanks to its Youtube-driven dance-craze, “Slow Down” has been bubblin’ for much of the year, as Clyde has doggedly pursued the hit with solo shows and Team dates.

Bay rap fans might experience a little déjà vu here. Back in 2004, when they burst out of Oakland with their regional smash “It’s Gettin’ Hot”— produced by a then-teenaged Sho Nuff — the Team helped launch what became known as the hyphy movement, following up with a memorable onslaught of local hits like “Just Go” and “Patron.” But what should have been the culmination, their sophomore album, World Premiere (Rex/Koch, 2006), was instead interminably delayed, blunting its impact. When Carson moved to LA in 2006 to sign a solo deal with Capitol through The Game’s Black Wall Street, the Team seemed prematurely finished due to business rather than personal or creative reasons.

Like several Bay artists signed by the majors during the hyphy era, including Mistah F.A.B., Clyde never got to drop an album; Capitol only released a pair of singles, “2 Step” and the Sean Kingston-featuring “Doin’ That,” in 2007, but didn’t release Clyde until 2009.

“You never know what’s gonna happen so you can never blame a label,” he says. “At the time Capitol was merging with Virgin. [Capitol Executive VP] Ronnie Johnson took over my project once the companies merged. We was getting ready to shoot the ‘Doin’ That’ video and — he died in his sleep. And I didn’t have enough of a foundation where I could move without a label.”

Instead of succumbing to this blow, Carson got back on the grind, and the success of “Slow Down” has resulted from a perfect storm of factors, beginning with an October 2011 call from now-adult Sho Nuff, whose youth had limited his earlier participation in Team activities.

By November, Clyde says, “we were in the studio recording. I put the hook on ‘Slow Down.’ I wanted a feature so I reached out to Keak da Sneak, but it didn’t work out so I reached out to Kaz and he put that verse on. Then I sent Kaz five or six songs and he did them all in one day. So we were like, shit, let’s do a Team album and put Mayne on these songs.”

Mayne himself is a key element of what we might call the Team 2.0.

“There was a time where I fell back from rappin’ and started learning the game by managing Carson,” he admits. “I wasn’t as confident a rapper as Clyde and Kaz, really goin’ in there destroying shit.”

But “destroying shit” is exactly what Mayne does on the third verse of “Slow Down,” and all over the EP, his rapid staccato bark providing a perfect contrast to the low-register growls of Kaz and Clyde.

“Some rapper blood just came out of me,” Mayne laughs, “and when we started back working with Sho Nuff, he helped bring my whole character and style out.”

The final ingredient was unpredictable: when “Slow Down” first dropped early this year, an SF high school student under the handle J12 posted a Youtube video of a dance he invented to the song. “The J12” has gone ghetto viral, racking up 700,000 hits, spawning numerous homage vids, and fueling demand for Team appearances in previously unheard of areas like Chicago. Inevitably J12 converged with the group, dropping the dance in the official video and becoming Carson’s DJ.

“He put that shit on for real,” Clyde says. “I never imagined havin’ a dance to one of our songs. When I was a teen, niggas wasn’t dancin’. But it lets me know the music we makin’ is resonating with that generation.”

“I ain’t gonna start dancin’,” Carson laughs, though I submit he’s doing the J12 at 1:05 of the official video. “But I definitely appreciate it.”


Garage Days re-revisited


MUSIC In 2003, at Moses Music in East Oakland, I stumbled across a CD labeled “Numskull of the Luniz Presents…Hittaz on tha Payroll, Ghetto Storm” (Hitta Records). I bought it and was blown away, not simply by the rappers — one of whom, Eddi Projex, has gone on to be a Bay hitmaker — but also by the cinematic expressiveness of the music, with its moody, minor-key atmospheres and rapid counterpunctual basslines, courtesy of the Mekanix: Dotrix 4000 and Kenny Tweed.

Who were they? I found out in ’04, when I met Dot at a Digital Underground show. Turned out, he’d been the group’s late ’90s tour DJ, but left to pursue production, forming the Mekanix with Tweed in 2001. They invited me to their High Street studio, the Garage, to meet J-Stalin, a rapper they were developing who’d debuted as a teen on Richie Rich’s Nixon Pryor Roundtree (Ten-Six, 2002).

Soon after, the yet-unnamed hyphy movement began to foment and I got a gig covering rap for a great metropolitan alt-weekly….

I’d say the rest is history but nothing in Bay Area rap is ever that simple. On the one hand, the prolific Stalin is among the most popular local rappers — currently second biggest seller after E-40, according to Rasputin rap buyer Saeed Crumpler — with Dot and Tweed producing his entire solo debut, On Behalf of the Streets (Zoo Ent., 2006) and a chunk of his sophomore effort, The Pre-Nuptial Agreement (SMC, 2010).

Besides Stalin and Eddi, the duo helped launch former Delinquent G-Stack’s solo career, as well as newer artists like Shady Nate, DB the General, and Philthy Rich. Last year, they even landed a track on the deluxe version of E-40’s Revenue Retrievin (Heavy on Da Grind), and 40 declares his intention to continue working with them.

“The Mekanix are pure talent,” 40 enthuses over the phone. “Even though they make mob music, you can tell they grew up listening to soul music from the R&B days; they could make a killer cry!”

On the other hand, in the digital age, when anyone can slap a beat together, the question is, how do you get paid for production in a region like the Bay, whose rap suffers the twin neglect of corporate radio and major labels? With the decline in album sales, rappers out here derive their music income chiefly from live performances, an option unavailable to producers.

Despite their undeniable artistic impact, the Mekanix today find themselves in a tiny East Oakland studio not far from the Garage where it all began.

“We can’t go outside without somebody playing our music,” Dot says. “That’s cool, but it’s not that fly if your rent ain’t paid.”

“We sell beats but it’s never consistent enough to feed our families and pay our bills,” Tweed admits. “That’s why we’re putting out albums now.”

Thus the duo have made 2012 the year of the Mekanix, beginning with February’s The Chop Shop (Zoo Ent.), a digitally-released compilation of Youtube and street hits they’ve produced for various artists, with a handful of new cuts like the Yukmouth-driven title song.

They followed in April with the Go Boyz, Everything Must Go (Zoo Ent.), a “lost” supergroup project from the hyphy era (ca. ’05), featuring Kaz Kyzah (the Team), Stalin and Shady (Livewire), and Dot himself on vocals in addition to producing with Tweed. Almost released half-a-dozen times, in deals that collapsed at the last minute, the darkly comedic, Ecstasy-themed Everything destroys most Bay albums of that period and remains fresh, even if Shady especially is a far greater beast on the mic today.

Both releases, however, are merely set-up for an album “coming all the way new,” according to Tweed: The Chop Shop 2 (Zoo Ent.), due late July. With a pair of monster lead singles — “Bay Area Perspective” teaming 40, Stalin, Keak Da Sneak, and Turf Talk, and “Money” featuring a vintage verse by Mac Dre recorded at the Garage, alongside fresh contributions from Stalin, Keak, and Bay R&B phenom R.O.D. — Chop 2 is the most ambitious Mekanix project to date, its judiciously matched voices sewn together by the gradual emergence of Dot’s rapping alter ego, 4rax.

Oddly enough, 4rax has had airplay outside the Bay, largely from DJ Premier, who’s spun several tracks on his SiriusXM show, Live from Headqcourterz, over the past two years. But Dot’s only begun sprinkling the conscious thug persona into the mix locally, dropping a very Oakland video, “Kerosene,” in January.

“4rax always been there,” Dot says. “I just ain’t focused on him. But it’s at the point where, shit, we done focused on everyone in the Bay, so either I do it now or not at all.”

“We’ve laid the groundwork, but people gotta pay for it this time,” he laughs. “But we made it; we’re still here.”

Whatever happened to Baby Jaymes?


MUSIC One day in November 2004, my then-girlfriend returned to our Oakland apartment all excited. “I just heard this on KMEL,” she said. She handed me a CD, Baby Jaymes, Ghetto Retro (Underground Soul), while she unwrapped the included Ghetto Retro EP and cued up “Nice Girl.” “He sounds like Prince,” she enthused—we were Prince geeks—”but he’s from East Oakland!”

Something in the way the vocals were layered, the tasty guitar and bass details under aloof keyboards, and the idiosyncratic, non-pimp, non-player personality that disclosed itself seemed to justify the comparison, particularly as we moved on to the LP. The hidden track “Ev’ry Nuance,” for example, could be a Lovesexy outtake, even as its more lo-fi aesthetic seemed to allude knowingly to 1999-era bootlegs.

Comparisons to Prince would be made in nearly every review of Ghetto Retro, though the insistence was a little misleading. While Prince is definitely an influence, BJ — as he’s known — isn’t especially well-versed in the Purple One’s catalog. Some of the resemblance stems from the common influence of 1960s and ’70s soul; Motown, particularly Smokey Robinson, and Stax loom much larger for Baby Jaymes, and in many ways, the similarly pint-sized singer is the anti-Prince, possessing no conventional technical musical ability, depending on collaborators to translate the melodies and arrangements he hears in his head.

In 2007, I had the experience of watching him cajole a string trio from blank incomprehension into a soaring, unscripted overdub reminiscent of a Paul Riser classic. Yet I’ve also seen the comparatively simple matter of a guitar overdub founder for want of a common vocabulary.

“It’s all about energy to me,” BJ says, “but I can’t always articulate it in a way that musicians understand. But if I articulate it emotionally they might be like, yes! and we’re there. I used to knock myself out because I can’t play, but that’s part of my gift. I’ve gotten to the place where I’m ok with that.”

The other major difference is the difference between Minneapolis and East Oakland, for while Prince has profoundly influenced hip-hop, he’s never known what to do with it, whereas it’s second nature to BJ, hailing from the notorious Rollin’ 100s (99th and MacArthur, to be exact).

Much of Ghetto Retro is built on heavily manipulated samples, augmented with instruments, and though he’s the furthest thing from a thug — I’ve never heard him cuss, though I have heard him say “my goodness” and even “golly”—Baby Jaymes sounds entirely natural with Turf Talk on his 2008 single “The Bizness” or The Jacka on his new EP, Whatever Happened to Baby Jaymes?, released late last year on Hiero-imprint Clear Label Records.


The EP’s title, BJ admits, was the brainchild of Souls of Mischief and Hieroglyphics member and Clear Label head Tajai Massey, both punning off the Bette Davis film and nodding to the seven-year wait since Ghetto Retro. BJ initially resisted.

“I disappeared,” he admits. “But I don’t want people to think I wasn’t doing anything.”

“I was bummed out with the artist thing,” he continues. “People remember me — which is a good thing. But I couldn’t imagine life not having anonymity. To this day I can’t go anywhere in the Town without seeing at least one person that knows me. It can be overwhelming.”

BJ’s local profile, elevated by airplay on KMEL, national press from Fader and XLR8R, and even a 2005 GOLDIE, was complicated by the chronic difficulty of making money as a Bay Area urban artist. In the mid-’00s, besides longstanding major label distinterest, Bay Area independent artists suddenly saw their financial foundations crumble with the decline of CD sales.

“You have to preserve your mystique,” he says, “but you don’t have money to be that guy all the time. I might really be on the bus and you see me on the bus and it just kills my whole thing for you. So I decided I just wanted to make music, not make music to be famous.”

Instead BJ moved to L.A. to pursue licensing deals in movies and TV. Even before Ghetto Retro, he’d already tapped into Hollywood money, writing a song (“Without a Daddy” by Touché) that appears in Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday (1999). (His own version appears on Ghetto Retro as “Black Girl/White Girl.”) Since relocating, he’s racked up an oddball assortment of screen credits, from a few seconds of music in a Nicole Kidman vehicle (2007’s The Invasion) to production work on Fox’s intro to the 2008-09 NFC Championship broadcast (apparently Cleatus the Robot’s first foray into hip-hop).

More recently NCIS used a snippet “so small and incidental, you can barely hear it,” but this brings in incomparably more money than dropping a Bay Area hip-hop soul classic. Essentially BJ makes the bulk of his modest income off five song placements and would like to bring that number up to around 40 reliable ones, which he estimates would bring in a comfortable enough existence to fulfill his artistic ambitions.



For, despite his earlier discomfort, Baby Jaymes’s artistic ambitions remain, and Tajai was able to induce him to sign to Clear Label to record a new album, for which the seven-song Whatever Happened is simply a calling card. Still, after so long a hiatus, the EP is a joy to hear. I’d wondered if BJ and long-time collaborator, producer Marc Garvey, would shy away from the sound they’d crafted in favor of something more obviously commercial, but instead they’ve dug deeper, returning to the samples-plus-hip-hop-drums core that makes Ghetto Retro feel so warm and timeless.

The single, “Heart & Soul,” captures the throbbing drama of a kind of vintage R&B that concerns matters of deeper import than Bentleys and Belvedere, serving by turns as a declaration of love and an artistic manifesto. Yet BJ also shows off a new swag with an inventive reimagining of 50 Cent’s “21 Questions” over a live band, co-produced by Ledisi mastermind Sundra Manning.

This more than anything else gives a foretaste of the album to come, judging from the unreleased tracks he played me, all of which featured live instrumentation. This is a far more expensive way to make a record, but he hopes to have complete and release it sometime in 2012.

“Honestly, if Tajai hadn’t said, ‘We should do a record, I’ll help you pay for it,’ I probably wouldn’t have been able to do it,” he says, clearly relishing the new material. “I do it for the love of music, nothing else.” *


Abstract truth


VISUAL ART A museum-quality show in terms of ambition and achievement, “Surrealism: New Worlds” fleshes out a forgotten, if not effaced, chapter in American art history, even as it incidentally tells the story of the gallery showing it.

For the éminence grise of the Weinstein Gallery was Gordon Onslow Ford (1912-2003), who, in addition to his role in the evolution of abstract art, was also one of the great collectors of modernism. Along with his friends Roberto Matta and Esteban Frances, the British-born Onslow Ford joined André Breton’s Surrealist Movement in Paris in 1938, and would subsequently pursue an increasingly visionary, Zen-influenced abstraction in New York City, Mexico, and finally Northern California, where he lived from 1947 until his death. Onslow Ford’s influence helped transform Weinstein — his exclusive dealer — into a serious gallery for historically-connected surrealist art; through him, the gallery would forge links with other, then-living surrealists like Enrico Donati (1909-2008), and even now, after his death, it continues to gather his fellow travelers, as when it began representing the estate of Gerome Kamrowski in 2005, or the estate of Jimmy Ernst (Max’s son) in 2010.

As befits its plural title, “New Worlds” doesn’t present anything like a unified aesthetic, because surrealism alone among the modernisms isn’t an aesthetic but rather a critical assault on the conventions of reality. Thus abstraction mingles freely with figurative art, assemblages with bronzes, an automatic work like Oscar Domínguez’s Three Figures (1947) with a meticulous imitation readymade like Marcel Duchamp’s Eau & Gaz à tous étages (1958). Drawn from a roughly 30-year time span, the 1930s to the ’60s, the show lists some 22 artists — an unlisted Dorothea Tanning (still alive at 101, though more active these days as a writer than a painter) brings that number up to 23 — all of whom were connected to some degree to Breton’s group. The theme, broadly speaking, is the encounter between the European-formulated surrealism and the “new world” of America.

Being a gallery, Weinstein naturally leans most heavily on painters it represents; Onslow Ford, Donati, Kamrowski, and Leonor Fini are the pillars of this show, along with substantial contributions from Matta and Jimmy Ernst. What is remarkable, therefore, is how deftly the gallery has filled out the show with works from big-name artists from the surrealist pantheon. A pair of Max Ernsts — Convolvulus! Convolvulus! (1941) and Head of a Man (1947) — gives as good an impression of his mercurial range as possible from merely two paintings, the former an Henri Rousseau-like jungle of hidden creatures emerging from weird plumes of color, the latter an austere though colorful Neo-Cubist mask. A single André Masson must suffice for that artist’s equally varied output, but the massive Le Centaure Porte-Clé (1947) (or “centaur key-ring”) is a real stunner whose mutating image suggests something of his graphic work. Large canvases by seldom seen surrealists like Domínguez and Kurt Seligmann lend the show considerable depth.

The most crucial of the surrealist old masters represented here, however, is Yves Tanguy, who stakes out his own wall with three oils and one of his delicately rendered gouaches. All are what you would call prime works of the artist, with significant pedigrees: one belonged to the early surrealist poet Paul Éluard, another to Hans Bellmer, and even the gouache has appeared in books and museums. But to identify Tanguy as more “crucial” here than, say, Masson or Max Ernst isn’t to remark on the greater significance and number of the works in question; rather, the influence of Tanguy on painters like Onslow Ford, Donati, Matta, Kamrowski, and William Baziotes feels more pronounced, and brings us to the heart of the show. For while, again, “New Worlds” showcases the surrealism’s variety over a 30-year span, the main thrust of the show inevitably becomes the development of abstract surrealism, particularly as affected by the arrival of Breton, Tanguy, and other members of the surrealist group in NYC in the early ’40s, fleeing the Nazi occupation of Paris.

The encounter between the European surrealists and American artists like Kamrowski and Baziotes is the chapter of art history largely effaced through the application of the term “abstract expressionism” to NY artists of the late ’40s and the ’50s. The term was already in use, coined in 1919 in German and brought into English by the Museum of Modern Art’s first curator, Alfred Barr (see his 1936 book Cubism and Abstract Art), to describe Kandinsky. But the term was anachronistically applied by American art critics like Clement Greenberg as a way to avoid the label “abstract surrealism.” With its communist and anarchist associations, “surrealism” carried too much revolutionary baggage for the post-war political climate in the US. The move also helped elide the stubborn political reality that abstract art was first achieved in Germany by a Russian artist, as if to suggest that historical “expressionism” hadn’t really been “abstract” and only here in America had become so. Thus Greenberg, in his essay “‘American-Type’ Painting” (1955, 1958), elaborates an account of art as a series of laws, problems, and solutions in order to write: “The early Kandinsky may have had a glimpse of this solution, but if he did it was hardly more than a glimpse. Pollock had had more than that.”

Though no one believes in laws of painting anymore, the eclipse of abstract surrealism from American art history has proved curiously durable. But “New Worlds” illustrates the pivotal role of surrealism with a collaborative poured painting by Kamrowski, Baziotes, and Jackson Pollock, uncertainly dated “Winter 1940-1941.” Given that Onslow Ford began pouring paint in 1939, and gave a series of lectures on surrealism in NYC attended by at least two if not all three of the young American artists beginning in January 1941, it’s hard not to conclude that Pollock’s initial inspiration for his drip paintings was Onslow Ford’s account of surrealist automatism. This is the type of connection the label “abstract expressionism” obscures.

Yet this historical neglect has paved the way for Weinstein’s success, as the gallery has become an effective advocate for abstract surrealism.


Through Feb. 11

Weinstein Gallery

291 Geary, second flr., SF

(415) 362-8151


GOLDIES 2011 Lifetime Achievement: David Meltzer


GOLDIES “This isn’t a conflict of interest, I hope?” David Meltzer asks. We’re smoking on the back porch of his Piedmont apartment with his wife, poet Julie Rogers, about two bottles of wine into our interview, wondering whether he’s the first former Guardian contributor to get a Goldie. A decade or so ago, he was writing CD reviews and the odd feature on anything from pedal steel guitar to new age music. But Meltzer had made a reputation long before, as the youngest poet (along with Ron Loewinsohn, now a UC Berkeley professor) in Donald Allen’s seminal New American Poetry (Grove, 1960). Now, at age 74, he’s fresh from his latest achievement, When I Was a Poet, chosen by Lawrence Ferlinghetti as #60 in the City Lights Pocket Poets Series.

Between these two events he’s made so many distinctive contributions to Bay Area culture that his foray into music journalism for the Guardian is simply characteristic of his protean endeavors. Indeed, his musical endeavors alone would earn him a place in San Francisco history, beginning with his late ’50s jazz poetry readings at the Cellar. In the mid-’60s, Meltzer hosted the Monday night hootenannies at the Coffee Gallery — folk jam sessions attracting visitors like David Crosby, as well as now-legendary locals like Jerry Garcia — as well as performing there regularly with his late first wife, Tina Meltzer (who died in 1997).

“It was the genesis of the SF rock scene,” Meltzer says, and he soon found himself, like Dylan, “going electric,” as guitarist, songwriter, and co-lead vocalist of the Serpent Power, a psychedelic folk band featuring Tina on vocals and poet Clark Coolidge on drums, along with stray members of the Grass Roots. Released on Vanguard Records in 1967, Serpent Power’s eponymous LP went nowhere at the time, but in 2007 was named #28 on Rolling Stone‘s top 40 albums of the Summer of Love (which, if you think of the number of classics released in ’67, is extraordinary). As an example of the possibilities of long-form rock, the 13-minute, album-closing “Endless Tunnel” is widely considered ahead of its time.

Meltzer’s a natural raconteur — easily outlasting my digital recorder — because his life’s been so extraordinary. By the time he moved from L.A. to SF in 1957, first inhabiting the window display area of a defunct radio repair shop at 1514 Larkin, the Brooklyn-born Meltzer was already a former child performer on radio and TV, as well as a recent participant in the art scene around Wallace Berman. But SF was an irresistible lure for a 20-year-old poet.

“It seemed to be the place of a kind of creative surge,” he recalls, having already encountered Pocket Poets books such as Ferlinghetti’s Pictures of the Gone World (1955) and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956). “I needed to be in a place where you dealt with language rather than paint and images.”

“Of course, when I got here, the first place I went to was City Lights,” Meltzer continues. “It was much smaller back then, like a more proletarian Gotham Bookmart, with an emphasis on literary production.”

By 1961, Meltzer would find himself co-editor of the first issue of City Lights’ occasional Journal for the Protection of All Beings, the first of several projects he worked on at the press. But, despite Ferlinghetti’s admiration for his work, When I Was a Poet is Meltzer’s first book of poems for City Lights, some 54 years after his arrival. “It’s just one of those things,” says Meltzer, who published many books over the years on presses ranging from Black Sparrow to Penguin.

Space precludes a full rehearsal of Meltzer’s career, and significant items — such as editing the poetry and kabbalah journal Tree in the ’70s or co-founding the New College poetics program in ’80s — can only be mentioned in passing. His precociousness has engendered a sort of perpetual youth, and you can still find Meltzer giving readings around town, solo or in tandem with Julie Rogers. He remains one of the key people who make San Francisco great.

Addicted to print


LIT Poet Nick Hoff is best known for his acclaimed translation of Friedrich Hölderlin’s Odes and Elegies (Wesleyan, 2008), while Matt Borruso has achieved some notoriety as a visual artist (his “The Hermit’s Revenge Fantasy” is at Steven Wolf Fine Arts through Sat/8). Yet both are also seasoned book scouts, those scavengers of estate sales, thrift shops, and flea markets who find saleable treasures buried in otherwise worthless piles of printed matter. And it’s in this capacity that they’ve embarked on a collaborative experiment in what one might call “conceptual commerce:” Scanners, a used bookstore that opened October 1 and closes at the end of the month.

The impulses behind Scanners are various. In the face of what Hoff calls “the media’s hysteria about the death of print,” both he and Borruso remain interested in the book as material object rather than simply bearer of text, easily replaceable by more efficient digital media. But in an immediate sense, the project is informed by their experience in a profession that, like many, has felt the digital squeeze. The word “scanner,” says Hoff, is a derisive term among book scouts for the increasingly numerous competitors whose knowledge of a book’s value solely stems from their mobile barcode scanners.

“At a library sale,” Hoff continues, “for every person without a device, there’s 50 people scanning books. The device tells them whether it has value. The traditional book scout who knew about book culture is becoming a thing of the past.”

While scanners have drastically increased competition, devaluing that knowledge built through long practice, Borruso and Hoff are quick to own the advantages of the digital age; their ability to sell books online directly to consumers rather than a book dealer has offset the blow to their bottom line. And knowledge retains its edge. “Not everything has a barcode,” Borruso says with a sly smile, and throughout our conversation, it’s clear both men value the thrill of the chase at least as much as its results. Borruso speaks of the “adrenaline” that comes from finding that overlooked tome, while Hoff dwells on the more profound relationship a reader has with a long-sought book than with an instantly purchased text. Both savor the role chance plays in their acquisitions.

With Scanners, they seek to replicate the conditions for such discovery. Herein lies the name’s opposite sense, of scanning physical shelves for the book chance may bestow. To this end, the duo intends to organize the store according to non-traditional categories — replacing the specific “economics,” for example, with the open-ended “money” — and emphasizing face-out visual display. Perhaps inevitably, the artist Borruso is more interested in the display aspect, while the writer Hoff is eager to see what categories will emerge from the 400 boxes of books they’ve stashed away over the past year.

Much of this, Borruso says during our interview, “is still theoretical,” as they only had a three-day window at the end of September to set up shop, using a break in the exhibit schedule of the Mina Dresden Gallery to inhabit its foot-traffic-friendly Valencia space. There’s something appropriate about staging this bookstore in an art gallery, for the project is at once scrupulous and absurd, requiring all the effort of opening a real bookstore — cash registers, credit card capability, etc. — even as they intend to close in a month. “It’s not a viable business model,” Borruso laughs.

Being temporary, as Hoff notes, makes the bookstore “into an event itself.” Nonetheless, there will be events within the event, beginning with a conversation on bookselling between William Stout, owner of William Stout Architectural Books, and Paul Yamazaki, bookbuyer for City Lights. Upcoming events — listed on the store’s website — focus on archiving in the digital age, the neuroscience of reading, and artists’ use of found source material, reflecting Hoff and Borruso’s diverse interests in printed matter.

“Our idea is to highlight things people will respond to a physical level,” Borruso concludes. “To base a store on things you wouldn’t be able to appreciate in digital format. Some of these things you might see and think, ‘I want that,’ but you would never know that seeing it even in jpeg form. You need to see it as an object, as a thing.” 2


William Stout in conversation with Paul Yamazaki

Wed/5, 6:30 p.m., free

312 Valencia, SF

Ghosts in the machine


LIT According to the Bureau of Invented Statistics, 99.9 percent of all poetry disappears into the void. This rate remains steady throughout history, though at certain times and places the figure undergoes radical fluctuations, plummeting to as low as 99 percent. Such periods are eventually given names like the San Francisco Renaissance, or the Elizabethan Renaissance. I mention this because I think Bay Area poetry has quietly entered one of those periods. Currently on my desk are four local debuts — Palm to Pine by Sunnylyn Thibodeaux; A GUSTONBOOK by Patrick James Dunagan; El Golpe Chileño by Julien Poirier; and gowanus atropolis by now-New Yorker Julien Brolaski — each of which appeared in the past six months, and each of which is ass-kicking and assured. In the 15 years I’ve been a poet here, I can’t recall a similarly fertile time.

The situation’s gotten so out of hand, a book I edited, Stranger in Town by Cedar Sigo, was nominated for an NCIBA award, and I actually knew the work of all the other nominees. The list was so good it didn’t matter who won, so I was pleased to see former and newly-returned SF resident Matthew Zapruder snag the award for his third full-length collection, Come On All You Ghosts (Copper Canyon Press, 96 pages, $16).

I haven’t checked, but I imagine most reviews of this book are compelled to describe it as “haunted” since it has Ghosts in the title and deals in part with the death of the poet’s father. It’s not a Kaddish-like outpouring of grief, in other words, but it’s haunted by death in a more oblique, post-New York School fashion. “This book you are holding/ is about dying,” Zapruder writes, yet too, it is about love (a relationship, it appears, inspired his return to SF). Such topics are strongly emotional, and Zapruder grapples with them through a self-conscious distance: “let us live/ here in this apartment and make/ sounds of love,” he writes, rather than simply “make love.” Or, in a characteristic locution, where a sentence becomes a unit within itself: “It doesn’t spoil my time is what/ spoils my time.” You could call this “emotion recollected in tranquility” — Wordsworth even appears — only there’s little tranquility. It deals more with the long run; when someone close to you dies, they’re dead for the rest of your life, long after grief has passed, and Ghosts wrestles with this haunted aspect of the human condition throughout.

As a fellow poet, I’m not without prejudices. I feel ambition is the enemy, and most long poems are baggy, misguided affairs. While Zapruder hasn’t shaken this belief, he has provided a mighty exception in the title poem, which may in fact be the greatest piece in the book. As a long poem, it’s taut and disciplined, only 15 pages entirely in tercets. Indeed, my one criticism of the book is that Zapruder is preeminently a poet of the single verse column, but my favorite poems in Ghosts — “After Reading Tu Fu,” say, or the one prose poem, “April Snow” — are those that break with this form. “Ghosts” rips along without being hemmed in by the three-line form, using it instead for gymnastics:

I myself am suspicious

and cruel. Sometimes

when I close my eyes


I hear a billion workers

in my skull

hammering nails from which


all the things I see

get hung. But poems

are not museums,


they are machines

made of words

I like this because Zapruder entirely flouts the formal constraint even as his lines retain status as individual units. The way the second stanza seems to well up to an image that disintegrates with the third stanza’s interestingly unseeable “all the things I see” and the midline off-rhyme of “skull” and “hung” reveal considerable technical chops concealed in the single verse form. They exert themselves there, but discreetly, shifting the sense of lines through intricate syntactic ruses like a modern-day Basil Bunting, whereas here they assert themselves more forcibly. The theme of the poem as a machine — that “anyone with a mind/ who cares can enter” — returns to close “Ghosts,” and this is not a bad way to think about poetry. As Zapruder’s book attests, the poetry that endures is built to last.


Free at last?


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.”

SKI-thal weapon


MUSIC E-A-SKI has been in the game nearly 20 years, producing tracks with then-partner CMT for Spice 1’s eponymous 1992 debut on Jive Records and subsequently working with the likes of Master P, Ice Cube, and even Dr. Dre. He’s also maintained a career as a rapper. Yet despite several local radio hits and four major-label deals — Priority, Relativity, Dreamworks, Columbia — he’s never released an album. The deals have always soured, yet the astute businessman has always made money on them, as his professional-grade studio in the middle of a huge house hidden beyond the Oakland Hills attests.

I’ve come by for a private screening of SKI’s new video, "No Problems," the first single from The Fifth of Skithoven, an album he plans to release next year through his own label, IMGMI. If "private screening" sounds highfalutin’, "No Problems" is no ordinary clip. It’s a six-minute film, directed by Wayans Brothers associate Michael Tiddes, that recently won an award for best music video at the 13th Okanagan International Film Festival in Kelowna, British Columbia.

"I didn’t just want to keep putting videos out there," SKI explains. "I wanted to do something more cinematic to express the music."

A John Woo-like allegory of rap integrity, "No Problems" finds SKI battling to reclaim his soul from the Devil, wagering the contents of a mysterious Pulp Fictionesque briefcase that he can do it. The "x-factor," as SKI puts it, is the actor playing the gravel-voiced, gangsta Devil: Danny Glover. After meeting years ago in activist circles — SKI frequently mentors inner-city youth — the two recently reconnected when they found themselves members of the same gym. Despite the demands of Glover’s schedule (seven films currently in post-production, according to, the Lethal Weapon star made time for the shoot.

"I did it ’cause SKI kept bugging me," Glover laughs during a quick phone call. "No, seriously. I respect what he does with Oakland and the community, and I thought it’d be fun." Judging by his over-the-top supervillain meltdown as SKI emerges triumphant, Glover had plenty of fun with the role.

"It was an honor for him to even want to be in a hip-hop project," SKI says. "I did my first line with him and just froze, like, ‘This is Danny Glover!’ I ain’t gonna lie, I got star-struck! And I’ve done a lot of stuff."

It’s hard to imagine a tongue-tied E-A-SKI, but then again, even Frank Sinatra looks intimidated alongside Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls (1955). Getting Glover in his video is exactly the type of rabbit SKI consistently pulls out of his hat to keep himself relevant in a genre in which artists usually have short self-lives. Even on his own independent label, SKI routinely places videos on MTV, most recently 2009’s "Rare Form" by IMGMI-signee and Frontline-member Locksmith. Although there’s a trailer for "No Problems" on MTV’s movie blog, and SKI plans more film festival screenings, the video remains unreleased.

"I want to make its debut a big thing," SKI says. "Like MTV showing the trailer, having a build up, then boom! — a Jam of the Week. We have a relationship, so they’re open to it. But it’s still in the works because I’m trying to see what’s best for my album."

Like a rap Paul Masson, SKI will serve no wine before its time, and Skithoven is no exception, though he’s already lined up tracks with the likes of Tech 9ine, Freeway, and Ice Cube (whose upcoming I Am the West [Lench Mob] includes a bonus track produced by SKI). "It’s like a puzzle," he says. "I like to get the pieces and now I’m structuring it." But will we finally see an album from the man known as "The Bay’s Dre," or will there be more of the Detox-like delays that have led him to shelve previous discs like Earthquake and Apply Pressure? SKI’s patience is unwavering.

"I never let people dictate to me," he says. "I’m gonna do what I wanna do. I’ve always been a firm believer in, if I can’t do what I want to do at that time and then too much time goes by, it’s time to reinvent."

Turf politics


MUSIC Messy Marv, a.k.a. The Boy Boy Young Mess, is probably San Francisco’s most popular rapper. Within the city, fellow Fillmore District native San Quinn remains SF’s icon, but, as Will Bronson, head of SMC Recordings, says: “Once you cross that [Bay} Bridge, it’s Mess.” According to Saeed Crumpler, the rap buyer for Rasputin, the prolific Mess outsells everyone in the Bay save E-40 and The Jacka, often having three or four CDs among the store’s top 20 rap chart. SMC has thus tapped the raspy-voiced gangsta rapper to preside over the just-released compilation Thizz City, first of a Frisco-focused series paralleling the label’s Oakland-oriented imprint Town Thizzness.

“We’re trying to brand the city and showcase the talent and the up and coming talent,” Mess says of Thizz City, a partnership between SMC and Thizz Entertainment, hence the name. “People can get on my promotion as far as where I’m at in my career.”

True to this conception, Thizz City attempts to represent all of the city’s scattered hoods, with a lineup that ranges from enduring O.G.s like Lakeview’s Cellski to new acts like Roach Gigz, a white kid from the Fillmore. Yet behind this apparent display of unity lurks an inconvenient truth: SF rappers don’t get along. By comparison, Oakland is a rap utopia — not that there’s never beef so much as the prominent acts tend to find common cause in the endless quest to make it big.

“In Oakland, they come together,” says Killa Keise, also of Lakeview. Keise, who began recording with Cellski at 12 and later hooked up with Hunters Point’s Guce, is simultaneously a vet and a young act, one of several slated for a Thizz City album later this year. “We just did a video shoot in Oakland for Guce and all the Oakland rappers came out to support it,” Killa says. “But there really wasn’t that Frisco support.”

The lack of camaraderie in SF is evident, and neutrality is frequently not an option. I’ve confirmed stories, off the record, of people being threatened just for recording with another rapper’s rival, and never have I been forced to have so many off-the-record conversations to get a picture of what’s happening. In Oakland, threats are generally reserved for someone who owes someone money, not for guilt by association. But in SF, where the African American population has shrunk from 13 percent to 6.5 percent since 1970 (according to an Aug. 8, 2008 article in the San Francisco Chronicle), street politics tend to exert more pressure on its necessarily smaller rap scene.



Mess’s situation is instructive. Currently he’s prepping his first full-blown solo album in several years, Waken Dey Cook Game Up, due this month from his own company, Scalen LLC/Click Clack Records. Produced largely by Mess’s longtime collaborator Sean T, who also made Mac Dre’s classic “Fellin’ Myself,” Waken will be the Fillmore rapper’s first big release as The Boy Boy Young Mess. It’s also a serious bid for chart action, with singles featuring Keyshia Cole (whom Mess discovered in the late 1990s) and Houston rapper Chalie Boy, whose 2009 independent hit “I Look Good” snagged him a deal with Jive. Clearly Mess has similar major label ambitions, and Chalie Boy proves that despite rap’s youth bias, a 30-year-old underground legend like Mess himself can still fulfill them. (In the age of Jay-Z, 30 is the new 25.)

“If one of us makes it from Frisco, we all make it,” says Guce, articulating the regional rap logic that has turned once-fledgling scenes like Houston into national powerhouses. But the SF rap scene hasn’t rallied around Mess the way the entire Bay seemed to support Jacka for last year’s Billboard-charting Tear Gas (SMC). This is partly due to feuds that have divided the Fillmore itself. A vicious beef with San Quinn two years ago has left lingering tension. Their battle was shocking because Quinn and Mess literally grew up under the same roof — Mess lived with Quinn’s family for a time — and the two have recorded together since they were teens.

“It was an ugly fight because they knew too much about each other,” says Fillmore’s Big Rich, who is in the studio working on his new album, Built to Last, with his protégés, Evenodds. “When Rick Ross and 50-Cent beef, they don’t know each other like that. It’s very nonpersonal. But these two brothers, every line they said was real.”

Just as this beef was “officially” squashed, another exploded between Mess and his former associates the Taliban (Young Boo and Homewrecka), which the group airs on Thizz City. The reasons for the dispute are less clear than the duo’s mode of attack, which is to question Mess’ street cred due to his recent absence from the Bay. On probation after his second weapons conviction — one strike away from serious prison time — Mess relocated to Miami in 2008 to focus on his music and his new endeavors Scalen Clothing and Scalen Films.

“When you break away and do other things, you get negative shit: ‘He ain’t fuck with the hood no more. He ain’t got money no more,'<0x2009>” Mess says during our phone interview. “Ain’t nobody run me out of Fillmore. I go wherever the fuck I please. I got out of jail and moved myself because I don’t want to go through that situation no more.”

This is an eternal dilemma, not limited to SF. A gangsta rapper faces an unrealistic if not impossible demand: to maintain credibility, you’re supposed to simultaneously get rich and stay in the hood.

“A lot of my people are brainwashed to believe you’re supposed to be in the hood and stay there,” Mess says. “That’s not what it’s supposed to be. I want to break the cycle. I have a kid. I don’t want him to go through the shit I went through. So I’m doing what I need to do for what’s better for my kid.”



No rap scene is immune to street politics, but the degree to which they affect SF is more extreme than anywhere else in the Bay. To every rapper I spoke with, I put the same question: why? Big Rich links the widespread volatility to both the depressed economy and drug abuse.

“The turf war in SF hip-hop is because niggas ain’t eatin’ enough,” Rich says. “Only a few of us can live off rap. And a few aren’t livin’ the way they used to because of the economy. That’s problem No 2. Problem No. 1 is drugs. A lot of Frisco rappers do cocaine and ecstasy, and drugs alter your thought process and your actions. So you get the drugs mixed in with the street politics and the lack of money being circulated.”

Another answer comes from the Fillmore’s DaVinci, a rising star originally from Quinn’s Done Deal camp. In March, DaVinci released his debut, The Day the Turf Stood Still (SWTBRDS), one of the most powerful, thought-provoking recent Bay Area albums, using gangsta rap to explore the problems of urban life. (The album is available for purchase or for free at As on his album, DaVinci suggests that gentrification is the root of many problems that bleed into the SF’s rap scene.

“Not only did gentrification break up families, but families that stayed let personal problems get in the way of coming together,” DaVinci said. “Fillmore used to be a whole, and now it’s broken up into different sections. Families who were keeping it together moved or got bought out of they houses, and we’re left with sprinkles of people who don’t know each other well. Or the second generation from them isn’t able to connect the dots like, ‘Oh, my pops used to go to school with him; he’s cool.’ It wasn’t instantly beef, but it was more like, ‘I ain’t fuckin with them.'<0x2009>”

As the aforementioned Chronicle article notes, SF has the most rapidly dwindling black population in the country, and the Fillmore, prime real estate in the middle of one of the most expensive cities on earth, has particularly felt the squeeze.

“The neighborhood’s shrinking every year,” DaVinci says. “It’s like, first you had two blocks for your territory, now you only got half a block. You do whatever you can to protect your half-block, even if it means you just fuck with these two niggas on your block. People don’t trust each other. And that’s reflected in the music because the music always reflects what’s going on in the neighborhood.”

Everyone I spoke with agrees that the lack of unity in SF rap is a problem. It’s bad for business, even locally. Town Thizzness, for example, has been thriving since 2008 while Thizz City is just getting off the ground, though they were conceived at the same time. “It’s like there’s a dark cloud over the city,” DEO of Evenodds sighs.

Occasionally a ray of light breaks through. Berner, a Mexican Italian SF native whose duo projects with the likes of Jacka also made Billboard noise, recently brokered what seemed impossible: getting Mess and Quinn on the same track — twice! — for his new collaboration with Mess, Blow (Blocks and Boatdocks) from Bern One Entertainment.

“I’m a fan first,” Berner says. “To be able to bring them together after all the problems is the greatest feeling in the world.”

They may have recorded their parts on opposite coasts without personal interaction, but that Mess and Quinn agreed to appear together sends a powerful message. Yet the tension in SF rap runs far deeper than any one dispute and Rich, for one, is tired of it.

“People be like, ‘We need a meeting, all the rappers come out,'<0x2009>” he says. “Every meeting, niggas say ‘This is what we need to do, this is what we gonna do,’ then everyone puts their hand in the circle and we break out the huddle. And niggas go out that room like, ‘Fuck that nigga.’ So I gotta carve my own lane and stay in it.”

Shock it to ya


El boogie, my love of loves

7 & 11 belong together

Please set free your G

Love & Bravery on forever — Shock-G

After our recent interview, Shock-G — frontman and producer of now-disbanded rap legends Digital Underground, discoverer of 2Pac, and alter ego of the Groucho-nosed Humpty Hump — e-mails the poem printed above. “I need you to put this in,” he writes. “It’s my thank you to fans for letting me move on after DU.” Plus, he adds mysteriously, “it has many meanings.”

It’s a characteristically offbeat request. Eight years on from meeting Shock, it’s still hard to anticipate his moves. The occasion of our phone conversation is a new disc of Digital Underground rarities, The Greenlight EP (Jake Records). The 2008 Jake Records release Cuz a DU Party Don’t Stopa similarly miscellaneous collection misleadingly marketed as “the final DU studio album” — lacked the coherence of classics like Sex Packets (Tommy Boy, 1989) and was panned by critics, so Shock wants to make the status of Greenlight clear.

“I don’t want to give the public the idea like, ‘Yo, we just made a slammin’ new album,'” he says. “DU’s not my purpose right now. It’s more like, ‘I’m cleaning out the closet, look what we discovered.'”

A 7-song EP, Greenlight benefits from its tighter focus. DU completists may recognize obscure gems like “Used 2B a Sperm” — a sci-fi story of Shock as a sperm cell journeying to the egg. Other tracks like “Purplebrainhurrycainhabit,” produced by a then-unknown David Banner, emerge for the first time. 2Pac appears on a bonus 1991 live version of “Same Song.”

But Shock would rather dwell in the present, which is among the reasons he finally disbanded the group. Much of his conversation concerns his whole-food diet, a difficult pursuit when spending 200 nights a year on tour.

“It requires more thought than most people care to put into it,” he says. “What you eat is so important to your future health and clarity of mind. I’m actually in better shape than I was in my 20s and 30s.”

This lifestyle change dovetails with his other reason for ending DU: the increasingly heavy drug use. Motivated by his health consciousness, Shock’s new sobriety is also an artistic decision. In the 1990s, DU performances were theatrical shows, Shock running the group like a band, in a way that gradually lapsed in the new millennium

Yet live performances led to his latest venture, the Shock-G3 Trio. A collaboration with DU’s original DJ, Fuze, on turntables, and early member PeeWee on guitar, the Trio unites what Shock calls DU’s “core musicians,” responsible for most of 2Pac’s first LP, 2Pacalypse Now (Priority, 1991). The format allows Shock to stretch out on keys, as the group jams on the DU/2Pac repertoire, as well as funk, jazz, and whatever else Shock gets in his head.

“The thing about working sober is the small eye signals on stage and PeeWee and Fuze catch them,” Shock enthuses. “Like the audience wants us to go a few bars longer. Or if they’re not feeling it, backing out of those songs. It keeps the shows tight.”

Renaissance Man


MUSIC/STAGE/LIT When I meet Ise Lyfe in downtown Oakland, the 28-year-old MC is sporting a button-down shirt, slacks, cardigan, and a purple and pink tie. Put a Wall Street Journal under his arm and he might blend in with the lunchtime business crowd. He’s fresh from a meeting with one of the distributors of his company, Lyfe Productives, hence rocking business casual.

Seeing Ise “in character” is appropriate, given his latest endeavor: a theatrical show, Pistols & Prayers, and the book of the same title (available on iUniverse) on which it’s based. After a successful one-off performance at Berkeley Rep — and a tour involving the show, book signings, and rap gigs — Pistols returns for a three-night run at Oakland’s Fox Black Box Theater benefiting nonprofit Youth Movement Records. According to Ise, his pitches of the book to African American studies departments have resulted in 21 course adoptions.

“You have good books in universities, like Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, but not contemporary texts from a hip-hop artist,” he says . “My book’s a collection of prayers, poems, journal entries, essays, anecdotes. But it’s also palatable for hip-hop heads. You can sit down and blaze through it.”

As Ise suggests, Pistols is an eclectic affair. Its unity comes from the author’s political sensibility. The poems recall the late-1960s explosion of African American poetry documented in anthologies like 1972’s New Black Voices, even as Ise updates the frame of reference. Most compelling are the nonfiction prose meditations, recounting, for example, his visit to Ghana, the murder of Oscar Grant, and his ambivalence about Barack Obama.

Such material might easily prove resistant to dramatic presentation, but Ise is no stranger to the stage; he has performed spoken word since age 17 and rocked HBO’s Def Poetry Jam in 2006. While loosely following the book, the stage version of Pistols is a genuine theatrical experience. Using a minimalist set, spotlights, and a video screen, Ise brings Pistols to life with support from DC of KMEL, folksinger Melanie Demore (who punctuates the proceedings with African pounding sticks) and celloist Michael Fecskes.

“It’s a collage,” Ise says. “We bring together hip-hop, folklore, spirituals, and [Fecskes] playing the cello brings in this Americanized background. You’re able to see the clash of it onstage.”

At many rap-related theatre shows, the cast members are actors who fail miserably at hip-hop. But Ise is a real rapper. When comparing the state of contemporary hip-hop with its golden age, he can rip a verse from KRS-One’s “Ah Yeah” with all the furious swagger of the original before dropping into a comically tepid rendition of Drake’s “Best I Ever Had.” He also has acting chops. Seeing Ise transform into one of his characters, a dope fiend named Uncle Randy based on addicts he knew as a kid in Oakland’s Brookfield neighborhood, is impressive: his eyes go glassy, his face and body contort with tics and twitches as Randy delivers his satirical, cracked-out observations on America.

Artistic ambitions aside, Ise has turned to theatre and books as a way of getting more exposure in the overcrowded, blinged-out rap landscape. Make no mistake: Ise Lyfe gets around. He tours nationally, is a commissioner of arts and cultural Affairs in Oakland, and counts among his fanbase luminaries like Alice Walker and Dave Chappelle. He has two nationally-distributed albums under his belt, spreadtheWord (Hard Knock, 2006) and The Prince Cometh (7even89ine, 2008), which has moved more than 30,000 units. Still, he admits, “We have a hard time getting the same coverage as my counterparts.”

“Normally I’d be recording my next record,” he says when asked about the two years since Prince Cometh. “But I want to put that money and energy into expanding our audience then dropping a record that changes everything.”

“There’s no one here who sells more records, fills more shows, or does anything more provocative than us,” he says. “I keep hearing, ‘Nobody’s trying to hear that shit you’re talking about.’ But the numbers say somebody is. It’s interesting that Ise Lyfe is an afterthought when I run this shit. And I mean that humbly.” 


Fri/21–Sat/22, 7:30 p.m.; Sun/23, 4 p.m.; $10–$20

530 19th St., Oakl.

(510) 832-4212

Murder, he filmed


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."


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."

Can’t stay away


MUSIC “What can you do at the age of 44 that’s relevant?” a philosophical Too Short asks over brunch at the Buttercup in Oakland. “It can’t be good; it’s gotta be critic-proof.”

Seldom can you trace an entire artistic milieu back to one person, yet with Bay Area rap, you can. And his name is Too Short, a.k.a. Todd Shaw. In 1980, when the 14-year-old Short moved from L.A. to Oakland, rap was still considered a New York City phenomenon, but this didn’t stop him from making tapes to sell on the bus and the block. Between 1983 and 1986, he cut three discs on local label 75 Girls before forming his own Dangerous Music, whose first album, Short’s Born to Mack (1987), was soon re-released by Jive Records.

But after 14 albums on Jive — three gold, five platinum, one double platinum — Short Dog has gone independent. His label, once named Short Records, then Up All Nite, has been rechristened Dangerous Music, which released his Internet-only pre-album, Still Blowin’, on April 7. The most exciting news is that he’s returned from Atlanta to make music in the Bay, as well as his native L.A.

“What brought me back West was just the love, period,” he says. “People love me other places, but the West Coast love is unconditional. Not only in the Bay. It’s the same in L.A.

“Even in Atlanta,” he continues, “a lot of what I wrote was Oakland music. Oakland gives me the inspiration to write songs.”

Beyond the Bay, Too Short is as seminal a figure as Ice-T, bringing two major innovations to rap: profanity and pimpin’. These days, when half an MC’s verse gets muted on the radio due to graphic content, it’s hard to imagine rap without dirty lyrics, but it was a teenage Short who opened this Pandora’s box, with hardcore classics like “Blow Job Betty.”

“It’s not about pimps so much as having game,” Too Short says, yet the dirty rhymes inevitably meshed with Oakland’s cult of the pimp, whose ur-text is the locally-shot blaxploitation film, The Mack (1973). His much-imitated signature word, “biatch,” once caused controversy, though America fell in love with it after Dave Chappelle’s Rick James skit. As Short raps on the hit title track of his 16th album, Blow the Whistle (Jive 2006), “He got it from me.” Having discovered and recorded with Lil Jon even makes Short a pivotal figure in crunk.



Unlike Ice-T or other contemporaries, Short remains a viable hitmaker. Blow the Whistle reached No. 14 on Billboard (No. 7 on the rap chart) and spawned a second hit, “Keep Bouncin’,” featuring Snoop Dogg and, who produced it. Yet Jive refused to promote it, or even make a video, despite Snoop and will’s offer to work on it for free — one symptom of a deteriorating relationship between artist and label, which changed focus in the late 1990s to concentrate on teen pop like Britney Spears. Despite its lack of support, Short says that Jive “wouldn’t bow out gracefully,” instead holding him up for months with talk of a major retrospective with four new tracks that never materialized.

“When it’s near the end of the contract,” he says. “No matter how much they made off you, they don’t want to settle it in a humane way. It was clear their only intent was, ‘You must leave here not famous.'<0x2009>”

“I’m a realist,” he says about Jive pursuing more lucrative pop while abandoning a flagship artist who made the label millions. “It leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But there are no regrets. There wouldn’t be the legendary rapper Too Short if I didn’t get in my early years at Jive.” Eventually Short turned in a new album, Get Off the Stage (2007) — which, without promotion by Short or Jive, still hit No. 21 on the rap chart — in exchange for freedom.



Unlike E-40, who left Jive for Reprise, Short Dog opted to go independent. “I could have got a major label deal two weeks after I left Jive,” Short says. “But I’m not going to get 100,000 first-week scans, and that’d be it.”

Both statements are probably true; he’s high-profile and relevant enough to get signed. Yet given the state of the industry and the youth-bias of major label rap, he’s unlikely to go platinum. But platinum’s a scarce commodity nowadays. And much like the nearly 40-year-old Snoop, Short still reliably makes hits and sells records. And he doesn’t intend to stop.

“I was smart enough to realize when the support wasn’t there, I could support myself,” he states matter-of-factly, without a trace of bravado.

Still Blowin’, Short says, “is just an appetizer for the upcoming menu,” his full-blown 2011 disc whose title is “so fly” he won’t unveil it yet. “I can’t just throw another album out there in this market. I need to warm it up, and this Internet album’s to feel out which direction I want to go in.” One direction is mixing in songs with a little more food for thought, even flirting with the idea of falling in love on the standout “Playa Card.”

“This is all premeditated,” he says. “I’m talking lots of shit, but I pick subjects where I can give a little more depth.”

“My last and final goal in hip-hop is to shatter that age-limit myth,” he continues. “It’s totally against everything this hip-hop industry is about. I’ll be 45 in 2011, and I guarantee you, I’ll drop an album and it’ll be the shit.

“I see it like I’m a jazz or a blues musician,” he continues. “I should be a rapper when I can’t even get off the stool, just sit there, nod my head, and do the show. I should be in a Vegas show with showgirls and shit. I’m going to rap till the words don’t come out.”

Let’s hear it for the Boy Boy


MUSIC One morning, I woke up to a call from a woman named Tasha. “Messy Marv wants to speak to you,” she says. Uh-oh, I think, what’d I do? Mess isn’t the kind of guy who calls just to chop it up. “He wants you to write an article,” she says. This isn’t my usual method, but given the difficulty of touching down with the Fillmore District native, I’ll tape first and ask questions later. Mess has largely been out of state since getting out of jail (for a weapons charge) in late 2007, and his absence has inspired controversy in the Moe, so I’m wondering if he wants to address it.

But Mess has other things on his mind when he phones from Miami.

“Let’s talk about 400,000 units independently,” he begins, an impressive tally of cumulative sales in the Bay. Mess’s fanbase extends well beyond the region; he’s been featured on discs by the likes of Killer Mike and Tech9ine, Snoop Dogg shouts him out on Malice in Wonderland (Doggystyle/Priority, 2009), and he provided a 20-year-old Keyshia Cole her first real exposure on his third album, Still Explosive (M Ent., 2001). Cole’s returning the favor by recording a single with Mess, “Luv Somebody,” for his album, The Cooking Channel, slated for July 7.

But even this isn’t what he wants to talk about. Right now Mess is all about his corporation, Scalen, LLC, whose name derives from one of Mess’ aliases, Messcalen. Scalen began as Mess’s record label, which he recently rebranded Click Clack Records to signify its integration into the new company whose other divisions include Scalen Films and Scalen Clothing.

“The beginning of my career was all music,” Mess says. “But now I’m a CEO.” In the era of Jay-Z and P. Diddy, most rappers have aspired to their own corporations. Yet in the perpetually underfunded Bay, such dreams tend to remain unrealized. But Mess, who’s been moving units since age 15, appears to be realizing the goal. Scalen Films already has two DVDs in the can for release later this year: Gigantic, a documentary on Mess’ life, and All Gas No Breaks, his dramatic debut. He’s shopping his reality show, Mr. Ghetto Celebrity, whose trailer can be seen on his Web site, He’s got dudes like Big Boi wearing Scalen t-shirts and plans to launch two lines in the fall: Cupcakes (for women) and Slick Talk (for men). But the most immediate project is a 12-disc, limited edition set of Mess’s back catalog, Project Suppastarr, due April 1. Priced at $50 and including a Scalen shirt and autographed posters, the project is designed “to give the consumers something for their money.” (“It’s a $340 value,” he claims on his Web site infomercial.)

As we wrap up, I ask Mess about the Fillmore controversy. Two Fillmore rappers formerly on Click Clack Records, Young Boo and M-Kada, have released a harsh diss video, “Last of Us,” challenging Mess’ hood credentials. It’s included on Where’s Messy Marv? (Homewrecka Ent., 2010), an entire DVD devoted to Mess bashing. All this is on top of a major beef last year with his childhood friend and collaborator, San Quinn, which, despite being quashed, has left lingering ill-will in Fillmore. Mess, however, just laughs at the turmoil.

“You grow out of situations,” he says. “This is based on me growing up, and a lot of people don’t understand that. I just look at it like promotion — they my street team. I’m not paying for once.”

Nonetheless, Mess wants to leave the drama behind, going so far as to rebrand himself as the Boy Boy Young Mess for this new stage of his career. “I’ve transformed into another person. I’m a whole new entertainer, man, father. I’ll still always be ‘Messy Marv.’ But a lot came with that name, so I’m going to leave it where it is.”

’80s babies


I’m from the city of gangstas and broken dreams / where we hopin’ the Lord hear our silent screams / but this dope money helpin’ my self-esteem — J Stalin, “Self-Destruction”


MUSIC I’ve known J Stalin for five years, during which I’ve watched the pint-sized, eternally baby-faced rapper develop from cocky adolescent to full-blown boss, head of a label and an ever-expanding crew of talent both known as Livewire. When we met, he’d already made a prestigious debut as an 18-year-old on Richie Rich’s Nixon Pryor Roundtree (Ten-Six, 2002), but he still had a long grind to get where he is now.

The title of “hottest rapper in Oakland” changes hands rapidly, but at the moment, it’s Stalin’s, coinciding with the recent release of his sophomore album, The Prenuptial Agreement (Livewire/SMC). “Sophomore” is misleading; J’s released countless projects since his first album, On Behalf of the Streets (Livewire/Zoo Ent, 2006) — not simply mixtapes, but full albums under one pretext or another, like a duo disc with Livewire-member Mayback, The Real World, Vol 2 (Livewire/DJ Fresh, 2008), or his entry in SMC’s Town Thizzness series, Gas Nation (2008). But these days, rappers reserve the right to designate “official solo albums” among their endless stream of releases, and J has patiently assembled Prenup over roughly three years.

On Behalf of the Streets was to prove myself to Oakland,” he says. “When I made Prenup, I was trying to make music for the world. My fanbase is bigger than Oakland now, so I gotta make my music bigger.”

Prenup definitely succeeds in this ambition. The Mekanix — who produced all of Streets — return in force, alongside numerous newer producers like teenage Alameda resident Swerve. Tracks like Swerve’s “Neighborhood Stars” (blessed by Oakland’s godfather, Too Short, as well as Mistah FAB) or the Mekanix’s “HNIC” (featuring Messy Marv) are spacious, state-of-the-art numbers that hold up against anything on national radio.

Yet the core of Stalin’s sound is very Oakland — unsurprising, given his role in shaping the Town’s current obsession: the 1980s. Musically, the signatures of this trend are classic 808 beats, layered with old skool keyboards from a time when synths barely resembled the instruments they allegedly imitated. Aside from the 808s, the resulting tracks sound little like ’80s hip-hop (or even funk), evoking more the sonic palette of that decade’s R&B and even new wave.

DJ Fresh, producer of J’s first “pre-album” The Real World (Livewire/DJ Fresh, 2006) and other Livewire projects, acknowledges that these sounds have had a role in digital hip-hop. “That sound was there, but we mastered it,” he said. “Nobody was really touchin’ that sound before. It helped me find my sound, and it sounds natural with the way Stalin raps.”

“I just got it in me, those ’80s beats,” the often melodic Stalin concurs. “It probably got beat into my head as a child. I got a smooth style of rappin’, my harmonizing and all that. I’m on that ’80s melody vibe.”



Given the size and influence of Livewire, and its association with Beeda Weeda’s PTB crew, the ’80s vibe has gone viral in Oakland over the past couple of years. But unlike other miners of ’80s terrain — say, the Casio rock trend of last decade — the new sound of the Town has an organic lyrical connection through tales of crack and the devastation the drug has wreaked in the ghetto. “Slangin’ rocks” is hardly a novel topic in rap, yet there’s been a shift in presentation. This, I think, is a directly connected to age: unlike their elders, these new rappers are the first generation born during the crack epidemic. Born in West Oakland’s Cypress Village in 1983, Stalin himself is literally a crack baby.

“My mama been clean for two-and-a-half years,” Stalin says. “She did drugs all my life. We wasn’t always broke, because she sold drugs too. But as she got older, she started using more and selling less.”

This was a harsh environment for the young Jovan Smith. When J was only five, his 18-year-old brother, Lamar Jackson, died from swallowing his rocks while escaping from the police. Stalin’s dad, a con man, was in jail for most of Stalin’s childhood.

Stevie Joe — a Livewire rapper whose upcoming disc ‘80s Baby also refers to his East Oakland hood, the Shady 80s — succinctly articulates the effects of such an upbringing.

“A lot of kids grew up alone,” he says. “You gotta go outside because your parents tell you, ‘I’m getting high, get outta here.’ When you outside and they inside getting high, they don’t know what you doing out there. That’s how people get involved with selling drugs, doing drugs, all that.”

Immersed in this environment, Stalin became a d-boy — a teen crack dealer — standing on the corner, taking turns with his friends selling as customers came through. Stevie himself sold drugs more casually until age 19, when his daughter was born. “I never wanted to hit the block, but I needed a stable place where I could make money. It might sound bad on paper, but it helped me raise her.”

Others, like Livewire’s Philthy Rich, whose Town Thizzness disc Funk or Die (SMC) dropped in late ’09, began even earlier. Hailing from East Oakland’s Seminary neighborhood, Philthy caught his first case at age 11 for stealing a bike, before graduating to the dope game.

“I got in the streets when I was young because I had a rough parenthood,” he said. “A single mother. Five different kids from five different fathers. For attention I was rebelling. And it’s not hard to start selling drugs when you already been around that life. Most of the crackheads is people’s family from the neighborhood. So it’s nothing new.

“It was just me out there, trying to find myself,” he continued. “I used to wonder why I was even born.”



In lyrical terms, the ’80s baby generation primarily identifies with classic Bay Area mob music, bypassing more recent hyphy. But there seems to be a difference in presentation. The ’90s mob rapper tended to rap from an adult perspective, portraying himself in hyperbolic exploits as a kind of Scarface-inspired action figure. To be sure, the ’80s babies haven’t abandoned such tales of million-dollar deals, speedboats, and private planes. But alongside this, the story of the d-boy has emerged, reflecting the trauma of the generation’s upbringing. In contrast to the mobster’s comic-book glory, d-boy stories are frequently anti-glamour in tone, from the mundane, heartbreaking experiences of neglect — wearing the same clothes for a week or more being a common detail — to the painful tragedies of losing parents and siblings to drugs or murder. These stories generally unfold against a middle-school or high-school backdrop and are narrated from a present-tense, first-person perspective. The popularity of Stalin and ’80s-baby peers partly stems from the bond these narratives create between a rapper and his young ghetto fanbase. They can appreciate and admire Stalin as the grownup mobster who measures dope by the kilo, but they can identify with J as the d-boy with a bundle of rocks and “dope fiend” mother.

“They relate to us because we talking about what they going through too,” Stalin says. “I was 17 once upon a time. I can still relate; you just got to remember. I remember when I was 12. I can relate to a 12-year-old.”

Despite his chaotic childhood, Stalin wound up one of the lucky ones. Busted at 17, with a weekday curfew and weekends in juvenile hall, he had time on his hands and, like Mac Dre and many others, he used this isolation to begin writing raps. As it turned out, his late brother’s best friend grew up to be DJ Daryl, who produced 2pac’s 1993 smash “Keep Ya Head Up.” Daryl took Stalin under his wing, eventually introducing J to Richie Rich, who was impressed enough to feature Stalin on several tracks on Nixon. For Philthy Rich — subject of a segment in the recent, somewhat histrionic Discovery TV documentary Gang Wars: Oakland (2009) — as well as Stevie Joe, getting off the block took a lot longer.

“After I had my second son,” says Philthy, “I needed to do something else than what I was doing, in and out of jail. The cycle was just going to repeat. I feel like I can get further doing this.”

A chance encounter with Keak da Sneak manager Dame Fame, who was impressed with the rapper’s talents, helped get Stevie off the block and into the recording studio.

“I backslid one time, after a couple of months,” he admits. “But that didn’t last long because I couldn’t do it no more. So every day since I been rappin’.”

While J, Stevie, and Philthy have left the d-boy life behind, they haven’t forgotten the struggles they went through. The pain of this music offers solace to today’s disaffected youth, who, given the cumulative social effects of crack, are wilder than ever.

“These motherfuckers are crazy, because they never been raised,” Stevie says, citing the passing of pre-crack generations in the hood. These are the kids the new brand of “conscious thug” reaches out to. Alongside glorified tales of killing and dealing, the rappers send out more cautionary messages. Stalin voices the paradox on the intro to Prenup: “I told them I sold rocks on MTV / I’m a hustla, I could sell a million mp3s / and still send the message ‘don’t sell drugs’ to teens.” “As black people, we adapted to the ghetto to where we feel like there’s nothing wrong with us,” Stalin says. “It’s like nobody sees the big picture. It seem like nobody have big dreams of getting out the ghetto. They content; fuck being content — strive for more. Like OK, I sold drugs, but when I die, my obituary’s not going to say ‘drug seller.’ My obituary’s something whole different.”

Nothing like it


Guardian illustration of E-40, Mac Dre, and Mistah F.A.B. by Matt Furie and Aiyana Udesen

Crack baby anthem, you can feel this music — Mistah F.A.B., "Crack Baby Anthem," from Baydestrian (SMC, 2007)

DECADE IN MUSIC In retrospect, it’s easy to see 1999 as the end of Bay Area rap’s glory. The ’90s mob music era was pretty good around here. Too Short had paved the way from releasing local discs to landing a major deal. A spate of acts were signed in the early ’90s (Digital Underground, E-40, Spice-1, the Delinquents) and the mid-’90s (the Luniz, Dru Down, Richie Rich, 3X Krazy), not to mention that the world’s most popular rapper, 2pac, claimed Oakland as his home.

So what happened? 2pac’s murder in 1996, for starters, took the jewel in the Bay’s crown. The second round of signings yielded less sales than the first, with only the Luniz’s debut, Operation Stackola (Noo Trybe/Virgin, 1995), hitting putf8um. Conventional wisdom and conspiracy theory generally hints that the murder of Queens rapper Notorious B.I.G. in L.A. in 1997 — frequently portrayed as a revenge killing for 2pac — turned major label interest away from Bay Area rappers, though it’s unclear whether anyone from the Bay had anything to do with either Biggie’s or Pac’s death. The majors stopped signing Bay Area rappers around that time, a situation that remains largely, though not entirely, unchanged today. The final factor was the purchase of local rap station KMEL by Clear Channel in 1999. KMEL never played enough Bay Area music, but soon stopped altogether, save for E-40 and Too Short, the only two acts to retain their major deals as the new century dawned.

Enter "the drought." With no radio and no major-label interest, Bay Area rap languished. Local alternative rap fared better because its business model usually didn’t include the radio or the majors. Though the Hieroglyphics had been around since the early ’90s, the collective stepped up their activities in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Given their devoted following, heavy touring, and iconic symbol, Hiero was Bay Area hip-hop for many outside the region. The Bay was also home to hip-hop collectives like the Solesides-derived Quannum Projects, whose Blackalicious put out Blazing Arrow through MCA in 2002, during a brief blip of major label interest in progressive hip-hop.

Two of the significant records from this period were Party Music (75Ark/Warner, 2001) by the Coup and Sonic Jihad (Guerilla Funk, 2003) by Paris. A neo-P-Funk dust-up, Party Music achieved much notoriety for its original cover depicting members Boots Riley and Pam the Funkstress seemingly blowing up the World Trade Center. Scheduled for September release, the album was of course put on hold after 9/11 until new art could be arranged. Paris was one of the earliest local acts to go major. He predates the concept of "alternative" rap — when he began, you could be a militant rapper like Chuck D and still get signed. After two years of mind-numbing flag-waving in this country, Paris had the audacity to release an album whose cover depicted a plane about to fly into the White House, and whose lyrics excoriated the Bush administration, accusing it of complicity with the 9/11 attacks. It was a bold action in an otherwise spineless cultural moment.

Meanwhile, the Bay was reloading. Special mention must go to Mac Dre, who, with the Delinquents and a few others, held the scene together in its lean years. Dre went to jail for four years beginning in 1992. When he emerged in 1996, major label opportunities were drying up, but he refused to let it stop him. From 1998 to 2004, he released 11 solo albums on his Thizz Entertainment label, not to mention innumerable compilations and side-projects. At a time when almost no records were selling locally, Dre was moving between 30,000 and 60,000 units. In an increasingly homogenized MC environment, Dre’s distinctive personality shone through, manifesting itself in a series of humorous characters on Thizz: Thizzelle Washington (2003), Ronald Dregan (2004), and The Genie of the Lamp (2004).

During the ensuing hyphy movement (circa 2005-07), debates ensued over who was responsible for the new music. Dre was a huge influence on hyphy’s colorful, comic aesthetics, but he was murdered before he could reap the rewards of his efforts. Producer Rick Rock, one of the Bay’s few national hitmakers, landed a deal with Virgin for the Federation, breaking them onto the radio with the hit "Hyphy" in 2003. Former 3X Krazy-member Keak da Sneak, however, was the man who brought this particular bit of Oakland slang to hip-hop, asserting his own claim with the Traxamillion-produced, local No. 1 "Super Hyphy" in 2005.

In between, newcomers the Team had a 2004 local radio hit, "It’s Gettin’ Hot," and inked a deal with a Universal imprint which ultimately fell through, while producers EA-Ski and CMT got their own protégés, Frontline, a deal with Ryko-imprint Penalty Records. Still in high school, E-40’s son Droop-E also contributed to the sound through radio singles like Mistah F.A.B.’s 2005 track "Super Sic Wid It."

Even this tiny amount of major interest and radio support resulted in heady times: "the drought," it seemed, was officially over. Yet after a couple of years of valuable if lukewarm support, KMEL again stopped playing local hip-hop, and the few major deals haven’t panned out. Clyde Carson from the Team was picked up by Capital, only to be dropped three years later without releasing an album. Mistah F.A.B., who continues to enhance his profile through collaborations with the likes of Snoop Dogg, remains subjected to Atlantic Records’ agonizing delays, which would have killed the career of anyone less determined.

After a couple years, the post-hyphy period of Bay rap took on a discernible personality. Though many complained hyphy was too oriented toward kids, that trend has continued to develop. The new crop of Bay Area acts — including J. Stalin, Shady Nate, Beeda Weeda, D-Lo, Stevie Joe — identify with their high school-age fans, whereas previous generations rapped as adults, even acts like Dre or the Mob Figaz who were still in high school when they began their careers. The generational shift might be considered in terms of the 1980s rise of crack, for whereas Dre, the Jacka, and others dealt crack as teenagers, the current crop was born at this time.

J. Stalin, for example, literally is a crack baby, and all these younger MCs grew up with crack as an established fact of life. The new vibe might be labeled "crack baby music," for this fact is explicitly if inarticulately present as a subject or theme. The anger of this generation manifests in the extreme violence of its lyrics, and the gangsta social consciousness of 2pac’s time is extremely attenuated, though not entirely gone. Its appeal to ghetto youth growing up in this appalling post-9/11 era is perfectly comprehensible. Yet despite its darkness, the current music also illustrates the resilience of this regional culture even in the face of indifference and neglect. In terms of the overall American rap world, there’s nothing quite like the Bay.