Behind the steel curtain
Raekwon protégé and Sacramento emcee-on-the-rise Mean Doe Green is ready to stiff-arm hip-hop
What happens when a rapper loses his passion? Catches writer’s block? Gets sick of the game?
For Sacramento emcee Mean Doe Green, this took place a couple of years back. His 2005 album, Soul on Fire, made a name for Green, so he commanded good money to rap and was appearing as a guest on all sorts of hip-hop tracks. But the fire was gone.
“I felt like a robot at one point. I really felt like I was just doing this to pay my bills,” explains Green (called Doey Rock at the time). He actually even started turning down paying gigs. “I can shit rhymes out. It’s easy. It’s nothing to me. That’s not why I got into it.
“I got into it to express myself.”
Green has always been driven by a unique confidence. Rewind back to 1996: “I meet Raekwon the Chef, we smoke a blunt and get in the booth,” Green recalls of his first encounter with the Wu-Tang Clan legend. Back then, Raekwon was a 26-year-old star, and the younger Green, only 19, was indeed green—but relaxed and self-assured.
“It was kind of like, ‘Either you do this right now or you can just sell T-shirts for Wu-Tang Clan,’” Green says of his big break. So, what happened?
“I got in the booth and ripped it up.”
Fourteen years later, Green is on Raekwon’s Ice H20 Records and has a hit single. It’s a huge accomplishment, but it wasn’t easy. Growing up in south Sacramento’s Elder Creek neighborhood, starting a family at 17, “rapper’s block”—Green’s overcome adversity all his life. Like his namesake, 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive lineman “Mean Joe” Greene, Mean Doe is a rap juggernaut. A hip-hop steel curtain.
But he’s also a self-described nice guy. A father who cares about his kids. An innovative artist, whose new album Mind Candy Re-wrapped is spinning heads. “People think I’m a big, rough-tough guy. And, yeah, I can beat a few people up,” Green says, talking “real talk,” as he calls it, eyes peering out from beneath the bill of his San Francisco Giants New Era cap. “But at the end of the day, I just want to live. I want to be easy.”
Born in Phoenix, Mean Doe Green moved to the Sacramento area as a young kid. He flew through the public schools; “[Clayton B.] Wire, Will C. Wood and [Hiram] Johnson,” Green remembers.
His dad was in the Air Force, but wasn’t a big force in Green’s life. “I’m the only man in my family,” he says. Green’s mom is from Arkansas and instilled a strong appreciation for Southern cooking.
Green grew up an introvert. He never joined the Creek Mob, his Elder Creek neighborhood’s gang, but was cool with them. He had had other interests: playing football for school, playing basketball for fun. And music.
One day, a cousin bought Green a copy of KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary, featuring the track “My Philosophy,” which hooked Green. But he was a late bloomer; Green says he was “always able to perform in front of a crowd” but that, in spite of meeting Raekwon in 1996, didn’t “seriously” get into performing rap until 2003.
Besides, he had other responsibilities: At age 17, his girlfriend got pregnant, and their parents kicked them out into the real world.
“But we thugged it out,” says Green, who moved into a Midtown apartment near 14th and D streets with his kid and then-girlfriend, now wife. He remembers walking his son to Washington Elementary School through Alkali Flat and realizing his kids “weren’t going to grow up” there. Because Green knew trouble. He knew the hood. He’d seen people killed, shot up with machine guns at the park or jumped while playing hoops. “Wild shit,” he calls it.
Now, he lives in Elk Grove with his wife, son and two daughters. He doesn’t have to work a real job, but that doesn’t mean he’s not working his ass off. “I’ll do anything to keep the grass green around my kids,” says Green. “If I never make it nowhere as a rapper and I die in Elk Grove, cool.”
Nowadays, it looks like Green is poised to break through in the hip-hop world. Sipping a purple Maibock beer at a brewery in Midtown and sporting a black shirt and white watch, Green, 34, says that changing his rap name from “Doey Rock” to “Mean Doe Green”—he was born Halladie Oden—was the start.
“I’m three different people all the time. I’m even three different people to my kids,” he explains. It didn’t hurt, too, that Raekwon urged him to change his moniker.
“Raekwon, he’s never liked ‘Doey Rock,’” Green says. Raekwon always calls him “Jonathan Doe.”
So Doey changed his name to Mean Doe Green. It can be difficult for an established artist or band to switch names, but the transition was uniquely seamless for Green—thanks to Pitchfork.
Last month, on May 28, Green woke up to an explosion: His song “Sunset Strip,” which pal Raekwon raps on, made its way onto the popular website. And, like dominoes, the track was reposted on numerous other music blogs; a Google search brings up never-ending results.
“I didn’t even know about Pitchfork. That shit was the biggest shit ever,” Green admits. In fact, he says rappers here are so behind—stuck on XXL, The Source, Nah Right, DatPiff—that no one in Sacto understood what “Sunset Strip” appearing on the Pitchfork website actually meant.
In short: It was a game changer for Mean Doe Green. (It also didn’t hurt that “Sunset Strip” is a tight jam; see a review of the track and Mind Candy here.)
Yet with every high, there are lows. The day before a gig at Harlow’s earlier this month, Green’s older sister Toni passed away.
He wanted to cancel the show—Green wasn’t close to his sister, but they grew up together and he watched her struggle with sickle cell anemia for years. And his sister’s passing was hard on his mom; “You’re never supposed to bury your kids,” Green says.
Her death was sad. And stressful. He needed a release, so he played the gig.
After opening performances by Chris Cali, Swiff and C-Plus, Mean Doe Green hit the stage wearing a black T-shirt with the name “Toni” emblazoned in white letters across the chest. His new band—unlike most rappers, Green performs with a live group, now featuring Wesley Avery on guitar, Arty Fresh on bass and D.J. on drums—kicked it off and Green, standing at stage front, did what he does best: rap.
And, just like that first time in the booth with Raekwon, he ripped it up.
“Someone just sent me a picture, and I was smiling like a motherfucker,” Green remembers, with a friendly growl, of his Harlow’s performance. “And I never really smile like that onstage. It was just a serious release of energy.”
His new Mind Candy sound goes against the usual Sacramento rap vibe, whether it’s gangster (think C-Bo, T-Nutty), radio-friendly (J. Gib, Bueno), underground (the CUF) or even backpack. Green was always “in awe” of rockers, and the album espouses a grittier hip-hop style apropos of such divergent artists as Linkin Park, Nas and the Fugees. The track “He Say, She Say,” featuring rock-inspired production by Yuck Mouth, is one such example.
Mind Candy’s production began in March ’09 and dropped last week on Green’s label, Industrial Works; local legend Chuck Taylor designed the cover art. And Green’s almost finished with a self-titled follow-up, Mean Doe Green, featuring beats by locals Hippie Sabotage and Nicatyne, which will drop on Raekwon’s label this August.
Green learned a lot last year while hanging with Raekwon in Los Angeles during the recording of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II, helping mentor his mentor’s latest protégés and cooking breakfast for the crew every single morning (What does Raekwon eat in the a.m.? “Turkey bacon, turkey sausage, eggs and potatoes—that’s just the basics.”)
In fact, if Green wasn’t a rapper, he says he’d go to culinary-arts school.
Don’t bet against his raps, though. “I’m not trying to make a song, a radio song. I’m just coming from my heart,” Green says. “This new music, it’s gonna wake their asses up.”