Sacramento’s bad rap

A recent shooting outside a local venue resurrects negative attitudes about hip-hop music. Are they justified?

Michael Colen, a.k.a. First Degree The D.E, was around when hip-hop first arrived in Sacramento. “When rap started, it was about uplifting a people,” he remembered. But it quickly devolved …

Michael Colen, a.k.a. First Degree The D.E, was around when hip-hop first arrived in Sacramento. “When rap started, it was about uplifting a people,” he remembered. But it quickly devolved …

Cars crunch to a halt in the gravel parking lot of a closed automotive repair shop. It’s nearing 8 p.m. on a Friday as the occupants dare roadkill status by crossing the darkened boulevard, past swelling headlights, to their true destination: The Boardwalk.

From the outside, the venue doesn’t look like much. It’s a pale blue shack lit by street-lamp fluorescence, posted on the outskirts of eastern Sacramento County. But on this mild March night, the aging roadhouse in suburban Orangevale has drawn dozens of pilgrims to one of the few local stages brandishing hip-hop music.

It’s not quite the middle of nowhere, but it’s close enough.

Sacramento rap music and its practitioners are under a microscope because of an unfortunate series of events on February 20. That night, Los Angeles-based rapper Nipsey Hussle performed to a capacity crowd at Ace of Spades, downtown Sacramento’s flagship concert venue. As the show emptied out into R Street, gunfire erupted, injuring four. It marked the second time in four months that a local Nipsey concert ended in chaos.

“We’re embarrassed about it and feel terrible about it,” Bret Bair, who co-owns Ace of Spades, told SN&R days after the shooting.

While police have yet to identify a shooter or motive, blame quickly hopscotched from the venue to the Crips-associated Nipsey to rap music itself.

Pressured by neighboring businesses along R Street’s gentrifying corridor, Ace canceled several rap shows by big-name artists and nostalgia acts alike.

Despite assurances to the contrary, a broad brush has again painted a bull’s-eye around Sacramento’s diverse hip-hop community, the latest flashpoint in a weary culture war tinged by race, age and money.

“This incident has given the old guard an excuse [to crack down on rap],” observed Black Market Records co-founder Cedric Singleton, one of the architects of Sacramento’s hardcore rap boom in the 1990s. He says he doesn’t get it. “There have been so many [rap] shows here, and the only one we talk about is the one where someone got shot.”

Then again, rap music has always been on trial in Sacramento.

The tone was set early, by X-Raided, who dropped albums from behind bars after getting implicated in a murder. Decades later, authorities are using videos, uploaded by aspiring rappers to YouTube, to build gangland prosecutions. And the local artists who do want to make it big have learned one truth: Get the hell out of Sacramento.

Meanwhile, even a new generation of hip-hop kids pushing rap in positive directions can’t escape Sacramento’s black-sheep reputation. This bias could drive the expressive art form back underground, just as it was starting to ascend.

One of Sacramento’s premier rappers, Task1ne, says he’s concerned. “I’m kind of nervous about what happened at the Nipsey Hussle show,” he said, “because I remember when it was borderline impossible to perform hip-hop in Sacramento.”

A history of violence

Three decades ago, Sacramento icons the Triple Threat Three and the Royal Mixxers & Rappin’ Crew heralded the arrival of an emerging musical genre that passed its mic to society’s overlooked. “When rap started, it was about uplifting a people,” said Michael Colen, better known as First Degree The D.E., a ‘90s artist who now runs The Fahrenheit Record, a hip-hop blog and news site. “That’s what rap is.”

The music was also a way for people from troubled communities to reflect truths that society at large ignores. Poverty, violence, drugs—these quickly became the themes of Sacramento’s rap music scene.

But the line between exposing these realities and glorifying them quickly faded.

In 1992, Anerae Veshaughn Brown, a.k.a. X-Raided, bronzed the 916’s hardcore image with his debut album, Psycho Active. He received a morbid publicity boost from his real-world involvement in the home-invasion killing of a Meadowview woman. Singleton’s label continued to release X-Raided albums even after Brown was incarcerated.

In those early days, Sacramento differentiated itself from other rap scenes thanks to an ultraviolent and sometimes surrealistic bent in the music. “It was definitely a unique form of rap,” Singleton said. “It separated us from what was going on in the Bay Area.”

At the center of the hardcore era was the profoundly weird (or weirdly profound) Brotha Lynch Hung, a.k.a. Kevin Mann.

Like many of his peers, he sharpened his skills at John F. Kennedy High School, a proving ground for aspiring talent during the mid- and late-1980s, according to Colen. But it wasn’t until people from outside of Sacramento took an interest that the budding scene left high school.

One of those non-native pioneers was Singleton, who relocated from Ohio in the early 1980s to attend Sacramento State. After college, he co-founded Black Market, the town’s first official rap label. His most successful partnership was with Brotha Lynch.

The rapper painted a bloody collage of life in Sacramento, spitting his delirious rhymes like a shotgun scatters buckshot, and attaining a touch of the mainstream chart success that his contemporaries lacked with 1992’s 24 Deep and 1995’s Season of Da Siccness.

Black Market’s instant notoriety as a label helped spark a productive era for local artists, who guested on each other’s albums, no matter what upstart label was putting it out. “That’s why it worked,” said Colen, who published a three-part retrospective on Sacramento’s hip-hop history on his blog. “It crumbled when we thought we could do it on our own.” The scene eventually tripped over Behind the Music-style beefs about money and egos.

Violence played a role, too, and minted a reputation that looms over today’s artists.

In addition to X-Raided, local Crips-repping rapper Mr. Doctor got time for a retaliatory shooting. Death Trap Records founder Dalvin Pipkins was busted for ramming a cop car while high. Triple Sicx was convicted of child molestation. And Black Market star Big Lurch went away for killing his roommate—and eating parts of her body during a PCP-related freakout. Yeah, that happened.

Today, 23-year-old Citrus Heights rapper Dylan Phillip professes much love for his forbears, but worries Sacto’s hardcore-rap roots and anti-industry message might still be scaring off influential tastemakers. “If that’s the kind of energy you’re putting out, I feel like it’s returned to you,” he said.

Singleton says he outgrew the drama.

“If you want to be in the music business, you have to be off the streets,” he explained. Today, his label dabbles in blues and gospel recordings. “You really can’t have both. You either have to choose the music or you have to choose the streets.”

Some Sacramento rappers are still learning that lesson.

Today’s gangs of Sacramento

In a 2005 blog post written while in prison, X-Raided reflected on what attracted him to Sacramento’s nascent rap scene. It was a few bars in an otherwise forgettable song the then-15-year-old had heard while in juvenile hall for gang-related activities. Local product Homicide rapped about participating in drive-by shootings, going to jail and, ultimately, dying young.

“Homicide spoke of my world,” X-Raided wrote. “He touched me.”

A quarter-century later, history is repeating itself in the local rap world.

Today, Singleton says he thought underground local rappers Lavish D and Mozzy were capable of bringing back the hardcore gangster rap scenes of the ’90s. “They were really good. They were probably the best at it,” he said of Mozzy in particular. But the two rappers are also rivals. “Problem is, they keep going to jail.”

The latest act in this drama is playing out in a Sacramento County courtroom.

During an October 24 preliminary hearing, Judge Patrick Marlette ordered Donald Oliver, a.k.a. Lavish D, and three other defendants to answer for numerous felony charges that have been packaged into one gangland prosecution.

The four men are associated with the Starz Up gang of south Sacramento, which has beefed with main rivals the Oak Park Bloods for years. The latest skirmish sparked in early 2014 with several shootings. Authorities traced the bad blood to online rap videos produced by both sides. The YouTube videos are now acting as witnesses for the prosecution.

“A lot of what was being done that was causing problems was rap videos on YouTube, and they had been going back and forth,” Detective Joseph Ellis of the Sacramento Police Department’s gang unit said during pretrial testimony.

In one particular video, “I’m Just Being Honest,” Bay Area rapper Philthy Rich and the Oak Park Bloods’ house band, Mozzy, insinuate that his gang is responsible for the recent deaths of two Starz members. The group’s Timothy Patterson, or Lil Tim, gets personal from the opening lines: “Lav never got a body. I’m just being honest. They say Jakie died and we popped him. I’m just being honest.”

It’s not a particularly catchy hook, but it did the trick.

On March 15, 2014, Sacramento police say a group of about 10 men, all associated with Starz Up, arrived at Arden Fair Mall. The purpose of the visit was so Lavish D could shop for his son’s birthday. By chance, the main group spotted Billydee Smith, a validated Oak Park Bloods gang member, and followed him into the Footaction shoe store. According to Ellis, who reviewed mall security video of the incident, the Starz members crowded Smith into a corner. Several members then allegedly lunged at Smith, bringing him to the ground and throwing punches and kicks.

Local rapper Task1ne says he nervous because of violence associated with a local rap gig. “I remember when it was borderline impossible to perform hip-hop in Sacramento.”

According to the Ellis’ arrest warrant, two mall security guards intervened “within seconds” and everyone—perpetrators and victim—scattered.

But a cellphone video of the stomping, allegedly filmed by Lavish D, was uploaded to his YouTube accounts under the title “30 Boiz responds to Philthy Rich im jus being honest.” (30 Boiz is an alternate name that Starz members sometimes use, Ellis wrote in his warrant.)

Despite having an uncooperative victim in Smith, prosecutors successfully consolidated the assault case with other cases against the young men, including gun possession charges for Lavish D, who is being portrayed as the Starz’s leader.

With the gang-enhancement allegations that prosecutors are levying, any sustained counts could bring serious prison time for all involved. A trial date was tentatively set for April 1.

This is all déj&#;agrave; vu for Singleton, who was there for X-Raided’s murder case and knows the particulars in this simmering beef. “I know both sides of those cliques. … I’ve known these guys for years. I knew their dads,” he said. “No one profits from it.”

He said he’s tried to play peacemaker, telling both sides that they’re good enough to make it on their music alone. But the aspiring rappers keep getting pulled back into the life. “There is a pressure that living in a [certain] neighborhood provides,” he said. “These young men, at an early age, are trying to fend for themselves.”

After the mall attack went viral, gang detectives responded to two homicides and multiple shootings, with at least one of those homicides connected to the dispute. The violence has calmed, but there’s a lingering fear that it’s simply waiting on the next provocation.

In July, for instance, Philthy Rich canceled performances at Ace of Spades and Blue Lamp when online threats of possible gang violence reached authorities.

Leaving the 916

Tyler Maciel-Todd is growing tired of the gangster-rapper cliché.

“There’s this really fucked-up misconception that the only good rappers” are forged in violent, urban neighborhoods, that “this is their expression,” he said.

The 22-year-old belongs to a loose community of hip-hop artists coming up in today’s Sacramento—rappers who can definitely flow, experiment with soundscapes and production, hustle their brand tirelessly on social media, but don’t front that banger lifestyle that rap critics too often conflate with the genre.

Maciel-Todd performs as TIP Vicious and recently hooked up with Sparks Across Darkness to form the hip-hop collective Precipice. His onetime Rosemont High School classmates include east-area rappers Andre Elix and Dre-T, who runs a monthly open mic night for spoken word artists at Sol Collective, which just launched a record label at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival.

What unites these artists is their fiery ambition and social conscience.

“There is a generation of young, hungry dudes who are filling our shoes,” said Mic Jordan, a veteran local rapper who could teach a course on making it in the hip-hop game.

A decade ago, when Jordan first started out, the music industry was in serious flux. Today, the national market for hip-hop is contracting and leaning toward pop-oriented acts, like Nicki Minaj, Macklemore and Drake. “Hip-hop is going the way of jazz,” Jordan said.

While Sacramento has no dearth of aspiring creators, Jordan says the city does lack a rap-music infrastructure to carry their creations into other markets. Managers, marketers, entertainment lawyers and others in a support capacity. “That’s what Sacramento is missing,” he said. “That’s why we don’t have an entertainment market and we have a scene.”

The homegrown hip-hop and rap artists who have made careers out of their art did so by leaving the 916.

The most famous example is Blackalicious. Producer Lee Bannon went on a world tour and never came back, Jordan said. Task1ne and Gatlin have both found rewards on the road. Chuuwee is currently on a national tour. And, of course, there’s Death Grips.

“If I could go back and do anything different, I would’ve spent more time out of the city. Not out of a lack of love,” Jordan explained. “The market is too small.”

Others have left for different reasons.

To find the Sacramento he once knew, Colen has been traveling 600 miles north of town and a quarter-century back in time. That’s what the Tacoma, Wa., area fees like to Colen, who “spent years trying to revitalize” the scene here in the 916, without success. But up north, Colen said he’s found emerging hip-hop artists to mentor in an environment that doesn’t yet know what it has.

“Tacoma is like Sacramento was back in the ’80s,” he said. “And, you know, there’s nothing like that first time.”

Music venues as scapegoat

A modest audience fleshes out the basement décor of Blue Lamp, with its charcoal walls of plaster and brick. An atmospheric lamp squirts maraschino-cherry hues above the solo bartender. The 40 or so people who paid $5 online or $10 at the door have assembled for one reason above all others: live rap music.

An astonishing 11 acts crowd the Wednesday night show, billed as the Can’t Stop Me Now tour. The first act, a trio of youngsters, performs only one song, marrying their lyrics to the music and chorus of RZA’s insidiously catchy “You Can’t Stop Me Now.”

As the group’s third member, a heavyset dude in baggy pastel shorts, moves center stage, he halts the track. “Hold on!” he yells. “I want to thank you all for supporting lyricists in this motherfucker. I know some of you all got work tomorrow.”

The crowd—mostly young and black—whoops knowingly.

Blue Lamp was one of the few venues that didn’t turn its back on hip-hop when a freak shooting at a Rancho Cordova spot scuttled the scene in 2009, said Task1ne, and it doesn’t seem to be backing away now.

But the music needs its anchor venue, artists say. And right now, Ace of Spades is skittish.

“We’re definitely getting pressure from neighboring businesses,” co-owner Bair said. “If we can’t do hip-hop, we’re losing a [significant] revenue source.”

Consider the acts the venue has already shelved, like The Game’s March 25 appearance and a hip-hop throwback tour that appeals to khaki-fitted Gen Xers. More recently, a March 20 makeup date for Spice 1 and Richie Rich was scrubbed from the schedule. Hip-hop artist Mike Stud’s Ace of Spades gig was booted to Harlow’s. Mod Sun’s March 24 Look Up Tour date—with openers Dillon Cooper, Blackbear, KR, Karizma and DJ Gnash—was exiled to The Boardwalk, also owned by Bair and partner Eric Rushing.

Other hip-hop shows at other venues have also been scuppered. There’s no reason to apply such a broad stroke, say Phillip and others.

Ben Dewey, who books talent at The Press Club, is one of several people who said trouble can be avoided simply by paying attention to the music. “When I booked hip-hop shows in the past, I made sure to listen to all the acts,” he said. “If you book an openly white-power band, white-power people are going to show up.”

Which raises the question about whether this whole thing could have been avoided in the first place. Four months before his Ace of Spades performance, on October 17, Nipsey Hussle appeared at the Assembly Music Hall on K Street. A brawl broke out and a cop got punched. Two cars swapped gunfire a block away.

Bair said he and his partners would scrutinize future artists more closely, possibly excluding anyone with a questionable gang past. (Heads up, Snoop.)

That would certainly have a domino effect. “We kind of inherit any issues that any venue is facing,” said Fornati Kumeh of ENT Legends, a local talent booker that helped facilitate the Nipsey show.

Rapper Torrey Tee considers Ace of Spades his favorite venue at which to perform, saying it gained him fans he never expected. He has no doubt what Ace’s retraction means for local artists like him, “trying to push positive” in his career. “It does make it harder for me to do something in the future,” he said. If Ace of Spades pulls back, he added, “that cuts off an outlet for us to shine.”

Phillip agreed. “It hurts, because it was the only venue that can hold 1,000 people-plus that we can perform at,” he said. “When was the last time that you heard a Sacramento artist perform at Sleep Train?”

He thinks this shift in policy could also steer A-list talent away from Sacramento, which had been experiencing a surge in top-tier acts like E-40 and SchoolBoy Q.

It would be more than just inconvenient.

“The more major-league artists [that play locally], the better chances that we have of a major-league artist actually emerging from here,” Phillip said.

Back inside Blue Lamp’s dank hull, Andre Elix doffs the black ski mask he wore as a goof and polishes off his set with an a capella verse that draws an enthusiastic high-five from Mr. G, a verbally dexterous rapper in his own right.

With a break in the action, the emcee tries out “you know you’re from Sac” jokes. Apparently, having a buddy who pees in the Adalberto’s drive-thru while you’re waiting on late-night nachos is a tell. Then, the emcee introduces the next act.

A mic is passed. A beat gets dropped. Sharp cheers nearly overtake the words to the first song.