Transcending the game
They’ve been together for 25 years. But why is Sacramento’s legacy rap crew The CUF only celebrating 20?
N8 the GR8 remembers a pinnacle memory from his hip-hop crew’s career: Seeing their name, The CUF, beaming down at him from a Tower Records marquee.
“That was a huge deal for us. That thing ran for a minute,” said the local rapper of that moment 20 years ago.
The CUF had officially released its first CD, I Love This Game. Record stores were the primary music distributors, and Tower—particularly in Sacramento—was king. Inside the Watt Avenue location, they did an in-store performance and record signing. The name on the marquee was an unexpected bonus. The fan turnout—and rocking in-store gig—was not.
“Our fan base in Sacramento came,” he said. “They went everywhere we went. So it was just like another CUF party.”
The release show marked a new beginning for the crew. From the late ’90s to early 2000s, The CUF played 50 to 100 shows locally and nationally every year. They packed clubs with sweaty headlining gigs and opened for old-school greats like Wu-Tang Clan, Ice Cube and Run-DMC. They even met Biggie Smalls in an elevator; They’d just finished an interview with radio host Sway Calloway at KMEL in San Francisco, and Biggie was up next.
The I Love This Game CD release was particularly important: The group had inked a deal with Tower Records’ distribution company, Bayside, meaning that their music would be in Tower locations around the world.
It’s such a key moment for them, that when the group decided to do a reunion show, they made it a 20th anniversary party celebrating that release, rather than the 25th anniversary of the group’s formation. That show’s happening at Holy Diver this Saturday. They’ll take the stage in the entire original lineup, which formed in 1993: emcees Crush, Pete B, N8 the GR8, Brotha R.J. and their DJ, Mad G.
Back in the ’90s
Now, they’re seeing what they did in the music world as something historically important. Saturday marks a show where they’re looking back.
Their first album, Federal Expressions, was released on tape in 1995 or 1996, depending on who you ask. But the I Love This Game CD was special. In those days, releasing a CD was huge and often a painstaking ordeal, crucial for a music career. The record was a solid, stripped-down, lo-fi hip-hop album with lively crew flow.
Right around that time, the group started to dominate the local scene with big crowds and crazy, lose-your-shit shows. They alleged that the Press Club on P Street downtown redesigned its layout specifically to sustain the insanity.
The way they built a fan-base was distinctly ’90s-Sacramento; The CUF were a piece of a larger, highly diverse music scene, regularly playing with bands and artists of all alternative genres. Doing so, the crowd grew.
“We fit in with everyone. It was the downtown music scene at the time,” said Crush. “We will rock a metal show. We will rock a ska show.”
Early Sac stars like Brotha Lynch Hung and C-Bo were more traditional gangsta rap acts, while Gift of Gab and the Solesides scene that was bubbling in Davis were more distinctly alternative and conscious.
The CUF didn’t exactly fit in any of those camp. It was hood-adjacent, Brotha R.J. said.
“No matter what the person’s lifestyle was in the hood, they still liked it,” R.J. said. “You had people that mainly listened to gangsta rap, they would like us. You would have people that listened to rock, they would like us. The music transcended hip-hop.”
With that in mind, they referred to this Saturday’s anniversary show, specifically its diverse lineup, as a metaphor for The CUF. The other acts, all from Sacramento, include reggae band The Scratch Outs, N8’s son (and occasional CUF contributor) Nate Curry, and eclectic future-funk artist the Philharmonik.
A rowdy reunion
It’ll be The CUF’s first show in a year and a half. Before that, it was close to three, as they hadn’t been active for a while. Last year’s show wasn’t a CUF show per se, but a celebration of 20 years of DJ Larry Rodriguez’s Sunday Night Dance parties. They agreed to play the show because Rodriguez was a friend, and back in the day, he would book them all the time.
Then something funny happened. Even though the night wasn’t about The CUF, people came out to see them—a lot of people. Too many. At least 60 that showed up specifically for them were turned away at the door after the max capacity was reached.
“We got a crazy response. I didn’t expect it to be that,” N8 said.
That got the gears turning. In the last decade, The CUF’s musical output and live shows had been less frequent. Despite surprising fans with CUF Caviar Vol. 1 in 2011, and individual members staying active with other projects, there was always something special about the whole crew getting together.
“Right now, we’re at the point where we’re celebrating our legacy,” R.J. said. “It’s not no start-up-type thing. We’re not just doing a show. We’re celebrating what we have done and the memories that we have done rocking shows all over Midtown and all over Sacramento.”
That legacy is hard to put to words for people that weren’t part of the scene. They were playing rap that was simultaneously alternative and straightforward boom-bap, with energy that was punk rock but with a treatment of the genre that was rooted in respect for the architects of classic hip-hop. That’s not an entirely uncommon approach these days, but in the ’90s, it was rare.
“This is the era when hip-hop is hella gawdy. Like, motherfuckers are flashing money. We couldn’t compete with that. There was no way. At that time, it was that shit or nothing,” Pete said. “We sucked at business. We’re in it for the music. When I got into it, I was like, ’I just want to make a motherfucking tape.’ That’s all I wanted out of it.”
Their audience followed them around—and still follows them—without the help of a hit single or even releasing a critically lauded album. At the same time, much of the community that loved them gave more than support. One of the most notable people was Ebro Darden, then a college student, now a famous hip-hop DJ. He helped connect them with other influential folks and soon-to-be CUF fans.
“They say it takes a village to raise a child, and hip-hop was a child. And Sacramento was the village. We had all the people, all the players in place,” R.J. said.
When the group thinks about this upcoming show, it includes Sacramento and the scene that helped them come together. Even if they never caught on in the mainstream, the amount of people that continue to show them love is significant.
“All our shows and basically our whole movement was audience involved. It’s really not like we have fans, we just have a whole bunch of homies and they come to the shows,” R.J. said. “We’re very approachable. I think that’s why through the years people want that nostalgic feeling of how it felt when we were rocking out shows, selling out capacity, breaking records.”