By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The first of the day’s raindrops hit my windshield as I get on the 110 and head for South L.A. on this uncharacteristically gray day. Exit Slauson, roll past the block-long graffiti mural. Didn’t take but a few minutes and I’m in the hood.
Choc Nitty’s late, of course. I’d imagine he’s out doing some gangster shit if I didn’t already know he was out getting a Christmas tree with his girl. This is the new Choc Nitty. The one who’s taking me on a mixtape tour of South-Central and the surrounding area.
So I sit down on the MC’s patio and wait, the only cracker on a street lined with cracker-box houses. Choc’s place is a small, gray residence with neatly trimmed hedges wrapped in Christmas lights, a little sleigh with a stuffed Santa in the middle of the tidy yard.
Soon enough, an adorable pint-size facsimile of Choc, though with a braided ponytail, peeks out from the door and points at the sleigh. “Santa,” he says. It’s Choc’s 2-year-old son, T.J. His older sister, 4-year-old Nyla, is the shot caller. She checks me out and gives me the okay after I slip her a piece of Hanukkah gelt: a chocolate gold coin.
I’d call to get an ETA from my host, but it’s hard to know where to call Choc. He maintains an elusive cellular profile. The number changes a lot, and I’m never sure if it’s him I’m calling. It’s a holla into the void. But you can hit him the hip with an e-mail to his Sidekick. That thing is spring-loaded, and he responds in real time. Choc Nitty is super digital. He’s a recording artist, producer and engineer who mixes his magic in a small studio in South-Central. “I’m good with hands-on,” says the self-taught player. That’s the new Choc. The old Choc Nitty’s got a darker tale to tell.
Mixtape is an art form. A movement. A lifestyle. It’s a means by which the already-there and the wanna-get-there-real-bad in the rap game prove their bona fides.
Mixtape is, of course, as old as hip-hop. In fact, in some ways, it is hip-hop. Hip-hop spread as a DIY street phenomenon whereby MCs would rap over familiar funk, soul and rock grooves mixed together by DJs and producers. Cassette tapes of these performances were sold at swap meets, out of the trunk, on street corners . . . wherever. And a nation was born.
This, however, isn’t your daddy’s mixtape. First of all, it’s not tapes, it’s CDs, and the current mixtape scene takes advantage of both modern technology — ProTools, MySpace (founder Chris DeWolfe is currently rocking Choc Nitty’s “Fresh” on his homepage) — and old-school, grassroots distribution: You still sell at swap meets, malls, underground record stores, etc. Unlike the old days, today’s mixtape artists aren’t promoting a movement; they’re promoting themselves and their particular scene within the movement. Choc and his homies are using mixtape to bring the same attention to Watts — and its emerging rappers like Jay Rock (currently on tour with the Game), Grown Mo (getting serious radio play), Guerilla Black, Glasses Malone and Hot Dollar — that has previously gone to Compton and Long Beach. And the way they do it is to reconstruct a track that’s already a hit from an established hip-hop artist and rap and/or sing over the track. It’s a way of saying, “I’m better; I’m next.” It’s also the way you establish and maintain street credibility, which is everything in rap today. As Choc says, “You gotta grind to shine.”
Kids are slanging them all over. It’s a hustle. Five bucks a pop. Hook it up or die trying. Failure is not an option.
I first met Choc Nitty, a.k.a. Tharell Gamboa, on a computer screen in the Gang Impact Team (GIT) section at LAPD’s Central Division more than a year or so ago. A detective pulled up the Snowman Cliq Web site and showed me the bio section they used to motivate the 26-year-old rapper from Watts to take a deal after they popped him for allegedly slanging rocks on Skid Row.
“I don’t know nothin’ about no polices,” Choc told me when I met him and fellow Snowman K.P. at the Pig ’n Whistle on Hollywood Boulevard, Choc’s unlikely choice of venue. He said something else about being a hustler and said he was being persecuted. They thought I was a cop for sure. But that was a long time ago, and that was the old Choc Nitty. I’ve been knowing Mr. Nitty since.
Choc finally pulls up with his baby mama/fiancée, Darnesia. Pretty, young and surprisingly conservative, Darnesia smiles politely and disappears into the house. Choc’s in top form as usual. Shiny multicolored dots form a large “9” on the front of his long-sleeved black Mechanism T-shirt. Wearing custom-made Nike Air Force Ones, big diamond earrings, Red Monkey jeans, Choc slips me a copy of his freshly ground mixtape, Around Da Clock. The CD has a picture of him shining his signature disaffected glare from under a backward, multicolor L.A. baseball cap while he flips you off. A pile of kush sits under a clock graphic, and a parental-advisory warning under the word “mixtape” .?.?. and you know I can’t wait to hear it.