DJ Quik: Trials and Tribulations of a West Coast Legend
The arrows of the Almighty are within me. —Job 6:4
David Blake is the name. Quik is the legend. Job is the parable.
Choose your cycle: the bloodbath of crack-era Compton, the warfare with siblings and rap rivals, the accidental tragedies and closed-casket funerals, the vodka bottles and the label squabbles, the traumas witnessed and the reverberations absorbed.
Like most redemption stories worth telling, this one starts with the lowest point: solitary confinement in the West Valley Penitentiary, where for most of the sweltering summer of 2006 DJ Quik contemplated the cruel arc of his rise and fall.
This wasn't supposed to happen. Twenty years ago, Quik was the Piru Blooded G-Funk pioneer: a Jheri-curled, Compton-hatted, gangsta rap Apollo. He called himself "America'z Most Complete Artist" and had the chops to prove it. He produced, engineered, rapped and played guitar and keyboards. Swagger like Superfly, funk like Roger Troutman, the fearless adrenaline of Eazy-E. In fact, Eazy, the original gangsta, even offered Quik a million bucks to come to Ruthless Records. That gambit left Profile Records so shook up that it sent cease-and-desist letters to protect Quik, its biggest artist since Run-DMC.
But those days were deader than a Discman. Instead, it was the weightless chaos of the void. Naked walls, relentless voltage and cells rattling all night. "I was worried about going irreversibly crazy," Quik says a half-decade later, in his two-story North Hollywood studio, sipping almond Champagne in a Papa Smurf shirt.
That was the punishment for allegedly pistol-whipping his sister in November 2003, a case that earned him a five-month sentence. Quik denies the gun charge but admits to slapping her for threatening to kidnap his children.
"I snapped and blacked out. My schizophrenic sister had convinced her sons to extort $2 million from me or they were going to kidnap and kill my children. I love my kids. It went too far," Quik says.
His staggering successes and emotional bankruptcies disintegrated in the abrasive sun of the San Fernando summer, when an ashen, emaciated Quik was marched into the yard, where inmates plotted his demise, hoping to get a rep before being shipped to the federal pen.
"I waited for them to fuck with me, but they never followed up. I'm not badass, but I ain't gonna take shit from anyone. How am I gonna let someone take my manhood?" Quik speaks like he raps: fast, raw, with agile chord changes.
Becoming a peacemaker, Quik taught prisoners solitaire, practiced yoga and read Deepak Chopra, who allayed his anxiety. Somewhere during those 150 days, Quik started to pen a memoir of his 36 years.
"After a few days, I realized that I'd been subjugating horrible things that had happened since childhood," Quik says. "Every memory was a different trauma. I wondered how I survived."
At destruction and famine thou shalt laugh.
"You can't come through Compton and not know where the bones are buried," Quik says, cruising Tree Top Piru territory in his Mercedes S550.
Quik joined the Bloods as a teenager. He was never formally initiated, but his brains and rising profile made him a set leader. Until the 1965 Watts riots, Compton had been a bedroom community of aerospace workers and Pleasantville street signs. Cedar Street. Cherry Street. Oleander Avenue. But when crack and sherm (PCP's street name) hit, the neighborhood became what Quik calls "Beirut in the suburbs." Kids from blocks named after trees became Tree Tops. A stone's throw north, the Fruit Town Pirus hold things down. Due south are Tree Top's rivals, the Palmer Blocc Crips, who control the blocks leading to Centennial High.
Spruce Street is narrow, and the squat, crooked bungalows sit so close that they seem melted together. On a nearby corner is the church where Quik prayed alone at age 9. His .22 caliber ammunition is still buried in the palm tree that he used to shoot for target practice. There's the back house where he took a friend's girlfriend's sister's virginity.
Quik's old home has been in permanent disrepair since his mom sold it and moved to Louisiana in 1987. He is the youngest of 10 children; his memories are stained by drive-by shootings when older sisters messed with the wrong guys, being bullied by siblings, an older brother turned crack zombie. He met his dad, a member of the Borden Dairy family, twice. Quik remembers a "smart motherfucker who looked just like me."
Music was instinctive. When he was 2 years old, his sisters bet their boyfriends they could pick any song from their mother's record collection and the baby Blake could find and play it. During thunderstorms, his mother could console him only with Curtis Mayfield records. At 12, Blake learned synth, joined a funk band and deejayed school dances. Jobs weren't readily available but drugs were, so he sold scum to buy $149 turntables at the Compton Circuit City.
"He was always quick. He taught himself to scratch, play instruments and engineer. But he also studied the music," says longtime collaborator Kai McDonald (K.K. of 2nd II None). "Even in the seventh grade, Quik was reading album credits and memorizing who played what."
When Quik was 17, the family's house went into foreclosure. "My sisters wanted a pool and refinanced. The mortgage tripled. With no job, my mom bounced to Louisiana and left me with my sisters. They sure as hell didn't want me," Quik laughs.
Am I a sea, that thou settest a watch over me?
In 11th grade, Quik dropped out of high school and started recording with 2nd II None and Penthouse Players Clique, both of whom later went gold over Quik's Olde English groove. By '88, the West Coast had shifted from electro-rap to N.W.A's semi-automatic menace. Compton became the world's most infamous mailing address, and suburban schools banned Raiders jackets.
Selling homemade cassettes out of his trunk, Quik & Co. dominated from the CPT to North Pasadena. Profile Records offered a $125,000 advance to press 1991's platinum-selling Quik Is the Name. He followed it up with three more stellar records that went gold despite no East Coast radio play.
"No one used such unique chords and brought such musicality," says DâM-FunK, the Stones Throw–signed modern funk vanguard, who has performed at the perennially sold-out Quik's Grooves concert series. "He was affiliated but intelligent, and it bled through into his sunny and sinister music. He's like Quincy Jones — everyone's favorite."
From the old KDAY to its new incarnation, Quik has remained in local radio rotation for 20 years. With its stoned, sunbaked slink, his sound intuitively mimics the city's pulse. It was sculpted on the rhinestone-studded freeway funk of Roger Troutman and George Clinton, but Quik took it deeper, adding acid-jazz, scratched hooks and Compton hunger.
He remains a restless experimentalist, resistant to popular trends, keeping the simple goal of writing extraordinarily funky songs about everyday realities: getting fucked up, having sex, arguing with simpletons. He's a hood hero and a wine connoisseur; a motorcycle daredevil who identifies with Jim Morrison but bought a Jetta with his first advance.
Quik's the mad scientist flipping a Food Network theme into a Moroccan pimp anthem and the lyricist who shredded Compton rival MC Eiht on "Dollaz + Sense." He's worked with space-age pimps, New Jack Swingers, Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z and Shaquille O' Neal. He created the clap and the kick drums for 50 Cent's "In Da Club" and served time at Death Row, mixing 2Pac's All Eyez on Me in 48 hours on a vodka and Bidi cigarette binge.
But his first single was "Born and Raised in Compton" and the bones of too many childhood friends are buried in a Moorish mausoleum towering above the stucco roofs of Compton.
"I get the heebie-jeebies here," Quik says, parking near the Angeles Abbey Memorial.
Quik missed Eazy-E's funeral and nearly canceled a tour after Michael Jackson's death. He keeps a running inventory of the fallen. Other memories that haunt him: watching his manager and best friend get shot by Quik's meth-ravaged nephew; the child pedestrian he accidentally ran over and killed in the late '90s; the 2000 murder of Quik's 21-year-old protégé, Mausberg. And its aftermath, when he was so distraught that he attempted a flying Christ on his Harley and was flung onto PCH.
Three women dressed in black, clutching carnations, interrupt this reflection. Temporarily suspending their funeral plans, one creeps 3 inches away from Quik and gives him the boy-you-looking-good treatment, thrice over.
Traffic stops and soon a dozen people are posing for photos and smoking blunts. The party continues at the auto shop down the street. Quik is the approachable legend. So he lingers, burns, exchanges neighborhood news, kisses babies.
Meanwhile, the Compton Security Enforcement Code lurks outside. When Quik leaves, they gruffly attempt interrogations. But no one talks. So they berate a photographer for shooting pictures of a man with the key to the city.
"Either write tickets or let them go. We ain't got all day and you can't do shit," yells a tatted-up fullback in a wifebeater. Then he nods toward Quik, "They can't do nothing to your boy. They're like meter maids on steroids. That dude's failed the police test four times."
Quik is ticketed for parking in the red: $85. Compton has a Starbucks and BBQ joints that serve tacos, too, but some things are immutable. "You had to see that to see Compton. That's why we felt oppressed and the music was so angry," Quik says, quite calmly. "Every time we had fun, the cops fucked with us. We have to hide when we have a good time."
Later that night, Quik receives a text that his friend in the wifebeater has been arrested in Compton for possession of an illegal firearm.
Slingstones are turned into stubble.
Quik once bragged that he lives so high up in the hills that he doesn't have maids, he has flight attendants. It's a mild exaggeration. For the last three years, he's lived a half-mile above Woodland Hills, with three children, a Pomeranian and a 180-degree view of the sort one usually sees only on HBO's Entourage. But rather than bask in his legendary status, he's in the midst of a renaissance, still grinding West Coast gangsta rap into unseen forms, experimenting with everything from ring modulators to state-of-the-art studio tools that make new sounds seem old.
His latest record, The Book of David, is his finest in a dozen years, and one of the year's best. Though it has sold less well than its predecessor, it has received the most critical attention he's ever been given outside of traditional hip-hop circles. Spin described it as emerging "from an incredible year that never existed."
In April, youth-skewing and notoriously finicky Pitchfork gave Quik's album a coveted spot on its "Best New Music" list, declaring: "Unencumbered by commercial expectations, Quik is making some of the most inventive music of his career."
Quik's self-described "blackout spells of creativity" have been frequent. He's seen a therapist who diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he has consciously drained those with negative energy from his life.
Yet even as he evolves into a wise Boddhisattva O.G., Quik hasn't lost his caustic wit or creative eccentricities. The death wish is gone, but the penchant for risk remains. And on any given day, he can still qualify as "America'z Most Complete Artist." The music is flowing so freely that he didn't even feel the need to write down rhymes on his last record.
"I'm not even really sampling anymore and I didn't need to write down lyrics because I feel like they slow me down. I'm always looking for new parts for my spaceship," Quik says, still racing. "An interviewer recently asked me if I was still doing this for the money. I never did this for the money. I did this because I love music and that's what I'm chosen to do." "At destruction and famine thou shalt laugh": DJ Quik
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