Gangrene Get High, So High
I just made a bad drug deal. That's what Alchemist and Oh No inform me after I exit the Pharmacy, a medical marijuana bazaar on Abbot Kinney.
"You paid $73 for this?" asks an incredulous Oh No, as the producer unscrews the lid from the Pineapple Goat strain of sativa the counter dude claimed was his preferred dope du jour.
"I also got a free T-shirt."
"Rule No. 1: Never buy anything named after a fruit or a horny animal," he insists.
"I'm not buying anything with the word goat in it," chimes in Alchemist from the backseat. "No lamb, either. Nothing blue. Definitely nothing with the word Romulan in it."
"Do you smoke Bomb Bomb?" Oh No grills me with congressional gravity.
"I buy from a friend who grows OG Kush," I respond, suddenly uncertain.
After all, one man's Bomb Bomb is another man's Kryptonite. There are weed snobs and then there are weed scientists. Alchemist and Oh No are the latter, guru smokers, stoner-rap royalty attesting to the creative properties of grass.
Oh No is the younger brother of Madlib, America's Most Blunted, the most inventive local producer of the last decade. Born and based in Oxnard, the 6-foot-4-inch 32-year-old flips Ethiopian jazz, the Willy Wonka soundtrack and Turkish psychedelia into dazzling, disorienting beats.
Alchemist received his degree in THC from B-Real of Cypress Hill, who inducted him into his Soul Assassins crew before Alchemist was of driving age.
Together they are Gangrene, two rapper-producer hybrids whose primary goal is to make the grimiest hip-hop possible. Their second album, the dope, not deep, Vodka & Ayahuasca, dropped Jan. 24. And today, their label Decon has handed them $500 to splurge on a promotional drug binge. The promotion in question being this article.
"The only catch is that we have to tweet that Decon is paying for the weed," says Oh No. (His Twitter time line reveals no such tweet.)
"It's damaged psychedelic music — the bad side of the trip," says Alchemist, directing me to a superior dispensary a few blocks away. "We're not trying to make a statement," he adds.
This is familiar terrain for the slim 34-year-old in the beanie and Diamond Supply shirt. We're a long walk from Alchemist's lab in Santa Monica and only a few miles from Beverly Hills, where he grew up, and where he rapped in a duo called the Whooliganz alongside Scott Caan (yes, the actor).
After inking a deal with Tommy Boy Records, home of De La Soul and Digital Underground, the Whooliganz released a noncharting single, "Put Your Handz Up." Soon after, the label shelved their record. But for an evanescent moment in the midst of the Cross Colours era, Alchemist was the rap equivalent of "the Swede" from Philip Roth's American Pastoral — the repository of all the hopes of adolescent Westside Jewish kids. While others were listening to Cypress Hill's "Hits From the Bong," Alchemist was taking bong rips with them.
"I smoked as much then as I do now, maybe more," Alchemist says. "B-Real always told me that he didn't advocate everyone being high all the time. But if it works for you, roll it up and pass the joint."
After graduation, Alchemist enrolled at NYU before dropping out to focus full-time on music. Bad decisions became wise, seeing that the legendary DJ Premier was his mentor. It didn't hurt that Mobb Deep, the gulliest rappers in the game, bought beats from Alchemist before he was old enough to legally drink.
Since then, he's spent the last decade forging a rep as one of the best producers of his generation and the principal heir to the '90s boom-bap throne. Alchemist has worked with both underground icons and superstars like Lil Wayne and Rick Ross. He was even briefly Eminem's tour DJ.
It's not surprising when the dispensary proprietors light up at the sight of Alchemist darting through their doors. There's no need to ask for his prescription. And with the flawless eyes of veteran jewelry appraisers, Alchemist and Oh No scoop up the ingredients for a bouillabaisse of the blunted: blocks of hash, half-ounces of Sour Diesel and Skywalker OG Kush, and "Earwax," a condensed form of THC, which I'm told can only be activated through byzantine directions fit for the assembly of a nuclear submarine.
We return to Alchemist's two-story studio, cluttered with books, vinyl and kush canisters the size of tall boy beers. One hour ago, the ground floor was wreathed with smoke, producers, rappers and a Vice camera crew. Brand-new collaborations between Alchemist and highly touted Queens rapper/gourmand Action Bronson blared at outrageous volumes. A dozen blazed heads bobbed. New York producer Araabmuzik pounded an MPC drum machine with hummingbird-rapid patterns.
In the midst of this, a renowned local rapper named Fashawn turned to me and shrugged. "Al's studio: where the wild things are."
But this isn't a Maurice Sendak novel. This is Alsterdam. A nerve center of the new underground, a zone so altered that the Organic Raw smoke-supplies company recently gave him enough weed paraphernalia to open up his own head shop.
Alchemist still splits time between L.A. and Manhattan, but for the last three years his chief residence has been this Santa Monica studio. The period has coincided with his most creatively fertile stretch, highlighted by full-length collaborations with Prodigy of Mobb Deep, Curren$y and Gangrene.
Nearly 20 years after getting his first record deal, the latter project might be his most successful endeavor. A recent video for "Vodka & Ayahuasca" received 50,000 YouTube plays in its first 24 hours. Not only did Gangrene pack their recent Amoeba in-store but they've also sold out large clubs in Russia and Switzerland.
"I'd always wanted to have my own version of [reggae legends] Sly and Robbie's studio in Jamaica, where people would show up every morning to make music," Alchemist says. "I'm not going to turn down a big check to place a beat on an album. But these days, if I make a hot beat, I'm going to give it to whomever's here and ready to go."
Over the next hour, a veritable lazy Susan of drugs spins, and Alchemist, Fashawn, Oh No and I trip out while watching a documentary on ayahuasca, the Amazonian tribal sacrament so hallucinogenic it rivals peyote and pure DMT. Gangrene bounce ideas off each other with seamless odd-couple chemistry: Oh No, linebacker-sized and laconic; Alchemist, built like a spliff and speaking rapidly. Both share a quick-witted sarcasm and restless desire to take everything higher — even if they haven't tried ayahuasca yet.
"We work constantly and take breaks smoking and bugging on all sorts of documentaries," Alchemist says. "The drugs of choice in the rap game are kind of corny these days. Lean and pills just slow you down and make you dumber. I'd much rather bring attention to ayahuasca."
The following day, I smoke with an Angeleno friend, a rapper himself, who is also no slouch in herbal understanding. When I pack the Pineapple Goat into the pipe, he takes one glance at it and asks me where I got such good weed.
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