[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
Sick Jacken sees the gas mask wherever he goes. That's the iconic emblem of Psycho Realm, the underground rap familia that he and his brother, Gustavo "Big Duke" Gonzalez, founded in the late 1980s as adolescents on the streets of Pico-Union. Since the mask was first used in the album artwork for Psycho Realm's eponymous 1997 debut, Jacken has spotted it on the streets of L.A. barrios, at his daughter's elementary school graduation, even in his parents' ancestral hometown of Mazatlan, Mexico. Its ubiquity is testament to the group's ability to transmute its experiences into sagas of the streets of any hood with shared social concerns and sense of struggle.
"We went on a tour of Mexico, and when I walked up the hill to my dad's old house, the first thing I saw was a kid waiting on the steps for his grandma," Jacken, who was born Joaquin Gonzalez, says at his three-room studio compound/tattoo parlor in an industrial park in Santa Fe Springs. "He walked over to me and says in Spanish, 'Can I show you something?' Then he picked up his pant leg and showed me the Psycho Realm tattoo."
Adorned with a 1930s gangster fedora, the logo is based on a photo by noted local photographer Estevan Oriol. To Psycho Realm fans, it's not merely a cool ghoulish image, it's a flag of undying allegiance.
Jacken's latest, Terror Tapes 2, a collaboration with fellow Pico-Union rapper Cynic, drops May 15 and builds on the connection painstakingly forged over 20 years of recording and rocking everything from Paid Dues to MEChA shows at Cal State Northridge, Big Duke's alma mater. In fact, the group's first break arrived after B-Real of Cypress Hill caught Psycho Realm at a 1994 benefit against neighborhood violence.
Soon after, the Cypress Hill star helped them get a record deal with Sony-Ruffhouse. So deep was B-Real's admiration that he even joined Psycho Realm for their debut album, before amicably stepping back to let them forge their own path. Fans flocked not merely because of Psycho Realm's ease at rapping in English and Spanish but also because it was the lone major Latin rap group chronicling the daily obstacles faced by first- and second-generation Mexican and Central Americans.
"Psycho Realm fans are as die-hard as Raiders fans. They buy the posters, the tickets and the shirts. [Jacken] is a people's champion. He'll sit and talk with his fans after the show, even have a drink with them," says legendary Cypress Hill producer DJ Muggs, who collaborated with Jacken on the high-concept conspiracies of 2007 album The Legend of the Mask and the Assassin. "[Jacken] was an avid reader as a kid and has a unique inner vision for storytelling. He's lived many years in a short time."
Jacken's story starts in Pico-Union, the largely Central American and Mexican American district near downtown, the area patrolled by LAPD's infamously crooked Rampart Division and the equally notorious 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha gangs. During the '80s and '90s, it regularly had among the highest crime and murder rates in L.A. But until the Rampart scandal broke in 1998, Psycho Realm might have been among the most prominent voices chronicling the havoc inflicted by LAPD's Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) Unit.
"They'd plant guns or drugs on homies right in front of you," Jacken says. "I knew people who got million-dollar settlements after being shot by the cops, but most of them blew it or had the money taken by their attorneys while they were in jail. The CRASH unit would do drive-bys. They'd steal cars from other neighborhoods and bring them to Pico."
Though Jacken never fell into the gang life, he could easily be mistaken for someone who had put in work, sporting all black, a menacing bald dome and sunken eye sockets that betray immense pain. That's no accident. Beyond the childhood friends lost to the streets, Jacken's brother and musical partner, Big Duke, became a quadriplegic after a 1999 shooting outside of the Original Tommy's at Beverly and Rampart. A fight had broken out moments earlier, and the elder Gonzalez had the misfortune of walking across the street at the wrong time and catching a bullet to the neck.
The shooter was apprehended and imprisoned, but the incident's impact derailed the group's career. After a year in various hospitals, the elder Gonzalez returned home to begin a lengthy recovery. Today, he runs Psycho Realm's merchandising and has begun producing other artists, but for the first several years after the shooting, a distraught Jacken lost himself in alcohol abuse.
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By the release of 2003's A War Story Book II, Jacken had regained his focus and began building the Psycho Realm brand into a mini empire, with its own merchandising, art and online promotions team. At this year's Paid Dues Festival, the gas mask's visibility was matched only by Wu-Tang and Odd Future merchandise.
Outside of the West, Psycho Realm are a niche group with a minor but fanatical fan base, but they regularly sell out shows in Mexico, Russia, Germany, Spain and South America. At home, they are proof that, even in the Internet age, legends can remain local.
"People identify because they look at us as their voice. We talk about things that affect the street and things that we've been through," Jacken says. "When we get messages from fans, it's always: 'Your music changed my life.' 'I was fucking up on the streets.' 'I thought I had no future and now I'm going to school,' or getting a job. Or 'I lost a close relative to violence and your music helped me.' I guess people use it as psychotherapy."