Tragedy Is at the Heart of Namebrand's No-Frills Hip-Hop
Photo by Paula Dixon
Suicide City steeled Namebrand. Your GPS knows it as the east side of Long Beach, but computerized directions can’t fathom the clan warfare that has raged there since long before Snoop Dogg introduced the world to the LBC.
“Gangbanging is like suicide or Russian roulette — once you’ve made that commitment, anytime you step outside your house, you know you might not return home,” Namebrand says, explaining “Suicide City,” the centerpiece from his Great Tape II, which drops Monday, Nov. 24.
Despite his materialistic alias, Namebrand wields a distinctly no-frills image. His videos hew to black, white and gray color schemes. A plain black tee and jeans mute his gold watch and modest necklace.
His studio in Hollywood is a second-floor fortification with few adornments: guitars, keyboards, recording equipment and a mini basketball hoop, which hosted a recent dunk contest between him and collaborator BJ the Chicago Kid.
Great Tape II is the Long Beach rapper’s first official release since his signing to Epic Records earlier this year. Alternately dreamy and grisly, it chronicles the proletarian struggles, aspirations and assassination attempts common to east-side life.
When Namebrand was in junior high, his mother sent him to live with his father in the Inland Empire. Even though he returned to Long Beach each weekend, the move broadened his tastes and ultimately kept him from affiliating with the Crip sets endemic to the neighborhood. Still, he tells the story of a narrow miss with Mexican gangbangers from the west side of Long Beach.
“Those gangs went from being ‘CK,’ Crip Killers, to being ‘NK’ — Nigga Killers,” Namebrand says. “There were a couple occasions where the bus dropped us off late from the movies and we barely escaped their bullets.”
Other family members weren’t as fortunate. An older cousin’s homicide at the hands of the Eastside Longos gang is the tragedy at the heart of “Suicide City.”
“My uncle was a preacher and begged my cousin to quit gangbanging provided he could get him a regular job,” Namebrand remembers. “But he never made it to the interview. At the scene of the crime, they found my cousin’s resume in his back pocket.”
As he mourned through music, Namebrand’s early songs made their way to legendary Carson rap polemicist Ras Kass. Becoming his first mentor, Ras took the-then teenage Namebrand on a tour with Rakim, Kid Capri and Styles P.
Shortly thereafter, a probation violation forced Ras Kass back to prison. Dream deferred, Namebrand kept his day job as a landscaper for L.A. County.
The intervening years found the rapper experimenting with styles and sounds. He found minor success fronting an electronic-rap fusion band, which nearly re-ceived a record deal from an Interscope subsidiary. When the contract failed to materialize, Namebrand doubled down on his original ambitions — recording the first G.R.E.A.T. Tape (the name is an acronym for Getting Ready to End All Troubles) and collaborating with producer Seige Monstracity.
The latter passed “Suicide City” and two other tracks along to Sha Money XL, the venerable producer behind 50 Cent’s first salvos. Several months later, Name-brand rapped them in front of L.A. Reid and the entire Epic Records staff. After the second song, the legendary record man cut him off and offered a contract on the spot. Namebrand finally quit his day job.
“With Great Tape II, I want to show people that I can really rap,” Namebrand says, a goal that he achieves via a slashing flow, stabbing wordplay and primary-colored storytelling, worthy of his first rap heroes, Ice Cube and Long Beach’s Tha Dogg Pound.
“I’m into simplicity. I’m not a flashy, over-the-top guy, but you still have to pay attention — because something bigger is coming.”
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