[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
The plan was simple. Head to Venice Beach, sample the mixtapes hawked by the hucksters hovering near the paddle tennis courts, pick one rapper to profile for this column and avoid the Kama Kosmic Krusader, the Rollerblading guitar freak in the white turban. (You've seen him, trust.)
The boardwalk might be the last spot in L.A. County where MCs still shill the old-fashioned way: by guilt-tripping you at levels that could shame a Hasidic grandmother.
After all, it's been a half-decade since digital warehouse Datpiff and FBI pressure quelled physical mixtape distribution. Long gone are the days when I lied to my mom to take the Big Blue Bus to Venice to cop DJ Rectangle mixes and miscellaneous bootleg paraphernalia. What's left are stalwarts ignorant of the Internet, those doggedly determined to stalk fame and fortune amidst the tourists, gawkers and connoisseurs of Bob Marley T-shirts.
Or so I thought. For one thing, your average Venice Beach mixtape rapper these days is as old as Jay-Z. These aren't young strivers; these are veteran peddlers profiting from the benighted buying hand-drawn Drake sketches. (This I saw with my own eyes.)
Upon entering the gauntlet, the babble commenced. "Yo dawg, you like rap?" Their uniforms were slanted caps and jiggy-era-sized jeans and tees. Accentuating the played-out fashion was a Jheri-curled G in a puffy North Face jacket, who looked like an extra in a 112 video.
Suddenly, arms foisted headphones and CDs at me. This wasn't the chimerical hustle of Rick Ross but the braying sobriety of the diurnal grind. One man approached like I was a turkey in November.
"Yo, yo, yo, man. Where you from?"
If someone offers three "yo's" in one hello, they're either trying to sell you something or they're a self-obsessed Spanish speaker with a stutter. I volleyed the question back.
"Compton. Yo, you getta check out this music, son, it's crazy."
At least he didn't use the word "cray." He shoved a CD-R in my hand, with a plainly printed sleeve exhorting me to search YouTube for "Artistic Arsonist." Or on iTunes via "The Boss and the Don." Clearly, curiosity required that I figure out who was the boss and who was the don, so I pressed play.
From the 30-second sample, it seemed that the Artistic Arsonist stands for big balling, abhors pretend gangsters and is strongly in favor of "bad bitches." It was generic late-'90s/early-'00s West Coast gangsta rap, yet totally competent and better than Mac Miller. It would do.
"I'm writing a column for L.A. Weekly. You got a minute to talk?"
"Fo' sure. All I'm asking is a donation for that CD."
I reached into my wallet and handed him a five.
"We actually request a donation of $10."
"But I'm going to write a story on you. That's worth at least $5 of publicity. Maybe even $7.75."
"A'ight," he nodded and grabbed the Discman back. Before I could ask a follow-up question, his partner sidled up to me.
"Now that you've heard Compton, you've got to hear Watts," the sunken-eyed, charcoal-complexioned dude said.
"Nah, I'm good. Already gave your man $5."
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He flashed the "Fuck you asshole and listen" look. So I did and it was even blander mob rap. I told him that I fucked with it; we both knew I was lying. So I brushed him off to interview the head Arsonist, but he had already given me the slip in favor of the next sucker.
A basic reality of human nature was revealed: Annoy someone enough and they'll probably pay to shut you up. And at least these guys are offering product, which puts them a step above the 20-something surfer holding the sign that says, "Smile if you masturbate."
After all, Venice Beach is the end of the continent, the last orgy before outright chaos. From the beatniks to the hippies to the bums to the besandaled, everyone is here to scam or to jam. In the distance, a drum circle convulses concordant to the faintly audible groove.
I started to walk off, but turned around to see the Artistic Arsonist accepting money from a Goofus in plaid shorts and a red New York Yankees cap. As the latest mark walked away, mesmerized by the unwanted CD-R in his palm, I could see the back of his shirt. It read: "Money to Blow."