"If you go into the wild, you don't try to tickle the grizzly bears," advises the rapper-actor–Ursus arctos horribilis known as Xzibit.
For eight years, the West Coast hip-hop legend has been besieged almost daily by well-meaning fans expecting the genial genie from his MTV show Pimp My Ride — a wish-fulfillment fantasy program that ran from 2004 to 2007 and tricked out its guests' whips with everything from televisions to bowling ball spinners. Its success introduced Xzibit to a white, bro-heavy audience unfamiliar with his searing, heartfelt raps. An early Internet meme circulated his smiling face accompanying some variation of the phrase: "Yo dawg, I heard you like cars, so we put a car in your car so you can drive while you drive."
"I can usually deflect it or grin and bear it, but I'm human," Xzibit says, speaking from his spacious studio in an inconspicuous office park in Chatsworth, a few miles from his Porter Ranch home.
It's a windy late-October afternoon — a good day for Alvin Joiner, born 38 years ago in Detroit. He's candid and funny, laughing in the room where he recorded last month's Napalm, his seventh album and first since 2006. There are plasma televisions, as well as platinum and gold plaques, for his hard-boiled orchestral debut, "Paparazzi," and the Dr. Dre–executive-produced Restless, respectively. Swisher Sweet smoke decorates the air. Xzibit sits in front of a high-powered production console, dressed in classic vintage: leather jacket, crisp jeans, spotless Chuck Taylors. His braids are gone, exchanged for a fresh lineup cut.
"People perceive me as this jokey Internet meme and when they treat me like that in person, sometimes I shit on them," he continues.
With contrition and bemusement, he tells a story about a sandwich artist who loudly asked if he could pimp his hoopty. Xzibit responded: "Shut the fuck up and make me my sandwich."
If you're reading this, Subway employee, consider this your apology. But what would you do if you were constantly expected to stomach corny lines when you're just trying to order a roast beef foot long?
But no one who heard Xzibit's first two underground gems, At the Speed of Life and 40 Dayz & 40 Nightz would mistake him for a Care Bear. On the memorable hook from 1996's poignant coming-of-age narrative "Carry the Weight," he growled: "You wonder why I sit up in the club and drink/say what's up to Xzibit and I still don't speak/I'm trying to contemplate what type of moves to make/trying to find some way to release this hate."
Other than Tupac, few hardcore West Coast rappers of the era admitted such vulnerability and pain. In four minutes, "Carry the Weight" summarized his early years as the son of an abusive Marine turned minister. He was 8 when his mother passed, causing him and his sister to move to his father's home in Albuquerque. Due to the latter's religious beliefs rap was anathema, but an older stepbrother put him up on Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, and N.W.A. As a teenager, he cut his bicuspids freestyling at a college radio station. He also sold drugs. "I was angry that my mother died. I moved to this weird place and was, like, 'Who the fuck are these people?' "
The Albuquerque years were especially anguished. The stepbrother he worshipped was convicted of murder and sentenced to a 15-year bid (he's since been released). Eventually, Xzibit was caught with a .380 pistol at the New Mexico State Fair. Then he was thrown out of school. "My dad took me straight from the principal's office to the Marine Corps," Xzibit says. "He was, like, 'I'm gonna take you to a place where you can really fight.' "
Xzibit instead struck out for Los Angeles to live with an aunt he barely knew. The situation instantly deteriorated and he bounced from couch to couch, wrecking open mics and the famed Unity parties. Simultaneously, he hooked up with Compton O.G. King Tee and his Likwit crew (Defari, Tha Alkaholiks), eventually leading to a deal with Loud Records, the label of Wu-Tang Clan.
After his first two records solidified him as one of the best rappers breathing, Dr. Dre recruited him for a guest verse on Snoop Dogg's "Bitch Please." When the 1999 single became an anthem, Dre attempted to sign him to Aftermath. Xzibit politely turned him down: "I thanked him for the opportunity but told him that I was already signed. After that he was, like, "Wow, usually people bang me in the fucking head to sign them."
Eager to collaborate, Dre executive produced 2000's Restless, and 2002's gold-certified Man Vs. Machine. He also took Xzibit on the fabled Up in Smoke tour and included him on the Slim Shady–aided 2001 single, "What's the Difference." The partnership turned Xzibit from underground favorite to legit star. It also attracted the attention of Pimp My Ride's producers, who met him during one of his frequent trips to the West Coast Customs auto shop. Wary of being the jolly host, he initially rejected their offer. Eventually, the producers wore him down, and Pimp My Ride afforded him a level of notoriety that transcended rap. He acted in xXx: State of the Union, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans, and the X-Files movie. Appearances on ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition netted him a NAACP Image Award.
But a lingering distaste with his MTV portrayal remained, as addressed on "1983," the most powerful record on Napalm: "I hated MTV for trying to play me like a mockery." They "assassinated his character just to make some millions off America," he adds.
But in conversation he takes the high road, saying "the overall experience of Pimp My Ride was positive in that I was able to reach that many people and cross into that many territories."
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Over a haunting piano loop, "1983" essentially updates "Carry the Weight," as Xzibit addresses the trials and tribulations that beset him over the last six years: an IRS skirmish that publicly forced him to fork over nearly $1 million in back taxes, the dissolution of ties with Dre and Eminem, a newborn child passed away at 8 days old, and an acrimonious custody battle over his 17-year-old son.
"It's always going to be a struggle, so I've learned to be logical. If the plane is crashing, there are some things that we can do to get this shit back in the air," he says, his voice lowering like an action hero. "If you're screaming and crying, you can't pull the stick up."
Though you should still avoid feeding the bear, these days Xzibit's hate has mostly been released. There's a world tour approaching, film roles to pursue, and two more albums to record until the planned "X" box set — which would contain his 10 LPs.
"I want people to see the story from beginning to end. You don't get the whole picture just looking at the pieces," he notes. "I'm still living it though, and Napalm is a great addition. When you chop down a tree you can look at the rings and see what the tree's been through. That's what you can do when you listen to my records."