[Editor's note: Soon-to-be-award-winning gonzo music journalist Danielle Bacher prowls the late late night scene for West Coast Sound. For this installment, she hit the town with MCs Subz and Eso Tre from Substance Abuse, who are known for their well-regarded 2006 album Overproof and their just-released work Background Music. Also along was their friend, rapper Ambush from Global Phlowtations.]
8:10 pm: There are a few nights in your life when you feel like you might end up dead. This is one of those nights.
8:13 pm: I'm being followed by a black truck flashing its headlights over and over. I make a wrong turn and end up on Skid Row. I see tons of homeless people sleeping on the street. At a stoplight, one of them bangs his fist on my windshield.
8:17 pm: The truck is still honking at me every turn I make.
8:20 pm: The truck makes a right turn and goes the wrong way down a one-way street. I think the driver is seriously wasted.
8:24 pm: I make it to East 4th Place and park across from the Art Share gallery. I'm really hoping my car does not get broken in to or stolen.
8:36 pm: I meet up with Substance Abuse. Justin Hollingsworth, aka Subz, is wearing a brown camouflage jacket with a green Stussy beanie. He smiles and gives me a huge hug. His partner MC John Heath, aka Eso Tre, is wearing an oversized gray coat and a black Stussy beanie. It's almost as if they coordinated outfits.
8:37 pm: Their Belize-born, South Central-bred friend, MC Ambush (William Nicholson), walks outside. He's part of notable underground rap crew Global Phlowtations, as well as groups like Colored Girls, Teenage Pussy and William & William Inc. He's smoking a cigarette and accidentally ashes it on his T-shirt.
8:39 pm: We walk into the gallery. Eso tells me he graduated law school but hasn't passed the bar yet. Subz is in his second year of grad school for Architecture at SCI-Arc and can't be out all night, though it seems possible he'll change his mind.
8:42 pm: The two have known each other since fifth grade and found common interests in hip-hop and graffiti in West L.A. “We grew up on hip-hop. It brought us together as kids,” says Subz.
“I don't think hip-hop really brought us together,” replies Eso.
“Eh, well, it was like the background music. We can be nerdy, but we don't do nerd rap. We're versatile. We don't act like we're gangsters or don't get blinged out or act like we're ballin'. We want to make music everyone can relate to.”
8:40 pm: We discuss why education is important and how it makes for better rap music. Eso tells me that his education helps him to control his language and make it dope. He uses what he learned in law school to propel his music, hone his language and help his flow.
8:45 pm: They inform me that the group is not trying to promote substance abuse, as its name seems to imply. They've been working on their sophomore album Background Music for years, and it finally is out this week. It features artists like Tash of Tha Alkaholiks, MC Eiht and Myka 9.
8:48 pm: We talk about how hip-hop and graffiti were intertwined in the '90s where they grew up. They have a deep reverence for graffiti culture. Eso used to go out tagging with his buddies. He got arrested at age 11 and stopped because he didn't want to upset his parents. There was some tag-banging going on. Subz was in a graffiti crew because he liked being rebellious. Ambush is a founder of the graffiti crew RDH (Rehab Don't Help) that started in the mid-'90s, but he doesn't tag anymore.
8:50 pm: We talk about why certain rappers get famous. Eso explains that artists are judged by superficial things, like how many followers they have on Twitter. It's a lot of bullshit that has nothing to do with the quality of the music. Eso believes that hip-hop is not about dick-riding somebody because you are told to like them. He maintains that if you have a name in hip-hop, you can basically record yourself taking a dump and people will like it.
8:55 pm: We don't actually look at any of the artwork. We slowly walk to my car. A fear returns as I gaze at a black truck driving to my left. And then a flash of light: Ambush lights a cig.
9:00 pm: The guys show me the work of L.A.-based graffiti and street artist Kofie. They love his work. We take a photo in front of it.
9:05 pm: Everyone hops in my car. I drive to Bar 107 on 4th St. I'm blasting the Special Edition of the Roots' album Phrenology. I park around the corner. Ambush is drinking a bottle of Taaka vodka in my car. He's smoking a cigarette with the window down. We walk to the bar. Each of us gets searched by the bouncer.
9:06 pm: This kitschy dive bar is packed with a mix of mustachioed hipsters in skinny jeans, bums and ladies with skirts that struggle to contain their asses. We grab drinks at the bar. Three whiskeys and a PBR.
9:20 pm: Brewer & Shipley's 1970 hit “One Toke Over the Line” is playing very loudly over the speakers. It's dim in here, and the lights give a reddish hue to everything. Subz tells me that he and Eso met Ambush nine years ago through their mutual friend, producer/beatmaker/sample connoisseur Julien Wari Hobobo, aka Vibez One. Vibez passed away from a heart attack three years ago. He produced Substance Abuse's first album Overproof and worked on some of the new album.
9:30 pm: Subz's eyes fill with tears. “I love him like a brother,” he says. “It's really hard. He was one of the realest people I've ever known. I will always remember we kicked it a couple of weeks before he passed away. We were hanging out and he told me that he loved me. You know, guys don't really say that to each other. But it kind of fucked me up.” He yells out a loud “ahhhhh” and then puts his head in his hand. A tear rolls down the middle of his cheek. He is unable to finish telling me about when he heard news of the death. He excuses himself to the bathroom.
9:45 pm: Subz returns and tells me they opened for Wu-Tang one time and people did not enjoy their set. It just makes him want to work that much harder.
10:20 pm: We leave the bar. On the way, Ambush points to an apartment complex of a woman that he used to bang. He says she was his sex slave. I ask him how much he paid her.
“You think I have money for a prostitute?”
Ambush used to be a pimp and dabbles in the business here and there.
10:24 pm: A homeless man named Octave Fellow Soul and a homeless woman named Marcia are standing outside my car on Los Angeles St. Ambush asks Subz to give them some money. Fellow Soul sings the Temptations' hit “Ain't Too Proud to Beg.” He has a great voice. Marcia joins him, and Subz starts chiming in a falsetto: “Please don't leave me girl, don't you go.” Before I know it, we're in a circle, dancing and singing loudly.
10:53 pm: Ambush takes a piss in the street. He says he's the unofficial hype man for Substance Abuse.
11:00 pm: We climb back in my car. I realize that Ambush never locked my left passenger car door. I'm pissed. We discuss how I want to live with the homeless for a week. Ambush tells me that I'm going to get raped.
11:10 pm: He continues, telling us that pimping is in the blood, just like graffiti. He says that when he gets high he likes pimping. “When I do coke for a few days on a bender, and these ho's are over and they choose me, I'll give her more money than a usual pimp does. You know, a pimp keeps all the bitches' money.” He explains that he's more like an assistant pimp. He goes by “Mac Dracula.” He likes to inject humor into the harsh reality of the pimp game.
11:15 pm: He claims, “White bitches make hella more money ho'ing. No matter how beautiful a black chick, Asian chick or Latino chick is, she'll make at least $100 less than any white girl. And the worst thing to call a ho is a faggot-ass bitch.”
11:22 pm: We discuss how racism is rampant in Los Angeles, but then change subjects to guerrilla pimping. That's when a pimp is violent and beats women.
11:26 pm: We discuss what my prostitute name would be. Ambush tries to convince me that it's a lucrative business and I should consider it. I tell him I wouldn't have a pimp. He tells me those prostitutes are called “renegades” and that they don't last long.
11:37 pm: We arrive at a former pimp/drug dealer's apartment near Melrose. That's how Ambush describes him, anyway. We get buzzed in.
11:38 pm: We go inside the elevator. The guys show me the tags from different L.A. graffiti crews. One tag reads “Remember da Holocaust.” Before we go in, Ambush tells me that the former pimp is going to be nice to me because I'm not a prostitute. I ask him how it would be if I did prostitute. He tells me I wouldn't make it past the door. He would put me to work.
11:38 pm: It's freezing in here, and there are colorful designer skateboards hanging on the wall. The former pimp used to own a skate shop, and those are pieces that he made. There is an L-shaped couch with a half-dead plant leaning next to the vertical blinds over the sliding glass door. There is also a multi-colored bong resting on the coffee table. A girl and her friend are sitting on the couch. The former pimp is a bigger white dude with a low voice. He's wearing baggy jeans and a shirt.
11:40 pm: I take some antibiotics and gulp promethazine cough syrup from the bottle for my cough. The former pimp tells me that he would give me $200 for my bottle of cough syrup, if I want to sell it. I don't.
11:41 pm: Ambush asks if he can have some.
11:43 pm: The girls go outside to smoke cigarettes. Ambush asks me for $5.
11:50 pm: The former pimp's cell rings and vibrates very loudly on the table. It sounds like a house phone. Everyone is quiet. He's about to deliver some smack to a customer.
11:52 pm: The two women leave. Ambush tells the former pimp he has a “bitch” that he can have for a finder's fee.
11:55 pm: Ambush hands me a book called Days of the Cougar: The Outrageous Visual Diary of Sexual Adventurer Liz Earls. I turn over the book, and Ambush's photo with her is featured on the back cover.
11:58 pm: Ambush buys coke in the other room.
12:05 am: The former pimp leaves. I'm told we are housesitting until he gets back. It's still freezing in here. The back door to the apartment is open, and the air conditioning is on. Eso hands me his puffy jacket. All three guys are sitting on the couch. I'm sitting Indian-style on the floor.
12:10 am: There are lines of coke spread out on top of a round mirror. Ambush tells Subz to roll up a Caribbean bill. He says $5 bills are bad luck.
12:14 am: Ambush snorts two lines. His face is glowing as he sniffs his nose a few times.
12:15 am: Ambush tells us that Eso has a great vocabulary. He's impressed that he used the word sirloin. Subz finds it hilarious that Ambush thinks “sirloin” is a big word.
12:25 am: Eso tells me that he has a rap for me. It's from the first album and is called “Sickness.” It's fitting, because I'm pretty sick. While he's rapping, Ambush is cutting lines to the beat.
12:26 am: Ambush says he'll rap, but he has to do some more coke first. He announces, “This right here, this is about stalking bitches. I never stalked a bitch, but I wrote one for people who stalk bitches.” He stops mid-way through the rap because he forgets the lines.
12:28 am: Subz raps about the fact that in life there are no guarantees. His flow is relaxed and natural.
12:29 am: Ambush says he has a country song to sing. It's about horses, guns, sweet white Jesus, love, killing and bitches. “This nigga does country, too,” he says. “We're very versatile people. Hell fucking yeah.”
12:45 am: Subz lights a cigarette and Ambush takes a drag. Subz shuts his eyes for a moment and exhales.
12:50 am: Three more lines are snorted. Ambush raps again about chopping up bodies.
1:00 am: We conclude that we need to turn on some music in here. Eso starts freestyling. He's really talented.
1:01 am: Eso tells Ambush to use the word sirloin and freestyle about it. He starts, “Sirloin, I take my last coin, I spend it on dope or drugs, hugs to the babies and also the thugs. Keep my money under rugs and also in the bank. I like to thank mom and dad, the old-school milk. Silk. Dissipate from the body. It's a hobby not to get shot. I'm down with the thugs that carry Glocks and hide them.” He stops and inhales Subz's cigarette. He goes on for another minute-and-a-half. It's pretty good.
1:14 am: Eso talks about how it wasn't weird being a white dude that rapped growing up in West L.A. He says that everyone talks about how no one buys music or even cares about it anymore. People just care about a name and an identity.
1:20 am: Ambush opens the fridge in the kitchen and hands us cans of PBR. He hands me a beer and asks, “Do you know about 2 Chainz?” Before I can answer, Eso tells Ambush not to diss anyone. He proceeds to say, “He's a smart dude, but he does ignorant music.”
1:24 am: Subz lights up another cig. Ambush plays a song of his called “Insatiable Hunger” on the TV. It's pretty interesting listening to their music with them. It's also kind of weird. Ambush is talking a lot.
1:27 am: Eso and Subz play me a few songs from their new album. It's contemporary, underground hip-hop with dark undertones and spare beats. The group doesn't want to be pigeonholed to one sound. Actor Max Julien from the 1973 film The Mack has a three-minute monologue on their new song “The Pretend Man.”
1:45 am: I ask why it took the group six years to write their second album. Eso says that they were writing, and they are returning to the rap game with some “Dark Knight Rises shit.” The main reason they took so long is because they didn't want to put out a bullshit album. He feels like there are too many artists that put out bullshit albums just to have music out there, but he didn't want subpar music released.
1:48 am: Ambush explains that all his sex talk is just to make money. The music and art is his real passion.
2:09 am: Eso is lying on the floor asleep.
2:31 am: The former pimp returns with McDonald's in his hands. He sits down. He puts a meth rock on the table. He hasn't slept in a few days.
2:45 am: Ambush takes my notepad and writes “God's an imaginary friend for grownups.” He tells me that “I make a nigga feel relaxed.”
2:47 am: A former pro skater walks in the door to buy drugs. He notes that it's “fucking freezing in here.”
2:51 am: Eso wakes up from his sleep for a minute. He tells us he's sick of hearing rap music. He wants some Miles Davis on. Ambush tells me that's he's affiliated with the Crips gang and that he's a walk-on.
3:00 am: We're playing Mobb Deep's “Quiet Storm.” Ambush tells me that crack, coke and speed together are better than an orgasm with prostitutes.
3:15 am: The former pimp mentions he's done heroin. He asks if I want to try some, but warns me that I might throw up. I don't. He leaves again. We still have to housesit. I'm shivering.
4:07 am: Eso wakes up again. I thought I heard a gunshot outside. Then I heard an ambulance. I'm getting a little nervous.
4:10 am: Ambush tells me about his life growing up in South Central. He moved from Belize when he was three. He said that people used to try to break into his house all the time. His father has 14 kids.
4:12 am: I ask Ambush if he's ever shot someone. He said that he missed. His cousin was fighting a guy one-on-one. His gun dropped and the other guy jumped his cousin. One of the guys picked up the gun and had it on Ambush. He pushed the guy and grabbed the gun and started shooting it. He tried to shoot him, but missed. “I don't like guns,” he says. “Thank God I missed him. I really believe it's best not to fight. Unless somebody molested my child, I wouldn't kill someone.” He has no children.
4:16 am: The former pimp returns. He takes out a crack pipe. We leave. We take a photo:
4:17 am: Cops roll right by us.
4:50 am: We sit in silence for some of the car ride. I drop Subz off at school to finish his project. I drop Eso at his car. I'm driving Ambush home.
5:10 am: We end up driving back to the former pimp's house.
5:35 am: The former pimp stands up and a gun falls out of his pocket. This worries me. He places the gun on the ottoman. I look at the gun. I've never seen one before. He notices I'm glancing at it. He picks it up and places it on a shelf.
5:45 am: Mobb Deep is playing. It's played seven times already. Ambush went to L.A. County jail for a few days for pissing in public. Ambush sips his Pabst Blue Ribbon. The former pimp brings out a bag of crack and a bag of speed. He places it on the table.
6:20 am: Ambush looks at me and lights a cigarette. He takes a drag and picks up his beer. He takes one sip, and places it down on the table. He looks over at the former pimp with an intense stare.
6:48 am: The former pimp starts sweeping the kitchen and talking about selling drugs.
7:19 am: I drive Ambush home near Crenshaw and Adams Blvd. He insinuates that he wants to hang out with me again and possibly have sex. I am not interested and deeply offended. He tells me that he's sorry he crossed a line. He shuts the car door and walks off.
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