In 1987, with thoughts of a rap career building in his mind, Inglewood-born Dedrick Rolison experienced that most sacrosanct of L.A. rap rituals: He met Eazy-E. Diminutive at little more than 5 feet tall and preaching in the pitch of a prepubescent chipmunk, Eazy, or, as the lore goes, respectable-sounding Eric Wright to the Republican party fund-raisers who invited him to a lunch hosted by the first President Bush, nevertheless synthesized the model of the rapper as hustler — or hustler as rapper — that still abides to this day: Rhyme about street-corner shenanigans, adhere to a strict hierarchy of values (money over rapping; rapping about making money over ladies of questionable repute), and pocket as much of the profit as possible, ideally by running some semblance of an independent record label. So when Rolison ran into the NWA instigator on the block that day, EZ imparted on the aspiring artist a simple mantra: “Always stay about your money.”
Tallied up today, it seems like advice well-heeded. A 14-year recording veteran, Rolison, better known as the baritone-voiced rapper Mack 10, can point to a vault that holds eight solo albums (sparked by his self-titled, funk-anchored 1995 set), and a spell as one-third (along with Ice Cube and WC) of L.A. powerhouse Westside Connection. The trio symbolized West Coast pride during hip-hop’s mid-’90s coastal tug of war, and their Bow Down album went platinum. Though never attaining the high-profile hit streak Eazy and Cube had — a stint hitting the gossip columns amid accusations of spousal abuse during his marriage to TLC’s T-Boz aside (a charge he laughs off to this day) — Mack 10 quietly got on with the task at hand: selling a lot of records, stockpiling a stash of money, and bolstering a reputation that allowed him to launch his ninth solo project, Soft White. The album’s brassy, slow-rolling lead single, “So Sharp,” is a testament to his influence; it’s packed with cameos by a new wave of rap hustler archetypes.
“Really, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross and Jim Jones wasn’t nothing but a phone call away,” he says nonchalantly of his big-money guests while taking a break from business in his home studio. “Wayne is like family to me, and Ross is my homey, so that one was pretty easy. I’ve also got Akon, Anthony Hamilton, Baby and J Holiday on the album — all of them was just a phone call away. That’s just how it is with me.”
Underscoring that it’s money, not artistic confluence, that’s on his mind, Mack 10 coldly adds, “I always think about business before the creativity of my albums. Nobody wants to do nothing if the business ain’t right. I know — I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve sold more than 5 million records independently that way, including the second Westside Connection album [Terrorist Threats], which people forget was on my label, Hoo-Bangin’. It’s beautiful when you get it right and take care of business first.”
Beautiful bottom line aside, if Eazy’s bold devotion to dollars helped to mold Mack’s mentality, it also aided the circumstances that led to the Inglewood aspirant’s own career. With NWA’s Dr. Dre and Ice Cube deciding to chance their luck solo after suspecting Eazy was perhaps a little too focused on his cut of the collective cash, Mack 10 found himself at a stylistic crossroads. At first smitten by the Eazy-driven NWA express in the late-’80s — “The first time I heard them I was on the block,” he recalls. “I had no idea Eazy even had a group. Before that, every car that drove through the hood was bumping Eric B & Rakim from the East Coast, but when NWA came out, it changed everything” — he moved to rolling with Cube’s camp.
“We recorded a lot of my debut at Cube’s house, and some of it with Street Knowledge, which was his production company then,” he says, for once dropping the business bravado for a fonder tone, as he reminisces on that spell of the ’90s, when L.A. rap began to be broadcast around the globe. “Everything was new to me at that point, and being around Cube was inspiring — you have to remember this was Cube back in the early-’90s, when he was unstoppable! He was the man! And I was Cube’s opening act and also his hype man at the time. We’d travel the world and perform a song like ‘Wicked’ and people would go crazy and they’d be slam-dancing! It wouldn’t even look like a rap show; you’d think you were at a rock show.”
Still, just as Cube flew Eazy’s wing, as the years clocked up, Mack 10 came to a point where he needed to split from Cube’s crew; he officially severed ties with Westside Connection in 2005. (Rumors persist that the self-branded “new embodiment of NWA,” The Game, is being prepped to replace him.) But unlike the flurry of on-record disses that sound-tracked NWA’s querulous disintegration, there’s no malice in Mack 10’s voice when he looks back on his years with Cube: Artistically, he cops to it being the sweetest of times (“wherever there was a mic and a booth I’d be rapping, and when my album came out, it felt good to hear people riding around bumping it in their cars,” he says earnestly), and writes off the falling-out with little more emotion than a bout of routine number crunching, saying, “The only mistakes I’ve made in my career is dealing with people because they’re your friends.”
Then, snuffing out any whiff of sentimentality, he jolts back into rap-hustler mode and concludes, “But I’ll always vividly remember that day talking business with Eazy. He was the first one I knew who truly had an independent label that was successful; his Ruthless Records were like the Motown of L.A. at one point. That inspired me more than anything.”
At that, Mack 10 raucously hollers, “It’s got to be about your money!”
MACK 10 | Soft White | Hoo-Bangin’ Records