For most of hip-hop history, aging gracefully was a veritable oxymoron. Most artists disappeared into dollar-bin CD cemeteries or else attempted to stay eternally young, mimicking teenage ingenuity as convincingly as a Steve Buscemi “How Are You Doing, Fellow Kids?” meme.
Over the last few years, veterans such as E-40, Juicy J, DJ Quik and Raekwon pioneered Ponce de Leon rap. This year alone, Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z have released albums that rival anything they’ve released since the Bush years. Yet equally impressive is Which Way Iz West, the revitalized new record from MC Eiht, the Compton gangsta rapper’s first full-length in 11 years.
“I surprised myself on this get-down,” the rapper born Aaron Tyler says. “The beats got me reminiscing on the days of old and inspired me to get really articulate with the pen. Music transitions, and we have to adapt to the times, but I also felt we didn’t have West Coast music that reached back to the foundation of ‘Nuthin’ but a G Thang,’ ‘[It] Was a Good Day’ or ‘Streiht Up Menace’?” — the latter being Eiht’s best-known track.
Though hip-hop is fundamentally rooted in wild-style originality, its O.G.s deserve the right to stay in the lane that they helped invent — especially with ’90s babies siphoning off influences from the decade that birthed them.
There’s an unabashedly nostalgic feel to the proceedings, with Eiht recruiting The Outlawz, WC, The Lady of Rage, B-Real, Kurupt, Xzibit, Big Mike of The Geto Boys and his own partners from Compton’s Most Wanted. DJ Premier executive produced it and contributed several beats — alongside Austria’s Brenk Sinatra, whose hydraulic thump should earn him honorary California citizenship.
But it’s Eiht who deserves the lion’s share of credit, picking up where he left off with his growling wake-up call on Kendrick Lamar’s “m.A.A.d. City,” the song that reintroduced the 47-year-old Menace II Society star to the younger generation.
“It got to the point where I can be straight up with it,” Eiht says from his house in Corona. “Wasn’t nobody checking for an MC Eiht record. That’s what happens. Sometimes you get left behind. Sometimes, you just have to sit back and be patient.”
There’s something quietly radical to this methodology. Rather than furiously attempt to claw back into the spotlight, Eiht painstakingly toiled, recording 50 or 60 songs over the course of this decade and letting Premier cull the best. He kept busy with tours, the occasional festival date and guest spots (including the latest Snoop Dogg and Quik albums) but also was happy coaching his son’s football squad.
“I didn’t have to put out dumb records that would be worthless or beg for a deal to stay relevant,” Eiht says. “Rap comes and goes. New styles form, some stay relevant and others disappear.”
He stresses that money was never an issue, invoking the early days when he wanted to be like Run-DMC hopping out of limos with dookie ropes before going onstage. He admits that he barely made a dime off the first three Compton’s Most Wanted albums.
“I didn’t know anything about publishing or royalties,” he says. “I was just doing it for the love of music.”
So one song at a time, he went back to the bedrock — listening to the early CMW records, EPMD, Pete Rock & CL Smooth and the touchstones of West Coast gangsta rap. In the process, he made something authentic to himself and the tradition he helped create.
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“Disregard the age thing — that always seems to make people stumble,” Eiht says. “I want people to listen and realize this is a person who knows music, who appreciates the true foundation of hip-hop and wants to tell stories that everyone has been through. I want people to feel like I’m in the struggle right there with you.”