It’s fitting that the world’s oldest profession would produce something as timeless as Suga Free’s Street Gospel. In the two decades since the immaculately permed Pomona pimp with the freshly pressed white linen suit delivered one of the most unimpeachable West Coast rap classics, his influence has remained ubiquitous.
You can see it in disciples such as Kendrick Lamar, who has repeatedly professed Suga Free’s importance to him and the community of Compton. Or Schoolboy Q, who conscripted the rap veteran for a guest verse on his last album. Vince Staples indicted ’90s hip-hop traditionalists for omitting Street Gospel from the canon. YG sampled him.
Should you ever need to tell the difference between an L.A. native and a transplant, just start rapping “Why U Bullshittin’?” If they don’t start humming the sitar riffs and invoking “waves as deep as Redondo Beach,” they’re not from around here. It’s an indelible KDAY staple, as locals-only as your favorite taco truck or instinctively taking Fountain at rush hour.
You can’t talk Street Gospel without DJ Quik. The Compton legend not only brilliantly produced Suga Free’s debut but discovered him, too — via Tony “Black Tone” Lane, who introduced Quik to Dejuan Rice at a baseball card shop in the mid-’90s. At that initial meeting, the friendly neighborhood playa partner immediately began beating on the table, busting out rhymes and courting fate.
Until then, Suga Free could mostly be found procuring near Holt Street in Pomona. Born in Gardena, the future rapper moved to Oakland as a baby, where his earliest memories involved a drunken, abusive father, who would choke his mother in front of Dejuan and his younger sister. The horrors are chronicled in harrowing detail on Street Gospel’s finale, “Dip Da.”
After the marriage dissolved, his mother moved the family to Compton, then to the west side of Pomona, dubbed “Sin Town,” where Free joined the 357 Crips. Over the next decade, he’d be frequently incarcerated for a wide array of misdemeanor and felony charges.
The prison bids partially delayed his rap career, which only began in earnest at 27. Released in May 1997, Street Gospel came together in just 28 days. He was ready.
“Quik had this saying: ‘If you party while making the music, people going to party to it’ … and we partied like a motherfucker,” Suga Free once said, describing the making of Street Gospel. “We’d have a studio session and I’d be a couple of cities over — y’know, with them ho’s — and a couple of times Quik had to come get me from out there to record.”
In Suga Free’s singular vernacular, Street Gospel is the language of players. It’s become holy writ for those who occasionally confuse Sodom and Gomorrah with the Garden of Eden. Even though the lyrics are frequently problematic, Suga Free comes from the tradition of Richard Pryor, Dolemite and Blowfly. He’s described “Why U Bullshittin’?” as a simple attempt to make Quik laugh in the studio. The latter originally composed the beat for 2Pac, but it’s hard to imagine anyone rapping over it more scabrously than Suga Free.
As far as original stylists go, Suga Free might as well be the Thomas Pynchon of pimping. A combination of E-40, Iceberg Slim, Morris Day and Snagglepuss. He could channel Al Green and Curtis Mayfield harmonies while unleashing a filthy torrent of comedy at dizzying speeds. He could sell sand to a Bedouin, white suits to a nudist, sex to a sworn celibate.
Even though it sold only 124,000 units, posterity has rendered Street Gospel one of the greatest and most important L.A. records of all time — a civic treasure and rap classic, all natural like oat bran, engineered like no other.