The first of the day’s raindrops hit my windshield as I get on the 110 and head for South L.A. on this uncharacteristically gray day. Exit Slauson, roll past the block-long graffiti mural. Didn’t take but a few minutes and I’m in the hood.
Choc Nitty’s late, of course. I’d imagine he’s out doing some gangster shit if I didn’t already know he was out getting a Christmas tree with his girl. This is the new Choc Nitty. The one who’s taking me on a mixtape tour of South-Central and the surrounding area.
So I sit down on the MC’s patio and wait, the only cracker on a street lined with cracker-box houses. Choc’s place is a small, gray residence with neatly trimmed hedges wrapped in Christmas lights, a little sleigh with a stuffed Santa in the middle of the tidy yard.
Soon enough, an adorable pint-size facsimile of Choc, though with a braided ponytail, peeks out from the door and points at the sleigh. “Santa,” he says. It’s Choc’s 2-year-old son, T.J. His older sister, 4-year-old Nyla, is the shot caller. She checks me out and gives me the okay after I slip her a piece of Hanukkah gelt: a chocolate gold coin.
I’d call to get an ETA from my host, but it’s hard to know where to call Choc. He maintains an elusive cellular profile. The number changes a lot, and I’m never sure if it’s him I’m calling. It’s a holla into the void. But you can hit him the hip with an e-mail to his Sidekick. That thing is spring-loaded, and he responds in real time. Choc Nitty is super digital. He’s a recording artist, producer and engineer who mixes his magic in a small studio in South-Central. “I’m good with hands-on,” says the self-taught player. That’s the new Choc. The old Choc Nitty’s got a darker tale to tell.
Mixtape is an art form. A movement. A lifestyle. It’s a means by which the already-there and the wanna-get-there-real-bad in the rap game prove their bona fides.
Mixtape is, of course, as old as hip-hop. In fact, in some ways, it is hip-hop. Hip-hop spread as a DIY street phenomenon whereby MCs would rap over familiar funk, soul and rock grooves mixed together by DJs and producers. Cassette tapes of these performances were sold at swap meets, out of the trunk, on street corners . . . wherever. And a nation was born.
This, however, isn’t your daddy’s mixtape. First of all, it’s not tapes, it’s CDs, and the current mixtape scene takes advantage of both modern technology — ProTools, MySpace (founder Chris DeWolfe is currently rocking Choc Nitty’s “Fresh” on his homepage) — and old-school, grassroots distribution: You still sell at swap meets, malls, underground record stores, etc. Unlike the old days, today’s mixtape artists aren’t promoting a movement; they’re promoting themselves and their particular scene within the movement. Choc and his homies are using mixtape to bring the same attention to Watts — and its emerging rappers like Jay Rock (currently on tour with the Game), Grown Mo (getting serious radio play), Guerilla Black, Glasses Malone and Hot Dollar — that has previously gone to Compton and Long Beach. And the way they do it is to reconstruct a track that’s already a hit from an established hip-hop artist and rap and/or sing over the track. It’s a way of saying, “I’m better; I’m next.” It’s also the way you establish and maintain street credibility, which is everything in rap today. As Choc says, “You gotta grind to shine.”
Kids are slanging them all over. It’s a hustle. Five bucks a pop. Hook it up or die trying. Failure is not an option.
I first met Choc Nitty, a.k.a. Tharell Gamboa, on a computer screen in the Gang Impact Team (GIT) section at LAPD’s Central Division more than a year or so ago. A detective pulled up the Snowman Cliq Web site and showed me the bio section they used to motivate the 26-year-old rapper from Watts to take a deal after they popped him for allegedly slanging rocks on Skid Row.
“I don’t know nothin’ about no polices,” Choc told me when I met him and fellow Snowman K.P. at the Pig ’n Whistle on Hollywood Boulevard, Choc’s unlikely choice of venue. He said something else about being a hustler and said he was being persecuted. They thought I was a cop for sure. But that was a long time ago, and that was the old Choc Nitty. I’ve been knowing Mr. Nitty since.
Choc finally pulls up with his baby mama/fiancée, Darnesia. Pretty, young and surprisingly conservative, Darnesia smiles politely and disappears into the house. Choc’s in top form as usual. Shiny multicolored dots form a large “9” on the front of his long-sleeved black Mechanism T-shirt. Wearing custom-made Nike Air Force Ones, big diamond earrings, Red Monkey jeans, Choc slips me a copy of his freshly ground mixtape, Around Da Clock. The CD has a picture of him shining his signature disaffected glare from under a backward, multicolor L.A. baseball cap while he flips you off. A pile of kush sits under a clock graphic, and a parental-advisory warning under the word “mixtape” .?.?. and you know I can’t wait to hear it.
Soaking up the familial holiday bliss at home with the Nittys, for a moment I’m deluded into thinking Choc’s world is not so far from my own. That changes when we walk around the back of the house, where his brand-new, gray-and-burgundy custom Dodge Magnum has a rash of bullet holes on the driver’s side front quarter panel and door.
“ Lemme take you to an the other side of town. Lemme tell you how my niggas get down.”
—“Real Shit” by Choc Nitty
We take my ride as Choc’s is on the blocks until it’s repainted, presumably in a less conspicuous veneer. As we embark, with Nitty riding shotgun, the threatening rain finally lets loose. I’m lost in a maze of unfamiliar streets as sheets of water from above pour down on us.
A low-rez digital rendering of“Grown and Sexy” by Chamillionaire shouts out from an unseen cell phone somewhere on Choc’s personage. He rolls more calls than a CAA agent during pilot season. Got more cell phones than T-Mobile. He answers the call on one phone while simultaneously e-mailing on his limited-edition Sidekick 3, presumably establishing our itinerary.
“We ’bout to head in the middle,” he tells me without looking up, “?’tween the East and the West to 75th. Where my studio is.”
We’re going to meet a young rapper called Jay Rock at the infamous Nickerson Gardens housing projects in Watts, but first we’re gonna stop at Choc’s studio.
Chamillionaire summons again. “Wzup?” he asks. “Yeah, yeah, yeah .?.?. it’s garbage? A lot of mixtapes they putting out right now is. They just rappin’ right now.” He says some other stuff I don’t understand before he concludes the call and turns his attention back to me. Choc Nitty is a wrangler. He sets shit up. Makes things happen. These homespun indie musical enterprises always have a highly motivated expediter. In the Snowman Cliq, it’s Choc. I ask about the bullet holes in the side of his ride.
“Monday. Some dudes pulled up on side of me. Rolled up on me. Shot at me,” he says. “Me and my cousin. Cousin got hit twice. Shot up my car. Hit my driver’s side. Nothin’ hit me. Imma thank God.”
Choc speaks in a melodic monotone. His cadence is slow, thoughtful, sultry. It’s poetic, the way Choc talks. Ebonics in verse. But there’s a hint of something else I still can’t put my finger on. It’s not Southern. Something else.
I ask if he was scared as we turn onto a main thoroughfare.
“Hell yes, I scared. Crazy? Shit,” his voice uncharacteristically breaks. “That’s what you gotta go through when you in the hood. Bullet holes and gun wounds. Getting banged on and shit. All that type of crazy shit. Just rollin’ in the streets, man. People just shoot at you. Hell, I was scared. You see all these damn holes? That’s me. That’s all me. That’s my body.”
I’m always a little surprised when Choc is forthcoming. I’m not sure why. When I think about it, he’s been completely forthcoming since the beginning. Always did what he said he would. Showed up when and where and with whom he said he would. Returned calls, e-mails and texts. He’s professional and personable. He recently rented out the Roxy on the Sunset Strip, booked and promoted the sold-out show with a big roster of other emerging rap stars headlined by Snowman Cliq. Why am I surprised? Someone’s teaching a college course in that, I’m sure, but .?.?.
My thoughts are interrupted by “Welcome to Jamrock” by Damian Marley emanating from somewhere in the general vicinity of Choc’s Red Monkeys. He pulls out his Sidekick and gets busy with the mobile office thing.
“This ma first mixtape solo project right here,” his says in the momentary silence between calls. “I usually do most of my stuff with the Snowman Cliq. We started Snowman Cliq in 1999. Way in 1999, when 50 [Cent] came out. We met 50 and he was on our [documentary] DVD called For Real.”
Choc’s first gig was at a local talent show when he was 12. “I performed in Watts at a community center. The Snowman Cliq [which features Choc, Six Reasons, K.P. and the recently added T-Dogg], we played a lot of places. Our first show was in Canyon Lake, which is far as hell. A bunch of Caucasian people. Man, they was just lovin’ us. I didn’t know we was gonna get that type of feedback. We got paid for the show. Rode out there in a limo. We did it real big. We did the Key Club in 2000 for a whole year with a whole bunch of major artists like Chingy, Too Short, E-40, Juvenile. So a lot of these major artists know about us. It’s just a matter of time. We just waitin’ our turn. We just waitin’ patiently.”
Like a lot of players in the ranks of unsigned rappers making mixtapes in home studios across the Southland, Choc made Around Da Clock on a Mac using a sequencing program called Cubase. It’s an industry standard like Pro Tools, Logic, Reason and Fruity Loops. He taught himself how to do it. His boy Big Tone from Hookz It Up Graphics did the cover art. Choc printed it at Next Day Flyers and bought the cases at a wholesale spot downtown. Straight-up DIY.
I ask him how he would characterize the sentiments embodied in Around Da Clock, already in mixtape rotation on 93.5 KDAY.
“I would describe it as a motherfucker from the street just givin’ the air, man. Letting other people who don’t know about the hood know about the hood. And lettin’ people in the hood know about what’s outta the hood. Cuz I done seen both in and out. I’m not a person that’s just sittin’ in one spot,” he says. “I done seen a lot just living in the hood, in the projects .?.?. through the situations. I seen broke days, no lights, using candles, that type of stuff. I express that type of stuff on my album, Listen and Learn, comin’ out in ’07 .?.?. It’s real gutter rap. Hop-hop. I do stuff for the radio. I do commercial stuff cuz you gotta have something for the radio. You can’t just settle for the streets, cuz that’s all who gonna get it, so you gotta get out there to commercial people and everything. Cuz everybody ain’t in the street.”
The rain relents in perfect synchronicity as we arrive at our first stop .?.?. the studio.
“My shit bang, my shit bump. I got that boom, boom up in the trunk .?.?.”
—“My Shit Bang” by Choc Nitty
“We on 75th. You can pull over right here,” Choc says. “We right here at the prerecording studio. Me, DJ Ayah, the Snowman Cliq, this where we do all our recording at. We recorded Thug University1 here. We recorded Thug University 2 here. We did my mixtape here. Six Reasons recorded half of his album here, called Money, Power, Respect, Fear, Fame, Love. That’s Six Reasons .?.?. comin’ in ’07. Fleshless got his shit comin’ in ’07 too. He’s the biggest dancehall artist out here that unsigned.”
The house is trimmed with Christmas lights. A “Beware of Dogs” sign is prominently posted. A young Latina gets out of her Honda and smiles at me. Wonders what the fuck I’m doing there. The dog is a frisky pit bull named Boxer who almost cuddles me to death as Choc lights up a Black & Mild cigar.
Down the driveway in the back, the house reveals itself to be bigger than it appeared at first. A raised deck with an aboveground pool surely makes it a neighborhood hot spot for the kids during the long South-Central summer days. But not today. It’s cold and gray and windy by now.
At the end of the driveway is the studio, a small, minimal semifinished white room with concrete floors. A couch with a sleeping bag on it. A coffee table with an ashtray and a couple of empty prescription bottles, one with a sticker that says “green crack extreme” in a distressed, bold font .?.?. medical marijuana codes on them. The studio’s got a clubhouse vibe, but there are no musketeers up in here. This place is thick with a soulful creativity and a lingering kush stench. It’s discernibly male energy. The centerpiece is an altar: a small computer desk with a digital keyboard driven by a Mac G4. A Bible prominently placed in front of one of the studio monitors. Just behind that is an isolation booth with a window.
DJ Ayah, a young, dark-skinned Belizean DJ and reggae artist with a thick accent and braids, strolls in and shares his vision.
“This studio came from the ground up, and it’s still not finalized. We started from in the corner inside the booth with a plastic table,” Ayah tells me. “Next week we gonna paint the floor, maybe throw a bear skin on the floor. You know, you do music, you gotta have it nice. Have the people come to the studio and feel nice and stuff.”
Adds Choc, “We just doing it real big, trying to collaborate. Help each other out. They help each other out down South. They help each other on the East Coast. There’s just some problem here in the West that nobody want to get together and do it together, so it’s just real hard for people. It’s real hard for us to get on.”
Ayah introduces the tall, handsome, but austere-looking MC who saunters in while we’re talking. “This is my boy, right, Flesh?” The charismatic Belizean dancehall artist, Fleshless, speaks in an accent so thick, musical and melodic that I strain to understand the meaning of his dreamy speech.
“I been here since 2002, but soon to come I be going back to Belize,” Fleshless tells me. “I grew up there and I shoot and nobody dis me. Anybody dis me dead, my slogan. But now I clean up my act. I wanna see my CD on a shelf, next to the greats [pronounced “gray-oughts”]. See it on a shelf next to the greats, selling rapidly, units after units. Hundreds of thousands, week after week.”
Finally, it hits me: Choc Nitty is Belizean too. That’s the element in his speech I couldn’t place. He has the tropics in his DNA. Ayah’s his cousin. The music thing is a family affair.
Choc tells me he is one of 10 children in a single-parent situation. His sister, vivacious singer-songwriter Nikki Nicole, sings on Around Da Clock. One of his younger brothers, K.D. from the 2 Gutta Boyz, just grounded a new mixtape.
“I’m Belizean and Honduran and Calian. Raised in Cali. It’s in my blood,” Choc says. “Our culture .?.?. we like to help each other out. We just link up and do it together. Keep ourself outta trouble and do our music. That’s where my album comes in, Listen and Learn.” Choc never misses an opportunity to push the pea a little farther across the floor.
“My music gonna get to the streets, man, cuz I’m a hustler. Period,” Choc says. “Way before I finished high school, I hustlin’. My mom a hustler too. It’s in my bloodline, man. What I do with my mixtape is hit the streets. Hit the major spots at where it’s popular at. Sell my mixtapes for five dollars a pop. Major shopping centers like the mall. Slauson Swap Meet. Clubs. The street .?.?. the hood. Just hit up the streets, period. Also I do the MySpace thing too.” His site is tight too. I’m one of his 1,734 friends.
Choc’s on a roll as we get back in the car. I ask where else he distributes as we drive through streets, which have begun to all look the same.
“Not in record stores, cuz they mixtapes. They other people’s beats, you can’t just sell ’em like that cuz you’ll get sued. They got a lot of mixtape stores out here. I got mine in the mixtape store on Normandie and 135th. This is my job, music. This is how I feed my kids. This how I pay my car notes, off of my CDs. Pay my bills. You gotta get on the grind. It’s just a hustle, that’s all.”
The notorious Nickerson Gardens apartment complex in Watts is the largest public-housing development west of the Mississippi River. The 156 townhouse-style buildings comprise 1,054 units ranging from one to five bedrooms and occupy the blocks northeast of the corner of Imperial Highway and Central Avenue. The birthplace of the Bounty Hunter Watts Bloods borders both Watts and Compton. Open for business since 1955, the complex is owned and managed by the L.A. Housing Authority. We’re going to see Choc’s boy, Jay Rock.
“Right now, he’s signed to Universal. He’s doing his thing right now,” Choc says. “He got a single out called ‘Lift Me Up.’ I did a couple of mixtape tunes with him.”
It feels different as we make our way east on Manchester. It’s a bleak geography. There’s an absence of hope here.
“At one time in Watts everybody was peace treatin’. The Bloods and the Crips was together, but that didn’t last long because some knucklehead won’t listen and that just goes on from there. They just mess up the whole peace treatin’. It was good at one time. When everybody go to each other hood. They get to play football, play sports with each other. You know?”
But I don’t. I can only imagine coming of age in a battle zone.
“When I was hustlin’, I was hustlin’ with different types of gangbangers,” Choc reminisces, about that time before his conversion experience. “But it wasn’t about no type of gangbanger stuff. It was about money. If you dealing with money, I don’t care whether you brown, black, white, drunk .?.?. If you mind is on money, we can hang out. Cuz that’s what I’m about. In the past I was serving. I was selling dope. I was just trying to do what I could do. My mom couldn’t really help us a lot cuz I came from a family of 10. And with different fathers. My mom was a single mother to her 10 kids. That’s why I stay dedicated to my kids. I know my father, but he ain’t been around.”
Choc doesn’t linger too long on this. Instead, he quickly navigates onto a less painful terrain: hope.
“About 2007 .?.?. I got a deep feelin’ it gonna happen. My preacher even prophesized on that,” he says about Bishop Edward Turner at the Power of Love Church, which Choc attends Sundays. Mr. Chocolate Nitty met the bishop after a serendipitous series of community-service reassignments for an ’04 drug bust. Choc heard the Word and never looked back. He’s 26, going on infinity.
We pass the Maxine Waters Employment Preparatory Center across from the E&M Carneceria. Lots of graff on the walls. The fences are higher and thicker. I tell him it looks a little more .?.?. something around here. But I can’t quite find the adjective.
“It get a little more hoodish,” Choc laughs.
We finally arrive at Nickerson Gardens. Jay Rock is young, thin and handsome. His single “Lift Me Up” is in rotation on Power 106 and KDAY. A huge bodyguard guy whose name is silence accompanies him. At least that’s the name he gives me when I ask. He is — how shall I say? — less than amenable. Until, that is, I offer him a piece of Hanukkah gelt, which he declines, saying he’s been watching the carbs. Soon enough, we discover we’re on the same plan: no carbs, no wheat, no dairy. Just protein and vegetables .?.?. Same diet and same conversation I had with a model at Brent Bolthouse’s dinner party at Katsuya in Brentwood last week.
I give the chocolate to a little kid playing in a doorway after asking his dad if it was okay. So much for the menacing thugs in Nickerson Gardens. Needless to say, I wouldn’t come down here on my own. It’s just not polite.
Jay Rock’s got the spiel down pat. “My name Roc Jay Roc. I’m a new-signed artist signed to Warner Brothers. Signed to Top Dawg/AMC straight outta the Nickerson Gardens projects. Straight outta Watts, California,” he says in one breath.
I congratulate Jay on his signing.
“Yeah, all day. All day. Feel good too, man. Feel real good. It’s gonna go right too. I’m real focused right now.”
Jay Rock gesticulates a lot, and when he talks he stands so close to me I can feel his breath on the tip of my nose. It’s an intimidation-by-proximity thing, but that’s not what I’m feeling. I ask him if he had a mixtape before he got signed.
“Yeah, I had a mixtape,” he says. “I had a series of mixtapes. I just started getting in tapes and doin’ what I was doin’. People be saying you should stick with it. My big homie, Kane, told me, like, ‘Man, you got talent. You don’t need to be out here fuckin’ up in these streets. Man, I don’t wanna see you go down. I wanna see you do good.’ I’m 20. My homies had, you know what I’m saying, a little, put-together studio, recording on cassette tapes, you know? ‘Come through and do something, Jay Rock. Come through and get on this.’ Write to this and write to that. We made it happen. The basic thing about me, my voice stands out. When somebody hear me, they be like, dang, who was that nigger? I think that was the big difference. I’m a little dude with a big voice.”
I ask Jay Rock for a mixtape.
“Hey, fool, you got a mixtape? Slide him a mixtape,” he tells the big guy with the low-carb intake, who gets one out of the trunk and gives it to me.
We say goodbye to the Gardens. I wave at the toddler whom I gave the chocolate to. He waves back, smiles and ducks behind his dad, who gives me a head nod. Back in the car, we drive back through the row houses, past the hoodish graff.
“It’s empty right now, cuz,” Choc says of Nickerson Gardens. “They did a raid. Did a sweep and took everybody to the Feds. Everybody got like 15, or 10, or 20. Everybody got their years. That’s why it’s so empty right now.”
Our next stop is Six Reasons’ place. Six Reasons couldn’t make the Pig ’n Whistle as he was unavoidably detained in County Jail, so this will be our first time meeting. K.P. is allegedly in County now, so we won’t be seeing him this time out. I’m hoping these scheduling conflicts will resolve and I’ll get to see the entire Snowman Cliq materialize in one place at one time. Maybe ’07 will be the lucky number.
Six’s place is off Normandie, somewhere in the mid-100s. When we get there, Six’s mom is out front. “Yo, where Six at?” Choc asks as we pull up. The rain is coming down again. “He’s inside, baby,” Mrs. Six answers. “Yo, Six!” Choc yells at the upstairs window.
Six Reasons is an explosion of frenetic, chaotic energy. Hyperverbal, he’s the antithesis of Choc Nitty. Their polar-opposite chemistry is part of the synergy of their collaboration. Add K.P. to the mix, but not right now because he’s in jail, and you got the magic of the Snowman Cliq.
Six brings new meaning to charisma. He’s straight-up ghetto enchantment. A real performer, he’s appeared on TV in The Shield and the feature Gridiron Gang and some other stuff. The show is on as Choc leans back on a dresser and watches his boy wind up in a small bedroom in the back of the house. Six breaks into a reworking of the Snowman Cliq’s now infamous “Sell My Weed,” a song I originally heard when Central Division’s gang squad pulled up the Cliq’s Web site for me. Six has reworked it into a grim fairy tale.
“Miss Mary Mac, still smoking crack/They took the bitch’s kids, now she can’t get ’em back/The big bad wolf, standing on the roof, screaming he gone jump/That nigga high and drunk/With a knick-knack paddy-wack sittin’ in a Cadillac/Rollin’ down Figueroa/Where the hell is Sally at?/Little Sally Walker, walking in some platforms/Still slinging pussy, stickin’ needles in her back arm .?.?.”
“That’s the remix of ‘Sell My Weed.’ Studio Mike produced it,” says Six. “I gotta have that in the newspaper cuz that’s the kind of nigger I am. Key for Belcher Productions produced 70 percent of my album.” He’s raised the volume to really high at this point.
“Put this in the newspaper!” he demands. “My album, Money, Power, Respect, Fear, Fame, Love is due to come out the first quarter of next year with a DVD called Street Certified. Now, I have a street single called ‘Hood Nigger,’ which featured a lot of mainstream artists on there: Glasses Malone, Spider Loc from G-Unit. I am an underground artist doing it. MIXTAPE! MIXTAPE!”
Six is just getting started: “I’m the mascot for the losers cuz I’m living proof that a loser can win, cuz I’m winnin’ like a motherfucker. If you don’t believe me, check the score. Nigga, I’m winning.”
I ask him for a vision of his endgame .?.?. the view from his third eye, if you will.
“Imma go to Jupiter, nigga. I’m gonna be the first nigga to do a concert on Jupiter. That the highest plateau you can go. They really nowhere that hip-hop ain’t. I ain’t playin’. I wanna go to Jupiter. You think God done put everybody on one planet?”
And I don’t.
Still processing the Six Reasons encounter, we mount up and hit the streets, turn onto Imperial heading for the store on 139th and Normandie where they sell a lot of mixtapes. Choc calls his boy Fatso Fasano, who just grounded a mixtape and is reportedly in the area. Choc’s gonna see if he can get him to meet us.
“We’re on 139 and Normandie .?.?. ’bout to pull in to Riders Only Hip-Hop Clothing,” the always reserved Choc says.
Nestled in a small strip mall between Top of the Line Barber & Beauty Salon and The C.A.C. Church of South Bay is Riders Only Hip-Hop Clothing. Logos in the window for Rocawear, Phat Farm, G-Unit, Pro Club, Marco, Eco, EvArex and Enyce.
Inside the lifestyle store are T-shirts and the accouterments of hip-hop. In the center, two metal CD racks feature mixtapes by artists like DJ Smallz/Letoya, DJ Eroc, Gangsta Grillz, DJ Rama, DJ Taje, Mr. Kee, Walley Sparks, Roscoe Umali, Scandalous Nation, Sparks, DJ Ideal, DJ Warrior, Little Warrior and, of course, Choc Nitty. In the back is a sort of ghetto-couture section.
Proprietor Jay Capone, a.k.a. Jay Ridah, is a welcoming 30-something dude with a piece of tape over some self-sewn sutures on his forehead. His partner and baby mama, a sexy sister called Jack Rabbit wearing a green, fur-lined jacket, disappears sometime during our visit and returns with a familiar perfume. It’s the kush! She hazily declines to join the conversation.
“Representing. Doin’ it big,” Mr. Ridah says, by way of establishing the oral history of Riders. “We started it four years ago to promote independent artists and clothing. Anything independent. We started in the discount Priceland on 139th and Western. We was the only black store in the swap meet. The only hip-hop store in the swap meet. I got people coming from Japan to pick up the mixtapes. I got all different races: black, white, Mexican, Korean, Japanese, everything. We doin’ it big. All ages. Whoever got the money. Teenager, forties and fifties. Everybody’s crackin’ mixtapes. Mixtapes is where it’s at. We sell for seven dollars each homie. Three for eighteen. We go straight from the studio to the fans. We distribute ourself. Established artists got mixtapes too. I think they do it because the underground artists made it so popular. They gotta keep they ear to the streets. Underground artists are always next to blow up. It’s either the majors paying you, or you paying yourself.”
Jay Ridah echoes the recurring sentiment: a need for hood unity.
“On the West Coast, we need to establish a rapport. We was all divided by gangs and all that. We need to establish a rapport, where I can go to his hood, he can come to my hood. We can go to any hood we want without trippin’ cuz we really trying to make the West blow up. We not trippin’ off that gang shit no mo’.”
We meander outside just as Fatso Fasano pulls into the parking lot. Fatso is not an Italian gangster. He’s not a gangster at all. He is fat, but not that fat. If he lost fiddy, he might have to change his name. Wearing a big-brow hoodie with close-cropped hair and diamond earrings, he’s a big, cuddly baby. He breaks down the power of the mixtape for me.
“What you do is give them a beat that they’re familiar with, put your lyrics to it and you rip that harder than the person who use that beat and show the world that you next,” says Fatso. “That’s what mixtapes all about. I got a album comin’ out. It’s called The Big Payback. That’s the name of it. It’s real fresh and new. My last mixtape was called Rap Resume. Why? Résumé as in my trying to get a job as a rap artist. You feel me?”
It’s hard not to; same for lots of producers and directors who have recently hired him. Like Six Reasons, and Grown Mo, a rapper who we’re gonna meet next.
“You can have a record deal worth $20 million and have a hot video, but if the streets don’t really know you or really don’t grow with you, then your album really not gonna do good. That’s been proven many, many times. And don’t come sounding like somebody else already. Cuz then, they really don’t want you,” adds Fatso.
Fatso follows as we head toward the Ladera Center in Ladera Heights to meet Grown Mo. On the way, the mood turns solemn.
“When you met me, I was just getting over being a bad person. I was never a bad person. I was just doin’ bad shit. Trying to be successful in the way I knew, and that was selling rocks and that was doing anything that’s gonna give me the money. Legally and illegally,” Choc confesses. “Every day, I wake up, I put myself in a position to succeed .?.?. every day. Make a left here. I try to make things better on a daily basis. I don’t hate. That’s against my religion. These other niggers out here that just hate, they don’t wanna blow you up because they hatin’ on you. They hating on you for something, so that mean you doing something good. So I like the haters, in other words. You know what I’m saying?”
Yes, I do Choc. I believe you’re saying that you’re transmuting dark energy into pure light. A sort of energy alchemy, if you will. Right?
“I look at this rap shit like the dope game. You know what I’m saying? You gotta let everybody know that you got that best product out here. So you gotta let everybody know,” Choc continues. “Or word of mouth. Cuz you know people talk. That’s one thing I love about this whole universe. Motherfuckers talk. They like gossip. So when something’s hot, they gonna let you know. That’s how it gonna go down. Marketing. Same as hustling. You grind all night and you grind all day.”
“Been on the block all day grinding. Got the money now it’s to be shining. Swing my chain. Let me swing my chain.”
—“Swing My Chain” by Choc Nitty
Grown Mo is 24 and enterprising. He’s been in NYPD Blue, CSI, ER and Cold Case and recently starred in the feature Gridiron Gang with Six. He has his own label, Bonfire Entertainment. He has two mixtapes, So Serious Volume 1 and So Serious Volume 2. He’s incredibly articulate .?.?. and serious, apparently.
“In the mixtape world, I’m hot,” says Mo. “Got a mixtape out right now. It’s my second one, So Serious Volume 2/Play Your Position, hosted by Dow Jones. He just got a deal over at Interscope .?.?. G-Unit situation. He and his partner, J Hen. We got all kinda features on there .?.?. enhanced with video. I rap over The Game beat TheOne Blood, some other people on there. On iTunes we released the exclusive The Grown Mo Volume 2 Originals. It’s all original. I got Snowman Cliq on there. Got ’em all on iTunes. So, the hood is going worldwide. We putting L.A. on the map like it’s supposta be .?.?. Oh, and you can get everything all the time on my MySpace all the time.”
Grown Mo tells me what’s behind the name of his label, Bonfire Entertainment. “That’s an outdoor flame. A fire in the streets. And that’s what the label is. We everywhere. The streets. Out the trunk. Club. Regular events. Parties. Shows. Everywhere we can be. It’s crazy. I’m at the Slauson Swap Meet signing autographs now. It’s all certified official. Selling on the Internet at Hip-Hop West store on Pico right across the street from Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. You could get Volume 1. Volume 2, you can get it at Rasputin, up in the Bay. Right now, we working on a situation with Amoeba.”
Grown Mo is hyperorganized. He’s got a sophisticated press kit and packaging. He understands the business of marketing as applied to mixtape.
“Let me say one thing about the mixtape market. It’s oversaturated. A ton of people have mixtapes out now and 95 percent of them are wack. I’ll go on record. Grown Mo says 95 percent of the mixtapes are weak. What make it so special .?.?. it so organic. It’s such an intimate process. You got it hand to hand. You didn’t go to Tower, stand on the line. Someone walked to you on the street. Handed it to you. You put it in your car, listened to it. Took it home, put it in your computer. Also on the end, I got a video I’m in. So for five dollars, you get more than your money’s worth.”
It’s cold and windy and drizzling, and Choc Nitty’s shivering. It’s time to call it a night, but I pop into the drugstore for some cigarettes first. On the way out two kids hit me up .?.?. At first I’m not sure what they’re selling. Turns out, it’s the new drug of choice. You guessed it, mixtapes. I take a copy of Hood Reps and give the young rapper, who calls himself Uno, five bucks.
I drop Choc off under a sky full of stars. The clouds have cleared, the storm has finally passed as I say good night. He disappears into the house, now dark. The Nitty kids long since tucked in for the night. I pop Around Da Clock into the CD player and head home .?.?. The shit bang.