“Dope as fuck!” says some homeboy, boogying his baggy khakis and house shoes to the bumping bass.
It’s February, 10 years since the release of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, and in the same warehouse where Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg shot the video “Fuck Wit Dre Day,” a new generation of G’s gather to watch a current West Coast cat shoot his own. Crooked I (pronounced Crooked Eye) is a laid-back lyricist with a harsh attitude; the selection is “Still Tha Row,” the opening cut off the Dysfunktional Family soundtrack, which features new music from Suge Knight’s freshly renamed label, Tha Row.
Knight logged a history of hits with Death Row Records: Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound, 2Pac — all multiplatinum. But that’s in the past. After Knight’s five years in prison, the label couldn’t help but suffer. Dr. Dre left Death Row and now rolls with white rappers and loose change from New York; Snoop defected and is now feuding with Suge; 2Pac rests in peace.
With Kurupt from Tha Dogg Pound now V.P., and Michel’le and Danny Boy returning as the soul of Knight’s musical family, Tha Row aims to bring back the glory. The second dynasty of artists adds Eastwood, Ganxsta Ridd, Virginya Slim, Gail Gotti, Suga Babies and N.I.N.A.; the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes will also get a release. But it’s Crooked I — 26-year-old Dominick Wickliffe, representing East Side Long Beach — who’s expected to carry the heaviest load.
“The West Coast is not at all where it used to be. The feeling of it is not the same, the pride in our music is not the same, our fans are not supporting us like they used to,” Crooked says, then breaks into a mischievous grin. “But we are going to do something about that.”
On a billboard for his new Say Hi to the Bad Guy, Crooked is posed on a commode with the legend “I’m the shit!” He doesn’t care what the mainstream thinks of him. He says he just wants to put out a West Coast classic album (think Too $hort’s Life Is Too $hort) and be “one of the best in the West.”
The flavor is West Coast, but Crooked I won’t be pigeonholed. Reading is his favorite pastime, and he’s making connections to black icons of the past. On “Still Tha Row,” he rhymes, “I’m dangerous/I’m a gangster Langston Hughes” and “I’m dark as dark Bacardi/Dark as Marcus Garvey.” Yes, black is beautiful, but not only black. As 2Pac put it, “It wouldn’t be L.A. without Mexicans/Black love, brown pride in the sets again.”
“The system does not mind us fighting each other,” says Crooked. “Divide and conquer.”
Dope rap music is a marriage of tight lyrics and hard beats. If Crooked I is Tha Row’s black lyrical genius, 28-year-old Darren Vegas is the Chicano beatmaster with a flair for tapping natural talents — just listen to Michel’le’s “I Know Where I’m Going.”
“‘You didn’t make those beats!’” That’s what Vegas says the guys from Bone Thugs-n-Harmony kept yelling at him in the studio. “They started throwing chairs when they found out I was behind the beats,” Vegas remembers. “‘We thought you were black’ — I get that a lot.”
No gangsta, Vegas was born and raised in Orange County. But he paid his musical dues working in Las Vegas and Los Angeles as an itinerant record-producing mercenary. Along the way, he found Suge.
“Suge had heard of me, and I wanted a label. He’s got love for Mexicans,” says Vegas. “Now it’s time for me to help Crooked I fuckin’ blow up Tha Row.”
Word is that Knight runs the studio like a football camp, and his team, the “Heavy Hitters,” includes tough new producers and musicians. Jim Gittum is a natural talent who can play every instrument, including the killer keys on “Still Tha Row.” From the Boo-Ya Tribe, Monsta “O” is a Samoan who will not only kick your ass on the streets, he’ll tear you up in the studio on bass and guitar.
They have a mission. This region some call Killer Cali is known for two not-unrelated institutions: San Quentin and Tha Row. In prison, you make license plates; at Tha Row, you make platinum. It’s the law.
“I don’t care what you’re rapping about, whether it’s a child playing in the park, or doing a drive-by,” Crooked I says. “There are only two forms of music in this world, dope and wack. That’s it!”