As Atlantic delays his major-label debut, Da Yellow Bus Rydah, Mistah FAB hits the underground running with Da Baydestrian
Still looks like slavery
But it's the black legacy
Mistah FAB, "100 Bars"
One night last September, I hitch a ride with G-Stack of the Delinquents and Dotrix of Tha Mekanix to Dem Hoodstarz's album release party in San Francisco. As we park outside the club, Mistah FAB rolls up with a modest posse. In contrast to his usual iced-out Technicolor clubwear, the man also known as Fabby Davis Jr. is low-key, dressed all in black, a pair of designer stunna shades supplying the main clue to his identity. He hops in Stack's car to hear a newly laid track for the latter's upcoming Purple Hood, then we set out for the club, a less than half block journey whose distance is lengthened interminably by a series of well-wishers and business consultations. It's like following two CEOs across the floor of the stock exchange: Stack is on two cell phones, trying to shake hands with someone. FAB, meanwhile, handles minor transactions, poses for a photo, and takes a call, all while briefing me on the deal he had just signed with Atlantic Records for Da Yellow Bus Rydah, the much-anticipated follow-up to his 2005 disc, Son of a Pimp (Thizz Ent.).
Near the door, a man takes FAB aside. "FAB, you gotta do something about the violence," he says, meaning specifically the 141 homicides in Oakland in 2006 under former mayor and present attorney general Jerry Brown. FAB nods at what is clearly an unreasonable request, albeit one that reflects the disproportionate political burden borne by black entertainers in America. No one would turn to, say, Justin Timberlake to stop violence. Then again, I imagine no one asks Keak Da Sneak either. FAB's position, in other words, is unique.
Though he made his early reputation as a freestyle battle rhymer and owes his success to hyphy hits like "Super Sic Wit It," FAB's lyrics seldom stray into gangsta or pimp terrain the title of his last album is simply literal. Yet he can get down on a track with the most thugged-out MCs. Aside from the giants Too $hort and E-40 and on par with the perpetually hot Keak, FAB is the rapper all Bay Area rappers want on their albums, because he has the biggest buzz on the radio and in the streets. His popularity gives him influence, but FAB commands respect in the hood because he's from the hood: his compass-based hit "N.E.W. Oakland" was the first major rap recognition of his native North Oakland as a hood. This rapport with the alienated and isolated ghetto youth who constitute hyphy's core audience separates him from the vast majority of MCs to whom the label "conscious" may be applied.
"You go up to someone in the hood and be, like, 'Dick Cheney had a heart attack,' they be, like, 'Who the fuck is Dick Cheney?'" FAB says later. "But you tell him, 'Jay-Z donated a million dollars to improve water in Africa,' they be, like, 'For real?' That's something of their world. Being a Bay Area artist, I'm of their world. So you have the opportunity to teach without them knowing."
"People who have influence," FAB continues, "have an obligation to tell people, 'Preserve life. Save lives. Help lives.' But it's hard to reach people if you're not giving them something they relate to. The hyphy movement is something they relate to. Hyphy gets you in the door, to open their ears to what I'm saying. It's up to them to digest it."
That night at the club, FAB exerts his influence. When things get salty between security and Dem Hoodstarz's East Palo Alto associates, the group calls FAB to the stage to perform their collaboration "Ugh." Things chill out. FAB issues an impromptu plea against violence and murders. These are problems no single person can solve, but FAB is doing his part. Yet by the show's finale the "Getz Ya Grown Man On" remix, on which he has a verse Fabby Davis has left the building. Being Mistah FAB, I realize, can be exhausting.
Mistah FAB's deal with Atlantic is a landmark in a scene long neglected by the majors. Along with Clyde Carson's signing with Capitol, FAB's arrangement including distribution for his Faeva Afta Entertainment is the first serious acknowledgment of the renaissance Bay Area rap has undergone in the past three years. Unlike E-40, a regional star who'd already achieved putf8um sales on Jive before his push last year by Warner Bros., FAB's an unknown quantity outside the Bay. And in contrast to Frontline or the Federation whose deals came through the respective backing of nationally known producers E-A-Ski and Rick Rock FAB is the first evidence for a new generation of local rappers that enough talent and dedication can get you signed. It's another weight on the shoulders of the man born Stanley Cox Jr.
"Lots of people are putting their hopes into the album," he acknowledges. "They're, like, 'I hope FAB do it, because it'll kick in the door for all of us.' I realized when I was creating this album it's not just something I want to do. It's something my whole region depends on."
Da Yellow Bus Rydah's journey has been anything but smooth, however. Bottom line: Atlantic has postponed the album's tentatively scheduled spring release, due to controversy surrounding the Ghostbusters-themed advance single, "Ghost Ride It." A tribute to the hood-invented practice of throwing your car in neutral as you walk alongside and steer, "Ghost Ride It" was generating a buzz through its a video on YouTube and the minor-league MTVs when a Dec. 29, 2006, Associated Press story ("Hip-Hop Car Stunt Leaves 2 Dead") linked the song with a pair of unrelated deaths: Davender Gulley, 18, of Stockton, who "died after his head slammed into a parked car while he was hanging out the window of an SUV," and an unnamed "36-year-old man dancing on top of a moving car [who] fell off, hit his head and died in what authorities said was Canada's first ghost riding fatality." While the scant details obscure whether these incidents stemmed from ghost riding or more traditional automotive horseplay, Fox News's Hannity and Colmes found the trend alarming enough to call FAB on the carpet in January.
"You understand that a lot of kids look up to you?" Sean Hannity accused rather than asked FAB. "They sing your songs. They dress like you. They talk like you they wanna be you!" Aside from displaying an oversimplified sense of the relationship between artist and audience, Hannity's remark reveals a comic lack of familiarity with hip-hop and their guest in particular: what part of "Super Sic Wit It" do you sing? Moreover, while rap fans undoubtedly draw from the same well of slang, the idea that they all talk the same or even like FAB, for that matter is a stereotype.
"I don't think they expected me to be so articulate," FAB recalls with a laugh. Yet among MCs, FAB is singular interview subject. While he has a clear sense of his talent and importance, he's more apt to discuss his personal relationship with God or how his lonely childhood as a latchkey kid inspired him to create rather than brag about how real he is. His power to articulate the struggle of urban youth to explain the rage that motivates, say, ghost riding is the very reason he's often labeled the spokesperson for a hyphy movement otherwise devoted to "going dumb."
Hannity treated FAB like he's dumb, but FAB turned the tables. Hannity's denunciation of his effect on the "kids" prompted the rapper to question whether his influence rightly extends to a Canadian 11 years his senior, which Hannity countered by accusing FAB of wanting as much "money and controversy" as he can get. When FAB speculated on the influence of turning on the TV and seeing 3,000 soldiers die in Iraq, Alan Colmes was sent in as a balm, ending the segment.
"Both those people were adults," FAB says later of the ghost-riding deaths. "I feel bad for the families, but at the end of the day, an adult has to take responsibility for his actions."
The next pothole for Yellow Bus was a late March cease and desist letter from Columbia Pictures for copyright infringement in the "Ghost Ride It" video just as it was about to debut on MTV's 106 and Park. "We had permission [to use the Ghostbusters van] from the man who built it and owns it," FAB explains. "But Columbia owns the logo." The video was immediately pulled from all media outlets, impairing Atlantic's ability to market the single nationally. As a result, the Yellow Bus has been parked. The official explanation, from Atlantic VP Mike Carin, is that the label is focusing on FAB's "artistic development." Despite the inevitable rumor that the rapper was dropped, Carin confirms that "the deal is still in place."
Still, such delays have silenced many MCs' buzz: witness how the delay of Raekwon's album on Aftermath has converted excitement into skepticism, or how the Team's World Premiere (Moedoe/Koch, 2006) dropped too long after its singles had peaked, leading to lower-than-expected sales. Fortunately, the structure of FAB's distribution deal allows him an unusual degree of freedom.
"They were willing to sacrifice certain things," he says of his initial decision to sign with Atlantic among competing offers. "They allowed me to do what I want to do if I want to drop an independent album, I can."
This flexibility has allowed the prolific FAB to immediately walk out another new album, Da Baydestrian, on May 15, through SMC/Fontana. Although, according to SMC cofounder Will Bronson, Atlantic has options to include as many as five of its songs on Yellow Bus, Baydestrian is an otherwise distinct project intended to satisfy the demand for a follow-up to Son of a Pimp. FAB's also preparing a series of summer releases, including a second installment of the all-freestyle Tonite Show with DJ Fresh. (Fresh, incidentally, edited FAB's 2005 DVD, The Freestyle King, now packaged with Baydestrian as a bonus.) With Beeda Weeda and J-Stalin, representing the East and West respectively, FAB's formed the multihood group N.E.W. Oakland, whose mixtape is nearing completion. Prince of Da Bay (In Yo Face/Hooker Boy Filmz), a documentary on FAB by local hip-hop director Dame Hooker, should be out by press time, while FAB's next DVD, Shoobalaboobie TV, is in the works.
"You do what you have to do to keep the buzz going," FAB says. "Also sales on the independent level, your numbers are what's important [to major labels]." Da Baydestrian thus has Atlantic's blessing, but its commercial success will determine the fate of his deal.
Yet the need to appeal to the marketplace hasn't inhibited FAB's creativity, and Da Baydestrian refuses to play it safe. Rather than exploit the hyphy sound he helped establish, FAB only sprinkles it in, most obviously on the remix of the Traxamillion-produced "Sideshow" and the opening title track, one of six bangers produced by FAB protégé Rob-E. The young Martinez-born producer proves his versatility on tracks like the triumphant "Get This Together" and the melancholy "Life on Track," featuring Faeva Afta vocalist J-Nash, whose Hyphy Love drops in August. Another four productions by Son of a Pimp collaborator Genessee contribute to Baydestrian's in-house feel even as the family breaks new ground: "Can't Wait," say, evokes Andre 3000's explorations of go-go, filtered through FAB's hyphy sensibility, while "Shorty Tryin' 2 Get By" is a contemporary "Keep Ya Head Up" spiced with Bay Area R&B. The album is refreshingly free of skits, and guest stars are kept to a minimum, but Too $hort blesses the disc three times, an unambiguous stamp of approval from Bay rap's founder.
What makes Da Baydestrian one of the most extraordinary albums since hyphy's inception, however, is its social consciousness. "Deepest Thoughts," for example, hits out at President George W. Bush, but even more pointedly at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for expanding the prison system instead of aiding the poor. The Sean Tproduced "Crack Baby Anthem" addresses teen dope dealers, seeking to uplift without castigating or glorifying their activities for the nonghetto audience, the song connects the dots between poverty, crime, and the present political climate. FAB describes his approach as "hip-hyphy," presenting an alternative to hip-hop fans who consider hyphy juvenile or incomprehensible. Granted, the disc's school bus and helmet imagery referring to the hyphy concept of acting "retarded" is hardly p.c. Nonetheless, FAB's lunchbox-wielding Baydestrian is a welcome change from the exaltation of guns and dope adorning your average rap album.
"In no way am I trying to say I'm like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X," FAB explains. "But I realized I could create nonsense and seem to support ignorance, or I can get people to start looking at the reality of it, and the reality of it is that young blacks are dying, not only in the Bay; they're dying everywhere. We've been raised in a warlike civilization. We've been brainwashed to accept war as the proper thing to do when things don't go right."
"Tupac [Shakur] said it himself," FAB concludes. "He said, 'I'm not going to be the one to change the world. But I guarantee I'll plant a seed in the mind of someone who does.' We're all the Tupac generation. Pac was hyphy."
While I don't think it's my place to declare FAB the next Tupac, I can't fail to be struck by his invocation of the Bay Area icon. On a superficial level, of course, with all his non-thugged-out, cartoonish imagery, FAB is nothing like Pac, just as the hyphy movement differs from the Bay's mid-'90s sound. Yet locally, if not nationally, the two rappers occupy the same position on the map of hip-hop: like Pac, FAB has cred with nearly everyone, he has a positive message within an utterly street aesthetic, and he makes tunes everyone wants to hear. No rapper has embodied all three attributes since Pac, and that combination makes FAB extraordinary. *