The first time I interviewed Shaheed Akbar, a.k.a. the Jacka in December of 2007, during a midnight session for Tear Gas (Artist Records/SMC), due June 16 he was rolling purple and green weeds plus two types of hash into a Sharpie-sized blunt. I felt like Paul Bowles interviewing Bob Marley. Having known him three years, I can assure you that even in the Bay's smoky atmosphere, Jacka blazes like a forest fire.
I dwell on this because it's one facet of the Tear Gas concept, beyond the title's literal meaning. The perpetual cloud enveloping Jacka is as much a part of his persona as his mobbed out tales of street life, based on experience. Like many artists, the MC enlists his favorite plant in the service of music.
"Weed helps you concentrate on certain things," Jacka observes, during a follow-up interview last month. "Nothing that contains too much multitasking. But if you don't rap, try writing one; it's hard as fuck. Weed gets you outside your normal realm so you coming up with crazy shit."
Yet, considering his consumption, Jacka barely raps about weed, or at least no more than most rappers; he has other things on his mind. When I e-mail Paul Wall, one of several big-name features on Tear Gas, to ask why he wanted to work with Jacka, he emphasizes the authenticity of his collaborator's verses.
"He speaks from experience when he rhymes," Wall writes. "Like he's rapping from a hustler's perspective for other hustlers."
The experience Wall cites consists of details which, in the aggregate, might make for improbable fiction. Jacka's rise to local notoriety at age 18 as a member of C-Bo's Mob Figaz whose eponymous debut (Git Paid, 1999) moved something like 140,000 units is fairly well documented. But the story begins much earlier. Born of 14-year-old parents, young Jacka saw his mother get addicted to crack, and his father go to prison for a decade only to be murdered shortly after release. The result was an impoverished childhood in various hoods in Oakland, Richmond, and finally Pittsburg, where the Mob Figaz began.
"As a kid, everywhere I lived was in the projects," he says. "A nigga's whole thing is to get out of there." Such ambition led Jacka to start dealing crack as early as age 11.
"Say you're in school," Jacka continues. "Moms ain't working. Pops ain't around. The other kids at school have everything you don't, as far as clothes and packing they own lunch. All that matters when you're a kid. You go to junior high and you eating free lunch, people are like, 'What kind of nigga is you?' So when you're from the hood and can hustle, that's definitely helping your self-esteem. You pulling out wads of cash and motherfuckers who used to laugh at you ain't got shit. That made me feel hella good."
"Things I had to do to survive is one thing," he says. "But how I feel about it now is another."
Jacka's willingness to probe psychological wounds reveals another implication of Tear Gas. Paradoxically or not, in a genre where emotions are usually limited to elation and anger, a large part of Jacka's appeal is his emphasis on the melancholy ambivalence of street life. It's subtle, of course, sprinkled into stories of coke-dealing and cap-busting. But contrary to his assertion on the Traxamillion-produced "Girls," an infectious thug-pop remake of the 1986 Beastie Boys classic, Jacka doesn't just "knock hoes and live it up."
"You can only shoot the breeze so much; you gotta drop a jewel on people," says Jacka, citing 2Pac, to whom he pays homage in "Hope Is for Real." "He had to be a sheep in wolf's clothing because he had to reach me, the niggas in the hood, but look what you learn from him. So I have to study and get wiser to even make a song."
To be sure, Tear Gas isn't a sociological treatise; like the blues, it voices the despair of a culture rather than proposing solutions. But such articulation is exactly what makes the music of both Pac and Jacka so powerful.
"Listen to Marvin Gaye," Jacka continues. "I guarantee he's going to grab your soul. He knows something and could put it together with the music. And what he talked about was the struggle, the pain. I try to make shit that'll stick to your soul. Like the music my parents used to listen to."
Besides his social consciousness, Jacka's success rests squarely on quality. Last year, his single "All Over Me" included on Tear Gas hit No. 7 on KMEL's playlist and No. 15 on Billboard's "Bubbling Under" singles chart. Yet he refused to rush his album to capitalize on this exposure. Instead, he released 11 side projects. Two of them debuted on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop chart: Drought Season (Bern One), a collaboration with rapper Berner, at No. 55, and The Street Album (Artist Records), a "mixtape album" with KMEL DJ Big Von, at No. 91.
"Motherfuckers like shit that make them think," Jacka says, when asked about his appeal. They also like real albums and, taken as whole, Tear Gas is among the best rap discs in recent history, major or indie. Despite its array of producers and perhaps a few too many guests, Jacka has fashioned a tight, coherent album where every track is vital an extreme rarity in contemporary hip hop. With its minor-key, exotic flute and harp textures, the new single "Glamorous Lifestyle," also produced by Traxamillion and featuring André Nickatina, epitomizes the overall feel.
"It's not an easy process unless you really listen to music, and follow all kinds of genres," says Jacka. "Some people just listen to rap, but other music helps you grow as an artist."
Being a rapper, Jacka's voice is ultimately his most important asset, an instantly recognizable, rounded, mellow drawl even when he raps fast that is never raspy, despite the steady diet of blunts. His melodic, half-sung delivery, moreover, perfectly fits his vocal texture and mournful themes.
"My style really comes from the struggle," he says. "I'm not trying to make you like what I'm saying I'm trying to get into your soul." This spiritual goal reflects what he credits as his primary influence: chanting the Koran. Surprising or not, given his gangsta themes, smoking, and even drinking, Jacka is a devout Sunni Muslim. It's the result of a spiritual quest he began at age 9, when he joined the Nation of Islam.
"They showed me how to be black, because I really didn't know," he explains. "I just knew we were in America, we used to be slaves, but I didn't know why it was so tough for us. They made me read books that taught me to be proud of who I am. They can be a little strict sometimes, but they have to be; there was so much taken away from us."
When Jacka began intensively reading the Koran, however, he began to question some of the Nation's teachings. "I realized that what it said in the Koran is what I should do," he says. "Not that plus something else."
The development of Jacka's faith toward more orthodox Islam accelerated circa 2000. The Mob Figaz' momentum slowed when C-Bo went to prison and Jacka caught a robbery case that landed him in county jail for a year.
"In jail, I was reading the Koran and realized the Sunni Muslim way is for me," Jacka remembers. "It's the way I can pray directly to God." Following his release, Jacka took his shahada, declaring his formal adherence to Islam. But as rap money dried up in the Bay during its leanest years (2000-04), he returned to crime at a whole new level, even while beginning his solo career with The Jacka (Akbr Records, 2001).
"When I started working on my album, things changed for me I really got into the streets," Jacka says. Rap celebrity gave him connections he otherwise would have lacked. "Whatever rap niggas was talking about, we were living," he says with some pride, although he feels he'll one day have to answer to Allah for his misdeeds. Details of his criminal past are necessarily vague, though if you consider that fellow Mob Figa Husalah was arrested for transporting "over five kilos" of cocaine, a case culminating in his 2006 sentence to 53 months in federal prison, you get the picture.
"The streets are dried up for me," says Jacka. "Once the feds knock your boy, you can't fuck around for the rest of your life. I'm hot. So I stay with the music now."
"I didn't take the business as seriously as I should have," he admits. "So I had to start from ground zero." Fortunately, by the time Jacka's second "official" solo album The Jack Artist (Artist Records, 2005) was ready to drop, the Bay began to heat up again. Even in the heyday of hyphy, the conspicuously non-hyphy Jack Artist sold some 20,000 copies, or "more than all those niggas put together," in the words of the man behind it. Yet despite this success, Tear Gas sounds little like its predecessor. Instead, it reflects Jacka's artistic growth now that he's settled down to music full time.
"I wouldn't trade this for those times again never," Jacka says, when asked to weigh yesterday and today. "This is something legit we're doing that's real. My dream as a child was to do this."