To trust or not to trust in Thizz City — the dilemma of SF rap
MUSIC Messy Marv, a.k.a. The Boy Boy Young Mess, is probably San Francisco's most popular rapper. Within the city, fellow Fillmore District native San Quinn remains SF's icon, but, as Will Bronson, head of SMC Recordings, says: "Once you cross that [Bay} Bridge, it's Mess." According to Saeed Crumpler, the rap buyer for Rasputin, the prolific Mess outsells everyone in the Bay save E-40 and The Jacka, often having three or four CDs among the store's top 20 rap chart. SMC has thus tapped the raspy-voiced gangsta rapper to preside over the just-released compilation Thizz City, first of a Frisco-focused series paralleling the label's Oakland-oriented imprint Town Thizzness.
"We're trying to brand the city and showcase the talent and the up and coming talent," Mess says of Thizz City, a partnership between SMC and Thizz Entertainment, hence the name. "People can get on my promotion as far as where I'm at in my career."
True to this conception, Thizz City attempts to represent all of the city's scattered hoods, with a lineup that ranges from enduring O.G.s like Lakeview's Cellski to new acts like Roach Gigz, a white kid from the Fillmore. Yet behind this apparent display of unity lurks an inconvenient truth: SF rappers don't get along. By comparison, Oakland is a rap utopia — not that there's never beef so much as the prominent acts tend to find common cause in the endless quest to make it big.
"In Oakland, they come together," says Killa Keise, also of Lakeview. Keise, who began recording with Cellski at 12 and later hooked up with Hunters Point's Guce, is simultaneously a vet and a young act, one of several slated for a Thizz City album later this year. "We just did a video shoot in Oakland for Guce and all the Oakland rappers came out to support it," Killa says. "But there really wasn't that Frisco support."
The lack of camaraderie in SF is evident, and neutrality is frequently not an option. I've confirmed stories, off the record, of people being threatened just for recording with another rapper's rival, and never have I been forced to have so many off-the-record conversations to get a picture of what's happening. In Oakland, threats are generally reserved for someone who owes someone money, not for guilt by association. But in SF, where the African American population has shrunk from 13 percent to 6.5 percent since 1970 (according to an Aug. 8, 2008 article in the San Francisco Chronicle), street politics tend to exert more pressure on its necessarily smaller rap scene.
Mess's situation is instructive. Currently he's prepping his first full-blown solo album in several years, Waken Dey Cook Game Up, due this month from his own company, Scalen LLC/Click Clack Records. Produced largely by Mess's longtime collaborator Sean T, who also made Mac Dre's classic "Fellin' Myself," Waken will be the Fillmore rapper's first big release as The Boy Boy Young Mess. It's also a serious bid for chart action, with singles featuring Keyshia Cole (whom Mess discovered in the late 1990s) and Houston rapper Chalie Boy, whose 2009 independent hit "I Look Good" snagged him a deal with Jive. Clearly Mess has similar major label ambitions, and Chalie Boy proves that despite rap's youth bias, a 30-year-old underground legend like Mess himself can still fulfill them. (In the age of Jay-Z, 30 is the new 25.)
"If one of us makes it from Frisco, we all make it," says Guce, articulating the regional rap logic that has turned once-fledgling scenes like Houston into national powerhouses. But the SF rap scene hasn't rallied around Mess the way the entire Bay seemed to support Jacka for last year's Billboard-charting Tear Gas (SMC). This is partly due to feuds that have divided the Fillmore itself. A vicious beef with San Quinn two years ago has left lingering tension. Their battle was shocking because Quinn and Mess literally grew up under the same roof — Mess lived with Quinn's family for a time — and the two have recorded together since they were teens.
"It was an ugly fight because they knew too much about each other," says Fillmore's Big Rich, who is in the studio working on his new album, Built to Last, with his protégés, Evenodds. "When Rick Ross and 50-Cent beef, they don't know each other like that. It's very nonpersonal. But these two brothers, every line they said was real."
Just as this beef was "officially" squashed, another exploded between Mess and his former associates the Taliban (Young Boo and Homewrecka), which the group airs on Thizz City. The reasons for the dispute are less clear than the duo's mode of attack, which is to question Mess' street cred due to his recent absence from the Bay. On probation after his second weapons conviction — one strike away from serious prison time — Mess relocated to Miami in 2008 to focus on his music and his new endeavors Scalen Clothing and Scalen Films.
"When you break away and do other things, you get negative shit: 'He ain't fuck with the hood no more. He ain't got money no more,'<0x2009>" Mess says during our phone interview. "Ain't nobody run me out of Fillmore. I go wherever the fuck I please. I got out of jail and moved myself because I don't want to go through that situation no more."
This is an eternal dilemma, not limited to SF. A gangsta rapper faces an unrealistic if not impossible demand: to maintain credibility, you're supposed to simultaneously get rich and stay in the hood.
"A lot of my people are brainwashed to believe you're supposed to be in the hood and stay there," Mess says. "That's not what it's supposed to be. I want to break the cycle. I have a kid. I don't want him to go through the shit I went through. So I'm doing what I need to do for what's better for my kid."
No rap scene is immune to street politics, but the degree to which they affect SF is more extreme than anywhere else in the Bay. To every rapper I spoke with, I put the same question: why? Big Rich links the widespread volatility to both the depressed economy and drug abuse.
"The turf war in SF hip-hop is because niggas ain't eatin' enough," Rich says. "Only a few of us can live off rap. And a few aren't livin' the way they used to because of the economy. That's problem No 2. Problem No. 1 is drugs. A lot of Frisco rappers do cocaine and ecstasy, and drugs alter your thought process and your actions. So you get the drugs mixed in with the street politics and the lack of money being circulated."
Another answer comes from the Fillmore's DaVinci, a rising star originally from Quinn's Done Deal camp. In March, DaVinci released his debut, The Day the Turf Stood Still (SWTBRDS), one of the most powerful, thought-provoking recent Bay Area albums, using gangsta rap to explore the problems of urban life. (The album is available for purchase or for free at www.swtbrds.com/DaVinci ) As on his album, DaVinci suggests that gentrification is the root of many problems that bleed into the SF's rap scene.
"Not only did gentrification break up families, but families that stayed let personal problems get in the way of coming together," DaVinci said. "Fillmore used to be a whole, and now it's broken up into different sections. Families who were keeping it together moved or got bought out of they houses, and we're left with sprinkles of people who don't know each other well. Or the second generation from them isn't able to connect the dots like, 'Oh, my pops used to go to school with him; he's cool.' It wasn't instantly beef, but it was more like, 'I ain't fuckin with them.'<0x2009>"
As the aforementioned Chronicle article notes, SF has the most rapidly dwindling black population in the country, and the Fillmore, prime real estate in the middle of one of the most expensive cities on earth, has particularly felt the squeeze.
"The neighborhood's shrinking every year," DaVinci says. "It's like, first you had two blocks for your territory, now you only got half a block. You do whatever you can to protect your half-block, even if it means you just fuck with these two niggas on your block. People don't trust each other. And that's reflected in the music because the music always reflects what's going on in the neighborhood."
Everyone I spoke with agrees that the lack of unity in SF rap is a problem. It's bad for business, even locally. Town Thizzness, for example, has been thriving since 2008 while Thizz City is just getting off the ground, though they were conceived at the same time. "It's like there's a dark cloud over the city," DEO of Evenodds sighs.
Occasionally a ray of light breaks through. Berner, a Mexican Italian SF native whose duo projects with the likes of Jacka also made Billboard noise, recently brokered what seemed impossible: getting Mess and Quinn on the same track — twice! — for his new collaboration with Mess, Blow (Blocks and Boatdocks) from Bern One Entertainment.
"I'm a fan first," Berner says. "To be able to bring them together after all the problems is the greatest feeling in the world."
They may have recorded their parts on opposite coasts without personal interaction, but that Mess and Quinn agreed to appear together sends a powerful message. Yet the tension in SF rap runs far deeper than any one dispute and Rich, for one, is tired of it.
"People be like, 'We need a meeting, all the rappers come out,'<0x2009>" he says. "Every meeting, niggas say 'This is what we need to do, this is what we gonna do,' then everyone puts their hand in the circle and we break out the huddle. And niggas go out that room like, 'Fuck that nigga.' So I gotta carve my own lane and stay in it."