The good news just keeps on coming for Suga Free and DJ Quik. Every ten minutes or so, another bit of it filters into a conference room at the Island Records offices on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard, where the rapper and his veteran producer are answering an interviewer's questions. Somebody knocks: "Excuse me, but the video for the first single, 'If You Stay Ready,' was just named Clip of the Week by Urban Network."
Another knock: "Sorry to bother you, but the Beat just called. They're asking for an appearance at one of their community events next month."
Knock knock: "Can I interrupt again? Thought you'd want to know that BET just put the 'If You Stay Ready' video at number five." So regular are these interruptions that they begin to feel like part of the public-relations drum roll that has preceded this talk.
Except that Suga Free is authentically surprised. He reacts to each report with grinning wonder. This is his first time in this situation, and he still can't get used to the idea of hearing the recently released single "If You Stay Ready" on the radio and seeing it in record stores. Nonetheless, the release of Street Gospel, the debut album that hit the stores last week, culminates a six-year wait since Suga Free's distinctive style first attracted professional attention.
"I didn't just pop up overnight. This has taken a long time," says 27-year-old Free, who was born in Oakland, lived in Compton for a while, but is coming out of Pomona. "I've got some recording experience. I used to always go to the studios to, you know, please the homies. They liked what I could do, so I'd let them hear it. But I never sent my tapes to nobody. I did it just for fun."
That changed when a scout named Tony Lane picked Suga Free's get-down glissando -- a smooth, sassy, rapid-fire delivery -- out from a demo Free had recorded with a half-dozen other rappers. Lane took the tape to industry veteran Stan Sheppard, and the men formed Sheppard Lane Records, which has teamed up with Unfadeable Records to launch Street Gospel through the newly launched Island Black Music imprint.
Meanwhile, Free did a couple of years behind bars for gang-related infractions he won't get specific about. "It's all been a part of the serious waitin'," acknowledges Free, who was born DaJuan Walker. "But people stuck with me. That's why it feels so good to get this kind of payoff, to realize that the world is loving the music it's finally hearing. Because after all of this, I didn't know what to expect."
Free realized his chances for success were enhanced when DJ Quik was brought into the mix. "That's not something that happens to everybody," he says. "Quik is a superstar, a genius, a man known for working with topflight artists. I'm just a little squirrel."
The men were born a day apart in January 1970, but at 27, Quik is among the few thriving survivors of a musical genre known for short careers -- and, these days, for shortened lives. The Compton native comes from the bangin'-on-wax underground era of a decade ago and had a platinum solo album before Suga Free cut his first demo. He did a stint as a staff producer for Death Row and, for a while, embraced the gangsta-rap posture -- claiming affiliation with the Treetop Piru Bloods and devastatingly dissing MC Eiht on the soundtrack to Snoop Doggy Dogg's mini-movie Murder Was the Case -- but has since renounced and apologized for those recordings. Recently, Quik's work has been all over the map and the radio, from 2Pac's "Hearts of Men" to Tony! Toni! Tone!'s "Let's Get Down" to Shaquille O'Neal's "Strait Playin'." Quik is currently in the studio masterminding funkmeister Rick James's comeback album and working with rapper Richie Rich, and he hints that another of his own solo albums, tentatively titled Q-IV, might be out this summer.
"But I can actually say that this project with Suga Free motivated me more than any other I've done," Quik claims. "The first time I went to listen to him, I knew this man was something special. I'll never forget it: He gets up and starts beating on a table with his hands and a pen, and I'm like, 'Damn!' He was so theatrical, so dramatic. Then he starts rapping, and what shocked me is that he's rapping out of time with his beat with amazing syncopation. And he's doing this incredible lyrical shit over a steady rhythm he's creating. I was blown away. I didn't need to hear anything else. He sold me."
Suga Free mastered this bare-bones style while incarcerated, and it's displayed on one of Street Gospel's most compelling tracks, "I Wanna Go Home," a starkly beautiful hip-hop descendant of back-porch blues. The rest of the CD is much more lush, even though the songs were recorded, mixed and completed in two months -- most of it in bedrooms, garages and bathrooms.
The pace and process gave the project a rootsy sensibility. "It's like, even though I was working on this big change in my life, nothing about the music had changed for me," Free reflects. "I wasn't in this big, cold studio with lots of people I didn't know walking in on me."
Quik laughs, adding, "No, it was like, 'Close that bathroom door, dude, we're getting ready to do the vocals! And turn off that TV!' "
But Free's speed-dial delivery and cool-playa attitude -- couched in Quik's eclectic retro-futuro production -- position Street Gospel on the cusp of What Comes Next. There's a compatibility between the two that recalls some of the telepathic chemistry of the early Dr. Dre/Snoop Doggy Dogg collaborations. Not that Street Gospel feels as revolutionary or as pioneering as Dre's The Chronic; the big favor of the breakout single, "If You Stay Ready," is its reinvigorating take on the tired street-mackin' persona, injecting it with a shot of smart-aleck playfulness and a touch of vulnerability. Even if that isn't exactly brand new, it's appreciated. After the rivalries and violence that have occupied so many hip-hop headlines, it's nice to have something to talk about besides who's an ass and who's in a hole in the ground.
"I was very confused when I was doing gangsta-rap music," Quik says. "I really didn't have a feel for what I wanted to do in this business, what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I was swayed, and I took on a destructive attitude. I was a foot soldier for a bad cause. Now I see the mistakes I made spiritually -- they came back to haunt me in fights and whatnot and getting tied into other dumb things -- and I will never make those spiritual mistakes again."
"This ain't no gangsta rap -- this is playa shit," Free emphasizes. "We're gonna hit 'em with it and see what happens, although people may have to listen to it a couple of times to know what I'm saying, I come with it so fast."
And when they figure it out, some people won't like it. What playa rapping lacks in violence it sometimes replaces with misogyny. Then again, the CD is called Street Gospel, and Free offers no apologies. "I love my album to death, and can't nobody take that away from me," he proclaims. "The production is the bomb, and I'm rapping like I ain't never heard nobody rap. It's like, I want to hear some shit like this, so let me be the one to do it."
Though Quik doesn't plan to resort to any profanity on his upcoming solo album, he's not in the business of censoring others or philosophizing about the future of hip-hop. With his recent work, which incorporates influences from jazz and funk to rock and pop, Quik is establishing himself among the upper echelon of hip-hop producers -- even though he's rarely mentioned among them. "I love it!" Quik says. "That's what keeps me hungry; I'm not overexposed. That keeps the pressure off me of having to compete and be better than the last project, you know? Instead, it's just a steady flow, but my whole little rep still ascends -- as opposed to, 'Oh no, he peaked!' "
There's a break in the conversation for a moment as another triumphant tidbit -- something about a radio station's request for an on-air, in-studio interview -- is relayed into the room. Free grins again, and Quik congratulates him, but the producer's enthusiasm is becoming tempered by wariness. Finally, Quik speaks his mind.
"Suga Free, you do not need to know this, not any of it," Quik says, shaking his head even as he continues to chuckle with pleasure. "You need to be back in the studio -- right now! You need to be shut out from the world. You don't even need to listen to the radio. You need to go back in that studio and pick out some more psychedelic, weird, freaky sounds and match 'em with some of those psychedelic lines of yours and make another album."
Even though the first CD has only just been released?
"Don't matter," Quik insists. "You've got to have something new for Christmas. No matter how this album runs, you've got to follow it immediately -- pow! -- with number two. That way you keep people held over, 'cause they're still enjoying number one -- and number two is like number one. As opposed to you blowing up and you having a good time and getting a little lazy and you going on the road touring -- and then you got to come home after all of that and make a good album? It doesn't work! It's called the sophomore jinx, and the only thing that keeps you from going through that is to do your next album right away, so you're still fresh on."
Suga Free has become still. "Okay, okay," he says softly, nodding raptly. "Okay, I'm hearing you."
"That way it's almost like a running album, from the first to the second," Quik continues, now excited himself. "It's got the same vibes. Don't worry about the sound -- I'm going to update that -- but it's got to have the same magic. Yes, it's got to be magical, with sparkling glitter all over it. All this other stuff doesn't mean anything. You can't let go of the magic.
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