The Playa

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.

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Dave Wielenga