Celly Cel — “What U Niggaz Thought”
A few nights ago, I read through the latest spat between veteran blogger Noz and his (perceived) critical nemesis Jeff Weiss with a great deal of interest, though not at all for the music in question. You see, I’m sure Pill and Freddie Gibbs are talented rappers, but the truth is I feel no desire whatsoever to explore their “catalog” by downloading one of the gazillion mixtapes they’ve released for free. That’s just not how I’ve grown up listening to music. In fact, every time I hear someone complain about how mixtapes aren’t afforded the same critical respect as albums, or suggest that rap critics spend eight hours a day keeping up with the constant flood of free internet music (seriously Noz, is that your life?), I want to smash my computer with a bat and curse the internet for irreversibly ruining rap music. You see, before purchasing music became the sole domain of collectors and altruists, the same “gritty” and “uncompromising” qualities so prized in Pill and Gibbs could be found on any number of major label releases, many of which sold incredibly well without making any mainstream concessions. It wasn’t necessary to flood the worldwide web to create a buzz; on the contrary, one could scan a lot of fucking records without looking much further than his own coast or region. Nowadays, however, that approach is extinct, and artists like Pill and Gibbs have no choice but to court national attention through the internet. Which upsets “street-minded” bloggers, who don’t want to share their artists with anyone as white as themselves (certainly not readers of The New Yorker and The Times), evokes ambivalence in the few of us who still prefer our music in concrete form, and only wins fans among people who, should an album ever be released, will surely download it for free anyway (a la most of The Passion‘s commenters.) All the while, we know that if a major label does take notice (which has to be these rappers’ end goal) it’ll erase any of the individuality that made them appealing in the first place, since the old stick-with-the-formula approach (think Too $hort and E-40 on Jive) is just no longer commercially viable.
So what’s an artist to do? Fuck if I know. The game is fucked up, in a real way. But let’s remember a time when it wasn’t. A time when an unapolagetically regional rapper—from Vallejo of all places—was able to move well over 400K copies of his sophomore album, all while remaining virtually unknown outside the Bay Area (and, apparently, Seattle.) No, I’m not talking about E-40, or even Mac Dre. In those fruitful days, even a tiny city like Vallejo could boast multiple major-label emcees, of which Celly Cel, signed to 40’s Sick Wid It/Jive imprint, was merely one.
Celly Cel — “Remember Where You Came From”
Stylistically indebted to his mentor, Celly Cel nonetheless lacked much of E-40’s humor and personality, but on Killa Kali he benefits from some of the best straight-up mobb production of any Bay Area release I’ve heard. While Mike Mosley and Sam Bostic (of “Sprinkle Me” fame) are conspicuously absent, and Studio Ton contributes only one track, producer Ken Franklin follows their blueprint to great effect on the majority of the album’s tracks, with Tone Capone (The Luniz’ “I Got Five On It”) and Kevin Gardner and Redwine (40’s “Smoke ‘N Drank'”) taking care of the rest. The result is an aural snapshot of Bay Area rap circa 1996, blessed with a major label budget but free from the creative pressures that cripple artists on majors today. With the exceptions of fellow Bay Area rappers E-40 and B-Legit on “4 Tha Scrilla” and Spice 1 on “Redrum,” Killa Kali contains no features, while its single, the creeping “It’s Goin’ Down” would’ve been lucky to garner a single spin on New York radio. And yet Killa Kali, in all its mobbed-out, Bay Area glory, damn near went gold, a feat increasingly rare for any artist in this era of Nahright and Rapidshare links. So while I’m grateful to the internet for allowing me to share my opinions with the world, I also recognize the damage it’s done to the genre I love so much. Which is perhaps why I’d rather dig out a fully-realized, uncompromising album from 1996 than listen to whichever online mixtape is hot at the moment, or, even worse, the latest watered down mush to come out on a major label. The game done changed, I know, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna change with it.