"The true gentleman is friendly, but not familiar." - CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


…And it was either this or jail, imagine tryin’ to fit birds in a Hyundai Excel / and they caught on to FedEx mail, so we stopped doin’ business chirping on NexTels…
The Game, “Dead Bodies”

It is November 19, 2004, and the second annual Vibe Awards have returned to Los Angeles. A crew of Manhattan’s urban-est has transformed a cavernous airplane hangar at Santa Monica Airport into a full-on ceremony hall, and a hefty cross-section of the year’s busiest artists, actors and industry people are in various stages of arrival, cheesing their way down the duct-taped red carpet or canoodling around the hangar’s corridors and walkways as their publicists scuttle behind in their shadows, tapping away at their Blackberrys. Alicia Keys saunters around the main area, face glistening from an onstage song rehearsal. Several model-looking females surround Nelly in the main corridor, following his every word and hand motion. Irv Gotti and a couple of anonymous white tees post up on folding chairs in front of his trailer, conversating amongst themselves. Pharrell paces around in tight circles by a cluster of outdoor eating tables, cellphone attached to his ear. Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg, Warren G and Bishop Don Juan hover before the main stage peeping the artist rehearsals, Suge Knight cradling a half-full cognac glass mere feet behind them. The faces of DJ Quik, Bokeem Woodbine, Twista, Beenie Man and Scott Storch bob in and out of the mass of veterans, newjacks, and etceteras exchanging excited bearhugs and polite handshakes. Ki Toy and Vida Guerra have every straight man in the vicinity doing subtle (and some not-so-subtle) double-takes the moment they float past.

Two hours later the cameras are rolling steadily as 50 Cent and the Game throw the cherry on their performance of Game’s first album single “How We Do”, a row of young women in Chuck Taylors, khaki shorts and wifebeaters gyrating on lowrider bicycles behind them. Vibe founder and musical legend Quincy Jones is at the podium with Snoop, speaking on Dr. Dre’s many accomplishments in preparation for the presentation of his lifetime achievement award. Def Jam mega-mogul Russell Simmons is barking offhand comments into my voice recorder about how “hip-hop just keeps getting better” when a cacophony of shouts, screams and screeching chairs and tables cuts our conversation short. The area around Dre’s table, at the foot of the main stage and not twenty feet from where we are standing, has turned into a human whirlwind of flying arms and fists, sending a host of your favorite celebrities bolting for the exits as Quincy looks on helplessly. A combination of adrenalin, dim lighting and fight physics makes it hard to discern faces, but I notice the unmistakable grills of 50 and Lloyd Banks through the swell of swinging shoulders and airborne chairs.

The riot barrels through the black curtain partition, knocks a large glass platform clear across the walkway, shoots down the corridor, through the security entrance and spills clear onto the street outside, as a pair of nearby Santa Monica cops sheepishly bleat into their jacket radios for backup. 50, having apparently extracted himself from the melee, comes to a stop outside the front entrance, surrounded by three of his boys. Trademark half-smile hanging comfortably on his face, he takes off a thick chain, hands it to one of his friends, and they quickly foot it across the street into a parking lot, speeding off in an all-black Range Rover moments later. Shortly after, the figures of Young Buck and a few other men morph out from the shadows of the same lot, and are promptly picked up by one of many heavily-tinted SUVs now zipping up and down the avenue, all manned by private security guards yelling into walkie-talkies. A fleet of cop cars invade the area, deem the ceremony hall a crime scene and seal the security entrance, leaving a dazed throng of ex-award attendees dusting off their clothes and trying to piece the events of the last ten minutes together. The young man said to have kicked off the whole fight sits on the sidewalk looking like a deer in the nearby cop car’s floodlights, as two paramedics prepare to treat the long, bloody gash eating ever deeper by the second into his bony chest. Several over-excited teenagers leap around for the news cameras, whooping and hollering in fits of post-fight glee.

Thus the most prestigious urban music award ceremony today, filled with some of popular culture’s most important figures, turned into an all-out slugfest involving some of the biggest names in hip-hop music, and somewhere near the center of it all, the guy who had just gotten offstage with one of the biggest rappers in the world: a 23-year old kid from Compton who has barely been rapping four years and has yet to sell one record on his own. He got game, indeed…

“I was backstage about to do press,” Game remarks over the phone. His manner is as close to gruff and matter-of-fact as one can be simultaneously. “Then I walked to my trailer after I had finished with that and that’s when [the fight popped off], and they wouldn’t let me back in. I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. I had all my Black Wall Street niggas on the other side of the fence; like fifty of them. Buck and all the G-Unit fam ran past my trailer trying to hit the gate and saw all my niggas in all red, and I guess they thought it was Suge and them so they stopped, and I let them know that was Black Wall Street, so they hit the gate and got outta there.”

In an industry where your buzz level can make or break your future, events like these make for the kind of attention that guarantees a place on everyone’s lips, the kind of attention label execs imagine in their dreams for an artist of theirs who hasn’t even dropped an album yet, and the Game of Compton, CA gets plenty of it – more, it’s arguable, than any other new artist in rap history. Boundless support from Interscope, one of the savviest labels in the industry. The most successful producer in hip-hop history, Dr. Dre, squarely behind him. A place in G-Unit, the hottest rap group on the planet right now. A just-released debut album, The Documentary, with beats from Dr. Dre, Hi-Tek, Buckwild, Timbaland, Scott Storch, Just Blaze, Kanye West, Swizz Beatz, and guest appearances from Busta Rhymes, G-Unit, Faith Evans, Eminem, Nate Dogg, Snoop Dogg and Mary J. Blige. The official co-sign from just about everybody in mainstream hip-hop who matters. His own record label, Black Wall Street, for which he is already scouting talent for. The bulk of an entire under-appreciated coast rooting for him. And of course, a punchy dose of good ol’ rhyme skills. In every aspect of his career, the Game’s stars are almost perfectly aligned. The only other rapper to enjoy this kind of publicity and support before even dropping a record is Dre’s most famous protégé Snoop Doggy Dogg, during the period between the release of Dre’s earthstopping The Chronic album and Snoop’s Doggystyle debut in the early ‘90s, both released on Interscope. A decade later, the label/producer combo of Dre and ‘Scope have a new kid on the block rocking the Converse, and as funny as it may sound when Game proclaims with the utmost conviction, “I’m as big of a star as fuckin’ Jay-Z is,” it’s tough to dispute that if he isn’t quite on that level yet, it’s only a matter of time. If a new rapper has ever been a sure-shot bet, the Game is it.

The Interscope Records marketing juggernaut is largely responsible for some of the biggest rap careers of our era: Eminem, Dre, 50 Cent, G-Unit, the Death Row roster in its heyday. The house that Jimmy Iovine built has been continuously fine-tuning its hype machine throughout the sixteen years following its inception, and the vast majority of its artists and releases have proven to be some of the most anticipated and successful of the ‘90s onward. But even considering all their many accomplishments, from one look at the unprecedented level of publicity surrounding the Game, it seems Interscope may have outdone itself this time. From large features in every major magazine on the racks to ringtones, websites, two-way alerts, his voice in a videogame (check for his cameo as a drug dealer in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) and even a just-released DVD also titled The Documentary, his scrunched snarl is everywhere the average rap fan looks, and – as he repeatedly points out on the mic as well as in interviews – all before selling one record. Add these factors to the requisite music videos as well as a slew of pre-album singles, and what you have is the next level of artist marketing. He keeps his responses well within the lines: nothing but love to the people who put him on, nothing but disdain for the people he professes to have problems with, and unwaveringly tight-lipped on situations that could get him into trouble. Dre and Snoop are “tutors,” Tupac was “a rap apostle,” Bay Area rapper/hustler and Game’s former investor JT Tha Bigga Figga is “a clown,” and more pointed questions regarding the Vibe incident are met with several shiftily-delivered variations on “I don’t know nothing about nothing, man,” until bare silences forces me to switch topics. There’s no doubt that he’s sincere when he speaks; Game seems well aware that he’s a very lucky man. But that still doesn’t stop me at times from feeling like I’m talking to a presidential candidate staring into a teleprompter.

But then, is there really any need for him to talk much at all at this point? The story of his past has been recounted practically verbatim in almost every one of the many press releases, online bios and published discussions with or about him, and a team of Hollywood producers couldn’t have come up with a better tale for a gangsta rapper on the rise. Former high school basketball prodigy becomes a full-on Blood after his older brother is murdered. A volley of bullets absorbed at close range in an October 2001 ambush on Game’s crackhouse sends him to a hospital bed, where he lays meticulously studying a collection of CDs he had his other brother buy him – Ready To Die, Reasonable Doubt, Death Certificate, Doggystyle, etc. – with the intention of becoming a rapper. “I was a fan of hip-hop ever since I could remember but I never started rapping until 2001. After I got shot I just taught myself how to rap in three months. A bullet in the heart - it can do wonders.”

In 2002, after hearing the first verse of “Compton Compton”, Game’s mixtape remake of a hard-to-find Jay-Z song called “Marcy Marcy”, Dre invites Game to his studio in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley where 50 Cent is putting the finishing touches on his first collaboration with Dre, a catchy little number called “In The Club”, as WC and Busta Rhymes look on. “I met Dre and played him some of my new shit, and after the first verse of the first track he cut it off, and was like, “whatever I gotta do to sign this kid, let’s do it.” I just remember walking in like, ‘Oh shit, this is fuckin’ Dr. Dre!’ That shit was crazy, man. Besides the birth of my son, that was one of the best days of my life. It’s been rap ever since then.”

The red ink had barely dried on his Aftermath contract when the publicity machine rumbled into motion. More and more eyebrows continued to raise as the blurbs, press releases and interviews piled up regarding the “West coast gangsta with the East coast flow” that nobody had ever heard of, and who Dr. Dre was now standing fully behind. Here he was, being compared - and sometimes comparing himself - to the great rappers of our time, rocking N.W.A. chains and invoking Eazy-E’s name, promising to resurrect the West – all before 99.99% of us had heard a lick out of him. Even Snoop was introduced music-first to the world through his appearances on “Deep Cover” and The Chronic. Nevertheless, there was something about him - his defiant smirk, his unabashed confidence, his reverence for the old school at a time when most newjacks show little respect or relation to their predecessors – that made many want to believe the hype, even before hearing it for themselves.

They didn’t have to wait long. Following 50’s lead, Game has turned the mixtape scene into his personal playground, issuing hip-hop a whopping dose of his rhyme style – a smart, calculated flow delivered in a throaty timbre that can rock a traditional cadence and triple-time with equal parts ease – over a number of street releases in the past two years to the point that, as Game himself puts it, ”you can’t even sell your mixtape if Game ain’t on it.” Lyrically, Game stays strictly in the first-person, rapping from exactly the position his life is in today: that of an L.A. gangbanger freshly transplanted into the 2005 rap world. Blending numerous sports references and wanton threats with ruminations on the fast life and commentary on the real-life events ever unfolding in the celebrity-thug scene he now finds himself in, the end result is normally somewhere between solid-but-unexceptional and spectacular; the latter end of that scale best represented by “200 Bars And Running” - his infamous freestyle over the “Deep Cover” beat, composed of one rhyme that clocks in at 210 bars nonstop. It is a testament to his integrity as a serious emcee, as well as his knowledge of and respect for his rap forefathers, that Game goes the extra mile to display his commitment to the art of rhyme in this manner – especially considering the fact that a rapper in his position could easily drop a series of lazy sixteens and still end up on TRL. “Them days is over, man – them Rakim days, Kool G. Rap, fuckin’ BDP, N.W.A.s. Niggas nowadays is just rappin’ for the chains and the cars and some bitches. I’m trying to be a hip-hop legend before I go, so that’s why I do things like the two-hundred-bar freestyle, the ten-minute freestyle. I’m coming with a three-hundred-bar freestyle before the new year. Fifteen minutes, man. Niggas ain’t doin’ that ‘cause niggas don’t got the discipline, because niggas don’t love hip-hop as much as they say they do. Everyone’s looking for the easy way out. I’m not looking for the easy way out. I’m trying to find the hardest way possible to get in and stay in.”

As the buzz continued to build in the streets, enterprising minds continued to plot behind closed doors, culminating in the addition of Game to the label boardroom experiment that is G-Unit. “It started off with Banks, 50 and Yayo. Then Yayo went down and they was looking for a third member, so they found Young Buck who was stuck in L.A. because of the Juvenile situation. So 50 had the East coast with Yayo and Banks, and he had the Dirty South in Young Buck. After time went on they dropped Beg For Mercy, and I was putting it down on mixtapes. Jimmy Iovine decided that G-Unit was missing something - West coast shit. So we all sat down - Dre, 50 and Jimmy Iovine - and we decided that it was a good idea, and I joined G-Unit. And I’ve been doing my part ever since. That way we would sew up the whole board.” Call it the rap equivalent of a Microsoft/Apple merger: the forces of Eminem, Dre, 50 Cent and the hottest upcoming artists in Banks, Buck, Yayo and Game, all under the business expertise of Jimmy Iovine and Interscope. “It’s like a family, man. [And] at the end of the day we all come together and we put it down. We’re the modern-day N.W.A. for all-platinum artists as solo artists. The Shady camp, the Aftermath camp, the G-Unit camp, the Black Wall Street camp, we all under the Interscope umbrella and if you ain’t under that umbrella your ass gon’ get wet.”

Game liberally peppers his lyrics with the names of his newfound famous friends, as well as the names of his idols whose classic albums he studied during his hospital-bound rap education, and you can hear heavy traces of all of them in his rhymes – Jay-Z’s repetition, Kool G. Rap’s machine-gun flow, Dre’s tidy metaphors. Compelling as his style is, at this point it is more a patchwork of his influences than it is his own. In terms of pure skills Game easily smokes just about every other new mainstream artist out now (as well as many of the vets), but in comparison to the rap greats he is constantly mentioned alongside, he remains a student for now. But with all his talent and support he could easily grow into a legend over time, and that’s what makes Game’s career so interesting, so unique. Where most emcees spend a cool decade in the trenches working on their style before opportunity knocks, Game was thrust into the public eye after only three years of rhyming experience, with the biggest names in the game (no pun intended) giving him their full support, and media documenting his every move. It’s almost like a rap reality show: take a gangbanger straight off the streets, give him the kind of career most rappers only dream of, and follow him around for the next few years to see what happens. We get to watch Game’s career trajectory from rookie to vet (tragedies and acts of God notwithstanding) in real time.

Of course, a rap career just wouldn’t be right– let alone the rap career of a G-Unit/Shady/Aftermath artist – without adhering to one of the cardinal rules for success in ’05: Rapper Beef. Game has definitely done his mentors proud in this respect, going to town on the likes of Memphis Bleek, Yukmouth and Joe Budden in the last year alone. “Do not forget that I’m from the West coast. We not supposed to be able to be as lyrically inclined as an East coast artist is. And after everything is said and done, niggas went running back home with they tails tucked between they ass. After all the beefs I’m the only nigga that’s still standing firm in his position.” Curiously, Game has since squashed most, if not all of his rap beefs, according to various media reports. But if history is any indicator, it’s safe to say that the allure of drama, with all its pros and cons, will follow Game throughout his career. Occurrences like the Vibe awards riot are just another page in the encyclopedia of trouble that the Aftermath/Shady/G-Unit conglomerate has been a part of over the years, and by joining this camp, Game has inherited all beefs and grudges – old and new. And while this collective’s tendency to all get involved in each other’s many beefs paired with a long and perpetually growing arrest sheet guarantees them tough-guy publicity for many years, it does come fraught with a considerable amount of real-life danger. Dre put the gangsta in rap, so logically Dre’s camp will have more problems than most: the sins of the father will visit the children. What wasn’t as easily anticipated was the lasting effect gangsta rap has continued to have on the entire industry.

Once upon a time, rap held the streets at arm’s length: existing side by side, but never quite one and the same. Today, fifteen years after Dre and Priority Records (a label heavily affiliated with Interscope) first introduced the rapping criminal to the mainstream with N.W.A. and turned the industry upside down, the underworld element has fully invaded the rap world - both behind the scenes and on the microphone. Rappers like Game represent the millennium breed of rappers: gangstas who just happen to rap. Real street cats with real scars and real stories – and being from L.A. only makes it more of an issue for Game. “It’s just the lure of this L.A. lifestyle that can fuck anybody up. It happens all the time, man. Look where Big died. Look where Pac died. Look at all the bullshit going on. It’s always L.A. Everywhere else in America they have a fuckin’ culture. The only thing that we got is gangbanging. That’s our culture. But we still divided. You go to the East Coast and everybody on the same shit. Go to the South and it’s gold teeth and dreads and ‘what up shawty…’ Then you come to L.A. and we the most diverse motherfuckers on the planet. Everybody’s jealous of each other. Nobody wanna see nobody do nothing good. We got a bad habit of shit like that. It almost seems like you gotta be from a gang or from the streets or from some type of violent past to even be a rapper. It’s fucked up, but it’s just how it is. I don’t know when the turning point was for gangs to play such a big part in this hip-hop shit, but now they are now more than ever. The shit’s crazy, man. I don’t know how it happened; it just happened. Now the streets is a bigger influence than they ever was.”

As for Game’s perspective on drama, if it worries him, it sure doesn’t show. “At the end of the day a nigga gotta sit in the corner and die by himself. You can’t hold my hand, I can’t hold yours. You bleed just like me. We share the same air. We need oxygen to live, so come on, nigga. Bring it. I don’t give a fuck about none of these niggas, man. My family, my close friends, everybody that I work with, and after that you niggas can suck my dick with that bullshit, man. I ain’t letting these niggas push my buttons. But at the same time I’m a good nigga. I’m down-to-earth. I’ll fuck with everybody. I won’t leave until the last autograph is signed. I’m playing with the kids. I stop my car, get out, get on the hoop court. I don’t give a fuck what kind of clothes I got on or how many minutes are left before I gotta get to the photo shoot. I live my life accordingly, the way I want to. With all the beef shit and niggas hatin’ me and wanna bring me problems? I’ll bring them problems. The more richer I get, the easier it’s gonna be to break your fuckin’ neck. I’m somebody’s father, man. Niggas is gon’ respect me at the end of the day.”