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

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

MAUSBERG'S LAST INTERVIEW (Rappages)


LOS ANGELES: SUMMER 2000. The eye of the hurricane. According to a frightening number of people, civilization was supposed to have come crashing down this year. Hence for a couple of months thereafter the sun shined brighter, the weed got us higher and L.A. prepared for the kind of summer that made folks move to the middle of the desert in the first place. The murder rate continued its decline. The Lakers brought the cup home. And of course, just when cats started getting comfortable enough to venture into those neighborhoods that were only a few miles apart but seemed light years away, shit jumped off again. The drivebys, the walk-bys, a body on 98th St., another on 104th, two on 118th. Then police chief Bernard Parks' granddaughter caught a bad one, and it was official. We're living on extra credit now, so L.A.'s thug representatives are compensating by taking the streets back to '89.


In the midst of this, Jamaa Fanaka, a writer for the Los Angeles Sentinel, the city's premier African-American newspaper, comes upon the idea of the "Meet the Sheriff Day Picnic", an opportunity for Angelenos to meet the human beings behind the badges. Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy D. Baca pledges his support for the project along with Coca-Cola, Dreyer's Ice Cream and a host of local businesses. At this point, Fanaka could easily go to sleep on the night of June 24th content, but he realizes that the demographic he's trying to reach, namely L.A.'s youth, need an incentive to show up, especially when they're more used to cops patting them down than shaking their hands. He connects with Rappages, who persuade Carson's Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E., DJ Quik and the Konnectid Project to come through. The 24th rolls around and everything goes like clockwork. Baca and Quik both give speeches. Baca pins a sheriff's badge on Quik. Quik invites Baca to the studio. Cops and rappers pose in unity as cameras flicker. A tall, bulky, coal-black individual looms in the background of the pictures, making the photographs heavier.


***


It's almost a shame my man never made it in a cigarette commercial before they were banned, because Mausberg with a smoke is like Popeye with a can of spinach. Each bottomless puff seems to energize him more and more as he punks the tape recorder. The good people of Sheppard Lane Records listen on with that look on their faces like they've heard this whole tirade before, but it's no less entertaining than it was the very first time they ran into Mausberg on their mutual stomping grounds of Compton, a far cry from the antiseptic Tarzana office building where Sheppard Lane conducts business from. Chubs and TOne, the president and CEO respectively, are calm, goodn-natured, jovial guys, and their tall, stocky frames and gangsta demeanors make most people wanna keep them just like that. They are the cats who make things happen at Sheppard Lane. Together they step through the tinny, manicured office like bulls tiptoeing through a china shop, as does all six foot four and 350 pounds of Mausberg. DJ Quik, Hi-C, Suga Free and newcomers like GP and Madd Nation also call Sheppard Lane home, and home is definitely where the heart is in this case. Sheppard Lane considers itself a family, bonded by the past, their lives on the streets and the dream they have carved out for themselves. Five minutes in their presence is enough time to deduce that they are still deep in the streets, but business is undoubtedly the number one priority here.


"The way I got into the music was through street affiliations," says Mausberg as he sucks the life out of yet another cigarette. "They brought me into the family. Hi-C, DJ Quik, Second II None, Suga Free... If it wasn't for me doing the fucking up I was doing, I wouldn't have met the people who knew Tony Lane or Stan Sheppard or the homie Ramsey. I was never blessed to just naturally be around people in the music. I had to make it work myself."


Mausberg has always been on his own agenda, even back when he was a youngster making his way through L.A.'s convoluted school system. "I was always a big-boned motherfucker, always the biggest nigga in the class. I had a gang of niggas that wanted to be down with me because I don't take no shit. And it's still like that." Indeed; when Maus speaks, everyone within earshot listens. He is one of the last cowboys - he calls it exactly how he sees it, and doesn't give an inch. "Whatever I do, I do it to the fullest. I don't half-step on shit," he deadpans. "I used to take the homeboys in the hood for they money on a dice game, and go to the studio with it. I used to have my raps written with no beat. I would just tell the nigga at the studio what kind of sound I liked. I used to do three songs in eight hours. I had a whole album on CD. When I came to them with masters, I owned everythying. They were looking at me like "this man's seventeen years old! He got his shit together."


Quik promptly threw Mausberg into this production loop, kicking his career off with "Down, Down, Down", which served as an introduction to Maus' rugged, low-key style. His mainstream notoriety compounded thanks to songs with the likes of Snoop Dogg, R. Kelly, and the Konnectid Project, which was an album showcasing most of the Sheppard Lane roster. "Shut Up" was one of the singles featured. As with everything else he does, the inspiration is realism. "I'm a gangsta that kicks reality. Being a gangsta is in the heart. It ain't in the clothes you wear. It ain't in the lingo you say. A gangster isn't necessarily a gangbanger. A gangster is a real motherfucker that will handle his business at the drop of a dime. I rap about party shit, shit I been through with my mama, drugs, losing my homeboys. I rap about black steel toes and Polo T-shirts. I hold grudges..." he booms, staring at me flatly, letting that statement hang in the air with the smoke before continuing.


"I'm ready to set big footprints so the youngsters can follow. A lot of motherfuckers are setting bad examples. Youngsters are listening to us. Them kids love us, regardless of what we think. We don't hang with kids. We do our own thing, we don't know what's going through their minds." His cigarette has grown a nice head of ash since this topic came up - Maus is amped now. "They listen to our shit while we're at the club partying, not even thinking about the khakis or the pistols or the chucks. We're at the club in silk and linen with boots on, having a good time, while the niggas who bought our tapes are still in the ghetto, possessed off what we just said!"


Maus knows firsthand about being possessed by the power of the flow. "That first Chronic album is what got me amped on this rap shit," he says. "I started jotting shit down, and motherfuckers would tell me, 'man, you need to be more serious about that shit.' I just started doing it cuz I saw how much money motherfuckers was making. I could have played football or baseball, but I chose rapping for the money and the money only. I love the music, but that's not why I do it. The music is gonna buy me my house, buy my family they shit," he says, in a tone that could almost be considered tender.


"God gon' have shit the way he want it. I didn't get my deal until the year I was supposed to graduate. God blessed me like that because he saw that I wasn't dedicated to school but I was dedicated to something besides fucking up in the streets. God put you through shit to get you where you going. Fuck the past," he exclaims firmly. "I'm where I'm at now. I don't regret shit. I was doing that shit because I liked it. But it came to a point in my life where something had to change. I'm getting grown. I gotta think about how I'm going to feed myself. I like to eat!" he snorts, patting his boulder of a belly. Indeed, the significance of his frame is not lost on him. "We lost two big soldiers. Biggie Smalls and Big Pun were big brothers. God came and got 'em so now it's time for another big brother to step in their place."


Wildly enough, few contest such comparisons that when made with almost any other rapper, would almost certainly get shot out of the sky. Sheppard Lane and most anyone who hears him understands the huge potential this mere 21-year-old wields. Just don't expect Mausberg to step out of character as he steps into the big leagues. "I still live in Compton," he says proudly. "There's a mansion in my hood that I'm gonna buy, that a doctor fucked off. I don't have to go nowhere else to buy no mansion. A lot of niggas ain't never had no respect (in their neighborhoods). They get respect because of the music business. I was respected in my neighborhood before this shit. I'm comfortable in my city. I got hit songs, and I'm still there." For the first time in our conversation, he trails off, staring at the hills that separate the Valley suburbs that seem almost too small to support him from the Compton streets that raised him.



***


Independence Day, 10:30pm. I'm curled up in the trunk of a Range Rover, on my way to a prty in Malibu. I think of all the drunk drivers behind the wheel on this very same and very windy highway, and am reminded of an accident my friends were in three Independence Days ago when their truck flipped ten times down the PCH with one of my ex-road dogs huddled in the trunk, just like I am now. A little voice in the back of my head tells me that by sunrise, something big is going to happen. I tell the little voice to shut up.


My pager wakes me up early the following afternoon. It's Rappages. I shudder because I know they are calling for the Mausberg story. Something tells me to call her right away, which I do. In retrospect, her tone was too calm for the news she gave me. "Did you hear about Mausberg?"


***


I shouldn't be here. Not at a time like this. The last thing Sheppard Lane should have to do right now is deal with a goddamn reporter. George shouldn't be here either. He should be at home, wailing and crying and grinding his teeth like his eyes are doing. But I am here, sat in the same chair I first saw Mausberg in six days ago, and George is here as well, relaying the news to everybody who calls and trying his best to review a concert proposal, as if he can possibly think about anything else. This is the first time he has left his house in two days. I look at the bags under his eyes and realize he cracked days ago, wide open and cried himself dry. Now all he can keep saying is "I can't believe this shit." Neither can I.


The story goes something like this. Mausberg was picked up by a friend at approximately 1am on the night of Independence Day to go pick up a girl who lived in his neighborhood. They stopped the car in front of the girl's house and the driver jumped out to get her, while Maus waited in the passenger seat. Seconds to minutes later, a car pulled up behind the car Mausberg sat in, and a couple of men jumped out and shot Maus repeatedly. Mausberg made it out of the car and ran a few steps but died soon after.


"My cousin Kiana got the call first," explained George. "Kiana called me, and I knew something was wrong because I had just dropped her off in the Valley. I said 'what's wrong?' She said, 'Mausberg's dead. Go see what's going on NOW.' I did 140mph westbound down the 91. I went straight to Mausberg's house, then I went to the crime scene, then to the hospital with Mausberg's grandparents and auntie."


Chubs and Tone walk in, looking eerily together. A part of me was expecting to see drained faces, puffy eyes. But as our conversation unfolds and they talk about all the friends they have had to say goodbye to, you realize that these guys have learned to deal with death on another level. The fact that they're smiling does not mean they're happy.


Even as I write this, the full impact of Mausberg's death has not yet hit me. Or at least, I don't think it has. How do you properly mourn someone's death when you're so used to it? Should you even allow yourself? Or is it better to keep reality at arm's length to maintain your sanity when a 21-year-old man, much less a super-talented rapper dies for absolutely nothing? One thing is for sure: there is no shortage of questions. What the hell was he doing outside, in Compton, on one of the most dangerous nights of the year?


"Wrong place at the wrong time" is how Chubs sums it up. "Freak accident. Wasn't meant for him." Labelmate GP sighs as his words escape his mouth. "That's just life in the streets. It can happen at any time. Bullets ain't got no name." The whole scene is completely unreal. Not even a week ago, we were in this same room laughing with Mausberg at the idea of Prince in some khakis with the ass cut out, and now we're here discussing his death. Tone just shakes his head slowly. "Basically he slipped. It was John (Mausberg) not really using his head at the time, because on the 4th of July it ain't unusual to hear gunshots. I left (Compton) on the 4th of July. I didn't even come outside." GP continues the thought. "That nigga knows he's supposed to lay low on that night..." talking about him as if he's still alive.


We know he was a ghetto brother, no more, no less. But is your hood worth your life? Your life? What about the kids he was supposed to have? The mansion he was supposed to buy? The classics he was supposed to drop? "Bottom line, if you're a G, you grow up like this," explains GP. "This is what you are. You blow up in the rap scene, but you still wanna be around Gs, because you ain't no fabricated nigga. You want that real feel. You feel out of place somewhere else. We try to grow out of that shit but we always come back." As much as I want to tell GP and myself what a big pile of bullshit that is, I know it's true. For better or for worse, America is set up in such a way that the only place most minorities feel at home is the kind of environment where young men get assassinated just sitting in a car, waiting for his friends. But I can't help thinking that the real bottom line is that Mausberg would be alive today if he had gotten the fuck out of Compton when he had the chance.


I tried as many variations of "how did this happen?" and "how do you feel?" as I could without pushing them too much. The conversation began to drift from Mausberg to casual banter to a volley of acapella rhymes from GP, punctuated by loud, hearty laughter all around the room; more laughter than I ever heard the day I was here interviewing Mausberg. I look around the room at the tattoos, the smiles, and the faces, hard and weary, but somehow more at peace than I have been in the last five years. It dawns on me that if these people had it in themselves to disown their past and walk a different path, they would have. But they simply don't know anything else, and neither did Mausberg. Tone put it best: "Mausberg is the gentle giant, but if you fuck with him, your ass is through. He'll chunk 'em quick fast. He wasn't no coward. Ain't giving up nothing."

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