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Hip hop sent up a collective prayer in late March once word spread that rap legend Scarface had contracted COVID-19.
“It started with pneumonia in both of my lungs,” he told fellow Geto Boy Willie D through a Zoom conversation. “And three or four days later my kidneys failed. Three or four days after that, they tell me I can’t move. I’m quarantined.”
‘Face went into excruciating detail about the experience, describing how he couldn’t breathe and couldn’t stop puking to the point where only bile exited his body.
“This whole three weeks has been an ordeal. It’s the craziest sh** I’ve ever done and seen in my life,” he said. “I’ve been to the point where I just felt like I was going to die.”
I spoke to ‘Face recently. Fortunately, he says he’s “out of the woods.” COVID didn’t crack him. But the irony behind the sobering admission is that the artist born Brad Jordan has triumphed over death in his life and music well before his career began back in the late 1980s.
His hometown of Houston, TX wasn’t the bastion of hip hop it is today until J. Prince, Rap-a-Lot Records and The Geto Boys etched it into the cultural lexicon through now classic releases Grip It On Another Level, We Can’t Be Stopped, et al — each of which lark in the traumas associated with life as a target of the system. The cover art to the latter is literally a picture of Geto Boys member Bushwick Bill sitting in a gurney with a patch over his eye the day he awoke in the hospital after an attempted suicide. That album’s biggest hit, “My Mind’s Playing Tricks On Me,” remains one of rap’s most visceral depictions of paranoia.
But, the traumas Scarface encountered weren’t solely environmental. They were also internal, emotional. He’s battled addiction and manic depression since childhood to the point where he spent time in a psych ward and never flinched at letting those vulnerabilities saturate his microphone. He metaphorically kills himself on “I’m Dead,” the capstone track on his 1991 classic solo debut, Mr. Scarface Is Back, a concept The Notorious B.I.G. would embrace on “Suicidal Thoughts” off his seminal offering Ready To Die. Much of the 1990s were a decidedly dark time for hip hop. Dare Iz A Darkside, It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot, Will I die before I’m 25, Death Certificate, Life After Death, skulls and bones, and Bone Thugs N Harmony, see you at the crossroads. The consequences of the war on drugs applied a suffocating pressure on urban communities nationwide. Jordan was years ahead of the culture in contextualizing an under-diagnosed fatalism instilled into anyone in or of that ethos and did so through gruff, powerful vocals reverberating like the voice of God. In a conversation with Hot 97, he credits his grandmother for giving him the confidence to show the world his flaws:
“I give that praise to my grandmother,” ‘Face said. “I was raised by my grandma. That’s how she brought us up. Everything that’s in here is us. People out there, if they’re cool with that, then that’s cool. If not, we don’t want them around us. We had a very tight knit family. My grandmother is like the glue for us. She gave me that, man. That’s probably why I’m like that, because of her. If you like me, you like me. If you don’t, then you good.”
THE BALLAD OF THE FIX
‘Face found his biggest commercial hit with 2002’s The Fix, a raw look into neighborhood politics encapsulating everything from snitches and sellouts to overcoming trauma and self doubt, all lathered in an unabashed love for his family and community. This one was released through Def Jam Recordings and he credits Kanye West and Tina Davis for the project’s success. The Boombox dubbed it “southern rap’s last pre-trap classic” and said “The Fix isn’t an album that panders for commercial appeal. It’s the sound of a hip hop veteran secure enough to stretch his sonic parameters — and the results are incredible.” Grown man bars permeate the experience.
On “Heaven” he delivers, “But I’m a man, I ain’t perfect / That’s a poor excuse that ain’t working” with the weight of a wise sage wanting the world to learn from his life.
On “My Block,” the album’s highest charting offering, ‘Face’s effortless poetics portray the beauty of his hood, reaffirming that, despite its flaws, “I’ll never leave my block. My n**gas need me.”
“The music of hip hop has to reflect the times,” he told HardKnockTV in 2015. “We cannot be afraid to speak out. It’s like sweeping mud under the rug. Eventually there will be a hump under the rug. Eventually there’s gonna be a hump under the rug and somebody’s gonna trip over it. Somebody has always gotta say something about that. It’s bigger than just partying. Or it’s bigger than just selling dope. Or it’s bigger than just killing folk. It’s bigger than f**king. It’s bigger than thought. It’s bigger than what we see. It’s about us teaching. It’s about an enlightenment. It’s about educating everybody on what the problem is.”
Poverty plus addiction can lead to a twisted existence, an existence too common for a truly healthy society. And ‘Face’s willingness to host real conversations that deal with real life: suicidal thoughts, depression, paranoia, life, love, family, community — almost always in first person — is one of the reasons why he’s so revered. He’s never been afraid to dance in his darkest moments and go to war with his demons publicly, tapping into his beautiful struggle in hopes of enlightening broader culture. All of which in so many ways reminds me of Mozzy.
There’s a comedic intro to the video for Mozzy’s “Body Count,” track three on his latest laudable EMPIRE release, Beyond Bulletproof — his highest charting to date. The Sacramento MC and his brother E Mozzy sit in an L.A. highrise watching COVID-19’s latest breaking news:
“Bro, when I say the party last night was crazy, I mean it was CRAZY CRAZY. Big booty women. Strippers. Sloppy. Everybody. One of the strippers dad’s pull up, come through tripping… Wait… Wait... We’re reporting live? We’re live right now?... Oh, This is Xavier Woodruff reporting live from Downtown Los Angeles. When I say the coronavirus is going crazy, IT’S GOING CRAZY. Everybody’s staying in the house. No haircuts. No weaves. No nails being done. Everybody is just going crazy. They can’t go outside to get a piece of chicken. We can’t do anything! What’s going on?”
Now clearly, this isn’t a real broadcast. Xavier Woodruff clearly isn’t Jon Jon the porn star even if he kind of looks like him and is talking about sloppy parties the night before. Clearly, Mozzy made “Body Count” before COVID-19 broke the world, so clearly he’s not talking about the 80,000-plus lives lost in America alone. This is clearly a reverse engineered metaphor made for the moment. Mozzy makes weighty music that basks in the trappings of California hood politics and all additional traumas associated with it, fresh from the perspective of one rap’s most respected traditional gang members. So ironically, his latest release landed at the right time.
“I couldn’t prepare for everything that’s going on,” Mozzy told REVOLT in a recent exclusive interview. “But, I seen that off the dribble that it was in sync with what’s going on. [Beyond Bullet] is about spreading love. It’s about compassion for the hopeless and homeless because they’ve been through enough. I was taught provide for your people. How I’m supposed to tell my youngin’ to go to school when they just caught him at the light and stripped him from his jewels? And how am I supposed to tell my auntie not to use when she ain’t got no other means or methods to numb abuse? I know your pain, baby. I’m sympathizing with what they’re going through. And I’ve been through it. I identify with these struggles. When I started to go in that direction and then with everything that occurred with the [pandemic], I just felt like right now is about unconditional love. It’s about grabbing your loved ones and hugging them.
“It’s about making sure grannie and them is platinum — the elders in the family,” Mozzy added. “It’s about not bringing that disease in. It’s close knit. All the material things don’t matter. It’s about essentials. So, I feel like this album is right on time. I feel like everything just merged in as one.”
Mozzy’s not the first artist from Sacramento, but he’s the biggest and absolutely has the highest ceiling. Like Scarface, he’s blessed with a generational voice that feels grizzled from concrete and the freedom to unfurl his traumas like cloaks of honor. Like ‘Face, he was raised by his grandmother, who recently passed away, and credits her with his reverence for a higher power. He’s the child of an addict who battles his own addictions while describing a world surrounded by people making due despite substance abuse.
“I come from a family that’s full of addictions,” Mozzy further explained to REVOLT. “I watched moms. I watched grams. I couldn’t believe my grandmother used to smoke weed in the bathroom. That was so crazy to me. I watched my mom. I know I said she was addicted to drugs, but she kept a job no matter what she was on.”
2015’s Bladadah was saluted by hip hop media, the same for 2017’s 1 Up Top Ahk — a soulful excursion through a fatalistic live by the gun/die by the gun mentality — that Kendrick Lamar shouted out during his 2018 GRAMMY Awards acceptance speech. Rolling Stone describes Mozzy’s music as “full of regret for past actions, entrepreneurial hope and hustle, and marked by a keen social conscience.” He’s one of a chosen few imbued with an innate ability to preach without ever sounding preachy.
On Beyond Bulletproof’s “I Ain’t Perfect,” for example, Mozzy paints a picture of Oak Park, Sacramento then reveals how he’s been hiding his lean addiction:
“Let me tell you ‘bout the pain in them broken homes (In them broken homes) / Let me tell you ‘bout the flesh wounds and broken bones (I’m talkin’ broken bones) / Let me tell you ‘bout the absence of a rolling stone (N**ga talkin’ ‘bout it) /Mama said he wanna leave, then let that n**ga go… I’m sippin’ slow / Told the world I quit, it’s hard to kick it, though / Least I don’t promote it on the ‘Gram, this my addiction, though / It numb the pain that I be goin’ through, who are you to judge?”
He told REVOLT: “I don’t display it. I don’t display it for your kids. I’m not blowing it out of proportion. I’m not promoting it to your young life. I’m not promoting it to mine.
“In all honesty, I got here off of honesty. I think the level that I got to is off pure honesty. If I’m at fault, I take that on the chin. I’m at fault for failing my daughter [at a time]. I take that on the chin. I’m at fault for putting my grandmother through all the gangster things she went through and having the police kick in her door. I take that on the chin. I think that’s one of my biggest qualities is not running from it and taking it head on. People catch a vibe from that. It’s not judgmental. I’m displaying my faults. I’m not running from them. I’m not hiding. They not in the closet.”
To be fair, generational parallels are rarely fair to any artist. But, artists who tap dance on the culture through music that transcends time through a willingness to carry the world’s weight always find a way to etch their way into the zeitgeist. And when there’s a sickness outside and we’re surrounded by addiction and darkness seems to be lurking over the horizon, we lean on those who’ve weathered the beautiful struggle for comfort and inspiration. That’s why we love artists like Tupac Shakur and Nipsey Hussle. Artists like Scarface. And artists like Mozzy.