It seems as if Mistah Fab is genetically hardwired to be the next freestyle kingpin in Oakland. A class clown and formidable shit-talker, he has this rackety, throaty voice that rises to a falsetto squeal whenever he gets really excited: It's the Town, baby! the emcee yips in the opening seconds of his 2003 album, Nig Latin. And even though the song that follows, "Born Up," is a typical provincial sketch of Oakland's sideshows and street bosses -- with a memoir-ish shard about living Thirteen deep in a two-bedroom apartment thrown in almost as an afterthought -- Fab kicks it down with ten times the enthusiasm of your average Joanna turf rapper.
Naturally, it's often difficult for the emcee to convince people that all his dope game references and pimp 'n' ho asides aren't merely thrown in for the purpose of plot. He may be a cocksure 22-year-old whose name belies his hustle -- Fab breaks down to "Faeva Afta Bread," while "Mistah" stands for "Money Is Something to Always Have" -- but his raps aren't the typical potboilers involving studio gangstas whose main field of reference is Ice Cube standing on Crenshaw with his AK 9.
No sir: Mistah Fab (né Stanley Cox Jr.) is the bona fide son of a pimp. His namesake -- the trench-coated, fedora-clad OG Stanley Cox -- peddled hos and reigned supreme in North Oakland's less-pretty underbelly until he died of AIDS in 1994.
Fab wrote a song about it. Shit, he wrote a whole album about it.
Granted, the title of Fab's latest full-length, Son of a Pimp, smacks of someone crassly exploiting his own life story for fans who take a prurient interest in all this turf drama. Yet Fab is one of the few cats who can actually make the confessional rap style work: After all, he has a sadder hard-luck story than most of his peers, and he tells it with enough confidence to seem like a credible street reporter. So even if a life of tragedy doesn't inoculate Fab or his father against criticism, the artist manages to bring some humanity to that standard-issue street romance about growing up in the game. In fact, Son of a Pimp is the only hardcore Town album of 2005 that will make both you and your momma cry. Guaranteed.
He's been building up to it. Fab might've first showed his sensitive side at the Oakland Box in February 2004, performing on a dance card that included Mahasen of Hobo Junction along with Mac Mall and Ray Luv. In the middle of Fab's set, his face ossified into something cold and hard, and his eyes filmed as he introduced the Nig Latin song "Worries" -- a rap about how he lost his dad to the needle and his brother to the pen, then watched his mother hit them rocks before she found the Lord. You can hear this song over and over and it'll always bring tears to your eyes -- not so much because Fab recounts every single tragedy that can happen to a child in the ghetto, but because his voice is so personal and evocative that he seems completely unaware of himself. "Worries" is so in-the-moment, in fact, that within the song Fab seems to panic, and raps about how embarrassed he is for having revealed himself in this way: It's all real hope that you believe in this/I never thought I'd be releasing this.
"That's my most honest song," the artist says, recalling that he recorded it all in one take at 3 a.m., with no hooks. "I'm just talking about my life and giving people a side of me other than the cocky side and the boogie side." He adds that he wanted his new record to veer more in that direction.
Of course, melodrama has cachet in a genre that's all about mythologizing the emcee and elevating ghetto life to the level of theater. And granted, Fab makes no bones about rendering his personal tragedies as material, and using them to get on. Son of a Pimp features a song about his dad ("You're My Angel") that samples Anita Baker's "Angel" to shore up the emotions of watching someone go through addiction and self-immolation. Fab also raps a paean to his mother -- "The Momma Song" -- whose commercial viability became evident when KMEL DJs spun it repeatedly on Mother's Day last year. And now that he has teamed up with the East Bay label Thizz Entertainment -- launched by the turf rap standard-bearer Mac Dre before his untimely death -- Fab is confident that Son of a Pimp will get some shine on mainstream stations like KMEL and Wild 94.9.
Overall, Fab is one of the most intriguing and pain-addled Bay Area characters this side of Goldee the Murderess, but he is also academic, studying his favorite rappers and reading all the texts they cite in their rhymes; like his forerunner Tupac, he has been schooled by Machiavelli's The Prince and politicized by Black Power thinkers like Marcus Garvey and Assada Shakur. Thus, the young emcee is ready to situate himself in the same lineage as the OGs whose faces plaster his bedroom walls: West Coast sharp-shooters like Tupac and Snoop Dogg, photographed in porkpie hats, Valboa-trim lapels, and shimmering gold rings.
Well, almost ready. Kicking back at West Oakland's Soundwave Studios while waiting to kick down a rhyme with the emcee Kalasol -- whose signature Town song, "That's Oakland," garnered heavy rotation on Power 92.7 FM before the station went down in October -- Fab seems enervated from all the long studio hours, heavy blunt-smoking, and constant stress of being on the grind. The emcees are recording a track called "The Product," which Kalasol describes as a metaphor for the dope game: "It's like we're the dope on the streets, and the Bay Area fans are fiending for it, but right now all they're getting is placebo," he says, proudly gesturing at Fab. But Fab doesn't respond to his homeboy's accolades -- he's staring googly-eyed at a computer screen, totally engrossed in the selection of hip-hop honeys at Myspace.com.
Yet when it's time for Fab to lay down his part, he ambles into the sound booth and grabs the mic with an exhilarating screech -- the vocal equivalent of Jerry Lewis' piano glissandos. The studio heads look up from their analogue synthesizers and their blunts as Fab unleashes lyrics he penned just moments before -- I spit liver saliva and speak hot trash, he barks for an imaginary audience. Kalasol leans back in his chair and smiles, proud to see his metaphor made flesh as Fab turns flesh into metaphor.
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