It's 2 a.m., and you're recuperating from another Saturday night at Mingles Lounge, the grittiest, most fantastically sideshow-ish hip-hop dance club in Jack London Square. Not surprisingly, you're suffering acute muscle spasms, the result of three hours spent popping your colla and valiantly doing the thizzle dance in a room so hot and crowded, you can see sweat collecting and vaporizing on the ceiling.
Driving away, you tune in to the KMEL late-night mix hour and hear DJ Drew Heffner in conversation with an up-and-coming San Francisco rapper, Ya' Boy.
"So you got twenty tracks on the new album?" Drew asks.
"Nah," Ya' Boy quips. "Not tracks. Twenty bangers, man. Twenty bangers."
"Well, let's pop this first one off right here," Drew says. You hear the crackle of vinyl, then a trim, bluesy bassline decorated with snare licks and R&B horn samples. Ya' Boy cuts across the track, belting rap choruses about how fresh he is. You kind of wish he'd stop.
The song is "Bad Company," and it is, indeed, a banger. In fact, the beat is so funky that Ya' Boy could be bumping his lips together about any stupid thing -- popping a pimple, breakfast cereals -- and it would still sound like the appropriate theme song for a Fillmore pimp or a blaxploitation hero. It's what you might call a West Coast slumper: glacial, visceral, and clean.
As the track fades out, Ya' Boy starts gushing ecstatic praises for the guy who made that beautiful beat: a Hayward-based producer named Sean T, whose biggest claim to fame is the bassline for Mac Dre's cheeky club hit "Feelin' Myself." It's the closest a turf rapper will ever come to outright acknowledgment that the virtuosity of his beats outpaces the substantive content of his lyrics.
Hip-hop places so much emphasis on the personalities of its rappers (and rappers, in turn, are so good at cultivating a persona) that we forget it's a genre actually built on beats, not lyrics. Unless we're talking about Ras Kass or Biggie Smalls, it's usually not the rhymes, but the music behind them -- all those booms, slaps, and rubberband basslines -- that resonate. Ironically, you hear a lot less about the people who produce beats than the dudes who rap over them. Sean T may be responsible for the sounds we associate with Mac Dre, JT the Bigga Figga, and Ya' Boy, but he's far from a household name, and in fact remains virtually unknown even in the rarefied world of Bay Area turf rap.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Sean presides over the mezzanine of Rasputin Music in Berkeley, along with members of his retinue: the Oakland rapper Balance, a few guys with sideways caps and Black and Mild cigars hooked over their ears, and a younger rapper named Josh Diggs. Sean is pawing through stacks of CDs, stickers, promotional dog tags, and posters commemorating his sixth solo effort, Ain't Playin'. The CD jacket shows a liquor store in East Palo Alto's Garden District, his old stomping ground -- Sean stands in the foreground, leaning on a cane and dangling a glittery, diamond-studded medallion emblazoned with the logo to his record label, Get Gone Records. He's leering; in fact, as one fan observed, it kinda looks as if he's been huffing spray paint from a paper bag.
Sean admits he was up to no good for most of his teenage years, yet he also had a sensitive, quiet side, fitting the profile of a typical bedroom DJ: an industrious ghetto geek who taught himself to play piano and bass by practicing in the church band. As a kid, he would spend hours barricaded in his bedroom, perfecting scratch techniques on a hefty Pyramid turntable and shuffling through his parents' collections of gospel, soul, and jazz records. At age fifteen, the fledgling waxslinger bought a mixer and two Technics 1200s, spinning records at house parties and making beats on the cheap. "I used to put paper on top of the rubber part of the record player, and put the record on top of that, just so I could move the record back and forth and scratch," he recalls.
Like most beatmakers, Sean suffers from permanent earworm: He says old R&B and gospel hooks are constantly looping in his head and mixing with the digital effects and flowery percussion sounds of hip-hop. As a teen he began minting beats obsessively, until he was spending up to eighteen hours a day pecking at his keyboard or futzing around with bleeps, blips, and drum kicks. The result? Eight to ten bangers every day, which Sean now hawks for up to $1,000 each. Plus the occasional gem, like "Bad Company" or Sean's solo track "Long Time Comin'," which features a sped-up Sam Cooke sample à la Kanye West.
Then, of course, there's the ubiquitous "Feelin' Myself" beat, with its infectious honks and skronks -- Sean recalls being "in an Indian music phase" at the time. The beat wasn't originally intended for Mac Dre, but when Dre heard it, he nearly doubled over, his face a picture of ecstasy glazed over intense pain. Diggs tries to imitate the proverbial "thizz face" at Sean T's behest, pursing his upper lip and sucking air through his teeth. In Vallejo, that means something akin to love.
In truth, Sean's raps are a lot less memorable than his beats -- something he proves performing at a recent "Block Party" barbecue at Moses Music in East Oakland. Sharing a bill with Oakland's new darling, Mistah Fab (plus the Jacka and a rakish emcee named Husslah, who pauses midway through one of his raps to check his voice mail), Sean is most definitely not the standout performer. He stands impassively at one end of the stage, rapping about how much sex he's getting and how many banknotes he's stacking, but looking a little mortified, as though he's not convinced what he's telling you is all that fascinating, or that it sounds hard enough to be believed. Sean's wife Angie -- his main squeeze and chief promotional arm since they met at a park in the eighth grade -- stands on the sidelines, peering through thick dark sunglasses.
Sean's verses are a collision of all the clichés you find in Bay Area turf rap, meaning that once you get all the slang terms, the figurative language isn't all that complicated: Bitches symbolize the dope game, or sometimes dope represents a beautiful bitch. You might be offended if you saw the lyrics written down, but once you meet Sean in the flesh, it's really hard to imagine this is actually the guy who's gonna pop you in the parking lot. When a prospective fan sidles up to him at Rasputin with the caveat "I'm not really into the hyphy movement, man," Sean demurs. "I'm not a hyphy man, I'm a musician. You heard that Mac Dre beat?"
Apparently, Sean's dossier includes six solo rap albums you've probably never heard of -- not that it matters. On Ain't Playin', he seems more like a caricature of a rapper than an actual rapper. In reality, he's pretty much the opposite of what you'd expect a rapper to be: extremely enterprising but relatively antisocial, spending most of his time holed up in a studio, translating gospel chord changes into hooky, made-for-ringtones Mac Dre beats.
Like his deceased compadre, Sean might be feelin' himself to a certain degree, but for the most part, he keeps a pretty low profile -- a spectral presence in a world of turf-grinders, dope pushers, and thizzle dancers. You'll eventually hear him on someone else's banger, but you probably won't know it.
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