"I started West Coast rap," Morey Alexander says in a melodic voice completely devoid of 50 Cent-ish braggadocio. "I used to manage the LA Dream Team. I introduced N.W.A. You know who N.W.A is, don't you? Eazy-E? Ice Cube? MC Ren? DJ Yella? Dr. Dre? I managed them ... I basically started gangsta rap."
It can be a bit hard squaring such a bold pronouncement with Alexander's lookóthat of an aging goomba, with a swath of thinning black hair combed into an arch from ear to ear, tortoise-slow stride, voice stuck in jazz-DJ mode. Add a few inches and some girth and you've basically got Robert Goulet. Now contrast his appearance with the gangsta angst of his musical progeny, N.W.Aóyoung street toughs from Compton and South Central Los Angeles, clad in all black, bragging about pullin' triggers, beddin' women and slingin' drugs, all while yellin' "F--k the Police."
Just seems like an oil-and-water mix: As a teenager, Alexander snuck into bars in his native south-side Chicago to listen to jazz and blues; as an adult, he helped spawn a musical genre that produces big migraines for its detractors and bigger bucks for its purveyors. His offspring have basically commandeered (and, some say, corrupted) hip-hopóN.W.A begat Eazy-E (Eric Wright), who begat Bone Thugs 'N Harmony; Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson) begat the Westside Connection; Dr. Dre (Andre Young) begat Snoop Dogg and Eminem; Snoop begat the Dogg Pound and 213; Eminem begat 50 Cent who, in turn, begat G-Unit. And so on.
It isn't until you're inside the local offices of Kent Entertainmentóthe same legendary Los Angeles blues label that helped make B.B. King a star (the Vegas branch opened on Decatur near Smoke Ranch in June)óthat you can see Alexander's role in creating gangsta rap. There are eight plaques on the walls, several of them platinumófor N.W.A's "Straight Outta Compton," Eazy-E's "Eazy-Duz-It"óand all with his name on them. This alone, he says, makes him credentialed enough to succeed where other hip-hop executives have failed.
But that was then and this is Vegas, the hip-hop equivalent of a black hole. The city has sucked the hopes and dreams out of countless pining-for-the-big-time emcees. After commuting from a Los Angeles studio the past five years, Alexander moved here permanently this year, with designs on using his connections to make Vegas a music industry player. Pipe dream? He doesn't think so. That's why he's secured the services of all-pros like Shelly Rudin, former vice president of sales at Polygram Records, and Freddie Mancuso, among the nation's best radio promotersó"He got Kent's 'Blues with a Vengeance,' by John Lee Hooker Jr. on every jazz station in the country." And when a $100,000 warehouse-to-studio conversion is complete, Alexander says there'll be no better place in town to record.
"We're already producing beats for rappers around town and we're on the verge of signing some big talent," Alexander says.
In fact, he says, gangsta rap's next big thing will come from, you guessed it, the 702óin the form of a 35-year-old Italian, Las Vegas-by-way-of-South-Central-LA-and-by-way-of-Atlanta rapper named, of all things, Slick.
Looks can deceive. Alexander has hip-hop's signature head bob down pat, as evidenced by the synchronicity between the way his cranium sways to beats produced by a young artist experimenting in a temporary studio adjacent to his office. To hear him tell it, he's loved rap ever since ... the 1950's?
"You know who Dolemite is?" he asks, pointing to a framed, signed picture of Rudy Ray Moore, who created a rhyming pimp movie character named Dolemite. Moore would later proclaim himself "the godfather of rap," boasting that when it comes to rap, "he was through with it before they (modern rappers) knew what to do with it."
"Dolemite and Johnny 'Guitar' Watson were basically rappers," Alexander says. Both have been sampled by the likes of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. One guess who used to manage Moore. "They were just rappers in a different form."
Something about rap's tell-it-like-it-is ethos connected with Alexander. Musically, it wasn't much different from the blues and jazz he loved, the way it spoke to people in their situations and gave voices to the marginalized. So, naturally, while working at Crown Records in Chicago and later for Kent Records (which he says he built into an $80 million company), he pumped up the rosters with rap-styled blues and jazz acts. After moving to Southern California in 1967, a friend told him about a steady stream of young black guys coming into his production plant to press up 12-inch records of this gruff, reality-based style of musicórap. Alexander saw potential.
"Rhyming words and rap had become like a newspaper for kids in South Central," he says. (Chuck D once called rap the "black CNN.") "They didn't want to read, so they began telling stories through rhyme."
By 1985, Alexander began promoting rap acts such as the LA Dream Team, who melded danceable rap with snippets of electronica. He says he recruited Jerry Heller to help him manage this new group, N.W.A. "I met Eazy-E and he asked me to manage him," Alexander says. "We tried to sell Eazy to all the major record labels. No luck. We eventually got Eazy on (venerable LA hip-hop station) KDAY. Later, we signed N.W.A to Priority Records. And the rest is history."
Gangsta Rap Family Tree
Confusion still abounds over the origin of gangsta rap. Did it originate in New York, or is it a uniquely West Coast creation, tied to Southern California's rampant gang problemsómore than 100,000 identified gang members?
"Although gangsta rap originated in New York in the late-1970s, it has widely become associated with the West Coast, particularly Los Angeles, due to the multi-million sales of rappers such as Ice Cube, Ice T, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Doggy Dogg," according to an article on bookrags.com, which references books like The New Beats: Exploring the Music, Culture and Attitudes of Hip-Hop, as well as Robin D. G. Kelley's Kickin' Reality, Kickin' Ballistics: 'Gangsta Rap' and Postindustrial Los Angeles and Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class.
"Los Angeles might proclaim itself as the home of gangsta rap, but gangsta lyrics and style were part of the hip-hop scene from its origins in the South Bronx in the mid-1970s. The inspiration behind the specific style known as gangsta rap in the late-1990s was Schooly D's Smoke Some Kill (1987) and Boogie Down Production's Criminal Minded (1987). In particular, the latter's track, '9mm Goes Bang,' has been seen as a pioneering force in gangsta rap's development."
"However," the article notes, "it was West Coast-based Ice T's Rhyme Pays (1987), which ranged from humorous boasts and tales of crime and violence to outright misogyny, together with N.W.A.'s (Niggaz With Attitude) underground album Straight Outta Compton (1988), that established gangsta rap firmly within the American music scene. Its keynote track 'F*** Tha Police,' was considered so shocking that radio stations and MTV refused to play it. Nonetheless, the album went platinum. N.W.A. and gangsta rap's popularity was compounded with the release of their second album, EFIL4ZAGGIN, in 1991, which debuted at number two on the Billboard chart with neither a single nor a video and became the first rap album to reach number one. Snoop Doggy Dogg then became the first rapper to go straight to number one with his album Doggystyle (1993)."
In his book, Nuthin' But a G Thang, whose title is cribbed from a Dr. Dre-Snoop Dogg collabo in 1993, Eithne Quinn, who teaches American Studies at the University of Manchester in England, seems to credit West Coast artists such as Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur with creating the genre. The chapters are certainly Pacific-centric: "Alwayz Into Somethin: Gangsta's Emergence in 1980s, Los Angeles" and "Straight Outta Compton: Ghetto Discourses and the Geographies of Gangsta."
Coastal claims to the genre aside, what's indisputable is that gangsta rap has become omnipresent, influencing rappers of every ilkóMC Hammer to the Eminemósimultaneously cataloguing social deterioration in the 'hood and excesses of those who've struck it rich in the rhyme game. Hip-hop has become mainstream; rappers promote everything from Vitamin water (50 Cent) to skin care products (Sean "Diddy" Combs) to cars (Snoop Dogg recently appeared in a commercial with ex-Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca).
Shock and Mob
Which brings us to Slick, who Alexander thinks will take gangsta rap to a new level.
"Slick (Anthony Masaracchia) and the Shock Mob are going to blow. He's unlike anything you've ever heard."
Alexander is at his desk, which is cluttered with names and numbers scribbled on Post-It Notes and a pile of the nation's biggest hip-hop and music magazinesóSource, XXL, Billboard. He's logged on to allhiphop.com, which bills itself as the "world's most dangerous site." Says he's trying to set up an interview between Slick and the Baker Boys, a legendary California radio duo. Two guesses who used to manage the Baker Boys.
"When I first heard Slick, I thought he had potential. I thought he was doing mafia music (because he's Italian)," Alexander says. "I had no concerns about him being a white gangsta rapper because he's original. Eminem is a phony. He needs Dr. Dre (to give him street credibility). Slick has it. You really need to hear him."
He pops in the CD, playing the first minute of a handful of songs, commenting here and thereó"like nothing you ever heard" ... "has a sound that can sell anywhere" ... "only person (he's) dealt with who does it all. Dre is a good producer, but not a good performer. Eazy is a decent rapper, but he couldn't write. Cube was a good writer, but not a good performer or producer. Slick can do it all."
High praise considering that N.W.A and its members have sold tens of millions of records and Masaracchia hasn't.
The songs reveal an adept lyricist who can ride an array of beats: West Coast G-funk, Southern crunk, East Coast eery.
Masaracchia walks in. He's wearing baggy gray sweat pants with red streaks and the over-oversized white T-shirts that are increasingly becoming urban chic. He and Alexander chat about a performance the next day at the Aladdin during the MAGIC (Men's Apparel Guild in California) convention, the twice-yearly clothing show that draws nearly 100,000 visitors, including hip-hop moguls hawking their clothing lines. Masaracchia will be performing with Houston rappers Mike Jones and Pall Wall, both stars in the making. His is a brief moment in the limelight; instead of 15 minutes of fame, he's getting about 16 bars. A small start, he says, to something big.
"I'm ready to break out of here and put Vegas on the map," says Masaracchia, who met Alexander through a mutual acquaintance two years ago and likes him "because he has good music ethics and he has connections. I mean, N.W.A and Dr. Dre, that's huge."
Get him talking about his career and Masairacchia becomes animated, pounding his fist in his palm for exclamation, using his arms in exhortation, mimicking scenes from rap battles and interviews past. The more you listen, the more multifaceted he seems. One moment, he's college-boy articulate, the next he's effortlessly employing slang.
Asking about his rap style yields a boastful earful: "I'm gonna change Vegas hip-hop because my style is a merger of the South and West Coast gangsta hip-hop. I can do every genre. I think I can release a different single on each coast and have it sell. I produce, I write, I create mix. I'm on some Kanye West shit," he says, referring to the music industry's current "It" Boy (cover of Time Magazine, profile in the New Yorker).
And don't let the age fool youóthe 30s are the new 20s in hip-hop. He's younger than LL Cool J and has been rhyming nearly as long: "I've been rapping since I was 15. I memorized 'Rappers' Delight' when I was a kid. I was discouraged because I was white. But when the Beastie Boys came out, I wasn't discouraged anymore. I started rapping and battling."
Since then, Masaracchia says, he's performed in more than 200 shows, opening mostly for California rappers like E-40, 3x Crazy, the now-defunct Luniz and the Booyah Tribe. He says he won a big rap competition in Tennessee in 1997 and, a few years ago, beat respected Sacramento rapper Brotha Lynch Hung in a battle. "I was crowned king of Sacramento," he says.
Eminem being the most glaring and recent exception, battle rappers have had a tough go of gaining mainstream acceptance. But Masaracchia believes he's already successful, even without platinum plaques, harems and Bentleys. And speaking of Eminem, well, let's just say he'd rather you not.
"I get questioned about him all the time because I'm a white rapper and I hate it. I mean, I don't hate it, but it gets tiring. I respect him as an artist, but some of the things he says about his mother, I would never say."
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You can hear the enthusiasm in Masaracchia's voice as he talks about his plans for a Slick and the Shock Mob World Order. His click's got skills, he says. (Doesn't everybody's? Alexander says albums from Streetz and Waste Management are in the works). Later this year, Masaracchia's 15-year-old son, Michael (rap name, Conspiracy) will follow in pop's record-releasing footsteps. "He's already a great speed-rapper who can beat a lot of the cats out now. We're going to do some Master P (Percy Miller) and Lil Romeo shit," Masaracchia says, referring to the father-son New Orleans' rap duo. "My son is half black and half Italian, so he's got the hardest gangsters in the world to learn from."
He means gangsters in the benevolent sense. Gangsters? Benevolent. Let him explain: "My whole click is black and Italian, people who have produced the hardest gangsters around. But we're businessmen. Morey sat us down a long time ago about this. We're not out there starting beefs or doing anything stupid. We want to make good music."
Having a great place to record is half the battle. Alexander thinks some of the rappers who've turned the city into second or third, or fourth homes (among them, Eminem at the Palms' new condo tower), might come Vegas way more often if they can intersperse a little business amid the pleasure.
When the new studio is complete in a few months, Alexander says his artistsóthere are four labels housed at his office: Kent Records, First Kut, Mob Music and Heavyweight Productionsówill have the best facility in town. Rappers are already lining up to buy beats to studio time, he says. As if cued by Alexander, a rapper in a New Jersey Nets jersey and sideways-cocked hat goes into the temporary studio to talk business with a young producer.
"We'll be able to sign some big talent," says Alexander, noting that a deal has been inked with veteran battle-rhymer Canibus, a wildly talented lyricist whose record sales have never matched his skills. Here's where Alexander says his vast industry connections will come in.
"We're probably the only label in Las Vegas distributed by a major company," says Alexander, noting that he's also looking for R&B, jazz and blues talent, of which he says Vegas has plenty. "We have distribution with RykoDisc through Warner Bros., so we can get our products in all the best stores, the Wal-Marts and K-Marts."
So how many records will Masaracchia sell?
Gold (500,000)? "At least."
Platinum? "If we have to twist arms in radio, we can make it happen."
"What if he only does 100,000?"
"We've got ways of making it (platinum sales) happen."
"No, like this," he chuckles, pulling a bat from underneath his desk. "I'm just kidding."
So far, though, his major distribution clout, music pedigree and half century's worth promoting and managing top industry talent hasn't meant squat to local radio stations. The Music Man, the godfather of gangsta rap, can't get airplay for his artists. Maybe he'll need that bat. His tried-and-true method of promotingógetting a record played and getting it accepted; the same way he helped N.W.A became a household, if despised, nameóisn't been working. Yet. So he's lining up tour dates for Masaracchia. If a station in, say, Texas, is digging the CD, he'll break it there.
"There is no hip-hop sound unique to Vegas," Alexander says. "We have what it takes to create one."