A TRIBUTE TO ANDRE NICKATINA: THE COVETED GEM OF BAY AREA HIP-HOP
I know, I know. You’re probably thinking, “Nev, you’re from the Bay Area, if you’re going to write about a regional rapper, why not do Mac Dre?”
As tempting as it was, the thought never really took hold. Mac Dre, born Andre Hicks, is first in everyone’s mind when it comes to Bay Area products, and since his murder in 2004, has upheld the title of King of Bay Area rap. The father of the hyphy movement and all that.
He developed a massive following through a constant stream of releases and small venue touring, and came to be the poster boy for everything the Bay represented at the time — side shows, drug dealing, funky disjointed beats, and an exuberant and carefree persona. He did it all with such ease and swagger that his songs had a certain magnetism to them. The rippling effect of his prolific tenure has permeated every nook and cranny of the underground rap community in the States.
He has even spread to the not-so-underground, as we all remember when Drake shouted out Mac on "The Motto." And in the 13 year wake of Dre’s murder in Kansas City, not a single NorCal MC has had the right blend of skills, wit, and gravitas to elevate to the cult-like fame to which Mac Dre ascended. In a music scene that has little interest in the mainstream, very few Bay rappers have infiltrated the mainframe of America’s rap consciousness. The only ones that come to mind in recent years are E-40 and G-Eazy.
Almost entirely independent, hip hop artists from the Bay have struggled to lift their brand like those coming out of, say, Atlanta, LA, or New York. Without the boost of a major label, artists have a tough time when it comes to the balancing act of a blossoming music career. Booking tour dates, linking with the right producers, and organically attaining key industry contacts can be overwhelming for an up-and-comer who is still trying to hone their own musical arsenal. But the allure of being “self-made” is so ingrained in the Bay that anyone keen to sign a deal to a major immediately raises eyebrows and arouses suspicions of inauthenticity.
For example, take the story of G-Eazy. In 2012, he released the album Must Be Nice. Independently released, the LP rose to #3 on the iTunes Hip Hop charts. As a young artist coming out of Oakland, this kind of astronomical rise was unprecedented. Bay rap listeners lauded him for his skills and clean production. After touring nationwide and with another album on the way, he signed to the major label RCA. Since then, he has become one of the most recognizable rappers in the country and has dropped his sophomore effort, These Things Happen. Although an immensely successful commercial release, locals no longer felt the same connection to the young man who repped the Bay to the fullest.
And with a succession of radio hits, he just became another face in the crowd and no longer felt attached to his indy comrades at home. This isn’t aimed to be an attack at young Gerald, but it demonstrates the fine and almost invisible line that rising stars walk between grass roots adulation and industrial fame. When faced with this decision, few can resist the allure of a lucrative deal and a platform to reach a national audience.
There is one however, who has flirted with (and largely shunned) wider appeal. That man is San Francisco’s own Andre Adams, AKA Dre Dog AKA Andre Nickatina. With an undying loyalty to his roots, this 47-year-old rapper has never purported to be anything other than what he is, for better or worse. Coming from the Fillmore District, the tenured MC has seen his neighborhood morph from a gutter-class melting pot to a petri dish of six-figure techies and $7 coffee shops.
If you were to look at current two-bedroom prices on Zillow, you might think that Nickatina was the son of a prominent executive who buys plays on SoundCloud, as opposed to a drug dealing playa with an affinity for strippers and cocaine blunts. But while the tech boom has made The City altogether unaffordable, Nickatina represents a different time in SF’s history, one where the mention of quinoa would perk up ears only because it sounds like it could be the name of a street drug.
In a career that spans three decades, Nickatina has cemented himself in Bay Area lore on his own terms. While a longtime friend and collaborator of the late Mac Dre, King Nicky has played to the tune of his own lo-fi drum, never jockeying for a spot in the renowned Hyphy genre. He is the antithesis of what Bay rap means to outsiders, but has cultivated his own sound that his loyal fanbase has proudly championed. Independent and reserved in the public eye, Nickatina’s silence speaks volumes about what he stands for, which is making great music. In one of his seldom granted interviews, Nickatina flatly states, “I just throw out raps and hopefully motherfuckers buy them.” In a time where many rappers’ chief concern is their social media followings, Nickatina offers a refreshing and unique alternative to today’s chart toppers.
Over the course of 24 years and about as many albums, Andre has recorded an endless spectrum of bangers, lyrical masterpieces, drug-laden odysseys, and an entire war trunk of flops. Assuming you aren't too familiar with the gawd, let’s take a look, in no particular order, into some of the tracks that made D-boys and suburban white boys alike swell with Bay pride.
"Jungle" was the first Nickatina song I ever heard and it’s a guaranteed non-skip to this day. The beat is reminiscent of an African jungle, and would not have been out of place in The Lion King, maybe a part deux of Simba’s coming of age montage. No disrespect to "Hakuna Matata", but the trials of growing up without parents may warrant a more pensive melody. As what you’d call a starter kit song, only expect a smirk and a head nod from a Bay native if your aim is to impress them with your so-called esoteric aux game. Jungle features Equipto, an Asian MC from the Haight/Ashbury area. Equipto is the Robin to Nickatina’s Batman. This tired analogy can be seen as a slight, but at the end of the day, being Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not a bad gig. And who knows, JGL may have gone on to be Batman himself. But such is life; Christopher Nolan bows out, and we’re dealt a steaming pile of Ben Affleck. I digress. This surreal tune is highlighted with a spinoff of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” on the chorus. Some might think that it’s even exciting….
Y-U-Smilin again features Equipto. The chemistry never more apparent than here, with the duo trading off verses seamlessly without a chorus to let you catch your breath. Their voices and styles could not be more different, Andre in his deep baritone, speeding up and slowing down syllables masterfully, and Equipto’s lyrical machine gunnery, setting a monotonous but focused and purposeful pace. The beat is fast for a Nickatina selection, peppered with a sound that reminds one of Free Willy crying for open waters….in a good way.
Yeah brings back a mixed bag of emotions for me. On the one hand, any Dre Dog collection is glaringly incomplete without it. On the other, this douche in high school hit a grand slam off of me not a minute after he sauntered up to the plate with this song blaring through two decrepit loudspeakers. PTSD aside, there’s no denying the smooth, understated appeal of this cut.
The lyrics are non-sequential, filled with classic two bar Nicky-isms that somehow made for a great Facebook status in 2007 (“I wear rings like the planet called Saturn”). Though no longer a fashionable post on any public forum, the crisp and creative rhymes remain very much alive in the Bay rap community.
"Color of the Benz"
This was one of the many solo tracks off the collaborative album with Mac Dre, A Tale of Two Andres. Nickatina released this compilation in the posthumous wake of his good friend, and it features a smorgasbord of duets and solos. Several of the duets ("U Beezy", "Andre n Andre", "My Homeboyz Chevy") will be omitted from this shortlist in observance of Mac Dre’s unquantifiable contributions. In their stead, "Color of the Benz" carries the torch for the regrettably fallen soldiers. This anthemic tune has clever wordplay and a memorable hook that will stay in your head long after the song’s slow fade. RIP Anchor Blue Jeans.
"Soul of a Coke Dealer"
For anyone who may have just watched Scarface and is casually considering moving a few grams here and there (“It’ll just be to earn some weekend money. And I’ll totally be smart about it of course”), this ethereal yet bleak track will have you crashing back down to earth and caressing your cushy desk job like a giraffe body pillow.
Dre weaves his best yarn to date, right on par with "Dance with the Devil". But unlike Immortal Technique’s crown jewel, "Soul" is an embodiment of everything that can, and will, go wrong for anyone irreversibly ensconced in the drug game, rather than a nigh unbelievable one-off with psyche-shattering consequences. This one is not a casual listen, as it’s void of any of the crude humor we’ve come to expect from Andre. It’s an emotional journey, one we know is doomed from the start.
“My mother called to give her best/The police picked up the phone started to laugh/And said he's under arrest/I felt pain in my heart from a thousand whips/Man, I wish I had never learned to bag a zip/You should have seen they face when I paid my bail/It was the look of the devil's thats gon' send me to hell/”
Yikes. The interesting dichotomy here is that while the intended emotional impact has worn off for me personally, repeated listens will have you reciting the verses feeling like a grizzled coke boy, passing down sage advice to the disenfranchised youth.
"Smoke Dope & Rap"
I would go as far as to say that you’ve heard this song if you frequent yourself with rap music. And tragically, you were too embarrassed to ask who the artist was, opting rather to bob your head along to the beat and lamely mumble the last word of every line in a feeble attempt to come off as familiar. We’ve all been there. The self-loathing experienced in this situation is enough to put you off on a song altogether. But fear not, as you can now say that you’ve been formally introduced to a song that your favorite rapper loves.
This song is such an anthem that Jerry Jones has demanded that it blare through the Cowboys’ locker room around the clock. The lyrics contained within this song may as well be Bible verses, as they are ingrained into the Baydestrian’s soul. And luckily, we adhere to its contents about as much as the Bible’s. Few of us have the constitution for the potent mix of marijuana and cocaine, much less loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
"4AM- Bay Bridge Music"
I’ve never been too partial to novelties. Doing things just because there may be some sort of kooky, ironic effect seems a little counterintuitive and disingenuous. Think of this guy:
But one evening, returning from a long night of afterwork libations in San Francisco, I noticed the hour was late, approaching the wee hours of the morning, 'bout 4:00 a.m. And in my half-hungover daze, my neurons were firing just fast enough to make me realize that my location and the time were converging towards the Halley’s comet of musical serendipity. So I put on "4AM" and let me tell you…it was pretty good, a little bit better than usual. Like I said, if you have to force it, it’s just not worth it. But if I were going to give it a piñata comparison, it gets a major upgrade:
Another interesting tidbit about this song is that it was used to remix 2010 American Idol contestant Larry Platt’s “Pants on the Ground”. The producers of the show allowed 62 year-old Larry to perform his inane but remarkably woke ditty even though the age limit for the show was 28. But in the weeks following the show’s airing, I saw on YouTube that the song had been remixed to 4AM to the tune of a few million views. The video has since been taken down, although I doubt Nicky was too worried about copyrights and royalties. I’m not sure who would have the musical sensibilities to combine the two, but it didn’t sound half bad.
"Conversation with a Devil"
If you are completely unfamiliar with Andre, the best jump off point would be the album named after this track. Released in 2003, this is arguably Nicky’s best album, released at the epicenter of his “golden era”. The album artwork is a classic in itself, featuring a horned she-devil in a skimpy thong. My first informal introduction to the artist himself was a tour sweatshirt with this image donned by my Sex Ed class’s TA. He was 18, had an eyebrow piercing, and had already been through “struggles”, something unknown by most of the kids in my quiet town. When my lovely and rumored breast-augmented teacher told us that drinking was bad, he added the stipulation that we should have a sober driver if we decided to do so anyways. So I knew that I was in for some gangster shit when I finally got around to listening to the album. The song is simple, choppy, and showcases Nicky’s ability to adapt to any beat.
While Andre Nickatina’s current output may not equal its former quality, his spot in the Bay’s Rap Hall of Fame is unquestioned. His disregard for the contributions made by those before him should be an inspiration to the ones to follow him.