Afternoon in the Crack House
The Crack Emcee is talking on the phone in his Upper Haight apartment, watching a Montel Williams program about race relations. He laughs knowingly because his friend on the other line is taping the program. Crack Emcee intends to mix these cheesy Montel audio clips into a home-dubbed tape, which he will sell on consignment at stores like Rough Trade and Reckless.
Like many audio thieves, the Crack Emcee runs rhythm tracks behind his samples, grooves that music journalists tend to call "infectious party beats." But he raps rhapsodic about smoking crack. His name pisses people off -- his press photo is of a berserk bald guy with shaved eyebrows and clenched neck muscles. He's banned from clubs all over town. America's biggest button to be pushed is racism, and the Crack Emcee is jumping up and down on it.
"I'm trying to tell people something that a lot of people don't want to hear," he says. "My wife and I, we always have a giggle whenever we see a Rock Hudson film, you know? It's a little reminder that the world isn't what we think it is. People always charge me with being a racist -- if you're pro-black, then you're anti-white. That's the whole point, to get down and dirty. Jon Carroll once said that he thinks it's time for this country to have a good family argument. That's very, very apt."
Crack Emcee's sampled tapes are like a Tomorrowland rocket ride. From Martin Luther King's "I have seen ... the promised land" to the Moody Blues' "Breathe deep the gathering gloom" to George Bush saying, "Born addicted to drugs," mixed into a hundred other sounds, it's a fast-paced, no-budget barrage, especially on headphones.
"It's art after Warhol," the 35-year-old rapper shrugs. "Grabbing scraps of Western civilization to make something new. I try to find stuff that I think is American. When I was in South Central, all I heard was black music -- Jackson 5, Parliament -- and then all of a sudden you hear this fat jam, and everybody says, 'Who's that? Elton John? Who's Elton John?' 'Bennie and the Jets' was a big hit in my neighborhood. That bomp, bomp, bomp? Everybody was like, 'It's a backbeat! Ahhhhh!' "
The artist formerly known as L. Troy Dixon grew up in South Central, son of a jazz musician, grandson of a man who helped Pretty Boy Floyd run moonshine in Oklahoma. He shunned sports, instead drawing pictures for his friends, then grew a mohawk and became a radio DJ. Four years on a Navy supply ship taught him government hypocrisy firsthand: cover-ups like overseas prostitution and Tailhook. Onboard LSD use was out of control. Dixon remembers two gay sailors zonked out of their brains, holding hands and jumping right off the ship.
He settled in the Bay Area, gigging with bands like the Broun Fellinis. The Crack Emcee persona emerged, a nickname bestowed on him years ago by a friend.
"I was nasty. Whatever he said, I had a cutdown for it. That was definitely the description that fit -- crack, the most negative thing you can think about."
Anything goes in the guise of a crackhead, because you never know what they're going to say. Crack Emcee's 1993 tape "Suck/Riot!" features cartoon artwork of a growling kid in sneakers sitting in a corner, mike in one hand, crack pipe in the other, his eyes bleeding red.
"In the beginning, there probably wasn't that much difference between me and the character, honestly," says Crack Emcee. "I was high as a fucking kite."
Songs like "The Verdict" and "Pete Wilson" stab the listener in the chest, but amid the posturing and humor, there's an ultimate sadness, a poignancy.
"I grew up in a neighborhood, we didn't have banks on every corner," he continues. "The insurance man was king. Little old ladies would run out and buy coffee for him, cakes and shit, never realizing that he's just some dumbshit from Farmer's. Because blacks didn't know exactly how insurance worked, what insurance was. It's like the Internet. They know it's important, but they don't really know why. I'm sure that if somebody went to the black communities in the South right now, hawking computers, they could do a good business, and people would break out the good china for 'em. I feel sorry for people in my neighborhood. I've traveled the world, and I've seen poor places. There's no reason for this country to do what it does to its people."
Also traveling the world lately is Louis Farrakhan, visiting countries the U.S. considers enemies. Crack Emcee admits he's not a huge Farrakhan fan, but he understands the appeal. And he advocates reparations.
"Not necessarily for me, but just for black people -- that somehow this country will find it in its heart to do something generous for this particular group of people. I've thought that in those negotiations that no matter who's at the table, Farrakhan would have to be there --"
I interrupt and ask about Washington columnist Carl T. Rowan, American media's favorite black soundbite.