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"Total fucking silence." This is Steve Buscemi's quote from Fargo that keeps echoing through my head while sitting in Andre Nickatina's "other ride" – a mid-'90s Toyota – after he picks me up outside the MacArthur BART station in Oakland. Nervously, I try to engage the 6-foot-4 rapper in small talk en route to our interview at his studio, thinking he might want to weigh in on some recent hip hop releases, but Nickatina is having none of it.
Saturday, Dec. 6, at 9 p.m.
Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door
"We gotta take care of some Daddy Day Care-type shit right now. Sit tight and buckle your seat belt," is all he says for the better part of an hour as we drive to pick up his kid from school in rush hour traffic, and then drop him off. This is not what I had in mind after listening to several CDs from Nickatina's vast back catalog of rap music filled with tales of drinking, drugging, and thugging around S.F.'s Fillmore District, but I stay quiet until we get to his studio in the Oakland hills. Thankfully, once the eccentric MC gets comfortable, he is ready to talk – a lot.
"I don't look at it like I've got to sell X amount of CDs to be successful, you know what I'm saying?" the rapper says. "I just make the CD. My fan base is mostly word-of-mouth, but I'm from here and I've been doing it for the past 10 to 12, so people know who the fuck I am."
Indeed, many do. For over 10 years, Nickatina, formerly known as Dre Dog, has been the voice of the San Francisco "playa." Among this city's hard-core hip hop fiends, he is respected as much for his firsthand knowledge of the street game as he is for his liquid delivery on the mike. Most of his devotees know him the way they know an old friend, and some in the local hip hop scene consider him an underground icon, mostly because the guy has been doing variations on gangsta rap for years, trends be damned. "He definitely has a very strong local following," says Jonathan McDonald, hip hop buyer for Amoeba Music in Berkeley. "Gangsta cats and underground cats really like him. It's hard to keep Nickatina stuff in stock, especially the older Dre Dog titles. They just fly out of the store."
Now his latest CD/DVD release, Conversations With a Devil, is elevating Nickatina's rep not just in the Bay Area, but throughout the west (he's got tour stops planned in cities ranging from Phoenix, Ariz., to Eugene, Ore.). Although the album has its truly transcendent moments, for every verse flipped eloquently about a drug deal gone bad, there is another about Nickatina's favorite type of girl that flops. On the whole, it is simultaneously a great and absurd piece of work, and it comes complete with an incomprehensible film that shows Nickatina's dark and dry sense of humor – which doesn't always add up. But despite, or maybe even because of, the MC's proclivity toward the bizarre, fans can't get enough of this guy. Whether or not you like or believe his raps about hustling, it's hard to argue that Nickatina has a certain irresistible charisma.
For a Galileo High School dropout and self-confessed D student, Nickatina has done fairly well for himself thanks largely to hip hop. He puts out his own CDs on his Fillmoe Coleman imprint, selling directly to local record stores like Tower, and also on his Web site. So while he's seen friends and fellow MCs get signed to major labels, and has a thriving underground following, Nickatina doesn't desire a record deal. "When a label comes for you, they are coming for them, not you," he says, because he knows a thing or two about the majors and the fuzzy math their contracts portend.
He has had bites before, mostly back in the early '90s when the Bay Area was hot thanks to Digital Underground, Rappin' 4-Tay, and, God help us, MC Hammer. "The bay was thriving when it was independent," Nickatina reminisces, "just like the South was before the South had all the exposure on BET and MTV that it has today." As Nickatina tells it, the big labels decimated the independent rap community here. "The majors came in and started giving people a lot of money. But where are these cats now?"
Nickatina would rather emulate the success of Oakland's Too $hort, who puts out albums that sell modestly, but steadily, to a hard-core audience of fans who crave his freaky urban tales. "Too $hort has something that platinum-selling artists like MC Hammer will never have," he says, "and that's respect in the hip hop community."
This approach has earned Nickatina his own share of respect. In contrast to the socially conscious hip hop usually associated with popular Bay Area artists like Blackalicious or Hieroglyphics, Nickatina's music sticks close to the Too $hort, E-40, Nas, or even Geto Boys formula. On each of the MC's eight full-lengths, his rhymes reveal dark tales of drug dealing and surviving on the streets of San Francisco laid over highly infectious beats. For example, "Soul of a Coke Dealer," from Conversations With a Devil, is a somber, minor-key track with haunting keyboard riffs and a stark but fierce drumbeat on which Nickatina spits, "You say you want it all/ You say forget the law/ And everything you saw/ You copped it from the raw."
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