When San Francisco rapper Z Man first name Zamon, last name Christmas Tree (or so he insists) waxes eloquent about "gurping" and his "rellies," he is speaking in a tongue native to his hometown, a slang distinct to this region and, in particular, this region's hip hop community. So you should probably be able to understand him, right? Or are you some kind of Larry Dog?
Z Man grew up in the Fillmore District, a neighborhood with a long tradition of black music, from jazz to soul to hip hop. This month sees the release of his debut LP, Dope or Dog Food, on Oakland's celebrated Hieroglyphics record label, home to Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Souls of Mischief, among others. On Dope or Dog Food, Z Man spins tales of love, lust, and hemp-fueled hijinks. The upbeat party record is full of singsong choruses and catchy hooks, and it showcases not only Z Man's addictive beats but also his somewhat offbeat lyrical prowess. Unlike some of his SAT-acing peers, this MC prefers side-splitting comedy to flexing his lexicon; where others talk like Dr. Spock, this guy rhymes like Dr. Seuss.
Nevertheless, thanks to his street-wise origins and endless talent, Z Man is embraced by both the esoteric hip hop community as well as its gangsta-rapping antonym despite the fact that his lyrical style resembles neither. In fact, those not versed in that style may need help deciphering Z Man's code. So we took to the streets Fillmore Street to be exact in the hopes of educating our fellow San Franciscans, and to find out if this MC's unique slang has crept into anyone's vernacular.
Mainey adj. wondrous, spectacular, or, conversely, grotesque, disturbing (depending on inflection); "Our slang is mainey, you got to respect it," from "Historical Moments."
Location: Zinc Details, furniture store. Subject: Vasilio, store employee.
Z Man: Do you know what "mainey" means?
Vasilio: Like crazy?
Z Man: Yeah!
Vasilio: Like "mania"? Is that an adjective? You say, like, "He's mainey"?
Z Man: Yeah. Like you've never seen these rings before [points to fancy rings on the counter]. They're mainey that's not a bad thing.
Vasilio: Is it like, "That's the bomb"?
Z Man: Sure, sure. It just depends on how you say it.
Orreee (ur-ee) interj. a greeting; something to get the attention of someone you know; "Orreee, that's my rellie, rolling in the Chevy with his homegirl Becky," from "Buckle Up."
Location: New Chicago Barber Shop. Subject: Charles, owner.
Z Man: Are you familiar with the term "orreee"?
Z Man: Is that something you hear in the street?
Z Man: Well, let's say you know this cat right here and he doesn't see you but you yell to him, "Orreee," and he'll turn around because you all know what that means.
Charles: All right.
Z Man: It's a greeting.
Z Man: You don't have to say, "Hey," you don't have to say, "Hey you," or "Come here." You say, "Orreee!"
Z Man's dreadlocks hang down his back and a mischievous twinkle appears in his big brown eyes. He apologizes for still being high from the pot brownie he ate last night, then he flashes a warm smile and begins recounting his childhood over a cup of tea.
As a kid, Z Man was influenced by the culture his neighborhood was nurturing in the '70s and '80s. "I grew up into music," he says. "I stayed in Double Rock [a housing project], in the Fillmore, growing up hearing funk, jazz, and soul a whole lot of soul occasionally rock 'n' roll."
Inspired by local artists like Too $hort, he started freestyling in junior high and took it to the next level in high school, writing and recording rhymes with his brother King Maz, his cousin Slim Goodworth, and a group of friends. In 1989, his family moved out to Pacifica and he attended Westmore High School in Daly City, where he practiced his raps and also took to hand-painting clothes and selling them, as well as doing murals for local businesses. "When the crack didn't run no more, I had to start painting," he explains, only half joking. "It was rough for a minute. It was real rough till I moved out of the city to Pacifica. It was good for us. Or me and my brother would have ended up ... not even here for this interview."
Sucker Free n. San Francisco; "We're in Sucker Free/ Sippin' on Cisco/ Chillin' in Frisco/ Yeah, Sucker Free," from "Sucker Free."
Location: Mrs. Dewson's Hats. Subject: Mrs. Dewson, owner (and sometimes purveyor of hats to former Mayor Willie Brown).
Z Man: Can we ask you about some slang?
Mrs. Dewson: You know, I'm an old woman. I don't know any slang. I'm from the old school. I can't understand what [the kids are] saying. It's foreign to me.
Z Man: Yeah, but you hear them talking.
Mrs. Dewson: Yeah, I hear it all the time.
SF Weekly: Have you heard "Sucker Free"?
Mrs. Dewson: "Sucker Free"?
Z Man: Yeah, meaning San Francisco
SF Weekly: devoid of suckers.
Mrs. Dewson: Well, I think it's full of suckers! [Laughs]
Z Man: Well, thanks.
SF Weekly: Have a good weekend!
Mrs. Dewson: Sorry I don't know more slang. I was raised in a different era. We didn't have slang. I don't approve of it.
Rellie n. a relative or close friend; "Laid out from the flesh fest/ A few rellies in your kitchen now eating breakfast," from "Party On."
Location: MAC Cosmetics. Subject: Shawna, makeup artist.
Z Man: Do you know what "rellie" means?
Z Man: R-E-L-L-I-E.
Z Man: [With his arm around a friend] This is my rellie right here.
Shawna: Your girl?
Z Man: No, my rellie, my relative, my homie.
Shawna: I'm not hip to the lingo.
Z Man: Now you are!
Mr. Christmas Tree began working with his crew, 99th Demention, in the mid-'90s. He found fans of his stuff in local acts like Sacred Hoop and Space Travelers, going on to perform and write songs with them. After his friend I.D. from Refill Records referred him to Hieroglyphics, the Oakland hip hop crew took him on tour and eventually signed him to its label. While this new release is bound to gain Z Man a wider fan base, he's always had a cult following among Bay Area rap fans. "He has a wild imagination," says DJ Stef, a local turntablist and founder of the Vinyl Exchange. "You can see it in his artwork and he brings it to life in his music and onstage."
As if writing songs and inventing his own lingo weren't enough, Z Man is also a painter, whose work is part classic graffiti-style, part third-grade art class. This explains his playful, hand-drawn album cover for Dope, which depicts a cartoonish rendering of the MC. Like Z Man's raps, his artwork is based in humor and simplicity.
Larry Dog or Larry n. a loser or phony; "You fuckin' Larrys calling sampling demo music/ Got a keyboard and don't know what you're doin'," from "Lightning Inna Bottle."
Location: Johnny Rockets, restaurant. Subject: Zarah, waitress.
Z Man: Do you know what a "Larry Dog" is?
SF Weekly: Like [pointing to a clean-cut tourist in the restaurant], that guy is a total Larry Dog.
Z Man: Like a chump, or a sucker.
Zarah: Oh no, what am I? I feel bad right now.
SF Weekly: No, no, you're not a Larry Dog!
Zarah: Can a girl be a Larry Dog?
Z Man: Oh yeah.
Zarah: This is really fun.
SF Weekly: You might not be a Larry Dog, but you may be an apple pie [an all-American type].
Z Man: Oh yes.
"It's either dope or dog food," explains Z Man. "It's a quote I got from Big Daddy Kane's 'Ain't No Half Steppin',' when he says, 'What you want, huh? Dope or dog food?' You want it dope or you want some bullshit?"
In Z Man's case, you usually get the former. On Dope, his songs speak of UFO sightings, drunk driving, weed smoking, white girl romancing, and of his alter ego, a festive cookie with a very bad attitude called "The Gingerbread Man." From the drunken anthem "Gurp Wit Me" to the ode to voluptuous female Caucasians "White Girls Wit Ass" Z Man traffics in a day-to-day zaniness only he could produce. The sound is firmly rooted in the West Coast style all big bass and chunky beats but his influences go further than Ice Cube; you can hear echoes of Slick Rick when Z Man unravels a great story or Kool Keith when he just gets freaky.
This wacky demeanor sets him apart from most San Francisco rappers, hard-core gangster types like his childhood friend the late Cougnut of seminal local group I.M.P. But Z Man has the unlikely honor of being accepted by both the more intellectual backpacker rap community, which digs his DIY ethic, and the close-knit gangster scene, which considers him family. But who wouldn't like the local court jester of rap? "I can't help but make people laugh," he says. "I try and keep it imaginative. Keep it entertaining, that's what it's about. That's what we're in it for."
Gurp n. as in, On gurp or gurpin'; very drunk, stoned, or both; wasted; "We been on gurp all day already!," from "Buckle Up."
Location: Subway, sandwich chain. Subject: Michelle, customer.
Z Man: Do you know "orreee"?
Michelle: That's like to get someone's attention.
Z Man: Right. How about "gurp"?
Michelle: Trippin'. That's like trippin'. Gurpin'.
Z Man: Yeah, you been drinking or smoking or whatever.
So Michelle knew her stuff not everyone's in the dark about this lingo. But our experiment showed that most San Franciscans could brush up on their slang: Looks like Z Man has his work cut out for him. Luckily, he's used to it.
As Dope or Dog Food gets ready to hit stores, the Gingerbread Man is already close to done with his next project, an album titled Two Cups of Spit (spit meaning, literally, saliva, but also slang for "rap"), which, according to Z Man, finds him moving away from Dope's zany sound and toward what he calls "verbal gymnastics." Like any great MC, he wants to show that he can win a battle as well as rock a party. Now that he's emerged from the local subterranean rap scene, the question is: Will that party remain in the Fillmore, or can Z Man persuade an entire nation to go gurpin' with him?