By Ian S. Port
By Cory Sklar
By Godofredo Vasquez
By Gil Riego Jr.
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Christopher Victorio
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JT the Bigga Figga leans his long, arching back against the wall and stretches his slender legs across the narrow passageway in front of Luv n' Haight's sandwich counter. Decked head-to-toe in Desert Storm-era camouflage and bobbing his head to an anxious, inaudible rhythm, he practically dares the sandwich shop's customers to cross his path. He barks out his order to the busy attendant: "Turkey sandwich, no Brussels sprouts or nothing like that."
Depending on your perspective, JT is either refreshingly direct or disturbingly coarse; brash and courageous or supremely arrogant; a community leader or a self-serving capitalist. Since his debut in 1992, he's figured heavily into Bay Area hip hop's past, present, and future, and remains one of the scene's most powerful and compelling individuals. As an MC, JT has released a string of memorable albums, including Playaz N the Game, Operation Takeover, and, more recently, Project Poetry. As the CEO of local label Get Low Records, he took a basement enterprise and transformed it into one of the most successful and emulated independent labels in the country, an imprint that has flourished not only because of its A-list roster of local MCs, but also because of its overall approach: Forgoing traditional means of distribution and promotion -- i.e., mainstream radio -- Get Low markets directly to its core, street audience, self-producing and self-distributing records that, when all else fails, get sold out of car trunks.
But now that Get Low is the success that it is, JT is doing what no one expected from an MC who spent his career chronicling the sordid side of ghetto life: transcending territorial grudges that exist in neighborhoods like Bayview-Hunters Point and organizing a community-outreach-program-cum-record-label -- Black Wall Street -- that provides links between fledgling hip hop artists and the city's promoters, graphic artists, engineers, distributors, and other peripheral figures whose services are essential. It's a powerful concept -- both strategically and philosophically -- and it borrows equally from Minister Louis Farrakhan, the Black Panthers, Dr. Dre, and Russell Simmons. Not only does Black Wall Street have the potential to succeed financially, it stands to transform a hip hop scene that has long been splintered by dueling gang affiliations and violent feuds. Community leader, self-serving capitalist -- JT the Bigga Figga may just be both.
JT first stepped onto the stage as an MC in '93 with Playaz N the Game.While the album employed many of the typical gangsta rap tropes on songs such as "Mr. Millimeter," it lacked the aura of impending doom that characterized most West Coast hip hop, offering a quirky sense of artistic exploration instead. Playazwas released on the newly created Get Low, which at the time was a one-man operation with no office and no employees. JT founded Get Low for more practical than philosophical reasons: He saw no other means of getting his voice heard and so he took it upon himself to create an outlet.
That problem vanished when Playaz's first single, the soon-to-be-classic street anthem "Game Recognize Game," began getting significant airplay, first on local stations and then nationwide. Suddenly JT was thrust into the hip hop limelight, heralded by both critics and fans as the next superstar to emerge from the bay. "I felt blessed," he says of his initial success, in between bites of his turkey sandwich. "I changed from negative to positive, and I was seeing that what I was going after was something [attainable]. ... It was unbelievable to hear myself on the radio."
It wasn't long before the majors swooped in. After a bidding war, JT decided to go with hip hop juggernaut Priority Records. The label gave Get Low a multiyear distribution deal that allowed JT to produce his own albums with very little oversight. "[I] went from a 16-year-old just fucking around to being a 19-year-old CEO with my own company and making hundreds of thousands of dollars," he says with more than a hint of pride.
The first album to come out of the deal was 1995's Dwellin' in the Lab. While it sported enhanced production values and a stellar cast of cameos from Master P, Mac Mall, and Herm, it was a commercial flop. Subsequent albums distributed through Priority fared no better and in 1996 the label exercised its option to release JT from his contract.
Instead of becoming embittered, the young CEO took the lessons learned from the Priority debacle and returned to self-distributing his albums -- and eventually those of his peers -- via Get Low. Free from label obligations, and outfitted with a top-notch recording studio purchased with cash from the Priority deal, he began producing and releasing records at a breakneck pace, pioneering an approach that would not only switch up his game, but ultimately alter the entire Bay Area hip hop community. "I found out the fans like that raw shit," JT says. "They like that get-in-the-studio-and-make-an-album-in-a-week shit. ... Before, I was caught up [in the mentality] that I was going to go platinum off one album instead of realizing that I could put out 10 records and sell a million off of those."
The formula worked. After inking a modest distribution deal with Bayside Records in 2000, Get Low began rapidly expanding, releasing nearly 20 albums a year (a typical label of Get Low's size puts out half that amount). The individual releases are nearly interchangeable, featuring a similar production aesthetic, a steady procession of guest spots from everyone from Snoop Dogg to Daz Dillinger, and janky album-cover graphics. Musically, JT's work adopted smoother R&B tones, while his lyrics became increasingly hard. Despite its sparse beginnings, to date, Get Low has sold nearly 7 million records, and established itself as one of the country's most successful independents.
While Get Low is JT's bread and butter, Black Wall Street is clearly his baby. When he starts talking about it, he puts down his sandwich and looks me in the eye, his voice pulsing with the same pinging cadence that you sometimes hear in his music. The inspiration, if not the actual idea, came when JT attended the '97 Hip Hop Summit organized by Farrakhan and Simmons in the aftermath of the East Coast/West Coast feud that left two of hip hop's greatest, the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, dead. "After being at that conference," JT says, "I saw hip hop as having more value. I was getting disgusted with the rap game because it was so violent. ... [The conference] provided me with an insight into what hip hop could be and where it really came from. If I stay independent, I could add something positive to the world."
Although the seeds of BWS were planted that day, it took more than five years to implement the program, and it didn't really get off the ground until JT recruited celebrated Bay Area MCs Mac Mall and Ray Luv -- who are, in effect, JT's partners in the venture. While the involvement of these legendary figures almost guarantees success, much of Black Wall Street's potential lies in the fact that while the Bay Area is suffused with more hip hop talent than at any time since the glory days in the early/mid-'90s, our finest artists have been unable to capitalize due to both the fractured nature of the scene and widespread major-label apathy.
To combat the first problem, JT and his associates have begun unifying disparate and often discordant communities. They recently brokered a gang truce between warring Hunters Point and Fillmore factions, distributing a song called "Peace Treaty" that features MCs Mac Mall and JT. "I'm very proud that these brothers resolved their problems without any violence," JT says about the truce. "They were warring over lies, deceptions, and confusion. We had the OGs from the Fillmore and members of the Nation of Islam come together and resolve this. 'Peace Treaty' is the song that came out of that meeting. It was something that was burning in my heart. It was the best feeling that I've had in a long time." Black Wall Street also recently installed offices in Oakland, where it'll be offering classes on everything from video editing to music distribution as part of what JT calls Black Wall Street Business College.
As a record label, BWS's involvement with its talent -- which includes 2 Face, Lil' Brah, Joi Patrice, and Mob Figaz -- is looser, less taxing, and less restrictive. JT provides his young artists with access to the various contacts, networks, and knowledge that he and other senior members of the scene have accumulated over the years, and it's up to them to do the rest. If a major label is like an overzealous parent, micromanaging every move in the pursuit of its goals, then BWS is an older brother -- well-meaning and occasionally assertive, but generally willing to let the artist make his own moves.
The label is currently preparing to release its first album, a compilation that leans heavily on new material from its principals as well as tracks from a new generation of MCs, most notably Lil' Brah from Oakland. After that, BWS will put out a collaborative album between Mac Mall and JT titled Illegal Game.
As JT finishes off his sandwich, Mac and Ray Love walk into the tiny shop and find a table.
"It's about building the entrepreneurs and CEOs of tomorrow," Ray Love tells me as JT steps outside to survey the Lower Haight and smoke the second half of a joint. "We're trying to build a future for not only ourselves, but our peers. ... If we don't do it, nobody else will."
Mac Mall quickly chimes in: "That's the position we in. Nobody listens to the politicians or teachers, but they listen to us. After my first record I realized this. Working on it, I thought it was just me, but going to Miami, Texas, and all these other cities, I realized the power of what we have."
"We try to be the example for other cats that want to get into the business," Ray Love adds. "Everybody feels that they need a major to come in and save them. But you can start small and build on it. We want [Black Wall Street] to be the sixth major."
While it's still too early to determine whether or not BWS will have a lasting impact, the very fact that the Bay Area's top artists have shelved their egos to organize and elevate their community is a tremendous step. If ever a man earned a sandwich and a little space to spread his legs, it's JT.
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