Some San Franciscans make a Mission burrito run as soon as they return to town. Rapper and producer Richie Cunning just takes a deep breath and says, "Oh, thank God." He loves the city's air enough to give it a shout-out on his debut LP, Night Train, a record with a Blue Note look and a Golden Age hip-hop feel. "There's definitely a different smell in different parts of town, but there is always the air," he explains. "In a literal sense, it's not so much the smell as the texture, the moistness of it."
There was plenty of moisture — buckets of it — in the air the day I met Cunning at the High Tide, a cozy Tenderloin dive bar his father used to own. "When I was a wee lad, I used to come here with my dad [while he did] the books on Saturdays and Sundays," he recalls. "I'd just drink 7-Up and grenadine [and play] Pac-Man."
Richie Cunning was born Richard Lipton; he remembers the day, 15 years back, when he swapped one name for the other. He was lugging a stack of LPs from Amoeba Music to the Sunset District, mulling over rap names. "Richie Cunningham [from Happy Days] just came to mind," he says. "I was like, 'That would be cool, without the ham on it.' I always thought of it like I sampled the name — I only use the part that I want."
Cunning moved to Santa Cruz for college, where he met the like-minded Rec-League All-Stars crew. Luckily, they followed him back to San Francisco, because he couldn't have stayed away long. The city is the center of his universe, and there's no better time to enjoy it than late at night. "The city actually goes to sleep," he says. "I've had many, many years of getting stranded [and] taking the bus and/or train home by myself. That's where I delve deepest into my thoughts."
These late-night journeys heavily figure on Night Train. Among the many references is the hilarious "Call me the zen Buddha of the N-Judah." On "The Station," a funky, boom-bap joint with Leslie organ swirling over the chorus, he rhymes, "I murder any microphone I happen to touch/Then I'm cracking a Dutch on the back of the bus." Cunning's horn- and jazz-heavy production, coupled with his swaggering, perfectly enunciated delivery, results in an upbeat and aggressive revisiting of his luminous predecessors Gang Starr and Pete Rock & CL Smooth.
On the gospel horn–inflected "Work It Out," Cunning notes, "When I took the stage, other rappers took cover." This is understandable. He and the Rec-League sold out the Night Train release party at the Elbo Room last month, thanks in part to their ability to maximize the impact of their stage show. "One of the ways that you really lose crowd energy is by pausing in between songs," he says. "So we [developed] a rapid-fire, machine-gun style. The beat just drops. This song ends; this song starts. We don't even give people a chance to get bored."
This style might be too much for most aspiring rappers to achieve on the first time out, but Cunning and Co. have launched a campaign imploring MCs to "Stop Performing Over Your Vocals." The issue springs from hip-hop shows being marred by the use of accompanying CDs that contain beats, recorded choruses, and sometimes entire songs. "That instantly turns me off," Cunning says. "All you have to do is be on the mike. It's already almost like karaoke, but to go one step further down the ladder and put vocals onto [the CD], it's like, 'C'mon, dude. Try a little harder.'"
MCs, take heed: Cunning is cleaning up like Dirty Harry.