It’s been 12 years since Mac Dre’s untimely passing, but the Oakland-born rapper and producer — famous for coining the phrase “feeling myself” and introducing the world to the thizzle dance — is still very much a legend in the Bay Area. Over burbling electronic instrumentals filled with blips and heavy bass, Dre rapped lucid, earnest, and funny tales that inspired a generation of rappers to adopt and master his style, leading to the evolution of hyphy music.
In 2004, Dre was tragically killed in Kansas City after a concert, a murder that is still unsolved to this day. In honor of the hyphy legend who introduced the world to a form of rap that was both playful and hard hitting, director Zachary Butler created the documentary, Mac Dre: Legend of The Bay. The 90-minute film premiered in 2015 at the San Francisco Black Film Festival, and is now available for streaming on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Instant Video, or on the film’s website.
Created with the help of Mac Dre’s mother, Wanda Salvatto, Butler used old VHS footage of Dre, as well as interviews with Dre’s friends and people he had influenced, including E-40, Wiz Khalifa, Tech N9ne, and Warren, to paint a portrait of the truly unique artist whose influence in music and culture will be felt for years to come.
SF Weekly: How did Legend of The Bay come together?
Zachary Butler: Really, things started when Michael Riser, who’s an executive producer, [met] through some people at Thizz Entertainment, Mac Dre’s mother, and they had been kicking around the idea of a Mac Dre doc before. Other people had approached her about it, but she never really felt comfortable. When Mike was talking to her, she said that she had an old VHS home recording of the first performance Mac Dre ever did at the Hogan High School talent show in 1998, and we were like, ‘People need to see that!’ Then, Wanda told us that she had even more old VHS tapes of all sorts of footage of Mac Dre: behind the scene concert footage, them going on vacations, hanging out in hotel rooms, stuff like that. Some of it is out there on Youtube, but most of it had never been seen before. So the process for me was taking that footage, and using it with some talking head interviews with artist who knew him, and other friends and family members, and use those pieces to help tell his story.
SFW: An amazing piece of footage you found is Dre performing for the first time at Hogan High School, where he looks like MC Hammer.
ZB: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s true. People don’t talk about Hammer when they talk about The Bay.
SFW: Do you know when Dre transitioned from the Hammer look to the pimp look?
ZB: He went through phases, kind of like The Beatles had their early years and then their Sgt. Pepper years. The Mac Dre style really starts when he gets out of prison and starts going to raves. He had such credibility from going to prison and not telling on his friends that when he came back and started dressing like that, no one could make fun of him. The respect gave him some leeway to experiment with style and image.
SFW: Why do you think Dre has had such a lasting impact?
ZB: When we did a screening, and there was a Q & A afterward, someone asked this same question. We all just went, “Wow, that’s a good question.” Everybody went around and gave their own ideas about it, then someone in the audience said, “I think what this says is that he had such a personal charisma and magmatism, that everybody who met him has a Mac Dre story. It wasn’t just that he shook their hand, it’s like, ‘He grabbed me and took me on an adventure. He took me to a house party.’ You know?” When he touched someone’s life, you came away with a story, and some people are telling those stories years later. I think it ultimately comes down to who he was as a person. Obviously, his music was so ahead of his time. What he started with Thizz, blending EDM and hip-hop, well, that’s what everything is now, right? Everything is an electronic dance beat with someone rapping over it. He’s got music that when you put it on today, it sounds like it came out today.
SFW: I never realized that Dre was the first rapper to record an album in prison, too.
ZB:Yeah! Someone literally just came with a little 8-track recorder and put it up against the receiver on the telephone in the visitors widow at the jail and played a beat and he rapped over it from the other side of the glass. I think most people will agree it’s not his best work, but I think the message of “I’m just going to keep going” is more important than the content of that album.
SFW: A decent chunk of the movie is actually given over to talking about Dre being prosecuted for “conspiracy to commit robbery,” and the prosecutors using Dre’s lyrics to his songs as “evidence” to indict to indict him.
ZB: Yeah, that is very much still going on, rappers being prosecuted for their lyrics. An artist’s work is allowed to describe the world they see around them and construct scenarios that maybe are violent and make people uncomfortable. That’s what artists should do, and just because it’s in a song doesn’t mean it happened personally.Of course, there’s a pretty ugly element of racism in these cases. I don’t remember who it was, but someone off-screen when I was talking to E-40 said, “Imagine if someone said to Johnny Cash: ‘You shot a man in Reno just to watch him die!?’ And put him on trial for that?” No one ever would think that, but a 19-year-old black kid from Vallejo, there’s no understanding that he may be taking artistic license here.
SFW: I also loved how you started the movie talking about the black roots of the Bay Area’s history.
ZB: That was actually the earliest pitch for the documentary. I met with Wanda before and she had talked to a number of other people about doing the doc, but she wasn’t comfortable with it, and I purposed introducing Mac Dre’s story by talking about history. I have a lot of friends who are art historians and I wanted to approach this doc like any serious historian would approach any other artist’s work. You would say, “What’s the cultural context that the art was created in? And how did the place that it comes from affect the art? nd how did that art affect the community that it emerged from?” That sounds really weighty and academic, but I think if you treat it like you would a Picasso painting, all of this stuff emerges that maybe people didn’t think about before.
SFW: It explains a lot about why a lot of Bay Area rap doesn’t sound like gangster rap from L.A., or club rap from Atlanta.
ZB: Absolutely. This is where the Black Panthers were born. It’s a little bit more politically involved. The art is affected by where it came from. Great artist take that, shape it, then turn it into something new.
SFW: What was your relationship to Mac Dre and his music before you started making the documentary?
ZB: I get this question a lot. Most people first meet me, and see that I’m this nerdy, skinny white kid from Alabama, and go “Huh, how did this happen?” [Laughs] Though I’m always surprised that none of the rappers or artist that I talk to are ever surprised. I have kind of a roundabout way to getting to Mac Dre. I went to a small art school in Alabama.It was a weird art and music college, and I was playing in a couple of bands at the time, and I was really into underground hip-hop, especially what was going on in Atlanta. The hyphy movement started kicking off about when I was in college, and it was just stuff that got passed around. My roommate was listening to E-40 one day, and I was like, “What is going on!?” and that led us to Mac Dre and Keak da Sneak, and the whole Bay Area movement. So, when I moved to Los Angeles a few years ago, and met Mike Risner, and the guys from Thizz Entertainment, I was already a fan. It was them who convinced me to work on the project. I had never worked on a documentary before, and they were like, “No, no, we can tell just by talking to you, you’ve got the right attitude for this, even if you don’t have the experience.”
SFW: I read somewhere that Drake was actually integral in convincing Wanda to be a part of the documentary?
ZB: That was before I became a part of it, so I can’t give you the whole story on it, but I can tell you that people associate Mac Dre with the Bay so hard, that they forget that he has fans all over the world, and Drake was one of those fans. He grew up on him, and he talks about him on “The Motto.”
SFW: And has Wanda in the video to it.
ZB: Yeah, exactly. When he met her he was thrilled apparently. Like, ‘Oh my God! I’m worshiping at the source.’ In talking to Wanda, she’s come to realize what her son’s work meant to other people. Understandably, it’s not something she likes to talk about that much. Obviously, it’s devastating losing a child: He was young, and it was a tragedy. For a while, she kind of shut people out, and it was Drake who said, “You know, you should share with the world. Don’t hold this in. Share it with people.” It definitely changed her perspective. I think she feels reinvigorated having it out there. But this is not intended to be the final piece on Mac Dre’s life, it’s intended to keep his legacy going.
SFW: Have you had a chance to screen the movie in the Bay?
ZB: Yes. It premiered at the San Francisco Black Film Festival, and it actually won the Audience Choice Award. We are partnered with a new platform called Tugg that let’s people crowdsource theatrical screenings, so if you and 20 friends want to see the movie in local theaters, they’ll contact that theater and set up the screening. It’s kind of cool to give people the platform to organize their own events.