November 17, 2016

Justin Carroll-Allan backed up Jason Kidd at Cal.

Populated with pimps, junkies, hustlers, Cadillac El Dorados, and working-class drug dealers, Andre Nickatina paints a portrait of a San Francisco that no longer exists. He hails from the Fillmore District—a part of the city that was filled with complicated people, a seedy nightlife, and a tragic, sordid past. Now, the Fillmore is a neighborhood like any other in this city under glass: $3,000 a month apartments, hot yoga studios, and third wave coffee shops dedicated to the slow pour. Even the nearby Tenderloin’s rent has skyrocketed (though you’ll still see someone openly hitting a crack pipe at two in the afternoon). If you’re not a millionaire and reside in San Francisco, you either live with your parents, a handful of roommates, or under Highway 101.

The disparity between the rich and the poor is grotesque. San Francisco’s a place where you’re just as likely to see Guy Fieri in a Lamborghini as you are to goosestep over a fresh puddle of human diarrhea on your way to BART. But before San Francisco became a playground for nerds with seven-figure bank accounts, it was a city with grit and flash, a place with streets as seedy as its history. Nickatina has made it his life’s work to chronicle this period in San Francisco’s story, and in so doing has become elemental to the backbone of Bay Area rap.

Nickatina’s an interesting case study. For one thing, he’s one of the few rappers who has been respected by his contemporaries for over two decades, yet has stayed underground. While most of the area’s rap comes from east of the Bay Bridge, Nickatina’s from the city. What’s even rarer: Nickatina’s been consistently releasing new material, and that seems to be the only thing that matters to him: creating music.  

Dre Dog: The Early Years

Nickatina’s first album, The New Jim Jones, released in 1993 under the name Dre Dog, is filled with lo-fi beats that are dark, slow, and stripped down. His lyrics are dripping with an oddly humble strain of braggadocio: Nickatina raps about dime bags and Cutlass Supremes, not kilos and Ferraris. “Smoke Dope and Rap,” still a fan favorite after nearly twenty-three years, is comprised of a snare, kick, and guitar. It’s on this track that Nickatina exhibits his lyrical talents by describing smoking weed in perhaps the best way: “Blaze like it’s barbequed beef/there ain’t nothing like a blunt full a funk in your teeth.” I was so taken by this line that when I was fifteen I dreamed of getting, “blunt full of funk” tattooed in Old English lettering on my neck.

“The Most Hated Man in Frisco” features a similar drum beat over a drowsy organ that makes me think of old vampire movies. As with all the best rappers, Nickatina begins to create his own language—he introduces us to chewy (weed mixed with cocaine) and clucker (a chump), just to name a few. Nickatina’s rap lexicon is expansive, imaginative, and rivals any other lyricist in its sheer originality. Nickatina’s responsible for perhaps the most inventive phrase uttered in a rap song: crack raider, which is the phrase for a crackhead that fancies himself a handyman. He and E-40 have similar passions for language; a love of slang and the drive to create it is a huge element in Bay Area rap and hip-hop, and Nickatina’s hand in this shows just how essential he is to the musical DNA of this region.

On I Hate You with a Passion, his second album, released in 1995, Nickatina favors layered beats, dripping with sludgy synthesizers that are as dark as his lyrics. In “Situation Critical,” Nickatina chronicles the cocaine crisis of the late eighties and early nineties. Again, he favors the realistic over the romantic, emphasizing the darkness of gangsta life: “My partners [sic] mamas [sic] smokin’ rocks and turns into a ho.” This song reveals the necessity of criminality for the denizens of Nickatina’s kingdom, and it’s not something to celebrate.

Up until this point, the influence of Too $hort is seen in Nickatina’s focus on sex, drugs, and petty crime, but this song seems more nuanced; early Short Dog doesn’t seem interested in offering commentary on the state of his environment. Nickatina now seems more aligned with E-40, who was in his contemplative phase as well—“Changes” was popular around the same time—and one can see how Nickatina is adding to the conversation socially conscious rappers were having about drugs and its effects on Black America. But Nickatina’s second effort wasn’t all darkness; it includes some lighter cuts. “Killa Whale,” which starts out with a confusing mix of marine sounds (I imagine he’s going for whale, but one of the sounds is clearly dolphin—you’re crazy if you don’t believe me), is lyrically playful and funny.  

Coke Rap Rises: Name Change

On his 1997 album Raven in My Eyes, the first album under his new rapper name, Andre Nickatina, Nickatina explained why he was no longer going by Dre Dog: “I don’t wanna be thirty and forty years old and people still saying Dre Dog.” Even then, twenty-one years ago, Nickatina saw himself as still rapping in his middle age. This might seem like the optimistic forecast of a twenty-something, drunk with the confidence of youth and not yet capable of imagining that life’s ridiculous failures will most likely ruin—at best, drastically shift—the dreams we have for ourselves. For Nickatina, though, not rapping was always an impossibility: for him, the compulsion to create is too strong to choke down or chalk up as just a chapter in the life of Dre Dog.

Nickatina would release two more records—Tears of a Clown and Daiquiri Factory—in the next two years, both of which worked to solidify Nickatina’s stake as the Bay Area’s crowned prince of underground rap. The three of these albums make up Coke Raps 1,2, & 3. While this machine-gun stream of releases contains some clunkers—“Awake Like an Owl” is one of the most cringe-inducing songs I’ve ever heard, and “Little Coco” proves that Nickatina’s shouldn’t sing—songs like “Last Rap I’ll Ever Write” remind us of Nickatina’s penchant for wordplay, and “My Rap World” is, well, a fucking banger. While his contemporaries—E-40 and Too $hort—were enjoying the shimmering glow of the national spotlight, Nickatina released records through his own label Fillmoe Coleman, a move that would suggest Nickatina was willing to settle for a smaller territory, provided he could rule over it his way.

While his first two albums, show a hard-nosed, promising gangster rapper willing to put in the elbow grease necessary to make a good record, the next three established Nickatina as a serious force in Bay Area music unafraid of rapping about the streets without rose-colored glasses. Without realizing it, Nickatina’s hard work would influence a whole generation of rappers and rap fans in the Bay Area.

A Yo: The Suburbs Taste Coke Rap

By 2001, Nickatina had oozed across the Bay and into the great sprawl of San Francisco suburbia. Kids in Walnut Creek, Burlingame, and San Rafael were listening to “Smoke Dope and Rap” on repeat while they coughed their way through loosely-rolled blunts and played Tony Hawk Pro Skater on Nintendo 64. Highly censored versions of Nickatina’s songs had played on Berkeley’s college radio station, and they spread like wild fire. Since his music was notoriously difficult to track down, bootleg tapes circulated through high schools faster than Ritalin during finals. It was hard to go to a party in Marin County without hearing a Nickatina track on a mixtape full of DMX, Ludacris, and Nelly. ‘When will Nickatina make it big?,’ we wondered. If J-Kwon can be on MTV, why not Nicky?

In 2003, Nickatina released perhaps his most consistent record, Conversation with a Devil. He continued to experiment with unusual beats and samples: in “Dice of Life (the bottle)” Nickatina raps over a harp. Thanks to his deep, melodious voice and con-man cool delivery he’s able to pull it off, too, and offers us perhaps the greatest example of irreconcilable differences: “She likes the lions/I like the hyenas.” Like his other records, Conversation saw a modest release, but Nickatina caught a lucky break. The music game had been knocked sideways thanks to file sharing, and Nickatina would benefit largely thanks to LimeWire. His song “A Yo,” about the trials and tribulations surrounding small-time coke dealing, became hugely popular with college kids. Every beer pong tournament from Fresno to Missoula had Nicky blasting as frat boys chugged beer, voted Republican, and avoided macroeconomics homework.

From this new popularity, Nickatina began filling venues in places other than the Bay Area. Matter of fact, I can’t remember a more deafening sound than a few hundred red-faced twenty year olds screaming “A Yo” at the top of their lungs at Fat Tuesday’s Hall in Spokane, WA, in 2006. That was ten years ago, and my ears still ring just thinking about that show. At that point, I’d been a fan of Nickatina for seven years. Finally, I thought, he’s going to make it to the top. But he didn’t.

The Quiet Years: Nickatina Now

He’s released nine albums and collaborations since Conversation, but all of them came from his own label. Musically, Nickatina still favors synth-heavy beats, pimp funk, and the occasional experimental instrument (tuba, accordion, etc.). “Candy Paint” from Nickatina’s eponymous album released in 2013 bumps like something from Dolemite’s soundtrack. This album is the only one that has seen a modest commercial success: Andre Nickatina hit the Heat Seekers Chart at number twelve. That sort of milestone can be deceiving—while it might seem like a sign that Nickatina’s kingdom has expanded, what it actually means is that his faithful denizens dutifully picked up the new album right away. He only stayed on the chart for one week.

Still, Nickatina gets enough to keep the lights on and the dogs fed. He gets over a hundred thousand plays a month on Spotify, and the lion’s share of those listeners are in the Bay Area. “A Yo” and “Smoke Dope and Rap” are still popular with students, and his split album with Mac Dre, A Tale of Two Andres released in 2008 at the height of hyphy, earned Nickatina a permanent spot in the heart of underground rap elitists. Still: he’s not playing Coachella. None of his records have been reviewed on Pitchfork. While his name’s often mentioned as an important ancestor in the history of Bay Area gangster rap, he’s not considered king—that would have to be E-40.

This is, at least in part, by design; Nickatina’s DIY operation, while admirable, has its limitations. His records don’t have the reach or the PR to eat their way up the charts. Plus, Nickatina hates the junket: he openly despises interviews and rarely gives them. He doesn’t have a publicist and books his own shows. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wrote the code for his website.

But if his lyrics tell us anything about the man, we shouldn’t be surprised by this: Nickatina’s always been a working-class hustler. He likes all-white K-Swiss, Anchor Blue jeans, and all-black Cadillacs. He’s not interested in the Gucci slippers of Rich Homie Kwan or Ace Hood’s Bugatti. Nickatina just wants to keep repping the seedy side of San Francisco, and he’ll keep that up ’til he’s cold.  

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