March 6, 2017

3-2

Pete Tosiello rides slow.

In November, mere days after the American electorate came out for a fascist, 3-2 was killed at the age of 44. The Houston rapper was gunned down in front of a gas station in his hometown. Predictably, the webpage of the local ABC affiliate which reported his death was inundated with unfathomably cruel, racist and unjust comments about this being the sort of thing which happens to rappers and gangsters and criminals. “Typical Democrat-majority city,” proclaimed the top comment, dated November 11. “Civilized people left H-Town a long time ago.”

In the economy of instant pop eulogies (and perhaps you heard, but 2016 was a bull market), the tendency is for accounts of how an artist helped a listener confront adversity or embrace his otherness, generally exaggerating greatness and influence. There’s a trend toward bragging displays of arcane musical knowledge in service of the argument for why the dead mattered, decrying why they weren’t more beloved and overselling significance. 3-2 wasn’t that kind of rapper, and even if he was, he didn’t have that kind of platform.

“Mr. 3-2 broke into the flourishing Texas rap scene of the early 2000s with The Governor (2001), his debut effort for N Yo Face Records,” reads Jason Birchmeier’s artist page bio on AllMusic.com. This statement’s unconscionable mistruth—3-2’s first nationally distributed album was released over a decade prior—goes mostly unchecked by the internet, for whom “3-2” is about as search-friendly a term as Live, Boston, Asia, or America. But besides a stage name which failed to anticipate the rise of SEO, 3-2’s 25-year career was a marketing nightmare, partially of his own doing, but mostly at the hands of record labels whose attempts to present him to the world were confounding at best.

At age 18, 3-2 debuted on Rap-A-Lot as one half of the Convicts with Louisiana rapper Big Mike. At its best, Rap-A-Lot was the Central Time Zone’s most crucial hip hop factory, home to fearless Bush- and Clinton-era rappers who gave voice to the voiceless, backed by an in-house team of studio wizards. At its worst it was a cynical, low-church appropriation of the Motown machine, shuffling bit players in and out of nebulous groups founded on blunt gimmicks and stiffing them for royalties on the way out.

Rather than put all their eggs in the volatile Geto Boys basket, Rap-A-Lot strove to maintain a roster of supplementary characters with varying success. After striking gold with the second Geto Boys roster by promoting 3’8” Bushwick Bill from backup dancer to suicidal rapper, the label slapped together Too Much Trouble, a group which billed itself the “Baby Geto Boys” and included a white dwarf. For most of its long, tumultuous history, Rap-A-Lot was both bolstered and hampered by its infamous underworld connections, enhancing the stereotype of Houston as a lawless backwater. In this environment, the chameleonic 3-2 was an invaluable foot soldier.

The Convicts album, released a month before Geto Boys’ We Can’t Be Stopped, attempts to supply the latter’s shock value without much of its poignance. The concept is that 3-2 and Big Mike are men in jail. Among the album’s twelve tracks are utterly harrowing songs dealing in domestic assault narratives with titles such as “Whoop Her Ass,” “I Love Boning,” and “Wash Your Ass.” There is a song titled “Illegal Aliens” which I won’t transcribe here because it would very easily undermine the rest of this piece, but it’s a rap song enumerating how and why two black men play-acting as inmates hate Mexicans, Arabs, Asians, and native Africans. It’s such a senselessly, violently offensive song that it might legitimately have disqualified the duo from recording again.

Yet rather than stir controversy, it met an even more ignominious fate — the album fell on completely deaf ears. It was, suitably, the last outing for the Convicts, who were thrown back into Rap-A-Lot camp for reprogramming.  Convicts is crude Geto Boys knockoff predicated on misogyny, racism, and juvenilia. It reasonably begs the question as to how one taking stock of 3-2’s otherwise distinguished career could excuse an architect of what is perhaps the most offensive rap album of all time. I don’t believe I can, but others already have — that 3-2 and Big Mike, who himself would be swapped into the Geto Boys lineup during Willie D’s mid-’90s exodus, both enjoyed recording careers spanning two-and-a-half decades after this false start suggests that they were vindicated or the entire episode was swept under the rug, an attempt at shock value gone awry.

In addition to timeless, nuanced musical manifestos, the hopelessly cynical Rap-A-Lot Records produced an abysmal slate of artless assembly-line rap, and I can only suspect that the Convicts’ scheme stretched well beyond its teenaged performers. The Rap-A-Lot catalog resembles the Marvel Universe in its tiers: a few transcendent acts, then the second-stringers and deep fringe who catered t the die-hard consumers (Willie D, it might be noted, produced “Fuck a War, “Fuck the KKK,” and “Fuck Rodney King” in the span of three summers). With hindsight this seems a severe miscalculation—while listeners no doubt enjoyed the guilty pleasures of N.W.A and Geto Boys, they endure for their big-picture perspectives which made their politically incorrect elements seem gleefully anarchic. In the age of “controversy sells,” luckily the Convicts record didn’t, although today it regularly fetches three-digit auction prices on Amazon.

3-2 was next installed as the frontman of the group Blac Monks, another second-rung Rap-A-Lot project founded on a jungle mysticism gimmick. To cast it as the sort of southern rappers-as-tribal shamans schtick that Suave House grappled with and Dungeon Family perfected would be to give it too much credit. It’s more like 5th Ward Boyz after an Indiana Jones marathon, which is to say, pretty great. 1994’s Secrets of the Hidden Temple—not to be confused with the concurrent Nickelodeon game showis a full beneficiary of Rap-A-Lot’s boundless mid-’90s resources, with country-fried funk from Mike Dean and John Bido.

The rappers themselves are faceless but solid, purveyors of dope flows which mesh sufficiently with the flawless production and engineering. There are a lot of references to black monkeys swinging from vines which might have been workshopped a bit, but the highlights far outweigh the miscues. 3-2 himself is hardly recognizable from the rapper on Convicts, perhaps because he had to be. On Secrets of the Hidden Temple he sports a more complex, even erratic delivery where he had earlier been bombastic and commanding. His vocals are fast, pitchy, and uncommonly musical for genre fare, continuing a trend first evidenced in guest appearances dating back to early 1993.

1996 was 3-2’s peak, coinciding with a landmark year for Houston rap. He appeared on two tracks from UGK’s breakthrough Ridin’ Dirty, rapping the first verse on the immortal “One Day” and singing the hook on “Touched,” the song from which Bun B’s opening bars would be repurposed for Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” in 2003. Oddly enough 3-2 is only credited for the latter on Ridin’ Dirty’s back cover, emblematic of a growing trend in which his individual contributions were overlooked in the group setting.

3-2’s verse on “One Day” is the approachable table-setter, but it is the most apt for the song’s resigned, relaxed groove, especially when contrasted with Pimp and Bun’s visions of double-digit jail sentences and babies burned alive. For my money it stands among the best individual performances on a legendary album, proffering 2Pac’s stoic fatalism and finding dour comfort in the ruins of southeast Texas:

My mama’s only son
But I live everyday like it’s my muthafuckin’ last one
Every nigga and they mama askin’ why
But I’m in the game, live by the game, and in the game I’ma die
And if I die, or should I say, if I go
Bury me in Hiram Clarke next to the Come-N-Go
‘Cause tomorrow ain’t promised to me
The only thing promised to a playa is the penitentiary
So I’ma take care of my business on the smooth tip
Watch my back sellin’ crack and pack two clips
And when ya think about that, you say it’ll be on
It’s a trip you’re here today, but the next day you’re gone

Rap-A-Lot released 3-2’s solo debut The Wicked Buddah Baby two months later, a lavish affair with production from the holy triumvirate of Dean, Bido, and N.O. Joe and guest appearances by UGK, Too Short, and 8Ball & MJG (whose preposterous eight-bar verse on “Hit the Highway” begins, “Open your pussy hole, peep my Tootsie Roll, the utility pole / Constantly diggin’ ditches, leavin’ these hoes in my total control”). It’s a fascinating period piece with unusually melodic, even hypnotic funk licks and odd vocal effects which make 3-2 sound extraterrestrial. Here 3-2 is presented as the label’s resident pimp, and The Wicked Buddah Baby most resembles a Dru Down composition, 3-2 sporting a chronic-clouded Sylvester-esque purr.

The Wicked Buddah Baby is an undeniably strange record, and at times it’s hard to tell if 3-2’s character—already his third in Rap-A-Lot’s hands—is purposefully off-kilter or just kind of unformed. He also seems short on material, recycling lines and concepts from the Blac Monks records and using bits of old verses as hooks. Still, the unimpeachable tracks make it a consistent pleasure, and the virtuosic producers seem to find inspiration in the raw clay of 3-2’s persona. Needless to say this record landed with a thud, and I can only surmise that the weird title and cover, featuring a spliced image of 3-2 with different hairstyles, did little to entice potential listeners.

Speaking of bizarre album covers, let me next refer you to the second and final Blac Monks outing, No Mercy, which arrived in June 1998. By this point Blac Monks had become an island of misfit Rap-A-Lot personnel, and for No Mercy the lineup grew from a trio to a quintet including the rapper Raheem, a member of the original Geto Boys roster in 1986. Amazingly the ad hoc assembly manages to transcend the Blac Monks gimmick, if anything using it as an asset instead of a hindrance. With the highlights, “Steppin’ With Your Weapon,” “Paper Chase,” “Monk Mentality,” and “God Complex,” it’s a slow, contemplative, and evocative 50-minute listen, a minor gem and perhaps the best full-length 3-2 was involved in.

No Mercy marked the end of 3-2’s stint with Rap-A-Lot, and he traded on his association with DJ Screw and the burgeoning Screwed Up Click to launch his next group, the trio Southside Playaz. Their debut You Gottus Fuxxed Up arrived in late 1998, typical of the early S.U.C. sound, straightforwardly aggressive with periodic bouts of melancholy. Street Game followed in 2000 shortly before DJ Screw’s death, a decent follow-up including the group’s best song, “What’s Going On.”

He next surfaced as Mr. 3-2 with the independent solo offering The Governor, released on September 11, 2001. The Governor is 3-2’s worst effort, a bloated byproduct of the Beats by the Pound era featuring shoddy production and cliched writing. Although The Governor marked the end of his relevance on a national scale, 3-2 remained an active collaborator with a steady output over his final decade and a half. 2008’s Fatt Domino was a late-career triumph, a professional synthesis of the Guerilla Maab sound with soulful songwriting. His final record Str8 Drop, a 2016 collaboration with rapper Timebomb, has a few serious heaters and callbacks to the Wicked Buddah Baby days.

Among hip hop’s major markets, Houston and the Bay Area remain the most remote, homes of charismatic weirdos and exotic caricatures from alternate dimensions, the most beloved of whom struggle to reach a national audience. Over an improbably productive career 3-2 subsisted as a quintessentially Texan hustler—in his words, he held it diine for H-Tiine—and that his world was exceedingly insular was both his Achilles heel and something he could fall back on. In death he joins Houston’s lost generation: DJ Screw, Pimp C, Big Mello, H.A.W.K., Fat Pat, Big Moe, Lil Will, and OG Style, an entire graveyard of artists lost to gun violence, syrup, and unsolved assassinations of a distinctly Texan flavor, all of whom peaked before Houston’s brief moment in the spotlight on the backs of Mike Jones, Paul Wall, Lil Flip, and Chamillionaire. A minor player with a major catalog, a career-long emissary of the lower middlebrow, he made some really bad music and a lot of really good music.

Upon 3-2’s death, Snoop Dogg took to Instagram with a memorial post. “Rest well, O.G.,” he wrote. “He the one who told me ‘We don’t love them hoes’ in 1991.” History will likely view this as an unflattering footnote for a mama’s only son who lived every day like his muthafuckin’ last one, a rapper who always tried to get in where he fit in when the best thing about him was that he didn’t.