By Jesse Taylor.
Oakland and Vallejo gave the Bay Area its rap credibility. San Francisco was the soft, tourist attraction. Oakland had 2Pac and Too $hort. Vallejo had Mac Dre. San Francisco had Huey Lewis and the News.
That all changed when Black C and Mr. Cee formed RBL Posse and came out of nowhere to put San Francisco on the map. After dropping two classic albums in the early 1990s, RBL was poised to be rap’s next big thing.
But that hope and potential abruptly came to an end with the brutal murder of Mr. Cee on New Year’s Day in 1996. His body was found covered in blood from nine bullet holes that left him dead on the street he grew up on in the Hunters Point section of San Francisco.
Over 20 years later, the pain in Black C’s voice is still evident when he speaks of his lost friend. “When that happened, it kind of killed me, too. It was like a punch to the stomach. That shit was bad. Bad, bad, bad.”
Mystery has always surrounded Mr. Cee’s unsolved murder. In an exclusive interview with Passion of the Weiss—for the first time publicly—Black C tells his personal story about the death of his friend and offers new details about exactly what happened that day.
Despite growing up around gangs and gun violence, it was never supposed to end that way for Mr. Cee. He was always focused on school and rapping. Black C was the hustler.
“I was the one on the block,” Blacks C says. “I was the one gang banging and doing all the slanging. That ain’t where Mr. Cee came from. He used to just be in the house, listening to jazz and rappers like Master Ace and Kool G Rap. He was into the lyrical dudes.”
Before they met, Chris “Black C” Matthews returned home at 17 after a juvenile detention stint at Log Cabin Ranch. Through rehabilitation treatments in the redwoods south of San Francisco, Log Cabin promised to turn troubled inner-city youth into productive members of society. But it was typical Bay Area sugar-coated hipster bullshit. Black C touched down on his block in Hunters Point unchanged and once again ready to make money by any means. Lucky for him, some of his friends had discovered music while he was away.
“Towards the end of 1989, I hooked up with Budwyser. He was the only one rapping out there in Hunters Point. I bought a bunch of equipment and was the DJ. I learned real quick, like in two weeks, when it came to the beats; no manuals, no nothing. I got in there and got busy really fast.”
With minimal resources, Black C decided to use one of his beats to make his own song and called it, “What about my niggas?” A quick study, he used Too $hort’s start-up blueprint of name-dropping the money-makers in the neighborhood (drug dealers and pimps) so they’d buy his tapes.
“Too $hort used to come around Hunters Point. That’s how I learned to sell tapes and put people from my projects into my raps. Putting them on a pedestal about how they were getting their money, and naming each person, going down the line. We used a dual tape deck, recording copies and get out there selling out of the trunk like Too $hort was doing it.”
The song was a hit in San Francisco and Black C was hooked on rapping. Little did he know, his next project would save millions of kids from smoking shitty weed, aka bammer.
You Might As Well Smoke Some Rolled Up Wood
“After ‘What About My Niggas’ kind of blew up, a lot of people told me I needed to start rapping,” says Black C. “Next, I wanted to make a weed song giving my hood credit for not smoking bammer. At first, it was ‘Don’t Give Me No Bammer Joint’ … so it could rhyme with Hunters Point.”
Calling their group the “Hit Squad,” “Bammer Joint” featured two other local rappers and immediately became the soundtrack to life in the Hunters Point projects.
“That took off like wildfire when I put it out.”
Despite the local success, his crew was making more money from hustling. Black C couldn’t keep anyone in the studio. His boy T-Lowe didn’t want to be in the group, but offered up his girlfriend’s brother.
“T-Lowe was like, ‘All this dude do is sit in the house and rap all day,” Black C says. “’He don’t hustle or none of that stuff on the side. He go to school, come right back home and rap. And he one of them lyrical dudes, too.’ I was like, ‘Man, bring him up.’”
The next day, T-Lowe brought Kyle “Mr. Cee” Church, down the road to meet Black C. Still in high school, Mr. Cee was intimidated as he sat in Black C’s room, barely saying a word. Even though they were one year apart, from Day 1 Mr. Cee looked up to the 18-year-old Black C as his mentor.
“He was sitting there quiet, and I’m like, ‘Man, what’s up, you ready to rap?’” I had a beat for him and he just started busting lyrics non-stop. He wrote this song called, ‘Hit Squad New Jack.’ I already knew the potential he had and what he was going to do. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this boy right here.’ This dude was saying crazy stuff and coming ridiculous with these metaphors, man. Right away, I said, ‘You ready to go to the studio with us and put something together?’ And he was like, ‘I’d love to do that!’”
The first order of business was to create a new group name. EPMD was gaining national recognition for the name of its expanded lineup of rappers, the “Hit Squad,” featuring Redman and K-Solo.
“T-Lowe said we should be called RBL Posse because our crew was Ruthless By Law. I thought it sounded nice, so that’s how we got the name.”
The second order of business was for Black C to re-do his hit song by adding Mr. Cee and tweaking the title.
“I ended up switching it up to ‘Don’t Give Me No Bammer Weed’ so it would rhyme with ‘We don’t smoke that shit in the SFC’ (‘Sucka Free City,’ one of San Francisco’s nicknames). I wanted to pull in all the other little communities that’s around Frisco. I was trying to pull us all together because there was a lot of gang bangin’ and violence.”
Tourists visiting the “City by the Bay” likely won’t notice Hunters Point, let alone visit it. As James Baldwin once said, “this is the San Francisco America pretends does not exist.” San Francisco loves to claim itself as one of the world’s most liberal and tolerant cities, but history tells a more bigoted story. During World War II, Bay Area shipyards experienced a workforce boom. In turn, San Francisco took its African-American residents and isolated them near the shipyards in Hunters Point using red-lining and segregation tactics learned from the south. Neglect to address issues of pollution and toxic waste from the shipyards led to high levels of disease and sickness in the area. After the war, Hunters Point continued to suffer and residents were forced to live in substandard project homes, had limited employment opportunities and faced serious racial discrimination.
By the time Black C and Mr. Cee were born, gangs and drugs ruled the area. A 2001 article in the San Francisco Chronicle titled, “The Killing Streets” cites the community’s devastation from the gang violence on Harbor Road, the street both rappers grew up on. Black C was involved in several shoot-ups, and lost his right eye during a drive-by. Yet he still has love for his block.
“Hunters Point had a major impact on me and my music. It molded me. Despite the violence, the community was so together, Harbor Road and Hunters Point. We were like a big family. I was so blessed to just be from The City. When you want to leave the projects, you have Pier 39, you got the Presidio area you can go to where it’s totally different. It’s like being in a different world, but it’s all one city. It made me more universal.”
Vallejo’s Mac Mall says, “There were a gang of Bay Area rappers, but nobody sounded the same. The rappers from all the different neighborhoods in the city of San Francisco all sounded different. There was so much originality.”
“We wasn’t just listening to Too $hort,” Black C says. “If you came to Hunters Point, we were bumping Ice T, Public Enemy, BDP and Steady B. That’s why I used so many different samples. I was using ‘Steppin’ to the A.M.’ by 3rd Bass. I was sampling Digital Underground, but I would mix it with some Salt-N-Pepa. That helped my style as far as my producing.
“But at the same time, y’all don’t really know about this dark side of San Francisco. Y’all think this is a tourist attraction, but we got more projects out here than L.A. People come out here and get it twisted. They really get to thinking that it’s real sweet out here, and man, they get caught slippin’. That’s why I made it a point to let people know what’s going on out here in Hunters Point.”
A Lesson To Be Learned
Black C’s point was loud and clear on RBL’s first album. Released in 1992, a year dominated by East Coast rap music, A Lesson To Be Learned educated about life in Hunters Point.
The album was released independently through In-A-Minute Records, a local rap music start-up out of Oakland that had just been founded by Jason Blaine and his father Elliot. It was a raw, sample-heavy album with old school rap flows. With PG-rated artists like Arrested Development, Das EFX, and Kriss Kross flooding the radio waves, RBL crashed the music scene with songs about partying, sex, murder and high-quality weed smoking. Basically, life in Hunters Point.
The catchy “Bammer Weed” became a sensation throughout the Bay Area. Even today, local news stations referenced the RBL classic when California legalized weed.
Many of the songs were created before Mr. Cee joined the group, so Black C worked to integrate the newcomer as best he could.
“You could tell by listening to the album I had songs that were solo. So with songs like ‘A Lesson To Be Learned,’ I had to switch up the beat and throw Mr. Cee on at the end. Then I had him do ‘Remind Me’ so he could do his own song and it didn’t seem like I was just taking over all the songs.”
Being a rookie in the industry and ill-advised to the costs associated with using other artist’s music, Black C’s production style featured samples on nearly every song. Later, this caused issues with their label.
“When I started, my SB-12 only had like 2.5 seconds. I got to the studio and they had that ASR-10 and E-Macs, and I was like whoa, this got like 20 seconds, so even though I had a lot of original music, I went sample crazy.”
While not a national hit, the album was a surprise success, reaching #60 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. “Don’t Give Me No Bammer Weed” hit #16 for singles.
“We didn’t expect it to take off like that. We didn’t really care about getting attention. We was just putting it out to get it done professionally. Then cars used to be rolling by slapping it. You’d hear that little flute whistle from ‘Bammer Weed.’ Car after car after car. That’s when we realized we really had something.”
Ruthless By Law
By the time RBL returned to the studio in 1994 after touring, the music landscape was completely different. Dr. Dre, Snoop and Outkast had changed music forever. Locally, new Bay Area rappers like Mac Mall, Spice 1, E-40 and C-Bo were growing by leaps and bounds, while Del the Funky Homosapien and Souls of Mischief found large audiences with a different stylistic path. RBL came back home feeling like LeBron James after Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors. Everyone else got a hell of a lot better and they needed to do something.
“They made us step our game up. We was definitely influenced by a lot of our young dudes who was up in the studio sparring with us. Man, C-Bo was spittin’. Then Mac Mall later on. They were all a little more advanced. They sent us back to the drawing board.”
What they drew up was Ruthless By Law—one of rap’s greatest, and most underrated, albums.
Black C left the samples in the record crate and created a bass-heavy, keyboard-driven G-Funk sound that was somehow completely different yet equally impressive to Dr. Dre’s. Throughout the Bay Area, cars could be heard from a mile away with Black C’s heavy mix of P-Funk claps, hi hats, and bass dropping from the trunk.
The album opens with a short intro then immediately slaps you in the face with production and rap styles that assault your ears. You can’t even breathe until Black C slows it down on the fourth track with the chopped and screwed sound of “Funkdafied.”
“We wanted to catch ’em,” Black C says. “We didn’t even want it to die down. We wanted to smack ’em at least with three to four tracks to start an album with hits non-stops.”
After hanging in the background on the first album, Mr. Cee leaped forward on Ruthless By Law with a virtuoso rap performance that had him primed to become rap’s next big thing.
“Mr. Cee was real dope,” Mac Mall says. “He was the flavor. I was listening to RBL every day. Their second album was one of the greatest of all in rap.”
Mr. Cee created a new flow unique to rap. He was different. He had a soft, smooth voice, that, simply put, just sounded cool. He would slow down his flow, then pause and speed it up like a Kyrie Irving hesitation crossover dribble. And he sounded legit rapping about anything—girls, gangster life, partying, and clowning on haters and jock riders. And he had the best metaphors.
Dee Brown was fresh off his famous NBA dunk contest win where he pumped his Reebok’s for an extra boost, so Mr. Cee came with, “Try not to get stumped/ I’m not a Reebok employee, but boy, I got many Pumps.” Listen to the way he hops in and out of the track on “Livin’ That Life,” taking his time as he says, “Bumpin’ to a tight ass beat we just made / No I’m not a haircut so you niggas can’t fade … me/ and you say that you hate … me/ but you used my name to fuck bae … bee.”
“Mr. Cee really showed his ass on the second album,” Black C says. “He started going deep with his metaphors. He could be hilarious, but also leave you in awe. Droppin’ subliminals on these dudes on the block who were hating on him. He wasn’t going to do nothing but grow. He didn’t care too much about the hooks and all that. Mr. Cee just wanted to rap. He was like, ‘Just let me know when it’s ready to go, because I’m going in and kill it.’ And that’s what he did. Especially when Hitman came around.”
Hitman was a local youngster Black C brought into the game as a solo artist for his new Right Way Productions company.
“Mr. Cee and Hitman used to always be in the studio sparring on tracks. I’m in there making beats and they just freestyling. They weren’t even recording. I told them they needed be recording this stuff. Y’all tripping.”
The single “Bounce To This” received national attention through Yo! MTV Raps and BET’s Rap City, helping the album reach #23 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums.
Rapper/producer Grip Grand, who was born and raised in the Bay Area but moved to Los Angeles in the early 1990s, remembers the pride he felt when the San Francisco rap duo made waves down south. “I personally was hyped to hear some Frisco shit down in L.A., but that’s because I was forcibly transplanted there and always resented it. So I was down to sing along with any song that had SFC in the hook.”
As RBL toured the country and Black C produced Hitman’s solo album through Right Way, Atlantic Records came calling. Now the chairman and CEO of Atlantic, in 1995 Craig Kallman was recruiting new dance music and rap talent for the label. RBL was one of his targets and he was reportedly offering a $1.5 million contract per the San Francisco Chronicle.
I Blame Jason For Mr. Cee’s Death
On the verge of a lucrative record deal, Mr. Cee was home on Harbor Road on the first day of 1996 when he was shot nine times. He was selling drugs to get money to pay bills and settle debts.
How does a successful rapper and good kid end up dead on the streets like that?
“We were going through issues with Jason at In-A-Minute records. He wasn’t paying us the money we earned. That’s why I blame Jason for Mr. Cee’s death. Mr. Cee wouldn’t have been out in the projects trying to hustle and trying to pay everybody back after that Christmas time if Jason would have paid us.”
Mr. Cee’s only source of income came from In-A-Minute Records. Unlike Black C, he didn’t invest in Right Way Productions.
“I tried to get Mr. Cee to invest but he had bills and other things to pay off,” Black C says. “So when I put Hitman out in ’95 and I’m making all this money, Mr. Cee was struggling. He didn’t have no money. Jason owed us but didn’t want to pay us, so Mr. Cee had to go out there and hustle.
“On New Year’s Day, we were supposed to go together out to my auntie’s house. But he was so depressed that day. You could see it all over his face. He owed me, he owed our manager. He had been borrowing money from everybody to pay bills and get through Christmas. It was ugly for him, so he stayed back to hustle. And that wasn’t really him. He wasn’t a hustler like that. That was one of his first times having to get out there and go slang some drugs just to survive.
“We went out to the In-A-Minute offices a couple of days before Mr. Cee died. Right before Christmas. It was December 22; I remember because In-A-Minute was about to shut down for the holidays. I went out there with Mr. Cee and argued for him to see if we could put up a fight and squeeze something from Jason. But Jason said, ‘Man, I’m not letting down no more money. I gotta clear these samples.’ We was just arguing out there in front of the label, going crazy. Even Jason’s father came out there and was like, ‘Jason, just give them some money. You know that we owe them money. These samples are gonna get cleared.’
“And Jason just did not want to do it. He knew he owed us big money. He was withholding $200,000 from us for some samples that we all knew he would clear for a couple thousand. But he didn’t want to pay us. That’s all that was. I know he had already spent that money and didn’t have it. It was just a big old fight. He kept saying they were shut down for the holidays and he couldn’t do it. So we left.”
“There was a lot of that stuff going on back then with record label CEOs,” Mac Mall says. “We was young and cats didn’t know as much about the business as they do now. There was all type of crazy shit out here at that time.”
Passion of the Weiss made attempts to contact Jason Blaine for this story, however, he seems to have virtually disappeared (at least from the internet, social media and contacts in our address book). His father Elliot passed away in 2013.
“If Jason would have given Mr. Cee a check that day, he would have never been on that block hanging out in the projects, hustling,” Black C says. “That’s what just kills me. I blame him for Mr. Cee dying. That wasn’t him at all. In fact, that was a mistaken identity type thing.”
They Shot The Wrong Guy
Mistaken identity? After exposing Jason Blaine, Black C opened the door to another sad secret surrounding the tragedy that is Mr. Cee’s death: the killers weren’t actually trying to kill Mr. Cee.
“People was beefing on my turf. There were disputes. There is no excuse for none of it. But there were a lot of dudes, you know, who…who…really wanted to see…”
Black C pauses for a few seconds.
“There were a lot of dudes who wanted to see Hitman gone. Because Hitman was a part of a few things he wasn’t supposed to be involved in. Doing some dumb shit. That day, him and Mr. Cee was out there dressed the same. They thought they killed Hitman.”
New Year’s Day 1996 began with Black C and Mr. Cee driving up Harbor Road to swoop up Hitman. At the end of the road, Hitman sat on a rail, talking to Black C’s sister. Nearby, Louis, the old man who had long roamed the streets of Hunters Point, was preaching to Hitman and Black C’s sister. When Black C and Mr. Cee exited the car and approached, Louis turned his attention to them.
He spoke of Cain and Abel, about good versus evil and the wretchedness of jealousy. Mr. Cee, who grew up in church with both a grandfather and father as pastors, knew the story well. Like Cain and Abel, he also saw brothers killing brothers in Hunters Point. But Mr. Cee’s special talent for the spoken word had provided a way out. Or, at least he was close to getting out. Once Jason paid him off, and the new deal with Atlantic came through, he would be in the clear. He just needed some immediate money to pay off his debts.
“After Louis finished preaching, I asked Mr. Cee if he was still riding to my auntie house,” Black C says.
“Nah man, I got to walk up here and hustle,” Mr. Cee told him. “I gotta get you your money back.”
Those were the last words Black C heard Mr. Cee speak. Black C didn’t care about the money, but he let him go his way. Mr. Cee walked over to the rail next to Hitman, who jumped down and followed Black C to the car. Mr. Cee took Hitman’s place on the rail. Black C and Hitman drove off to celebrate the new year. Shortly after, Black C’s sister left and Mr. Cee was alone. The next time he was seen by those who knew him, he was dead; his body filled with nine gunshot wounds. According to Black C, those bullets were meant for Hitman.
“They both had on 501 blue jeans and a black hoodie,” Black C says. “It was one of them fluke things. That was supposed to be for Hitman. But, it is what it is. I done moved on. Ain’t nothing I can do about it. Just keep the torch lit…That’s about it…That’s it.”
Where To From Here?
Black C has never fully recovered from the death of his friend.
“I was shut down. I ain’t even gonna lie. I was in a shell. I didn’t know what to do. I was about to give up. I didn’t want to do nothin’, man. Six months in my house sheltering myself, not dealing with nobody. I was making beats and playing around with stuff. It just wasn’t the same as having Mr. Cee behind me, freestyling to everything I’m playing. It was just totally different. It was just the worst…worst, worst, worst year in my life. That ’96, I just couldn’t do it. Couldn’t take it, man. Later on that year, that’s the same year Pac died; that September. Not only did I lose Mr. Cee, now Pac gone. One of my favorite rappers. It was like blow after blow. Come on. What the hell?”
With the urging of his friends and family, and support from Atlantic Records, Black C attempted to dust himself off and make an RBL album with Hitman, but he knew things would never be the same.
“They all tried to motivate me, saying I needed to do it for Mr. Cee. Then they wanted Hitman to fill Mr. Cee’s shoes. I didn’t want anyone to try to fill his shoes. Hitman was a solo artist. He was just on our last album as a guest appearance. I was not even trying to do it like that, but went along with it anyway.”
Uninspired and too depressed to put up a fight with the record company, Black C moved forward and released Eye for an Eye in 1997. After producing nearly every previous RBL track, Black C produced just two songs on the album. While Hitman was now a full-time RBL member, for the first time, an RBL album featured an abundance of guests.
“Since we didn’t have Mr. Cee, we just did a lot of features, which we never liked doing before. We felt like an RBL album should be an RBL album. I’m still mad. It just wasn’t that true RBL sound. I was just trying to please the label. They kept submitting beats to me. I had so many fucking CDs and tapes coming through from the label, it was pathetic. It was driving me crazy. I just wasn’t in that mode to push back. I didn’t have Mr. Cee by my side.”
The duo of Black C and Hitman never really clicked. After Mr. Cee’s death, Hitman changed his flow, sounding like a mix of Mr. Cee and Mac Dre. It didn’t work.
“Hitman was a little cartoony at the time. I had to coach him to get away from the nursery rhymes and get a little more mature. Something was missing with Hitman. I didn’t want to ruin RBL’s legacy doing knock off RBL shit. It was not the same. It kind of killed me, man.”
They released one more album of new RBL content in 2002 before Black C decided to disband the group. In early 2003, the bullets meant for Mr. Cee ended up finding Hitman, and another young black man was killed in Hunters Point.
Doing That Soccer Dad Shit
Today, Black C is speaking from one of his investment homes in the East Bay city of Antioch. Like any married, home-owning father of six, he multitasks while he talks.
“I’m remodeling this house right now and doing everything myself.”
He is financially independent thanks to Right Way Productions and the subsequent albums he produced for himself and other artists. He still finds time for music. He makes the occasional guest feature and concert appearance, and is re-releasing RBL albums on vinyl and cassette. He also mentors younger artists; helping them with their careers so they don’t make the same mistakes RBL made.
“I gotta give props to my brother Black C for what he’s been able to do,” Mac Mall says. “He keep dope youngsters around him and help them out, and still make some of the dopest records. His music is still dope. I believe if Mr. Cee wouldn’t have been killed, they would have probably went down as one of the best groups period. And I’m not talking about just Bay Area hip hop. They would have been one of the best groups period.”
Before finishing his remodel work for the day, Black C pauses and speaks on RBL’s legacy.
“I’m most proud that we did it for Frisco. We put Frisco on the map. And, also, the weed. RBL and Cypress Hill, we put the herb on the map. RBL was the ones who did it first when motherfuckers weren’t talking about that weed shit in music.”
With one legacy behind him, he’s now focused on the next one as a husband and father.
“I’m doing that soccer dad shit to be honest with you. Being there for my family. Picking the kids up from school and dropping them off to practices. Help them with homework. Trying to make them better. It’s easy being a dad. It ain’t fast-paced no more. I can breathe a little bit.”
When a married man with six kids, including a 5-month old baby and 26-year-old in medical school, says he can now breathe easier — you know the previous chapter of life was no joke.