Wide Open: An Interview With Mac Mall

Jesse Taylor speaks with Bay Area legend Mac Mall about his early life, working with Mac Dre, and building a rap legacy.
By    August 7, 2018

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Jesse Taylor keeps it hella real.

An impoverished upbringing in North Vallejo’s “Crest Side” burdened Jamal “Mac Mall” Rocker with a stress-related vocal stutter that began from the moment he first spoke. It wasn’t until he discovered rap at 13 and put on the mask of “Mac Mall,” that his stutter magically disappeared. He spent hours honing his craft, loving every minute he practiced because for the first time, it was effortless to speak. The more he rapped, the less he stuttered in everyday conversations.

Born in 1975, Mac Mall came of age at the same time as rap music, and what better place for a kid like that to grow up than the Crest, home of The Mac, Mac Dre and producer extraordinaire Khayree. After years of pent-up verbal angst, Mac Mall didn’t just rap; words exploded out of his mouth like a canon at rapid-fire pace. Like many in Vallejo, his family came from Louisiana, so his vocals not only boomed from the excitement of a kid freed from vocal impairment and embarrassment, but also featured a smooth southern drawl like his cousin E-40. Combine that with the diverse sound of Bay Area rap music, and Mall had created a style that was as dope as it was different.

His debut album Illegal Business? featured 15 full-length songs, and you didn’t dare skip one of them. It was a Bay Area classic the moment it dropped in 1993. His voice was a perfect match for Khayree’s heavy use of funk keyboards and bass lines. He got a boost with guest vocals from Mac Dre on “Pimp Shit” and music video direction from 2Pac (who always loved to give back Bay Area locals) on the poignant “Ghetto Theme.” And anyone who has ever rolled up a blunt and smoked a fat one in the Bay Area has definitely got lifted to the altered vocals and psychedelic keyboards of “My Opinion.”  

This is Mac Mall’s story, straight from the man himself.

Growing up in Vallejo, you were born into an area known for its music, from 70s soul and funk artists like Sly and The Family Stone to 80s hip-hop with The Mac and Mac Dre. Is that what got you started in the rap game?

Mac Mall:  Yes, but I didn’t really think that way at first. I used to stutter hella much. It was bad. I used to never talk, because people would laugh at me stuttering, and I internalized that. I used to be angry, because I couldn’t talk the way I wanted to talk. On top of that, I just had so much stress in my life.

Like what?

Mac Mall: The main stress in my upbringing was poverty. Just growing up in a rough neighborhood with a lot of bad stuff going on out there. Being young and poor. Not growing up with my biological father made me feel like a black sheep, so I stayed on my own shit. That’s what drove me to reading. I would just read all the time. Then I started getting into rap, and I rapped on my own. Then I rapped with my cuddies in front of people, really feeling myself. It got me more confident. Life made sense to me on that stage. Everything made sense. I had a stressful upbringing and through hip-hop, through music, through rapping in front of the mirror, I was able to slow it down and get my shit out.

When was it that you started rapping?

Mac Mall: I joined my rap crew when I was 13. I didn’t have the confidence to do it on my own. But what I found out was, the only time I didn’t stutter was when I rapped. Because of my stutter cats used to always say I couldn’t rap. And, of course, I’d want to show ’em up, so I’d bust my shit. Then right when I’m done, go back to stuttering.

We was the Sesame Street Crew, like a baby Romper Room (Mac Dre’s crew). We always knew each other, always rapped and did our thing. I had some of the dopest rappers in my crew way before we even made records. Guys like Dubee, Sleep Dank, Tito and Lou-Lou. We hung around each other all the time, bustin’ raps at each other. So when it was time for me to come out, I was really good because I was sparring against some of the best. That training made me better than the average.

The environment of the Country Club Crest made me who I am as a rapper. The down south feel we have here. All of our people came from Louisiana to California with that vibe. I didn’t have to look to anywhere else to be hip-hop. I didn’t have to look to New York or to L.A. to find my heroes. Mines is right in my neighborhood. And they was tight. I’m listening to The Mac. I’m seeing Mac Dre right in front of me and seeing what he would become years later with Thizz and the whole movement. He was already starting it when I was a little kid. I’m out there rapping to fools.”

I know that Dre kind of took you under his wing when you first started. How did you guys connect?

Mac Mall: Dre was my hero. He lived on my auntie’s street and we was all close. We were like brothers. My cuddie T-Love set up a demo recording for me with him, and when I did that Dre was ready to sign me. Now I’m going to see what I’m made of. Doing a song with Mac Dre was what I had wanted to do my whole life.

But he went to jail before you could really start working with him, right?

Mac Mall:  I was ready and Mac Dre was ready for us to come together and rap, but then he went to jail. I thought my dreams was over. I was on my way to make it and Dre went to jail. I went back to the ‘hood. I was getting ready to do a robbery. But then DJ Cee told me Khayree wanted to talk to me. So when I did that song on Dre’s album, I was like, okay, we comin’.

You’re talking about “MY Chevy” on the album Dre recorded over the phone from Fresno County Jail, Back N Da Hood?

Mac Mall:  Yeah. I knew the importance of that record. That record was a fight for Mac Dre’s life. I didn’t know it, but from prison, Dre had gave Khayree his blessing to work with me and put out my music. “My Chevy” was the first song I ever did on record. I actually cut school to lay that down, and had to hurry up so I could go back to class and shit. I took advantage of it and just bubbled.

And then you worked with Kayree to create that first album, when you were like, what, 16, 17?

Mac Mall: I was young as fuck, but I knew back then I had to make the most of the opportunity. I couldn’t let it pass me by. That first album was me telling my truth. It was everything I was doing at the time. How I was living. Khayree did a lot of dope stuff. Working with him was like finally making it to the pros.

And that album was dope.

Mac Mall:  And so was my second album. Untouchable was me making sure that when I catch my dream, I do something with it. What happens when you chase your dream and what happens when you catch it? It was a more sophisticated record, but we definitely kept that vibe from the first album.

I was always a little surprised you never blew up nationally. I always rooted for guys from The Bay and felt like more people should have been listening to you.

Mac Mall: Too much politics in the major label industry. One thing about the Bay Area that’s wild, you always around that ‘hood stuff. In L.A., you have the ‘hood and you have Hollywood. Anybody in the know kind of know that the ‘hood, especially in music, is ran by Hollywood and the industry. For us in the Bay Area, there’s no buffer between the streets and the industry. There is no industry.

In the Bay, even MC Hammer was around known gangsters. Everybody is around this stuff because you grew up in it. You right there. You at the same clubs. Ain’t no VIP like that where a cat can’t get at you. If you in The Bay, we more hands on. The people right there for good and for bad. For us, we have harsh realities pop off. Every rapper in The Bay has been touched by that.

Like Mac Dre, who you reunited with once he was finally released from prison.

Mac Mall:  Even though Dre was behind the gate, we stayed in contact. On my record 1990 you hear some of the conversations we had from jail. Mac Dre was just a very loyal and honest person. He dedicated a lot to our neighborhood. He did it his way and that’s why he will live forever as the “King of the Bay.” We had so many great all-night studio sessions. A whole lot of laughing. Making dope music, creating new styles. Dre was very, very funny. We called him Mr. Furley, not just because he was slim, but because he was funny and would make the craziest faces like Mr. Furley. He would say the wildest stuff at the wildest times and stay comedy.

I saw you also put out a book in 2015, My Opinion, and you did some podcasting. How are you expanding outside of just music?

Mac Mall:  The book was me telling my story. It came from tragedy. I got in a bad car accident and one of my friends actually died in my arms. I was very hurt mentally and physically. So I just started writing to take an honest look at my life to see how I got in that bad situation. I’ve always loved the written word and street novels. I’m writing my second book right now called, Thizz or Die. It’s about working with Dre on our album Da U.S. Open and then being in Kansas City where he got murdered.

Writing and telling stories is something I will continue to do. This year I’m doing my first documentary movie. It’s about Bay Area hip-hop in the year 1993. Right now I’m doing a marijuana strain and pre-rolls – “Stupid-Doo-Doo Sticks” and “Stupid Doo-Doo Dozier.”

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