Lost Transmissions from the Pimp Machine: Clue Dog & Pomona Pimpin’

Darn Cash takes a look at an unsung hero from the Los Angeles County rap scene.
By    June 25, 2020

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Part 1: The Man Behind The Pimp

Every six months or so, I see the same clip go viral on Twitter: a young Suga Free is commiserating with a group of friends about sketchy, dishonest women, when out of nowhere he starts banging out a beat on the table with a pen and a nickel, giddily freestyling at the speed of funk. Everyone in the room knows the hook (a raunchy interpolation of Parliament’s “Funkentelechy”) and sings along with gusto:

Who pussy is this
I like the way it feeeel
I know it ain’t mine
But I want you to tell me it iiiiis
How do you spell Relief?!…

The rest is history: a solo rap performance that continues to accrue millions of views a quarter-century later, partly for Free’s unquestionable musical skill, and partly for his brutally frank depictions of life as a young pimp. I suspect that many viewers’ acquaintance with him ends there, given how most of us tend to scroll mindlessly through the feed.

There’s also the fact that for many people of sound morals, it can be hard to listen to some of the things these shameless Pomona gangsters describe in their music. They take pride in being curators and salesmen of human flesh. They frequently demean and degrade the women that work for them, rarely feature female artists on their tracks, and flat-out brag that physical discipline is part of pimping’s DNA. And in our era, any reference to pimping inevitably brings to mind the 21st-century Moloch of Dark-Web human trafficking. It is understandable that many people will conflate prostitution as Free describes it, an ancient practice as old as human culture itself, with the horrifying abomination into which it has evolved in our time.

Still, Clue Dog and Suga Free’s music is from an era before Dark Web sex-trafficking, when pimps and prostitutes operated locally and could develop their business relationship through consent and mutual interestThe more musically curious will perhaps dig deeper, and see what they might learn from Free’s sizeable discography.. But it would be a rare type of reader indeed who’d be bold enough to try and count the exact number of Suga Free interpolations on To Pimp A Butterfly – I’ve found five but there are surely more…

But recently, I found out that there’s way more than that mere two-minute clip.

The full video is 11 minutes long, with a proper intro, an even filthier 2nd verse to the viral freestyle, and multiple freestyles from members of Free’s posse. It was allegedly filmed in Compton circa 1995, as apparently a demo for a 25-year-old rap prodigy from Pomona who called himself both “Royal Rock” and “Suga Free,” at different points throughout. Although he stars in the video, the full version makes it clear that he’s a member of a group called “The Chronic 5.” Standing on the right, over his shoulder, is a man in a color-block windbreaker; Free introduces him as “Clue Dogg.”

After a somewhat stilted performance from another member of the posse, Clue (prompted by Free) takes his turn freestyling over a slower version of the impromptu tabletop beat. From the 5:50 mark until 7:05, the viewer gets to witness just what kind of talent Suga Free kept around him at the cusp of his big break – and Clue Dogg owns the minute-long spotlight, painting a menacing backdrop to Free’s light-hearted pimp tales with a flawless barrage of lyrical shots at any fool trying to fuck with Pomona’s 357 Crip set.
The resemblance between the two is totally uncanny, from their finely trimmed moustaches to their ice-cold glares. But it’s their similarity as rappers which blows my mind. Granted, Clue Dogg’s voice has a lower, darker tone than Free’s, and lyrically he sticks to established gangsta rap tropes – but still, the intricate syncopations and rhyme schemes are all there. He can nail all the same rapid-fire 1/16th- and 1/32nd-note rhythms that Free does, and their accents have that menacing Snoop-Dogg smoothness. It’s just eerie.
Now I dunno if y’all ever smoke weed and have oddly specific realizations, but this is a kind of pastime of mine so my mind was just blown when I first watched this. That voice…it was like I’d heard it somewhere before.

Part 2: On The Hunt For Clue

I’ve never purchased a physical copy of Suga Free’s classic 1997 album Street Gospel, but I can tell you that no matter where I look online, the name Clue Dogg does not appear in any listed credits for the album. However, you may notice that smack dab in the middle of Free’s first verse on “Fly Fo Life,” there’s a remarkable flow switch. Around the 30-second mark, someone asks him: “What’s up, Suga Free?” to which he responds, “The price of pussy, baby! The price of pussy, BABYYYYYYYYY…”

As Free’s voice fades into the background, a second layer of vocals creeps in underneath him, bombarding the next 12 bars with a relentless, distinctively melodic deliveryL

You were rattin’ on your boys and now you’re wondering why I’m shakin’ em
And everything they say has got to do with you not takin’ em
Just hit me when you work out all your problems with your friends
Cause life is gettin’ short and see I’m all about my yen
The Westside of Pomona is the city where it’s happenin’
City of sin, and I miss them days back on Jacqueline
Still it was the state of mind, don’t think that we be playin’
Tres Cinco Siete, no cuerte, you know what I’m sayin’
The method of detectin’ n_ggas all up in yo game
Can never be done, if you continue to remain
A victim in life, for the fact that love don’t love nobody
I shoulda been this numb back in the days of O.G. Charlie…

It’s a work of fully-automatic pimp poetry so ingenious, so seamlessly woven into DJ Quik’s mix, that for years most of us just assumed this was Suga Free. But I’m telling you today: this section was performed by Clue Dogg.

Sure, you can clearly hear Free’s voice pop out on the line, “you know what I’m sayin.” So I admit there’s also a possibility that he’s being subtly blended in throughout, aided by Quik’s surgical fader moves. But even if Suga Free does sing this part, there is unmistakably a second vocalist singing along with him – and it’s a dead ringer for the man behind him in that 1995 video.

“Clue Dogg” is so criminally undocumented in West Coast rap history that there’s not even a consensus on how his name is spelled. On streaming services his name appears with just one “g,” and is sometimes credited as “Klu Dogg”. Of course, uncredited vocal contributions are nothing new in rap. Suga Free claims he was asked by Dre to say some words into a mic during the making of The Chronic, though he was never credited. And in fact, there may be several uncredited vocals on “Fly Fo Life:” Is that Quik whispering the title lyric in the choruses? Who’s that female singer? Any readers with Street Gospel in physical format out there, kindly tap in and let us know if the answers are out there…

Frustrating as it has been to try and dig up info on the man, my aim here is to prove that even if he was never considered Free’s artistic peer during his time, there is still overwhelming evidence that Clue Dogg was a rap artist of a remarkably high caliber — with a style and approach all his own.

Clue Dogg pops up elsewhere in Suga Free’s catalogue: featured and credited on several songs, most notably on “High Heels,” off of Free’s second album The New Testament (The Truth). Here too, Clue Dogg appears very briefly and suddenly, and is interrupted around the 12th bar by a refrain from Suga Free. But coming in hot at the 1-minute mark, Clue Dogg still manages to hold his own with a staccato rap-singing that reminds me of Kamaiyah or Nelly. The melodic motif, an ascending-and-descending 5th, is a dead ringer for the melody he laid down in verse 1 of “Fly Fo Life.”

He also gets a short feature on “Get Loose” off the same album, briefly trading bars with Big Steele and Suga Free over a volcanic Big Saccs production inspired by Prince, Michael Jackson, and Wham! (no seriously, that breathy vocal hook Free does? that’s the pre-chorus of “Everything She Wants.”) Clue Dogg’s contribution here is, as always, unfairly brief; yet the impression I get from his 19 seconds of feature time is that he doesn’t have a single bar or breath to waste. Clue Dogg raps like he’s standing on a CA-90 overpass right in the middle of The Big One. And there’s that signature major-5th riff again, in its best iteration yet, as Clue tucks bar after bar into a shifting rhythmic pocket. His flows here are so virtuosic and intricate it feels like a drum solo.

Suga Free is known for breaking out of the pocket, pioneering that infamous “off-beat,” conversational, shit-talking, flow that remains a staple of West Coast rap technique to this day. More often than not, Clue Dogg sticks to “on-beat” patterns and flows, but sub-divides every beat into so many syllables that most rappers of even above-average talent would be unable to recite even a couple bars without stuttering. Free is also very capable of rapping with perfect timing at ridiculously high speeds, but just as often he likes to break free from 4/4 time entirely, inventing his own polyrhythms and cadences so intricate that to many it sounds like he’s just talking over the beat.

Free blessed the art of rapping words over a beat with the kind of creative joy and technical brilliance that Miles Davis brought to the art of the horn solo (it’s said that Miles bought a wah-wah pedal after hearing Jimi Hendrix; surely it was T-Pain’s brilliant experiments with Auto-Tune that inspired Suga Free to use the effect all over Smell My Finger, which by the way came out two years before Future released his first mixtape). But Clue Dogg hits my ear more like Dizzy Gillespie, or Blue Mitchell. His recorded output, more often than not, sees him applying his technical skill within the confines of conventionally subdivided rhythm. Clue is “on-beat” in that 80’s, percussive style of rapping where the vocalist becomes almost like a rhythm instrument. And while Free consistently remains the star of the show, Clue Dogg is always ready to fill in the gaps with concise, brilliant material, like the Watson to Free’s Holmes.

The influence of Free on Clue’s vocal style might be obvious (they are childhood friends), but Clue’s velvety baritone singing voice sets him apart. If he’d lived in a different time and place I could easily imagine him having an entire career as a soul or funk vocalist. His other Suga Free features lean more R&B than rap (e.g. “The Game Don’t Wait” and “Person 2 Person”), as he croons buttery hooks like the Nate Dogg of the Inland Empire. Whatever Free saw in Clue Dogg, it wasn’t as an imitator or a follower but a complementary spirit, a fellow artist who had something unique and interesting to contribute to his forward-thinking, uncompromisingly funky music.

Part 3: Pomona Pimpin’

The closest thing we got to a Clue Dogg album was a 2003 CD release called Pomona Pimpin’. Technically the release is credited to two artists, Clue Dogg (with one “g”) and fellow Pomona pimp Doc Holiday, though you wouldn’t know that from a glance at the cover. In the largest font, the producer’s name receives top billing: “Papi Rico” (it would take me a whole other article to tell his story). The next biggest font has “Suga Free,” but he mainly just raps on the first song, and a hook or two. This is not an actual Suga Free album, nor even a “mixtape” in the modern sense of the word. Alas, this hasn’t stopped people from uploading all these songs under just Free’s name (there’s even CD art with Papi Rico’s name taken off). Finally, there’s the album title Pomona Pimpin, and squeezed in at the bottom are the names of the actual artists: Doc Holiday and Clue Dogg.

From what I’ve dug up, it sounds like Clue, Doc, and Suga Free all met in school. They’d likely been friends for a decade at this point, and Free had ridden out the success of Street Gospel for some years and was working on his second album, 2004’s The New Testament (which includes the two Clue Dogg features from Part 2). However, he had also began his decisive split with DJ Quik, who took breaks from mixing about half of 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me to make a classic debut for Suga Free in 1997. It was Street Gospel which effectively turned Free from an underground aspirant to a charting artist and future legend in a manner of months.

The break with Quik was awkward and not obvious: The New Testament (The Truth), Suga Free’s official second album, would contain a handful of already-recorded Quik productions (bolstered by a new cast of up-and-coming producers), but Pomona Pimpin’, released a year earlier, was entirely produced and distributed by a fresh-out Papi Rico.

The album was probably recorded right around the time Free and Quik split: it begins with an impassioned rant by Suga Free, where he condemns the ingratitude and hypocrisy of an unnamed foe, who he no longer needs anymore: “It’s Clue Dogg and Suga Frizzle!!” To put this song on his sophomore album The New Testament, which would come out on the Universal-linked Bungalo Records and which featured a few Quik & Free classics, would have been a disastrous move. So he threw it on his Pomona Day-1s’ mixtape, and the song became a street classic.

That’s the point here: Pomona Pimpin’ is not a straight-up Suga Free album. After the intro and “Ya Ain’t Fukin Wit Us”, which seems to have been the record’s most popular song, Free steps back and lets his high school homies take over. Pomona Pimpin’ is a turn-of-the-millennium underground rap release by two obscure affiliates of his. Although his name is in gigantic font on the cover, his voice shows up only here and there. This is an album by Clue Dogg and Doc Holiday, and if you’re into little-known West Coast classics you will probably be able to enjoy much of this album’s mischievous, electric music.

Doc Holiday takes the hyper-verbose pimp-rap formula of his mentor Suga Free and makes it sound flat-out terrifying. Whether he’s growling or yelling, Doc’s voice grates on the ears like sonic gravel, cracking every other bar. It even makes you wonder if Almighty Suspect or Ketchy the Great might be among his fans. But whereas Free’s charisma casts a kind of spell on the listener that can make his life of sin sound enticing, Doc Holiday prefers to compare himself to a gorilla, taking sadistic delight in old stories of his pimpin’-ass uncle beating up prostitutes. At worst, he’s cringeworthy, at best he’s a quick student of the artists around him.

Clue Dogg is the true star of Pomona Pimpin’. He may not be any kinder to women in his raps than Doc or Free, but he almost never leans on his pimp-hand as a lyrical crutch. He’s more interested in finding the profundity latent in what is taboo and esoteric about human relationships. Like Free, Clue Dogg’s lyrics bear witness to real-life experience, they contain testimonies to human life as they have lived it. Sex, luxury, drama: the life of a pimp seems designed for Hollywood; perhaps Hollywood at bottom is just a cheap, scalable imitation of pimping. And on Pomona Pimpin’ all three of these artists manage to turn braggadocious pimp-talk into psychoanalysis at the speed of light, eschewing rap flexes or cliches in favor of documentary-style snapshots into their forbidden world. Entire paragraphs of information rush past the listener’s ear every few seconds, very little of which they will actually understand. The best song performed by the trio is either “Pimp Machine,” or (obviously) “Pomona,” both of which are also two of the best Papi Rico beats on the album.

Clue Dogg’s only extant solo song appears on Pomona Pimpin’. “I.D. Crisis” is a breathless race through every single anxiety in his head: unreliable hos, freeloading clients looking for free pussy, the frustrations of his nonexistent recording career, and the awful realization that there may be no way out of the cycle of sin which has come to dominate his life. This song is for professional pimps what the “Epiphany” from Sweeney Todd is to murderous barbers: a gripping depiction of a man losing his mind, as all he thought he had accomplished begins to fall apart in his hands. You can hear the despair in his voice as he sings, and Papi Rico’s production nails this terrifying horror-movie vibe in the vein of DJ Paul and Juicy J’s production for Three 6 Mafia. This is the kind of haunting, hyperspeed rap performance that would make Lord Infamous blink in disbelief.

It’s striking that Clue sings this song entirely in the second person. It makes one wonder if he’s writing about his own experience…or someone else’s. After all, a mere five years later, Suga Free would quit pimpin’ forever in 2008 to pursue music. Surely he had heard this song by his best friend and close collaborator…the mind races with possibilities.

Clue Dogg’s single greatest contribution to recorded music may be his verse on “Pimp Machine.” Papi Rico beams down a beat that sounds like a UFO dripping psychoactive G-Funk ooze, analog synths pumping and squelching like NASA hydraulics. After a decent Doc Holiday verse and the 2nd iteration of the hook, Clue Dogg starts rapping like the telecoms operator on the Starship Enterprise:

Commander’s log, pimp day 003.577
A scarlet vessel has entered the black hole, and now we’ve armed the weapons
All attempts to contact Commander Rico has failed
And a strange beacon located near the planet’s surface is being hailed
Implements indicate potential ho presence at critical level
Destination ETA: 1 light-day until we reach the beacon signal
Log entry complete. Clue to bridge, Commander:
Bring us around to .3 degrees and figure out where to land her
Shiiet, story has it that the pimp planet is no place for ordinary hoes
And a G’s gonna send his to a corner that’s very cold
Computer: activate the Pimp Machine, Line Sequence on 1
Player-hater Phasers on “no-no” stun, and ho, don’t run!…

He ends the verse with some classic dancehall melodies, and another piece to the puzzle falls into place. “Star Fleet Command keep a Pimp Machine…” We have arrived at the heart of Clue Dogg’s sound, the distinctive style he embodies on every single recording I have heard of him: this guy seems incapable of making it through a rap verse without singing. Remember that in 2003, I’m pretty sure only Biz Markie, Nelly, Ja Rule, Andre 3000 and Bone Thugs had managed to really carve out the rap-singer lane on a successful commercial level. In the early days of rap, to sing over music meant you could be subsumed, commercialized, and turned into a punchline. The choice to rap instead of singing was in many ways a survival method, and a liberating power, for young black and brown artists who the industry had long ago shut out.
No matter how that verse ends, for the rest of the song I am left unable to hear anything but the echo of Clue Dogg’s voice in my ears, as he spins the oldest profession in human history into the stuff sci-fi epics are made of. Intergalactic pimpin’, a lost transmission from a blade beyond the Milky Way…

Epilogue: So Long, Space Pimp

According to a Facebook post on a Chinese West Coast rap fanpage, Clue Dogg passed from this world from unknown causes on January 9th, 2014. I’ve scoured any and all social media and music press on the web for mentions of this artist, and although this is the only reference I can find to his death, surely his life was celebrated and remembered in the following weeks and months by those who knew him. After all, if his influence on the game has been noted in the Mandarin-speaking hype-o-sphere, this dude was no ordinary part-time rapper. But as we mentioned before, the record is slim when you try to look up “Clue Dogg”…you wind up having to throw in supplementary keywords like “Pomona” and “Suga Free” to sift out all the Nickelodeon-related content that pops up on a Google search.

He seems to have stopped recording in the late aughts, as Free’s releases after 2008’s Smell My Finger do not feature him. However, there exists a single, brief video interview with Clue Dogg, and we discover that he never put the brakes on his craft. An impromptu video clip from 2012, filmed at Blakkragg Studio in Las Vegas, turns up on YouTube:

The cameraman spends the first part of the video gassing up the in-house producer as well as a younger artist whose name is Spitphyre. Then, he turns the camera to Clue Dogg, who is sitting in on the session with them. The cameraman gasses Clue up too, in generous measure, noting that he’s “rubbed shoulders” with the likes of B-Legit, Snoop Dogg, and of course “muthafuckin’ Suga Free, representin’ for the P.”

When pressed about his plans for the session, Clue Dogg smiles warmly:
Shiieet, I’m feeling whatever we come up with.

He is nothing but humble. With his hand on what looks like some chronic and blunt-wraps, he emphasizes the importance of family and work ethic rather than boast about all the big names he’s been able to associate with. Although he does advocate surrounding yourself with people who inspire you:
We drippin’ greatness, man! So, I like to stay up in the pot.
I like to stay stirrin’ in the super-greatness.

We hear about a forthcoming solo album, Pandora’s Box: Liquid Prayers. There are plans for a double-C.D. box set with bonus DVD extras, and an original video game to play along with the album (an explicit attempt to imitate the success of the legendary True Crime, Streets of L.A. soundtrack). We are told it would have 18 to 19 songs, with five skits, but then Clue Dogg trails off and mumbles something about waiting on meetings with some industry people. When pressed as to what artists will be featured on the album, Clue cracks a smile and refuses to give us any names:
Imma give you a clue, right? Because I love riddles, man, you know what I’m sayin’?
You know…I’m Clue Dogg, I’m a puzzle solver.
And you can’t solve a puzzle without a clue, can you?

The cameraman insinuates that one of these artists is probably Suga Free, an obvious guess. But Clue Dogg neither affirms nor denies that Free appears on his album. Instead, he looks directly into the camera, and quotes a lyric from Dr. Dre’s “High Powered.”

Sadly, I have found no evidence that any of the music on Pandora’s Box was ever released.
Suga Free’s whole discography, from Street Gospel to The Resurrection, is saturated with allusions to Christ-like redemption and rebirth – indeed, a young pimp named Dejuan Walker fatefully decided that going to prison again for “mis-pimping” was not a viable option, and over the next decade would begin to turn his life around. Comparing yourself to Christ is a 2000-year-old flex at this point, but Free wasn’t bluffing: he would eventually give up turning tricks to pursue the creative life full-time. Even if countless listeners balked at what they perceived as blasphemous branding, Free would be the first to admit to you that he is an extraordinary sinner, and Jesus was, after all, very well acquainted with sinners of all sorts: certainly he knew a few prostitutes, and thus, plausibly, a pimp or two.

But about Clue Dogg’s ultimate fate, and the fate of his unreleased solo album, we know next to nothing. We do know that by aiding in the success of Suga Free’s rap career, Clue Dogg’s voice must have reached a significant audience, too. His talent clearly outshone the short space of his featured spots, so whatever state of completion it may have been in, the promise of Pandora’s Box: Liquid Prayers proves that Clue Dogg still harbored ambitions as an artist. Most crucially, we know that he was in conflict as to the life he led: the only song where Clue Dogg is credited as sole artist, “I.D. Crisis”, could only have been written by someone with a deep, attentive conscience. Maybe he had ultimately decided, like his mentor Suga Free, to leave behind pimping forever and make music the central focus of his life.

Until his unreleased music surfaces, we are left only with a few cryptic hints from the one interview he ever gave: the Clue Dogg album called Pandora’s Box is named for a Greek myth in which every evil thing in existence, every anxiety and every plague of the body and soul, escapes from its containment to spread across the Earth:

It sounds complex, but it’s not. It’s what we go through every day, you feel me?
Especially, you know, when we realize how life is unremorseful in ways, you feel me?
We have to be unremorseful in ways, you know…and still be cool at the same damn time though.
But you know, it’s all good, you know what I’m sayin’?

( 19XX – 2014 )

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