David Ma kicks his best bars to the sound of tape hiss.
The Good Life Café was a storied health food market in the ‘90s that doubled as an art center. It nurtured LA’s indie rap community and bolstered it far beyond neighborhood shows. Their tiny, modest stage ennobled artists and crews alike, even attracting celebrities to their Thursday night open mics. During its heyday, virtuosic cyphers spilled onto the parking lot once the shop closed. You’d find young titans Freestyle Fellowship workshopping far-out ideas. Fat Joe once visited and was famously booed off stage. And, in what must’ve felt like storybook lore, The Watts Prophets and Last Poets once all jammed onstage together. Ava DuVernay’s 2008 documentary This Is The Life contextualized the cultural impact that the Good Life fostered. In the film, Cut Chemist says: “Something like that couldn’t happen in any other city, in any other part of the world, at any other time. It was perfect.”
Amidst all the profusion, two kids named Lance “Nouka Basetype” Caldwell and Yusef “Afloat” Muhammad—collectively The Nonce—emerged as Good Life regulars. The teenagers already had a record deal, yet would bring along entire albums’ worth of beats specifically tailored for rappers they liked, hoping to make magic happen. “Those beat tapes eventually gave us credibility because they kind of became popular and spread all over. All these crews were sharing and freestyling over them and that helped circulate things to a bunch of people,” says Caldwell, who mainly goes by Sach Illpages. “We pretty much only looked toward the underground because that’s where we thought all the good talent was.”
Sach and Yusef met in early high school and were prodigious from the start, both able to rhyme and produce with balanced aplomb. “We were hybrids,” laughs Sach. Imagine the thrill of returning from summer break, as a high school junior, having just signed a record deal. According to Sach, it felt like a “fairy tale” minus the happily ever after, as things quickly gave way to typical industry woes; worrisome delays and clueless label reps. What’s clear is that Sach, then and now, has no patience for obdurate industry types. “You have to let producers produce,” he says. “It didn’t matter what label we worked with, it was eventually always the same outcome.”
The pair’s debut, World Ultimate, featured the revered single “Mix Tapes” and would become a showpiece in the canon of West Coast classics. Myka 9 once likened its status to “Keep Ya Head Up” by Tupac and Volume 10’s “Pistol Grip Pump.” The Nonce returned with an EP in 1998 (The Sight of Things) and parted ways afterwards, remaining close friends until May of 2000 when Yusef sadly passed at age 28. He was found by the 110 freeway and questions apparently still surround his death.
“Mix Tapes” is a song about loving rap music, personal growth, and nostalgia, replete with insight despite the innocence of its makers. They, too, were 19 but their minds were older. “Damn, I should go back to selling mixtapes,” goes the song, recalling simpler times when “Money, really wasn’t part of the rap” and “Paid, was having people start to clap.” There’s an amble nature to “Mix Tapes,” brilliantly uncomplicated and underscored by a 2 second Hubert Law sample. And everything, amazingly, took under an hour to assemble, according to Sach. “Sometimes things come through you and sometimes things come to you. And this came through me. I can definitely work pretty quick but never like that.”
Talk about Yusef, and your start together, and how things developed from there.
Sach Illpages: Me and my partner, Yusef, we started out as a group in early high school. Yusef was older than me. We were writing and recording on a 4-track and developing our rhyme skills. This was ‘88 when we got together and ‘89 is when we got really productive. We were from different schools and had different perceptions of how things developed and we were really searching for a record label. We knew we were hybrids because we both were rhyming and producing. We weren’t the only ones to do that but there weren’t a lot of others. We were young and cocky and felt like everybody else had to catch up to us [laughs]. I mean, LA had different crews then, but it seemed far and few in between.
You guys were pretty young when you got signed for the first time. Describe for us how that all felt.
Sach Illpages: It felt like a fairy tale was happening to us. I mean, we were still in high school and got a record deal. We’re on a label and I’m in 11th grade and my partner is in the 12th grade. We’d go out to the valley every weekend for a whole year, just us and the engineer, so everything was very hands-on. I’m like 17 and learning how to edit reels and slice 2-inch tape and stuff like that. It was unforgettable.
Eventually there were conflicts with the label, right? Shed some light on it for us. How did everything go sour?
Sach Illpages: Yeah we had a falling out with them because we’re producers and you have to let producers produce. You don’t go to the producer and tell them how you want things to sound. There are some that cookie cut and will do exactly what you tell them to, but that wasn’t us. They basically wanted us to copy other production styles and we weren’t having it. It would eventually be the same theme of every record label we dealt with. Until we figured out how to tell them what they wanted to hear, it became a big Jedi mind trick [laughs].
Explain what you mean by that. Tell us how exactly you guys dealt with fake industry types.
Sach Illpages: They’d say “We want this…” and we’d say, “For sure! We’ll hook this and that up!” Then we’d just tell them what it was that they wanted to hear, even though we just made what we wanted to make. It was embarrassing, not for us, but for them. So we had no faith in the people that were running the industry because we could play simple mind games with them. They didn’t even know what they’re asking for because it’s not what we actually did. So we started looking around to see who we could produce for, and that’s how the Good Life came in.
Describe for us what it was like being at Good Life when everything was in full swing. How were you guys received?
Sach Illpages: We would always haunt the parking lot forever just to see who was there. We would go to see who we liked and who to produce for. Our style wouldn’t just be to make a couple beats and pass them out. We’d be like: “We want to make an entire album for you and here are the songs.” Then we luckily found Wild West [Records] and they basically gave us the freedom to get into the studio at different times and be as prolific as we wanted. I don’t know if you’ve ever experience seeing a crew grow, but if you can keep a bubble around them, you can keep them busy doing a lot of stuff. So we were in that stage and mindset— we were in that bubble. Then people started seeing us in a professional mode and wanted to work with us.
Let’s talk about the making of “Mix Tapes.” Tell us what you recall about putting it together.
Sach Illpages: I remember it exactly. What was happening was that I began working with Aceyalone from Freestyle Fellowship. I had basically met everyone at that point, but we’d be at a club, or show, or something, not in a studio setting. Acey lived about 10 minutes away from me so it was easier for us to link. One day, he gave me a call and said he was going to come through, so I wanted some stuff for him to listen to when he arrived. And I wasn’t in love with what I had laying around, so I wanted to put something together real fast, or at least try to. When we hung up the phone, I sat in front of my Akai S950 and made the beat. Again, I really just wanted to have something to press play. But I finished the beat and Acey still wasn’t there, so I just kicked a rhyme to it real quick. Within the time it took to hang up the phone, everything was done in under an hour. It just came to me quickly because I was already thinking of the concept.
What concepts were you already toying with? What was Acey’s reaction?
Sach Illpages: I was just thinking of it as a song about LA and what we went through during our rise. So I tracked it out on a 4-track real fast and that’s it. Acey was like, “Damn! I want to use it for this upcoming project. And I want to call it Project Blowed.” I was one of the first people to get insight on what Acey was developing and I was excited. Even though we were already signed to Wild West, I gave Acey the song right then and there. Yusef wasn’t even on the track yet, that’s why the original 4-track version is just me. It was a crazy situation. But in general, I just had a bad outlook towards labels. Even though we had more freedom with Wild West, it was still the same shit, so I was really just disillusioned. I just wanted Acey to have it instead of it being stalled by a label while they’re taking time making decisions.
How did it make its way back to Wild West? What was the reaction as people started hearing it?
Sach Illpages: It’s weird how it works but it was kind of beautiful. I had made a sample mix of the song for the upcoming Project Blowed and Acey’s label apparently started sending promos out around town with an early version of “Mix Tapes” on it. I didn’t care but then I get a call from Wild West and they were like, “What is this? How come you didn’t bring this to us?” I told them straight up that I didn’t think they’d move on it the way it should be moved on, so I gave it to my friend instead. I asked them: “What do you want me to do with it now?” They asked if it was tracked on a 24- track and I told them, “Nah, it’s on a 4-track.” So they wanted me to rerecord the song and they said they’d give us whatever we wanted. All I really wanted was carte blanche to let us record whatever we wanted, with whomever we wanted. I told them they need to remember the feeling that the song gave them, and let me do my thing if they wanted more. So “Mix Tapes” finally arrived at our label in a weird, roundabout way that actually worked out for us. After that, it was a snowball effect. Everyone kept talking about the song.
After all these years, when you hear the track or perform it, how does it make you feel?
Sach Illpages: I still perform a lot, and I also write and record and produce, so nothing has ever stopped. But there was awhile when I was bored with “Mix Tapes” and would tell promoters I didn’t want to do the song. Now, I understand that it’s a classic. The beat is dope and there’s a lot of artful stuff in there. I love hearing people talk about the song and how they heard it in high school and how it brings them good memories. It’s one thing for me to interact with the song and have certain feelings about it, but to hear that it was a big part of so many other lives, I was like, “Okay, it touched people and maybe made them want to create and be ill, and make dope shit, so I shouldn’t trip off it.” It’s like the song is a part of a soundtrack for a lot people’s lives. I get that now and I’m really grateful for it.