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Money, Power, Day Care 

Andre Nickatina raps about being one of the Fillmore's hardest MCs, so what's he doing driving a Toyota?

Wednesday, Dec 3 2003
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"Total fucking silence." This is Steve Buscemi's quote from Fargo that keeps echoing through my head while sitting in Andre Nickatina's "other ride" – a mid-'90s Toyota – after he picks me up outside the MacArthur BART station in Oakland. Nervously, I try to engage the 6-foot-4 rapper in small talk en route to our interview at his studio, thinking he might want to weigh in on some recent hip hop releases, but Nickatina is having none of it.

"We gotta take care of some Daddy Day Care-type shit right now. Sit tight and buckle your seat belt," is all he says for the better part of an hour as we drive to pick up his kid from school in rush hour traffic, and then drop him off. This is not what I had in mind after listening to several CDs from Nickatina's vast back catalog of rap music filled with tales of drinking, drugging, and thugging around S.F.'s Fillmore District, but I stay quiet until we get to his studio in the Oakland hills. Thankfully, once the eccentric MC gets comfortable, he is ready to talk – a lot.

"I don't look at it like I've got to sell X amount of CDs to be successful, you know what I'm saying?" the rapper says. "I just make the CD. My fan base is mostly word-of-mouth, but I'm from here and I've been doing it for the past 10 to 12, so people know who the fuck I am."

Indeed, many do. For over 10 years, Nickatina, formerly known as Dre Dog, has been the voice of the San Francisco "playa." Among this city's hard-core hip hop fiends, he is respected as much for his firsthand knowledge of the street game as he is for his liquid delivery on the mike. Most of his devotees know him the way they know an old friend, and some in the local hip hop scene consider him an underground icon, mostly because the guy has been doing variations on gangsta rap for years, trends be damned. "He definitely has a very strong local following," says Jonathan McDonald, hip hop buyer for Amoeba Music in Berkeley. "Gangsta cats and underground cats really like him. It's hard to keep Nickatina stuff in stock, especially the older Dre Dog titles. They just fly out of the store."

Now his latest CD/DVD release, Conversations With a Devil, is elevating Nickatina's rep not just in the Bay Area, but throughout the west (he's got tour stops planned in cities ranging from Phoenix, Ariz., to Eugene, Ore.). Although the album has its truly transcendent moments, for every verse flipped eloquently about a drug deal gone bad, there is another about Nickatina's favorite type of girl that flops. On the whole, it is simultaneously a great and absurd piece of work, and it comes complete with an incomprehensible film that shows Nickatina's dark and dry sense of humor – which doesn't always add up. But despite, or maybe even because of, the MC's proclivity toward the bizarre, fans can't get enough of this guy. Whether or not you like or believe his raps about hustling, it's hard to argue that Nickatina has a certain irresistible charisma.

For a Galileo High School dropout and self-confessed D student, Nickatina has done fairly well for himself thanks largely to hip hop. He puts out his own CDs on his Fillmoe Coleman imprint, selling directly to local record stores like Tower, and also on his Web site. So while he's seen friends and fellow MCs get signed to major labels, and has a thriving underground following, Nickatina doesn't desire a record deal. "When a label comes for you, they are coming for them, not you," he says, because he knows a thing or two about the majors and the fuzzy math their contracts portend.

He has had bites before, mostly back in the early '90s when the Bay Area was hot thanks to Digital Underground, Rappin' 4-Tay, and, God help us, MC Hammer. "The bay was thriving when it was independent," Nickatina reminisces, "just like the South was before the South had all the exposure on BET and MTV that it has today." As Nickatina tells it, the big labels decimated the independent rap community here. "The majors came in and started giving people a lot of money. But where are these cats now?"

Nickatina would rather emulate the success of Oakland's Too $hort, who puts out albums that sell modestly, but steadily, to a hard-core audience of fans who crave his freaky urban tales. "Too $hort has something that platinum-selling artists like MC Hammer will never have," he says, "and that's respect in the hip hop community."

This approach has earned Nickatina his own share of respect. In contrast to the socially conscious hip hop usually associated with popular Bay Area artists like Blackalicious or Hieroglyphics, Nickatina's music sticks close to the Too $hort, E-40, Nas, or even Geto Boys formula. On each of the MC's eight full-lengths, his rhymes reveal dark tales of drug dealing and surviving on the streets of San Francisco laid over highly infectious beats. For example, "Soul of a Coke Dealer," from Conversations With a Devil, is a somber, minor-key track with haunting keyboard riffs and a stark but fierce drumbeat on which Nickatina spits, "You say you want it all/ You say forget the law/ And everything you saw/ You copped it from the raw."

Nickatina is no poet laureate, and his records have typically suffered from a frustrating inconsistency, but his observations are always sharp and real. Suffice it to say, he knows how many grams are in an ounce (check "A Yo") and, like rappers from Biggie to Tupac, he has picked up more than just slang from living life in the fast lane. (One gets the feeling from the BMW parked outside his studio that Nickatina isn't exactly hurting for cash thanks to ancillary revenue streams.)

But for all of Nickatina's hard-core posturing, he is the first to admit that some posing is just part of the rap game. "The first thing that I say to anyone who asks about my music is, 'Don't take my lyrics so seriously,'" he says. To get a taste of the lighter side of the street-wise MC, see the bizarre "film" packaged with Conversations With a Devil, which is confounding to say the least.

The movie – which shows, among other things, Nickatina rolling through the Fillmore and other neighborhoods in a tricked-out white Camaro – is a laughable third-rate Scarface-esque gangster flick shot on video with no discernible plot. It's a fascinatingly bad piece of work and, strangely, Nickatina agrees that it makes no sense.

"I don't know what to think about it to tell you the truth. I just did it to give people more of a vision. ... I'm not a fucking film director," he intones a bit defensively. "I don't know how to direct films," he repeats, now yelling and enunciating every word for effect.

As far as I can tell, the plot involves someone getting shot 29 times, shady bookies, pimps at the Hustler Club, and a cocaine war between rival drug dealers in San Francisco. "Mind you, it's not like I'm saying, 'This is my life,'" Nickatina cautions with a mischievous grin, adding that "[y]ou gotta really like the music and have an interest in the Dre Dog/Nickatina thing, otherwise you'll be looking at it like, 'This is wack as fuck.'" Which it kind of is, and yet, one can't help but watch the entire DVD thanks to Nickatina's mysterious and mythic charm.

What is perhaps most compelling about this MC is that he understands how true gangsta rap is an art form of sorts, consisting of equal parts reality and fantasy. Aspiring rap icons who simply watch Scarface or Belly every night and then try to make up rhymes that sound real often fail. Conversely, if an MC was busy doing half the shit Nickatina talks about, he would be in jail, leaving precious little time to record the eight-plus LPs that Nickatina has managed over the last decade. While it's clear that he is not running the drug world of San Francisco while driving around in a Japanese import with his kid in the back seat, there is just enough mystery and talent surrounding Nickatina to keep hip hop heads respecting his game, even if it is obvious, at times, that that's exactly what it is.

About The Author

Charlie Amter

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