Still, the line has always been drawn at recreational drugs. It's never, ever been cool to admit to doing dirty drugs, the kind that get you addicted. And crack, which, given its ubiquity in the American inner city, has always been portrayed as the ultimate playa's kryptonite, is the Great Taboo. Historically, when rappers have mentioned it, it's been either as a public service announcement not to do it, or deeply in the past tense, as proof of their bleak upbringing, like when Wu-Tang's Raekwon confessed of his adolescence, "No question I would speed/ For cracks and weed/ The combination made my eyes bleed." Now that there are openly gay rappers and openly white rappers, an unrepentant crack-toking MC is truly the final frontier.
Meet San Francisco's own Lewis Troy Dixon, a middle-aged rapper who happily smashes that last glass floor between hip-hopper and rock-gobbler. Not only does he readily acknowledge in his music that smoking 'base is lots of fun, but he also calls himself the Crack Emcee. And he holds his title with pride. He is crackhead, hear him roar.
But wait up -- don't go writing him off as a gimmick just yet. Dixon is a considerable musical talent; his album Rap's Creation was one of the best (and surely the most ignored) Bay Area hip hop records released last year. It's definitely an oddity -- a sort of Ol' Dirty Bastard-meets-Prince Paul celebration of quirky black pop music. He sings as often as rhymes, frequently stumbling onto bizarre but memorable choruses such as the one on his recent, as-of-yet-unreleased single "Neighborhood Freak": "I'm not a pimp/ I'm not a ho/ I'm not a person/ I'm the neighborhood freak."
Crack isn't the raison d'être for Dixon's music -- he's not the Cypress Hill of crystallized coke. For Dixon, the ridiculously addictive drug has become a war medal, a symbol of a formative period in his life. He's currently off the pipe. "But once a crackhead, always a crackhead," he chuckles over lunch in his Haight Street apartment, explaining that he's replaced that vice with fiending for greasy pork appetizers from his local Chinese takeout.
Rappers love to talk up the roughness of their backgrounds, but with Dixon, the road was legitimately rockier than most. Instead of dwelling on it, though, and mining the same adolescent gangster fantasies that his colleagues do, he has created the Crack Emcee persona, who's like the playful, slightly fucked-up uncle who went to Nam. Dixon's gone through his share of drama, put most of his weaknesses behind him, and just decided to entertain folks -- and the result is his own refreshing, genreless strain of party music that hearkens back to acts like Rick James. Add it all up and you've got a compelling musician and endearing personality who nonetheless is all but unheard-of here in his own city.
Raised in foster homes around South Central, Dixon says he retreated into his Walkman as a kid and often found himself caught between color lines when it came to his tastes.
"As a teenager," he recalls, "I would get in fights about music -- I wanted to hear everything. In South Central, I'd be the only black motherfucker walking around with headphones listening to Queen. If any black dude heard I was listening to Queen, I'd have to fight. They'd be like, 'Didn't you see Roots?' And I'd say, 'Yeah, I saw Roots. What the fuck that got to do with Freddie Mercury?' It's always been like that for me with music -- people have always stood in the way of me doing what I wanted to do with it."
In 1983, after four years in the Navy -- much of it spent in the brig, he says -- Dixon moved to San Francisco and fell in with some Polk Street drag queens, who helped him get acquainted with the city. Eventually, he found his niche as a regular at Nightbreak, the Upper Haight club that ruled the local hard-rock scene in the '80s. "Guns N' Roses would play there and there'd be bikers, that kind of place," he says. "But they also had this weird contingent of black guys, who like me didn't exactly fit the mold -- nobody wanted to sag [their pants] for instance. We met up with each other, and our thing was that we knew we were somewhat different. Out of that group came the Beatnigs, which released an album in '88 and toured all over Europe."
Dixon, who played percussion, says he was always pushing the Beatnigs to go more radical, but the group's then-unknown Michael Franti (now of the politically radical Spearhead) had decided on a more mainstream trajectory. The band -- which was quite the aberration as an industrial hip hop collective and thus signed to Alternative Tentacles -- disintegrated in the early '90s. After that, Dixon, having received his first taste of recognition as a musician, embarked on a side project with another Beatnigs member. They didn't get very far.
"We started saying we were gonna get into some new shit, lock ourselves in a room, make music, take over the world," he says. "Yeah, right. We got into some new shit all right -- all kinds of new drugs. We ended up not coming out of that room for years. Got some good material, but we almost lost our lives."
Dixon went through a depressive period following the breakup, during which he holed up in a Mission flophouse and began smoking crack regularly with a rotating cast of fellow addicts. It was there that he got his name.
As he explains it, he and his friends were huddled around the pipe one day, "and everyone's talking and getting excited. My comments were always so coarse, so crude, so off-color and on-point, that I'd have the whole room rolling. People started saying, 'Who's this? The crack MC or something?' And it stuck. It wasn't something I necessarily looked for, especially coming out of the Beatnigs, because they weren't about that at all."
The clouds began to break for Dixon around 1992, when another former member of the Beatnigs -- the heralded drummer Kevin Carnes -- started a proto-acid jazz group called the Broun Fellinis. Dixon tried out as vocalist, got the gig, and brought his alter ego as the life of every crackhouse party to the public. Suddenly, the Crack Emcee had a band.
Local fame came easy to the Fellinis, who were really one of the first acts on the planet to present jazz with a steady beat in a hip hop context. Dixon, however, says his bandmates "began to resent my role -- I only sang two or three songs each night, but people would be screaming for the Crack Emcee the whole time. But we remained friends and I just sort of got out of the way."
Dixon also missed an opportunity with the political dance outfit Consolidated, which offered him a place in the band. But he was too concerned with getting high to record a few guest spots.
It wasn't until he met the woman who would become his wife that he put the pipe down for good. "One morning I somehow decided I gave a fuck about something," he says, "and it was her. The troubled black jazz artist meets the French girl -- she has that certain something that calms the savage beast and finally allows him to work." He pauses to laugh. "It's almost a cliché at this point."
As the intoxicating haze lifted from his life, his solo career began to take direction. Upon the urging of local label Irresistible Revolutionary Records, he released the 12-inch "Suck" as the Crack Emcee in '93. Since then, he's put out a series of impossible-to-find cassettes and CDs, bearing juicy titles like The Big Lewinsky and Newt Hates Me; even Dixon doesn't have any copies lying around. He enjoyed another brush with fame when, in the late '90s, the black rock band he assembled for live gigs, Little White Radio, started getting hyped by Live 105 and playing shows in Los Angeles. Onstage the group sounded a bit like early Bad Brains -- fast, rowdy, and a tinge sloppy. But with songs like "Niggers Hanging From Trees," crossover success was a long shot.
Today, Dixon constructs the instrumentals for his weird little rap songs himself, using samplers and computers. As a producer, he'll stretch right past copyright law to grab just about any sample he wants, regardless of how well-known it is. The net effect is an exceedingly unusual listening experience -- it's not everyday you hear a loop of Simon & Garfunkel singing "Sounds of Silence" followed by the plundered bass line from "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" followed by an MC screaming, "Crack! Pipe! What's the matter with them hubs?" On last year's Rap's Creation, samples of someone extolling a particularly bountiful harvest of crack ("Rocks and lumps as big as marbles!") mingle with political satire (the track "Hoin' for George") and half-serious tough-guy posturing ("Don't you know/ I'm the motherfucker out here that's gonna hurt you").
For the most part, the wild times are behind Dixon. "Although I still get people ringing my bell at 3 a.m. looking to get into some shit," he says. He's planning on recording his next album soon with former Consolidated member and current buzzed-about producer Mark Pistel, which he is hoping to release early next year. The Crack Emcee is still unsigned, so it takes a bit of patience and a good deal of digging to find his material. Before Rap's Creation was released by Planet Rock, Dixon was in negotiation with local underground hip hop luminary Billy Jam to release it on Jam's Hip Hop Slam label.
"I really love his whole unorthodox approach to what he does (i.e. his punk rock approach to making his beats and not giving a fuck about anyone, just his art)," writes Jam via e-mail, "and I think that he is one hell of a clever social/political observer." Ultimately, though, Jam and Dixon couldn't agree upon what the next step for the Crack Emcee should be, and the connection fizzled.
So why is an artist who's been active locally for 15 years, and is possessed of so much charisma on the mike and originality in the studio and with such an unforgettable name, still so unknown in his own city? Being a rock fiend can only be part of it. Addicted musicians have been succeeding in the business for decades.
Dixon has an explanation: "The main problem with me and why more people haven't heard of me -- because I've been on like 27 recordings -- is that I've gone in so many different directions. I've had a jazz career, an industrial career, a rock career, a rap career. It's the crackhead in me: I change course so much, people have trouble keeping hold of me."