The amazing thing was that Turner felt like he belonged alongside such luminaries. Hell, he had himself a multirecord contract on DreamWorks, with the power of Steven Spielberg behind him. The label had just spent half a million dollars on his debut album, Death, Taxes, & Prozack, teaming him with such hot-shit producers as Organized Noize, Madlib, and Jay Dilla. The final product was a party record rich with personality, a catchy collection that could appeal to both mainstream rap fans and college radio crowds. The one and only Spike Jonze was interested in directing a video, a sure-fire sign of MTV success to come. It wouldn't be long before DJ Premier was playing Prozack's tunes at parties.
Or so the Oakland MC thought.
Flash forward to October 2003. As his release date arrives, Turner learns that DreamWorks not only isn't going to put out his album, it's not going to put out any more ever. He can forget about touring with Guru, scoring chicks with R. Kelly, or having radio play alongside N*E*R*D. And Spike Jonze? He's a little too busy to return phone calls. Now the MC's back in Oakland, doing measly DJ gigs around town, trying to get someone, anyone, to put out his tunes. So much for champagne wishes and caviar dreams.
"It was like getting to have sex with Halle Berry and then you don't get to orgasm," Prozack muses.
"He's a very gifted individual," says Beni B, owner of Oakland's ABB Records, about Prozack Turner. "He has that rare quality that so many artists talk about and seldom have -- that's personality."
Yes, Turner has personality. He also has, as local MC Rasco points out, both a strong work ethic and a sparkling wit. But, perhaps most important to the major labels that courted him, he has white skin. In the post-Eminem era, every label wanted its very own version. You can almost imagine the boardroom discussions: "He's like Em, only without all the homophobia and misogyny. But he still swears plenty, so the kids will eat it up."
After being courted by Virgin and DreamWorks, Turner happily signed a four-record deal with the latter in July 2002, and began recording tracks soon after. "I thought, 'This is cool, I'll put all my friends on the album. People are going to know that the Bay Area has really great stuff.'"
To that end, Turner recruited DJ Design and MC Marc Stretch from his now-defunct group Foreign Legion, and enlisted local producers DJ Ray and Supa Dave West. He also flew to New York to work with legendary beat-maker Pete Rock and headed to Atlanta to collaborate with Organized Noize, best known for its production for OutKast and TLC.
The results were fantastic, at least to Turner's ears. Foreign Legion was known for pulling outrageous stunts -- the diminutive Turner once came onstage rapping from a pack on his large partner's back -- and crafting what Turner calls "happy drunk" raps. But the MC's solo tunes were more personal, more focused, more distinctively him. Sure, he offered an endless supply of goofball braggadocio -- "If sex were cigarettes I'd need a tracheotomy," he suggested at one point -- but he also displayed an affinity for social critique (the eloquent anti-war invective of "My People Folks," numerous anti-gangsta tirades). He compared himself to "Richie Cunningham, with the strut of George Jefferson," but he also used Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and Mexican painter Frida Kahlo in rhymes. In an era when mainstream hip hop obsessed over gold-plated booty and the underground pursued obscurant harshitude, Turner seemed to find a middle ground, an area that was accessible and thought-provoking.
DreamWorks, unfortunately, wasn't so impressed. Over the next several months, the label hemmed and hawed over releasing the record.
Turner feels that part of the problem was a lack of "co-signers," big-name guest MCs who could deliver street cred. "Being white, you especially need that," he says. "People want to know if it's cool to like you."
Another obstacle was that the label didn't have any other hip hop artists, so it didn't know how to promote Turner. Initially, the company sent out a four-song sampler to alternative rock radio, hoping to make some kind of crossover hit. "I don't think they knew what to do," Turner says. "I'm white or whatever, so they didn't know where to market me." Then there was the fact that he really wasn't going to be the next Eminem. "I didn't do an angry album; I'm not an angry person," he says with a shrug.
Frustrated, he suggested DreamWorks send vinyl singles to college radio, which ended up scoring him two No. 1 Adds on the College Music Journal charts. (CMJ tallies records added to station playlists, as well as which discs get played the most.) But even then the label wasn't certain about releasing the record.
"To this day, I still don't know what they didn't like about it," Turner says. "It's not like I came out with a so-underground, Sun Ra-hip hop album, or something."
Eventually, it became clear that DreamWorks was never going to release it, since the label would soon cease to exist. Although Turner renegotiated his contract so he could sign with another company, he wasn't able to buy back the master tapes of Death, Taxes, & Prozack, since DreamWorks wanted its initial cost of $450,000, plus $70,000 in unpaid sample clearance fees. It seemed his grand statement would go unheard.
"For a while I was just really depressed," Turner recalls. "I kept thinking, 'What am I doing with my life?'"
Eventually, however, Turner was inspired by the life story of soul singer Alicia Keys and a rather, um, different type of artist. "I read that Colonel Sanders got turned down 1,000 times for his recipe. He went to every restaurant, asking people for money for his restaurant."
Having decided to keep struggling for the brass chicken leg, Turner self-released his CD on the sly, bootlegging 1,000 copies for sale in local stores and on the Internet. "There's so many problems with the music industry right now, I don't think they're even going to know or care," he says. "It's not like I'm making a fortune off it."
Listening to Death, it's hard to see what DreamWorks found lacking. While there's no leap-into-your-brain hit like "Hey Ya" or "Milkshake," there are plenty of slinky, soulful melodies and clever, intricate couplets. Story songs like "Forgetting Is Long" and "Wonderful Life" have the smooth-but-intricate vibe of current chart titan Kanye West's tunes, while the organ funk of "Feelin' My Steelo" demands to be blasted on KMEL-FM. As for Turner's rapping, he's as fluid and addictive as malt liquor. "He's got his own style -- he's not jocking or copying anybody," says Tajai, of local hip hoppers Souls of Mischief. "He's an original."
At the moment, however, originality isn't enough. "I've contacted every independent label in the Bay Area, and the fools don't even bother to call me back," Turner says. "A lot of this has to do with being white -- at the same time, I probably got signed [to a major] because I'm white. ... Even me, I'm like, 'Fuck, do we need another white rapper?' But what do you do if you're in a position like me? It'd be like if I fell in love with a black girl. What can I do? I'm in love with this girl. Am I supposed to not be in love with her?"
He pauses for a moment, seemingly lost in reverie. "I just wish people would listen to my damn record."