Interview: Squadda B

Squadda B’s new album Return of Dog is out now on Bandcamp and streaming services.

There are few artists I’ve followed as closely over the past decade as Main Attrakionz. The North Oakland-based rap duo of Squadda B and Mondre M.A.N. pioneered the Cloud Rap sound, along with fellow NorCal artist Lil B and New Jersey producer Clams Casino.

From 2009-2015, Main Attrakionz released a seismic amount of mixtapes, albums, EPs and singles under the Main Attrakionz name, as two solo artists, and in varying collaborations with their crew/self-made record label Green Ova. The most popular release in their vast and underrated catalog is the album 808s & Dark Grapes II (2011), an outright masterpiece bolstered at both ends by the classic tracks “Chuch” and “Perfect Skies“. Both of these songs were produced by the duo FRIENDZONE.

In 2015, MA’z made a major label move with the follow-up album 808s & Dark Grapes III, entirely produced by FRIENDZONE. An accompanying tour brought the two rappers to Philly, where I met them opening for Cappadonna. While the crowd was small, I celebrated the opportunity to see two of my favorite rappers, and they were receptive enough to invite my friends and me backstage to chill after their set.

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you know it had to be a lofi pic.. Main Attrakionz!

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After the tour, Main Attrakionz went on an indefinite hiatus. Sadly, James Laurence, 1/2 of FRIENDZONE, passed away in early 2017. L.W.H., another frequent producer and friend of the group, passed a year later. In this interview with Squadda B, conducted over Zoom in September, we caught up about these losses, his younger years, his production style and what he’s been working on in the past few years, including his new album Return of Dog, which is now streaming.

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Ethan: I wanna start with your roots. I’ve never been to the Bay, but you talk a lot in your songs about North Oakland, “The North Pole”, “Ice City”… can you tell me what that was like growing up?

Squadda B: It was fun. The Bay Area is big on music, big on culture and shit like that so, as far as my school years I grew up hearing Mac Dre in 6th grade, going into 7th grade, hearing Goapele’s “Closer“. There are certain songs that are hometown hits that you hear out here that you probably wouldn’t hear in New York or somewhere else. It was definitely eye-opening as a kid being out here, a lot of different record stores in the area. We would see rappers all the time, advertisements everywhere. It was fun and real musical.

E: I love hearing rappers be specific about where they’re from, like I remember first hearing Big L say “139th & Lenox is the Danger Zone”. And you would say “63rd & Idaho” and talk about the 72 bus stop.

SB: Yeah, cause growin up, once I got into middle school I started listening to rock and shit. And I would hear Transplants talk about Adeline Street and I’m like, “I walk these streets everyday!” It was cool hearing famous people, even hearing Mistah F.A.B. yell out “6-deuce, Bushrod” on a big Oakland song, just kinda crazy to hear people who are in the public talk about where you’re from. That makes you feel special. So I might as well make other people in the area feel special.

E: Yeah, I feel like I can see the story when I get the specific street. Did Mistah F.A.B. come up with “The North Pole” by the way?

SB: I’m not sure, that was a little before my time, but I remember him coming to my middle school when I was a kid.

E: Wow.

SB: He is the biggest North Oakland rapper. Money-B from Digital Underground is from here too, but I would say F.A.B. is the biggest.

E: What were some of your biggest influences outside of the Bay? Did you hear a certain rapper and think “that’s what I want my sound to be,” or was it more like “I’m gonna do this with my friends and we’re gonna do our own thing”?

SB: Well, I’ve been writin’ raps since elementary school, so it’s hard to say because I would write raps as Redman, Eminem, Jay-Z – just in my head like “imma rap as this person or this person”, so I was influenced as a kid by them. I was on Napster, I would download shit from Three 6 Mafia, B.G., Insane Clown Possee, anything that was on TV, but I was a little kid.

I remember when I bought Diplomatic Immunity in ’03 and I was like “wooow – this is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard! These beats are crazy!” There are certain albums like that, like Kanye’s first album, even Ghostface’s The Pretty Toney Album, and other Wu-Tang [that had that effect].

Being a little older, I remember watching TV and seeing The Jacka’s “More Crime“, that had more of an East Coast sample but was from the Bay, that was influential. Seeing Lil B make it from Berkeley, from my area cause I grew up in Berkeley too, that showed me that the music that I love – I could make too. I didn’t have to make Hyphy music. Seeing them do it, I felt like I could do it.

E: That was back when Lil B was in The Pack with Young L?

SB: I was in middle school! I was in 7th grade when “Vans” came out, and I remember seeing it on TV. There were girls from my middle school in their videos! It was a big deal.

E: Now, with Cloud Rap, I still see people talk about Cloud Rap today, but to me Cloud Rap was Main Attrakionz and Clams Casino and Lil B. Now I see it applied online to people like Playboi Carti, no disrespect to him, I just don’t know that Cloud Rap really exists anymore. Do you feel like it’s still around, or it’s not, or do you not really trip on how people use that label?

SB: It’s tricky today. I was 20, 21 coming in the game when I heard [“Cloud Rap”] and I embraced it. Now I’m like 30, like “uhh – what’s Cloud Rap?” It’s a tricky thing for me. I think what happened was, with the come-up of A$AP, and the come up of Lil B and Clams and shit like that, people just generalized a lot of shit, and by having a title for it people have a vision of what that’s supposed to sound like. For me, personally, around 2012 people started sending me so many beats that sounded like Clams that I was like “Nah, fuck this – I’m gonna go pay Zaytoven. I’m gonna fuck with The Mekanix.” It just got too clichéd. It got really watered down, so I started rebelling and working with different types of producers.

FRIENDZONE was always our guys so it was easy to bounce back and work with them. But as far as 2020, when you say “Cloud Rap” that brings people back to a certain time period. I think everyone that was from that time kinda moved on in one way or the next. It still exists, I mean shit, I’m still making music so you can call my shit Cloud Rap. I’m not gonna stop, whether people call it Cloud or not.

E: I think “In This Room” is my favorite off the new album, and I just love hearing your production. Your style to me is so important over this last decade. I remember before I even heard Main Attrakionz or Squadda B, I heard “I Will” by Danny Brown [prod. Squadda B].

SB: Oh shit.

E: I felt like, “This beat is so cool!” With all the samples, the sped-up vocals, I was like “Who did this?”

I remember in college, first hearing Back to Playtime, when you flipped that “Angel of Mine” sample by Monica, that was so unexpected. I used to smoke in a parking garage, I was living on campus and didn’t have a place to smoke so I would go in this parking garage, and I remember playing that song [“MicrophoneTeen“] and just being like “Wow.”

It’s crazy, it’s been 5 years since that last Main Attrakionz tour. I was on Instagram and saw a picture of us in Philly at the show, and I can’t believe it’s been 5 years. What was the rest of that tour like?

SB: It was some funny stuff. Some of those show dates were in places where we didn’t need to be at – like it was fun, it’s all in the game. We were signed to a major label at the time, Neil Young’s label [Vapor], so we were doing it the Neil Young way. It was pretty fun, but at the same time, it wasn’t fun. When you’re performing in front of 4 or 5 people in an unknown city, that shit can get to your head. Especially being 24 at the time, I was kinda like “Eh, I’d rather just be smokin’ weed right now.”

But it was definitely a growing time for myself. It was a time where I was getting more into reading, more into health, fitness, shit like that, so it was a growing-up period. Which was weird on the road, and with a team, not only Mondre but our managers, our tour managers and shit like that. It was a lot, and we definitely had to call that break afterwards. It was just like, it got to a point where it was a lot, it was bringing us to different places as people.

E: Yeah, I can understand that frustration. I mean I can’t understand that frustration because I haven’t lived that tour life! But I feel like things changed after that with the loss of James from FRIENDZONE, and even after that with Logan [L.W.H]. I know that must be so personal, because I felt like that hurt for me and I never even met these guys. Would you be willing to speak on how that affected you?

SB: It affected me a lot. To this day, I feel like those are my biggest fans. So, to lose two people where it’s like, whenever I dropped anything they were the ones to hit me up first. They had the most passion throughout the years. Before FRIENDZONE produced for us, James was always a fan, they both were. To lose James, and then Logan? That’s like your biggest support team passing away, a year after the other. And they’re both our producers.

I was knee-deep in the Green Ova Records thing at the time, 3 different producers, 3 different rappers, so I was kinda busy. I was told by another member of the group, and we were definitely sad about it, but it was a busy time so it was kinda weird, I didn’t really get to reflect on it. I still haven’t, really. It sucks. I may not have talked to them every day, but monthly, for sure. Them giving me feedback, them showing me other rappers, their presence meant a lot. I can’t put my situation as far as Rocky and Yams but [it was like that].

But losing Yams, that hurt too. Yams is a reason why my face [got out there]. A big reason, for sure.

E: He connected you and Rocky, right?

SB: Yeah, Rocky reached out, but it was probably Yams.

E: Everything I’ve read about Yams was about his power as a connector, whether it was you guys, or Kitty Pryde, or all these young people who really started to pop around that 2011-2012 time, it was amazing how he found all that.

SB: Yeah, good dude! Losing them two, I can only imagine how Rocky felt losing Yams. That’s a little bit of what I felt losing James right after our major label album [808s III], and then Logan after. It definitely felt like, it’s easier for me to stop making music, although I never will. But to not have those two voices texting me, it does something.

E: Was that when you were doing Kome Ryde With Us [with Pepperboy]?

SB: Yeah, it was around then.

E: What else have you been doing? Did you ever wake up and feel like, “I’m too frustrated with this rap shit, I need to find another hustle or another job”?

SB: Fasho. I mean, I came in that way, I’m a fuckin’ high school dropout! Just started making beats, started rapping. Luckily, I met Lil B, and my dude Deezy D, he’s the reason why I got up with Clams in the first place, cause Deezy was rapping with him. But if it wasn’t for that, man, shit is tough. After 808s III, when I started moving on on my own, it’s been tough for sure. Every day has been waking up like “Man, I’m ready to hurt somethin’.” So I just took that energy into the studio. Whether it was a good day or bad day, a rich day or broke day, no matter what day it is, that passion is always gon’ be in me. Always was in me, since I wrote my first raps in elementary. I always had that… dying desire to express myself, to put out music, to have people like it, to inspire people. I’m also shy, I’m also yada yada yada… it’s a lotta shit going on but I’m definitely gonna keep it going.

I’ve got some plans to drop more. Definitely in 2017 I took – well, I never really took a break – but in 2017 and 2018 I didn’t drop a solo project. I was working with a group on that time, and we were really putting our time into each other. We just ended that and [I’m] feelin’ good, feeling better than where I left off, for sure.

E: Man, you’ve definitely inspired me, and I’m glad that you’re still doing it. You texted me saying you’re working on another album?

SB: I’ve been working since ’17 and not putting shit out. I got a few things that I haven’t put out that I’m still working on, I’ve got an album with Dope G and Pepperboy, I’ve got a Green Ova Records album that hasn’t come out. But as far as solo stuff, I can do an album in a month. I feel like at this point, I’ve got a flow and I know where I’m at.

For a second I stopped sampling, if you listen to Squadda Mania there’s not one sample on there. That taught me something, but I wasn’t really getting anywhere with that. I feel like to make beats without sampling, the way I wanna do it, I would have to buy so much hardware. 2017 was tough because it involved getting the gear, getting the skills, putting the time in, that shit was tough! I’m in a way better position now.

E: Are you still doing it on the MPC?

SB: That’s a new thing.

E: Oh, okay, cause on “Ounce and a MPC” I wasn’t sure if you were talking about back in the day, or today.

SB: It’s today! That’s something new. I think I got my first MPC in 2016 or 2017 and I didn’t know how to use it. Really until quarantine, then I started fucking with the MPC. I started [way back] with a computer. I think it was 2016 I started working with actual keyboards, then in 2018 I was like “Fuck it, I’m going back to the old shit, this shit is hard!” But now I’m back, bout to go crazy. I got an instrumental album out December 2.

E: Awesome. I really liked the Dream Beach project, too [More Days That Pass].

SB: Dream Beach! That shit is hard. We did that at Fantasy Studios [in Berkeley], it’s closed now but I started going in 2017. As a kid, in Kindergarten the bus would drive past the studio that just says Fantasy on the outside, and I thought it was a toy shop. But I finally looked it up in 2014 or 2015 and found out Lil Wayne went there, Rancid, Green Day, and I started going there. Dream Beach came out here for a little bit and we just knocked that shit out.

Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, CA (now closed).

E: I noticed that there’s not that much of your stuff streaming from the early days.

SB: Yeah, there’s a lot going on with that. It’s different rules, man. When [Main Attrakionz] was coming up, it was no rules. I mean, there was but it was “fuck the rules”. Now the people that used to say “fuck the rules”, they’re not saying that no more!

Maybe one day we can get all the old classics up, but I’m not in a position to do that, unfortunately.

E: Yeah, that’s understandable. I love having all that stuff on my computer. I remember back in high school [2009-2013], you could find anything if you just google an album and “.zip” or Megaupload.

SB: It’s over! But yeah, I’m definitely gonna do the best I can with my output, to have y’all get my music… I wanna start dropping a lot, getting visuals going. I got a few.

But in this game today, people are used to seeing you every day… I never really felt like an Instagram Live type dude, I know there’s Twitch… it’s just weird, I don’t really know how to fit in. So, instead of not doing nothing, which I was doing for a second, imma just go back to the old way and just drop music and videos as much as I can.

It can be intimidating for older artists, I mean I’m not an older artist, but it’s something new every day. Now you got old rappers thinking they gotta appeal to the Tik Tok-ers and shit. Crazy. All of it is confusion. Once you just say fuck it and step out, the music will turn around, so that’s my plan.

E: I like that mentality. It can be hard to keep up, and with all the craziness of COVID and social injustice, social media can be bad, or too overwhelming. To be an artist in that same realm, as all of that is happening, that’s hard for me to imagine.

SB: My heart goes out to all the other artists. I’m blessed to be able to keep on working and do what the fuck I do. My heart goes out to everyone in the struggle during these times. People who have fans and have people who depend on their music to keep out going, it’s tough because, shit I don’t feel like doing this shit half the time, but I love it! But it’s a lot that people go through everyday. If you don’t wanna put out music no more, I understand it.

Me, imma do my best to keep going. I appreciate what the fans and everyone who’s ever liked anything I’ve done has helped me do with my life. I’ve been able to travel the world, all types of shit. So imma keep this shit going.

Stream Return of Dog on Spotify.

Album of the Week: Denmark Vessey’s Martin Lucid Dream (2015)

As we enter the 2020s, one of the most interesting and productive rap scenes to keep an eye on is the Earl Sweatshirt school of artists like MIKE, Medhane, Maxo, Liv.e, Pink Siifu, Akai Solo, Adé Hakim, and others who form a loose collective of bright new ideas in music, and have released a plethora of outstanding projects and collaborations (each word links to a Spotify stream of a great release).

Now, when I say “Earl Sweatshirt school”, I must clarify that Earl isn’t really a ringleader for these young artists. But, in addition to frequently collaborating and touring with them, his footprint on their music is indelible. The weed-drenched, emotionally direct and proudly black music that Earl has been making since his teenage years is reflected in this newer scene.

So where does Denmark Vessey fit in? The Detroit rapper and producer is older than all of these artists and isn’t strongly aligned with any of them, except maybe Earl, with whom he has collaborated several times. But I think his music forms something of a missing link in considering what has influenced this new scene.

Enter Martin Lucid Dream. This album is like a blast of fresh air – equal parts hard-hitting and tounge-in-cheek. Guilty Simpson comes repping Detroit out the gate with a brash “Warning”, then on the title track we hear Denmark rap for the first time. Over a kaleidoscopic beat, Denmark strings along stream-of-consciousness bars before Little Brother affiliate Von Pea steps in with “I wrote an article for Lifehacker / It simply said ‘Don’t Be a Rapper'”.

Vessey clearly isn’t afraid to switch things up. “Nerd N***as” closes with a long speech from the 1972 blaxploitation film The Final Comedown, and “Chemtrails” features no rapping at all, only singing. The variety in sound and concise runtime seems like a potential blueprint for a project such as Medhane’s FULL CIRCLE.

The greatest song on Martin Lucid Dream comes last with “Everyday”. Over a fantastic flip of Leon Ware’s “Rockin’ You Eternally”, Denmark and fellow Detroit rappers shine effortlessly. And before you know it, Martin Lucid Dream is over. Reissued in 2017 with the bonus tracks “Katt Williams” and “Snowing in L.A.” (prod. by Earl), the album (or EP) still barely scratches a half-hour. Brimming with fresh ideas nearly 5 years later, this is one of the tightest and most underrated underground rap projects of the 2010s.

Stream Martin Lucid Dream on Spotify.

Album of the Week: E-40’s Poverty and Prosperity (2015)

In 2015, E-40 had spent the past 5 years releasing double- and triple-albums (The Block Brochure had a whopping six installments). But then, the 47 year old rapper decided to switch things up by releasing an anomaly in his discography: a 7-track EP with themes of family, introspection, and god-fearing christianity.

So here’s an easy litmus test for this one: If a 7-minute version of “Across 110th Street” as interpreted by E-40 sounds good to you then you’re in luck, because that’s exactly how Poverty and Prosperity starts. No, he doesn’t sing the chorus (that’s Park Ave.), but his repurposing of Bobby Womack’s classic anthem into a tribute and commentary on his hometown of Vallejo, California is a surprising and welcome start to this release.

More surprises abound: The soulful Mike Marshall (who sang the iconic chorus of “I Got 5 On It”) helps turn “The Way I Was Raised” into a gospel dirge; “Appreciation” is practically pop country! Although its Uncle Kracker sheen may be overly saccharine to some, the sincerity of “Appreciation” pours through 40’s preaching. “I’ve been speakin’ these real deep messages for many moons, man,” he begins, before addressing the importance of loving family, difficult relationship issues, and how to help a friend addicted to drugs. Almost surreal in its honesty, it stands as one the more unique rap songs I’ve heard from a seasoned veteran and is a successful experiment in genre-blending.

Poverty and Prosperity is not without a classic Yay Area slapper. “Gamed Up” truly endows the listener with indispensable “game” (meaning knowledge or wisdom): “You can hate / Or you can learn”. But my favorite track is the closer, “The End”. Beginning ominously with a sample of Revelation 1:7, 40 then enters this dramatic track by reminiscing on a lost friend. In the second verse he rebukes Satan while owning up to his own habits (“Show me where in the Good Book say I can’t smoke a Taylor!”).

E-40 has always been in his own lane, but his messages of love and devotion are universal. As the man himself would say, “I ain’t above you, I ain’t below you, but I’m right beside you.”

Stream the EP on Spotify.

Archive: June 27: 20 Years of DJ Screw’s “Da Streets Ain’t Right” Freestyle Session

Originally published on Monday, June 27, 2016 on ethancreis.blogspot.com

Houston’s late DJ Screw will forever be a legend. He pioneered the “Chopped & Screwed” style of hip-hop, in which the tempo of a song is slowed down significantly (screwed) with short sections repeated and/or cut (chopped). Houston Press has described “June 27”, a 37-minute freestyle session from that date in 1996, as “Houston rap’s Sistine Chapel ceiling”. This is an apt description of the monstrous track, on which eight rappers freestyle over a dazzling beat (Kriss Kross’s “Da Streets Ain’t Right”, properly screwed) to celebrate rapper DeMo’s (alternately known as D-Mo) birthday. A screwed sample of Biggie’s “Warning” plays over the track before Big Moe enters to host the freestyle session/birthday party. In between every rapper, Moe performs a quick verse in his signature half-rapped, half-sung style. Moe’s baritone croon is huge, almost elegiac, but the positive energy he exudes introducing his friends negates that description.

Big Pokey steals the show with a dazzling freestyle verse, providing what would become the sample for Paul Wall’s hit “Sittin Sidewayz” early on in a particularly ferocious run that lasts about 6 minutes. When the beat’s fried synth melody enters it seems to energize Pokey like some aural electric charge. He shouts out his friends, teams up with Tom Sawyer and rhymes “rabbit” with “dagnabbit”. The way he puts emphasis on his rhymes is stellar, especially for a freestyle: “Let them boys know, flip phone I be foldin em Fillin’ up my foreign ride with petroleum”. One more standout section: “Ain’t no preppin in my corner / Cause you’s a goner / I’m smoking marijuana / Broke em off when I snatched my diploma / I walked across the stage / I turned the page / no more minimum wage / And my corner got paid“.

Yungstar is another essential player here, flexing a quick wit and southern slang on two verses. He shouts out “baked potato with chives” in both. Before closing it out he references his “Playstation in the car / Sippin on barre / TV VCR / With the star”. Not all of the other rappers have incredible verses, but somehow, for 37 minutes, the sound of a bunch of guys hanging out and rapping becomes completely transcendent despite a lack of lyrical direction or a changing instrumental. The sound is not professionally mastered and there are obvious flaws in the recording quality (which somehow works to the track’s advantage). Yet this is more a perfect snapshot of the lives of these friends than anything that could have been commissioned by a record executive. I was 15 months old when June 27 was recorded, but it still resonates today.

The rest of the June 27 tape consists mostly of remixed tracks, all of which are excellent. Bone Thugs’ “Crossroads” is transformed into a swirling elegy. I never thought a Too $hort song would make me emotional, but the syrupy “Gettin’ It” screw, with its “I’d Rather Be With You” flip and chorus from P-Funk members is just inspiring. Excellent chops in the second verse, too. “High Til I Die” is a superb 2Pac track that I wouldn’t know about if not for this tape, and Screw even takes on reggae (yay!) with great results on “Rollerskates“. June 27 is a classic Screwtape, and I have no doubt that its towering freestyle session will be bumping throughout the world today. Rest in peace to DJ Screw and Big Moe.

Listen to the June 27th freestyle here.