Life in the Fast Lane

Kafani takes to the rap game strictly for scrilla.

Oakland-born rapper Kafani has upper management written all over him. He came up in grimy East Oakland and now resides in a two-story suburban condo in Concord. The walls of his bedroom studio are plastered with Saks Fifth Avenue advertisements and publicity posters for his new album, Money Is My Motivation. A pile of sparkly bling jewelry lies neatly on his desk, right between the giant mixing board and a vase of flowers. The inside of his CD jacket shows a pile of cash rubber-banded in tidy, individual stacks. Atop them sits a diamond-studded pendant carved to form the words “Ice King.” It’s shot in the same soft focus you’d expect in a Playboy centerfold.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Kafani sits at his dining room table answering phone calls. He’s dressed casually: red T-shirt, impeccable tennis shoes, princess-cut diamond studs (two per ear), and a rose-gold grill with diamonds. The three hieroglyphics tattooed on his neck — “money, power, respect” — serve as a motivational slogan. “Whatever class that I was in, as far as social class, I was always toward the top — the flossy one,” the rapper says. “If what was in was having a $50 ring, I had that, a $100 chain, or whatever it would be.”

In high school he played basketball and baseball and developed a sports mentality that he eventually brought to the rap game. “I guess in sports you wanna win, you’re gonna try to win,” he says. “I’m an opportunist. If I get an opportunity to do something, I’ll do it.”

Fittingly, his signature word is “fast” — a term he deploys in multiple contexts. In the MC’s lexicon, a fast person is aggressive, unsentimental, and purely pragmatic — someone with grit, a hustler’s mentality, and the ability to shift on a dime. Kafani thinks and talks fast — in phone conversations he demands to get things “fast, like, ASAP.” And he wants his money fast.

Kafani credits his cousin for extending his buzzword into “fast like a NASCAR,” a phrase that was the genesis of the rapper’s hit single. Last November, Kafani and his stepbrother, Kapacity — of Kafani’s former rap group Babyface Assassins — went into the studio and started messing with the phrase. They chopped and screwed the “fast” to make it sound slurry, and then tried whispering the “like a NASCAR” part. “It sounded good, you feel me?” Kafani says. He e-mailed the raw vocals to backpacker producer Amp Live, who produced the NASCAR beat — a giddy Afro-Cuban drum pattern that mixes snare and clave — while sitting in his tour van in Germany.

The combination of a hair-trigger beat and primordial, chant-like hook made “Fast” an instant club hit. After Bay Area DJs broke the song on their mix shows, local radio stations got an onslaught of listener requests. Within weeks the song was ubiquitous. In May he brokered a deal with popular indie label Koch, home of East Bay kingpin Keak da Sneak, who guest-stars on the NASCAR song. Kafani then recorded a fourteen-track bubblegum rap album in three months — roughly half the songs still get regular spins on KMEL.

Kafani loves brinksmanship so much that his album includes a ballad about squashing competition. Called “Hatin’ on Me,” it pairs a smooth, groove-driven beat — the kind that would normally be reserved for memorializing a fallen comrade or serenading a hot girl — with a gorgeous R&B hook by C. Holiday, over which Kafani raps, We stay with that big shit/Big chips, big clips, and I stay rich.

The song culminates with a spoken “breakdown,” in which Kafani replaces the come-ons of old-school soul artists with a sermon about making money: “This is Kafani the Ice King, man. I came from the streets, man. I came from that hood, man. You know what I’m talk about? I been in jail and the pen … And I did it, man and succeeded, man. You can do it too.” C. Holiday helps shore up the sentimentality with an American Idol-style cadenza. Though Money Is My Motivation does include one flirtatious R&B number (“Cutie Pie”), “Hatin’ on Me” is the album’s real love song.

It’s also Kafani’s confessional track. He was, indeed, in the pen, and he does view his prison stint as a test of character. Kafani served a two-year sentence from 2002 to 2004 for robbery, during which the “New Bay movement” started popping in Oakland and Richmond. “When I got out of jail, the Team was real big,” he says. “They was playing the ‘Hot In Herre’ song on the radio real tough. I was hearing Frontline. I don’t think Fab was on the radio at the time but he was grinding. I was like, one of the last of the Mohicans to actually make it to be on the radio.”

Kafani’s out to make club hits, and makes no bones about it: “First the beat, second the hook, and everything else is irrelevant.” He describes his artistic process in the same language an entrepreneur would use to describe a marketing strategy: “‘Fast Like a NASCAR’ is a household name, but Kafani’s not. So I have to find ways to brand myself,” he says matter-of-factly. Despite the bling and the fantasy of class ascent that inspired his album title, Kafani actually has a fairly realistic sense of his own importance. “I haven’t been in the game as long as, say, a Messy Marv,” the MC explains. “He really doesn’t need the radio. Me as an artist, I’m as good as my next single.”

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