Kieda Brewer’s rap nom de plume is an acronym for “Realistic, Ambitious, Serious, Cautious, and Organized.” That’s a fairly accurate description of Cali Agent #1, aka MC Rasco, the South Bay-based 32-year-old artist, father, label owner, and clothing entrepreneur. Since first emerging with 1997’s “The Unassisted,” Rasco has become one of the Golden State’s most recognizable indie hip-hop icons. With a fan base that stretches to the East Coast, Europe, and Asia, he stands as a symbol of no-frills-just-skills MC-ing, landing somewhere between the abstract lyricism of underground backpack rappers and the materialistic escapades of mainstream thugstas.
Like Gangstarr’s Guru, it’s “mainly tha voice” — an ear-pleasing baritone seemingly designed to spit rhymes — that’s provided the MC with a fruitful career, although his entrepreneurial ambitions and smart business sense have helped ripen the fruit.
In a lengthy conversation, Rasco speaks on various subjects: his artistic output, his dealings with shady label owners, the state of independent hip-hop, and his new album, Escape from Alcatraz, which he considers his best work to date. That’s quite a relief to those who bought his last album, Hostile Environment, an admittedly subpar recording which, he says, was created under the duress of a deteriorating relationship with his then-label, Copasetik.
“My heart wasn’t really into it 100 percent, which I blame on myself,” he says. At the time of Hostile Environment’s release, he was trying to sever his ties to Copasetik, but label owner Jon Sexton wouldn’t let him go. “I felt like I was locked in,” Rasco laments.
Adding insult to injury, Sexton went ahead and put out a compilation of dated material featuring Rasco and Planet Asia (aka Cali Agent #2) without either’s blessing, and refused to disburse any royalties owed the two. As one might expect, this incident made Rasco hotter than fish oil.
“[Sexton]’s not in his right not to pay me — he’s also not in his right to put Cali Agents on there, ’cause he does not own the name,” he fumes. “We had no clue the record was even coming out.” Most of all, he’s mad that Sexton made him look “desperate” by putting out music that wasn’t new, “like I’m putting out old shit over and over again.”
But what goes around, comes around. Sexton receives his comeuppance on the scathing new Alcatraz cut “Snakes in the Grass”:
It all started with this cat named Jon
Pulling all types of stunts, an ex-con
Told this nigga, don’t fuck with my figures
Wouldn’t let me go, no chance to get bigger
So I closed the ranks, closed his bank
And put his toes to plank, he chose to gank
I turned loss to gain and tossed the chain
He tried keeping me around but I’m out of his range
I cost way too much, put foot to clutch
Bounced out on Copasetik, this cat is so pathetic
It’s a bold step for an artist to directly name names like this, yet Rasco showed his cojones by subtitling the song “The Jon Sexton Story.”
Wasn’t he worried about a lawsuit? Not in the least. “The reason I wasn’t concerned was ’cause [Sexton] wasn’t concerned about libel issues when he put out a double album of me without my consent.”
The move did raise some eyebrows in the music industry, however. “[Independent distributor] Fat Beats was like, ‘Man, you got dude’s name on the record,'” Rasco recalls. “I’m like, ‘And?’ I just felt like, if he wants to sling the mud like that, then that’s the way I’m gonna give it to him. I want everybody to know what the story was about. I wasn’t really afraid he was gonna come back at me [alleging] slander.”
Rasco’s verbal riposte to Sexton hit stores well ahead of his new album, as the B-side to the single “We Get Live,” which hints at the renewed sense of purpose that characterizes Alcatraz. The title refers to not only Rasco’s breakout from the Copasetik penitentiary, but also to the artist getting out of the corner he had painted himself into creatively. “It was kinda like me escaping myself, so to speak,” he says cryptically. Before starting work on the project, Rasco was determined to “show everybody another side of me, and make better music.” In order to do that, he realized, “I have to have an open mind, and not worry about what people are going to say.”
Now that the album, which drops September 9 on East Coast indie Coup d’Etat, is a done deal, Rasco can finally exhale. “I feel like I came out better for it,” he says.
It’s apparent Rasco has caught his second wind from one listen to “We Get Live,” a bangin’ party anthem hip-hop heads are already calling his best single since “The Unassisted.” Like the now-fabled classic of six years ago, the tune affirms Rasco’s stature as an independent artist of distinction, while also bigging up the region he comes out of, sending a clear message that the Bay Area deserves as much respect as any other bastion of original hip-hop.
Still, Rasco knows our scene has changed considerably since the early ’90s, when he first appeared on wax as a member of Various Blendz. Many onetime cornerstones of the Bay’s sound, such as the Living Legends and his old roommate Peanut Butter Wolf, have shifted their operations to Los Angeles; others have gotten older and started families or developed other interests.
“I want people to know about the Bay Area in general,” Rasco exclaims. “I don’t feel like people were really doing that. So in a sense, I was saying ‘We get live’ on this side here as well. ‘Cause a lot of people don’t really know that.” On “We Get Live,” the MC declares he’s “ready to rock”; meanwhile, the song’s bouncy, danceable beat signals that Rasco is ready to step out of the headphones and into the club. Percolating rhythm aside, “Live” is still far more underground-sounding than anything with Chingy, Nelly, or R. Kelly’s name on it, which makes it more of a progression than a 180-degree change in approach.
Alcatraz also features a typical slate of guest rappers, but it’s not a typical name-dropping schmooze-fest. “It was more like, who am I really feeling?” Rasco says.
There’s a lot on the line with this record; Rasco readily concedes that he screwed up more than once in the past. For example, he regrets not making the Cali Agents’ How the West Was One LP more conceptual. According to him, 90 percent of that album was written “on the spot,” in the studio. If and when he and Asia team up again for another go-round, “I don’t want to make the same mistake twice. I don’t want people to not be able to see the growth.”
You can see that growth on Alcatraz. This maturity stems from Rasco’s realization that he’s become a veteran in a rapidly changing genre. “You’ve been seeing me around for a minute,” he reasons, “so I feel for me to come out with this record is just going back and looking back at the whole spectrum of what I’ve done.” On the new album, “I just wanted people to know how I’m feeling as a person, and not just the rapper dude. ‘Cause that’s always gonna be in there, you know: ‘I’ll slash every MC’ and this and that. But I just wanted to try and do something a little different, man. That was mainly it.”
The new-and-improved Rasco steps up to the plate on “My Life,” which eschews his trademark braggadocio and battle raps for more insightful lyrical statements. “I just really wanted to talk about my life as Kieda Brewer,” he explains. In particular, he addresses his upbringing in a single-parent household, which he says is “stuff that I’m dealing with, being a father myself.” Having his daughter with him throughout the week makes him appreciate the job his mother did all the more. He says he made the song not so much to chide his absent father, but “more to honor my mom,” who raised Rasco and his four siblings.
“My Life” also details Rasco’s more global observations — “Nobody ever looked at me on a political tip or anything like that,” he relates. “But I watch the news channel, CNN, whatever.” He felt the need to speak on not only the war with Iraq, but domestic issues that hit closer to home. “Like, I’m watching Donahue, and there’s a show called Angry White Men. White dudes is saying that black people took their jobs! I’m like, ‘Where in the hell is that happening? What city are you in where that’s happening?’ I don’t know, I’m sure there are cases of that, but to get on TV and have a whole show about it, like it’s some epidemic? Crazy to me!”
More than anything, Rasco realizes that being a successful independent artist nowadays means taking care of business on the mic and off. Rasco’s seriousness and organization shine through on Alcatraz. His ambitious side can be seen in his fledgling Grand Imperial clothing line, which is transitioning from simple T-shirts to more complex cut-and-sew jackets and jerseys. And his realistic and cautious aspects come across when he discusses future plans for his Pockets Linted label: “I couldn’t get away with putting out a Dudley Perkins record,” he says. “I wouldn’t do something like that, because I want it to stand for something totally different. I want it to stand for the MC. To give a voice to someone just like me.”