No Disses, Threats, or Boasts

James Ek-sel has been the East Bay's best-kept hip-hop secret for years

Imagine yourself as a hip-hop promoter. Your job is to take a rapper, figure out his or her most marketable traits, and then sell those traits to the right audience. Most of the time, it’s probably easy. You say you’ve got an artist with a preoccupation with Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous? Get her a guest spot on Lil’ Troy’s next record. An emcee who only talks about skills or sending anthrax letters to major label executives? Make sure his shit comes out exclusively on vinyl, push it to college radio DJs, and buy ad space in mags with graffiti on the cover. See? You’re already servicing your clients masterfully, and you haven’t even had to think too much yet!

But then a demo from James Ek-sel comes across your desk. Uh-oh. First off, there’s the cover — a black guy with dreads, made up to look like the Joker from Batman, with a cigarette holder clenched in a devious Cheshire grin and mascara that looks like he has tarantulas trapped under his eyelids. The inside photo shows him wearing oversized Bono sunglasses and, sweet Jesus, a leather gag! Your marketer’s mind sputters and whirls, grasping for any possible angle — Sisqo’s gothic doppelgänger? The mike-checkin’ Marilyn Manson? The EPMD of SM/BD?

Put on the disc, though, and all the outsider gimmicks evaporate. The percussion comes from loops of hissy funk samples, with an instrumental or two sounding like outtakes from De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising. The rapper has a melodious, conversational flow, left of center maybe, but nothing you’d package as freakish. Damn, whaddaya gonna do?

Flummoxed, you call the contact number on the CD. “Mr. Ek-sel?”

An agreeable-sounding young man responds, “Yeah, this is Jimmy.”

“Well, I’m, er, trying to get hold of your target niche here. What exactly is your thing, James?”

Without a second of hesitation, he replies, “I want to do for hip-hop what Lou Reed and Elvis Costello did for rock.”

“Oh, God — I mean, oh, good! But, um, let’s see if we can approach this from a different direction. Who are you affiliated with?”

“Let’s see — my DJ’s a Ukrainian-American named Vlad who spins CDs … “

“Stop. How about we try another angle … “

I f KRS-One has his Temple of Hip-hop, James Ek-sel’s cramped apartment on Grand Avenue could be considered a monk’s cell in one of rap’s more ascetic orders. He’s got his comics against one wall, records against the other, an overturned sampler half-buried under dirty clothes in the corner, a poster of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis on the wall, a stack of Source magazines, a TV, a hi-fi, a futon sans frame, and not much else. There’s something about his living conditions that feels self-imposed, as if he took a vow to go without in order to stay true to his honest brand of hip-hop.

“It’s sort of a weird thing,” he says from the corner of his futon, “because of course I want to make a living for what I do for hip-hop. But for some reason, I have this part of me where I just want to give it away for free. I don’t know how this ’60s thing got into me, but the idea of making money off my art just bums me out. I know I’m going to have to, but if there was some other way to be compensated, like some kind of barter, I’d do that.”

Yet Ek-sel is still looking for a promoter to help him reach a broader audience, plus some investors for his next self-released project, and a distributor to get it out. He set a goal a long time ago: put out a solo album before he turned thirty. As he says over and over, he’s an artist, not a businessman, so he needs someone to handle the tedium of promotion so he can share his art with as many people as possible. Just under the wire, he’s set to drop The Sweet Science of Sin, nine songs of introspective, nonconfrontational, thought-provoking rap music.

“Whenever I sit down to put a track together I always picture a person alone cleaning up their house,” he says. “I’m trying to make music that you’d really get something from — I’m not trying to prove anything.”

Ek-sel’s been doing hip-hop for too many years to need to prove himself, and he’s reached a state of self-actualization and inner peace that you’d expect to find in a singer-songwriter, not an emcee. Sweet Science contains no disses, threats, boasts, tall tales, or claims of supremacy; only when asked directly does he mention how many years he’s been rapping, which is an imposing fifteen. Yet consult any of the Exclusive Bay Area Hip-hop Spotlight articles that seem to come out of the national rap mags every year or so, and you’ll see neither hide nor hair of James Ek-sel. Ironically, all the attention the local underground scene garners has gone to the same roll call of artists who have been signed to major labels at one point and/or have distribution deals–Hieroglyphics, Solesides/Quannum, Hobo Junction, and the Living Legends (who are now based in LA). Ek-sel and his two groups, All the King’s Horses and the aptly titled Nameless and Faceless, have maintained a regional presence beneath the underground, without distribution, merchandising, or media attention.

“Seventy to ninety percent of the shit I read about Bay Area hip-hop is just wrong,” he says. “But it’s hard to trace it back — a lot of the people are dead or in jail, so you have to make up history as you go along. History is told by those who win, I guess.”

According to Ek-sel’s secret history of local hip-hop, the original four founders of the art form here were DJ Daryl, DJ Smooth G, J Cut, and Turntable T. “If you weren’t any kind of six-degrees-of-separation from those fools, you weren’t doing hip-hop that seriously,” he says. “My affiliation was with J Cut. My cousin DJed for [J Cut’s group] APG and I used to dance for them. I followed them around and studied what they were doing. I don’t mean to be arrogant about it, but I have to say I am one of Oakland’s true lyricists, straight up. I won’t stutter; you can quote me on that.”

He formed All the King’s Horses in ’88 with DJ Square Root and Chris Mincey, and the trio rushed to put out its tape Who Knows Where the Red Fern Grows before Souls of Mischief dropped their debut ’93 Till Infinity in that same year. But immature and far from focused businesswise, All the King’s Horses devoted more time looking for the next party than shaking hands and making connections after shows. The group never met the industry door-opener that some of its colleagues had, so its rep stayed strictly word-of-mouth.

“In this town, if you’re not knowing who this elite, Masonic-like crowd is, you’re not going to get the right gigs,” he says. “You’re not going to get on the right compilations, and no one’s going to hear about you.”

But since his own motivation for making music is noncommercial, Ek-sel doesn’t seem to harbor any bitterness about his years in obscurity. He’s always been attracted to alternative culture anyway (“In high school I was across the street with the skaters and the punk rockers smoking cigarettes”), so the gothed-up album cover, which is certainly going to be a hard sell for hip-hoppers, is a necessary form of self-expression for him. “I don’t look like what’s labeled hip-hop,” he says. “It sucks, because my music is that — but looking at me, you’d never think my music would sound like it does. It’s an obstacle I guess I need to somehow get over, but I think it’s also what makes me unique.”

And he’s unique all right. Adisa Banjako, aka the Bishop of Hip-hop, is a hip-hop promoter, and Ek-sel contacted him to do some PR work for Sweet Science. “I have to admit,” Banjako says, “when I saw the cover, I thought, ‘I can’t work with this. This is some crazy shit.’ ” But then he called Ek-sel up and tried to find a so-called angle, much as our fictional promoter did. The conversation went something like this:

Banjako: “So what’s your stage show going to look like?”

Ek-sel: “Well, it’s going to be different. I’ve been thinking about it a lot — I’m going to have lots of eye candy. It’s not just going to be me walking back and forth on stage holding a mike.”

Banjako: “Are you going to wear a gimp suit?”

Ek-sel: “What’s a gimp suit?”

Banjako: “From Pulp Fiction, you know, the leather outfit? You should come out in a gimp suit, but then halfway through the show, change into a pimp suit. A gimp suit into a pimp suit — that would bug people out!”

James Ek-sel is still accepting marketing proposals.

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