For Band Aide, one half of East Palo Alto-based rap duo Hoodstarz, 2012 was a year of dramatic change. There came freedom: after an 18-month stint in San Francisco County Jail and a halfway house, he was finally free to return to his life and family.
But there was also tragedy. That same year, his stepbrother was shot and killed. The event admittedly had Band Aide "kind of going haywire," and he knew he needed a change of pace.
Instead of jumping back into the music he and partner Scoot Dogg had been creating for nearly a decade (they were among the leading voices of the mid-2000s hyphy scene), he decided to take a step back and hone a new craft. After enrolling in a one-year program at Le Cordon Bleu, he dedicated himself to becoming a chef.
Once he completed eight months of formal study and four months as a line chef at Los Altos Golf and Country Club, Band Aide graduated from the culinary institution, a fascinating next step for the rapper -- and one Band Aide admits he needed.
"I [cook] to get away from a lot of the madness," he explains. "I try to practice my four T’s: Take Time to Think," and points out that shifting his focus from rapping to cooking "gave me a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it, to get my priorities back in order... It’s definitely an art I can have and take with me forever, no matter how old I get. As long as I’m able to move around, I’ll always be able to cook."
While his time at Le Cordon Bleu granted him some time away from beats and rhymes, his focus has since returned to music -- he and fellow Hoodstarz member Scoot Dogg have been busy independently promoting their mixtape 56 Months since last November. But he's still been able to put his culinary skills to good use. As he notes recently over hearty portions of Mexican food at El Burro in Campbell, he's now able to better cook for "my peoples."
He's talking about the 20 people he and his wife, Tannea Gardner, oversee as part of their nonprofit, A Gardner's Heart Independent Living, which supplies housing and services to mental health patients. What started with a single patient in a rented home nearly five years ago has since blossomed to three homes in the East Bay.
"Our main goal is to help them stay out of a hospital, to keep them positive and away from the dangers that come with being a mental health patient," explains Tannea Gardner. Services include taking care of meals, transportation, case management, help with doctor's appointments and day-to-day living.
Note: embedded videos contain explicit language.
Though Band Aide served time for a marijuana-related charge, he was initially arraigned as part of an arrest of 30 suspected members of a Bay Area gang known as the Taliban. He contends he didn't know most of the other suspects arrested as part of the same sweep. His release was unexpected -- before he earned probation, he'd last heard he was set to serve 20 years.
Thinking back on his time away from music and family, he's quick to admit that "I wasn’t thinking about rapping. That was the furthest thing from my mind. I was thinking about getting back to my family" -- though he adds that "once I got home, it was back to business, and back to music."
This past November, the Hoodstarz finally returned in earnest with 56 Months, hosted by the influential DJ Drama. Their latest covers everything from turn-up club bangers to introspective takes on the pain both endured during that long period of silence.
Band Aide and Scoot Dogg fully embraced their project as a chance to start fresh. Every piece of the project was created from scratch rather than mining past material. They even went so far as to both shed their long-held dreadlocks.
“For so long, we had to hold our tongues, whether it was music or talking in public -- even talking to our own loved ones,” says Scoot about dealing with Band Aide's sentencing and litigation. While releases did trickle out during his stint, Scoot says they were watered-down. 56 Months was their chance to speak again without a filter.
Though they started in separate groups -- Band Aide was formerly part of Neva Legal; while Scoot was in Totally Insane, the founding fathers of East Palo Alto rap -- they formally joined forces in the early 2000s, gaining attention with their 2004 single “Can’t Leave Rap Alone” featuring Keak Da Sneak, originator of the term “hyphy” and a major presence in the Bay’s subsequent hyphy movement.
Hoodstarz furthered their own mark on that scene with the release of their full-length debut, Hood Reality, in January 2006. Their buzz continued to grow when major label Warner picked up sophomore effort Band Aide and Scoot, which dropped in September that same year. It notably featured the remix to “Getz Ya Grown Man On,” which became a signature hit of the hyphy era and featured a who’s who of Bay heavyweights at the time, including Mistah F.A.B., San Quinn, Clyde Carson and Turf Talk and production by Traxamillion.
Controversy and Hoodstarz Radio followed in 2010 and 2011 respectively, though neither were able to further the group’s momentum in the wake of hyphy falling out of style. For the genre, national fame proved elusive outside of E-40’s “Tell Me When to Go” and Too Short’s “Blow the Whistle.”
Unlike other names from the hyphy era, the Hoodstarz may be the only group to hail from tiny East Palo Alto, the oft-overlooked community of roughly 28,000 located right in the middle of a now-thriving Silicon Valley and next door to world-renowned Stanford University. But the town has never been able to enjoy the same success that surrounds it. In 1992, the city earned the unfortunate distinction of being named the city with the highest homicide rate in the nation.
Scoot and Band Aide grew up in the middle of it -- and got caught up. Before his recent jail sentence, Band Aide spent five years at San Quentin State Prison, and was released in 2002. Scoot went through similar tribulations, spending 18 months in a juvenile correctional facility. Having seen the consequences that come with street life, they both committed to a better future by pursuing music full-time, even though it's not easy.
“Coming out of there and trying to do some music, or anything else, was a difficult task,” says Scoot Dogg, who points to difficulties of building a sustainable buzz within a town that only encompasses two and a half square miles. “Even if everybody in East Palo Alto bought a Hoodstarz CD, it wouldn’t be enough. It wouldn’t be more than half of Oakland or a piece of San Francisco or a quarter of San Jose.”
While pondering their next steps, the two met DJ Drama through a mutual friend at a party in Los Angeles. A towering figure in the hip-hop community, DJ Drama was instrumental in the mainstream rise of Southern hip-hop in the mid to late 2000s; with his mixtapes, he helped launch the careers of artists like T.I., Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane and Lil' Wayne. Drama agreed to release 56 Months as part of his celebrated Gangsta Grillz series, a high-profile way for the Hoodstarz to reintroduce themselves.
“When a lot of the stuff was really going on with us and we couldn’t say too much or put music out, we were only able to put out music that was basically picked over,” adds Scoot Dogg. “[With] 56 Months, we got our freedom back."
The release has been a success, and though mixtape stats are notoriously hard to track, it's received more than 150,000 plays since its release. It enlists help from current industry heavyweights as well as local standouts -- DJ Mustard and Ty Dolla $ign both make appearances, in addition to the Bay Area's Too Short, Mistah F.A.B, J. Stalin and Clyde Carson.
The 18-track project tackles plenty during its 65-minute run time. Darker themes undercut brooding tracks like “Dope Fiend Music” and “Nobody’s Safe,” alongside party tracks like “Kush Clouds” and moments of nervous catharsis on “Feared than Loved.” Certain tracks carry a powerful duality, pairing pent-up frustration with the relief of regained self-expression.
On album standout “I’ll Be Right There,” Mike Frost brings the topic of loyalty front and center, singing “I still remember yesterday when we ain’t have a dime / So if you ever call on me, I’ll be right there” during the track’s chorus.
While certain songs on 56 Months mention those who turned their backs, both members also recall the outpouring of support they received when they finally got back to work. In particular, the two shout-out Oakland production duo the Mekanix, long-time collaborators who had a hand in 10 of the album’s 18 beats. Band Aide notes that they were “brothers when brothers needed brothers.”
While he and partner Scoot may have have dealt with plenty of setbacks over the past few years, he recognizes the success they've enjoyed as recording artists. They emerged from the streets of East Palo Alto, and with each new project they continue to stand as examples of success in their community.
“Even if we didn’t make it as big as we always dreamed of making it, we still made it further than a lot of people," he says. “It’s hard for me to hold a smile, but I do.”