Six years ago, Mozzy thought his rap career was almost over.
The artist was 25 and had already served several stints behind bars on drug and weapons charges. His first child was on the way, and his mixtapes and music videos depicting Sacramento's hardscrabble gang lifestyle hadn't attracted much of an audience outside of his Oak Park neighborhood.
Flash forward to February 2018, when Kendrick Lamar accepted his Grammy for Best Rap Album. The first words out of his mouth to 19.8 million viewers at home and an auditorium of celebrities? "This is special, man. Like my guy Mozzy say, 'God up top all the time,' real talk."
Upon hearing the unexpected Grammys shout out, West Coast rap fans exploded with excitement on Twitter and national publications clued readers in to the identity of the little-known artist who just received Lamar's ultimate cosign.
Things only sped up from there. Less than a week after the Grammys, Ryan Coogler's record-shattering Black Panther came out in theaters. During the last scene, when T'Challa and Shuri visit the Oakland park that once contained a milk-crate basketball hoop, millions of viewers in sold-out theaters across the country heard Mozzy's song "Sleep Walkin'" from his 2017 album 1 Up Top Ahk. Mozzy's was the voice that symbolized that moment of returning to one's roots to take care of those who are still struggling.
"I felt like, 'Mama, we made it.' After all the work we put in underground, they started to pay attention and recognize us on a national level," says the 31-year-old Mozzy in a recent phone interview. "This is what we were shootin' for. If I was to stop right now, I lived a dream."
Mozzy's autobiographical new album, Gangland Landlord, released Oct. 5 on San Francisco distribution label Empire, is his first offering with the national spotlight on him. And although he recorded it knowing the industry was watching, the project comes across as an un-self-conscious, genuine self-portrait.
Gangland Landlord weighs heavy with traumatic memories, with tense violins, pensive piano and ominous church bells underscoring narratives of Mozzy clawing himself out of poverty. It's Mozzy's most cleanly executed release since Bladadah, the 2015 album that expanded his reach beyond Sacramento and made him a star of Northern California's underground scene.
"The big dog, I'm the fella-fella," says Mozzy, explaining that the album's title is a reflection of his new stature. "I'm the one the people come to. I'm the people's champ."
It's easy to call oneself a people's champ; acting on it is the hard part. Amid a whirlwind press tour, Mozzy recently made time to go back to Sacramento (he currently lives in Los Angeles). He threw a charity event at a local park where he gave away backpacks, school supplies, haircut vouchers and $7,000 in cash to his old neighbors and friends.
"Provide for your people—I'm just looking out for mine," says Mozzy, whose real name is Tim Patterson. "I'm the 'landlord' of this region, so I'm responsible. I don't want no cookie, I don't want no applause from nobody. No matter what I'm doing in life, if I have the means to look out for 'em, that's what I'ma do, because these are the same people who was rooting for me when it was ugly, when it was spunky, when I only had seven listeners and 10 views on YouTube."
Mozzy's rise to the national stage is particularly remarkable because his subject matter, even on an album he knew would reach beyond his regional audience, is decidedly niche. He raps devotedly—militantly—about a gang lifestyle that's far removed from anything Middle America could relate to, in a notorious neighborhood in a city whose culture is little-known to outsiders.
There's no sugarcoating or sanitizing on Gangland Landlord, either. Unlike Migos or Future, who depict shoot-outs in trap houses as minor detours on the way to innumerable rap-money riches, Mozzy is deeply reflective about his street activities and time behind bars, and how both of those things have affected his mental health and development as a man.
"Smile now, cry later when I'm by myself / More chains for the gang than I buy myself / Misled by the blind, tryna find myself," he raps in a gravelly voice over low piano notes and a bass-heavy knock on "Not Impressive." Later in the verse, he breaks from his growly cadence, trailing off into a whisper with the last word of every bar, betraying the pain behind his tough exterior.
Mozzy is a keen storyteller whose snapshots of life in inner-city America are as brutally realistic as they are vulnerable. "Perhaps his core talent is to convey violence in a way that feels honest, which makes his competition seem mediated, dishonest, even exploitative," wrote Rolling Stone's David Drake when the magazine named Mozzy's Bladadah the 22nd best rap album of 2015.
"Mozzy’s music slaps, but the gruff lyricist is a bard," asserted The Atlantic's Hannah Giorgis in her recent profile of the rapper.
"I ain't afraid to cry in my music," Mozzy tells me. "I ain't afraid to cry out for help. I ain't afraid to let you know I don't know, I don't got all the answers. I ain't afraid to let you know my faults, to let you know I was hurt, I was broke, I was starving."
While Bay Area rappers often complain that national labels and publications pass over them in favor of championing artists from Los Angeles, getting national recognition is even more of an uphill battle for a rapper from Sacramento, a city whose culture rarely makes a blip on the national radar beyond movies like Lady Bird, which depicts a much whiter, safer version of the city Mozzy raps about.
When I ask how it feels to represent Sacramento and Oak Park on the national stage, Mozzy replies with a long, resounding, "HAAAAAAAAANH!"
"For sure we the underdogs, but I ain't gon' lie, we movin' mountains right now," he says.
Mozzy was raised in Oak Park by his grandmother, a former Black Panther, practicing Muslim and strict disciplinarian. His father was often in and out of jail, his mother struggled with addiction and many of his aunts and uncles were affiliated with the Bloods. Outside of the confines of his grandmother's orderly home, Mozzy began getting in trouble at an early age and was selling drugs and breaking into houses by the time he was in middle school.
"I was raised in a respectful manner. There were other households that were less fortunate," he reflects. "But the streets shaped me a lot. I was stuck in the streets for a long time. It got a lot to do with my character: I'd say the aggressive push, the way I bite down with my music."
Around the same time, Mozzy realized he wanted to be a rapper like his uncle, GP the Beast, who recorded Mozzy for the first time when he was just 11 and going by Lil Tim. In the years that followed, rapping and making quick money in the streets began to consume Mozzy. He ended up dropping out of high school to pursue music, but music only overtook his street activities much later, when his star began to rise after Bladadah.
"In 2015, fresh out of jail, that's when people started offering me thousands for projects. That's when I knew—ain't never made this type of money," he says, still in disbelief. "First time I touched $50,000, legitimately—I could ride around with this 50 and the police can't take it from me because I have proof of where I got it from—that's when I was like, it's real. When I gave my grandmother $100,000, that's when I was like, 'Yeah, this is what we doin', f-ck all that other sh-t.'"
Between 2005 and 2008, Mozzy went to Sacramento County Jail on a variety of charges, including evading police and possessing marijuana with intent to sell. The repercussions of those convictions from his late teens and early '20s follow him to this day. He was barred from owning a gun as a convicted felon, but, as he explains it, life in Oak Park required the protection of a weapon. In 2014, he served a year in San Quentin State Prison on firearms charges. (Mozzy says that, nowadays, his prior convictions still sometimes affect his ability to perform abroad.)
Mozzy's stint at San Quentin was a wake-up call. "My dad was in jail when I was my daughter's age," he says, referring to his eldest, Ariana-Dooterz, who is now five. "We was in the same prison, though. So you know, I'm walking the same yard he was walking, history repeating itself. I couldn't wait to get out so I could bite down, so I could get it together, so I could be a man. I had responsibilities and I didn't want to put that burden on my family."
Around the same time, Mozzy's music started gaining traction outside of Sacramento. In 2013, he recorded a Tonite Show album with Oakland's DJ Fresh, the producer responsible for hyphy-era regional hits like D-Lo's "No Hoe" and Mistah F.A.B.'s "We Go Stupid in the Bay." Oakland's Philthy Rich tapped Mozzy for the downcast, piano-heavy "I'm Just Being Honest"; Joe Blow, another Oakland rapper with local clout, invited him to feature on the nostalgically soulful "Locked In." Mozzy's name began to circulate in Bay Area rap circles, and in 2015, he cemented himself into the local scene with Down to the Wire: 4th Ave Edition on J. Stalin's Livewire Records, a household name for anyone who followed the Oakland street rap scene of the 2000s.
"It just took off from me from right there. The whole Bay started f-ckin' with me," he says. "They embraced me."
As Mozzy's reputation as a searingly honest wordsmith grew, he remained on probation through 2017 and was barred from leaving the state of California without permission from his officer. This posed an inconvenience to his career: his 2016 and 2017 albums Mandatory Check and 1 Up Top Ahk reached No. 11 and No. 36 on Billboard's top R&B/hip-hop albums chart, and he began getting requests to perform out of state. Fortunately, his probation officer usually obliged.
Without these hindrances, Mozzy might be farther along in his career. But he still doesn't regret his past. "It do put a damper on some things, it threw a lot of things off," he says. "But I don't regret nothing. If I hadn't went through the beautiful struggles I went through, I think it would have minimized my hunger."
Though his criminal past is key to understanding him as a person and artist, early stories about Mozzy sometimes read more like crime reports than profiles of an exciting new artist. And indeed, if Mozzy's career continues to progress the way it has the past three years, he's about to be scrutinized by a lot more label heads, journalists, streaming service execs and listeners who may harbor stereotypes and misconceptions about his background or previous way of life.
Still, Mozzy says he'd sooner fall off than censor himself. "I ain't in it for the money," he says, defiant. "If I decline financially, it wouldn't hurt me as much as changing and tweaking my music for someone else. That would do more damage to my inner self than financial problems."
Mozzy is living a new lifestyle now, far away from the trenches he raps about. He's a family man with a girlfriend and two daughters (seven-month-old Zayda was born earlier this year). They're living in L.A. in a safe neighborhood, in a building with an elevator, far away from the dangers of Oak Park. "I gotta make sure they don't go through the same beautiful struggles I went through," Mozzy says, adding that his daughters are his biggest motivation. "I want them to be 10 times doper than me. No matter what career choice, no matter what they're doing in life, I want to provide them with that head start and that healthy household with a mother and father present, unlike the majority of our community."
"It's no room for f-ckin' up."
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.