One of the Bay Area's most respected lyricists, The Jacka gave voice to the complexities and contradictions of following a spiritual path while doing what it took to survive. (Still from The Jacka's forthcoming "Ask God" music video)
In the weeks before his untimely passing in 2015, the Jacka was in a fluid, focused creative mode that his longtime collaborator RobLo can only describe as "God flow."
"Whatever Jack went through that day prior to his session with me, he lived that life and put it in his lyrics that day," says the producer. "As fast as I came up with the music on the spot, he wanted to deliver the lyrics. We called that real-time writing. … I wanted him to express his feelings on the mic without having to use a pen."
Just days before the Jacka's life was taken in an East Oakland shooting on Feb. 2 of that year, he, RobLo and another of the Jacka's longtime collaborators, Husalah, had made a music video in Oakland for a new track called "Sink Deep Into It" with Houston rap legend Paul Wall. Over celestial synths that shine like sunbeams through the bass-heavy beat, the Jacka raps about his life's suffocating pressures in half-whispered bars. The track is emblematic of the pensive style that made him one of the Bay Area's most beloved lyricists.
The Jacka is most closely associated with Bay Area mobb music, a street rap movement that percolated in the late '80s and early '90s as gangster rap took off in Los Angeles. In the late '90s, the Jacka was a young artist picking up the mantle, and he joined the group Mob Figaz under the mentorship of Sacramento's C-Bo, a pioneering gangster rapper who had collaborated with Tupac on the album All Eyez on Me.
In the West Coast street rap scene, the Jacka stood out. He didn't have a flamboyant persona like the Bay Area's elder statesmen, E-40 and Too $hort; nor was his flow aggressive or gravelly like peers Keak Da Sneak and J. Stalin. Instead, with a melancholic timbre and lush, heartrending instrumentals, his music made space for sadness amid realist dispatches from the East Bay's criminal underworld. With his lyrics, he embraced life's gray areas, and gave voice to the moral quandaries in which he found himself while trying to follow a spiritual path and also do what it took to survive.
An Unreleased 'Full Body of Work'
"He wanted touch people [who were] like him," says the Jacka's longtime manager, PK. PK became part of the rapper's inner circle when the two met as teenagers. The Jacka used to cut PK's hair, and they maintained a close relationship until the Jacka's last days.
"Those are people who are in the struggle," PK continues. "Those are people who are lost. Those are people who don't know who they are, where they come from, don't have money, haven't figured it out, are in jail, are in the streets, are in a life of crime, don't know their mother, don't know their father, weren't raised in a proper home. ... All that. He had a lot of experiences of those things."
Since the Jacka's death, PK has spent the past five years collecting unreleased tracks he recorded at studios in Oakland, Richmond, Seattle and Miami. He's spent countless hours listening to the music, hammering out details with the Jacka's numerous collaborators and making executive decisions based on the many days he spent by the Jacka's side as an executive producer and A&R consultant. The culmination is a long-awaited forthcoming album called Murder Weapon.
"It's as close to what I could present to the world as something he would've done," says PK, adding that he helped the Jacka choose beats and features for career-defining albums like 2005's The Jack Artist and 2009's Tear Gas. "I had to add some features, or some of the beats were a little messed up and they had to be finished or polished up. … This was a full body of work from him that's like, this is how he would’ve wanted it to be."
Murder Weapon includes features from rap heavyweights like Freddie Gibbs, Paul Wall and Currensy, along with the Jacka's longtime East Bay collaborators Husalah, Fed-X, Rydah J. Klyde, Dubb 20 and Street Knowledge, among others. Infused with the Jacka's Muslim spiritual beliefs and political consciousness, at times the album feels eerily prophetic: on one track, he muses, "I won't be here forever, better cherish me."
The songs on Murder Weapon shed light on the Jacka's mental state in the years before his death, when he became increasingly interested in esoteric knowledge that sometimes bordered on conspiratorial thinking. He'd spend hours each day on YouTube, PK recalls, watching documentaries about aliens and ancient civilizations.
"He's in a room, he has a bunch of people over, he's on YouTube, he's playing stuff, everyone's entertained by it," PK says, describing a typical scene. "But what's going on in his head is he's downloading and learning and downloading and learning, practicing. ... It's content for raps and for life."
Forging a Brotherhood
The Jacka was known as a street rapper first and foremost, yet his voraciousness for new information guided his creative process in expansive directions. One of his last albums, 2014's What Happened to the World, features soundbites from news clips about Occupy Oakland and the police killing of Oscar Grant.
"A lot of the later music is jewels, and that's why people loved Jack," says Husalah. "It was knowledge, it was wisdom and understanding. It was every different type of upliftment for the people, because once you're a street person you can't abandon that. … In Islam it's called giving Dawah, or teaching."
Husalah met the Jacka when the two were young teens in Pittsburg, the Contra Costa County suburb 30 miles east of Oakland. Husalah grew up in Pittsburg's El Pueblo projects. The Jacka, whose parents were only 14 years old when he was born in Arizona, spent his early years moving between Los Angeles, Stockton, Oakland and Richmond. By the end of his middle school years, his family settled down in Pittsburg, a town that to this day claims him as one of its biggest cultural icons.
The Jacka and Husalah clicked instantly over their shared love of sports and music, and their friendship always had an element of brotherly competition. They followed similar paths: both practiced Islam, and both got involved in illegal street activities from a young age. Starting in middle school, they began recording their first raps at RobLo's house, where they had access to professional equipment because RobLo's father worked in the music industry.
"We developed a friendship, a brotherhood," Husalah says. "Through each stage of life, we found ourselves around each other."
An Expansive Creative Vision
The Jacka and Husalah idolized C-Bo and Tupac, but their influences came from other unexpected places: they loved reggae and dancehall, and studied tapes by Sizzla and Yellowman. British trip-hop band Portishead was in heavy rotation, and, surprisingly, the Jacka was a big fan of pop-punk teen idol Avril Lavigne, Husalah remembers.
"We thought more on a broad perspective as far as creating and being dope," Husalah says. "It led us to so many different genres of music and understanding how dope people were in different cultures."
Along with Husalah and the Jacka, Mob Figaz also included FedX, Rydah J. Klyde and AP.9. After the release of C-Bo's Mob Figaz in 1999, the crew never officially split. But momentum slowed on their work as a unit because someone in the group would always be in some kind of legal trouble, Husalah recalls, including the Jacka, who spent time behind bars prior to the debut album's release.
Meanwhile, C-Bo was arrested for parole violations because of lyrics from his 1998 album Til My Casket Drops, prompting outcries from civil rights groups and free speech advocates. Following the 2 Live Crew's obscenity trial and Newt Gingrich's campaign to pull advertising from hip-hop radio stations, the ordeal was just one of the many ways rap was politicized and censored in the '90s.
As solo artists, the members of Mob Figaz remained close collaborators, and the Jacka and Husalah's friendship endured when Husalah went to prison for drug trafficking between 2005 and 2009. "He took the music when I was in prison to a level I never realized," Husalah says, recalling that he was released around the time that the Jacka's biggest commercial hit, "Glamorous Lifestyle," was in heavy rotation on the radio.
When Husalah came home, the Jacka brought him back into the fold. "We never really relied on music as our income, we didn't do music for money," he says. "But when I went to prison, he made it lucrative."
Passing Down the Wisdom
The Jacka's mainstream buzz quieted down in the years after Tear Gas, but in the last years of his life, he continued to feed music to his loyal followings in the Bay Area and other regional markets with appreciations for underground rap. In addition to spending a lot of time recording in Seattle, he put out a joint album with Pennsylvania rapper Freeway, Highway Robbery, and recorded Devilz Rejectz 3 with Akron, Ohio's Ampichino. (Devilz Rejectz 3 came out posthumously, in 2018).
Known for his quiet, tough and generous personality, the Jacka spent his later years mentoring many aspiring rappers. Oakland artist Street Knowledge, who was just starting his music career in the late 2000s, remembers living at the Jacka's house in Oakland with at least 10 other guys. The house was like a training ground to see who was serious enough to sign to the Jacka's label, The Artist Records. "He was everybody's mentor, not just me," Street Knowledge says, adding that few rappers made the cut. "It's just a matter of if you was gonna listen to him. He would tell you a bunch of shit you don't wanna hear, but you need to."
Yet there were times when the Jacka became frustrated with his career. In 2014, after the release of What Happened to the World, Pitchfork called the Jacka "one of the decade's strongest writers—both within and outside of hip-hop." But PK remembers him feeling like he hit a ceiling within the industry.
"He put out really good music and he gave his all. And when I say his all, I don't just mean the energy with creating the records, but the sacrifices with his family, whether it was his kids, his mother, his sister, just not being around," PK says. "Or himself—sacrificing himself and not doing certain things."
And then there were the Jacka's struggles with addiction. He had kicked a heroin habit he acquired as a teenager, but towards the end of his life, he became a regular user of lean, or the opioid codeine. "I know those things had a pretty serious grip on him," PK says, adding that the Jacka didn't open up to him about it much. "He had a very strong personality. He wasn’t the one to really ask for a lot of help."
Still, despite his personal battles, the Jacka remained an inspiration and a mentor to many. RobLo thinks of him as a spiritual leader. "He got me and my friends, I mean all 20 of us, to go hop in the van and go to the mosque," he recalls. "A friend that gets you closer to God is a friend worth having."
To this day, the Jacka's murder remains unsolved. But through the artists he inspired and the music that he made, his presence continues to be deeply felt in the Bay Area and beyond.
"We're keeping it lit for him," Husalah says, "living in his example."
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