From Vallejo, an Intimate Video Series Putting On for the Bay

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Vallejo's LaRussell sitting in a dark room, slightly illuminated by green LED lights.
Vallejo's LaRussell sitting in a dark room, slightly illuminated by green LED lights. (LaRussell)

With live music venues shuttered due to the pandemic, alternate platforms have become more necessary than ever for fans seeking entertainment and artists itchy to perform.

Enter Good Compenny, the latest creation from 26-year-old Vallejo MC and media producer LaRussell. For over a year, he and his team have experimented with new approaches to filming musical performances—and with their latest iteration, they might've struck gold.

“Bruh, we got a hard one!” LaRussell exclaims during a phone call. As he tells me about his recent video with the L.A.-based artist Iman Europe, he's clearly juiced: “She came in and went stupid.”

Posted on Twitter 10 days ago, the video has amassed 500 retweets and over 1,000 likes. It’s one 15 videos from LaRussell and crew in the past month or so, all filmed at the Esthedik boutique in his hometown of Vallejo.

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We're a year into a whole pandemic, and I can't think of too many artists who haven't done some sort of video performance. But there's something that's unique, refreshing, and kind of intimate about the clips coming from Good Compenny. It must be the way the LED lighting accents the pure talent of the artists who aren't household names... yet. Yeah, that's it.

A Springboard for New Artists

So far, LaRussell's short videos feature mostly Bay Area artists. Fairfield’s Tah-Hir spits a verse of life perspective over a sample of the classic Black Rob track “Whoa." The Alameda-bred vocalist and model Zharmila sends her soulful voice floating on a track named “Honey.” East Bay artist Jazs pleads with a partner to get out of the same old routine in the acoustic-soul track "Riot."

From the audience perspective, LaRussell looks at artists like they're professional athletes. It's one thing to hear them be interviewed, he says, but "we wanna see them ball."

I feel him.

I grew up watching my favorite artists drop bars inside the booth on BET's Rap City and show vulnerability during live tapings of MTV Unplugged. I'm a firm believer that while the concept of seeing an artist at work isn't new, it doesn't really get old—especially when done right.

A few platforms are doing pretty well: the COLORS series is entertaining, and of course NPR's Tiny Desk is good.

XXL's Freshman Cypher and BET's Hip Hop Awards Cypher are staples in the industry. Looking at local renditions, Thizzler's "The Best of Thizzler" filmed cyphers have been cracking for years. And recently, artists like Shy'an G and the Grand Nationxl collective have released taped live performances on their own.

“Platforms like this," says LaRussell, "are launch pads for the artists.”

They also fill a gap in the ways artists can get discovered. Given the lack of live events due to COVID-19, videos are the bridge. So now, LaRussell himself is in the latest batch of Good Compenny videos, performing a verse of his track "Do That Little Dance."

He shot it the night before he released his album The Field Effect 2, simply as album promotion. "We dropped (the video) the very next day, and that shit took off,” LaRussell says with a laugh.

But the track is far from comical. "African nigga in a European whip / like we ain't come here in a European ship," LaRussell raps in the song's opening lines. It's the first track on the album, and serves as an introduction to what he’s about. An expression of pain and anger. Frustration and distrust of the government, specifically the police. And a push for self-accountability: "Unfamiliar, quite peculiar, do you know yourself? / Are you tending to your garden, do you grow yourself?" LaRussell raps.

'We're Always on Edge'

From there, The Field Effect 2 covers a lot of territory. With "Hidden Animosity," LaRussell pens a piece about internal community issues. On the song "God Flow," he celebrates his own lyrical ability. In the song "Soup and Cracks," LaRussell mentions his maturation into using his real name in his music, and retiring his stage name, Tota. And then calls out the shortcomings of his childhood hero who introduced him to the concept of metaphor, Lil Wayne: "Looking at my idols that no longer wear a cape / Spewing they beliefs while I no longer can relate."

A recent message from a childhood friend reminded LaRussell that he's been rapping since he was in second grade at Vallejo's Widenmann Elementary School. Now LaRussell has released five projects, plus a few ghostwriting placements and a bunch of singles, but he says The Field Effect 2 has gotten the most attention.

On the track "Proud Boys," LaRussell lists off names of people who've been killed by state sponsored violence, and then raps, "It's a couple things that you gotta understand / niggas getting killed for stealing on stolen land." The track concludes with the poetry of Tee Speaks, who's also featured on "Second Hand Emotion," a song in which LaRussell takes accountability for his role for past trauma in romantic relationships.

LaRussell, seated, and co. on the set of a video shoot in Vallejo.
LaRussell (seated) and his team on the set of a video shoot in Vallejo. (LaRussell)

After listening to the album, I dug deeper into his catalog. His music chronicles his efforts to be a good father to his daughter, as well as his strides toward veganism. But evident in his latest project project, and the majority of his other work, is his disdain for the police. And given all that we know about Vallejo police, it's no surprise.

"We're always on edge," says LaRussell, in reference to his city as a whole. "Lately, it’s gotten even worse."

Along with what LaRussell calls "neighborhood politics"—such as festering Vallejo beefs—new conflicts have started to arise when incoming residents make their way to one of the least expensive parts of the Bay Area. “And then you have the fucked-up-ass police force, on top of it," says LaRussell, who's never had a violent encounter with the department, but has been stopped on numerous occasions without being ticketed.

The Theory of 1,000 Splits

Volunteering with a local politician during the mayoral race last year allowed LaRussell to see firsthand just how bad things are. “The corruption we’re facing inside the city, it’s sick," says LaRussell. "It’s like a Hollywood movie."

As an artist, what can he do about it?

There isn't much he can do as an individual, he says. The task is larger than one person can handle. But he's a believer in working together to achieve a common goal.

“We’ve been on a quest," says LaRussell. "I got this saying: 1,000 splits.”

He explains that every video he produces is free for the artists. His company makes sure the artists have ownership of the footage, and any profit that might come from it gets split among all parties that worked on it.

His ultimate goal for the year is to help people with 1,000 projects, be it videos, music, or otherwise.

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He wrapped up his answer to my question of what he can do to better the situation in his hometown by simplifying things. "The more resources you provide to someone," says LaRussell, "the better the chance they have of making it out of a situation."