Editor’s note: This story is part of That’s My Word, KQED’s year-long exploration of Bay Area hip-hop history, with new content dropping all throughout 2023.
In this edited excerpt from his book My Opinion (available here), Vallejo legend Mac Mall recalls signing his first record deal and recording his classic debut album, Illegal Business, at age 15.
hen I heard that Khayree wanted to holla at me about signing to a new label he was starting called Young Black Brotha Records, I had mixed emotions. On one hand, I was superjuiced, 'cause in my opinion, Khayree was and is a genius. His music is how the Crestside streets sound. I knew that if we hooked up, I would become a part of a legacy, but on the other hand, I was havin' a run of some real buzzard luck. It seemed like nothing was going my way. I would get close enough to touch my goal, and the rug would get snatched from under me. A part of me thought this time would be no different.
Khayree was like a myth to me then. I never saw him hangin' out; I just heard and felt the passion in his music. He definitely had his finger on the pulse of the Country Club and the whole Bay with the records he made for Strictly Business.
One of the things that eased my mind was Ceese telling me that it was real business. A Crestside OG and local DJ, Ceese was family; my mother used to babysit him way back when. He was always straight up and honest, so to me, his word was his bond. I got Khayree's number from Ceese, went directly home, and called him. We talked two or three times, but they were only short conversations, because Khayree was as busy as a dope dealer on the first. Between his campaigning to free Mac Dre, who had been railroaded by the feds, and Ray Luv, who was signed to Strictly Business and dropped the Bay Area classic "Get Ya Money On," Khayree didn't have much time to chat on the phone. He told me he would come to the Crest to chop it up with me face to face and would probably bring some tracks, so I had to be ready to spit.
When the day arrived, a few cuddies and I were posted up in front of my house on Mark Avenue. Khayree pulled up in his dark blue BMW. We knew it was him, 'cause not too many cars like that came through the turf. My crew knew Khayree was in the 'hood to talk business with me, so they left me there in front of my house. My first impression of Khayree was that he was taller than he looked on the record covers and TV, and he wasn't mean muggin'; he was actually smiling. So I put my best cold-as-the-North-Pole face on and gave him some dap, and then he ran down his plans on how he was creating Young Black Brotha (YBB) Records. He really didn't have to sell me on the idea, though, 'cause I was a jump, skip, and a hop from a cell block or a pine box, so I felt I had nothing to lose.
Khayree had heard me rap on the four-track demo tape Mac Dre had produced for me, but I guess he wanted to hear me flow live to find out if my skills were actual and factual. I think this is where the man upstairs who controls all game stepped in, 'cause the first piece of music he played for me was knockin', and I must say, the rap I spit felt tailor made for the beat. The track and rap ended up being the title track to what would become my debut record Illegal Business. After I spit a few raps to a couple different beats, I guess Khayree was convinced, so we agreed we would make Young Black Brotha Records a reality. The next step, though, would be a hard one. We would have to persuade my parents to let their 15-year-old son get involved with strangers in a business they knew little, if anything, about.
My relationship with my pops wasn't too cool at this time. We barely even spoke, so I felt he would be against it or wouldn't care. My mom was under a lot of stress 'cause of the funk between me and my pops, and all she heard about the music business were horror stories of people getting strung out on drugs or dying broke because the record company robbed them. Plus, with the way I was livin' at that time, she could have thought only the worst.
Ceese set up a meeting at my house with him, Khayree, my parents, and me to discuss my future in the record industry. You should have seen us: Ceese and Khayree were sitting on the couch looking like they just stepped out of a rap video, and my folks and I were on the other side of the couch looking like we just stepped out of an episode of Good Times.
My parents asked the usual questions like how this would affect me in school, who would look out for me and make sure I wouldn't fall victim to drugs, and what was up with the contract (who got what, how much, and when). Since I was a minor, a parent would have to sign along with me. For that reason, I was worried; if my pops told my mom not to sign out of spite, maybe mom wouldn't sign just to keep things cool between them. If that went down, I was right back where I started: the bottom of the bottom.
After Khayree finished his presentation, Ceese assured my parents that he would look out for me as best as he could, acting as DJ/mentor. Like I said, Ceese was family. After Ceese and Khayree bounced, my parents let me know that they thought I shouldn't risk my future on a dream and that I should concentrate on school. Then they informed me that if I disobeyed them and chose a music career, I would be doing so alone and without their support.
When they told me that, it really fucked me up. I mean, this was one of the biggest decisions in my life, and not having them have my back felt like they disowned me anyway. My mind was made up — matter of fact, it was a no-brainer.
My mom and pops wanted me to focus on school, but Hogan High School, which I was attending then, was just the minor leagues of the Crest against the rest of Vallejo funk. There, I focused only on fighting with the enemy and smoking weed with the cuddies, and getting a name for myself was more important than studying or homework. My parents didn't want me to risk my future on a dream, but my life was at risk every day I woke up and went outside. I felt the music industry couldn't be worse than growing up in the 'hood.
Pops had washed his hands of the situation, so I was able to convince my mother to sign the contract. I had to promise her that I would finish school and stay out of trouble. I gave her my word, we both signed, and it was official: Mac Mall was the first artist signed to Young Black Brotha.
Writing Up a Storm for 'Illegal Business'
So Khayree started giving me tracks, and we began putting together what would become my first record, Illegal Business. Leila Steinberg, who managed Ray and had managed Tupac before he got with Digital Underground, agreed to be my manager. With Dre in the feds, Ray took on a big cuddie role, letting me come along with him and perform at clubs and concerts. I felt like things were starting to happen — until Ray Luv caught a bullshit case and had to go to San Quentin for a ninety-day op.
Leila spent a lot of time trying to make sure he didn't get washed in the legal system and catch some serious time. Khayree was still shooting me tracks for the records, and I was writing up a storm. In the Crestside, the streets were on fire; it was like cats stopped grinding and started robbing banks. Every neighborhood d-boy switched his pitch up and became a modern-day Jesse James. Cuddies were runnin' up in every bank and credit union around. Some licks were so sweet, cats hit the same spot twice. This was the time some key members of my crew went down, mostly for robbery charges.
At first, the turf took the fed as a joke, but soon nobody would be laughin'. The 'hood lost some real soldiers to the funk, which was getting deeper by the day. With all this shit jumpin' off around me, it definitely influenced my rhymes.
My family had decided to take a vacation to Detroit that summer to go see my grandmother, Juanita Rocker. Juanita was a strong, strict, smart woman. She invested in real estate and owned property throughout Detroit. I spent a lot of summers in Motown helping repair houses and doing other business. I couldn't see it then, but now I appreciate the knowledge I received while I was out there.
But this summer in particular, I wasn't trying to go out there. I had some Khayree beats to write to, the cuddies from the Strictly Ses (which we changed our name to) and I were putting it down in the town. I was right there in the middle of it. I wasn't trying to miss any of the action. But after my mom made me go, the trip was actually cool. I got a chance to step back from my reality and put together some real raw material for my CD.
When I got back to the Crest, it was on. Khayree had the game plan made and was ready to execute. He decided we were gonna call the record Illegal Business, since that was one of the first and tightest songs we made. We were gonna do a savage record cover, where I would be lookin' like I was plotting a heist. When I heard that, I was with it, but the next thing he said threw me off. He told me he wanted to add another L to my name, 'cause he didn't think people would get Mall from Mal. At first I didn't want to do it, but trick it! I was getting in the game, so that's all that mattered.
When I started my sophomore year at Hogan High, I was hyphy — I mean, I was experiencing stuff no teenager or most adults get a chance to. My mom made me promise that if I rapped, I would have to keep my grades up, so I did just enough to keep her off my back. When people started seeing that what I was doing was profitable, school became an obstacle for them. I would have fools tell me that I would be making more money than the principal, so I should concentrate on my flows instead of school. It sounded cool, but I made a promise to my mother to finish school, and that was what I was gonna do. I'm not gonna say that I was an angel or anything. I would cut class to do songs — even at lunch time — anything I had to do to make it happen.
When I finished the record, I knew it was good, but I really didn't know what we had our hands on. I gave tapes to some cuddies, but I didn't know how people outside the turf would take to it. Because of Ray Luv’s single "Get Ya Money On," KMEL, the rap station in the Bay, gave us some love. I remember when I first heard my song "I Gots 2 Have It" on the radio. A DJ named Theo Mizuhara, the most popular DJ at the time, played it. I was on Mark Avenue with the cuddie from the crew, just smoking blunts and drinking forties, when a cuddie of mine told me they were playin' my song. I tell ya, I had an out-of-body experience. I couldn't believe that was me on the radio for the whole Bay to hear. The cuddies were so juiced that we hopped in the cars and rolled all around the turf, dancing and yelling, telling everybody who would listen that I was on the radio.
When we dropped the record that summer, I could feel something was about to happen. We had a strong street buzz, and slowly but surely, the record picked up momentum. It was a great time for Bay Area music then.
There was JT & the Get Low Playaz, Dre Dog, Cougnut, and RBL getting down in Frisco; Dru Down, The Luniz, 3X Krazy, and Richie Rich out in Oakland; Lil Ric in Richmond; and Brotha Lynch and C-Bo out in Sac. Man, I tell you, it was a good time to be a rapper.
Hooking Up With Tupac, One of the Hardest to Ever Live
With Mac Dre in the feds, E-40 became the king of Vallejo rap. If 40 was the king of Vallejo rap, then I was the prince. A lot of people don't know this, but 40 and I are cousins, with our roots goin' back to Louisiana. Actually, when I was younger, my mother and aunt wanted me to hook up with 40 and put out a record, since we were family. We chopped it up, but nothing ever came of it.
It was at E-40's "Practice Lookin' Hard" video that I met one of the hardest niggas to ever live: Tupac Amaru Shakur.
My cousin Shanda had brought me to the video; it was cool, even though I don't think I got in one scene. The thing that made it worth being there was when Pac showed up for his cameo. Pac was there with Mopreme, Stretch, Big Syke, and a couple of his folks from the Bay. He looked like success; at the time, he was on his way to becoming the biggest rap star alive, and the best thing about it was that he was from the Bay.
I remember back in the day when Pac ran with the Jungle, a turf in Marin. Mac Dre did a show out there, and our 'hoods had funk. We basically had to fight and shoot our way out of the projects, but that was then, and this was now. I can't front, I was starstruck. I always related to Tupac, not only 'cause he was from the Bay but because I felt that when he rapped, he spoke for every young Black man in America — shit, the world! He represented how far you could take it if you worked hard and kept it real. Pac was at the video chillin' just like a regular person, only difference was that everybody was jockin' him. I remember he was smoking some chocolate ty he had brought back from New York.
My cousin Shanda, who was talking shit as usual, had made a remark about his weed, and that's when I took my chance to introduce myself. I walked up to him and said, "What's up, Pac? My name is Mac Mall." Then I gave him some dap.
When he heard my name, his eyes got big. Now, anybody who knew Pac knew how hyper he could get about shit. He was like, "You Mac Mall from Young Black Brotha? I love your shit, dog! Me and all my niggas is slammin' that shit right now! I know your manager, Leila. I'm gonna call you up; we got to do something!"
When I heard this coming out of the mouth of one of my rap idols and the biggest rapper in the game, I felt validated and honored. I finally felt like I was on the right track. Shit, if the best said I was good, then I had to be doing something right!
When he told me "we had to do something," I really didn't trip; in the rap game, when somebody tells you that, it's kind of like somebody in Hollywood telling you, "Hey, I'll call you, and we'll do lunch."
But Tupac wasn't Hollywood. He called Leila, whom he hadn't spoken to in a while, and the next time he was in the Bay, he came through the YBB studio to check out our operation and do some tracks with me and Khayree. We had already shot the video for "Sic Wit Dis" a few months prior, and it was during this visit that Tupac told us that he wanted to direct a video for a song on my record called "Ghetto Theme." I was floored! I couldn't believe he would take time out of his busy schedule to direct and be in a video for little ol' me. Tupac will forever be a friend in my eyes for that.
Even now, I think about how God brought Pac into my life. I mean Tupac was large; he didn't even have to talk to me, let alone take me under his wing. I don't know why God did it, but I'm happy he did. Here I was in the 11th grade with a CD in stores, doing shows around the country, starting to see a little paper, and having the biggest rapper as a big cuddie! It felt good; life was sweet!
But you can't have the sweet without the bitter. The bitter came in the form of hate; it seemed like the better I did, the more some people hated on me. It didn't bother me, 'cause I had my crew, but when some of them dudes started to hate, it really cut me deep. I had to come face to face with the fact that everybody wasn't going to see my dream the way I saw it. It hurt that rap came between us, but this was bigger than me. This was destiny. I had to handle my business. Pac and I got close, and even though he was fighting cases, doing movies, and making music, I was still able to call him and ask him for advice or just to chop it up.
I remember when Pac wanted to take me to the Soul Train Awards that year. Since I was young, he decided he'd call my mom and ask her personally for permission rather than having his people do it. He couldn't have called at a worse time, 'cause I wasn't doing well in school. When he asked her, she straight-up told him no. I almost fainted. I had to explain to her that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I had to get out there. Luckily I was able to get my grades together and go.
Man, going to Hollywood for the Soul Train Awards with Tupac was major! It also was the first time Ray Luv and Tupac had spoken since the Strictly Dope days. Strictly Dope was a group Pac and Ray started back in the day. Pac left the group to join Digital Underground, so he and Ray weren't on good terms. Once we hooked up with Pac, though, he and Ray went into a back room, chopped it up, and squashed whatever problem they had. When we got to the awards, I saw how the big dogs do it. It was superstars everywhere. Pac let me sit in the front next to him, while Ray and Thug Life had other seats in the back. Man, I was literally sitting next to Madonna, and Jamie Foxx, Dr. Dre, and Snoop were by us.
People I watched on TV were right in front of my face — not to mention, I was with the biggest rapper/ actor in the game. "Man, if the cuddies could see me now," I thought.
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