This story is part of Image issue 18, “Mission,” an anthology of fantastic voyages — from L.A. to the world and back to the epicenter. Read the whole issue here.
It’s no simple feat to get to Suga Free. This is by design. Iceberg Slim once wrote that “a pimp is the loneliest bastard on Earth,” so it’s fitting that the path to Southern California’s pope of street gospel slices through cold and remote terrain. The high desert has been battered by a biblical series of storms. On slick roads stacked with banks of snow, “Proceed With Caution” signs flash at nervous travelers. There’s a thin line between isolation and serenity, and Suga Free needs nobody but Suga Free.
The canonized pimp-slash-rapper, once described by Snoop Dogg as “my only competition,” now lives an hour from the Pomona asphalt that he immortalized like lost scenes from “Superfly,” in a placid subdivision toward the Victor Valley foothills. Suga Free’s nondescript two-story house sits on the edge of a lake filled with ducks and catfish. His home studio overlooks half a dozen speedboats idled at a dock. He’s so close to the water that he can practically dip his toes from the computer desk.
After half a century of hard living — near-death experiences, struggles with substance abuse, multiple incarcerations, the shady travails of the record business, the constant stresses of the world’s oldest profession — Suga Free has learned to value simplicity. “I don’t run in the streets anymore,” Suga Free says. “I don’t chase women. I’m not at Hollywood parties. I’m not at other rappers’ functions. I don’t do [things] just to be doing them.”
At 53, Suga Free still looks exactly like Suga Free. Honoring his commandment to be fly for life, his hair remains long and luxurious. He’s draped in a custom-made tracksuit with his name emblazoned on the back. The right questions elicit stanzas of profane one-liners, flamboyant slang and coldblooded wisdom. (“Every time I walk out of my house and turn that key in my car, that means I’m finna spend some money,” he laughs. “I’m trying to squeeze a quarter till the eagle screams.”) Ask the wrong question and you don’t want the answer.
The successes of the last quarter-century adorn his sanctuary. Gold and platinum plaques honor his collaborations with DJ Quik, Snoop Dogg and Lil Jon. A gilded disc celebrates “If You Stay Ready,” his pimpadelic ode to the art of preparation, which reached the top of Billboard’s Bubbling Under the Hot 100 list in May 1997.
At the time, no one had ever heard anything quite like Suga Free. He didn’t rap, he glided like a swan at the Player’s Ball, inventing his own unquantized, improvised rhythms. During those final few springs and summers of the last century, Quik and Suga Free were the undisputed champions of L.A. hip-hop. In the final days before local urban radio ceased to meaningfully exist, they were regional superheroes, patron saints, a secret dap among tapped-in Angelenos. A pair of hilarious, vulgar and charismatic mad scientists wearing impeccable manicures and exquisitely straightened perms “silkier than Charlotte’s Web with waves deeper than Redondo Beach.” The embodiment of effortless cool.
But pimps don’t have pension plans. For sanity and sheer survival, he needed to evolve. Roughly a dozen years removed from his procurer past, Suga lives in pursuit of only two things: making music and finding peace. Freezers store all the catfish that he can catch. There is all the beer that he can drink, plenty of weed and large, flat-screen TVs tuned to the local news. A recording setup is surrounded by a 50-gallon fish tank and lava lamps. The closets are crammed with snakeskin boots, imported silk and crisp white linen suits (“A pimp has to have his tools”). Everything else is superfluous.
“I catch catfish in my backyard. I’m growing my mama’s collard greens back there too. She passed away and they were dying in her backyard, so I saved them.” He stares wistfully at the water. “When I see what’s going on in the world, I’m at peace just looking at these ducks every day. If I’m not on stage somewhere, I’m right here in this room.”
His first memories come from Oakland. The future Suga Free was born DeJuan Walker in Gardena, but shortly thereafter his parents resettled in the East Bay. He can still remember the address: 866 Aileen Street on the north side, between Market and what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The family had a pink house.
There’s no underestimating the deeply etched strength of those early recollections. This was the mid-’70s, the apex of outlandish sideburns, ABA Afros and glittering Cadillacs. He can still smell the Stetson and Brut cologne.
“It made you want to be a player,” Suga Free says. “I remember all the music and the unity in Oakland among Black people because the Panthers were out there.”
His father was frequently drunk and violent. The details of the spousal abuse are chronicled on “Dip Da,” the penultimate and most poignant song on “Street Gospel.” There is the hatred of son toward father, the desire to protect his mom and his frustration that these demons are hereditary. It was written from the L.A. County jail, shortly before he blew up.
“Pops would come home drunk all the time and just blast the stereo,” Suga Free says. “Al Green, Steely Dan, Parliament-Funkadelic — I was introduced to these at a very young age. When all the bullshit was going on, I closed my eyes and imagined being one of the Spinners or James Brown. I remember learning how to read by staring at the album covers all day.”
When Suga Free was 5, his parents divorced. His mother, a green-eyed Creole woman raised in a country town just outside of Shreveport, La., moved the family to Compton. Six years later, Suga Free and his sister were separately run over by cars, just one week apart. They were ultimately fine, but his mother had had enough and moved them to Pomona. Despite its reputation for citrus trees and suburbia, there was plenty of trouble to be found.
It was the ’80s, the era of Reaganomics and crack. The underworld ecosystem extended 30 miles east on the 10. Suga Free became affiliated with the Crips, frequently running afoul of the police. During a stint selling rocks in Compton, he barely survived a drive-by. “I thought some bees were trying to sting me, but folks were shooting,” he says, taking a bite of a pickle, his preferred snack. “It was close. I stopped selling crack after that.”
Pimping was in his blood. He got his game from his mother’s brother, a Compton native known on the street as Fritz the Cat after the X-rated cartoon. A player with polyester shirts with the roses, hats with the feathers.
“He was unique, man,” Suga Free says. “All his girls looked alike. I wanted to be like him.”
But Suga Free didn’t follow his uncle’s model until later. He first found himself constantly in juvenile hall and youth authority (“gladiator school”). He says that he only started pimping at 17, after having his heart broken. His girlfriend left him, taking their newborn son and eventually marrying someone else. (“She was beautiful. I could have been a better boyfriend. That was definitely the one that got away.”) What followed is chronicled in his book of language.
None of Suga Free’s music is meant for the impressionable or easily offended. In the recording booth, he can be brazenly misogynistic, brutal and ruthless. His rhymes are also artfully obscene, an exaggerated, hyper-stylized comedy reminiscent of ’80s Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. Even so, none of it would matter much if not for the fact that Suga Free raps as well as anyone to ever live.
The idiosyncratic, off-beat on-beat cadences came from both the divine and the condemned. Suga Free had been rapping since he discovered Too Short at 15, but nothing crystallized until his perspective was confined to cellblocks and prison yards.
“Rapping saved my ass,” Suga Free says. “I started beating on the tables, the walls and on my bunk — making my own beats and rapping to them. I was hungry. I told God: ‘If you give me this, I’ll rock with you.’”
There is a YouTube video from around 1995 that goes viral just about every time someone posts it on social media. It’s alternately known as the Suga Free “Pen and Nickel” or “Kitchen Table” freestyle. Filmed with a handheld camera at a Compton dope house, Suga Free performs the rap equivalent of hitting a full court shot backward and following it up with a 720-degree slam dunk. Using a nickel as a kick drum, a pen as a hi-hat, Suga Free floats like he had never experienced gravity. He’s Gregory Hines in alligator shoes, Cab Calloway on a mission to make money with Minnie the Moocher. The voice pirouettes and crip walks, flows and bends like alien cadences from an advanced civilization where “Dolemite” is revered as sacred text. When Questlove posted the clip last month, the reactions were typical: thousands marveling at the level of difficulty, describing it as the pure essence of hip-hop creativity. Or as A$AP Ferg chimed in: “Unbelievable 🔥.”
By then, DJ Quik and Suga Free were already working together. Upon hearing the pen-and-nickel routine at a Lakewood trading cards shop, the platinum-certified producer was immediately sold on the rapper then known as Royal Rock. He was already an established commodity, having sat in on sessions for “The Chronic.” Suga Free vividly remembers eating Popeye’s, smoking the namesake strain purchased at a nearby Jamaican incense store, battling Snoop and even being asked to contribute an unused vocal line.
“Being in there with Dr. Dre showed me the seriousness of recording,” Suga Free says. “I’d sit on that hard-ass carpet until I was asked if I wanted a seat. That’s just how obedient I was. I was eager to learn.”
But Suga Free’s inability to stay out of the penitentiary kept delaying his arrival. The fast life produced unending chaos and turmoil but lent gravity and authenticity to “Street Gospel.” A behind-bars epiphany led to him rechristening himself Suga Free (“No one should ever be that happy in prison.”) The hook on his biggest hit, the 1,000-thread-count “If You Stay Ready,” came from an offhand aphorism of a friend of his Compton uncle’s named Fidget, who watched his cellblock freestyles.
The masterpiece is inextricable from its producer, DJ Quik, who experimented with everything from the Japanese koda to the sitar, capitalizing on Free’s ability to modulate his flow to any orchestral flourish. As a showcase of a producer’s talent and vision, “Street Gospel” holds its own with anything Dre ever released. In the booth, Suga Free could make street anthems out of beats that sounded made for a polyrhythmic Marrakech snake charmer.
“It was like listening to Richard Pryor on record,” DJ Quik says. “Suga Free felt like greater Los Angeles — Compton, Inglewood, Watts and Carson. There was just something about the way he rides the beats that I make. There’s nuances in there that he picks up on. The little things. It’s like video game coding. He comes out as the right avatar every time.”
“Rapping saved my ass. … I told God: ‘If you give me this, I’ll rock with you.’ ”
— Suga Free
Despite influencing everyone from Kendrick Lamar to Vince Staples, Suga Free’s debut “Street Gospel” sold fewer than 200,000 copies. Though several singles have remained in radio rotation for over a quarter-century, only two songs received videos. Royalties were nonexistent. Apart from the occasional live performance, guest verse or local bail bonds and soul food commercials, pimping was the only thing paying his bills. Suga Free may have been a certified legend in the streets, but he spent the first decade of the millennium cycling in and out of prison. He insists that none of the sentences were for pimping.
“No matter what the other inmates did to get in there, they were still smart enough to come to me and say, ‘Why are you in here with us?’” Suga Free says, taking a drag of a hand-rolled cigarette. “It got to the point where I was like, ‘Why am I in here?’ So I cut it out. I learned how to control myself. I wish I was doing then what I’m doing now. ”
For all the setbacks, there was a silver lining. Through scarcity, Suga Free preserved his mystique. He has given only a handful of interviews in his career and always existed outside the delousing gears of industry. He has always kept it raw and rare. So now he seems like more of a scene-stealing outlaw from cinematic lore than a flesh-and-blood mortal. And rather than become a nostalgic curio, a vestige of a less politically correct past, Suga Free is enjoying an unlikely but deserved renaissance.
Despite a subject matter considered highly problematic in the modern world — or perhaps because of it — the pimp from Pomona goes viral roughly once a month: whether it’s an avuncular screed on a young rapper’s album, a vintage freestyle video, presiding over a family crawfish boil or offering tenor harmonies alongside Quik on an impromptu cover of the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes.” Snoop Dogg has tapped the legend to be one of the first signings to the resurrected Death Row. His music plays almost hourly at K-Day (93.5-FM) and his show calendar remains constantly filled.
“People always want to be shocked,” Suga Free says, breaking down part of the appeal. “I love being the villain, the one who talks about what people really think, the stuff that they want to sweep under the rug. We all have a job to do, a higher purpose to serve. You need everyone from a Kirk Franklin all the way on down to Suga Free.”
There is no formula for what makes art timeless. Sometimes what you knew would stand up forever ages like an Instagram challenge. And there are those overlooked albums and artists whose work was too idiosyncratic to fully break through during their first moment in the sun but wind up as shining cultural touchstones. If all great art is a projection of personality, a declaration of original style, this explains Suga Free’s enduring appeal. Among the younger generation of West Coast rappers, there are few more sought-after O.G. guest features. To his eternal credit, Suga Free’s technical complexity, comic timing and mid-song impressions make him so inimitable that few ever attempt to copy his savoir-faire.
The revival loosely traces back to an appearance on Schoolboy Q’s 2014 debut album, “Oxymoron.” The following year, Kendrick Lamar interpolated and reinterpreted Suga Free on his lauded “To Pimp a Butterfly.” When asked about it, Lamar acknowledged the creative inspiration, explaining to NME that “Suga Free played a big part in my community coming up, in Compton.”
“Suga Free is the raw and uncut, the real deal, one of the best to ever do it,” says Compton’s Jay Worthy, who recently appeared on Suga Free’s excellent collaborative EP with the West L.A. rapper YeloHill. “We knew that’s what L.A. felt like, smelled like, looked like and tasted like. And he doesn’t get enough credit for being a great lyricist. What he was saying was so complex that it still goes over people’s heads.”
There is no underscoring the complexity. Suga Free has done and said indefensible things. To love his music in a more enlightened modern climate is to appreciate the originality and style without making excuses for the heartless id unleashed from a real-life hustler who once vowed that if he had Taylor Swift in his stable he would “pimp a hole through the stratosphere.” He is very much a product of a West Coast hip-hop tradition defined by the vulgar hyper-bravado of its pioneers: Too Short, Eazy-E and Ice-T. But he is also an integral part of a longer lineage that encompasses everyone from Iceberg Slim to Pryor, Morris Day, James Brown and every blaxploitation hero with a sneer on his lips, mink on his back and a courtesan on his arms. He has suffered for his sins, paid a heavy debt to the state and learned to live with regrets.
“I was in and out of jail all the time,” Suga Free laments. “To some little kid out there who thinks pimping is fun or cool, I’ll tell that young man to stay in school.”
It’s the depth and duration of these lows that have allowed him to savor these more recent highs. He characterizes the present moment as the happiest that he’s ever been.
“I know how to stay out of the bullshit now,” he continues.” I’m in control of my life. I own all my music.”
On the TV in his studio, local news drones on about the storm shutting down Big Bear, where his two youngest kids live with their mother. Throughout the conversation, he’s receiving text updates on their status (snowed in but fine).
“I lost my phone about a month ago, so I bought this Boost Mobile phone,” he laughs, holding up a burner. “I have five contacts in here. I know I’ll have to eventually go back, jump online, but I’m pleased with this. When I look at what people are doing and how they’re expressing themselves, I think we’re giving [away] too much personal information.”
Unless there’s a paycheck involved, there is nothing for him outside of these walls. His eyes betray the weariness of someone who doesn’t suffer fools and who has already seen it all. He has endured long enough and accumulated enough respect to where all he has to do at this point is be Suga Free — which is all anyone ever wanted. The lawyers are finalizing the paperwork for him at Snoop’s new Death Row venture. There’s talk about him doing a soundtrack to a remake of “Willie Dynamite” and a reality show called “Suga Babies” (think “My Fair Lady” but with Suga Free). Another album is on the way called “Mr. Peabody.” Quik sent a batch of beats recently too.
Everything he needs is right here. The two dying purple vine collard greens saved from his mother’s garden have become 14 plants flourishing in the backyard. (“I’ve been eating on these particular strains since I was a kid.”) He’s planning on getting a pigeon coop to restart a hobby that began at age 10 in Compton. The fishing is so good that Quik calls him “the catfish whisperer.” His secret: cut up hot dogs, soak them in a jar of minced garlic and let them take the bait.
But his primary focus is music. Most nights are spent recording or studying his musical heroes: Funkadelic, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Smiths, Rolling Stones, Nirvana and R.E.M. There were years when he was locked up, some years when he was waiting on beats from Quik and others where he wasn’t inspired enough to make anything at all. But he’s grateful that he still feels like he has room to grow. He’s constantly learning — a master trying to apply new techniques from the old school.
“This is my passion. I do this every day, all night, go to sleep, wake up, just to do it again,” he says, nodding at the microphone. “I’m practicing every day. These [guys] don’t stand a chance. Other rappers, producers, whoever … they know I’m coming.”
Suga Free takes another drag of his cigarette and another sip of his beer. The conversation starts to wind down. It’s going to be another long night alone in the studio. After he’s finished, he’ll crash monkishly on a mattress in the living room. But at the moment, a few hours of daylight remain. He stares at the water longingly, all too aware that there are plenty of fish left to catch.
Jeff Weiss is the founder of “the last rap blog,” POW, and the label POW Recordings. His first book, “Waiting for Britney Spears,” will come out in 2024 on FSG/MCD. He was born and raised in Los Angeles.
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This story originally appeared on LA Times