There’s a fragrant stank of herb in the gravel parking lot of a closed automotive repair shop, across the strip from The Boardwalk in Orangevale.
It’s nearing Friday as I approach the crosswalk while everyone else dares road kill status by zipping across the darkened boulevard with nothing but a full yellow moon spilling yolk on their path.
Out in the burbs, hip-hop is a life or death proposition only if you want it to be.
Rappers Mac Mall and Nef the Pharoah, and musical curio Smoov-E, all from the Bay Area, headline a busy playbill that includes several other hip-hop acts at the east county music venue, possibly the last place yielding stage time to this particular brand of hyphy rap right now.
A February 20 shooting outside of Ace of Spades following a Nipsey Hussle performance there is to blame, rightly or not. Across the seaboard tonight, multiple people will be stabbed during a Migos concert in New York, adding to rap’s age-old image problem.
Ace’s owners recently took over The Boardwalk, a venerable spot in its own right. But it’s also on the outskirts of the county, making it feel like a satellite station. Is this where Sacramento’s rap scene has been shuffled off to?
I crunch across the loose rocks toward security, a tourist surrounded by flat-billed caps, screenprint tees and sunglasses at night. Security gives me a cursory patdown and goes the extra mile when I say I don’t have a ticket, directing me to a lady in the parking lot selling them out of an envelope.
“Look at her. She’s beautiful. She’s young. And she’s pregnant. Make her feel special tonight,” a young woman tells two young men as they stand on the stoop. Her friend shoots a “please stop” expression.
It’s not crowded. Show hasn’t started. People assembled along the walls, wallpapered in a vivid scarlet pattern like the hotel in The Shining. Half expect the film’s ghost bartender to serve me a drink and suggest I kill my family.
Tonight’s house deejay plays top 40 club hits on his laptop. Giving me headache. I retreat further down the column bar lining the stage, closer to the not-busy merch table.
Four male friends abut the bar separating the of-age drinkers from the young’uns. One resembles a somehow jockier Channing Tatum. Another is a little guy. Looks 10 and mean-mugs with his shoulders rocking. I immediately fear him.
Bearded security dude in Ace of Spades hoodie roust them from the spot. It’s only for people old enough to drink. The division between those who are and aren’t is striking. Audience is either mature or pubescent.
Hype man tries to get some love for opening act, three white dudes, maybe 21. They look like the West Coast version of the Beastie Boys, if Mike D & Co. were into motorcycles. Trio makes the best of their limited stage time in front of a sparse, shy audience. The one with the straw-colored goatee spits fast into a tinny, hot mic over a rapid sample. His buddy has more stage swagger, but a slower tempo. It works somehow. Good hook. Who are these weevils?
Their second and final song reveals how pitchy this space is. The chorus sounds like they’re saying “naughty is ratchet,” but I honestly have no idea. The third member, dressed like classic Coke-Ice Cube, records himself on stage.
They exit stage to their GFs/home-brought fans. Adorable as fuck.
At a table against the wall a woman palms a young child’s skull with love. A family waiting for relatives to go on?
Security prevents me from taking my Jameson to bathroom. Really have to pee.
After break, Calaveras County rapper EP!C is up. “My name is Epic, E-P-I-C motherfuckers!” is how he introduces himself. “This next song is called ‘Life’s A Bitch.’ Because if it isn’t, I don’t know what is!”
He’s bespectacled, black tee and jeans; a small medallion hangs from his neck. He looks like he’s really good at Call of Duty. He raps over his own prerecorded voice for the chorus parts. Reminds me of a bit comedian Hannibal Burress did at The Crest last week. (Those who were there will get this.)
EP!C’s song just kind of ends without crowd noticing, a theme of the night. He tries to win us over. “How many in this crowd tonight like to get fucked up?” Obligatory whoops. Next song “Hallucinations,” about mushrooms and/or acid. More peope approach stage.
“Who here wants to hear some of that raw hip hop?” he asks. Goes acapella. Acapella! Then leaves stage to impressed cheers.
Deejay: “Give it up for the white boy who can rap.”
Bay Area act goes next. Stout dude dressed in white, looks like a marshmallow. Completely different feel to his music. Less angsty, more chilled-out and happy. “Have a good time” is the chorus line. Is this the difference between Sacramento and Bay Area rap? This is the night’s first black act. People dance for the first time.
2nd song is a ballad about smoking weed. On cue there’s a smell of stripper perfume. “Smoking weed in the Virgin Islands motherfucker,” he raps. Wonder how many can relate.
Orangevale gets a shout-out. Hail to geographic specificity!
Next song is “for the ladies.” Start-stop intro. Almost Sinatra vibe before booming. Asks us to tweet the hashtag #ktp or #ktb if we approve.
His last song is a Kanye-style banger. Performer gets into it. Sweats profusely. Side of his face looks covered in Saran Wrap. Whoever he is, he’s set the bar for the night.
Next act is a local duo—two 20-somethings that look made for a buddy movie. Young Sikh male and white water-polo looking guy. Dilpreet Mayall. They’re skilled and extremely confident. Almost too confident.
After set, woman holding steakfries tells Dilpreet she approves. He pats his heart to convey how much that means to him or how nervous he was. If it was latter, impossible to tell.
I’ve seen at least two other people in cardigans. They wear them cooler than I do, but I feel less alone.
Spot my first gold grill. Take a drink.
New act. Easy-something? Hits stage without fanfare. Hard to tell difference between his song and the deejay’s laptop jams. Probably a good sign. He’s closer to that radio sound. The smell of weed spikes like the Dow Jones. Actually smells good. Sweet. Like blooming honeysuckle buds.
Have no idea what they’re shouting into this echo chamber but am suddenly nodding my head in agreement. Contact high?
Then I hear “doing it for my moms.” I can get down with that. They end it w/ “support your local artists.”
I’ve lost count of the opening acts. Beast Mode. Ty H. Mondi. So many rungs on this ladder to the main event.
Next guys are just yelling. How did they get this high on the ticket? They’re shrill and terrible. I let my ears recover outside.
I meet Neff the Pharaoh’s brother or cousin outside and hand him my card. He trucks a big-bottomed bottle of hard brown liquid. I thiiink he performed earlier as marshmallow man.
Neff dances onstage, wearing an obscenely colorful hoodie and the aforementioned grill. He’s of slight stature but casts big stage presence. Crowd crumps along.
He does very little actual rapping at first. Crowd does NOT mind. They are into the thumping beats and prerecorded tracks played at loud volume. He’s got a big following and most of them are on stage. All have mics or recording equipment. I lose count at 18.
Neff stops the music abruptly. “We took a big loss this year.” Someone dead? Hard to tell. Make some noise, he commands. We oblige. Then he continues.
A skinny, older, bespectacled man performs hype duties. Someone’s’ uncle? He’s hardest working person on stage.
There’s actually a guy who just texts on his phone. Wears bright red. STANDS UP FRONT. It’s a brilliant piece of performance art commentary. Just not on purpose.
Buncha guys recording the act. Suddenly it’s like our concert is impinging on their private video shoot. Awkward.
Man in a Mac Dre shirt fires up a joint on stage. Meanwhile bearded security workers removes empty glasses from bar column.
Next up is Smoov-E. Majority of the crowd leaves with Neff, but Smoov-E gets a visceral response from those who remain. Ratio favors females.
Smoov-E is weirder and vibier. How to describe his brand—do-me nerd rap? His white jean jacket and Prince-on-shrooms facial expressions speak volumes.
Two security guys politely exit a young white male in a flat-billed cap. He looks hurt, but goes along. Takes a while for his friends to notice, but they eventually leave in search of.
Smoov-E, who primps in some invisible mirror only he can see—adjusting his beanie and tugging his lapel—wraps up his set to delighted squeals. Thin crowd but lots of love.
Mac Mall, a contemporary of 2pac and E-40, should be up next. But like someone who’s filled up on appetizers, I have no room for the main course.
This party will survive without me. So might the local rap scene, even if relegated to an outskirt venue like this.