Langton Alley in San Francisco is a long, narrow, one-way street, not unlike any other alley south of Market Street. Its gutters are lined with crumpled trash, its sidewalk spotted with urine. Between the towering walls there's a drab sensation of facelessness--you're no longer walking in any distinct city--until the alley's end, where, emblazoned beaconlike across one wall, what has quickly become the most beloved graffiti mural in the city appears.
In the cutthroat world of graffiti, it normally takes a only few days for an enormous mural--no matter how stunning in color and size--to get pockmarked with tags or blighted with rival paint. This one has been up for months, and it remains untouched. Twin airbrushed portraits dance over the alley wall, the words "REST IN PEACE" stamped boldly atop the memorial.
"Nobody's gonna mess with this," says a young girl, one of many who has come from out of town to visit this alley. She takes a few pictures and adds, "You don't touch Mac Dre."
By now, the story of Mac Dre's career in gangsta rap--and especially its senseless end--is a well-known tale of young street life, hard jail time and eventual redemption. But from reading one-sided stories about Mac Dre in the mainstream media, you'd think that his sole appeal lies in his tough life of crime; the media have reported extensively on his alleged gang ties, and have linked three murders in the last year to his Nov. 1, 2004, death.
Whether these connections can be proven or not is a question that ignores the very heart of Mac Dre's appeal and leaves unexplored the nuances of his life and artistry, which offer an important lesson in staying true to oneself and succeeding because of it. Through his determined self-expression and uniquely positive personality, Mac Dre left this world with legions of fans who all feel a special, personal connection to the man they called the "Crestside Clown."
I spoke extensively with Mac Dre's mother about his life and legacy recently, and what emerged was a portrait of a passionate, fun-loving, good-natured kid who never fully got the chance to grow up.
The People Thing
Mac Dre was born Andre Hicks in Oakland, Calif., on July 5, 1970. Nixon was president, Elton John ruled the airwaves. Aside from a few slick soul-talking DJs on select radio stations in Cleveland, the notion of rapping as a musical form was years away. Speaking from her Vallejo home, just after the one-year anniversary of her son's death, Hicks' mother Wanda Salvatto can't say that she knew her son would be a performer, but she remembers noticing from an early age that he was a rampant individualist.
"The thing about Andre as a child," she says, "was that he was always very, very outgoing and outspoken. He had a mind of his own early on and followed his own direction." His parents tried to get him involved in sports, but Salvatto says he took more interest in talking to other kids than in playing games with them. "He was interested in all kinds of people," she says, "and in the differences in people. It fascinated him to meet white kids over in Marin, black kids in Country Club Crest, Mexican kids--y'know, the people thing interested him. He opened up to everybody."
It wasn't until the family moved to the Country Club Crest neighborhood--known more familiarly as Crestside or "the Crest"--that a clear picture of his future started to take shape. Hicks and his friends began dragging home large rolls of linoleum to use for break dancing in the garage. "He also started asking for keyboards," Salvatto recalls, "and early in junior high, he started to pick up the microphone and started rapping and writing lyrics himself, I'd say about the seventh or eighth grade."
By the time Hicks was a teenager, rap music had become a coast-to-coast phenomenon, and Vallejo's own underground began bubbling. One of Vallejo's early pioneers, Michael "the Mac" Robinson, released the groundbreaking album The Game Is Thick in 1988; its influence is still felt throughout the Northern California rap scene. Eighteen-year-old Robinson protégé Andre Hicks adopted the name "Mac" in honor of his mentor, and his artistic persona, Mac Dre, was born.
"I knew that he would be successful," Salvatto says, "because he was really, really smart--a lot of just common sense."
Young Black Brother
After three acclaimed albums, including his sensational 1989 debut Young Black Brotha, Mac Dre found his music the focus of an unwanted kind of attention. A string of robberies had been spotlighted on the television show Unsolved Mysteries, and police were pressured to find the members of Vallejo's Romper Room gang, widely believed to be the perpetrators. Dre's independent record label at the time was called Romp Records and there were many references to the Romper Room gang in his lyrics.
Alleged to be a member of the gang and picked up by police in Fresno while with some friends, Dre was soon embroiled in a court case, fighting conspiracy charges to commit bank robbery. Strapped for evidence, the prosecuting lawyers relied upon lyrics from Young Black Brotha. Dre was sentenced to five years in prison.
Salvatto is still in shock that her son was found guilty on such flimsy evidence. "Although we were confident in the justice system that this couldn't happen to someone who was innocent," she recalls, "to our surprise, it did happen." After his lyrics were tirelessly recited and scrutinized in the courtroom, says Salvatto, "the deck just seemed to be stacked against him. Once they decided they wanted to convict him, there was nothing we could do."
"If you know anything about Andre's music," she stresses, "he might say something, and it doesn't necessarily mean it's the truth." Salvatto stayed in Fresno during the hearings, and was crushed when the court accepted his lyrics "as gospel."
While in the Lompoc Federal Penitentiary, Dre's spirit remained unbroken--as did his fan base. He continued writing and occasionally performed for other inmates on the prison's stage. According to his mother, even the authorities were warming up to him. "When I used to visit him," Salvatto says, "he was amazed. He'd say, 'Ma, even the correctional officers like my music, and they allow me to rap, I have shows coming up.' I know that was what helped him through those five years."
Dre also secretly recorded an album, Back N Da Hood, live over the jail's telephone, crafting his new songs with the convicting authorities in mind. "Every court date they keep detainin' me / On punk-ass charges they keep arraignin' me," he rapped over the phone. "Detective Nichelman, I'd like to thank you / You put me on the news and tried to spread that lie / Then record sales jumped to an all-time high," he rapped.
At the time, Vallejo Lt. Richard Nichelman seemed more confused than incensed. "How do you allow a guy to do a record for profit when he's in custody?" he asked in an interview with the Vallejo Times Herald. "But he did it over the phone somehow, and it sold several thousand records. I have a tape at home . . . . It'll be interesting to see how he fits back in the mainstream."
Nichelman was right. It was interesting.
It's Your Thing
Released from prison in 1997, Mac Dre recorded his first post-jail disc, Stupid Doo Doo Dumb, the cover of which depicts him sitting on the toilet with his pants down, reading a magazine, surrounded by voluptuous girls in bikinis. This was to set the tone for the rest of his career: still in the game (hoes, hoes, hoes), but with an extraordinarily bizarre sense of what was cool.
For example, during the introduction in Dre's DVD Treal TV, the camera pans along a backyard pool. Surely, we think, it will settle on Dre, most likely sipping Hennessy and draped in gold chains. Instead, a plastic toy boat slices the frame in two, and we finally see Dre, poolside in a Converse All-Stars T-shirt, the boat's remote control in his hand and a childlike thrill on his face.
These early signs reveal two key elements to Dre's approach: he was never afraid to loosen up, to have fun and be himself; and he never fulfilled the public's appetite for predictable clichés. This was seen at first as the kiss of death; like Dylan going electric or Miles doing fusion, Dre being Dre was something that caught the public off guard. His vocabulary grew increasingly riddled with idiosyncratic inventions, and he gave himself nicknames, eventually adopting different personas altogether for albums like Thizzelle Washington and Ronald Dregan.
One of Dre's favorite sayings, "It's not what you say, it's how you say it," was strongly reflected in his new lyrical flow. Variety became the spice of his rapping, as his songs were alternately carried in whispers, British accents, animal sounds and other novel inflections. Even at its most straightforward, a pervading joviality--the very antithesis of thug--crept into his vocal delivery.
While his friends smoked pot and drank liquor, Dre experimented with mushrooms and Ecstasy, which he dubbed "Thizz," the word quickly becoming synonymous with both his new record company, Thizz Entertainment, and his devil-may-care lifestyle of "thizzin' out". Meanwhile, he worked harder than ever, dismissing pimping and other rap conventions, coloring outside the media's guidelines for how a rapper should live. As he rapped in "Fire": "They hate to see a player employ hisself / They hate to see a player enjoy hisself."
His infectious flamboyance reached new heights with songs like "Get Stupid" ("You can do it, it ain't that hard / Baby, get dumb / Act like a retard") or the landmark "Thizzle Dance," a paean to the dance-song craze of the 1950s and a showcase for Dre to act nuttier than ever. As instructed by the lyrics, the dance involves contorting your face like you "smell some piss" and then dipping, sliding, flapping your arms and popping your collar to the robotic, animated beat. The message of unconstrained joy is clear: it's your thing, do what you wanna do.
Much of what Dre was up to could easily have been written off by his fans and street-hardened peers as too outlandish, even disgraceful. He was taking a huge gamble by abandoning the tried-and-true Gangsta Code. His creative antics, however, were like raw meat to a rap community of lions hungry for something new, and his album sales skyrocketed. "People encouraged him," remarks Salvatto. "It was refreshing, it was different. A lot of people commented that they didn't know he was so funny."
Family Means Everything
While success inevitably made his life more complex, Dre often fell back on the simple and oft-repeated words of his grandfather: "Family means everything." Dre's aunt, Johnetta Dedrick, recalls his many visits to see his cousin Carlos; the two had literally grown up in tight confines together, having been born at roughly the same time, and Dre later came to Santa Rosa often to hang with the cousin he called 'Los.
"They used to ride bikes all over Santa Rosa," says Dedrick, "all up in those hills--Montecito Heights, Howarth Park, Annadel." As Dre approached his 16th birthday, it was Dedrick who pulled him off his bike and put him behind the wheel. "I remember teaching Andre as a teenager how to drive a car," she says. "It was summertime. In the Santa Rosa High School parking lot, we were driving around in circles," she laughs, "trying to teach him how to drive a stick."
As the years went on and his career progressed, Dre kept his rap and family lives decidedly separate. Still, he remembered the words of his grandfather. He dutifully showed up for holidays, and always called when he was in town, once ringing up Dedrick at 5am after doing a show in Sebastopol. Then there was the time he surprised Dedrick and Salvatto by showing up out of the blue during a camping trip at Lake Mendocino.
"Here comes Andre with a silver Mercedes," she says, recalling Dre in the rugged outdoors, "in his nice clothes, with his Burberry briefcase! It was just so funny."
As his wealth increased, Dre was known to help fund children's programs in Sacramento; he even handed out turkeys in Crestside one Thanksgiving. Of course, he was especially attentive to his family. Shopping sprees and gifts of cash were common, and in late summer of last year, he met with his grandfather, offering to take him on a road trip to Mississippi--"to take him home for the last time," Dedrick says.
Around this time, Dre bought a house high in the hills of Sausalito, about as far from the Crest as is possible. "Andre was on the verge of really changing his lifestyle," remarks Salvatto. "He really wanted to enjoy the benefits of his music. It had gotten to the point where he was beginning to be really successful and he could afford to live anywhere he wanted."
Salvatto can't exactly pinpoint what attracted Dre to Sausalito, but "he saw something about Sausalito that he liked," she says. "He wanted to be up high on the hill, near the water and close to San Francisco, and he thought Sausalito was a beautiful city. He put the down payment down and everything."
Dre's move-in date was Nov. 1, 2004.
It was a routine trip to Kansas City, a place Mac Dre had visited and performed in many times before--a city where he had loyal fans and always felt at home. This time, though, something was amiss, and a misunderstanding with a local promoter had led to a cancelled appearance. Around 4:30am on Monday, Nov. 1, Dre was in a van driving down Kansas City's Highway 71 when a car with no license plates pulled alongside the van and an occupant opened fire.
The van crossed over two oncoming lanes of freeway and went down into a deep ravine, throwing Dre from the vehicle. The driver, Dre's longtime friend Dubee, crawled back up the ravine and went to a convenience store for help. When ambulances arrived, Andre Hicks was pronounced dead from gunshot wounds.
One year after that night in Kansas City, large crowds gathered at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland and in Vallejo's Crestside neighborhood to commemorate the life of Mac Dre, but his mother didn't want to be in town. Instead, she spent the day driving down the California coast on Highway 1. "I had to get away," she explains, "Andre's death is very, very personal to me, so I tend to deal with it in a quiet way." Yet being in charge of the Bay Area's biggest-selling underground rap artist's estate is anything but quiet, and when that rapper is your son, such a labor becomes a balance of the checkbook and the heart.
"I've spent the last year just trying to get a handle on Andre's 20 albums," says Salvatto, "and that in itself will probably keep me busy for the year to come. Just getting it all under control--the copyrights, finding out where it's being distributed and who's paying and who's not." Dre was always hooking his friends up as employees for shows, videos and albums, and "that affected a lot of livelihoods. A lot of those people are still calling me," she says, "trying to figure out how to go forward."
Another new element in Salvatto's life is merchandising. Look Mac Dre up on eBay and you'll find airbrushed sneakers, original canvas paintings and other one-of-a-kind art pieces. What Salvatto will soon be combating are the hundreds of $20 bootlegged T-shirts, for which she says "no one has gotten any permission whatsoever."
Then there is the problem of Treal TV #2, the long-awaited follow-up DVD to Treal TV. Despite overwhelming demand, delays have plagued its release for over a year, first from other rappers who appear in the footage and want to get paid. Now the delay is coming from the final editing room, and Salvatto is taking a more active interest in how her son is presented in the video.
"He wouldn't like me saying this," she admits, "and of course this is coming from a mother, but he was having a good time and there was a lot of stuff that happened--the fights, the drugs and stuff like that--that I wouldn't necessarily approve of." Naturally, Salvatto had no control over her son's activity when the footage was filmed, but, she says, "what are you going to tell a thirty-something-year-old man?" she asks. "That, 'No, you can't do this, you can't be filmed doing that'? That was never Andre--even as a child--for me to be able to do that."
"But now . . ." She stops to consider the delicate position she is in, of editing her own son's life. "I want to be careful about the way Andre is projected, because I think he had become another person, and I think he would have been more careful about the way he would be projected now as well."
All of this is hard work, and for a grieving mother it can be emotionally numbing. Asked what has kept her strong in the past year, Salvatto sounds resigned. "I don't know that I've been that strong," she replies. After Dre's death, she says, "I was so hurt that I couldn't deal with it and I didn't want to deal with it, and I was very, very sensitive. It was really hard. So I focused on work to get through. But it didn't take the pain away."
"I feel stronger now," she continues, "and as time has gone by, I'm finding myself now able to face it more and more and really talk about it, because there was a time when I couldn't do interviews like this."
Salvatto realizes that there is nothing she can do about what happened in Kansas City, or about the fact that his murder is still unsolved. "I think that God will take care of whoever did it. There are a lot of parents whose children have died, and their murders or deaths are unsolved," she says, knowing that she's not alone. "Some parents don't even know where their dead children are. At least I got to bring Andre home and bury him, and I know where he is now, and I know where to go visit him.
"I'm not angry, because--I had this conversation with my dad the other day--it won't bring Andre back," she says. "I think whoever did it, even if they don't get caught, they have to live with it. I just don't think that person will ever be at peace."
Indeed, the entire Bay Area rap community may never be at peace. It's been over a year and Mac Dre's impact is still felt, his death still mourned. His lessons of taking pride in your own self-confidence and living happily by your own rules still resonate from the ghettos to the suburbs. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of hopeful rappers from every city in the Bay Area aspiring for a piece of the pie that Mac Dre virtually wrote the recipe for.
But Mac Dre's career is a sealed legacy. It is his and his alone. It's like the girl in the alley says--you just don't touch Mac Dre.
But Where Do I Start?
A brief guide to Mac Dre's finer hours and albums
'Young Black Brotha' Essential. From the opening classic "2 Hard 4 the F-ckin' Radio" to other hits like "All Damn Day" and "California Livin'," this collection of early EPs and singles teems with urgency. Listen for Dre's before-its-time "izza" wordplay and Khayree's inimitable electro-funk production--it still doesn't sound dated.
'Back N Da Hood' The stuff legends are made of, a document of Dre's cunning prankster tendencies, recorded over the phone from jail behind the warden's back. Naturally, the sound quality is terrible, but the title track's honest depiction of cell life--plus the fact that you'll play it repeatedly for friends--makes this one worth it.
'Tha Rompalation' Dre had been writing raps for five years in his jail cell, but when he got out this was the first project he undertook, a now-classic compilation that brought together the cream of Vallejo artists. Curated and assembled by Dre, who appears on many of the tracks alongside PSD, Mac Mall and Messy Marv, this provides some crucial context.
'Thizzelle Washington' On the day of its release, the neon-colored psychedelic cover art had confused fans' heads spinning like kaleidoscopes. The songs, however, soon straightened them out. Filled with messages of self-determination and personal freedom, this is perhaps Dre's most direct statement of purpose, from "The Mac Named Dre" to "Boss Tycoon" and "Thizzelle Dance."
'Treal TV' (DVD) Hosted by Dre in hilarious fashion, this is a chapter-by-chapter account of all things Thizz--recording studios, girls, cars, fights, drugs, shows and just plain hanging out. Great footage includes the Sebastopol Community Center, an insane motorcyclist and the "Poppin' the P's" freestyle, which all bear repeated viewings. When is Treal TV #2 coming out, you ask? Cross your fingers for mid-2006.
'Da U.S. Open' Dre's tennis-themed collaborative release with Mac Mall and the final project he would complete. Sometimes prone to falling out with each other, here Dre and Mall sound in perfect camaraderie, and heavyweight E-40 makes an appearance on the album's old-school closer, "Dredio," rounding out a great Vallejo triumvirate for one last jam.
From the December 28, 2005-January 3, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.