Bay Area Boss
After a controversial five-year stint in prison, Vallejo rapper Mac Dre emerged anew, pioneering the hyphy movement and signing countless rappers to his label.
by Dean Van Nguyen
The San Francisco Bay Area is one of hip-hop’s most insulated communities. In the Bay, local stars are worshipped in a way that the rest of America doesn’t grasp or understand. Three thousand miles away from New York, it doesn’t look to Brooklyn’s finest for anything, while even neighboring Los Angeles, with all its hip-hop history, doesn’t hold a suffocating influence. As DJ, hip-hop historian, and cofounder of the Bay Area Hip Hop Coalition, Davey D tells me: “L.A. is gangsters, the Bay is hustlers.”
Oakland’s Tupac Shakur, of course, reached the highest peaks of popular rap consciousness, while Too Short, E-40, Messy Marv, Suga-T, and Da Luniz, among others, all brought their own flavor to the region. But no one touched the Bay area like Vallejo’s Mac Dre. Responsible for recording dozens of records, unearthing new local talent, building a rap empire, and pioneering a whole new homegrown counterculture, Mac Dreezy changed the landscape of the Bay Area forever and earned legendary status among Bay Area locals.
An infectious rapper with a charismatic personality, Dre’s music was loaded with good vibrations. A key pioneer of California’s hyphy movement, he didn’t cut party jams for radio play; he cut party jams to bring the shindig to his listeners. In a career stunted by a still-disputed five-year stretch in jail, and tragically cut short when he was murdered at age thirty-four, Dre produced a body of work that continues to resonate through to the current generation of young Bay artists. But while the likes of Lil B, Young L, and Kreayshawn have achieved recent nationwide notoriety, many from outside the Bay don’t fully recognize the man who laid the foundations for their success.
“When you look at the Bay from the framework of the industry, whether it’s Hollywood or New York, I don’t think you get Mac Dre,” says P. Frank Williams, a Bay area native and former executive editor of The Source. “You just see him as any guy who made some noise. He might have sold x amount of records, you kind of measure him from that level; but, the Bay, because it never really tried to be industry itself, has a different type of relationship than large parts of the country. He might not have had the same type of impact in L.A. per se, if you’re looking at it from the land of Hollywood. But if you go into the communities, people know who Mac Dre is, and he gets his respect.”
Andre Hicks was born in Oakland, California, on July 5, 1970, but at a young age, he and his family moved to Vallejo, a small city in Solano County. He grew up in Hillside, a community located near the Country Club Crest neighborhood. The Crest, or Crest Side, as it was better known, was a low-income area that suffered from poverty, violent crime, and other symptoms of the crack outbreak. Dre began rapping at a young age, and, with his natural swagger as well as lyrics that primarily addressed the neighborhood, he found a local audience.
Mac Mall remembers first coming across a teenage Mac Dre. A Vallejo-born rapper, the younger Mall would later sign to Dre’s label Thizz Entertainment, and the two would cut a joint-billed record in 2005 titled Da U.S. Open. “He was making demos and stuff and hanging with the Romper Room crew over on Kemper Street, which was the same street my auntie lived on,” remembers Mall. “He was like the big ‘cuddy’ from the block; that’s what we called each other. I always looked up to him. He was famous from his demo tapes.”
Dre was making noise locally, but it was the single “2 Hard 4 the Fuckin’ Radio” that brought him to the attention of the wider Bay Area. Despite the title, the song was a radio hit. Davey D remembers bumping it on his own various shows. “There was a period between ’88 and ’92 where there was a lot of stuff going on,” Davey. says “KMEL was the name of commercial radio, and a few of us—myself, Sway, King Tech, and a bunch of people—we joined that posse in 1991, 1992. Prior to that, we were doing college radio. On the college radio scene, we were pretty influential. KPOO were playing [Mac] Dre; we were playing Dre. ‘2 Hard 4 the Fuckin’ Radio’ was definitely one we were playing, because it was clean. It was also a good song.”
After dropping a number of records between 1989 and 1991, Dre’s career was picking up pace, but he was beginning to attract the wrong sort of attention. In 1992, Hicks was charged with conspiracy to commit bank robbery. Plenty of rappers’ careers have been interrupted by stints in prison, but rarely has a conviction been as disputed as Dre’s incarceration. To this day, his supporters staunchly uphold his innocence. Many felt the evidence against him was weak, while others assert he was set up.
From early in his career, Dre had been running with the Romper Room, a tightly knit crew from the Crest. “There was fourteen of us,” remembers Romper Room member and Dre collaborator Coolio Da’unda’dogg. “Little youngsters between the age of fourteen and twenty-one. We started hanging out, selling dope, hustling, drinking, partying every Friday and Saturday night.”
One Crest resident dubbed the crew the Romper Room after the children’s TV show—a reference to their youth. But while Dre’s hip-hop career began to build steam, the Romper Room crew moved from drug dealing to armed robberies, first hitting pizza parlours and then banks. While Dre was never directly involved in the robberies, police suspected the money was being used to finance his fledgling music career and began cranking up their surveillance on him and other Romper Room affiliates.
Suspecting the crew was linked to the robberies, the Vallejo Police Department (VPD) began surveilling the Crest and coming down hard on the Romper Room crew. Coolio remembers several interactions with the police: “They used to come through sweatin’ us. They used to call us by our nicknames, calling me Coolio, calling Dre ‘Mac Dre.’ So we used to tell them, ‘Fuck y’all! Get away from here.’ ”
Upset by these heavy-handed tactics, Dre recorded “Punk Police,” proclaiming his innocence (“They said some banks was robbed, and I fit the description / But that’s drama, so save it for your mama / I’m not criminal minded, punk police / I’m a dope rhyme dealer, not a money stealer”) and bemoaning police harassment (“You labeled us a ruthless G-A-N-G / But the biggest gangstas are on the VPD / They hate to see me drivin’ a car I bought / They hate how I talk, I can’t spit on the sidewalk”).
Dre even went as far as calling out the cop he felt was the biggest offender, VPD Detective David McGraw. Even in a time of NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” this was a bold move. “Dre was probably one of the first to call a cop out by name on record and put him on blast like that,” says Davey D. “I don’t think people really have an appreciation of how strong a statement that was, because it came at a time of Public Enemy and everybody else. Dre was no Public Enemy or Paris or anything like that, but you know, when you think about what he actually did to broadcast it to the hood like, ‘Yo, this is the punk cop. This is who he is.’ That’s a gauntlet in the sand. You haven’t really seen too many people do that.”
According to Davey D, the VPD were actually monitoring Dre’s music, hoping to find clues to the robberies within the lyrics: “There was a point when the Vallejo police arrested forty-odd people and they looked at music lyrics around Romper Room or the Rompalation album [a Dre-led compilation of Crest Side rappers] as part of a way to round up folks. That was probably one of the first times that had happened as well, and I remember going to a press conference where people were refuting this. But that was what was going on.”
On March 26, 1991, with the help of an informant, the VPD arrested Mac Dre, along with friends and Romper Room members Jamal Diggs and Simon “Kilo Curt” Curtis (and Coolio would later be indicted on federal charges for armed bank robbery and sentenced to five years in prison). Refused bail, Dre was forced to sit in county jail for a year awaiting trial. Reportedly offered a deal if he snitched on his friends, Dre snubbed the police’s propositions and was forced to eat a five-year prison sentence. To many, including Davey D, this was an injustice. “Dre had nothing to do with it,” he asserts. “I tell you, at the time, I would have put my hand on the Bible and been like, ‘Nah, Dre has nothing to do with that.’ He was just somebody who was down with the neighborhood, and that neighborhood was getting profiled, and he’s standing up for it. Maybe he’s part of a larger group of people called the Romper Room crew, but he ain’t robbing no banks.”
Despite these assertions, Mac Dre was sent to Lompoc Federal Penitentiary on March 12, 1993, right when he was on the verge of blowing up big time. “At the time he went to jail for the first time, Dre was the biggest artist in the Bay,” says Mall. “There was a lot of cats doing it longer, but nobody had the heat that Mac Dre had. When he got stole from us by the police, there was hurting, but he had laid down such a strong foundation [for other Crest Side artists].”
Mac Dre managed to record Back N Da Hood from inside prison via the telephone, but after his release in 1997, he was hungry to get back in the game he left behind. “There was a drought, in terms of the Bay Area,” says Davey D. “I mean, people were putting out records, but it didn’t have the national attention that it did [before]. I think Dre for five years was very hungry and had a lot to think about. When he finally got a chance, he was able to do his own thing that he really wanted to.”
That the man that emerged from prison differed from the one who had been put away was unsurprising, but what did surprise is the way in which Mac Dre’s style changed. Rather than exploiting his gangster image, Dre instead began to pioneer a whole new movement known as “hyphy.”
While Dre affiliate Keak da Sneak is credited as first coining the term “hyphy,” it would go on to mean a style of music and dance that’s synonymous with Bay Area hip-hop. A combination of the words “hyper” and “fly,” hyphy music is distinguished by gritty-but-danceable sledgehammer rhythms, and with his flashy showmanship and sense of humor, Dre was the perfect ambassador to push this new craze.
Central to the hyphy movement was what Dre called “Thizz” or ecstasy. Rarely the drug of choice among rappers, Dre built a counterculture around the pill in the same way weed rappers mixed blunts and beats. The word “Thizz” perfectly expressing how he felt when on the drug, he even named his growing rap empire Thizz Entertainment.
“Coming out hitting the ground running, I wasn’t surprised,” says Davey D. “I think what kind of caught me was when he hit up on the Thizz and kind of really blew up and had a whole second coming. There’s two Mac Dres. There’s Mac Dre with the whole Thizz thing, and there’s Mac Dre at the renaissance of the Bay Area, back in ’91, ’92. To me, he really is somebody who had a footprint in two different, in many ways, very distinct eras, and two distinct generations of people who really had gravitated towards him in those respected areas.”
During this time, Dre uprooted from Vallejo, moving to Sacramento where he started his label, Thizz Entertainment, and began a run of productivity. He released ten solo albums in six years and helped propel the careers of Keak da Sneak, E-40, B-Legit, Brotha Lynch Hung, Dubee, Andre Nickatina, Rydah J. Klyde, Richie Rich, Lil Ric, San Quinn, PSD, and Mac Mall. While Mall was a key Dre associate during this rush of creativity, it’s Dre the character that resonates in his memory. “We spent a lot of time in the studios, but we spent other time doing other things,” remembers Mall. “Going to eat in fly restaurants, hollering at girls, whatever. So those are the times that I, really, when I think of Dre, that’s what I think of. As far as the studio, the last record he did was with me, Da U.S. Open—that record, we did that effortlessly. It was just, like, nothing, man. Dre put on the beat, and when cats from the Crest Side get in the studio, this is what we do, you know what we mean, we push each other and it was just, like, easy.”
According to Mall, despite Dre’s fun-loving reputation, he was no soft touch: “Dre was loving, Dre was funny, Dre was a comedian, man. But then Dre had that gangster side too. Dre was no pushover. Dre kept a smile on his face, but the minute that smile was gone, you know he would be on your ear. I done seen Mac Dre in the turf knock out a cat three times his size, knocked him flat on his back, KO’d him. Dre was a character.”
At the peak of his powers, Mac Dre and several members of his crew traveled to Kansas to perform a show. It would prove to be his last. In the early hours of November 1, 2004, Dre was the passenger in a white van heading north on Highway 71 through Kansas City when someone in a second vehicle opened fire. The van swerved across a grass median and four southbound lanes, then crashed into a ditch. The driver escaped relatively uninjured, running down the highway to a store to call 911. But paramedics found Hicks dead from a gunshot wound.
Shortly before his death, Dre had been relaxing back at his hotel room with Mac Mall. “I was staying in the room right across from his,” says Mall, who still remembers the final conversations that took place in the hotel with his old friend. “I rolled me a blunt, and he told me, ‘Mall, roll me a blunt too, cuddy.’ I rolled a blunt, and we sat there and talked about what we were going to do with Thizz. I’m in the room, I get up and go down the hallway and kick it with [other members of the entourage]. I go back to my room and get a call, the cuddy gone. Couldn’t believe it.”
Immediately, the news sent a shudder through the whole Bay. “I remember when I heard about it,” sighs Davey D. “I didn’t believe it at first, because we had heard so many rumors about different artists who had died. People spreading rumors about artists dying, especially in the Bay, wasn’t unusual. So it was one of those things where it was like, ‘Nah, this can’t be true,’ but when I got it confirmed, even then, it still was shocking, you know. We still hadn’t really gotten over Tupac, much less now Dre meeting his demise. It was kind of surreal.”
Eight years on and the Bay is still coming to terms with the loss of Mac Dre. Officially, his murder remains an open case, but his legacy grows stronger all the time. All over Vallejo, there are murals to the man, and, under the stewardship of Kilo Curt and Jamal Diggs as well as Mac Mall, Thizz Entertainment has continued to put out records (though not without new run-ins with the law). All the while, Mac Dre the artist continues to influence new generations of artists across America. “Today,” says Williams, “you can hear Drake talking about [him] in his song ‘The Motto,’—‘Shout out to Mac Dre in the Bay.’ ” Mac Dre’s mother even makes a cameo in the video. “His energy is going to forever live on,” continues Williams, who can’t help but envision where Dre’s talent would have taken him. “I would have loved to have heard Mac Dre over Kanye West, Mac Dre over Swizz Beats. Imagine what that would have sounded like? That would be bananas, you know what I’m saying?”
“Dude was our Tupac, dude was our Biggie Smalls,” adds Mall. “And now, as I travel and go throughout the world, I see that people recognize him for the flavor that he brought to hip-hop. Nobody touched the Bay Area like Mac Dre touched the Bay Area, and I don’t think nobody will. Dre is the King of the Bay.”