When Bun B says you’re “one of the best MCs” in hip-hop, and Just Blaze gushes over your skills in his MySpace blog, you must be doing something right. For Crooked I, though, all this praise has unfortunately been overshadowed by never-ending album setbacks and industry politics. It’s hard to believe it has been 12 years since the Long Beach native signed his first deal with Virgin Records in 1995. Although he was touted as the next great West Coast lyricist, the pop label was unsure of how to market Crooked and put him on the shelf until his contract expired four years later. The Young Boss wouldn’t be a free agent for long, though, as Death Row Records founder, Marion “Suge” Knight, signed him in 2000 after hearing a freestyle on Sway and King Tech’s L.A. radio program, The Wake Up Show. Due to Suge’s various legal issues and perpetual incarceration, Crooked’s debut, Say Hi To The Bad Guy, was never released. After another four years in limbo and a sparse few guest appearances (DPG’s “Gangsta Rap” and Ja Rule’s “Connected”), the frustrated MC started his own imprint, Dynasty Entertainment, in 2004. Since then, he’s been on a mission to get heard. Last year, after building his buzz on a grassroots level through his Young Boss mixtape series, Crooked landed a Senior Vice President title at Treacherous Records, where he will release his long awaited debut, B.O.S.S. (Beginning of Something Serious). In preparation for the fall release, the business savvy lyricist concocted an ingenious marketing plan that included dropping a new freestyle every week on his MySpace page as part of his Hip-Hop Weekly series. Grabbing the attention of industry insiders with his lyrical skills, Crooked I is set to take his spot alongside the best in the West. XXLMag.com talks with Cali kingpin about his resurgent career, debut album and earning respect from hip-hop legends.
You’ve been rapping for over a decade without ever releasing an album. How have you been able to maintain a fan base?
I don’t know, man. Sometimes people like to root for the underdog. But I’ve been pretty consistent over the years. That’s hard to do because you’ve got a lot of dudes who put out records and after the first two they start falling off. Also, I’m everywhere, man. I’m very visible. I don’t hide from the people. A lot of artists come to town, stay in a Beverly Hills hotel, go to a little restaurant on the strip and sneak back in their hotel room. I don’t do that. I see what’s going on. I think fans appreciate it when you fuck with them like that. Why should a fan really support you if they don’t even see you and you never extend your hand?
There are rumors your Death Row album, Say Hi To The Bad Guy, is going to be leaked soon. Is that true?
Somebody called me yesterday and gave me the number of the guy who’s supposedly leaking it. I’m gonna call him and hopefully have a good conversation. If not, there’s gonna be a problem. I just think it’s real disrespectful if you put out a record when somebody’s put in a lot of hard work and you don’t include them on the profit. I worked hard on Say Hi To The Bad Guy. There were nights when I did four or five songs in a row. I had just gone to sleep and Suge would call me at three in the morning saying, “Yo, can you come back up here? There’s a hot beat.” So I got to go from Long Beach to Hollywood to record. There was a lot of passion going into that record. I would love to see some profit off it.
How beneficial has the Hip-Hop Weekly freestyle series been for your career?
Ah, man! It’s been very beneficial. I get people from all over the world telling me they’re loving it [and] it helps them get through the week. We’ve got fans that are disappointed with the state of hip-hop right now and the quality of the music. This is a reason to listen to lyrics again. It’s been a big thing for the buzz. I’m out here doing shows, writing for other artists and finishing up my own album. But I’ve been consistent with them Weekly’s. I haven’t put a pen to a piece of paper for none of those Weekly’s. This is Jigga [style] every time.
Are you doing a lot of ghostwriting?
I get a lot of offers, but I don’t do a whole lot of it. Keeping my buzz is a full time job. Right now, I’m too busy. There is a dude I would like to ghostwrite for and that’s Snoop. I could give him that ’07 Long Beach shit. ’Cause it’s a whole new day [in Long Beach]. It’s not 64 Impalas on Dayton’s. That shit is on the rack collecting dust right now. My niggas got Harley’s now. It’s not all khaki suits and Chuck Taylor’s. We wear Dickies shorts. We don’t always walk around looking mean all the time. We’re out here having fun instead of being stuck on that same shit that came out in ’94.
It’s funny you mention Snoop, because last year in an interview with Dubcnn.com, he downplayed your talent, suggesting you weren’t on the level of Kurupt or Bad Azz. Did you ever talk to Snoop personally about that?
When he was saying that kinda stuff he didn’t know [that] I wrote for Kurupt before. I reached out to [Snoop] through a couple of mutual people, though. I don’t know what happened, man. Sometimes when you got a person of his caliber, you got people around him that may not want to see Crooked I and Snoop Dogg do anything together. They may feel threatened by that. That whole controversial interview—that was cold. I still feel like he should have called me if he had any of those types of thoughts about me. Now, at the same time, I’ma pure businessman. I don’t have to like you to do business with you. He’s in the limelight. He’s a big celebrity. I’ve got lyrics and that’s something he needs right now. If he reached out on that tip it would be beneficial for the both of us. I do want to sit down with him regarding that interview because I never forgot that.
You’ve caught the ear of a lot of people with the Hip-Hop Weekly freestyles, including Bun B who recently praised you in an interview as “one of the best MCs out there, period.” How’d it feel to hear that?
Oh, man! I’ve got nothing but love and respect for Bun B. He’s a Southern legend. When someone like that gives you a compliment, it gives me direction and motivation for me to keep doing what I’m doing. Even the comment from Just Blaze in the [MySpace] blog he put together—that’s incredible, man. Just Blaze is one of the top producers in hip-hop right now. For him to say, “Yo, this dude is dope”—I never thought it would be like that. I never thought it would get that big. I just wanted to show the online community that I’ve got rhymes and [show] people that the West Coast isn’t all about low-riders, khakis and Chuck Taylor’s. We on some other shit and I think people need to know about it.
Have you spoken to Just Blaze?
We’re communicating through emails. I need to get with him because it’s over if I get on one of his beats. I don’t know what the fuck I’ll do with it. It would be… wow! You’ve got Just Blaze, now what are you gonna do? You have to make sure that it’s hot. I would love to collaborate with Just. I heard he’s got a situation on Atlantic [Records] right now. It might be big to see Treacherous/Atlantic, man.
When can we expect your debut, B.O.S.S., to finally drop?
We coming, man. I’ll be out there in late September, early October. I have a deal that I could put my signature on right now to get it started. I also have channels to put the record out without even finding a deal. I have other channels since Treacherous already has a relationship with Universal. The channels are there, dawg. Early October that shit will be on the streets. That’s my word.