Review Summary: The unsung hero(es) of G-Funk
In hip-hop canon, DJ Quik is somewhat of an underground legend. While West Coast dominance of the rap game faded in the late-90s, the young MC ascended, taking up the mantle of the G-Funk sound and adding his own personal stamp onto the genre. The production talent he brought to a declining scene partially rejuvenated the sound, mesmerizing aficionados with a potent blend of soul variables, groovy basslines, smooth synths, and a liberal employment of classic funk sampling. Such mastery made Quik’s catalog a treasure trove for audiophiles digging for hidden gems of rap, and the influence he commanded at the peak of his career—collaborations with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Tupac, and more certainly contributed to the mythos—created an engaging web of disparate artists. Commonly lost in this excavation of all things Quik is Dejuan Walker, otherwise known as Suga Free: a (by most accounts) former pimp that transitioned to MC over concerns of his current career’s viability and ultimately highly-questionable legality. His success has persisted as more of a regional phenomenon in California; he never managed to translate a hit single into a mainstream foothold. As such, Free’s work has largely been viewed as a curiosity rather than a must-listen stop in the expansive sphere of Quik’s related artists. It’s a shame; debut record Street Gospel
is a perfect encapsulation of the producer’s style, and it’s brought to life by a relatively unique voice amongst the best MCs of the period.
Much of Gospel
’s acclaim is typically expressed through the lens of it being a Quik project alone—a phenomenon no doubt sprouting from the fact that rather than being present in a supporting role, the DJ has chief production credit on the LP. From top to bottom, the beats are of his own construction, infusing each track with his trademark G-Funk style. It comes packaged with the bombast and delicious flair one might expect, yet it’s simultaneously rather subdued at times, endeavoring to restrain from conquering a track to let more simplistic arrangements ensnare visitors with their addicting qualities. There’s plenty of variety to discover, ranging from the funky guitar loop of “If U Stay Ready,” the horn led rhythm of “Fly Fo Life,” and the bouncing bass, reverberating synths, and record scratching of “Don’t No Suckaz Live Here.” Quik toys with sounds constantly, although never in a manner that causes the disc to fall too far away from its central funk motifs. The synthesized sitar of the cult classic hit “Why You Bull***tin’?” is a perfect example; with only a steady drum beat in the background, the jangly tone of the synth has to carry the weight of the beat department, and its simplicity adds just
enough to usher the song onward and give Suga a foundation to work with. While the aforementioned track largely defines the identity Gospel
, the DJ will lay claim to proceedings if he so chooses, most notably with the relatively busy “Tip Toe,” which even features a verse by Quik himself. The entirety of the album is Quik in his prime; it’s impossible to ignore his entrancing compositions.
Suga Free is not relegated to a passenger on his own album, however. With Quik’s production artfully restricted to an extent, the stage is set for a rapper to fill in the blanks and rock the beat. It’s clear from the one-two punch of “Why You Bull***tin’?” and “I’d Rather Give You My Bitch” that the duo is a picture-perfect pair; the smooth-as-hell G-Funk that Quik brings to the table seamlessly blends with Suga’s similarly suave, playful delivery. The man exudes charisma, gliding effortlessly through the latter tune’s faster pace and spellbinding beat, intermixing his charming voice with soul-tinged singing that gives the rapper a distinctive flair. What tends to define Suga the most as an MC are his unconventional flow patterns; Walker possesses a rapid-fire cadence that erupts at seemingly arbitrary moments, often segueing into one of his many humorous one-liners. Despite those outbursts, Free has an uncanny ability to remain tethered to the beat; his expeditions away from it cleverly circle back, demonstrating an impressive command over rhythm that prevents jarring transitions. There’s a sense of constant motion that Dejuan’s writing assists in maintaining, often juggling entertaining wordplay and rhymes that support his nimble delivery. He can act the debonair gangster on “If U Stay Ready,” maneuvering through lyrics of him being the
crème de la crème of pimps, or provide a shockingly touching emotional side in the personal “Dip Da.” Further cementing his talent is the minimalistic “I Wanna Go Home”: a number driven only by percussion, distant backing vocals, and Suga spitting fire over top, essentially flexing with his skill without a charismatic beat behind him. Regardless of approach, Suga dominates the duration of the LP, never becoming subservient to the beats and instead imbuing in them an exceptional personality.
Considering the general trajectory of the rap game during its release date, Street Gospel
appears, in hindsight, a final testament to what was once at the forefront of the scene. In that regard, it has aged like fine wine; Quik’s style sounds astonishingly fresh, primarily due to his expertise in sampling and beat construction—he’s arguably unrivaled in this department when looking through the archives of G-Funk—but also because it stood out in a musical category that was slowly tilting towards the East Coast. In turn, Suga’s voice and flow continue to be inimitable, although his lyricism requires a listener’s morality to be checked at the door prior to entry; in line with pimp rappers of yore, it is incredibly unfavorable towards women to put it very
lightly. The humor injected throughout can be disarming and transform the material into more of a comedic venture—random remarks like “And right before I go, please donate my brain to Captain Save-A-Hoe” and “Baby you know that "Welcome" sign you seen / Before you came into my house / Put a "U-N" on that welcome and turn around and get the hell out” cause more laughter than disgust—but it is
worth mentioning as a valid detraction. Whether or not Suga elicits love or hate, it cannot be denied that his introductory work is not simply a vehicle for a producer; Dejuan’s instantly recognizable panache can be felt in every tune as his machine-gun-esque delivery fires away and his charismatic voice leaps from one non-sequitur to another. It’s not merely a curiosity; this is a treasure trove of underground excellence.