For Behind the Beat, Thomas Hobbs spent time in LA with JoogSZN. The producer talked about his partnership with the late, great Drakeo the Ruler and crafting their song “Back Flip or Sumn.”
Downtown Los Angeles is a maze of blunt juxtapositions. A vintage sunglasses shop, filled with Balenciaga-clad influencers, is just a block away from a ritualistic circle of ex-marines, who smell of dried blood and are sharing drugs inside a tent connected to a dumpster.
Walk 10 minutes in the opposite direction and you can order a $300 Kobe steak in the financial district. But don’t hang around the shiny buildings too long or a private security guard will call the cops. The pink sunsets are mind blowing, but so is the poverty and the apathy that LA’s iced latte drinkers seem to treat it with.
Orson Welles once described LA as a “bright, guilty place”. However, in 2022, you get the impression that the wealthiest Angelenos have found a way to switch off from this “guilt”, blocking Skid Row’s lost souls (a 2020 census suggested LA had nearly 70,000 – and rising – currently sleeping rough) from their peripheral vision. This Dickensian city subsequently carries a volcanic energy—a stunning landscape, sure, yet one that could easily implode should its inhabitants wake up and smell the inequality.
The American Dream and the American Nightmare uneasily co-exist, with even the so-called aspirational middle classes aware they’re just a job loss or car accident away from joining the homeless in the sandy gutters at Venice Beach. “You could be experiencing something sunny and beautiful but there’s still something nervous that lurks in the air, you know?” says rising producer JoogSZN of Los Angeles County’s unique “all-or-nothing” atmosphere.
Alongside long-term collaborators Ron-Ron and AceTheFace, Joog, who grew up in Crenshaw District, has altered the sonic template of West Coast rap for the better. He is a fellow sensei of the “Traffic Music” sound, a tornado of codeine-filtered funk and warped bass lines designed to be played on blast while stuck in a late-night LA traffic jam. Joog’s woozy yet dread-inducing beats creep forward with a strangely intoxicating paranoia, inspiring vintage verses from an eclectic group of collaborators like 03 Greedo, E-40, Gunna, Baby Smoove, OHGEESY, and Fenix Flexin.
Musically speaking, Joog captures the stark contradictions that define his city. “You could be hearing this funky rap music and dancing to it at a party, dropping $100 bills, right? But you’re also moving a little paranoid, because something bad might happen and them bullets could ring out,” Joog said. “My sound captures that emotional tug of war that we all grew up with by being Black and living in LA.”
Few songs crystallize the ethos of Traffic Music better than the “Backflip or Sumn” beat Joog created for the late, great Drakeo the Ruler (real name Darrell Caldwell). With sadistic synths and a prowling bass line that mimics the sound of a drug kingpin slowly banging his fists on a table, the deliberately sedate melody creates a powerful sense of foreboding; you don’t know whether to nod your head or look over your shoulder. Interestingly, there’s no 808 drums, with a mystical guitar lick effectively serving the same purpose. Meanwhile, sped up chipmunk howls bring back nostalgic memories of the Heatmakerz during their Diplomatic Immunity era.
“That bassline is so gangsta! I didn’t put no 808s on it, because it didn’t need it. It was already too smooth,” Joog said, reflecting on the “Backflip or Sumn” beat, originally created during a house party at underrated LA rapper AZChike’s crib. (Joog originally had the late Lil Yase in mind for rapping duties.) “I wanted to start with the guitars instead. I always loved how Dr. Dre was big with the guitars and used them like drums.”
He continues: “With something like ‘Back Flip or Sumn’, I was trying to make new age hyphy. The beat makes you feel happy like party music does, but it also makes your hair stand on end like a horror movie. There’s a spookiness to it.”
The way Drakeo ended up hopping on this beat was far from conventional. Joog first properly clicked with Drakeo the Ruler during a mammoth 14-hour studio recording session with 03 Greedo, where the prolific Watts’ blues rap outlier made 14 songs in one day while tapped in with Ron-Ron. Here, during a rare break, Joog played Drakeo the “Ion Rap Beef” beat (Earl Sweatshirt popped up on the song’s remix) and the mysterious artist quickly improvised a staggering sequence of cryptic bars, perfectly capturing the pain behind his posturing:
“Mud in the freezer, niggas sayin’ I’m an addict / Dealing with some things, you perceive it’s post traumatic.”
Although Drakeo sounds like he’s just got out of bed, his eccentric croaks and sadistically whispered flows remain completely original. The beat is subdued, making it specifically tailored to Drakeo’s famously reserved rapping style. “The reason why Drakeo’s vocals sound so good is because he had that ‘I don’t give a fuck’ type mentality,” Joog said. “It’s like, fuck, I am going to talk my shit barely above a whisper level and it’s going to be so good that you’re going to have no choice but to focus in and listen. I am going to say the coldest shit and just be sat in this bitch with my feet up. Really, Drakeo was the successor to E-40. They both naturally speak in code and create their own lingo.”
As far as producer-rapper teams go, Joog was convinced he could be the Dr. Dre to Drakeo’s Snoop Dogg. Yet, when Drakeo the Ruler was held in prison on highly contentious conspiracy to murder charges, this duo’s creative partnership was cruelly disrupted. Despite being acquitted in 2019, Drakeo remained in LA County, with the district attorney’s office trying desperately to weaponize Drakeo’s lyrics and collude the camaraderie of his independent rap crew, The Stinc Team, with the mechanics of an organized crime syndicate.
In court, surrealist horrorcore lyrics about shooting babies were spun to make Drakeo look like the devil’s incarnate. “Why wouldn’t you prosecute Denzel Washington for killing those people in The Book of Eli?,” Joog said. “If I draw a picture of someone killing another person, should I be put on trial? Should [Quentin] Tarantino get held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for all those people he killed in his last movie? The way I look at it: rap is like an audio movie. That’s how it should be treated.”
Rather than let an unjust judicial system destroy his friend’s creative spirit, Joog devised an ingenious plan to record Drakeo’s raps down the prison’s GTL phone service for inmates, something accomplished after 36 hours of pricey phone bills and weeks of meticulous mixing. The resulting 2020 album, Thank You For Using GTL, remains a powerful statement. “The album showed you can take Drakeo’s freedom but not his artistic freedom,” Joog said. “We were sticking it to the judge. Like, you should be helping this young Black man, not locking him up. He’s trying to do something good.
“Look, I guess niggas didn’t realize that what they were doing to this one man could set the precedent for all the other rappers. Now with what’s happening with the RICO indictment for Young Thug and YSL, you can see why what Drakeo was fighting against with those songs was so important. He was standing up against the censorship of Black art, period.”
“Back Flip or Sumn” is the jewel in this brilliant prison album’s crown. On one level, the song is about being unimpressed with a lazy dance routine from a stripper. But as his verses build, Drakeo’s wry sense of humor feels more and more like defiance. He jokes about his photo appearing in court and the feds thinking: “Damn, he’s icy”, before sarcastically noting: “If art imitates life, you should probably panic.”
Joog says it is especially important Drakeo is credited properly by critics for his comedic timing, because it was achieved in a situation where others would crumble. 2Pac was famously unable to write song lyrics in jail, claiming the prison system “killed his spirit”, yet Drakeo did so with a smile and purpose, cartoonishly contorting his voice like he was a member of the Monty Python. “Even when he was in prison and the guards were fucking with him, he kept making this album against the odds. There’s this misconception Drakeo the Ruler was always on some bullshit and totally serious. No way,” Joog said. “You’d be with him in the studio and he’d start spontaneously dancing in his b-boy fit. He’d start doing random voices and shit — Jim Carrey-type noises. His whole thing was never letting the bullshit around him dent his sense of humor. He could talk about losing his life in a cell and stealing Christmas like the Grinch in the same verse. Drakeo would laugh in the devil’s face. We both had that in common. Even when I was leaking from the head at the festival, I was making jokes.”
Joog is referring to the incident that saw Drakeo the Ruler tragically lose his life backstage at last December’s Once Upon A Time In LA festival. Before he was scheduled to perform, Drakeo and a group of friends, which included Joog, were ambushed by a sparse clan of armed assailants. Despite being without weapons and greatly outnumbered, they fought back, but Drakeo — who had been free for less than 12 months after beating an exhaustive and complex case that at one point saw him fighting five life sentences — died from a stab wound to the neck. He was only 28.
“Shit, I still have PTSD and panic attacks from what happened,” Joog said. “It was a set-up. We know the truth. But I am just trying to make the best of it. If Drakeo was standing with us right now, he would say: ‘Bro, stop talking, why ain’t you creating something?”
On this close evening, we’re standing on the pool side balcony of Ron-Ron’s apartment. I sense it’s time to go inside. There, Ron-Ron is creating a beat live on Twitch, effortlessly combining visceral trap drums with a bouncy Spanish guitar; it sounds like Nipsey Hussle having a jamming session with Carlos Santana. Weed smoke fills a living room that shows all the signs (dirty cups, takeaway boxes, energy drinks) of workaholics, with a mural of the late, great Drakeo the Ruler eerily filtering into focus through the smog of our Purple Urkle blunts.
Joog shares his close friend and mentor’s confidence, with his 2022 compilation, Where’s Joog?, among this year’s best rap albums. Its central sentiment of “the early bird gets the worm” is inspiring at a time of massive inflation and when many of the people from Joog’s hood have no choice but to hustle to pay for the groceries.
Although he grew up immersed in his parents’ Funkadelic and Parliament records, with his grandad Lou’s majestic trumpet playing giving the young Joog more of an ear for jazz than hip-hop, he ensures he pays homage to The Chronic and Doggystyle with Where’s Joog? The album is filled with similar storytelling skits (one contains a deadly real-life voice memo threat sent by a love rival). On “Yokin n Scrapin,” Joog even raps, introducing a laid back, nasally, DJ-Quik-inspired, spitting-bars-from-a-hammock flow. Next up, he says, he has plans to put out a whole rap project, before going on to “singing some shit like Chris Brown.”
Joog is genuinely excited about a future in music, even if it feels bittersweet without Drakeo around. “Lots of people want to be my friends now. People hitting me up from high school and shit,” he said. “I was in Leimert Park for Juneteenth, walking around, and I saw all my old homies. They were looking at me like damn, I am so proud of you, bro! But look: I’m just the same nigga who gets excited about creating his own basslines. Nothing has changed.”
When it comes to West Coast rap, Joog is convinced Drakeo will be ranked among the greats like Mac Dre, 2Pac, DJ Quik, E-40, Ice Cube, Kendrick Lamar, and Nipsey Hussle.
According to JoogSZN, fearlessness, rather than tragedy, should be what his friend is remembered for.
“Drakeo never gave up on what he wanted to do,” he said. “Drakeo just figured out a lane and started punching niggas. He will remembered as an all time great because he changed the landscape of LA rap completely. What do you hear coming out of LA today that isn’t inspired by Drakeo The Ruler? Even the OGs are stealing his flows. A song like ‘Back Flip or Sumn’ is going to be hard forever.”
Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
Thomas Hobbs is a freelance culture and music journalist from the UK. His work has appeared in the Guardian, VICE, Financial Times, Dazed, Pitchfork, New Statesman, Little White Lies, The i and Time Out. You can find him on Twitter: @thobbsjourno