San Bernardino, CA – Rakim once said “age don’t count in the booth,” and that’s especially true when it comes to living California legend Suga Free — a one-time pimp turned MC.
Heavily influential to many artists from the West Coast, notably Kendrick Lamar, his debut album Street Gospel, produced entirely by DJ Quik, remains a regional classic, revered by all who were there or who were blessed to be put onto it.
27 years later — and a fruitful catalog of music to boot, he’s on the verge of releasing what he considers to be the best work of his life. Having spent the last while balancing duties as a father and tireless artist, he takes refuge 8000-feet above sea level in the San Bernardino mountains.
“I like to hear myself think and concentrate on my craft,” he tells HipHopDX. “My whole career I’ve been recording studios within the city … with traffic outside and stuff like that. I want to finish off my recording career on land that’s barely been touched by man.”
Though he’s dropped collaborative material and made some notable appearances, there has been 10 years since his last solo “studio album,” Hi Power Pimpin.
“I took a long break, which was a much needed … you know, I could say that now,” he says.
Rooted in the funk he grew up idolizing, his new project, Resurrection, which he lovingly refers to as a rebirth of sorts, is a family affair featuring many longtime collaborators, such as DJ Quik, and also his childhood friend, Kokane.
“It’s still a friendly competition, with a lot of MCs out here,” he says, adding “I did a lot of studying. I wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror and say, after all my life, that I was the best I could be … I think I went beyond my call of duty.”
Many things have changed in Suga Free’s life over the years — namely his children, who he credits as driving motivation to excel.
“My children make me want to work hard. They make me want to continue and carry on,” he explains. “We’d like to be providers and lead the way with positivity and all that.”
However, he still admits to actively shielding them from the harsher realities of his content. “I don’t want to create the ambiance of them knowing that, you know, I’m down the hallway in my studio with a mouthful of profanity … I grew out of that mantra. I have another house in our district where I record.“
In a way, his newfound life as a family man is a second chance, as a child he fathered in a young relationship was taken away from him, an experience he credits for both fostering a deep-rooted resentment, and giving him what he calls “the stomach” for pimping.
Getting into the game at the age of 17, and just a few years later — as he described to Vlad TV — being on the road to pimping a hole through the stratosphere, he references a close call for finally pushing him to leave the life behind him.
“The Lord didn’t want me to do it. He showed me that if I didn’t stop he would take something from me … it scared the daylights out of me.”
“I never thought I’d stop. I’m glad I did, man,” he explains. “I felt funny when I stopped … I called one of my film friends and I was like, ‘Man, you know, this feels weird.’ He said, man, I don’t want you to say this to me no more, cause you’re the only one of us who could stop pimping and still get a bitch.”
He likens the bars inspired by his vivid experience on the streets — a lifestyle he was actively living during the recording of his classic debut — to the novels of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines.
That same bitterness that had allowed him to live the life he was living also pushed him to channel his experiences into music — once he came to appreciate and understand it.
“I didn’t want to be just good at know what I did on the microphone. I wanted to be great at it. And if I’ve I had my hands more than one thing at a time, then you know, I was only going to be good,” he explains. “I put it up, put [music] first and I’m seeing those results.”
Now at the age of 49-years-young, he appears to be the most focused he’s ever been, even describing the decade-long lull since his last solo studio album as a rope-a-dope — a boxing fighting style attributed to the great Muhammad Ali.
“They thought [Ali] was resting, they thought he was hurt … when Forman was all swung out, he licked that ass up. Man. I know I did that,” he says with a laugh.
He’s quick to acknowledge that he’s blessed to have a fanbase that remains rabid for new material. “My music is a medicine that I created for myself to get me a through the darker points in my life,” he says humbly, “It just so happens that the same medicine happened to help other people, too.”
To say that Suga Free’s energy is infectious is an understatement. When told that the hype feels like that bestowed on an artist about to drop a long-awaited debut, he quickly agrees — reiterating how far he’s come with his craft.
“When I first started rapping, I dreamed of rapping the way I rap now. Me and Kokane were just saying the other day if somebody could have told us when we were in the fourth grade that we’d be [almost] 50 when we made our best collaboration ever … man. We really tripped off of that.”
Promising fans that he exercises his freedom of speech, he notes that they’ll definitely — among the more somber fare — find his humor intact. “You’ll laugh your ass off.”