Strike the knee-jerk cliche about rappers who live by the gun. It is true that the Jacka, who was murdered on the streets of Oakland this past Monday, rapped often about death and violence. But despite his menacing demeanor and pulp cover art, he approached these subjects with intelligence and unwavering integrity. The psychic costs and consequences floated freely to the surface, experienced as dramatically as the intoxicating sense of control that makes street rap so seductive. He was too close to the action, too compromised by its pull, to demonize those who'd also fallen from grace. You still felt a rush from the lifestyle through his music; he didn't deny its self-evident appeal. He was neither a scold nor a nihilist, but one who recognized the impossibility of moral clarity.
The Jacka was born Dominick Newton in 1977 in Arizona and raised in Contra Costa County, Calif.—the Bay Area. What drew him to hip-hop initially, he once told me, was its imagery: "These dudes look ill! I wanna look like that, I want my hair like that, I wanna do everything they're doing. Big Daddy Kane was ill. Before he actually came out, he had like hella posters everywhere. He had these fat dookie ropes on, he was sitting around like he was the king."
The Jacka had many strengths as an artist: a gift for melody and songcraft, the ideal rapper voice, unflappable swagger, and a sixth sense for beats.
Though the style grabbed him at first, Jacka was also drawn to hip-hop's musicality. As someone raised deep within the culture, an understanding of its building blocks was baked into his art. His smoky delivery unfurled above the track, suggesting the relaxed cool of behind-the-beat pioneers like Slick Rick. His raps were full of the harrowing, hard-boiled street stories of a life lived illegal, a narrative style similar to Queensbridge MCs like Cormega, with whom he would eventually collaborate. But he was also drawn to California's tradition of political agitation, his militancy a spiritual descendent of the Black Panthers and rappers like Kam, Paris, and Ice Cube. His distinctly smooth, nonchalant rapping—delivered in the same effervescent voice with which he spoke—seamlessly synthesized these influences into a truly singular style.
The Jacka's initial attraction to Islam, a spiritual transformation that began when he was 8 or 9 years old, was sparked from a similar place as his attraction to hip-hop. A young Dominick watched as a friend tried to bully a group of Muslim kids and found more than he'd bargained for: "They got in their ranks, formed a lineup, biggest in the front, smallest in the back, and they was not playing, they was about to fuck my boy up," Jacka said. "And I seen that unity, and I said, you know what, I wanna be a part of that. So ever since that day, I would tell people I was Muslim." He became more serious about his faith after spending a year behind bars, something he would talk about often in song, as on the last verse of 2009's "Dopest Forreal": "Changed my state of mind, read the pages all night long." He soon changed his name to Shaheed Akbar.
Jacka initially made his name as a member of the Mob Figaz, a five-man group based out of Pittsburg, Calif., a city in the East Bay area. Fed-X, Rydah J. Klyde, Husalah, and the Jacka were childhood friends; AP9, who was from San Francisco's Fillmore district, joined later. The controversial gangster rapper C-Bo helped put the group on in the late 1990s, releasing C-Bo's Mob Figaz in 1999. After a stint behind bars, the Jacka's own solo album followed in 2001. Riding high off street money, Jacka mixed the record at New York's Hit Factory and traveled the country to promote it, an album that showed a glimmer of the artist he would soon become.
At the time, the Bay Area wasn't quite as creatively flush as it had been in the past. Mac Dre was rebuilding his career after being sidelined in the mid-'90s by legal issues, laying the foundation for what would become the Hyphy movement. But as the Mob Figaz developed their respective solo careers, the crew—particularly Rydah J. Klyde, a disciple of Queensbridge hip-hop—was drawing more upon East Coast influences. Said Jacka: "At that time, New York really had it on smash. They were the dudes who really had the dope ill sample beats, and the young niggas had real bars." The early Mob Figaz were loyal Bay Area partisans, but their work blended the region's slang and prominent basslines with the aesthetic approach of East Coast artists.
This led ultimately to the Jacka's placement on Cormega's Legal Hustle compilation in 2004 with the song "Barney (More Crime)," a record that channeled Jacka's real-life struggle between music and the streets. The record "broke" the Jacka—to the extent that he would break outside the Bay Area axis—among hip-hop aficionados, who were introduced to a new brand of wistful, often tragic street rap that tapped a similar emotional vein as the work of Cormega, Tragedy Khadafi, and Nas.
At this point, things had started to come apart for the Mob. King Freako, a close associate and rapper who'd been down with the group, was killed right in front of the Jacka. In 2004, the Mob Figaz met with Mac Dre, who planned to sign them to his burgeoning label, Thizz Entertainment, and transform them into national stars. That same year, Mac Dre was killed suddenly in Kansas City. Meanwhile, many of Jacka's friends had been arrested, and the money he'd used to promote his first album dried up. "All I could do was make skill pave the way," he said. In 2005, four years after his debut, the Jacka and producer RobLo crafted The Jack Artist, an album now celebrated as the canonical classic of the Jacka's large and chaotic discography.
Although I'd listened to Legal Hustle at the time it was released, it wasn't until the following year that I caught on to the Jacka. In 2005, Houston was hip-hop's biggest media story; Hyphy was still a year away, and when it came, the focus was wholly on the manic production style of Rick Rock, and the general Bay culture, rather than the rap auteurs most beloved at street level. A friend sent me a copy of a split mixtape between Lil Keke—a well-respected Houston rap star—and the Jacka, whose name I didn't recognize. Although I listened for Keke, it was the Jacka's "Pigeon on a T-Shirt" that jumped out, in part for its mournful production. Especially striking was the vivid imagery of the chorus: "Last nigga had beef with the Jack, I make him wonder why the last sound he heard had to sound like thunder."
The Jacka had many strengths as an artist: a gift for melody and songcraft, the ideal rapper voice, unflappable swagger, and a sixth sense for beat selection that was neither trend-hungry, nor overly "left field." But the centerpiece of his music was his writing. Whether on his "classic" albums, his spottier unofficial records, or guest verses for the many Bay Area artists with whom he would collaborate, his lyrics often reward close reading.
One reason was the evocative power of his imagery, which would jump out in three-dimensions: His gun doesn't shoot, it sounds "like thunder," or pops "like meat in the pot frying." The coke isn't simply strong, it wakes you up "like a clip to your face." If you don't do coke, he'll wake you up "with a bang through the windshield." His writing had a three-dimensional punch, his actions a kinetic force.
At the same time, Jacka was a subtle writer, one for whom style and content were closely intertwined. There's an internal consistency to the Jacka's output; like 2Pac and other street rap auteurs, every verse reflected upon who he was as a coherent personality; there was no cynical cycling through song "types," creating conscious records that balanced the street. Instead, everything was fully integrated through his own persona. This meant even a quick 16 on a song like 2007's "Mob Shit"—from his unofficial The Jack of All Trades—would be as consistent with his worldview as more self-evidently "conscious" material. After three other unnamed rappers spit aggressive verses ("Block life, nigga fuck a job, bust raps or them straps, hit licks and rob!"), the Jacka enters rapping as a boastful Cali hardhead: "I scrape the streets, fuck peace, I got hella shit that'll leave you hella stiff." But the verse ends unexpectedly, twisting suddenly from threats into existential after-effects:
Got your brains on the 7-inch screen
I woke up this morning so yo I know it's not a dream
Now I gotta shower for an hour
No trace of the gunpowder,
No trace of the rallo
Cleaning out bottles of Remy just to hide the thought
Of this nigga laying on his back leaking a river.
And it ends on that note. Notice the subtle poetic shift from cleaning up physical evidence to cleaning out the bottles of cognac, ending with a stark image the liquor can't erase. There's no didactic explanation that killing is bad; after all, in the world the Jacka is writing from, killing is simple reality, not something that can be hectored into non-existence. But what he can do is rob it of its glamor.
This realism is at times incredibly discomforting: It's difficult not to wonder about the Jacka's own history, and the psychological scars with which he wrestled. He seems uninterested in exaggerating his own story—occasionally emphasizing that his one year behind bars wasn't even real time—which only serves to underline his transparency. The distance between this humble approach and the terror of his experience creates a powerful emotional impact. One verse (which has also appeared on a collaborative record with Akron, Ohio, rapper Ampichino), from Broad Daylight's "Coulda Did Better," sketches his torment in vivid terms:
The people wanna lock a nigga up cuz I'm young and I'm lethal
Attempted murder on a cop, all it did was feed my ego
Seen a generation rot pushing hop through a needle
Generate the block with a plug from Mexico
Put it in a box, overnight the shit to Frisco
I been through a lot, first time I shot a pistol
Wasn't in the air, but I wish it could have been so
'Stead of in a man with the same color skin tone
The Jacka's frequent ruminations on death and murder don't feel cynical or callous as much as they do therapeutic. Although an undercurrent of tragedy runs as a constant throughout his catalog, his music was not totally dark. There's an exuberance, especially early on, for not just the spoils of victory, but for playing his part in a larger history. On 2006's "Sicilian Breeze," he raps about being "missing in action, on resorts just relaxing, looking in the water while the dolphins is passing," before shifting suddenly back and forth through history in snatches of anecdotes, an aggregation of the moments that placed him there: "'91 I seen the killers with the curl on top, 2-6 and Cutty had the fiends on hop, back then moms threw away her dreams for rock." "I'm in NYC standing by what used to be towers...interrogation from the boys was my quietest hour," "I used to be young, hanging around cowards, acting like gangsters, trying to figure out what my style was."
As he grew older, his music honed in on a purposeful moral conscience without sacrificing its immediacy or populist appeal. On records like Mob Trial 3's incredible "African Warrior," the Jacka's writing was at its evocative peak: "I would really like to say a lot more, but I'm holding back/Because they shoot our heroes down when exposing facts/Rather see me in they war killing foes with straps/Or with a sack of dope killing fiends with that/Or anything to keep me from my dreams I guess." The song opens with an indictment of the music business' inability to see his vision: "The major labels blind, they don't even know what's up/They let a real nigga pass 'cause they dumb as fuck."
While the labels were indeed blind, in one sense it's hard to blame them: The Jacka's catalog is deep and difficult to wrap one's head around. In addition to his official solo albums (2001's The Jacka, 2005's The Jack Artist, and 2009's Tear Gas), there are unofficial albums, official mixtapes, unofficial mixtapes, guest spots, and collaborative releases. As with the work of Max B, Gucci Mane, and other rappers of their generation, the Jacka's work is best understood through an immersion experience, rather than through one limited to one or two great albums.
While he's largely considered a marginal figure due to a lack of mainstream attention or cool cosigns, the essence of the Jacka's creative work is so substantial it's difficult to imagine a future where the true extent of his accomplishments won't be recognized. It was an optimism he shared throughout his work, as in the close of "This Time I Want It All," from 2011's Mobbin Thru the West.
We was real, but when I'm gone, I wonder what they'll say
When all I ever did is try to make it the ill way
Since I was a kid they been sleep, but they will wake
David Drake is a writer living in New York. Follow him @somanyshrimp