When my 18 year old sister asked me to take her to see the rapper Andre Nickatina last weekend I needed only a brief moment to think it over before giving her money to get tickets. Of course, I should see the pieces rap god who’s songs have become anthems of vice to many different fan groups up and down California. Unlike many Bay Area rappers, Andre Nickatina has stayed away from a lot of the hyphy/thizz movement. But that’s not to say he hasn’t been present/heard around the sf area.
Coming out of the Filmore district in the 90’s (then known as) Dre Dog’s, lyrical game rivaled that of most rappers getting national attention. With a mob boss tone and incredibly smooth lyrics, Nicky T’s songs are seemingly timeless. A few of his most popular being: Scottie 15, Ayo for Yayo, and Smoke Dope and Rap the originality and strength in his words can be heard from gangs on street corners to white high schoolers parties.
The fact that I even briefly debated not seeing Andre makes me want to kick myself. Instantly, I began thinking about some of the first times I listened to him. I was around 14 years old and felt like a fucking badass rapping every word to his main hits. Occasionally, when he comes on my iTunes shuffle I still feel that boss mentality that you can’t help but nod your head to.
My main thought for missing this concert was that I had seen him before…and he wasn’t that great. Don’t get me wrong, the spectacle of seeing the self-proclaimed “skinny 6’5″ motha fucka” in person was almost worth the 20 dollars alone. But aside from his stature, his stage presence was moderately small. Currently, Andre just turned 44 and when I first saw him he must have been nearly over the hill. Deep lines in his face and nearly zero movement (aside from waving his arm back and forth) showed that the many years of yayo were taking their toll on him. After talking with various people through the years, I learned it was not uncommon for him to be lethargic or seemingly careless on stage. Not to mention one incident (I heard) that he didn’t show up all together.
As unfortunate as this is, it sort of fits with his style of rapping personality he exhibits. Although, Andre is undoubtedly a voice of the bay, he has stayed away from the style of hyphy music which has been so popular since the late 90’s. Andre Nickatina can be found on many tracks with hyphy rappers, most notably Mac Dre, but has never gone with the hyperactive type beats or lyrical flow which is stereotypical for these individuals. Instead, I believe that Nicky is considered a poet. Most of the results on Google show him dressed professionally, usually in a suit, button down shirt or matching golf cap. His lyrics are mainly upper echelon poetry with smooth rhyme schemes that make head bobbing almost contagious. Aside from his clothes and beats he carries calm composure even when discussing wild subject matter. (See Killa Whale lyrics for example)
Despite this rumored nonappearance, Andre Nickatina is pretty much a bi-yearly guest at our local venue and all it took for me to get excited was my sister’s curiosity and enthusiasm for a “dangerous” event. Looking at her I was taken back to my high school days and reminded of the simpler times when I would be stoked for a month to see whatever rapper was coming to town.
Coming into the vicinity about 20 minutes before the doors opened, we could see a line that wrapped around the front of the building to a dark parking lot. This area is a notorious bum hangout as well your last opportunity to drink, smoke and ingests whatever substance you have in your pocket before being patted down by security. While we stood waiting it was the usual small talk to people around us. Two guys behind us were dedicated fans and had seen Andre preform 20 times, another girl in front admitted she only knew two of his songs, and meanwhile everyone around us seemed to be asking each other for cigarettes or bud.
Once we had been searched at the entrance (myself more thoroughly than my sister) we ventured into the crowded lobby and I was instantly reminded of concerts past. The age demographic for these rap shows pretty much includes 14 year olds looking as tough as possible to old school bay boys upwards of 30 years old…trying to look as tough as possible. The lobby of these shows is really where I start to get excited because it’s very well lit up and there’s a lot going on. Merch guys are trying to pull in fans, kids are getting together and taking pictures, but the best part is you can tell how fucked up some people are due to bright lighting. As I suspected, this night there were many bulging pupils, heavy eyes and slurred speeches. Like most people on drugs they instantly averted my looks shortly after connection probably once they realized how scary their sweaty faces and intensified stares were.
We got in just as the first act was getting on. What kinda sucks about these low-key shows is that there will be 3-5 openers on the ticket who are usually not very good. I mean, it’s understandable. Nickatina ain’t going to perform for two hours alone and a 20-30 minute set for these unknown people to rip before him is probably the best an aspiring Bay Area rapper can hope for. As usual I didn’t know or really enjoy any of these guys.
One that did leave an impression with me was the very first on stage named Esquire Ali. At the time I didn’t remember his name but since his performance left such an impression I decided to look into him more. Once I found his Twitter with a reachable email I asked him a few questions about the show and life in general. He responded within a matter of minutes and had all my questions answered.
The bay has always been a place of cultural mixing with a wild attitude which is seen through political movements and the popular culture. Esquire, informed me in the email that he is only 19 years old and has felt completely immersed in the culture of his area. From gathering different spiritual influences, to pursuing rap, the bay area has pushed him to try his hardest in the game.
To me he seemed to be an exact projection of all the craziness that is the bay are. He had long wavy hair with a few dreads in the back and was wearing a very impressive blue kimono (He informed me through the email that it was given to him by his girlfriend who got it in Japan). Also differentiating him from the other acts was a long curly haired guitarist who was just as enthusiastic as he was. Seemingly, with no planning or coordination they jumped back and forth playing long electric notes as well as short slashes that were slightly off timing but, nonetheless, added to the whole experience as Esquire dropped his bars.
Now this group was filming on stage so some of these antics might have been forced or just for Youtube but I thought they were still powerful. Esquire continually asked the crowd which drugs they favored and was stomping around like a madman. Also, he kept us entertained by tossing out posters, glow sticks and beads. His peak of crowd involvement was when the guitarist went off on a solo in which he started playing behind his head. While everyone was transfixed Esquire came flying out from behind the curtain and dove, head first, into the front row. I really don’t think anyone expected it and when he didn’t surface for almost two minutes. My sister and I worriedly exchanged looks .From our position on the side we were scared he was laying amongst the many feet with a broken neck. Suddenly, he appeared right next to us, cheerfully, on his way around back up to the stage. I patted his back, stoked he was alive (and honestly also to feel his kimono which to my knowledge, felt authentic).
Being the first of 5 unknown acts leading up to a highly anticipated event is pretty much like trying to race up a falling slope. Crowds often are just jocking for position for the main act and waiting for the openers to get off the stage. Occasionally, (like last weekend) crowds will a chant for the main act long before they are on deck. Having never been onstage myself, I can only imagine it’s pretty demoralizing having your passion and life’s work rushed because you aren’t what the spectators paid for. But it seemed that years of experience in the crowd and on stage had prepared all of these rappers to make the best of their 15 minutes of fame. A few tactics that I noticed were that they must repeatedly say their names, be crazy and shower the crowd with mixtapes, posters and whatever else they have. Although, I didn’t remember his name at the time; the stage diving rapper alongside his guitarist will stick in my memory for a long time to come.
Excluding an unusually long girl fight in the crowd, the following acts weren’t as electrifying or notable as the first, but still,l whenever the artists threw any objects into the crowd I along with everyone else jumped like dogs for them. Between the rappers, hype dudes, and DJs there were almost 25 people on the stage that weren’t Andre Nickatina and the crowd was getting anxious. When he finally appeared around 10:30 we all went wild. Dressed in a matching white tee and hat Andre’s simplicity and silence had the whole crowd screaming before he said a word. Briefly, I was worried that the upcoming performance would be another lack-luster set, but thankfully, that was not the case.
After greeting us with a quick ” Make some noise for drugs and alcohol,” Andre and his one back up singer went off into Girls Say, aka Bonus. HIs stage presence this night was completely different then when I saw him six years ago. He was pacing back and forth rhythmically, getting the crowd to wave our arms on command, he started a slow clap, and most importantly had us singing along.
As I kept my eye on my little sister in the crowd I found myself reciting every line to songs I didn’t even remember the name of! Yelling each song at the top of my lungs while bouncing to the beat brought me a sense of nostalgia. Looking around, I wasn’t the only one seizing the opportunity to rap in the same room as Andre Nickatina, seemingly everyone around me knew all the words to his songs too. While passing around smuggled in blunts and the occasionally rubbing their gums or noses after putting their hands in their pockets all the guys, girls and unidentifiable around me were having an amazing time. Some video taped the entire performance on their phones, some were grinding on girls they had brought, or just met, while others simply looked on in awe. In the brief moments of silence in between music, one could hear “I love you NICKY T!” and “AYO!” Nickatina’s setlist included most of his big hits and preformed each with the fire and passion of a new breakthrough artist. Not at all hinting that he had been preforming these same songs for over a decade, some for almost two.
To conclude his set, Nicky one last time had us all point to the sky for Mac Dre, his deceased friend who he had given multiple shout-outs to throughout the night. He proceeded to play Thizzle Dance, Mac Dre’s most popular song and what many people consider THEE anthem of the hyphy movement. Needless to say, the crowd loved it and all got stupid to the last song of the night. When it was over everyone noticed that Andre, his back-up and his DJ had all left the stage. It was that awkward moment after a set when you really don’t know if the artist will return but you don’t want to leave and miss their last last song. After more “Andre Andre Andre…” chants we saw the enormous man return to the stage with a smirk on his face and the mic in his hand. If the crowd had been excited before, we were ecstatic now. With little build up, the DJ went right into Jungle, truly one of Nickatina’s hardest lyrical songs with a beat that is completely unique and recognizable after a couple seconds into the intro. After his last verse ended he hoped into the gated off section below the stage and began to shake hands with people in the front while the hook to Jungle still played. As if someone was handing out drugs, the crowd flocked violently to follow him in hopes to get a high five or fist bump. I thought about diving over the crowd to get right next to him, but I looked at my sister and she smiled while nodding towards the door and we headed out.
I’m very happy I saw Andre Nickatina again. Who knows how many more years this man will preform or be around? After last Saturday my biases of the entitled, talented artist who just showed up to get a check were thrown out the window. Anyone present could tell that he worked his ass off to put on a show for all of us that night. What’s so respectable to this artist is that even after being so well known for so many years he has retained his “underground” title. He’s toured the country, sold out shows and attracted thousands of fans; but yet has never made any watered down songs that could be played on the radio or tried to appeal to mass society. With so much filtered garbage in main stream media today it was refreshing to see such an original artist display his talents for us live. If you ever get the chance to see him do it. In my opinion seeing a talented rapper like Andre Nickatine is like watching an incredible painting done live. You can look at pictures of it on the internet or in books, but to see it created in front of your eyes is a awe-spiring experience that gives a new dimension to your favorite selective media.