In praise of: Capital STEEZ

An avowed sneaker-head, he had an impeccable sense of style; his friends could never figure out how he was able to leave his shoes untied so they puffed out but never fell off. This flair was reflected in his first rapping name, Jay Steez: Jay for Jamal, Steez, old school hip-hop slang for style.

Seeking to merge his own obscure brand of mysticism with politics, Capital STEEZ was extremely young when he took his own life, at just 19, so his music is the work of an artist still in development in some ways; and yet he showed enormous promise, much of it realised in his 2012 record, Amerikkkan Korruption (Cinematic Music Group).   

Immediately striking is the emphasis on melody in his music - something that unites him with many other artists of the moment, a quality that might arguably be the defining aspect of hip-hop production today - alongside his extremely natural, conversational style. Sometimes I play with a binary when thinking about singers, or MCs, dividing them up between those who are self-aware/knowing/ironic - aware of the performance - and those who (appear) to be sincere, heartfelt, expressing something personal.

There is an abundance of witty lines in STEEZ's work, easily quotable and pithy couplets, but there is also urgency in his message and the way it's delivered making it seem as if he is talking to you direct, as if you are the only listener.   

Take ‘Dead Prez’, produced by fellow Pro Era alumnus Joey Bada$$ - on first listen, it sounds like a live band performance, listen to that swing (close your eyes, it’s easy to imagine STEEZ in performance somewhere in Scandinavia, circa 1979).

“I’m green and inexperienced, dreamin’ ‘bout that chariots
Stay sparked and trade cards, he know that they be cheering it
On, I’m feeling grown when I spray my cologne
Got a mind of my own, but time’s ticking too long
And I got a plan to restore the game
This shit was looking quite critical right before we came
Co and cane flow in that novacane for your open veins
All we need is something medicinal, torch the flame
Third rail skippin’ over missin’ track
Soundin’ like the kicks and claps that filled the gaps for missing tracks
The third kind been real, we just missin’ Jack
Food for thought, but I tossed the scraps in a doggy bag
Rehearsin’ verses in my head, no iPod
Gave my life to Ja and still can’t find a job
So what I’m grindin’ for, to put these new Nikes on
Or to hide the scars from the eyes of God”

Note the clever word-play, where the syllables echo in almost perfect rhymes (cologne/own/long); the fact that they are imperfect adds to the interest and makes us take notice. One of the goals of a talented MC is to encourage us to see language differently, via the link up between sounds that are, in this case, similar but not the same. 

The poetry, the rhymes are simple, but serve to convey a strong emotion that reflects a very young man’s feeling of hopelessness, of being trapped and this then coalesces with a kind of (conspiracy-driven) politics that is often hard to make out (for me at least). The refrain offers multiple echoes, while making reference to deceased MCs:

“Is there heaven for us hip-hop heathens/
Big Pop and Pac and Eazy had ‘em leanin’
We all children lookin’ for a reason
What do you believe in, betrayal, treason?”

There is some debate about the accuracy of these lines; I've checked what I could find on the Internet, though, and there aren't any other alternatives available. Eli Rosenberg in his excellent, sensitive extended feature on Capital STEEZ that was published Fader offers this assessment of the song’s meaning, suggesting that it might operate as a kind of suicide note, or final letter ...

“Dead Prez,” might be the closest he ever came to writing one (a goodbye letter). It is a beautiful rap song, a befuddling poem that alternates between his nostalgia for his younger days rapping with Jahkari Jack as kids and resignation about his entry into the adult world. The theme is summed up in its puzzling hook—either, I’m out for dead presidents, see or I’m out for dead presidency, depending on how you hear it—an aural illusion that conflates a plea for money with a plea for death. 

He seems to be saying that the two were the same to him. Referencing other prolific rappers who died young—2pac, Biggie and Eazy E—he ends by saying that he’d prefer to be killed than to sell out: Some people like to compromise for the dollar sign, but I had my mind aside/ I told Jack from the get that I’mma ride or die/ And I’d rather die by homicide/ Instead of goin’ out without a pride. He ends the track sounding weary of life, and wistful for his childhood with Jack. But I remember back in the days/ When we was goin’ through that Torch and Excalibur phase.”

Others have said how the song title might not only be a reference to the famous 90s hip-hop agitprop rappers, Dead Prez, but also be a take on the word 'depressed'. The music draws on a piece of music by Galt McDermott from 1966 called 'Coffee Cold' that sets the MC up with this mellow lounge vibe. In some respects the strong melody is a bit of an uncomfortable fit with the lyrics, though I'm sure that was the MC's intention.     

“But I’m afraid it’s not as simple as that
Cause the symphonies and melodies
Haven’t been havin’ the same chemistry
The distance fact is only addin’ on stress
And it’s hard for me to live up to what you expect from me
The yellow tape was a warnin’ sign
It’s hard to cut straight to the chase without a dotted line
And if I made that the bottom line
Then I guess the Khan hit rock bottom about a thousand times
Some people like to compromise for the dollar sign, but I had my mind aside
I told Jakk from the get that I’mma ride or die
And I’d rather die by homicide
Instead of goin’ out without a pride”

Based on this fantastic, hyper-elegant track from 2007 by an underground LA producer who goes by the name Free the Robots that, in turn, uses a sample from a Moody Blues song (and maybe a Geto Boys sample as well) as its skeleton, this is arguably Capital STEEZ's best-known work. It conveys his trademark style; a kind of unconstrained lyricism branching out in all directions, but forever returning to the central concern; his place in the world (his anger at the world).  

Combining concerns about, in one critic's view, 'the war on drugs criminalizing Black and Brown youth during the Reagan/crack era, which created a generation of apolitical, and zombie like peoples within a postmodern society' (to quote a strong analysis on the microamerican blog, recommend it) with a profound mood of paranoia, it ends on a note of defiance.

“So can I live? or is my brother tryin’ to gun me down
Scuffle a couple of rounds ‘til we hear the thunder sound
No lightning, clash of the titans
And after the violence a moment of silence
Cause I want mine the fast way
The ski mask way, lookin’ for a fast pay
And instead of stickin’ up for each other
We pickin’ up guns and stickin’ up our brothers
So fuck ‘em all, I’m comin’ through ragin’
And I won’t stop ‘til Reagan is caged in
Mom tell me I should let the Lord handle it
The arm of the law is tryin’ to man-handle us
A man’s world, but a white man’s planet
And the doors are slowly closing while we fallin’ through the cracks of it
It’s a shame that flippin’ crack will be
The best alternative if you don’t make it rappin’
These crack houses and trap houses are trappin’ us in
And in the end we’re gonna remain stagnant
I ain’t havin’ it”

There is a lot more I could write on Capital STEEZ, though in some ways this makes me feel uneasy, as there is a relative dearth of in-depth interviews, reviews etc and I'm cautious about overriding his perspective with my own. 

What impresses me about Capital STEEZ's work in the end is his pure linguistic creativity (I love the rhyme in '47 elements' that is played out against the swoon of a monotonous-repetitive beat) and his natural delivery held within a highly orchestrated, even lush, soundtrack, which runs counterpoint to his apparently nihilistic interpretation of the world.

I'm concerned about falling into the trap of biography turning into the tale being told, so I'll leave it there. (Rest in peace, Capital STEEZ).