Long Beach rapper Crooked I was first heard by rap fans on the 1997 West Coast underground release The 19th Street Compilation and since then has been tearing up microphones and recording booths from L.A. to New York. This pure-rap thoroughbred ended up taking his skills to the controversial and feared rap mogul, Suge Knight, in hopes of taking the Death Row label to new heights after the loss of its major rap stars. Some call it a huge mistake that put the talented rapper on a long detour to his hopes and dreams. Nevertheless, Crooked I took his career in to his own hands and after four years of service to the Death Row label and after a long court battle, won the freedom of joining up with up-start West Coast label, Treacherous Records. Was that a mistake too? AllHipHop.com caught up with Kingpin the Crooked Individual (dubbed Crooked I by his older brother) to hear his side of the story about these things. We not only discuss that, but everything else about Crooked I that you should know about from his start all of the way to the 52 week Hip-Hop Weekly series that he unleashed upon the Internet. Oh yeah we didnt leave out the Snoop Dogg situation. Its well known that the two dont see eye to eye, so we gave Crooked the chance to speak his peace about it. Crooked also gives us his thoughts on seeing the infamous pictures of his former boss being laid out on that Hollywood sidewalk. Enjoy the read.AllHipHop.com: It seems like you were born to be a rhymer. At what age did you discover that you actually had this gift?Crooked I: My mother used to write R & B songs and poetry. I started writing poetry at age five and she put together a little book of my poems. My mom used to encourage me a lot and that is one of the important things in my career because when I told her that I wanted to rap, she went out and bought albums from artists like Run-DMC and let me hear them at a young age. I would write about me and my family riding the bus, stuff like that. I had one where I talked about being in kindergarten. I can remember it like it was yesterday. My mom kept books of those writings and would always show them to me when I was growing up like, Remember you wrote this two years ago? I was talking about the average kid stuff; Hot Wheels and Match Box. We had a little game that we played in Kindergarten called the Rhyming Game. I liked it so much that when I went home I started making my own rhymes. I believe I was born for this. When [my mother] was pregnant with me, she was in the recording booth singing. Hood Politics – Crooked I[Jacked from Eskay]AllHipHop.com: When did you start developing the rhyme skill that we know from todays Crooked I?Crooked I: At eight years old I wrote a song called Microphone Controller. Thats when I knew that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. My mother and her twin sister took me to the studio and I recorded it. [Crooked I raps part of the song: The rhyme is my hammer. The beat is the nail Im driving it in to your rhythm cell.] That was the rhymes from that song when I was eight. I was a B-Boy with a Kangol. I only wore suede Pumas and shell-toe Adidas. When I was in the 3rd grade, 4th grade and 5th grade I was rapping and everybody knew it. They were like, There goes Crooked. He raps. I was around Hip-Hop at such a young age that I feel that I am part of the Old School mentality of Hip-Hop even though I am not as old as the founders. I feel like I am a part of it because I was serious about it back when people thought that rap was just a trend.
I looked at every MC as my tutor Rakim, Kool G Rap, KRS-One, Chuck D, Ice T, Ice Cube, and Scarface.
AllHipHop.com: What were the Crooked I teenage years like?Crooked I: At the teenage years, I was just being a student of Hip-Hop. I was listening to everybody and absorbing as much as I could. I made it a point to listen and learn from the greats. I looked at every MC as my tutor Rakim, Kool G Rap, KRS-One, Chuck D, Ice T, Ice Cube, and Scarface. During my teenage years, I was figuring out where I wanted to fit in amongst the greats. I also moved around a lot. When I was young my family was below the poverty line. Sometimes we would be homeless, living in our car or living at shelters. We moved around a lot to different cities and I used to hate being the new kid on the block. Now that I look back on it though, its probably the reason why so many people in different cities feel me. I can relate to a lot of different ways of living and I can adapt to different cultures. Traveling a lot added to my style. AllHipHop.com: At what age did you start shopping yourself to labels? Or felt that you were far enough along to get a manager to help you with your career?Crooked I: When I was 14 I got a manager. I was going around rapping at shows and little contests. I kind of fell though because my family was poor and I realized that I needed to go out and get money for us. I had to focus on grinding and helping my mom pay the bills. You shouldnt be thinking about that kind of stuff when you are 14 but I didnt have much of a choice. I still kept a passion for music but I put the career in the back seat and I put hustlin in the front seat. I hung out with a lot of O.G.s because I was the only dude my age out on the block real heavy. I had to hang around people a lot older than me and they gave me a lot of game. Now that I think back, the things I learned then helped me with the music business today. Around the age of 17, I picked my rap career back up and went independent. I started using the money that I was making on the street to go to the studio and make demos. I started an independent company with a couple of NFL players who were older homies of mine. We started an independent company on the East Side of Long Beach called Muscle Records. Thats when I started to realize that I could put out stuff independently and make money. Banger On My Lap (Dirty) – Crooked IAllHipHop.com: Were you still in High School at the time or did you drop out?Crooked I: I dropped out. The thing is Im pro-education, but when you are real young, you are too young to get a job and odd-jobs arent always going to come. My family was so below the poverty line that I couldnt take it anymore I had to do something. I dont even want a kid to think that it is cool to drop out of school. I was young and at the time it was something that I felt that I had to do. Since I was out there on the street, I tried to turn my illegal program in to legal by rap. We started the independent label and it started working for me. I then landed my first label deal with Nu Trybe/Virgin while I was still 17 years old. AllHipHop.com: So what happened with the Virgin Records deal?Crooked I: Virgin Records was my first dealings with the music industry on a corporate level. At that time The Luniz were over there and their I Got 5 On It song was a big hit. Scarface had a group over there called The Face Mob with Devin The Dude and all of them dudes in it. Benzino was also over there with The Almighty RSO. To be around those type of people at 17 and soaking up game was good for me. Everything was going good for a while I even recorded an album. My big homeboy Big C-Style had a production company and we went in together on the Nu Trybe deal. I had Snoop Dogg, Daz, Kurupt, Tray Dee, Nate Dogg; all featured on my album. At the time, Long Beach was on fire so I could do no wrong in the industry because of The Chronic album, Doggystyle album and the Dogg Pound album; Long Beach was in the building. It gave people the feeling that Long Beach was a city full of talent and a lot of artists were getting deals. One day the people from the label came in and said, Look. We are about to get rid of the whole Urban department. Whatever plans they had werent working or being executed correctly on the top floor of the building so they got rid of the whole thing. I was stuck back on the block without a deal. So I just went back to being independent. AllHipHop.com: What did you do with the album that you recorded on Virgin?Crooked I: Nothing [laughs]. AllHipHop.com: So it still exists and its never been heard?Crooked I: It exists and its never really been heard. I have some songs and Big C-Style has some songs. One day I am going to put those songs out. It will be the Life and Times of Crooked I. And even back then at that stage my sword was sharp! I recorded that album around the same time that Big C-Style dropped the 19th Street Compilation. My sword was still sharp back then and thats one thing that I can say proudly. When it comes to consistency, I keep my skill level where it needs to be. Even though Ive changed and evolved since then, Ive always been on point. AllHipHop.com: Losing that Virgin deal must have been real discouraging for you, especially it being for your first deal. Crooked I: I was discouraged after the Virgin Records deal blew up but one thing Ive trained myself to do is to always turn a negative situation in to a positive one. Another thing that Ive trained myself to believe is that I cannot fail no matter what. I went back to being independent and I made so much money. I was making more on the independent scene than when I was getting paid from the major label. Dream Big – Crooked IAllHipHop.com: This is just by selling mixtapes or what?Crooked I: Selling mixtapes, selling verses, ghost-writing, and working out of town. I went out of town a lot. Theres a lot of out of town independent labels that we may never hear of but theyve got street dudes that are ballin or people that are superstars locally. I started aligning myself with those kind of dudes from California to New York to the South. I was coming home with money hand-over-fist. It was like the dope game. You go out of town for two or three months then you come back and buy a convertible Benz. I made a lot of money and a lot of contacts people that I still deal with today. AllHipHop.com: When did Death Row Records and Suge Knight come in to the picture?Crooked I: Death Row and Suge Knight came in to the picture one day while I was out at my condo in Long Beach. I got a knock on the door and looked out of the peep-hole and standing there was Big C-Style and Daz Dillinger. They were like, Yo. We know that you are doing your independent thing but Suge wants to holler at you. We want to take you over to Death Row and get a record deal with our sub-label Dogg Pound Records. We want you to be the first artist to come out from it. Its going to be distributed through Death Row. What do you think? I told them, If thats what you all want to do, then lets go over there and see him. During this time Suge was still incarcerated so I went to visit him in the penitentiary. When I got there he told me, What do you want to do? And my reply was, Get money. I told him that I wanted to make music that changes the world and he was like, Lets do it. I took a lot of trips up there to see him as we negotiated the terms. Its kind of weird negotiating a contract in the Pen. It was a trip negotiating a record deal inside of a prison on a napkin. We came to an agreement and I signed with him.
When I came in Suge was like, ‘What? Are you going to ride with these motherf**kers? Or are you going to ride with me?’
Then Daz fell out with Suge and wanted me to leave the label with him. I asked Daz what kind of alternative that he had for me and he had nothing. He just wanted me to leave with him because he was mad at Suge. In my opinion, he was being mad over something that was very petty. I thought that they could work it out because it wasnt anything too major. All Suge had told [Daz] was that he should just concentrate on production for the time being to keep his producers name solid, put the rapping on the back seat, then come back to the rap. Suge felt that he could take over the production game because Daz was hot on the beats but Daz got mad at that because he wanted to rap more than produce. They got in to an argument and one word led to another. Daz got up from the visitors table because at this time Suge was having contact visits. He left and I was coming in for my turn just right after their argument. When I came in Suge was like, What? Are you going to ride with these motherf**kers? Or are you going to ride with me? I was like, What the f**k are you talking about? He then told me what happened. I told him that I had to go back and hear their side of the story because I came into the door with them. Im from Long Beach and I am loyal to the people that brought me to the table. I spoke to Daz and Big C-Style and heard two different stories. Daz was like, F**k them! We are out of there and you shouldnt be there either! Big C-Style told me honestly that he thought that I should stay because they didnt have anything popping for them right now and he knew that I was paying my mothers rent and taking care of my brothers. He knew that I was the main provider for my family, so he looked at it from that point of view. I asked him if he had an alternative or anybody else that they can take my project to and he said, No. So I made the decision to stay. AllHipHop.com: Death Row had lost a lot of their power at that point. Dre and Snoop left, and 2Pac died. Why deal with this company in the first place if they are no longer a strong force?Crooked I: Every situation that I have ever been in, I have been the underdog. So I told myself that this might be an underdog company right now, but if I work hard, I can bring it back to greatness. I have faith in myself. I felt that I could restore this company and that I had the talent, drive and work ethic to do it. Also in 1999, there were no companies giving out deals to the West Coast. If you didnt already have a deal, you could forget about it. Not only did Pacs passing effect Death Row but the whole West Coast industry. People were waiting on The Chronic 2001 to see if it was going to bump the numbers back up. A lot of record execs were waiting to see if Dr. Dre was going to change the climate here so they could pull out their ink pens again and start signing people. People have always asked me why I did that [sign with Death Row]? If I had to do it again, I would do the same thing again. The reason why I would do the same thing again is because my career is bigger than me. Its not just about me. Its about the people that I love and take care of. Ive never looked it as if my career wasnt going according to the way that I wanted, that it wasnt going down. AllHipHop.com: No regrets even after learning that you were working for a blackballed company?Crooked I: No regrets. I made a conscious decision. When you think about something and you weigh the pros and cons, you have less regrets. If you just make a spontaneous decision that crashes you into a brick wall, then youve got regrets. I thought about it clearly. The company was blackballed but here is something that I got out of it; I was the last person signed to Death Row. Suge had enough of an ear to know to bring Snoop, Dre and 2Pac to the label. I had that same person with that same ear saying that Crooked I is the best on the West Coast. That made a lot of people pay attention to me. I was able to meet a lot of moguls in the game. When Suge got out of prison, even though he was blackballed, you couldnt ignore his legacy. I was able to sit down and talk face to face with Lyor Cohen while with Suge. He took me everywhere with him. I was able to talk to Kevin Liles, Russell Simmons and L.A. Reid. Thats valuable game that a young artist can soak up and you cant put a price on that. So in that aspect I went through Hip-Hop Industry 101 class. But there is of course the downside of being on a blackballed label because of the actions of one man. I mean, Suge is straight because hes a multi-millionaire. However, we the artists cant get money the way we want and cant advance our careers the way we are trying to. I also went through hell on that label as far as police. Being on Death Row means that you are going to be targeted and get pulled over. Your cars are marked, your homes are marked and where you go to the studio is marked. PART 2: RIGHT HERE