30 Years Later, the Full Story Behind the Forgotten First Song of G Funk
MUSIC - 3 DAYS AGO
Ade Adeniji is philanthropy journalist and freelance culture writer
Rap Group Above The Law (Cold 187um; KMG the Illustrator; Go Mack; DJ Total K-Oss ) appears in a portrait taken on March 1, 1990 in New York City. Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives The story of how Above The Law’s 2Pac-featuring “Call It What U Want” created the defining sound of mid-‘90s West Coast rap — g funk. Hip-hop fanatics may be talking about the beloved genre turning 50 this year, but one of its most beloved subgenres is now officially three decades old — g funk. The reliable formula of funky synthesizers, deep basslines, and soulful crooners spread like wildfire across the country to become the defining sound of mid-‘90s West Coast rap (and rap in general), thanks to record labels like the imposing Death Row Records, larger than life rappers, and classic movie soundtracks.
G funk is often considered to be the brainchild of Dr. Dre. From there, you might hear the names of other trailblazers: DJ Quik, Warren G, and Daz Dillinger. However, about 30 miles east from the well-known Los Angeles communities of Compton, Watts, South Central, and Long Beach, the inland town of Pomona is where some argue g funk actually began. There, a group called Above the Law — headlined by producer Big Hutch, the nephew of Motown legend Willie Hutch — pioneered gangsta funk, with their sophomore album Black Mafia Life (released in February 1993) being the first to explicitly call g funk by its name.
“2Pac’ll pack a person, pump the trunk, I’m bumpin’ g funk, but you can call it what you want,” Tupac Shakur booms on the first verse of “Call It What U Want,” Above the Law’s P-funk- infused track that features a young Shakur and Money-B (both representing Digital Underground).
The song and music video of “Call It What U Want” includes many other fallen legends like Eazy-E and Shock G. But why has this pioneering song flown under the radar? How did Pac become involved with the song? And, most importantly, why do Above the Law believe they created g funk? Okayplayer recently asked these questions and more to Big Hutch and Money-B.
In a conversation with Big Hutch and Money B, the two OGs provided a behind the scenes of the making of “Call It What U Want” and its star-studded music video, memories of working with 2Pac — who, according to Hutch, wasn’t exactly a known quantity at the time — and how current West Coast artists like Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q are continuing the legacy of g funk.
How the 909 Became a Part of West Coast Rap
There are many famous area codes in Southern California. The 909, home of the Inland Empire, isn’t exactly one of them. Pomona, California, home to the largest automotive swap meet on the West Coast, is a majority-minority community, which was about 50 percent Latino and 14 percent Black in 1990. This is where Gregory Hutchinson, first known as Cold 187um and now known as Big Hutch, calls home.
“The thing about the city we came up in is that we were still influenced by South Central music, by Compton music and all that,” the now 55-year-old Hutch said. “And then we got to incorporate that into what we were doing. When you look at Pomona, it’s like a smaller version of all that.”
Hutch grew up in a musical family. His father was Richard Hutch, a Motown writer. His uncle, Willie Hutch, was a legendary Motown singer and songwriter, whose work includes penning Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” and recording the soundtrack for blaxploitation classic Foxy Brown.
But while Hutch had these figures in his life, there were also the temptations of the streets. He started hustling in the ‘80s with his childhood friends from high school, who soon also became his musical collaborators.
“We were all kind of digging on music. We were like juniors and seniors in high school and started developing an Above the Law sound, reflecting what we were doing in the streets,” Hutch said.
By 1989, Hutch brought together friends Kevin Michael Gulley (KMG the Illustrator), Arthur Lee Goodman (Go Mack), and Anthony Stewart (DJ Total K-Oss) to officially form Above the Law.
But it was an early meeting with Larry “LayLaw” Goodman, a producer and Eazy-E’s business partner, who really changed the burgeoning group’s fate. LayLaw introduced the group to Eazy-E and Dr. Dre, who were looking to build out the Ruthless Records roster beyond early N.W.A. acts like The D.O.C. and J.J Fad.
In 1990, Above the Law released their debut album, Livin Like Hustlers, on Ruthless Records. Rather than the fully-baked g funk sound that would emerge later, Hutch called their first album more of a boom bap record, consistent with the sound of the time.
“It was sample-heavy but still funky. N.W.A.’s sound was really big, but all my samples were really slow. Really slower grooves compared to Straight Outta Compton,” Hutch said. “Dre would always say, “Y’all are like us, but your shit is funky.’”
Speaking of Dr. Dre, Hutch explains that their deal with Sony required that Dre get a producing credit on all projects, a precedent which would have consequences later on.
“Let’s Give the Rookie a Shot”: 2Pac Enters the Booth
Livin Like Hustlers singles “Murder Rap” and “Untouchables” both went No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chart. But for their follow-up, Hutch wanted to lean fully into what he called his “Motown DNA.”
“I started incorporating the stuff I learned from my pops and my uncle. Things started getting really dark and funky. Isaac Hayes. Parliament-Funkadelic. All that bluesy stuff,” Hutch said. “I’m from a jazz-blues family. That’s what they did. So, everything I did had undertones of that.”
G funk is a sound of contrasts, as the realities of the street collide with California palm trees and endless sunshine. Even when the lyrics get as gnarly as “Ain’t No Fun,” the beat and musicality make you bob your head. But Hutch is clear that he wanted g funk to come out of the gates with a real edge.
“When I was developing the g funk sound, I felt it had to have a slap that was hardcore. It couldn’t just be smooth and bluesy,” he said. “So, that’s how it ended up becoming more gangsta than just melodic.”
“Call It What U Want,” Black Mafia Life’s sixth track, brings together Southern and Northern California over a Funkadelic-sampling (“Freak of the Week”) beat. Up in the Bay Area, Digital Underground members Money-B and Tupac Shakur flew down to Los Angeles for a day-long recording session with Above the Law. When precisely this was is unclear; according to Hutch, Digital Underground’s “Same Song” had just come out, which means that the session would’ve taken place around January 1991. Money-B however, said he thinks he and 2Pac flew down to Los Angeles in 1991 or 1992.
What is known is that 2Pac, still a relatively unknown artist at the time, was not immediately embraced in the studio. Ruthless Records wanted Digital Underground and that meant its wunderkind producer Shock G, not Pac. But Shock was stuck in New York City with another project. Money-B had already gotten to know Above the Law and other Ruthless figures over the past few years through Digital Underground’s manager Atron Gregory, the head of TNT Recordings who got his start working for Ruthless under Jerry Heller.
“They didn’t really know Pac like that. Atron had told me that Shock probably wasn’t going to make it. But he didn’t want me to tell them. They were holding out as long as they could,” Money-B said.
But Shock never walked through the door, and it was clear they needed a fourth voice for “Call It What U Want,” leading to Pac’s appearance on the track.
“It’s set up for four verses. So it was like, ‘Shit, let’s give the rookie a shot,’” Hutch said.
Corporate Powers — And Not Dr. Dre — Complicate a Signature Sound’s Origin
Pac wrote his verse for “Call It What U Want” on the spot that day. He stepped to the microphone with a simple yet game-changing question: “what do y’all call this sound?” When Hutch replied, he remembers Pac saying: “That’s hard. I’mma put that in a rhyme.”
According to Hutch, the words “g funk” and “gangsta funk” had been thrown around the studio during their Black Mafia Life sessions. But they never seriously thought about what their signature new sound would be called.
“It was just a phrase we were popping around with our homies. It was just a vibe. But it turned into this big thing,” Hutch said. “Pac is the one who made it official on the record.”
“Call It What U Want” is also the story of two funky groups — Above the Law and Digital Underground — coming together to create a bridge record. This is meaningful not just for g funk but hip-hop overall, with the track joining a lineage of other notable cipher records like A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” or Big Daddy Kane’s “Show & Prove.”
“Back then, cipher records had no hook. That’s the whole concept of it. Whatever you’re speaking on, you can call it what you want. That’s the vibe,” Hutch said. “Cipher records always come to a scenario. We’re just gonna let the people cipher out what we’re talking about.”
For those wondering how “Call It What U Want” could predate tracks like “Nuthin But a ‘G’ Thang” on 1992’s The Chronic, remember what Hutch said about Sony requiring Dre to receive a producer credit. When Dre left Ruthless in 1991 to form Death Row Records, the shake up also created a logjam for the release of Above the Law’s Black Mafia Life.
“Black Mafia Life was originally supposed to come out on Sony, but when Dre left it killed the deal,” Hutch said, adding that by the time Black Mafia Life found a new home at Giant Records (Warner), many months had passed.
“I know we recorded it, then forgot about it, and then it came out,” Money-B added.
But it’s hard not to hear similar elements between Black Mafia Life and The Chronic, with songs like “Pimp Clinic” and “And Never Missin’ a Beat” bringing to mind “Let Me Ride” and “Dre Day,” respectively. At times, the battle for g funk supremacy even resulted in diss tracks. This was the case with 1994’s “Don’t Bite The Phunk,” a heavy Dre and Snoop diss track by Pomona-hookman Kokane that featured this notable funk callout from Hutch (then known as Cold 187um): “I’m talkin to you Dre, don’t bite my shit. Don’t bite the funk that feeds you. Cause I sure the hell don’t need ya.”
Then there’s the case of Tha Dogg Pound’s 1995 track “Respect,” with a short intro by Dre which echoes Above the Law’s “Call It What U Want”: “Beatin’ up on your ear drums with some of that g funk. Some of that gangsta funk. Some of that ghetto funk. Call it what you want, just don’t forget the G.”
These days, however, Hutch claims he holds no ill-will toward Dr. Dre, who he calls a brother. If anything, he seems to level his critiques at corporate powers that be.
“If they couldn’t market a marquee name back then, no one else was going to be heard. Look at how Death Row was done, Pac got really upset about that,” Hutch said. “Well, Daz is doing stuff. Kurt Cobain was doing stuff. Why everything got Dre name on it? That’s no kick on Dre.”
Money-B added that in those early Ruthless days, Warren G and Snoop Dogg used to roll with Hutch too, before Dre took them all the way in. This is corroborated by a 2013 interview where Warren G shouts out the Pomona pioneers Above the Law: “They were the ones who put me on, made me part of g funk.”
“I think Hutch is absolutely the first and Above the Law is the first group to use it (g funk). But it’s always going to be whoever popularizes it. That’s just the way it is. I’m not mad at anyone. But the truth is the truth,” Money-B said.
Looking Back and Looking Forward on G Funk
The music video for “Call It What U Want” is as star-studded as any, with Eazy-E, MC Ren, 2Pac, Money-B, Kokane, KMG, Stretch, Treach, and even Mopreme all making an appearance. Although many of these figures are no longer with us, that doesn’t stop Hutch from warmly reminiscing on how so many legends ended up in a downtown Los Angeles warehouse to shoot the video.
“What was dope about that era is that we all needed each other to make hip-hop be a big industry. So whenever we did something, there was going to be people coming out to support,” he said. “The beef that people started having, the media turned into some other shit. But it was great to have that camaraderie back then.”
Still active in the industry today, Big Hutch and Money-B went on to release several more albums through their respective collectives and as solo acts. Hutch even once served as head of production at Death Row Records. The two are excited about the next generation of West Coast rappers, with Hutch noting how artists like YG, Kendrick Lamar, and Glasses Malone incorporate elements of g funk into their music without being stuck in the halcyon period where synths and deep, funky basslines ruled.
“It’s their sound. It’s part of their bloodline, their musical DNA, and they shouldn’t run from it,” Hutch said.
Ade Adeniji is philanthropy journalist and freelance culture writer in Los Angeles. His other bylines include CBS News, WIRED, PBS, and Newsweek. He can be found on twitter at @derekadeniji