I Go Out With the Group Substance Abuse and a Rapper Who Tries To Convince Me to Ho
[Editor's note: Soon-to-be-award-winning gonzo music journalist Danielle Bacher prowls the late late night scene for West Coast Sound. For this installment, she hit the town with MCs Subz and Eso Tre from Substance Abuse, who are known for their well-regarded 2006 album Overproof and their just-released work Background Music. Also along was their friend, rapper Ambush from Global Phlowtations.]
Danielle Bacher Eso Tre (Left) Ambush (Center) and Subz (Right)
8:10 pm: There are a few nights in your life when you feel like you might end up dead. This is one of those nights.
8:13 pm: I'm being followed by a black truck flashing its headlights over and over. I make a wrong turn and end up on Skid Row. I see tons of homeless people sleeping on the street. At a stoplight, one of them bangs his fist on my windshield.
8:17 pm: The truck is still honking at me every turn I make.
8:20 pm: The truck makes a right turn and goes the wrong way down a one-way street. I think the driver is seriously wasted.
8:24 pm: I make it to East 4th Place and park across from the Art Share gallery. I'm really hoping my car does not get broken in to or stolen.
8:36 pm: I meet up with Substance Abuse. Justin Hollingsworth, aka Subz, is wearing a brown camouflage jacket with a green Stussy beanie. He smiles and gives me a huge hug. His partner MC John Heath, aka Eso Tre, is wearing an oversized gray coat and a black Stussy beanie. It's almost as if they coordinated outfits.
8:37 pm: Their Belize-born, South Central-bred friend, MC Ambush (William Nicholson), walks outside. He's part of notable underground rap crew Global Phlowtations, as well as groups like Colored Girls, Teenage Pussy and William & William Inc. He's smoking a cigarette and accidentally ashes it on his T-shirt.
8:39 pm: We walk into the gallery. Eso tells me he graduated law school but hasn't passed the bar yet. Subz is in his second year of grad school for Architecture at SCI-Arc and can't be out all night, though it seems possible he'll change his mind.
8:42 pm: The two have known each other since fifth grade and found common interests in hip-hop and graffiti in West L.A. "We grew up on hip-hop. It brought us together as kids," says Subz.
"I don't think hip-hop really brought us together," replies Eso.
"Eh, well, it was like the background music. We can be nerdy, but we don't do nerd rap. We're versatile. We don't act like we're gangsters or don't get blinged out or act like we're ballin'. We want to make music everyone can relate to."
8:40 pm: We discuss why education is important and how it makes for better rap music. Eso tells me that his education helps him to control his language and make it dope. He uses what he learned in law school to propel his music, hone his language and help his flow.
8:45 pm: They inform me that the group is not trying to promote substance abuse, as its name seems to imply. They've been working on their sophomore album Background Music for years, and it finally is out this week. It features artists like Tash of Tha Alkaholiks, MC Eiht and Myka 9.
8:48 pm: We talk about how hip-hop and graffiti were intertwined in the '90s where they grew up. They have a deep reverence for graffiti culture. Eso used to go out tagging with his buddies. He got arrested at age 11 and stopped because he didn't want to upset his parents. There was some tag-banging going on. Subz was in a graffiti crew because he liked being rebellious. Ambush is a founder of the graffiti crew RDH (Rehab Don't Help) that started in the mid-'90s, but he doesn't tag anymore.
8:50 pm: We talk about why certain rappers get famous. Eso explains that artists are judged by superficial things, like how many followers they have on Twitter. It's a lot of bullshit that has nothing to do with the quality of the music. Eso believes that hip-hop is not about dick-riding somebody because you are told to like them. He maintains that if you have a name in hip-hop, you can basically record yourself taking a dump and people will like it.
8:55 pm: We don't actually look at any of the artwork. We slowly walk to my car. A fear returns as I gaze at a black truck driving to my left. And then a flash of light: Ambush lights a cig.
9:00 pm: The guys show me the work of L.A.-based graffiti and street artist Kofie. They love his work. We take a photo in front of it.
9:05 pm: Everyone hops in my car. I drive to Bar 107 on 4th St. I'm blasting the Special Edition of the Roots' album Phrenology. I park around the corner. Ambush is drinking a bottle of Taaka vodka in my car. He's smoking a cigarette with the window down. We walk to the bar. Each of us gets searched by the bouncer.
9:06 pm: This kitschy dive bar is packed with a mix of mustachioed hipsters in skinny jeans, bums and ladies with skirts that struggle to contain their asses. We grab drinks at the bar. Three whiskeys and a PBR.
9:20 pm: Brewer & Shipley's 1970 hit "One Toke Over the Line" is playing very loudly over the speakers. It's dim in here, and the lights give a reddish hue to everything. Subz tells me that he and Eso met Ambush nine years ago through their mutual friend, producer/beatmaker/sample connoisseur Julien Wari Hobobo, aka Vibez One. Vibez passed away from a heart attack three years ago. He produced Substance Abuse's first album Overproof and worked on some of the new album.
9:30 pm: Subz's eyes fill with tears. "I love him like a brother," he says. "It's really hard. He was one of the realest people I've ever known. I will always remember we kicked it a couple of weeks before he passed away. We were hanging out and he told me that he loved me. You know, guys don't really say that to each other. But it kind of fucked me up." He yells out a loud "ahhhhh" and then puts his head in his hand. A tear rolls down the middle of his cheek. He is unable to finish telling me about when he heard news of the death. He excuses himself to the bathroom.