Kadillak Kaz spent most of his life in Santa Ana being that dude.
That dude you could buy weed from at 2 a.m. That dude with gang life written all over his face. That dude every hoodrat had a crush on. That dude who just might rob you. That dude who was good at shaking off haters but even better at getting in his own way.
That dude who could rap.
Behind the thick prison glass of a visitor's telephone stall in Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana, his street-earned swagger is still visible, though noticeably deflated. A calm aura floats faintly over frayed cornrows and broad cheekbones accented with ink: a devil's pitchfork on the right, two teardrops on the left. The color in his skin is muted by the carrot-purée-colored jump suit. I was probably the last familiar face he'd expected to see on the other side of a jail phone at 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday; his eyelids had jumped a little as I came around the corner, a surprised smile sweeping across a scruffy jaw that hadn't been shaved in days.
"Ah, damn!" he says, laughing. "Hey, man! How'd you know I was here?"
His tone is hushed and raspy, but for someone potentially facing 23 years in prison, he seems surprisingly upbeat.
The last time I'd seen Kadillak was Oct. 12, 2012, the night before he was to perform at Sound Asylum, a quarterly hip-hop residency at Costa Mesa's Detroit Bar. We'd sat down for an interview at the Crosby on a dead night in downtown Santa Ana to talk about his forthcoming album, Late Nights, Early Money, which he'd planned to release in the coming weeks. Off the record, he'd told me he'd been ducking Orange County Sheriff's deputies for a little more than a month. Kadillak never showed up for the gig. Two days after that, he was arrested for carjacking and second-degree robbery.
Kadillak adamantly professes his innocence, insisting he simply got into an argument with his ex-girlfriend and boneheadedly parked her car down the street without telling her. On the one hand, there's no such thing as a guilty man behind bars. On the other hand, his story doesn't quite add up. He already has two felony strikes on his record. And what kind of innocent man runs from the law?
"What rapper really wants to end their show in handcuffs?" he says. "Even if it's temporary?"
But there's nothing remotely temporary about Kadillak's predicament. If convicted, he faces 23 years in state prison. Now he's that dude who almost became a famous rapper, only to have his dreams of flying high in the hip-hop world potentially scratched, chopped and screwed, his ultimate fate soon to be in the hands of a jury of his peers. His public defender has warned him the jury is likely to be all-white; he was told he looks the part of a carjacker.
But Kadillak insists he has no choice but to move forward.
"I just know I've come so far from where I was, and I'm too close to the life I've been hustling toward for years," he says. "If I go back to prison, I can't take it this time. It will break me."
* * *
Three months ago, the rapper born Deron Hollins was closer than he'd ever been to being discovered. Kadillak was rubbing elbows with Snoop Dogg and had just begun negotiating a recording contract with his label, Doggystyle Records. He was putting out his third album, which had the potential to be more than just a street-level hit. After more than 15 years as a rapper and a life of hard knocks, drug dealing, multiple arrests and two convictions, things were starting to come together for him. The question is whether the 33-year-old rapper's hip-hop career breakthrough could be over just as it's about to start.
Kadillak's current predicament began on Oct. 15, 2012. At 2 p.m, he found himself behind the wheel of his new girlfriend's black Chevy Monte Carlo, which was being swarmed by cops. He'd just rolled up to her apartment complex in Mission Viejo to return the car so she could pick up her son from school. Before he'd even parked, his guts were churning in his stomach. Something in the back of his mind told him things weren't going to end well for him that day. Since September, he'd known he was a wanted man.
His arrest warrant stemmed from a phone call to Tustin police placed by an ex-girlfriend, who initially called them Aug. 16, after a public shouting match outside a friend's computer-repair business. Kadillak used to rent a suite across from the complex, a place he called Skyballin Studios, and still occasionally visited his friend. They argued over $3,500 she'd taken from his wallet the night before, shortly after she examined his cell phone and discovered he'd been seeing other women behind her back.
Though she returned a day later with the money, an argument ensued over the fact that the ex found one of Kadillak's female friends taking a nap in one of the office rooms at the repair shop. She ended up bolting out of the studio through the middle of the complex to hide out in an area near the rental office.
Kadillak still had her car keys, which she'd given him to run errands after she came back to return the cash and patch things up. He hopped into the car and drove to the other side of the building to look for her. He also tried to contact her via telephone. As the sun began to set, he gave up and caught a ride to another local studio where he was scheduled to record. Instead of taking the keys with him, he left them under the driver's-side floor mat.
According to the Tustin police report, the ex-girlfriend told the cops that Kadillak had "taken" her car. Though it was clear Kadillak hadn't stolen it, just parked it a few hundred feet away (officers soon found and impounded the vehicle), the allegation was all the police needed to put out a warrant for a guy who'd been a thorn in the side of local law enforcement—especially the Santa Ana Police Department—for years. Despite having one foot in the rap game, his long history of drug dealing and gang banging since he was a teenager made him a perpetual target for police who kept constant watch on him and various members of his family, who over the years earned a notorious reputation for the same lifestyle; Kadillak has been in and out of detention centers since he was 9 years old.
With flurry of blue and red lights flashing around him that October afternoon on the corner of Aliso Parkway and Morning Ridge, all the rapper could do was surrender and watch his life swirl away. He'd just pulled up to his girlfriend's apartment complex in the suburban neighborhood when one sheriff's squad car rolled up next to him, followed by four more. To make matters even worse, his girlfriend's ex-husband—another local rapper—waited in the bushes nearby to point him out to police. Evidently, the ex-husband, who had a personal beef with Kadillak, found out about the warrant and volunteered to help the police.
Surrounded, Kadillak stopped the car. For a split second, he contemplated running or hitting the gas. Instead, he popped the door handle, stepped out of the car and surrendered without incident. Lowering his head into the back of the black-and-white Crown Victoria, he realized he could very well face the next two decades in prison over a car he merely parked down the street. "I just felt like, 'Damn, it's over, I'm done,'" he recalls. "'Over this?'"
* * *
Ask him when his rap career started, and Kadillak typically uses one day as a marker: May 13, 2006. Walking out the gates of Wasco State Prison near San Bernardino and into the desert heat, he was ready to start over, both in life and in hip-hop. It had been six years and four months since he'd touched a mic in the outside world. In 2000, he'd been sentenced to eight years for assault with a deadly weapon and causing grave bodily injury after joining in a brawl between a friend and a Mexican gangster; the cholo was left beaten and bloody outside a 7-Eleven in Santa Ana.
Kadillak had almost been convicted of raping a former girlfriend in a church parking lot in Garden Grove on the same night as the altercation. The rape allegation proved false—a story concocted by the girlfriend after a nasty fight between the two, also over the fact he'd been seeing other women. Aside from a lack of physical evidence, Kadillak had an alibi: a fortuitous run-in around 11:30 p.m. with Tustin cops, who happened to drive by his car and noticed him smoking blunts and blasting his new mixtape for his cousins outside of their apartment. It was around the time the crime was supposed to have taken place.
Though he'd beaten the rape case, the charges for assault and bodily injury and subsequent drug sales and transportation charges were a violation of his parole, and according to Judge Andrew Banks in Westminster, that had earned him a second strike on his record. The judge voided a previous deal Kadillak made to serve only an eight-month sentence, and instead ordered a total of eight years and four months in jail, though the rapper wound up serving only six years and four months. To this day, even though he was never convicted of rape, there are people in his neighborhood who view Kadillak as a sexual offender. In his mind, being on the outside meant setting the record straight both with his story and with his rhymes. But when your rap sheet looks more like a scroll and you come from a family notorious for gang banging and selling drugs, rumors that get spread about you tend to stick.
He'd grown up in a small, yellow, four-bedroom house in Santa Ana, near the corner of Fairview and Willits streets, a poor neighborhood where crack cocaine and prostitution plagued their way through the rough maze of stucco suburban housing in the 1980s. Kadillak lived with his mother, four sisters and grandmother, and a handful of aunts and uncles also lived in the same housing tract. His father, Paul Hollins, was a cocaine dealer who'd never married Kadillak's mother, Tracy Matthews, but still came around to help raise him, buy him things or take him for rides in a flashy, dark-blue, '77 Ford Granada. Paul was a ladies' man, a sharp-dressed hustler; he was the first on the block with a cell phone (back when they were new and enormous) and owned a small fleet of Suzuki motorcycles. His son was the spitting image of him in looks and, later, actions. Despite promises of weekend vacations and day trips, Kadillak was left standing on the curb beside the sunburned tufts of his front lawn or waiting by the window until the sun went down.
Though his parents fought quite a bit when Paul was around, other dangers in the neighborhood also played a role in Kadillak's troubling, violent behavior. At age 9, he says, he and a couple of friends were molested by a neighbor after being lured into the home on several occasions, something he kept hidden from his family until he was 18. "I knew my father would kill him," he says, adding that a need to prove his manhood at an early age led to him getting in a lot of fights, as well as frequent run-ins with the law on drugs and weapons violations.
Eventually life in the streets led him to join the Gangster Disciples, a notorious street gang based in Chicago that migrated to Orange County in the early '90s. Areas of Tustin and Santa Ana had become their stomping grounds. The pitchfork tattoo on Kadillak's right cheek, which he got when he was 26, is a sign of his allegiance, though he says he's no longer active in the gang.
Despite the chaos, music was the one sturdy linchpin that kept him centered. A performer since childhood, he remembers laying down cardboard on street corners and doing back spins to the beats of Melle Mel and Slick Rick before neon track suits were replaced by sagging jeans and his rap tastes changed to Scarface and E-40.
At 13, after he'd already racked up several trips to juvenile hall, Kadillak's mother relinquished her custody of him, and he became a ward of the state of California. He toured various foster homes until his aunt Teresa took him to live with her in Irvine for a little more than a year. Though it was only miles from where he'd grown up, the manicured lawns, chain coffee shops and abundance of white people left him with mild culture shock. He had the awkward distinction of being one of the only black kids at Woodbridge High School. After he exchanged punches with another student, whom he says taunted him with racial insults, he was expelled for fighting.
Meanwhile, he joined with rappers Ariano and Melee Sage, both of whom are still active in OC's hip-hop scene, in a group called Righteous Vicinity. Though short-lived, the teens hustled hard to open for such huge names as Ice Cube, West Side Connection and Too $hort at venues including the NOS Events Center in San Bernardino. Then came the assault charge, the rape allegation and six-and-a-half years in state prison. When he got out in '06, it was time for Kadillak, who wasn't familiar with the portability of Pro Tools, to find a studio.
He located an office for rent in a nondescript business park in Tustin designed for accountants and third-rate mortgage companies. Kadillak christened it Skyballin Studios, a moniker he'd hatched with a neighborhood friend. With the name came an uncharacteristically holy slogan: "We're Just Tryina [sic] Touch Jesus' Feet One Time."
"I heard that, and it just sounded like the realest shit ever to me," Kadillak says, "because in the end, that's all I'm asking for: just a blessing."
He found an investor in a local businessman who made his money selling weatherproof TVs. But after giving Kadillak the startup money and an advance on a new Escalade in exchange for a percentage of the recording business, the investor backed out, citing a massive gambling debt he'd previously neglected to mention. Suddenly, setting up the new studio became a solo venture, one Kadillak frequently financed with drug money. Despite releasing lots of projects, including his own mixtapes, and saving on rent by living at the studio, he had no choice but to shutter the place in 2008. But the mission and the motto of what he'd started never left his brain.
* * *
It's not exactly a typical place for a local, hip-hop, album-release party, but inside an exotic-car dealership in Costa Mesa, a fleet of rare sports cars, a waft of blunt smoke from outside and the slamming of 808 drum-machine beats bouncing off mirror-covered walls add up to one thing: a rap video in the making.
It's well past sundown on Jan. 18, and this soiree is in honor of South County rapper Epademik's latest release. Shouts and laughter compete with the soundtrack inside the small showroom. Bright fluorescent light reveals packs of local MCs, bleary-eyed hip-hop heads and a smattering of females laughing, drinking and swarming around aluminum catering trays filled with Mexican food. DJs take turns spinning vinyl sets of West Coast gangsta shit. Pretty much everyone in the room knew Kadillak at one time or another; there are some who don't know for sure whether he's locked up but assume he is because he has been gone for a few months at such a pivotal time in his life.
One guy in the crowd seems to command his own orbit on the dance floor; he paces in the middle of the room, sipping vodka drinks and checking his cell phone. With a husky, 6-foot build, quiet demeanor and a scar over his left temple, he cuts an imposing figure under the buzzing, fluorescent light. Epademik tells me it's a Compton rapper—43-year-old Don Cizzle, a.k.a. OG Cuicide, a certified "street reputable" who, in addition to knowing pretty much everyone in West Coast rap, is a gang banger-turned-motivational speaker.
The scar over his temple is a reminder of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head during a suicide attempt at age 22; the bullet is still lodged in his skull. Cuicide tells me he played mentor to Kadillak after his prison stint and that, recently, he and a business partner teamed up to produce a documentary on Kadillak's cousin Kevin Powell, a parolee from Aliso Viejo who was killed by Santa Ana police after he allegedly stole a vehicle in 2007. When the chase ended, just off the 55 freeway, eight to 15 officers fired as many as 20 shots toward the vehicle.
Cuicide's stoic face turns jovial, with a wide, gapped-tooth grin, and he shakes my hand firmly as I tell him I've been interviewing Kadillak in jail. Until recently, Cuicide hadn't heard his friend was locked up. "He'd always kinda called me his uncle, and recognizing his past, I saw a lot of me in him," he says. "I could see him trying to be better. Whenever we hung out, it wasn't about trying to be Kadillak Kaz, the guy from the streets; he wanted to be Kadillak Kaz the rapper."
The two met at a studio in Bellflower in 2009, which in hindsight appears to be the heyday of Kadillak's career. The rapper had just completed his second album, 2010's The Coldest Winter Ever, an inspired mix of freeway funk and lyrical post-card moments cribbed from his years in the state penitentiary. He'd recently tapped a booming online fan base (in Japan, of all places). More important, after years of hustling and drug dealing, he'd decided to focus exclusively on music. He'd just begun performing a show at the Copa Cabana in Long Beach when Cuicide took him under his wing and recorded with him. In Cuicide, Kadillak had found a mentor, someone who not only had survived gang life, but also had decades of experience in the rap game with credible ties to some of the world's MCs including Snoop Dogg, whom he'd known since he was a punk kid slinging dope on the streets of Long Beach.
As it turns out, Kadillak would have an unexpected chance to make an impression on the Dogg Father himself: Last April, an old high-school friend of Kadillak contacted him on Facebook to talk about his music. What started as a typical chat led to her asking him for a demo she could pass onto her brother-in-law, an A&R rep for a label looking for talented rappers. That label happened to be Doggystyle Records, Snoop Dogg's home, though she didn't tell him that at the time.
A couple of weeks after sending her a few of his tracks, Kadillak got a phone call from his friend's brother-in-law, Torrey, who told him the label was interested in meeting him and hearing more of his stuff. That interest soon turned into an invitation to a party at a tree-covered estate in Hollywood Hills, the home of the owner of Levi's jeans. "At first, I thought Levi's must have been the name of some club. When I rolled up, I don't think I put two and two together right away," Kadillak recalls. "But when I figured out where I was and who I would be meeting, I was just shocked."
There, he met Torrey, a 6-foot-8 behemoth who delivered a crushing handshake and a smile. He told Kadillak he'd invited him to meet a few people from the Doggystyle crew: rapper Kurupt and his cousin/rapper Roscoe. He would also meet Snoop, who was doing a DJ set that night for a house full of hot women and drunk revelers. What shocked Kadillak the most when he met Snoop, who was dressed in a Rastafarian tam and shades (the Snoop Lion persona was in full effect), was that he actually acknowledged his music and that he'd wanted to work with him on some songs he'd written.
"As your project goes, it's already in motion," Kadillak says Snoop told him. "Everything I need to find out about you is on this CD. You don't need to learn how to fly, your wings are already flying." (Snoop's people did not respond to multiple attempts to reach the rapper.)
It wasn't exactly a record contract, but for Kadillak, who would soon begin negotiating a deal with Doggystyle, the moment meant everything. His recent decision to focus on music, while artistically liberating, had left him technically homeless. For two years after abandoning his studio, he'd couch-surfed with friends and moved in with girls he was seeing, living off them as he spent time cultivating his fan base, rocking shows and selling as many units of CDs as he could in Japan. Most of his family, meanwhile, had moved back to their native North Carolina—minus his father, who'd started a new family. Once again, Kadillak was grasping for a lifeline.
As he carved his way into Snoop's circle, Kadillak was convinced his outward appearance and streetwise demeanor would be his ticket to sealing a record deal. When talking to an A&R rep or a member of Snoop's entourage, it was all about staying cool and listing achievements. And his weren't bad: a pair of full-length albums selling like hotcakes in Japan; four featured songs on a soundtrack for the bargain bin Wiz Khalifa/Amber Rose flick Gang of Roses II; landing a hit song,"Drugs" (featuring Snoopyblu, Big2DaBoy and Cake Boi Sav), on the iPad video game Demon Chic. So he kept quiet about being homeless, living out of his car and frequently sneaking into truck-stop showers.
One evening, after leaving the 2012 premiere of Snoop and Wiz Khalifa's stoner comedy, Mac and Devin Go to High School, Kadillak found himself with a bone-dry gas tank and no money to spare. He remembers rolling, just barely, into an empty strip-mall parking lot a few miles from his house and waiting for a friend to come pick him up. Even with all his double-life strife, the month before getting arrested in OC, Kadillak's talks with Doggystyle had him feeling confident he'd get signed. But he was trapped by the idea that he couldn't tell him how bad his situation really was. A deal was imminent, but the question was how long would it take to make it happen?
"At the time, I just felt like, 'Damn, there's a million people out there who rap, and I'm here'," he says. "I was surrounded by all this stuff, and at the same time, it was hard because I was trying to play my role and not open up too much to let them know how much I was really struggling. If they only knew."
* * *
It's Jan. 27, the weekend before the start of his trial at Central Justice Center in Santa Ana, and nervousness is tattooed all over Kadillak's face. He's nearing his 70th day in jail without a trial. The hearing, which was supposed to have started 60 days after his arrest, has been continued twice. Meanwhile, his public defender has come back to him with options for a plea deal Kadillak is refusing to take. The potential 23-year sentence he faced walking into jail has been bargained down to seven years with a guilty plea. After years of not knowing the legal system and pleading out to various charges and accepting whatever deals are offered to him, cutting a deal is the last thing Kadillak wants.
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At age 33, the time he spends in jail kills his chances of a rap career. He'd been so close. But he also realizes that in Orange County, even though the case against him is weak, the odds are stacked against him. Attempts to locate and subpoena the testimony of the ex-girlfriend who called the police about her car being stolen have gone nowhere.
While locked up, he says, he has studied law, written songs (10 new tracks so far) and started working on an untitled book about his life. He remains focused on getting out and going home, though he doesn't know exactly where that is. If he does get out, he'll still be homeless, and though Skyballin will still be his mentality, he no longer has the actual studio.
His top priority after leaving jail: finishing Late Nights, Early Money and selling enough units to Japan put money down on an apartment outside Orange County. Then there's the task of reconnecting with the Doggystyle label to hash out a deal that will put some money in his pocket. Above all is the idea of freedom, the freedom to be that dude who survived the system, that dude who finally wised up and got his life together, that dude who can rap.
"Sometimes, I look at my life, and I feel like Job from the Bible," he says. "God took everything from Job and allowed him to be tested. Even though he cursed God, he never questioned him, he never lost his faith. And that's been me. I lost everything because of the time I did. Now it's my time to get it all back tenfold. I see it all manifesting now. I'm about to get outta here; this is not my destiny."