Somewhere out in the High Desert resides 46 year old West Coast rap icon Dejuan Rice, who is best known as Suga Free. This remote setting is far removed from the streets that inspired the slick, nimbly-told stories of pimp-play that earned Rice his status as a hip-hop legend, but the California rap godfather's dedication to the music remains strong.
“Over the years, you grow up, you get smart, and you see your stepping stones,” Rice says. “You leave your old stuff behind, you don't forget it. To rap about it and talk about it, and get paid for doing something that you love to do.
“I never worked a day in my life,” he continues.
Rice's career has churned out albums including 2004's The New Testament, its follow-up Just Add Water all the way up to 2015's The Resurrection. Since the release of his debut album Street Gospel in 1997, Rice has laid down many memorable verses and cemented himself in hip-hop history as one of the more creative individuals to ever pick up a mic.
Rice was raised all over California, including the Bay Area and Pomona. While he's northern California born, southern California heavily influenced his rap persona. “Compton and Pomona were two hell of a learning experiences,” Rice says. “Oakland was pretty much my base, but I needed Compton, and I most definitely needed Pomona. That's where the bomb exploded.”
In Pomona, Rice morphed into the maestro and pimp-game preacher he is now. It was here that he learned his particular rhyming style and where he learned to do musical arrangement. Rice is known for his signature flow —an agile take on rapping that is the verbal equivalent of calculated assault-rifle bursts— and for bars that are both detailed and animated.
Local rap act Above the Law helped guide Rice along, showing him how to hustle in hip-hop. “They basically taught me how to work and grind. They were right there in the beginning saying 'make all the songs you can and pick the tightest ones.' That's what Kokane told me.”
Rice was always attracted to the verbal aggression of lyricists like Redman, Method Man, Busta Rhymes, and the colorful flows of rappers like E-40, who made the music feel as if it was happening right in front of your face. It's that affinity for lively, personality-driven rapping that caused him to approach his records the way he does and why he decided to inject humor in his work as well. His songs were just as serious as other rappers' street serenades, except his could warrant a few laughs and spark some smiles as well.
“Number one, shit just be funny to me. This some serious shit, but you can find humor in anything,” says Rice. “Originally, I did it to water down a lot of the gruesome shit that I was saying. I wanted to keep the fun in it. You make someone laugh or smile, they're going to buy your music.”
His method worked, too. Over the years, Rice became a fan favorite and has been called a “rhythmic wizard” and “master technician” by Complex magazine. Rice says he's the type of artist who will “see you out on the street and have a beer with you.” At the same time, he's someone who legends like Snoop Dogg and DJ Quik have the utmost respect for. On one occasion, Bay Area rap-elder Too Short even told him straight out: “Free, you're the shit.”
There's still much more on Rice's rap agenda. He and longtime collaborator DJ Quik are wrapping up a record together, his forthcoming movie The Black Jack Tripper is a collaboration with Snoop Dogg, and he stays busy in the studio. He also has an upcoming project with rapper Pomona Pimpin' Young.
“I love it. I don't see myself doing anything else,” Rice says. “I'm too on fire.”
Suga Free performs at The Observatory tomorrow with Mac 10, WC and MC Eight. 8 p.m., $20. For full show details, click here.