Cocked & Loaded
A sweltering July sun beats down on Long Island’s South Shore. The parking lot of Jones Beach’s Nikon theater simmers in the heat, cooking away at the crowd arriving for the annual Rock the Bells hip-hop mega-concert. Stage right, under a pop-up canvas tent, sit two large, intimidating figures: Slaine, sweat dripping into the American flag draped around his stout shoulders, and Ill Bill, dressed in black down to his untied Jordan 3s. The two members of La Coka Nostra quietly converse as the rapid-fire lyrics of Tech N9ne cut through the ocean air. The day’s mile-long billing, which includes household names like Nas, The Roots, and Busta Rhymes, has already begun, yet the two seem almost oblivious.
Minutes later, Everlast and Danny Boy stroll in. The ex-House of Pain members and most recognizable faces of La Coka Nostra have been wandering the show’s vendor village, shaking hands and meeting fans. INKED asks who they’re excited to see perform. Everlast points with his chin to the stage. “This was the only dude I was really interested in checking out, and I’m missing it for this.” Bill agrees, “Yeah, Tech N9ne is it, man. After him I really don’t care about who else is here.”
The grumble in the La Coka Nostra camp is loud and clear: Rap is not well. It’s hard to argue: Cut down in its prime by manufactured tales of street life and inexcusable abuse of voice-manipulating Auto-Tune, the genre that for so long has represented struggle and frustration has, quite frankly, gone soft. While gritty cocaine rhymes still push on through artists such as Clipse and Young Jeezy, absent are those bash-a-face-in jams from crews like Onyx and Cypress Hill. Call it generational, call it evolution, but the faith and following of many have been lost. Luckily, the team of veterans in LCN saw this as a call to arms.
LCN currently comprises Boston MC Slaine, Brooklyn’s Ill Bill, Everlast, DJ Lethal, and L.A.’s Danny Boy (the latter three are the regrouped members of House of Pain) and is one of the latest in rap supergroups attempting to shake up the scene. The crew, which first gained notoriety through leaked songs and mix tapes, has finally released their debut full-length album, A Brand You Can Trust, after three years of operating in true underground fashion. And, as you might guess from their black garb, bandannas, fitted caps, and tattoos, they aren’t here to feed you more ringtone rap.
Quietly regarded as the mastermind behind the formation and success of House of Pain, Danny Boy, like Everlast, never rested after the group’s disbandment in 1996. Choosing to concentrate more on his graffiti and graphic arts background (the hype-man was also HOP’s graphic artist), he quickly found success through his involvement with clothing labels like Dissizit. But subsequent music ventures A.T.F. and XSupermodels were scrapped before takeoff. He didn’t stop, and after a face-to-face meeting with Slaine in Boston, the two wasted no time jetting to L.A. and hitting the studio. “I was like, Oh my God, this kid is bonkers,” Danny says. “I was so blown away when I heard him spittin’ that I didn’t even want to get on a track with the dude. Instead, I figured I’d get him out to L.A. and get him working with Lethal. I told [Lethal], ‘We need to make a record with this kid now.’”
But the studio sessions, which, in their early days, also involved underground voices like Optimist and Big Left, weren’t all business. “Everyone was just partying really hard. Some nights it was like a bachelor party in there,” says Danny. “The music was cool but it was all over the place. One night I got a text from Left saying, ‘We’re like La Cosa Nostra, like a big family up in here.’ I said, ‘If you don’t slow down, they’re gonna call you La Coka Nostra.’ Not to throw nobody under the bus, but there were nights that I know it was like a fucking blizzard in there.” When the jokes and all-night benders had died down, the group’s name had stuck. But after a year of demoing, its members all agreed that the music still lacked focus.
Unwilling to give up on the venture, Danny reached out to recent acquaintance Ill Bill of Non Phixion. “I had the utmost respect for Bill, but I knew Non Phixion was going their separate ways. So I said to him, ‘Look, I got these guys—maybe you could help me give them some guidance and get on a track with them.’ He didn’t oppose. [Bill] clicked with them right away on the tracks, and also helped whip them into shape.” Bill is modest in his recollection. “It all started out with me just recording some songs with the homies. There was, like, this collective of 20 of us just jumping in and out of stuff. I guess the ones you see right now are the guys who showed up to the studio the most.”
Bill’s involvement brought a forward motion that was lacking. But with momentum finally building, LCN’s members faced another growing matter—their controversial moniker and whether it would be construed as a mob or cocaine reference. “It was a concern at first, especially considering some of the labels that were looking at us,” says Danny. “But we said fuck it. The meaning that we all agreed on was ‘this dope of ours’ instead of ‘this thing of ours.’ And the dope that we have and are producing is music. It’s all a metaphor for a bigger picture.”
Danny is also quick to point out that the “bigger picture” addressed by LCN’s name takes aim at a lack of danger in today’s hip-hop. “Plenty of people talk greasy still, but nobody’s been making records that have personified that raw element of the music like Public Enemy or NWA. That stuff was too militant, too gangster—and that’s what was so great about it. People don’t make shit like that anymore. As far as I’m concerned, hip-hop is dead. I guess people say today it’s all about Kanye or Lil Wayne, but I don’t listen to any of that. The stuff I grew up on is gone.”
Although he’s a bit more understanding of rap’s current state, Everlast, the final cornerstone to drop into LCN, agrees. “Rap has become a mainstream form of music. It’s definitely not the underground phenomenon that I came up on, but that’s what happens in any genre. If you asked me the current state of rock and roll, I could name you eight bands that show it’s dead, but three more that still give it hope. You just have to put out what you feel is good stuff and hope people find it and like it. That said, we owe MySpace a lot. But everybody and their mom is a rapper on there.”
His insight may be right, but bump A Brand You Can Trust in your headphones and it’s immediately clear that this isn’t rap your mom would groove to. After two bars of heavy guitar, Everlast rips into the first track with the lyrics “Bloody Sunday, black Sabbath/The Pope’s a pedophile with a drug habit.” Following ominous, doomsday-style talk of big black boots, automatics, and more, a driving chorus laced with the unmistakable voice of Cypress Hill’s Sen Dog dares you to hold your head still. B-Real shows up on numerous cuts as well, along with Sick Jacken of Psycho Realm—welcome additions without a doubt, but not surprising given House of Pain’s long-standing family ties with Soul Assassins. Some of the album’s other cameos, however, are much more unanticipated but all organically grown. “We didn’t pay anybody to get up on this record. I’m not really down with stuff like that,” says Everlast. “Like Snoop’s involvement, for example. That was just a case of us helping each other’s causes out.”
Everlast and Danny go on to tell the story: After Snoop’s highly publicized banishment from England, the D-O-double-G moved his show to the Emerald Isle, where he decided “Jump Around” would make for a guaranteed crowd pleaser. “[Snoop] wanted to fly us all the way to Ireland and put us up for one fucking song,” says Everlast with a calm laugh. “Then he asked what we wanted for payment. I said, ‘How about you just get on one of these La Coka tracks with us?’ He was more than happy to do it and even shouted us out on his West Coast anthem ‘My Peoples’ after that. Dude’s pronunciation was ill too.”
“I felt like I was anointed,” interjects Danny. “When you’re a white group, no matter how much previous cred you bring, when Snoop Dogg goes out of his way to shout you out, it’s a big fuckin’ deal.” Further down, the playlist reveals what might be the album’s biggest surprise appearance, the one-man hype machine and remaining half of UGK, Bun B. “Bun’s involvement is another one of them crazy organic stories,” says Danny. “He and Everlast were friends already, but out of nowhere one day we just got a call like, ‘Yo, Bun B wants a La Coka hat to rock in his video.’ Of course we got it to him. Then next thing we know, he’s on the record.”
Always an early pioneer and coveted cosigner for the latest brands in streetwear, Bun seems to have called it right again, as LCN clothing sells almost as well as the music itself. Predominantly designed by Danny, the theme is what you might expect: dark and wrought with skulls, guns, and a generally menacing mentality, a perfect complement to the group’s countless tattoos.
“I wish I had some good stories to tell about all this shit,” says Slaine, a slight air of humor in his voice. “But it’s a running joke that I collect bad tattoos. My first one was, like, eight or nine years ago at a party. I was drunk and got ‘Slaine’ done. But the dude was, like, doped up on heroin or Oxycontin or something, and when he started this cross on my other arm he was nodding off. I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ and stopped in the middle. It’s still unfinished. But I had a melanoma scare about a year ago so I have to wait a while before doing anything else.”
“My first was a Mickey Mouse head and the letters MMC,” exclaims Danny. “We had this punk rock gang in southern California called Mickey Mouse Club. I was 16 and got it on Hollywood Boulevard from some Chinese lady that used to tattoo all the underage kids. Since then I’ve been all over the planet. My favorite artists are without a doubt Mark Mahoney, who did the Al Capone on my stomach, my other boy Baba at Vintage Tattoo, who’s done most of my work, and, of course, Hanky Panky out in Amsterdam. I’m starting to look like a gypsy—like Brad Pitt in Snatch.”
Everlast cosigns on all of Danny’s name-drops, adding Guy Aitchison, Kevin Quinn, and Bob Vessels to his preferred list of artists before addressing his most well-known work, the half sleeve that took center stage on House of Pain’s first album cover. “I don’t even remember the dude’s name. It was that bad. It started with just the ‘Erik’ part. I don’t want to say it was a drunken decision, but I was definitely impaired. It was a good thing, though, ’cause it made me think about all my other tattoo choices a bit more.”
Then there’s Bill, whose imposing stature is still an untouched canvas, but not without good reason. “Growing up as a Jewish kid, tattoos just weren’t the thing. Not that they weren’t my thing, but just not the thing in general. Now in adulthood, I got Jewish homeboys with the Star of David tattooed on their face, so … what the fuck, you know? Who’s right? Now it’s close to four decades later and I still haven’t done it. Maybe I’ll get one tomorrow. Probably not, though.”
Though decisively undecided on the topic of ink, Bill is quick to get back to the topic of work, breaking down the group’s future with clarity. “We’ll definitely be working on another album,” he firmly states. “People jump in, jump out for their solo shit—that’s what makes La Coka Nostra difficult at times to work with. But in the same respect it adds to what we are.”
In his gruff voice, Slaine eagerly chimes in on the breakdown. “We’re like Wu Tang. After this you could have an Ill Bill album, a Slaine album, an Everlast joint, then, just when you ain’t ready—bang, another La Coka record. You don’t know what’s coming next.”