Cellski is a living legend—he’s both cherished as a forefather of Bay Area rap and respected as an active member of the scene. While driving around San Francisco on a beautiful Saturday, Cellski discussed his introduction to the rap game, his development over the course of his career, and how he has used his personal growth to nurture not only his own career but also the careers of those around him. Cellski is smart, funny, and incredibly gregarious. He’ll be the first to tell you: if you’ve got a problem with Cellski, it’s you who’s got the problem.
You’re from San Francisco and have lived here your whole life. Over that time, the city has transformed dramatically. Do you think it has changed for better or worse?
When I was coming up in the city, my neighborhood was all Black people—now it’s mostly Asians. A lot of us lost our homes when the drug game came in. People’s parents died and left them their houses—but a lot of them were dope fiends.
Do you remember when the Geneva Towers were demolished? I feel like that was a pivotal time, too.
Hell yeah. I had family living up in those towers. But they had to [destroy them]. It was twenty-two stories of infestation. It displaced a lot of people but it also helped a lot of people by getting them out of that area. Because as that neighborhood goes, it’s still messed up as far as the crime, the drug dealing, and the shooting. It helped a lot of families get up out of this shit. Most of the people got Section 8 vouchers, and a lot of people moved out of the city. But at the same time, when you displace families like that and put them in a different neighborhood, you might be putting them in a neighborhood that their kids have beef with. It led to a lot of violence.
When did you first start rapping?
In 1992. That year, I sold 1,000 tapes and made six thousand dollars and I said ‘this is better than selling any kind of crack, ever.’
Were you rapping before you put out your first tape in 1992?
Oh yeah. I was going to Al Eaton’s studio back in ’87, ’88, when I was thirteen years old. Too $hort was recording Life Is…Too $hort and Cougnut was doing “I’m Rollin.” I was up under Al Eaton for years, and that’s where I learned a lot of my craft from. And I idolized Too $hort. It’s funny—he never even knew that he was the biggest influence on my career, period. If it wasn’t for $hort, I never woulda rapped. Everywhere he went, I followed. I was a young nigga, thirteen, fourteen [years old]. I was hustling, got six or seven thousand [dollars] put up, so it was nothing for me to spend forty dollars an hour on studio time back then.
Who was making your beats when you first started rapping?
I was. Al [Eaton] would help me out a little bit, but I really taught myself. And my uncle is a drummer—he’s been in bands my whole life. And they used to play in my grandmother’s garage, so I was always around that shit. And then my uncle gave me a drum machine when I was ten.
What kind of drum machine?
Sequential TOM. It came with a fucking cartridge. So I used to make drum loops on it when I was ten years old.
It sounds like you were around a lot of musically inclined people growing up.
Yeah, I was. And my mama had every fucking record that was put out.
What kind of music was your mom into?
Reggae, Soul, the O’Jays, James Brown, Temptations, everything. And one of her best friends was Chaka Khan, so I used to be around Chaka Khan, so I used to be around her at a young age. My mama got pictures with Bob Marley, BB King, all type of motherfuckers. My mom was real voluptuous, real thick, so… [laughs].
Did you inherit your mom’s record collection?
I used to steal a lot of her records. A lot of the early beats I made, like on 2Took, were done using her records. I scratched up her Otis Redding records in the process of making a Pac beat. I used to go record shopping as a kid. I’d go to Groove Merchant on Haight. That was my hang out. They loved me in there. I bought too much shit there. I used to be a real tweaker on samples and shit.
How much do you sample nowadays?
I don’t sample at all.
Why is that?
I just try to be original and I ain’t trying to pay nobody. Shit—I want people to sample me twenty years from now.
It’s interesting, because your beats have retained a consistent sound over several decades. They’ve progressed, but they’ve essentially remained sinister mob beats.
Exactly. I’ve just updated them. Me and my folks have just stayed consistent and stayed ourselves. People jump on fads and movements and just start doing what’s hot. We’ve stayed doing what we’ve been doing the whole time. That way, we’ve outlasted everybody. And it’s real shit. You can’t beat real shit! Fake shit comes and goes.
When you make beats, do you think about whether it’s for you to rap over or if it’s for another artist?
Not really. I always have myself in mind, but once I hear the beat, I have a better idea who it’s for. I definitely have a special folder though.
What do you mean by “special folder”?
I think all producers have a special folder. It’s where the epic shit goes. I don’t give a fuck who you are—not every beat you’re making is dope. And when you’ve got epic beat, it goes in the special folder.
When you’re producing, what’s your process for working with artists?
When artists want a beat, I tell ‘em to come through my studio or I can pull up on ‘em. I don’t like emailing beats to people. I usually like to roll up with a CD, cuz if you email it, this person might use it and then another person might use it too, and next thing you know, you’ve got three motherfuckers on the same beat just cuz you were trying to send beats to people.
In terms of producers, who are you feeling these days?
As far as the Bay, I’m at Production Ave with the best producers. We’ve got me, Rob Lo, Traxamillion, Pack Slap and Bandit, and we’ve got Jeffro right there. So if you can’t come there and get your album done, I don’t know where the fuck you can go get it done at! [laughs] We’ve all got our own sound, we all fuck with each other, we all brothers, we all the mob, and that’s what it is. There’s an open room there and I’m eventually going to move my equipment in there.
Good call. There’s always something creative brewing there.
Exactly. You can go to any fucking room and it’s ridiculous.
What producers are you feeling outside of your crew in the Bay Area?
What advice do you have for new producers?
You’ve gotta be out there and meet people. You’ve gotta make relationships. Some people are so much of a geek that they don’t even know how to leave the house and meet people. It’s bigger than the internet! You’ve gotta get from off that fucking computer.
That’s one thing that’s very important to me—I make relationships in this industry and I keep them. You need to do that. Some people are stuck up and don’t wanna fuck with this person or that person, but that’ll catch up to you, bro! That’s why I’ve got longevity. Motherfuckers don’t understand. If you look at everybody in our clique, we’re all cool, kind-hearted guys. But just don’t fuck with us. Everybody knows that. We will snap instantly.
That’s useful advice for most people nowadays—not just producers! But what about advice for producers in terms of the musical aspect.
It’s cool to mimic another producer up to a certain point, but you’ve gotta put your own tweak to it. Make it to where a motherfucker don’t even know you’re mimicking that person. Treat it as more of an inspiration than as biting. Try to come up with your own style, your own sound. Because the one thing that producers do too often is that they bite what’s going on at the time, instead of just sticking to what you feel. Fuck what some people think, bro! There were a lot of beats that Pharrel and the Neptunes made that I thought were wack as shit but they turned out to be certified hits. Just do your own thing. For a while, everybody wanted to sound like Mannie Fresh. At another time, everyone wanted to sound like Kanye West. Nowadays, everybody wanna sound like Lex Luger. This shit changes. Stay true to yourself.
For you—as opposed to a lot of other artists—when you say mixtape, you really mean a mix tape. Are you okay with having to adapt to the changes in technology and the internet era?
I adapted to it back when we were on producing on BlackPlanet. Everybody stole from BlackPlanet—Facebook and MySpace. Looking back, that’s where black people used to go on the internet. We’d open up the web and go straight to BlackPlanet.
You used to put out mixtapes and albums constantly. And then a couple years ago, you slowed down a bit. Why?
The last mixtape I dropped was Coach Cellichick. Before that, I was putting mixtapes out constantly and constantly and constantly. But everyone started doing the mixtape thing.
But you’re the “mixtape king.”
True. But when everyone started doing them, I just decided to kick back and watch the game. But I’m back and ready to drop ‘em. I’ve got about three of them done right now. I’m gonna put one out real soon. And I’ve got beats and verses on everybody’s albums that’s coming out.
Which do you like more right now—rapping or making beats?
Right now, I like rapping more because there are a bunch of young producers who are dope as shit.
When you’re rapping, what’s your process? Do you write your verses before your hook, or do you start with the hook?
The beat tells me what to write. Sometimes I don’t even have to write—I can just come off the dome if the beat is dope. Hooks are the hardest part for me. I always write my verses first. Most of time, I don’t like my hooks. I try to get somebody else on there to do it. Motherfuckers like me doing hooks, but I hate doing ‘em!
A lot of other rappers in the Bay look up to you and look to you for guidance. Do you like being a role model in the rap game?
Yeah, that’s what I’m here for. It keeps me young and it keeps my drive going. I’m not gonna sugarcoat nothing—and they know that about me. I’m not gonna bullshit. I’m gonna tell them the real. A lot of people tell these dudes what they wanna hear, but I tell people how it is. I done been through this shit. I read every publication that has to do with music, I’m on the internet, I’m on blogs, I’m in the lab, I’m out there with the people, this is my life.