Rucci’s life changed on July 7, 2017.
“I was at my homie’s house and I got a call, and they said Sean was gone. I had talked to Sean like three hours before that, so I went to the last place he was at. We pulled up and I was looking…,” he tells me with a wisp of a lisp before pausing to collect his thoughts. “That nigga made me strong-minded. Everything he would tell me, it came to me as soon I seen yellow tape, police cars–I didn’t even think about my homie being gone, just the things he would tell me: ‘We know better.’ Where we come from, it ain’t no friends. It’s either family or you nothing.”
Sean Mackk was family, and before his late night murder in an Inglewood cul de sac, he and Rucci were amassing a dedicated following south of the 10 Freeway. They’d released mixtapes separately—Rucci’s Notorious and Still Notorious, Mackk’s Inglez and Organized Crime—but it was their collaborative MackkRucci that marked the duo as ascendant artists. Mackk was the Boosie to Rucci’s Webbie, the street prophet to his shit-talker, and the only person he would follow–“and I’m a leader, not a follower.” With his recent Dawgystyle, Rucci’s solo again–but Mackk will always be with him.
Rucci, 23, wasn’t yet born when a reed-thin Snoop Doggy Dogg released Doggystyle. He didn’t buy a bootlegged cassette of The Chronic at the Slauson Super Mall, nor did he ring in the G-funk Era with Warren G, and, if in the womb he overheard anything about MC Eiht and DJ Quik’s shared animosity, he was certainly in no position to take sides. But, like many Los Angeles rappers too young to have fully lived through those wild, heady times, he has an enduring reverence for G-funk. And that’s the current cleavage in LA gangster rap: you either know why a member of Suga Free’s stable got fired from her job or you don’t.
Rucci knows why. In Los Angeles’ rap renaissance—currently blooming in all hues, not just blue and red—he’s one of the most promising artists. He’s not a slippery, self-referential slang maven like Drakeo the Ruler, or an alien lifeform communicating through genre-bending experimentation like 03 Greedo, but a traditionalist conversant in two decades of Southland gangster rap. On his recent Dawgystyle, whose sequencing is supposed to mimic that of its legendary namesake, Rucci borrows a chorus from Snoop Dogg and Kokane’s “Brake Fluid” (“Pump Yo Breakz”), raps over a ratchet version of DJ Quik’s “Tonite” (“Twisted”), and, inspired by Tha Dogg Pound’s “Bomb Ass Pussy,” swears on “Good Dick” that he’d go so far as to eat a salad to have sex. Were he twenty-plus years older, he could’ve been Mack 10. Instead, he feels like the Inglewood rapper’s spiritual successor.
“What was growing up in Inglewood like?,” I ask, sitting opposite Rucci at the crook of a Hawthorne record studio’s L-shaped bar. Outside, it’s drizzling, with a sky like slate; inside, it’s cozy, almost cavelike, with red walls, a red neon sign, and black leather couches and barstools. Bruno, the studio’s French Bulldog, who Rucci jokingly calls “Rucci,” is snoring the afternoon away.
“My pops and everybody was gangbanging and shit, so I seen all the bad shit—firsthand, too. It was rough, but I could control my lifestyle and make something out of it. As a teenager, you come across different street obstacles, but that’s life coming up from over there. [Inglewood] was fun to me. I love that shit.”
“Did your dad discourage you from gangbanging?”
“Yeah—and no. He always told me [to] stay away from the shit, but he always kept me around it, not even on purpose, just living that lifestyle.”
Rucci’s father and beloved uncle (who produced, rapped, and once mocked muscle-bound ex-pornstar Brian Pumper under the moniker P-Funky) were sources of familial strife. His mother—single, overworked and wary of their malign influence—often kept him from seeing his father and uncle, but their effect appears to have been indelible: Rucci’s connection to the Neighborhood Piru Bloods is enduring, if seemingly relegated to an aesthetic and emotional level.
A clearer victory for Rucci’s mother was his enrollment at Santa Monica High School, a more tony, diverse experience than local options Inglewood or Morningside High (which, he claims, he was barred from attending because of his father’s misdeeds). It was at “Samohi,” blocks from the Pacific Ocean’s gently breaking waves and far removed from the violence and drama of his neighborhood, that a baby-faced Juan Martinez began rapping in public.
“My 11th grade year, I started playing varsity [football] and that’s when I started feeling myself. So I started doing little raps here and there, ‘cuz I knew I could rap. Y’know how people rap at lunch and shit? When I started doing it, people were like ‘Damn, this nigga hard as a motherfucker.’”
“When I was listening to MackRucci, I was thinking ‘These guys are kind of like the Boosie and Webbie of Inglewood,” I say to Rucci, our faces half aglow with the white light of the studio’s muted television. It’s playing MackRucci music videos and, occasionally, we both pause to stare at the screen.
“I was the Webbie,” he laughs, his left hand clutching a matte black bong with a half-inch piece of a blunt packed in the bowl. “The way [Sean Mackk] rapped–high pitched–and me, I be talking about shooting niggas and fucking bitches. Boosie talkin’ to you; Sean Mackk was talkin’ to you every time–”
“–even the dynamic, ‘cuz Webbie look up to Boosie,” adds Tuck, Rucci’s co-manager, who’s been quietly sitting on one of the studio’s black, tufted couches.
Theirs was a dynamic forged by a decade of friendship. Even when Mackk was hustling out-of-state, he called and texted regularly, “just to talk shit.” To Rucci, it doesn’t feel like his partner is dead, it feels like he’s crisscrossing the country, between towns, between meals, and between phone calls. Even from the afterlife, Mackk remains a source of inspiration and guidance.
“He gives me motivation on an everyday basis. I could listen to Sean and just be like ‘I can make so much happen today. And just this fast,” Rucci says, snapping his fingers. “Without him I for sure wouldn’t be the person I am today.”
Though Dawgystyle was his first project since Sean Mackk’s passing, Rucci, who freestyled every song in his pitched up, slightly raspy voice, sounds like he’s having fun. And, from our conversation, it seems like he is––and that’s what Mackk would’ve wanted. Mackk didn’t live long enough to see his music fully germinate, so it’s Rucci who’s responsible for ensuring their places in Los Angeles’ emerging rap order. It’s a burden he’s prepared to bear.
“Even with Sean passing, nothing will ever stop me from doing music. I don’t care what you say about me. People talk bad every day. When I lost Sean it was like a slap in the face. It was like ‘Get it together, dude.’ Ain’t no excuses. I barely sleep anymore. Since July 7th, I rarely sleep. Rarely.”