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The local rapper, known until a few months ago by local clubgoers as Cappuccino, MC in the two-man group Know Qwestion, is sitting in the north central Phoenix garage studio of his producer and chief collaborator, Fade. He's listening to Fade's vintage funk track, which inspired him to pen a rhyme looking back on his childhood (think Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" crossed with DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's "Summertime"). He's torn between calling it "Yesterday" (his current preference) and "The Childhood Anthem" (his original idea), but he knows exactly what he wants the song's yet-to-be-recorded female vocal hook to sound like.
"I see this big, fat Southern grandma, sausage grease right here," he says, pointing to the corner of his mouth. "And she's saying, 'Baby, eat.'"
A musical photo album of Pokafase's early days, the song's central point is captured by its chorus hook: "Though I'm blessed today/Can't help but think about yesterday."
However autobiographical the song is, there can be little doubt that Pokafase truly is "blessed today." Three weeks ago, the local rapper signed a record deal with Artist Direct, a potentially powerful new label being formed by Ted Field, the Marshall Field department-store heir who co-founded Interscope Records with producer Jimmy Iovine. For Pokafase, it meant that a solid decade of plugging away and honing his skills had borne fruit with amazing suddenness.
At Interscope, Field made superstars of West Coast rappers Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre, and stared down early-'90s media critics who accused hip-hop of glorifying violence. He also established a name for himself as a film producer. Both his industry clout and his history of success with hip-hop make Artist Direct a perfect fit for Pokafase.
But in early July, when Pokafase first heard about Field's interest in his four-song demo, he had no idea what the implications were.
"I was at work one day at Hip Hop Trendz," he says, "and Fade called to say some guy named Ted Field likes the stuff and is interested. He said, 'I don't know who he is, but check it out.' He asked me to ask around. In the process, people told me, 'That's good. You want to meet Ted Field.'"
Fade briefly spoke with Field on the phone. Since Fade and Pokafase were already planning to be in Los Angeles that weekend, they agreed to meet with Field on Friday, July 13. They arrived at his office with low expectations.
"We were just going to a meeting expecting him to say, 'I like what I'm hearing from you all, get some more done, and give me a call,'" Pokafase says.
But Field, who'd been introduced to the demo by a mutual friend who worked for Hits magazine, didn't need any further convincing. He wanted Pokafase on his label.
"He was way personable," Fade says. "He knew all the material. He wasn't just throwing us a line."
The signing (which happened on October 17) is the culmination of a year that has seen Pokafase leave Know Qwestion, change his hip-hop moniker, and plunge headlong into studio work with Fade.
Going solo seven months ago meant parting with his longtime musical partner Cash, with whom he shared an almost telepathic freestyling chemistry. He looks back at Know Qwestion as an experience that made everything possible for him, but one that had also run its course.
"Know Qwestion was one of the best things that ever happened to me," he says. "Me and Cash have been best friends since 17 or 18 years old. Change is inevitable. I still love him like a brother, but we both changed. I put all my eggs in one basket and rolled with it, and he had a different approach."
Part of Pokafase's declaration of independence from Know Qwestion was reconsidering the name he'd been saddled with for a decade.
"I'll be honest, I hated Cappuccino," he says. "When I was 16, we had some cute little clique in high school, and a chick dubbed me Cappuccino. Everybody had a flavor in their name. It was some high school shit, you know what I'm saying? Then I started rapping and I made my name as Cappuccino, but around 1998 I wasn't Cappuccino anymore. I'm a grown man and people are calling me Cappuccino."
Taking his new name from a favorite cartoon character, Pokafase liked the enigmatic feeling it conjured. It suggested someone who saw everything and understood everything, but didn't give away his true feelings. For him, it had a maturity that Cappuccino would never have.
As he and Fade -- a studio alchemist who's worked his way up the hip-hop ladder from graffiti artist to breakdancer to DJ to producer -- began developing tracks, they could feel themselves hitting their creative stride as a team.
"We'd been developing the good shit, while we were shopping the trial-and-error shit," Pokafase says. "The progress was happening as we were going. It almost didn't make sense to not shop it, because it was getting really good.
"I feel like it's just the evolution of what I'm doing," he adds. "It's not so much that it's different, it's just the same formula, just revised. The longer you work on something, the better it gets. I'm a lot less hindered, and a lot less inhibited in what I do. I'm more open to saying, 'Turn it on and let's go.' I'm more comfortable than I've been in the last 10 years with the actual product."