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Tragedy is an unpredictable catalyst, as Mike "Sir Pie" Gomez knows all too well. On May 10, 2003, Chris "CPT" Pangrazi, Pie's rhyming partner and fellow MC in long-running hip-hop/rock collective Cousins of the Wize, was killed by a drunken driver.
Pie and CPT were the backbones of Cousins, the two constants in a band that had a revolving-door membership throughout its six-year existence.
Despite the massive blow of losing his best friend and musical partner, Pie has come back a year later with an album that's likely the most upbeat, sin-tastic summer hip-hop party album ever to come out of the 'Nix. Just about to be released, under the moniker "Magnum P.I.E.," Undercovers is a paean to all that is bootylicious -- Vegas, strip clubs, dive bars, Hennessy and blunts, VIP rooms and after-parties. It's a commercially oriented pop opus, produced by Cousins' Jah Sonora with cuts from DJ Needles, in the spirit of Dre's The Chronic, and completely out of character for Pie, whose 2000 solo debut, We Attended Different Schools, was a mopey, experimental outing that didn't fit within hip-hop's parameters whatsoever.
Cousins of the Wize was just hitting its stride at the time of CPT's death. "We were just reaching a pinnacle with that band, starting to get some radio play, starting to have more fun than we'd had in five years, a new rejuvenated energy," Pie told me shortly after the one-year anniversary of CPT's passing. "To have that happen completely deflates your balloon.
"That's such a shock that you really don't know if and when you're gonna do music after that. It really was the last thing on my mind. For four or five months, I didn't do a thing musically -- [you] just gather your thoughts, just know that you lost a friend and you lost everything you're passionate about all in the same breath."
After a respite, the normally ebullient Pie, now in his early 30s, took stock of his life. "This album kind of comes out of the fact that I started thinking about where I would like to be, because my mind wasn't there, back in a fun mode. And I thought, at the same time, I've got an opportunity to maybe shock people when they think, 'What's this guy gonna think about comin' off of something like that?' I just thought about having a good time."
Longtime producer and friend Jah Sonora was hitting Pie off with CDs full of beats for the upcoming project -- "All kinds of different things, ill beats, IDM beats, things that were tripped out, and intermixed would be some club hip-hop beats, beats that might be a hit," Jah says. "I'd expect him to choose ones that were more abstract, a little more mental. For whatever reason, he chose these certain beats with a certain club sound."
Somewhere deep in Pie's subconscious, he was being guided toward the album that would become Undercovers. "Somehow I picked these beats and wrote stuff I normally wouldn't write. Maybe it's just channeled. You feel like [CPT] just channeled it. Like he said, 'You know what, I'm gonna take care of you; not only are you not gonna feel bad, I'm gonna have you write a bunch of fun songs.'"
The big-ballin', politically incorrect album of strippers, booze and rock-star antics is more reflective of CPT's joie de vivre than Pie's admittedly "normal" life. Actually, several of the beats that appear on the record were already promised to CPT before his death.
"Whatever this album's about, he did it best," Pie says. "Partying, pickin' up women, a lot of these tongue-in-cheek ideas -- [CPT] was the best at it."
Jah adds, "It's tongue-in-cheek for all of us, whoever lives a regular life. It's tongue-in-cheek to get chicks, and party all the time, drink, do all that. No one does that all the time. But [CPT] did that all the time. That was that motherfucker's life. He would do that rock-star shit that we all think is great -- he actually lived it."
"If [CPT] were here, we probably wouldn't have done [the record]," says Pie. "It would have been his album, and he would've pushed it to the limit."
Though most of Undercovers is composed of party songs, it's not without reflection. On "Just Walk Away," Pie opens by saying, "I wasn't gonna come back, but well, they say art is a wonderful way of expressing one's emotions. It's been an emotional year so, here goes." Later in the song, he raps, "This is my last shot at music/I hope y'all find it and I hope I don't lose it."
"That was just me saying, 'I had to muster up a lot even to get this album out, so I don't see anything coming up behind it,'" Pie explains. He's not nearly so pessimistic now, preparing to drop the new record in July.
For Pie, Undercovers is a catharsis, one that can be appreciated by masses of people who might never know what its genesis was. The album boils over with fantastical interpretations of an ideal life, recorded by Pie, Jah Sonora, DJ Needles, and engineer Larry Elyea, but lived all too briefly by Chris "CPT" Pangrazi.