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When I run into Phoenix rapper Pokafase a few days before his record release party for Mastermind, the long-overdue LP he recorded back in 2002, I remind him we met several times years ago when he was in the hip-hop group Know Qwestion, back when his moniker was Cappuccino. "Shhh, don't say that name too loud," he says, with an embarrassed grin on his face.
The reinvention from Cappuccino to Pokafase happened a while back, but what the kids at the show last Friday didn't realize is that, rather than simply introducing them to his finally-on-the-streets full-length album, Poka was resurrecting himself yet again. I've watched his career from a distance since the Know Qwestion days, but I've never been as convinced of his mainstream potential as I was when I saw him rock the house celebrating the release of Mastermind. Honestly, I wasn't much of a fan of Pokafase's before I got my hands on Mastermind, the album that nearly didn't happen, but once I gave it a shot, Poka's West Coast thuggery came off like the real thing.
As smoke enveloped the stage at the Old Brickhouse, obliterating the elaborate stage set composed of a speaker's podium with Poka's signature spade logo, two elevated oil barrels also painted with his insignia, and banners with his album cover art as the backdrop, the backing vocal track to Mastermind's first song came on, declaring, "Somebody stop him 'fore he hurts somebody," before Poka emerged from the smoke hollering, "Put your hands in the air," to an enthusiastic roar. As Pokafase ripped through the tracks off Mastermind, he mixed in a bevy of new, never-heard-before compositions, appropriate since Mastermind was completed more than two years ago.
When Poka decided to pursue a solo career back in '99, he and his producer Fade, along with longtime Know Qwestion manager and impresario Ty Carter of TMC Presents, circulated his demo to tepid responses from labels like Capitol, Sony and Columbia/Ruffhouse.
But just when his hopes were fading, a call came from Ted Field, one of the co-founders of Interscope Records (along with current head Jimmy Iovine), who was starting a new label called ARTISTDirect, a well-funded record company that was out to compete with the majors. Poka and Fade flew out to Los Angeles to meet with Field, and Poka saw his dreams start to materialize. Poka remembers it well.
"We met with Ted on Friday, June 13 in 2001. I said a prayer in the lobby of ARTISTDirect's office on Wilshire, then a bit later we walked into Ted's office, and within two minutes he said he wanted to sign me." The power of prayer's a funny thing, in my opinion; Poka ended up with a great album, but signed to a sinking ship.
Despite subsequent counteroffers Poka says he received from labels like Loud, Blackground (home to Timbaland and Aaliyah), and belated interest from Def Jam, Poka and Fade -- as the production unit 22/20 -- signed to ARTISTDirect, because it put the most money on the table. ARTISTDirect was promising great things to Phoenix's rap prodigy, and the 22/20 crew soon headed from Phoenix to Los Angeles to begin work on Mastermind.
Out in L.A., Poka started living the rap-star life -- bottles of Hennessy and Ketel One alongside trays of chronic around in the studio when he'd arrive. He was recording at Conway Studios, between rapper Eve and Christina Aguilera. While there he enlisted the talents of Scott Storch, who was producing Aguilera's album next door (and produced Poka's "What'd U Come Here 4"), as well as Warren G, who produced the track "Disaster" on Mastermind.
Poka developed a relationship with the Shady camp also -- Dr. Dre, Eminem, manager Paul Rosenberg, etc. -- and even ended up walking the red carpet to the première of Em's 8 Milefilm. Unfortunately, though, ARTISTDirect Records was beginning to unravel. A scheduled studio session with mega-producer Kanye West never materialized because ARTISTDirect put a halt to production prematurely.
On his repeated trips to L.A., Poka noticed that the staff was dwindling considerably, and insiders were encouraging him to take whatever opportunities he came across from other companies. But by then, Mastermind was finished, and was the property of ARTISTDirect, which had originally promised a mid-2003 release date.
That obviously didn't happen. ARTISTDirect Records essentially became defunct, but it still retained the rights to Mastermind. Hence, if you were at the release show last Friday, you'll have noticed that the spine lists the album's title as Self Titled, because of the legal ownership issue. After years of frustration and waiting, because of his loyalty to Ted Field, Poka decided he had to put the album on the streets on his own.
Right now, Poka is involved in negotiating his release from ARTISTDirect and obtaining the rights to Mastermind, which he admits is old news to him at this point. He's recording two separate albums right now, which he'll self-release. Meanwhile, he's recording demos for a potential deal that he's keeping quiet about, though he describes it as "huge, huge, huge. . . . If you were a rapper from Phoenix, it's your biggest daydream. I'm talking with some of the biggest people in the world right now." After Friday's show, where Poka busted out of the smoke like a megastar, I believe him.
Judging from the acquaintances Poka's made over the last few years, my educated guess is that his new prospect involves either Aftermath, Shady Records or Def Jam, where Jay-Z is the newly installed president (though this is sheerly my own speculation). Nonetheless, the G-funk-heavy, West Coast-styled Mastermind proved to this skeptic that Poka's got the skills to make monster strides in the national rap game, if his decision-making this time around is based on the reputation of the label he gets with rather than the dollar signs on the contract he's handed.
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