By that time, he was already a Bay Area folk hero, and I was assigned to write a cover story on him for 4080 Magazine. We hung out with Dre's mother, Wanda Salvatto (aka Mac Wanda), at her crib in Vallejo, California. We laughed a lot, drank Crown Royal, smoked blunts, and snacked on fried chicken and macaroni and cheese.
Dre was in good shape physically and mentally, despite being fresh from a nearly five-year bid for robbery.
The tall and lanky rapper smiled easily. He didn't seem like a particularly dangerous criminal -- a convicted bank robber and possibly worse -- though he was clutching the pink slip to a new, limited-edition Chevy SS Camaro he'd purchased the very day he hit the street.
Dre may have been a baller, but he struck me as a basically normal (if charismatic) fellow from the 'hood who had fallen in with the streets but wasn't a bad guy at heart. I got the sense he was trying to make up for lost time.
Now that time is permanently lost. It's painful to hear about the Tragic Death by Violent Means of yet another rapper, especially an underground legend who paved the way for untold generations.
Andre Hicks (aka Mac Dre) was murdered in Kansas City, Missouri, during the early morning hours of November 1. The story, still sketchy in its details, sounds all too familiar. On Halloween night -- two days after performing at the National Guard Armory in Kansas City, Kansas -- Dre was riding shotgun in a white van driven by Dubee, his longtime cuddie (Vallejo parlance for close homie).
Picture them rollin' down Highway 71, listening to the radio, passing blunts and talking shit, when suddenly a black four-door pulls up beside them. Angry words are perhaps exchanged, followed by a rapid burst of gunshots from an AK-47, apparently aimed at the driver. The van swerves across the road and crashes into a ravine. A few minutes pass. Dubee staggers out of the wreckage. He's dazed but not seriously wounded.
Mac Dre is not so lucky. He is hit by one slug, possibly a stray bullet intended for Dubee. But unlike his cuddie, he won't be getting up.
Dre was no stranger to drama. He grew up in the thuggish Crestside district of Vallejo during the formative Reagan years of the crack-cocaine economy. Dre began rapping early and soon became a protégé of Michael Robinson, the original "Mac," who put out the underground classic The Game Is Thick in 1988 before being murdered in a case of mistaken identity.
Dre released a slew of influential albums on the Strictly Business label between 1989 and 1992, notching several popular tunes, including the influential party track "California Livin'," traces of which can be heard on both Digital Underground's "I Get Around" and Tupac's "California Love." But his biggest hit was "Too Hard for the Fuckin' Radio," an infectious number built on a funky Chaka Khan sample that showcased Dre's old-school rap style.
After his third album, What's Really Goin' On?, Dre was implicated in a series of bank robberies committed by the Romper Room gang. Dre's song lyrics were entered as evidence of his connection to the robbery spree and helped put him in prison. Seems Dre had incurred the ire of the cops with the song "Punk Police," on which he taunted detectives for their inability to catch the gang members, who had become almost-mythic outlaws.
Dre kept his hand in the rap game even while incarcerated, recording the album Back N da 'Hood over the phone from jail. Unfortunately, he missed out on most of what became a golden age in Bay Area rap, when artists such as E-40, Mac Mall, the Click and Young Lay flourished. By the time Dre was released in late 1996, Mac Mall had surpassed Dre in sales and name recognition as the Vallejo Mac of record, and the Young Black Brotha label Dre was affiliated with had seen its partnership with Atlantic go south. Ultimately, Dre formed his own Romp Records and used his creativity and sense of humor to carry his concept-driven material, on which he created colorful alter egos.
Dre performed under the name Thizzelle Washington and appeared as "Ronald Dregan" on the cover of the album Dreganomics (get it?) wearing a preppy shirt, tie and slacks, topped off by a Fred MacMurrayesque hat. That picture said a lot about Mac Dre. Despite his criminal past and 'hood rep, he never took himself too seriously. He not only got the joke but also wanted you to get it.
We bumped into Mac Mall the day of the 4080 interview, and he accompanied us back to Dre's mother's house. It seemed a random coincidence at the time; looking back now, it feels more like fate. The younger rapper was at the height of his fame but appeared genuinely awed by Dre's presence.
I didn't stay in touch with Dre much after that, though I continued to hear about his prolific career up until the end. He released more than twenty albums, including recent titles such as Stupid Doo Doo Dumb and Rapper Gone Bad. Dre had recently started another label -- Thizz Entertainment -- and his latest album, The Game Is Thick Part Two, debuted in Billboard's Bay Area Top 20 mere days before his death.
You won't hear Mac Dre's name on VH1 specials commemorating hip-hop's history, but his legacy remains solid in the annals of West Coast rap: an underground trend-setter, a poster boy for indie-label DIY success. But perhaps the biggest compliment is his influence on Tupac, whose "Young Black Male" hints at the effect Dre -- and albums like Young Black Brotha -- had on one of the greatest, another felled before his time.
But more than anything else, Mac Dre's music was about celebrating the good times, a mood encapsulated in lines from "California Livin'" such as California living it up, girls be giving it up/So kick back, max, relax and put some Hen in your cup.
Just don't forget to pour a little out.