Posted on 11 May 2011 by dubs
Words by Adam Saake
Sacramento’s CUF returns strong with new album
Words by Adam Saake
On the first try to get Nate Curry, aka N8 the Gr8, of Sacramento’s legendary local hip-hop group the CUF on the phone for an interview with Submerge, he was tied up with some music business.
“I’m at Western Union wiring Gift of Gab some money right now for a verse. Can you call me back in five minutes?”
Curry is a busy man. Besides being one of five members of the CUF, he’s also a producer for up-and-coming R&B singer Marryann Hunter, hip-hop group Lost Tribe and his cousin, rapper MAK. His head has been immersed in those projects, and it wasn’t until recently that his focus turned once again to making music with the CUF.
“Truthfully, in the last year, we were kind of losing our motivation a little bit. I ventured off into some other stuff,” says Curry.
There’s no behind-the-music story, no band beef or silly drama. It’s just that the group has seen so many opportunities over the years come and go that delusions of grandeur were hardly taking shape.
“We’ve had so many different labels and so many different things that we’ve dealt with and it’s always just turned into shit. So none of us really expected anything,” explains Curry.
But the journey’s been a good one.
In 1993, a hugely important year in hip-hop that saw the release of such albums as Souls of Mischief’s 93 Til Infinity, Wu Tang’s 36 Chambers, Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, KRS-One’s Return of the Boom Bap and so many more (seriously, Google it), the young MCs known as the CUF were beginning what would become an 18-year-long musical career. Sacramento, sadly, was a lot like it is now in respects to clubs and music venues having little interest or tolerance for hip-hop or rap music. As Curry explains, there’s been no shortage of a few knuckleheads ruining it for us all with “plenty of people getting shot and killed at clubby club shows.” This was working against them, but a greater force was and has been ever-present; a strong Sacramento music community. Can’t book a hip-hop show? Well then play with a rock or a ska band.
“We got in with Filibuster, Steady-Ups, Diseptikons, Storytellers and those guys…and we’d get into venues that they’d have never let us play at,” recalls Curry.
These mix-and-match shows were part of one of the most active times in Sacramento’s local music scene. Venues like Old Ironsides, The Distillery, The Press Club and the original Capitol Garage all played host to the CUF, but now rarely if at all welcome hip-hop shows. Listeners who may have never stepped foot in a hip-hop club were now exposed to the sounds of the CUF playing alongside some of their other favorite groups. Well aware of this fact, Curry and fellow MCs Crush, Brotha RJ and Pete (Lil N8, aka Taktics, would come later) sharpened and fine-tuned their lyrics and beats to make sure their sound was clean and their voices be heard.
“We perfected our stage show because we knew that no one knew our music,” says Curry. “We made it to where we’d speak clear on the mic and the beats weren’t super cluttery and jumbled.”
Crowds were quickly won over; seeing the CUF on a bill without a single other hip-hop act was pretty commonplace. Plus, it didn’t hurt that the group had an anthem track appropriately titled “Sacramento” that listeners quickly memorized the lyrics to and would frequently request at live shows.
It wasn’t always difficult for hip-hop in the River City. There were all-ages venues throughout the years, most of which are no longer around, that were instrumental in keeping the scene alive and well. The Washington Neighborhood Center on 16th Street hosted frequent hip-hop shows, as did the now defunct and legendary venue Joe’s Style Shop. The upstairs art space and basement music venue on J Street was regularly throwing some of the most amazing shows that continued the theme of mixing and matching the artist community. Dub DJs like Wokstar opening for Filibuster with the CUF rounding out the bill was commonplace, and Sacramento was there in full effect, supporting the diversity and loving it. Later, Scratch 8 in Old Sacramento played host to such acts as Zion I, Crown City Rockers, The Grouch and many others. Again, the CUF was there laying down their signature sound and remaining an integral presence in the waxing and waning hip-hop scene of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.
As other bands have throughout the years, the CUF also found homes for its hip-hop sound in other cities in the Bay Area and Southern California. A monthly club being thrown in Oakland called Unsigned Hype was a showcase for independent hip-hop talent making waves, as well as up-and-coming acts like the CUF. Bills would often include artists like Saafir of Hobo Junction or Souls of Mischief of Hieroglyphics. A fateful evening at the club paired the CUF and an unknown Mystik Journeymen from another large hip-hop group called the Living Legends as openers for A-Plus. The club that night was treated to impressive sets from both opening acts that left the crowd speechless–literally.
“It was weird because we put on an awesome show and everyone just stared and looked at us. I don’t think they were ready,” remembers Curry. “RJ and Sunspot [Jonz] chopped it up, we linked up and ended up going over to their loft and the rest was history.”
That history would include multiple tours with the Living Legends up and down the West Coast as well as guest appearances on each other’s albums. But even with the taste of scenes in other cities that had thriving hip-hop communities, the CUF could never leave Sacramento behind. It’s always been their identity.
“Sacramento is our home;” says Curry proudly. “That’s the reason our music sounds the way it does; it’s the reason that we are who we are.”
For residents of the 916 who aren’t familiar with the CUF, who over the past few years have kept a low profile, their chance to discover a hip-hop gem hasn’t passed. With a new album just released on April 26, 2011 titled CUF Caviar Vol. 1, the CUF is, to put it frankly, back and better than ever. A truly funky record with intelligent production from Curry, who has been responsible for 90 percent of the beats on CUF records, CUF Caviar is just plain fun to listen to. The album took two years to complete and the production value certainly shows patience. Songs like “Don’t Ask No ?’s” plays heavily with a punchy funk drum sample, a Ceelo-esque hook and auto tune vocals… It works, and frankly I wish the crap on the radio that employed similar techniques sounded half as good. CUF Caviar is a more refined, more polished version of what the group has been all along. It’s rare nowadays to find musicians who define a sound for themselves and are able to gracefully age and mature it without compromising the original ideas. The CUF has done just that.
“A lot of the stuff we did before was just us vibing out. We’d write a 16, the beat’s dope, let’s jump on it and find a hook and make it fat,” Curry explains. “[Now] it’s on a totally bigger scale.”
The title of the album, CUF Caviar, is the perfect reflection of this new “scale.” Curry says that when naming the album, the CUF wanted to stick with the fish theme that has always been their logo as well as the incorporation of the band name in the title. Past records have included CUF Daddy, CUF Baby and CUFilation as well as the earlier tapes Federal Expressions and Cuffish that are collectors’ items among diehard fans.
“We basically were thinking that caviar are fish eggs. They’re fish babies, but they’re more refined. It’s something that you’d want if you had an ear that’s more refined. It’s not no little kiddie hip-hop. It’s something for grown folks; sophisticated ears,” jokes Curry.
One of the more humorous things about the maturation of the CUF is the actual acronym itself. Commonly referred to as California Underground Funk or Californians Under Frustration, the guys have become family men now and a new meaning has come to pass: Cousins Uncles and Fathers.
The rejuvenated CUF will be taking CUF Caviar on the road, playing spot shows with Z-Man, Equipto and Mike Marshal. May 12 at Harlow’s will be the CD release show and Curry says that there may even be a Blackalicious and CUF tour on the horizon as well. If you’re not a CUF fan or if you’ve always been, make sure you cop the new album and hear what the fellas have been up to.