If you discount Dave Matthews Band and the Bob Marley Legend album, then Rappin' 4-Tay (né Anthony Forté) could easily go down in history as the top-played artist at Berkeley frat parties. His 1994 hit "Playaz Club" — which charted 36 on the Billboard Top 100 — remains a veritable anthem. It had all the characteristics that would ultimately define 4-Tay's sound: a deep, lurid bass line; lyrics about the dissolute lifestyles of Bay Area rappers; and a steady 4/4 meter, carried along by 4-Tay's breezy rap cadence. Filching the sample from a 1968 soul ballad by William Bell and Judy Clay, he rapped about a members-only nightclub and casino that may or may not have existed in real life. At any rate, it made for a great fantasy: craps tables, strippers, mink rugs, men in pimp hats, and women in clingy dresses. In 1994, it may have been the natural habitat for a 26-year-old Fillmore rapper with a cult following. 4-Tay claimed to be unstoppable, and it didn't seem like an overstatement. He was poised to take the hip-hop world by storm.
Fast-forward seventeen years, to a show last Friday night at the Black Repertory Theater in Berkeley. The stage is strewn with red confetti, and partially deflated balloons hang in the aisles. Half a dozen patrons sit in different parts of the auditorium, boredly text messaging in their cell phones. The opener, a huge, brawny man with sunglasses and a pinstripe shirt slung over one shoulder, muttered incomprehensibly into a microphone. Behind him, DJ 2Fresh clicked buttons on a laptop, while a full ensemble of player-less instruments — keyboards, drums, microphone stands — sat drearily in the background. It looked as though Black Rep had been the site of a nuclear attack.
This venue was one of many local spots where Rappin 4-Tay, now 42, would resurrect his career. He'd fallen off the map after 1995, dropping a string of albums that foundered in the marketplace. He'd often wait four years between releases. In the meantime, 4-Tay raised a family and lived a quiet life. His daughter eventually became a rapper, appearing as "Lil' 4-Tay" in the group B.I.G. (Bitch I Go). The elder 4-Tay would occasionally guest-verse on her tracks. Even as his public image faded, he tried to keep the dream alive.
Of course, it's hard to age gracefully in hip-hop. Just about every rap career has an expiration date, and it usually falls within five years of the starting date — if you're lucky. Of course, some people manage to circumvent this problem. Jay-Z diversified his portfolio by writing a hip-hop primer. P-Diddy and Ice Cube forayed into acting. MC Hammer stepped up to the pulpit. Biggie and Tupac were immortalized after their untimely deaths.
But the average rapper, at a certain point, must face the autumn of middle age. And that's a dire prospect when your medium is stuck in a permanent adolescence. In 4-Tay's case, rumors swirled about some kind of tragic fall — he had, after all, been arrested in 1990 for selling marijuana — but friends blame the rapper's disappearance on a callow business sense. He has a large and rather unwieldy entourage, but no discernible manager or publicist. Keyboardist Dana Salzman was quick to point that out in a phone interview the day after the show. "I think he's like me," Salzman said. "He just has music sense."
Salzman is 4-Tay's de facto music director. She's a young Latin jazz pianist with a degree from the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York. She's thin and feline, with tattooed arms and long wavy hair. She describes her partnership with 4-Tay in diplomatic terms. "He's really loving," she said. "He has no ego." Salzman added that 4-Tay's shows have been mostly successful so far. They debuted the band last year in the lounge at Yoshi's San Francisco, and completely sold out the main stage in July.
But as more people filed into the Black Rep on Friday, it quickly became clear that they were there to see Salzman, not 4-Tay. After a brief second opening act by local emcee Vic Da Baron, KPFA radio personality Gary Baca emerged to announce the headliner. Cheers went up as Salzman took the stage in a clingy purple dress and stilettos. Behind her came the band — a trumpet player, a bassist, a guitarist, and a drummer from East Bay Center for the Performing Arts. Audience members moved to the front and danced. 4-Tay came out for the second song — a hip-hop redux of the Bill Withers tune "Lovely Day," — followed by one of his own reinterpretations of The Spinners' "I'll Be Around." He looked every bit the classic pimp: gator shoes, black corduroy pants, ironed down hair, fedora hat, glittery medallion, gold KC watch. When the trumpeter soloed, 4-Tay would hold his microphone up to the end of the horn so that it echoed deafeningly throughout the auditorium. "Break it down, OG," he said.
Despite the sparse crowd, the tawdry party decorations, and the tetchy sound system at Black Rep, 4-Tay put on a terrific show. He magnanimously introduced other members of the band. "I want y'all to check out Chico, how he hit that bass line," 4-Tay said, as Chico hit the bottom notes on "I'll Be Around." While the other musicians soloed, 4-Tay danced around the stage. After a couple songs, he retreated backstage with members of his entourage.
Looking at the odd cast of characters who hang around 4-Tay, it's not always clear who helps handle business, and who's just a sidekick. If you call Anthony Forté's cell phone, chances are he'll pass you off to a producer named Rayan Steck-Bayat (better known by his stage name, Rizz), who will talk quickly and enthusiastically about projects that are currently in the pipeline, most of which involve other late-career rappers. (The list includes Dru Down, Suga Free, and Treach from Naughty by Nature.) 4-Tay also hangs with a thin, middle-aged man who goes by the name OO, and works as a doctor in real life. Of all of them, the most fruitful collaborator is Baca — he recruited Salzman's band.
For most of the show on Friday, 4-Tay hung backstage with OO and a hype man named CNT, who introduced himself as 4-Tay's brother. The backstage lounge was large and cold, with four upright pianos, a couple couches, and a large dressing room. 4-Tay stood in one corner with a cup of water, and listened intently to Salzman's set. Vic Da Baron's hype man came in with a woman from the audience, and sat down on one of the couches. Ignoring them, 4-Tay cupped his ear.
"Hear that?" he said, as Salzman launched into a peppy salsa keyboard line. "That's the bridge. We're on next." He and CNT hastened to the stage door. A few minutes later, they emerged to do "Playaz Club," for a crowd that had by then dwindled to twenty-odd people. Still, 4-Tay delivered a rousing finale.