California rappers live in their own, sovereign hip-hop republic, one that—save for the occasional Kendrick Lamar or YG—can seem as foreign to the rest of the United States as the U.K.’s grime music. In California, the songs are bouncier, and yet the rappers are far more intimidating; gangs have a real hold over the music. To a mainstream rap fan’s ears, the lingo and geography of California hip-hop songwriting is, at times, indecipherable.
But Mozzy, a 30-year-old street rapper from Sacramento, is making a particularly difficult translation into hip-hop’s mainstream. His hometown plays host to one of the most varied and exciting rap scenes in the country today, and Mozzy has built a modest national fan base on the strength of hyperactive output and a deadly way with words. His new album, 1 Up Top Ahk—a term for shooting someone once in the head, neck, and throat with precise aim—out Friday, missed its previous, shaky release dates for the past couple of years, lost in a flurry of great mixtapes that spared no quality. There was a point when Mozzy was dropping four mixtapes per year without spreading himself thin. Mozzy’s tough talks duets mixtape, Dreadlocks and Headshots, recorded with South Florida rapper Gunplay and released in May, marked a second phase of his national come-up; three months later, 1 Up Top Ahk is his solo confirmation.
Still, Mozzy continues to work mostly with his local crew of rappers such as Philthy Rich, E Mozzy (Mozzy’s brother), Celly Ru, and Show Banga; and his longtime producer JuneOnnaBeat, who, since 2012, has helped craft Mozzy’s dark and quarrelsome sound. Indeed, Mozzy carries himself with the knuckleheaded disposition of your typical legit gangster–turned-rapper. On his home turf, he has fought with the incarcerated Sacramento rapper Lavish D. and regional godfathers C-Bo and Brotha Lynch Hung. Beyond Northern California, Mozzy has faced some difficulty achieving the crossover appeal of, say, 21 Savage—an Atlanta street rapper whose subdued, zonked-out delivery is more in line with hip-hop’s zeitgeist than Mozzy’s full-throated barking, and whose trap production is an easier mainstream sell than Mozzy’s dark Sactown bounce. Mozzy doesn’t sing. He doesn’t mosh. He doesn’t dye his dreads, nor is he a particularly fashionable dresser. He doesn’t spill romantic confessions and catharsis left and right. Mozzy is too tightly wound for all that.