It started like this…
It was 2008, or 2009. The rap artist Jamal Gasol has a brother, and his brother had a ring tone. It wasn’t exactly a ring tone, it was more like a voice. A disembodied voice. An annoying voice, on an annoying ringtone. “All the dude would say at the beginning was piff,” Gasol recalls, with a laugh. “Like I say on tracks.”
He demonstrates for me. “Piff.” It sounds as though Gasol’s standing on a cliff and calling to somebody down below him. “Piff.”
Gasol’s brother was clowning around, and the rapper said “piff” as an ad lib on a song. “Then, I just stuck with it. People know me for that.” Piff.
And with that, the Piff Empire was born.
Gasol grew up in Niagara Falls, New York, a city known for the famous water falls that straddle the U.S. and Canadian border. It’s a rust belt city of about 48,000 people, with one of the highest crime rates in the state.
The Falls are a tourist attraction, and tourism is an important source of income for the city, but Gasol says that the neighborhood where he grew up is far away from the places that tourists from all over the world come to visit.
When he was around thirteen or fourteen, Gasol became enamored with Lloyd Banks, a member of G-Unit, a rap group with 50 Cent, Tony Yayo and later, Young Buck. The trio were, for a time, fixtures of East Coast rap and released a series of popular mixtapes in the early 2000s that helped launch 50 Cent’s solo career and that of the other two artists.
“I was listening to Lloyd Banks heavy, listening to all the Money In The Bank mixtapes,” Gasol says. He also favored Philadelphia’s Cassidy, and the currently incarcerated Max B, who is still releasing music from prison, and was a childhood friend of Cam’ron and a member of Jim Jones’ Byrd Gang, and French Montana.
“I’ve been a big fan of his since, like ’07, ’06, back when he was doing the Cocaine City DVDs,” Gasol says about Max B. “I’ve always liked his sense of humor with his music; he was serious but he was having fun.”
Gasol started writing his own lyrics when he was around ten or twelve. At first, he wrote about himself, and “being cool.” He dressed up in a FUBU button-up, Air Force Ones or Jordans, and practiced his rhymes in front of a mirror. In fifth grade, he participated in an elementary school talent show, rapping over beats from a Bow Wow song.
Writing Like Mark Twain, Reciting Like Shakespeare
Then, life took some twists and turns. Gasol began to take music seriously, and, as an adult, he focused on the lessons he had learned from the streets, and incorporated them into his songs. He says his raps address a mixture of life, combined with the poetic license of an artist. “I’m just relating to real situations, real things that I’ve been through in my life,” but he applies what he calls “a little more finesse” to the tales. He points the camera lens at his own story, powering self-contained vignettes about street corners, dope boys, “The War On Drugs,” and its effect on the Black community.
The songs are hard boiled, but, by design, are sometimes mixed with melancholy, and pain, and the hard truths that Gasol absorbed from crack dens and drug spots, places he had been and people he knew. He doesn’t go into detail, but acknowledges the difficulties of those times, albeit with the benefit of hindsight.
“It’s a lot of pain man, a lot of pain,” Gasol says. “There’s no joy without pain. I like people to hear me, but I want you to feel me, you know what I’m saying?” An element of pathos permeates all his work, but it’s not didactic. He is a bard of the streets that made him, the joys and the sorrow.
Gasol even released a series of mixed tapes called No Joy Without Pain.
“Take it with a grain of salt, take what you get out of this,” Gasol says of his art. “Just listen and think. A lot of people like to talk, but they don’t listen much.”
To paraphrase Intelligent Hoodlum, Gasol is writing like Mark Twain, and reciting like Shakespeare. The people who know what he’s talking about hear everything he’s saying. They are listening.
The Writing Process
Musicians often have their own, unique processes for writing and creating songs, superstitions about creativity, and elaborate ways to focus, and Gasol is no different. His approach can depend on the topic, or the beat, and he sometimes sits with a beat in his head for months before he figures out the right words to match its essence. Sometimes, he lives with a beat for years before he finds the words to match it; it takes up space in his head, and gestates, until the song is ready to come out.
“I might be writing somewhere, the beat banging in my head, I’m gonna write that down. Or, I might be at the crib smoking, sitting with the beat, just thinking about it, or there are times I ride around in my car, just letting the beat play for the whole day,” before the inspiration hits him.
Gasol says that he’s learning every year how to write, tightening up his word play, perfecting his rhymes. He expands on what has worked for him, trying different techniques, and adapting new technologies, and it is an on-going process in his creative life.
On the introduction to the mixed tape, The World is Piff 2, Gasol’s friend Justin Gilmore, whom he has known since elementary school, puts it like this: “preparation, that’s what everything is based on.” Gasol makes it look easy, but he is always prepared.
“Sometimes I go right to the notepad on my phone, put it right in there and just rock out. Or, I’ll just start free styling verses while I’m riding around listening [to a beat]. I remember I used to have a tape recorder on me. And we used to have freestyle cyphers,” all of which were important parts of his approach to his art.
In the end though, “it’s all based off the beat. It’s a vibe and a feel.”
Larry Davis Era
In 1986, a Bronx man named Larry Davis engaged in a shoot-out with almost thirty police officers who had come to his sister’s apartment to arrest him. Davis asserted that the cops were there to murder him. Davis, who was Black, alleged that the officers wanted to silence him because he knew about cops who were engaged in narcotics sales, a scheme in which he was a part. At trial, Davis was acquitted of attempted murder. In 2008, while serving time in prison for murder, Davis was stabbed to death by another inmate.
Views about Davis varied, but many of his allegations about the police were seen as plausible, and some in his Bronx community viewed him as a folk hero, and his death, years later in prison, as punishment for his accusations.
In 1988, as a young Legal Aid lawyer, I sat in the courtroom and watched large portions of Davis’ trial, where Davis was represented by famed civil rights attorney William Kunstler. Kunstler’s client was a polarizing figure, seen by some as a violent criminal, but by others as a man who stood up for his besieged community, and acted in self-defense.
In 2018, Gasol released a mixed tape, Larry Davis Era, [more about that collection below], and I asked him why Larry Davis was significant to him so many years later.
Gasol says that Davis was somebody who “stood up against crooked cops. A lot of people have lost their lives, and, not even just physically, but their freedom, to crooked police. He still went to [prison]. But the moral of the story was that he didn’t give up the fight. People know him [for the shoot-out]. But it was deeper than that to me. He was somebody who stood up for what he thought was right.”
More than twenty years after his trial, views about Larry Davis still reflect how much the Criminal Justice System has not only failed communities of color, but also inflicted great harm and devastation in its wake.
Close your eyes and listen to a song by Jamal Gasol. His voice bears a resemblance to the aforementioned rapper Jim Jones, a member of Harlem’s The Diplomats, along with Cam’ron, Juelz Santana and Freekey Zekey. But Gasol has a little of Keith Edward Elam in his voice, too. It’s deep and rich, and authoritative in its delivery. A great voice behind the mike, the Teddy Pendergast of rhyme artists. He also seems to follow the Gang Starr aesthetic as his own: steady, unostentatious music that reflects on street life and the drug game, with an auteur’s attention to detail, but he resists the temptation to glorify it.
“I feel like if you’re able to teach something, you can give somebody guidance, or help somebody get through something, that’s the purpose I get out of it,” Gasol says. “I gotta voice. I want to make sure my blessing is used in the right way. Take what you get out of it, but just listen. Let people draw their own conclusions about what they’re hearing from you.”
I asked Gasol if other people have compared him to Jim Jones, and whether he thought he sounded like the Dipset spitter.
“I’ve heard the Jim Jones comparison, I’ve always heard that. And I listen to Jim Jones’ music, but I’ve never heard Jim Jones in my head when I’m writing,” and he leaves it at that.
Gasol said that it took years of practice to train his voice and develop his sound when he raps.
“There was a time when I used to rap, that I raised my tone up some. And that takes away your air when you’re rapping. So I just wanted to find a way to rap, just being myself. I just started using my regular voice. I wanted to be able to rap just like I’m talking to you.”
And he does.
True Stories From The Streets
Like the artists he admired, Gasol released a series of mixtapes, including the standout, Larry Davis Era. That collection included “It Ain’t Safe,” and a memorable verse by Griselda’s Benny The Butcher. Gasol holds his own on the track, with clever word play and an imaginative spin on the Cocaine Rap he came to embrace. The video for the song was filmed in Lockport, a town in Niagara County, where Gasol now resides. The tune is one of many hard-hitting tracks produced by frequent Gasol collaborator, Quis Star. The two artists seem symbiotically connected, with Quis Star providing a percussive, pounding soundtrack for the rap artist’s rhymes. Gasol doesn’t dominate the beat, he inhabits it, as if it’s a life force, coursing through his body. He is at one with the beat, instantly drawing you in, a zen master of pithy bars.
2018’s True Stories was Gasol’s first proper release. In 2019, he told The Real Hip Hop that “[w]ith this one I put a lot of time into picking the beats, making it go together sequentially, and it’s more than the 4-5 tracks I normally give people. To go like a full 9-10 and make it all make sense and it all relates to the same thing, I feel like that’s why this is my first official LP.”
The album included the song “Give Up The Goods 2K19,” his first trading bars with Brooklyn’s Rome Streetz, who is also making a name for himself on the hardcore rap circuit. The track was produced by Camoflauge Monk, and is a tribute to Mobb Deep’s “Give Up The Goods (Just Step).” Monk uses a sample from that song and both songs sample Esther Phillips’ “That’s Alright With Me,” considered one of the most distinctive beats used in hip hop. The video was filmed in front of the Queensbridge Houses, where Mobb Deep’s Havoc grew up.
From Rich Porter to Fritz Simmons
In 2013, Jim Jones released the mixtape The Ghost of Rich Porter. Porter was a flashy, mid-level Harlem crack dealer in the mid 1980s, and the subject of the 2002 film, Paid In Full. In 1990, Porter’s 12-year-old brother was kidnapped and murdered over a drug debt. Around the time of the abduction, Rich Porter’s body was discovered in a Bronx park. He has been shot multiple times in the head and chest. Jones used the story of Rich Porter as a jumping off point and inspiration for the mixtape.
For The Ghost of Fritz, Gasol was also inspired by real events. Richard “Fritz” Simmons was another notorious Harlem drug dealer, and the subject of a recent biography, The Harlem Plug, by Harlem Holiday. According to the book, Rich Porter asked Fritz Simmons, the reputed New York-New Jersey connect for the Medellin Cartel, to help raise the ransom money, so he could free his brother. Like Gasol, Simmons went about his business with grit and determination, but didn’t flaunt his wealth or his success in the drug trade; he focused on the work. Simmons deflected attention from himself. In the drug trade, once the spot light hits you, it was only a matter of time before you were dead or doing a life bid in prison.
“I came across Fritz as the plug,” Gasol says. “And I’m like, who is this guy? Don Diva magazine had a [piece] on him, so I read that.” [Editor’s note: Don Diva is a publication about street life, founded by former drug kingpin Kevin Chiles, a true-to-life, magazine version of the novels of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines.]
Gasol says he liked what he read about Simmons. “He was the complete opposite of everything they tell you about Frank Lucas, Nicky Barnes,” two other notorious New York City crime bosses, “all the way up to Kevin Chiles. This was rare for somebody that really had the city, but his image would not show it. I mean, somebody who was real discreet, and wasn’t about spending his money, flashing it, spending it on drugs, shit like that. You know…pop bottles in the club every weekend. You take care of people, families, like…Robin Hood.”
Gasol modeled the album cover after the cover of The Harlem Plug. He replaced Fritz’s face with his own, and used front page news stories from newspapers, including a New York Times piece about the discovery of the body of Rich Porter’s brother.
The Ghost of Fritz is Gasol’s most completely realized album yet, and his finest. It’s a concept album that doesn’t hit you over the head with its conceptual vision. It doesn’t feel bloated or pedantic, just hard-hitting rhymes and dexterous flows in a concise package. You can draw your own conclusions. Once again, the album was produced by comrade in arms, Quis Star, and the producer’s singular vision helps make Fritz a cohesive whole.
“Iverson Finish,” includes a feature from running buddy Rome Streetz, who was also one of the three Big Turks, a group project on Chong Wizard records, that also included Lord Juco, and Ro Data behind the boards. It’s a big booming track, that also features another Niagara Falls artist, Jynx716. Gasol says the beat was called “Iverson” when Quis Star sent it to him.
“This was one of the beats like I said to you that I have to just listen to. I had the beat for two years and it was fire.” And Gasol spits fire on the track, too.
“Hi Rise” is another standout from Fritz, with a feature from Rochester, New York’s 38 Spesh. The producer and rapper handles the first verse, where he reminds us that he “never took advice from broke guys.” The beat pops and chugs along, Gasol adds that “I’m on the hi rise, but I’m trained to stay low.” The song also features Yaya, who joins about half way in, adding more atmosphere to the music and its message..
Fritz is a seamless whole, a bumping collection of hardcore rap, that bounces, but shares some life lessons, too, if you listen closely. It’s piff.
Look for more music from Jamal Gasol in 2021.
Purchase music and merchandise from Jamal Gasol here.
Purchase digital versions of Jamal Gasol’s music on Bandcamp.
Purchase vinyl versions of the mixtapes the World is Piff 1, and the World is Piff 2 at Trees Records.