Sept. 29 2010 10:32 AM

Now out of prison, Black Mikey tries to mend rifts in the local rap scene

Black Mikey
Photo by Maya Hayuk
It’s a Saturday night in June and Michael Cunningham, aka Black Mikey, is sitting on a couch next to the massive soundboard of the dimly lit Full Clip Studios, a small recording studio in North Park.

He’s working on new tracks with a few local rap staples—Lil Gangsta ern, the son of Gangsta ern, the late San Diego rap legend; James “Dre” Hart, the go-to sound engineer for local hip-hop artists; and Young Mikey, an MC who recently reached out to Black Mikey through MySpace, eager to collaborate.

Black Mikey is hunched over a page torn from his notebook when the phone rings, breaking his concentration; it’s Mr. Ridley, a producer and MC for the underground San Diego rap duo Anti-Citizens.

“Ridley? Yeah dat,” Mikey says. “Come through the studio. You can meet Lil Gangsta E.”

Up until now, ern, Dre and Ridley have never worked together—likely a byproduct of San Diego’s insular hip-hop scene in which artists tend to compete more than collaborate. But now they’ve come together to work with Black Mikey.

In the year since being released from prison—he served seven years for assault—Black Mikey has focused on making a comeback. Last year, he released a full-length, Blackula, and a companion mixtape, Smash, Blackula, Smash. He followed that up with a second mixtape, Smash or Get Smashed On, and he’s set to release Killafornia Infection, an album he worked on with Mr. Ridley.

In the process, he’s trying to unite two spheres of the local rap scene: the more hardcore gangster-rap coming out of Southeast San Diego and the so-called “backpack” rap scene, which looks beyond gangster-rap stereotypes to advance hiphop as an art form. He says that the only way San Diego’s rap scene will grow is if all sides work together.

“I ain’t gonna hate, discriminate or stagnate the next artist for no reason,” Mikey tells CityBeat. “And that’s what it’s gonna take to unify the collective San Diego empire. And that’s when we’re gonna beam up and broadcast a brighter light.”

Mikey, a 40-year-old with a stocky build, slumped posture and a guttural voice that often sounds more suited for a warzone, grew up in the Guy Hatfield homes between Southcrest and Lincoln Park in Southeast San Diego. He’s been rapping since he first heard Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” in 1978. Back then, different schools of rap and hip-hop didn’t exist; people from all over Southeast San Diego interacted through hip-hop music, whether they were battle-rapping during lunch at Lincoln High, rocking stages at YMCA functions or break-dancing on cardboard at 4-5 Park, a popular meet-up spot for cookouts and block parties in Lincoln Park.

“We were always b-boys first,” Mikey says. “Even if we were in khakis and [Converse] stars and gangbanging in our ’hood, we always congregated at the park where that cardboard was laid down.”

In the late ’80s, the emergence of gang-affiliated rappers like N.W.A. and Ice-T paved the way for gangster rap, intensifying the already-bitter rivalry between Bloods and Crips.

Mikey, a Blood, and Cricet, a Crip also from San Diego, engaged in a series of back-and-forth rap battles all over Southeast San Diego. Their conflict even found its way on to two singles that circulated the area—first, Cricet’s “Executioner’s Style,” then Mikey’s “Understand Me” in response. Eventually, the two rappers set aside their gang differences out of mutual admiration. They performed with together on stage in a local talent contest. They won the contest—only to go into hiding.

“We had all our neighborhoods mad at us. The Bloods wanted to get me. The Crips wanted to get Cricet,” Mikey says. “But this is the type of monumental shit that we did. We did shit and we didn’t even give a fuck about the history that we was making.”

But the streets would catch up with him. In 2002, according to court records, Mikey pled guilty to assault with a firearm and was sentenced to a maximum eight years in prison. He says he can’t talk about the case until he’s off parole, but court papers say that he shot a man once in the leg.

“I thought it was pretty much a wrap, me being the age I am,” he says. “But it’s a trip how… I didn’t get into [hip-hop]. It got into me. I had dreams. I would literally wake up with a mic in front of my face, in my cell, rapping.”

When he returned home from prison last year, he found that local rappers regarded him as an elder statesman of San Diego rap. Now, armed with a lifetime of rhymes and a tenacious work ethic, he goes about mending rifts in the hip-hop community. There are still problems with gangs—Mikey acknowledges that—but their battles don’t play out musically any more.

“It’s a lot more rappers that come from where I come from,” he says, “that are MCs—griots [story-tellers]—and need to be heard. If I don’t bridge the gap, who will?”

You can download Black Mikey’s releases at