Morris Wayne Ricks II, better known as King Mez, remembers the first time he used his own money to buy an album.
He was 9 years old. The record was Dr. Dre's Chronic 2001. It was 1999.
Last week, the West Coast rap icon finally issued that album's long-awaited follow-up, Compton: A Soundtrack By Dr. Dre. King Mez, now 25, didn't have to buy it. He was instrumental in making it. In fact, he is the first person you hear on Compton's opening assault, "Talk About It." He appears on three of its 16 songs and has songwriting credits for 12, the most of any other contributor.
Before King Mez left Raleigh for Los Angeles last year, he had risen to and pushed against the proverbial ceiling for local rappers, thanks to a string of steadily improving albums. Before the pressure of that position started to build, he got a buddy pass from one of his friends at Southwest Airlines, jumped on a plane and landed in LA. Not long after he touched down, though, his plans went awry.
Just two days after the release of Compton, or one of rap's biggest events in memory, Mez talked about what changed and how he became part of Dre's day.
INDY: Why was your move to Los Angeles so tumultuous?
KING MEZ: A producer named Dawaun Parker reached out to me when he saw the "Can't Let Go" video on MTV. I saw it would be a great opportunity to work with someone close with Dr. Dre. I flew to LA, where I was supposed to stay with a friend. That ended up falling through. At that point, I started wondering if I should even stay in LA, or should I just go back to North Carolina. I prayed about it. I called my boy Cedric, one of J. Cole's best friends from Fayetteville. He said that they had just gotten to Los Angeles that night. The whole first week that I was in LA, I stayed in his hotel room.
The next thing I did was reach out to my publisher at Warner Brothers. I asked Warner Brothers if they could get me some work with some producers that were also signed to the publishing company. That was tight, but I knew in my heart that wasn't the reason why I came to LA. I really came to work for Dre.Where does Rapper Big Pooh come into the story? Didn’t he “facilitate” your introduction to Aftermath? A lot of people think that the first time I came to LA is because Rapper Big Pooh [formerly of Little Brother] told an Aftermath A&R about me. He did. But what’s crazy is that I found out that Pooh told the A&R about me while I was already in LA. I got a call on a Thursday from Aftermath A&R, and he said that he wanted me to come and write for them. It all happened at the same time. It was a blessing, meant to be.
And then Dre's label, Aftermath, called?
I had two or three days left in LA before I got that call. I went ahead and went to the Aftermath studio with my boys, Drew and Ty. When we got to the studio, they put on a beat and asked me to write. They said they liked it a lot. The producer told me to come back the next day.
Mind you, there's a bunch of writers there. There's also singers and producers. There are all these people, and I'm trying to stand out. On the second day, they said Dre was coming. I got really excited. There were interns lighting candles and cutting up limes for his drinks. He didn't come, but I ended up writing another song on that second day that the studio's producer and A&R liked a lot.
On the third day, they said he was coming, and I didn't believe them. But somebody came in the room and said Dre had just pulled up outside. I told my man Drew to go check the living room. Drew came back and said, "He's not in there." Drew left again. When he returned, he looked like he had just saw a ghost: "Yo, Dre is in the living room."
When Dre walked into the studio, there were at least 10 artists in the room. He waved his hand and said, "What's up, everybody? Thank y'all for being here and writing for me. I've been listening in my car to the music that y'all have been recording for the past few days. There's a couple of standouts that I like."
He's sitting down, facing the SSL studio board. He's naming all these songs he likes. He's not naming people. He gets to, like, song seven and he still hasn't liked one of my songs. I was mad. Then the eighth song came. I remember him asking, "Who is Mez?" I was the first person whose name he wanted to know. I got really excited. I said, "That's me." He said that he really liked a song I had recorded called "Love Me Baby." Dre went in the kitchen and made himself a drink. He came back out, told everyone that he was leaving, then he bounced. I flew back to North Carolina.
Did you think you would return to LA?
I felt like my future was in LA. My lease was up, so I asked some of my friends to help me move my stuff into storage. The first time that I was in LA, I recorded a song for Dre with a talented producer named Phonics. When I told him I was in town, he told me he wanted me to come with him to a Jeremih recording session. There were a bunch of girls there. DJ Mustard was playing beats, and everyone was having a bunch of fun except for me. I'm sitting over in the corner like, "Damn, I'm living in LA now, and I don't know what I'm going to do."
But on the second day, Ty called me and asked me when I was going to be back in LA. Dre wanted to meet me. He told me to come to the studio that night. Dre didn't want to do any music that night. He just wanted to get to know me. I've been there every day ever since, for the past 11 months.A lot of artists have talked about being in that specific studio environment and doing work that never materialized. What was going on? Engineers and all kinds of people thank me all of the time because they think I really inspired him to be back in the studio. Dre even tells me that I inspired him to be back in the studio. In the beginning, it was like a little writer camp. We were in there writing everyday. Everybody was running around, jumping up and down and screaming because they hadn’t seen him like this in a long time. I didn’t realize what was going on. I thought he was always like this. That’s how I met him.
Having never written for anyone before, was this particular experience—especially given its significance—challenging for you?
It's not something I ever wanted to do, but when the Dre opportunity came along, I was excited. I knew what it meant. I remember, one day I wrote a really good song for Dre that didn't make the album. When he listened to it, he asked me how I knew about some of the specific history that I included in the lyrics, some of his stories. He had never mentioned any of it in any interviews. I said, "Oh, I heard you talking about it in the kitchen the other day." I always write from experience, but this process has shown me that I do have a keen writing ability for other people. They had me go and write for Puffy, too. Halfway through Compton, Warner Brothers found out what I was doing with Dre and they hooked me up with Puffy.
Before Compton was released, the Drake/Meek Mill beef jump-started a larger conversation about ghostwriting. Where do you land?
It's all about credit. Dre always says, "Yo, these kids wrote this album for me." It's a collaborative effort, like Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson, or like how Kanye does it. The problem starts as soon as you start telling people that you did it by yourself. I was on every song I wanted to be on. Actually, I wrote "Darkside/Gone" for my new project. That was going to be the hook of a song, but Dre wanted it to be my verse.The first line on “Darkside/Gone” is “Now, I ain’t never been no gangster,” but here you are on the West Coast with the architects of gangster rap. Did you ever feel out of your element when it came to writing about that lifestyle? No, because I’m not far removed from it. I’ll tell anybody that I’m not a gangster, but some of my best friends are probably considered whatever people call gangsters. When I was in The Lazaretto Crew, my partner in the crew shot somebody. A lot of people don’t know that. That’s around the time that we stopped rapping together. I’ve seen that part of it, so it doesn’t make me uncomfortable at all.
You produce some of your music, too. What have you learned from Dre about that?
Precision. Dre is extremely precise and calculating. Dre used to always say, "Yeah, the album sounds good, but wait 'til we mix it. It's only 50 percent done until you mix it." He adds music in little places. You can hear it, too.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Carolina love."