The Powerful, Pained Raps of Sacramento’s Mozzy

The prolific California street rapper talks about his new album Gangland Landlord, being a part of Black Panther, and the losses that inspire his poignant music.

Nick Walker

Mozzy isn’t afraid to cry in his music.

The Sacramento-bred street rapper, who’s gained acclaim over the last several years for his colorful, melodic depictions of gang life and gun violence in the northern California city, doesn’t shun emotions. Mozzy’s music slaps, but the gruff lyricist is a bard.

His latest release, Gangland Landlord, finds Mozzy once again wrestling with indelible pain. It is a haunting, elegiac record that plumbs familiar territory: the urgency of success, the omnipresence of violence, and the agonizingly quotidian tragedy of losing loved ones.

“I ain’t gon’ lie, that’s the best way to deal with it. ‘Cause it’s like, I wanna have a conversation. I wanna cry, I wanna talk to somebody, but we macho,” he told me recently over lunch near Times Square. “You can’t cry to nobody.”

Mozzy is slight in frame but commanding in presence. A mass of freeform dreadlocks sit atop his head; he shakes his head—and the locs—reflexively as he speaks. The 31-year-old rapper is unmistakably Northern California in his mannerisms. He peppers his sentences with obligatory yay yays and haaaas, his cadence both slow and bouncy. But Mozzy’s attention to the constraints of black masculinity, and his concerns about the dangers of vulnerability, extend far beyond his home region.

“They’ll use it against you, you feel me? Same person you cry to will use it against you,” he continued. “You’ll be in a argument 30 minutes later, and they’ll be talkin’ ‘bout shut yo bitch ass up, nigga, you was just cryin’ and shit. So I put it in my music.”

Gangland Landlord, like the rapper’s prior work, vibrates with keen emotional instincts. The album’s intro, “No Way,” begins with a soulful wail, almost like a gospelized primal scream. Tracks like “Dead Homies,” featuring the rapper’s brother E Mozzy, and “Keep Me Hustlin,” featuring the Berkeley rapper Rexx Life Raj, are introspective meditations on the artists’ motivations and fears. “Popped 100 pills, the pain is still there / Shed 100 tears, the pain is still there,” Mozzy raps on the track with his brother, a eulogy for friends who have passed in recent months. On “Keep Me Hustlin,” Mozzy looks forward, too: “Keep a distance from leeches, that oughta teach you somethin’ / Two little girls, that’s what keep me hustlin’.”

With 18 tracks and a 55-minute runtime, Gangland Landlord is a fully realized narrative undertaking that manages to avoid the trap of sounding bloated. In its attention to storytelling, the highly collaborative record is also a much-needed corrective to the glut of over-produced, under-considered rap currently populating the genre.

The album is impressive in both lyricism and musicality. Mozzy’s rapping is earnest and impeccably timed; production from mainstays like JuneOnnaBeat and Mozzy’s manager, Dave-O, lends the tracks a wide sonic range. Gangland Landlord flows effortlessly between sinister gravitas and smooth driving bops. Even when rapping about the heaviest of subjects, as he does on the album’s lead single, “Not Impressive,” Mozzy floats.

Street rappers are often overlooked in the canon of music deemed emotional, a descriptive more commonly reserved for romantic ballads or introspective musings that skew blues-y. Gangsta rap, which details harsh realities of life in neighborhoods where criminal activity is often the most viable option for economic advancement, too often registers as braggadocious to listeners—critics included—who don’t implicitly understand the permanent sense of vulnerability that these circumstances engender. Put differently, if you don’t comprehend poverty as a human concern, it’s much harder to hear expressions of economic need as examples of musical emotionality.

The prevailing narrative of rap as a genre that only became sensitive with the rise of sing-songy artists like Drake obscures the many interpersonal insights of street artists. Mozzy’s music pushes back against this erasure implicitly. Gangland Landlord, like the artist’s prior work, insists on its own relevance; it refuses to be ignored.

Born Timothy Patterson, Mozzy was raised by his grandmother in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood. To this day, he reps 4th Avenue fervently—and turns to his grandmother when he needs advice. The son of an incarcerated father and a mother who struggled with addiction, Mozzy views rap as both an emotional outlet and a way to provide for his own daughters, a 5-year-old he affectionately calls Dooterz and an 8-month-old named Zayda.

“Fatherhood is dope. I just couldn’t see how somebody wouldn’t wanna be a part of they child life or wouldn’t make that a priority to be a part of they child life, like you know we come from a community where ain’t no father figures, ain’t no fatherhood, we ain’t have fathers,” he said. “Them niggas go to the pen, and not to fault them, we know they targeted. Moms go through the epidemic of smoking dope or prostitutin’ or whatever the minority was going through, and it affects us, the young life.”

Mozzy’s hustle accelerated after his daughters’ births, but the rapper has been grinding for the better part of two decades. Music piqued the artist’s interest at a young age; a talent show he witnessed at 11 inspired Mozzy to pick up the pen.

“I seen some twins, they performed, and just—the crowd reaction, the love, the embrace that they got from the elders—it was just dope, I felt it,” he said. “I wanted that same power. I wanted that same influence. I went home and wrote a rap and I never stopped writing since then.”

He’s been rapping consistently since his preteen years, first under the name Lil’ Tim, and then, beginning in 2012, as Mozzy. For Mozzy, music has always been more than a creative pursuit. It’s also a means of providing for himself that wouldn’t otherwise exist in the resource-strapped part of Sacramento he calls home.

“You know, we just look for opportunities as a young life. If you don’t meet a certain grade point average, you can’t play basketball for your high school or if your mom can’t afford for you to play Pop Warner, you don't get to play Pop Warner,” he said of the sports leagues that often funnel inner-city youth into athletic programs. “We lookin’ for collective, shit that you could be a part of, anything that you could be a part of with people that you relate to. And everything disqualifies us except the streets. The streets accept us wholeheartedly, open arms.”

For a young Mozzy, that acceptance came in the form of gang involvement. After dropping out of high school, the artist wound up incarcerated a number of times over a host of charges, among them illegal possession of a firearm and evading police. After he was released, Mozzy channeled all his energy into his music, much of which draws from the experiences that landed him in legal trouble.  

Criticism of the rapper tends to zero in on the prevalence of violent references in his music, but his work draws from a long tradition of rap as an oral history—and critique—of black life in America. Mozzy’s music doesn’t glorify gun violence so much as it explicates the roots of intra-community strife. It’s an indictment of poverty, segregation, and the institutional violence that is incarceration.

Mozzy narrates his own life, but his music is imbued with the influences of his forerunners. Asked who inspires his work, the rapper is quick to name a host of West Coast legends: Bay Area rappers like Messy Marv and the late The Jacka, as well as Southern California titans such as the entire Death Row Records camp. His delivery has earned Mozzy comparisons to another of his influences, New York’s DMX, but he also counts Master P, Beanie Sigel, and Silkk Da Shocka among his forerunners, as well as Southern greats like Mannie Fresh and his Cash Money Records labelmate Lil’ Wayne.

Still, there’s one artist whose impact on Mozzy—as both a person and a rapper—looms large. The late California phenom Tupac Shakur hovers over all of Mozzy’s music. “It’s a hell of a feeling. It’s platinum,” Mozzy says of being compared to his rap hero. “I studied dude, I listened to dude, I functioned with dude heavy, so for it to ooze out me and for people to create a comparison off of that, it's crazy.”

“That's who we looked up to. I ain't wanna be like Mike, I wanted to be like Pac.”

Though Mozzy has been a prolific artist for several years, it’s his more recent work that’s traveled outside California to listeners around the country—and the world. The atmospheric 2015 single “Bladadah,” named for a regional slang word for pistols, has thus far racked up more than 9 million views on YouTube. The associated album landed the No. 22 spot on Rolling Stone’s list of the 40 best rap albums of 2015. “Bladadah” introduced listeners outside Mozzy’s home state to a gifted lyricist who wove narratives about life in his hometown into catchy meditations about the allure of power and the dangers of pursuing it.

Though it’s the primary subject matter and setting of his music, street life isn’t Mozzy’s only hustle. After “Bladadah” boosted his profile outside Sacramento, the rapper doubled down on what he does best—working on his music. A dedicated, insistent workaholic, he’s released 11 solo records in the time since Bladadah alone and drawn from various regions in the process. In September 2016, he sampled the Atlanta rapper Future’s “Perkys Calling,” an ode to the lure of prescription drugs. Mozzy’s “Perk Callin” is a dedication to his late friend Perkzilla, but it also shouts out the late Baltimore rapper Lor Scoota, who released a “Perks Callin” freestyle that March, just months before he was killed.

Before the end of the year, Mozzy would go on to release three more records (one solo EP, and one collaboration each with E Mozzy and Houston rapper Trae tha Truth). “I seen an interview with Will Smith, and he said, You could be prettier than me, you could have more money than me, you could just have everything, all your attributes could be way doper, 10 times doper than mine, but you not finna outwork me,” Mozzy recalls. “And that’s how I feel, I’m not lettin’ nobody outwork me. I’m just applyin’ press, full court press, and I don't care what nobody talkin ‘bout, I don't care how nobody feel about my shit. I create music for myself, shit that I can throw in the deck and vibe out to and cry to and smoke my dope to and enjoy my life to.”

But this year, two notable co-signs from another California rapper have helped propel Mozzy from local favorite to formidable national rap virtuoso. In January, Kendrick Lamar shouted out his fellow West Coast prodigy while accepting the Grammy for Best Rap Album. “Like my guy Mozzy say, ‘God up top all the time,’” Kendrick said.

The following month, Mozzy’s voice closed out perhaps the biggest cultural event to unify black America in recent years: the film Black Panther. The soundtrack, which featured a host of artists culled by Lamar himself, pulled Mozzy into the fold not once but twice. On the official Black Panther album, Mozzy raps “Seasons,” an eerie track featuring the South African singer Sjava and the Southern California rapper Reason. It’s a gorgeous song, a stunningly diasporic medley that marries reggae-inspired production from heavyweights Sounwave, Frank Dukes, and Lamar himself with Mozzy’s distinctly West Coast rap sensibilities.

“Trapped in the system, traffickin' drugs / Modern-day slavery, African thugs / We go to war for this African blood,” Mozzy raps. In the context of the soundtrack, the rapper’s meditations on the effects of criminalization aren’t just Sacramento- or America-specific recountings; they’re reflective of concerns facing black people around the world.

During Black Panther’s final scene, as T’Challa and Shuri stand on a basketball court in Oakland, with youth from the neighborhood playing ball around them, Mozzy’s voice registers. “Sleep Walkin,” from his 2017 studio debut 1 Up Top Ahk, soundtracks the Wakandan siblings’ first interaction with the Oakland teenagers. It’s a stunning moment of unexpected unity in the film, which spends much of its plot exploring the forces that have kept the two groups separate.

Mozzy didn’t initially grasp the gravity of having his voice represented in the musical legacy of Black Panther—or the extent to which Top Dawg Entertainment, Lamar’s label, would change his musical trajectory with their endorsement. “My management tried to tell me the magnitude of it. I really didn't comprehend,” he said. “But after the rollout and I seen that shit, I was like, This is crazy. So now I got a whole newfound respect, you feel me, for just the whole camp over there, the whole team.”

“When [‘Sleep Walkin’] came on, I actually went to the theaters by myself to see it, fell asleep on the whole movie, no disrespect, I was just tired. And I woke up right before my part came on and actually got to see my part, it was crazy,” he continued with a laugh. “I seen the movie like five times since then. It was dope, it was amazing, it was indescribable.”

“It inspired me to go hard. Like I gotta get to bruh level, I gotta get to that Kendrick Lamar level, I gotta get to them greats, you know what I'm saying, so I can double back and I could do that for somebody,” he said of the debt he feels. “I could go to a Grammy Awards show and shout out an up-and-coming artist that the industry is scared of, you feel me?”

The success of Black Panther’s “Seasons” and “Sleep Walkin” raised Mozzy’s profile and drew more attention to 1 Up Top Ahk, a masterful record. In addition to “Sleep Walkin,” the standout “Take It Up With God” metamorphoses Mozzy’s traumas into a striking musical offering. The Celly Ru–assisted song chronicles the funeral of a close friend, whose mother Mozzy spends the chorus comforting with somber, regretful lyrics:

I hugged my nigga momma when he died
She just started cryin', she cried and she cried
If you could only see the pain in her eyes
'Cause he ain't comin' back, you gotta take it up with God

The track also addresses Mozzy’s friend, whom the artist promises to live for. “My music based on reality, soulful, very touching, gang-related, heart-felt, full of consequences,” he said when we spoke. “It's just the lifestyle we live. I try not to glorify it, I give you the good, bad, and ugly.”

“Take It Up With God” is not “ugly” so much as it is mournful, an example of Mozzy’s commitment to not just sharing his personal pains but also naming the systemic injustices that drive gun violence. In weaving the two together so deftly, Mozzy exemplifies what the best street rap has always done: tell nuanced, difficult stories that don’t censor hardships just to make the case for black people’s essential humanity.

Now, with Gangland Landlord, Mozzy is ready to deliver on his promises—to Sacramento and to himself. “I feel like 1 Up Top Ahk was the growl; Gangland Landlord was the bite,” he said with a smirk.

The album, with its multiple samples of beloved ’90s-era hip-hop tracks, is also stacked with collaborators. “Thugz Mansion,” which samples the Tupac track of the same name, pulls in fellow Californians Ty Dolla $ign and YG. Celly Ru joins Mozzy once more on “My Brudda 2X,” along with Trae tha Truth. E Mozzy, Schoolboy Q, Blac Youngsta, Dej Loaf, and Too $hort all bolster Mozzy’s tracks without diffusing the star’s singular power.

Gangland Landlord is a compilation of Mozzy’s emotional journeys, but it’s also a celebration of the fact that the artist has arrived. The rapper, who lives in Los Angeles now but frequently makes the six-hour trip upstate to get back to Sacramento, sees himself as not just a scribe for his hometown, but also a kind of caregiver.

Mozzy knows his influence both in the city and beyond affects the young people in his life and those who follow his music. It’s a huge part of what informed his decision to start a campaign encouraging his fans to curb their usage of lean, a concoction that typically includes prescription-strength cough syrup.

“Wherever I mess up, I try to double back, correct it, and you know, keep pushing,” he said. “So you know with the slime, with the syrup, I was under the influence. I didn't know what type of influence I was having on others.”

“I just feel like by me putting it on Instagram I was promoting it not directly but indirectly and unconsciously to my young life,” he said of his decision to publicly renounce lean. “I feel like young life follow action, not advice. So I ain't wanna say ‘Kick Da Cup’ and really not have no substance behind it.”

But for Mozzy, the campaign was also another kind of memorial. The rapper has seen too many friends and colleagues lose their lives to addiction. His music has long reflected the tragedy of these losses, but this year’s campaign against lean usage constitutes a different release for the artist.

“Usually the substance [of campaigns like Kick Da Cup] come from people dyin’, like Fredo [Santana, the Chicago rapper], rest in peace, Mac Miller, you know you got Pimp C's, you got ones that done slithered off before us that been involved with this shit,” he said. “ I feel like it's one of the most addictive, and it has present effects like no other drug … But if I could save just one young life, I feel I did what I was supposed to do.”