How a covert mission back in 2002 may have saved the musical word from sadness.
There’s a moment near the end of the “Visualism” documentary about the life and sounds of DJ Quik where the filmmaker Devin DeHaven catches Dan Aykroyd outside of the House of Blues and Aykroyd has the following gem to share:
“We’re here in the parking lot of the House of Blues listening to the funkdafied sounds of DJ…the MAN…DOCTOR Quik the MASTER. He has brought a great, great evening of rhythm and percussion to the House of Blues tonight. Any man who sees and knows that the roots of all of it is in James Brown–HE understands that–is welcome…in the House of Blues.”
Now granted, it’s safe to say that Mr. House of Blues himself (Aykroyd co-founded the chain of venues back in 1992) had been sipping a little something prior to them pressing the “record” button here, but you’d be foolish to the let his slightly-inebriated state lessen the importance of his message:
THE MAN BORN INTO THIS WORLD AS DAVID MARVIN BLAKE AND BETTER KNOWN TO MOST AS “DJ QUIK” IS A DOCTOR, MASTER, AND AN ABSOLUTE WIZARD WHEN IT COMES TO THIS MUSIC SHIT.
I’m sorry to get so worked up so damn early here but it has to be said.
THERE IS NO ONE TOUCHING THE QUIKSTA. NO ONE.
Now let me build a bit of context here. 100% of the reason why I started this site in the first place was to write about the music and food that matters to me, and Quik is at the top of that list for me (right next to pizza).
Having said that, I’m not here today to give you my magnum opus on the man, and to be fair I think that attempting to do so at any point would be extremely limiting. Quik has so many facets and so many little moments of wizardry throughout the course of his career as a producer, MC, and engineer that it’s way more fun to write 1,000 essays on these 1,000 beautiful pieces of the puzzle as opposed to trying to cover it all from front to back in one shot. So that’s what I’ll be doing here via The Sound Pantry as the weeks and months roll along…but that’s not what we’re here for today.
No, today we are here to talk about my work back in 2002 as a covert operative.
You: A covert operative? Like…like a spy?
That’s right. For a brief period of my life I served as a covert operative for a variety of unnamed organizations with the sole purpose of gathering intel on some of the most important moments in our musical history. What all were the missions that I was sent out on? What all were the tools and technology that they gave me to accomplish said missions? And most importantly, who was the mastermind behind this group of operatives that had been assembled?
However, I can share with you the details of the lone mission that leaked to the public and was eventually declassified as a result (with the exception of the 3,200 words of the final report that remain redacted to this day):
MISSION #327: THE RETIREMENT OF DJ QUIK
You know how sometimes you’ll watch a military documentary or read the memoirs of special operative and end up learning about certain moments in history that—prior to your picking up that movie or book—you somehow knew nothing about?
This is one of those moments.
On September 21st, 2002 at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip–that same House of Blues outside of which Dan Aykroyd professed his love for the Quiksta–the multi-faceted musical magician commonly referred to as “The One-Man Band” announced at the end of an otherworldly 2-hour performance that he was hanging it up for good.
That was it. He was done. Or to quote him directly:
“Yo…on the real tip…I got something to say…I’m 32 years old and I can’t be singing ‘Sweet Black *****’ all my life and especially now that I got a daughter…it’s time for me to be David Blake again.”
The crowd was stunned. He stepped further forward on the stage, looked like he was on the verge of tears, saluted his fans, slammed the microphone down on the stage (creating the nastiest feedback squeal as a result), and turned his back on both his crowd and his 11-year career of making musical magic.
The crowd began chanting “Quik! Quik! Quik!” for a solid 5 minutes, but it was no use. The man they had all come to see was gone into the wings of the backstage area–quite possibly for the last time ever–and I myself felt like a robot that just had his battery pack removed.
Remember that scene in Goodfellas where Tommy is going to get made, and Jimmy and Henry are in the diner so excited for him and for his big day, and then Jimmy goes to the payphone to check in on Tommy and in a terrible turn of events he finds out that Tommy didn’t get made but instead he got whacked? And in an instant Jimmy’s mood shifts from one of joy to one of utter hopelessness as he proceeds to beat the shit out of the phone booth like he’s Ryu in a Street Fighter Bonus Round because he’s so distraught?
That was me. I was Jimmy.
I didn’t even know how to process this information. The man whose sound has been so interwoven into the fabric of these first 18 years of my life was saying that he would create no new music.
All I had was memories now.
I mean, shit, Quik’s music was so cotdamn powerful that the ONE year I played basketball (8th grade…with my flattop haircut and my Tio-approved Nike Cross Trainers) we were at a tournament in Downey, warm-ups had just begun, the DJ started playing this song on the gym loudspeakers, my Pops looks at me from the stands and yells “MIJO!! ARE YOU HEARING THIS?!” (Pops ALWAYS stayed up on my music and knew the good stuff), and I went on this miraculous hot streak that had me standing beyond the arc and sinking what must have been like 15 three-point shots including an 8-in-a-row flurry that was unlike anything I had ever seen myself even do on the NERF hoop on the back of my bedroom door, much less on an actual court with a real basketball and a real 10-foot-high, regulation-sized hoop. In the interest of giving you the full picture let me also tell you that I was entirely drained by the end of this pre-game session, but it was all good as I would have plenty of time to rest during the game on the bench due to 1) my being built like Bobby Hill and 2) my having handles like Stanley in The Office most of the time with the exception of this lone flash of pre-game brilliance which I was convinced had left the entire gymnasium in awe.
This is the powerful effect that Quik’s music has had on me my whole life.
In an instant I went from Ray Romano to Ray Allen for the greatest 4 minutes and 57 seconds of my basketball career, and it wasn’t even during an actual game when it counted.
Now back to the moments immediately following this retirement bombshell being dropped.
I’m in the car on that long drive back from Hollywood (on a Friday night no less when the Sunset Strip cruisers were still out in full effect) all the way back to my family’s apartment in Montebello. The drive took like an hour in real time, but in my memory that hour-long drive felt like it took six hours. Yes, I’m in shock, but I’m also aware that I have a mission to uphold, and so there I was trying to gather my thoughts before the debriefing that was set to take place the next morning with the home office. Maybe Quik was just going through something that night. Maybe he was just faded and said it in a motion of emotional confusion. Maybe he’s dropping a new album soon and he’s just trying to get the streets talking. I completed my report as soon as I got home, sent it in to the home office, got like 4 hours of sleep, woke up still in a haze, and jumped on a quick debrief call with my direct up-line before having the rest of my Sunday to myself.
I gave him every detail that I had, and before we closed the call I asked him if he could give me a heads-up just in case he happened to hear that what I saw wasn’t real and that this retirement was a false alarm.
He very sheepishly and very briefly tried to sell me on the idea that he’d keep me in the loop.
I knew he wouldn’t.
And nothing came.
No clarification from the home office.
I had taken this role as an operative knowing full well that I was entering into an often one-sided relationship where I was expected to gather information so that someone far away–in a room I never saw–could make sense of said information in the context of a bunch of other information and then proceed to do who-knows-what with these new insights. Such is the life of an operative. You know only the things that you need to know, and any other details that you were in the dark on were kept that way for a reason.
No problem. I know how this dance goes.
So I just chilled for two weeks and waited.
And then out of the blue I get a transmission from one of my buddies who rubs elbows with the higher-ups that apparently there was a leak from someone rather high up the food chain. Apparently someone knew someone who knew someone, and the details of my report somehow found their way to the front page of what was–at the time–a beacon of information within the hip-hop community.
That’s right. HipHopDX.
There it was, sitting as the feature story smack dab at the top of their homepage. In some weird twist of fate I guess whoever leaked it had an agreement that the narrative would shift and the story would read that I had been working as an operative on behalf of HipHopDX rather than leaking who my real employer was at the time.
Smart move on their part.
And upon reading the feature, I gotta tell you that I felt a slight bit of relief. Only a fraction of the contents of my full report made their way into the article, and all the folks with whom I had worked in the lead-up to the mission somehow didn’t have their names see the light of day within the article. But dammit, this was still bad. This leak was enough to let the general public now know that there were secret missions going on behind the scenes in the music world of which they blissfully knew nothing about.
How the hell had I been burned? Did one of the higher-ups sell me out in exchange for some other deal that had been made without my knowing? Was there another operative there at the venue that I hadn’t noticed in my recon work upon arriving?
Who knows. And more importantly, who cares.
Oh you don’t believe that my cover was blown? See the leak for yourself (and yes, my operative codename was “Big Poppa”).
Now this didn’t necessarily mean that I had to stop my operative work. I could have easily adopted another identity if I wanted to. It’s even easier than how you see them do it in the movies. But to keep it all the way real, I had already been growing tired of this life anyway.
In the context of what went down, I wasn’t bummed that my identity had been revealed to the world.
My favorite musician on the planet was never going to make music again.
That was the real heartbreak here.
And with this feeling like my joy had been stolen, I decided to take a cue from Quik and hang it up myself.
No more covert ops work.
It just wasn’t worth it. It was time for me to get out of the game. My higher-ups didn’t care about the ensuing heartbreak that they knew would come from sending ME of all people to gather THIS intel. Nor did whoever pushed the button on that leak care about the career fallout that I would experience as a result of this story getting out.
Stop wasting your time on people who don’t love you.
Maybe this was the realization that Quik had come to before he decided to call it quits. And in some weird twist of fate here I was being forced to come to terms with the same conclusion that he had arrived at.
It’s been 18 years since I quietly slipped back into civilian life, and as you probably are aware DJ Quik did not actually retire on that Saturday evening 18 years ago. No, in fact, he has remained very much a presence in our lives and has continued to create gem after gem after gem in the almost two decades that have passed since he very nearly exited the game for good.
As I reflect and play back the events of that mission now with the added benefit of time and hindsight, I now truly believe that all the events surrounding that night went down exactly as they were supposed to go down.
Maybe I was truly sent there to document the emotional exhaustion of a man who had given so much to the world and yet was heartbroken by the amount of reciprocal praise and adulation that he felt he merited yet had never received in return.
Maybe the ensuing leak of my final report was meant to happen so that this terrible news of his retirement could be broadcast to the world.
And when music lovers all over—through whatever means they got their news back in 2002—caught wind of Quik’s retirement and of what they were about to lose, they experienced en masse what Joni Mitchell so wisely surmised in 1970:
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
And maybe the phone calls and emails and newspaper articles and letters started pouring in from all corners of the globe begging Quik to stay and create more magic. And all the love and appreciation that he had been missing for so long had finally arrived, and it hit him like a ton of bricks which then in turn provided him with a new sense of purpose.
He STILL had something to say.
And I like to think that this statement had something to do with his letting the world know that even after all this time people STILL couldn’t fuck with The One-Man Band.
Or maybe that’s not how it went down at all.
But for the sake of my story let’s just say that everything actually went down the way I like to imagine that it did.
In that case, there’s only one way to assess the success of my final mission:
Mr. David Marvin Blake decided to stick around a bit longer and bless us with more music, and the world has been a happier place as a result of a chain of events put in motion on a warm night in September of 2002.
I saved the musical world from sadness.
(and speaking of sadness…no, I can’t bring back the old Kayne, so don’t ask…we’re operatives, not miracle workers)
If my final mission was also the mission that meant the most to me in terms of how its outcome affected my own life, then I think that’s a pretty good way to put a bow on a several-year career spent working in the shadows.
Yes, the life of a covert operative is now a life that I have left completely in the rearview mirror. Do I miss it? Sure, sometimes. Traveling all over the world, playing a part in some of the most important moments of our collective musical history. I can’t front…it’s a whole lot of fun.
But it’s a young man’s game.
And I’m older now.
I love my mellow civilian life. I love writing. I love my wonderful, genius wife. And I love my music.
Oh, and I love pizza. Man, how I love pizza.
In fact, if you happen to be a certain kind of person who travels in certain circles and you hear about “opportunities” that require an encyclopedic knowledge of pizzas, tell your people to put the word out through the proper channels, and I’ll find a way to get in contact with them.
I’m fully out the game, but I may still have a mission or two left in the tank.
Because as much as I love this civilian life, I still love it when they call me Big Poppa.