The members of Four Finger Ring know what it’s like to be lost. Prior to joining forces as though they were the Voltron of OC hip-hop two years ago, each one was on a path paved with disarray and self-destruction. As they wandered the halls of their own private purgatories, shadow boxing with demons of doubt and depression was a daily routine. A decade into their careers as respected OC rappers bred the type of frustration that comes from giving all of yourself to something without being sure it could ever love you back.
Sure, hip-hop had given them a purpose, some loyal fans, countless tours and modest success. However, by their mid-30s, the light at the end of the tunnel of paid dues still seemed out of reach.
It felt almost as dark as the trip we recently took through their downtown Santa Ana headquarters. But instead of swallowing them whole, this new recording studio gives them more life than they could’ve imagined. Flicking on his phone’s flashlight app, rapper Nu3tron shines a beam of light through the shadows. His cohorts—Mic Moses, C4MULA and DJ Zole—trail behind him single file through endless twists and turns and up three flights of stairs in a 30,000-square-foot structure that from the outside resembles a plain office building. But when the house lights finally come on, it’s as if we’ve landed in a random episode of MTV Cribs.
“It’s like the fun factory,” says Moses. “This place is insane. You’ll never find a place like this ever. It’s crazy because of all that stuff going on, so it creates a vibe unlike any place I’ve ever worked in before.”
Humming fluorescent bulbs reveal a wing of the building that’s been transformed into an indoor-turf soccer field. A few steps to the right, and you run into a mini basketball court that sits catty-corner to a steam room and jacuzzi that are under construction. A restaurant-sized kitchen and dining area with a mezzanine overlooks the field. From the rooftop, you get a decent view of downtown. Rows of empty offices for now double as storage space, rehearsal rooms and apartment-style living quarters. Next door to the studio run by their label, Lip Drum Entertainment, is a commercial-quality production studio with a green screen stretched to the ceiling, hinting at the building’s former life as a TV news studio in the ’70s.
Though it’s impossible to walk through Four Finger Ring’s new digs without a slack-jawed sense of awe, the building was in a postapocalyptic state of disrepair before it was taken over by Lip Drum and two other investment partners, each of which has businesses inside the building.
“Before we got here, homeless people would break into the basement and sleep in here,” Nu3tron says. The inside of the building—which lies in the shadow of Santa Ana’s Civic Center, the Men’s Jail and Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse—feels worlds away from anything resembling the slate-gray oppression of the judicial system as the space continues to evolve.
“It’s an active construction site,” Nu3tron says pointing to the soccer field. “One day, I showed up here, and this used to be a concert hall area with a couple of basketball hoops, and then the next day, it was an indoor soccer field. So things around here change really fast.”
The plans for a luxurious site are moving almost as fast as Four Finger Ring’s momentum, as their quartet of veteran artists begin to break out.
In the past decade, few rappers have dedicated themselves to OC’s hip-hop scene more than C4MULA, Nu3tron, Mic Moses and DJ Zole. Each of them has been rocking in various crews, labels and groups since the early aughts. In 2016, their collective focus began to change. Their journey as a group brought all four of their styles to the world; melding into one cohesive sound, they bridge the gap between early millennium backpack rap and today’s alchemy of trap, pop and dance music.
“I think we gave an option to kids who don’t wanna conform to the sound of now because it’s being forced down their throat,” Zole says. On any given day, the group’s monster turntablist and producer looks the part of a metal guitarist with his brown, back-length hair and wooly face.
With their amazing, three-story fun house in Santa Ana, the group went from local status to brushes with viral fame, rapping for huge crowds and working with respected artists ranging from ’90s hip-hop legends the Dove Shack to Huntington Beach darlings the Dirty Heads. However far they’re destined to go with Four Finger Ring, their bond as friends is what gets them through the toughest times. True-life tales of jail time, drug addiction, depression and near-death experiences permeate their rhymes amidst polished hooks and party jams. Their sound doesn’t need to look anywhere but inward for an identity. The determination of this lifelong crew allows their music to keep punching forward until their knuckles are bloody and a dent is made.
“It’s not too complicated,” rapper C4MULA says. “It’s not us thinking about what’s the next hit song; it’s hearing a beat and releasing our skills. It’s us saying, ‘fuck it’ and putting our hearts on our sleeve for the world to hear. If they like it, they like it; if they don’t, they don’t.”
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As much as they utilize the inside of their recording space, plenty of their creativity occurs outside it. They routinely gather on the steps of the studio’s courtyard, where ideas are formed between cigarette puffs and vape clouds. During daily breaks between marathon recording and mixing sessions for songs for their recent mixtape Neverland and forthcoming album Monsters Under the Bed (out Friday), transients, druggies, skaters, and suit-and-tie business people dart past them. What started as a handful of tracks on their 2018 debut full-length We Are the Four grew into a nearly 100-song catalog and a constant stream of videos. One of their latest, a video for the song “WiFi,” garnered more than 20,000 views in less than 24 hours. Part of the reason, other than teaming up with Lip Drum label head Mike “Gaines” Mussallam for an extra marketing push, is the organic following they each earned as MCs. The strength they have as a group derives from not letting any prior success come between them.
“I think the reason why there’s not as many groups nowadays is because of the trust factor and egos and narcissism,” C4MULA says. “Because your ego is so big that you can’t share a room with other motherfuckers and their ideas. Some of us have learned how to build collective ideas without shouting or shooting one another.”
It’s a mentality that goes deeper than rap and certainly deeper than their current project. Starting in the early 2000s, the Four Finger Ring MCs have grown up together in the scene as part of an era in OC hip-hop that birthed a Zulu Nation-style consortium dubbed Committee Fam. Under the Committee’s umbrella, members of various groups, cliques and crews would come together regularly to chill, beatbox, battle rap and plan hip-hop events around the county. At the time, Lip Drum founder Gaines was just another talented beatboxer who was granted entrée into the group; he eventually became one of the three chief members.
“We used to hold these meetings in the park—there’d be, like, 40 of us, all the other cliques and crews,” Gaines says. “We’d have a little jar go around and collect like $47 between 50 dudes and drink 40s and smoke blunts in the park in Orange off Prospect.”
Now 40 years old, Gaines has retired from performing, but he used money from his business ventures in marketing to fund a label that could help support some of the artists he grew up with, especially C4MULA. Known for the ability to eviscerate crowds and rival MCs with his caustic bars and stoner wit, Gaines saw the lanky, bespectacled rapper born Andrew Bowman as a special talent he could build around. At the time, however, C4MULA was signed to United Family Music, a label run by Johnny Richter of Kottonmouth Kings; the two parted ways before the label eventually shuttered.
“I created [Lip Drum] with the idea that I needed to get behind C4,” Gaines says, sporting a ballcap and chain inside a conference room at the Lip Drum lab. “He’s too ill, too dope, but people hadn’t gotten behind him the right way.”
At the time, though, C4MULA’s problems were the result of the rapper getting in his own way. Years of hard drug use, dealing, incarceration and a bout of homelessness derailed his life to the point that Gaines made a decision to take C4MULA under his wing and let him crash at his house in Costa Mesa. C4MULA’s drug addiction had him turning to petty crimes to support his habit and living in his car.
“I had a sleeping bag, a blanket and a gun,” C4MULA remembers. “My gun was my last resort to get dope or use it however, according to the situation. There were times when I either wanted to rob somebody or blow my fucking brains out. It was crazy, bro; I was a crazy person.”
In the summer of 2017, they staged an intervention with C4MULA and his family, then helped him into a 30-day rehab facility in Colorado.
For Gaines, part of Four Finger Ring’s early appeal was their ability to bring some support to a talented guy who was clearly at the end of his rope. “Even though I love the music and chemistry that Moses, Nu3tron and Zole bring to the table, another huge attribute they bring is that support and the brotherhood, so it’s a win-win-win-win-win,” Gaines says.
“I always used to think people who are your friends are back scratchers—you scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours,” C4MULA says. “But when I didn’t have shit, these dudes had me covered. They literally picked me up outta the gutter.”
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In the era of social-media hype and celebrity of the “Yungs” and “Lils” of the world, the hip-hop group isn’t what it used to be—and neither are a lot of the personal connections between rappers that bonded it together. The mythical conglomerate of the hottest lyricists from the same neighborhood who drift together at just the right time is the template the members of Four Finger Ring knew.
“We used to have discussions about this shit growing up—‘which member of Wu-Tang or Bone Thugs is better’ type of shit—and we’re getting comments like that on our videos now,” says Moses, the calmest, most even-keeled of the crew despite his insanely fast rapping style.
Nu3tron’s melodic hooks and confident, punk-rock swagger; Moses’ rapidfire bars; and C4MULA’s tortured, talented lyricism are stirred together by Zole’s soulful beat production. Bombastic new songs such as “Lucky” and “Fuck Your #ashTag” could fill a stadium whereas emotional tracks such as “Raven” and “HARRP” (a song for the victims of 2018’s natural disasters around the globe) are more suited for bumping on a long, contemplative car ride home.
These are the kind of records Nu3tron has always strived to make, from his days as the front man of the rock group Capital Kill to his years spent as a solo artist and a member of rap duo LD and Ariano’s HB-based Technicali crew circa 2007. Back then, his aspirations were only matched by his work ethic and need to reach people the old-fashioned way, through hand-to-hand CD sales at shows and festivals. That eventually carried over to his U.S. and European tours, during which he’s still adamant about meeting fans and having more real interactions, though it’s a lot easier now that he doesn’t have to push his music on people.
“I remember sitting back at [hip-hop festival] Rock the Bells and looking at all the people with my $800 worth of CDs, and I waited until right after the Visionaries performed because I had a track with [rapper] LMNO on it, and I realized that’s nothing,” he says. “There’s, like, 60,000 people at this thing, and I didn’t even get 2 percent of the people here. Nowadays, we’re attacking virally versus back in the day, when we used to do a lot more footwork.”
Part of the success can be attributed to their often being booked on the cannabis concert circuit. Whether it’s converting stoned lackadaisical crowds into fans at Hempfest in Seattle or rocking shows such as Kush Stock in LA, their ability to make friends with West Coast legends who headline these events is effective. For example, after performing at a recent cannabis event headlined by Dogg Pound rapper Kurupt, Zole was approached by Bo-Roc of ’90s G-funk group the Dove Shack at a nearby gas station. “Zole was getting some snacks at the cash register, and this huge black guy comes up behind him and says, ‘Yo, homie, are you from Four Finger Ring? What’s your name?” Nu3tron remembers. “He said, ‘I didn’t even need gas; I just saw y’all at the show, and you fuckin murdered it, and then I saw you here, so I stopped and wanted to give you props!’”
Bo-Roc asked for their number and took a pic with them. “Then this other guy who was a fan of his came up behind us and said, ‘Yo, lemme get your number!’” Moses remembers. “And he just took a picture, and he goes, ‘Yeah, sorry my phone’s dead, dawg.’ And jumps back in his car!”
That wouldn’t be the last time the group encountered the West Coast legend. Shortly after that, Bo-Roc invited the group to perform with him at Kush Stock, where the Dove Shack were headlining. When Four Finger Ring showed up, festival security refused to allow them to park in the artist lot. One call to Bo-Roc, and the rapper was yelling at security to let his new homies inside. “Bo-Roc got in his face, and he banged on him, ‘Do you know who I am? I’m fucking Bo-Roc. This is my shit; I’m headlining this motherfucker. Open the fucking gate!’” Moses says.
Before they knew it, the members of Four Finger Ring were backstage, trading blunts with the Dogg Pound. “I never had nobody bang on someone like that; not even my tight homies would do that shit for me,” Nu3tron says from a couch in their recording studio, his tattooed hands and ring-covered knuckles gesturing wildly as he tells the story. “That’s what blew my mind!”
Aside from making friends with West Coast legends, Four Finger Ring have also been able to lean on members of their OC circle who have gone on to bigger things. On Monsters Under the Bed, the track “Lucky” was produced by LD (now known as the longtime DJ for Sublime With Rome). “Fuck Your “#ashtag” was produced by Ariano, and tattooed stoner-rap captain Chucky Chuck signed on to rap a verse on “No Guys No Glory.” The 2018 single “Stay Cool” features vocalist Jared Watson of the Dirty Heads and was produced by Jim Perkins at Roshambo Sound.
The competitive nature of hip-hop and OC music, in general, leads some artists to become haters or refuse to be supportive of one another’s craft. But the ones who wind up being the most successful are those who are the most down to support their fellow local artists. “The people who really wanna work will fly with you and walk into the depths of hells with you,” Zole says. “We don’t wanna necessarily keep OC the way it was when we came up in it, but keep Orange County vibing and positive. When the ‘OC hip-hop scene’ comes up, sometimes there’s a question mark associated with it like, ‘What do you mean “OC hip-hop”?’ But there’s been a scene here for decades.”
As the founding member of the award-winning, OC-based hip-hop crew Speach Impediments (the mayor of Placentia once gave them a key to the city), Zole was the backbone and the sound of the group, which started in 2003. As the group progressed, he blossomed into a touring DJ for national acts and was eventually picked up by revered hip-hop label Rhymesayers. He deejayed around the world, with an average of 200 shows per year, for the likes of Abstract Rude, Atmosphere and Brother Ali. Though that might sound like the apex for any DJ out of Fullerton, Zole (born Kevin Boyd) was quickly losing himself in a spiral of drugs and alcohol, similar to what was happening to C4MULA. Around January 2011, things got even worse with the death of a friend from a drug overdose.
“I was a mess,” Zole recalls. “I stuck around on the tour circuit, sometimes not even showing up to shows and just taking the money, getting on a plane and partying in some other spot. But I was getting ready to dump it all.”
Around that time, he’d accepted a recording-engineer job in South Korea. As he was preparing to pack his bags and leave OC behind, he started getting calls from his longtime friends and current group mates. Zole thanks Gaines and Four Finger Ring for leading him home to OC, his recovery and a reassessment of his career in hip-hop.
“I’m not even close to the dude I was before,” he says. “It was killing my career, and it was killing me. I was in psychiatric clinics, and I couldn’t contain my life. I was a lost cause; I was done, and these guys saved my life. I can’t and chose not to do anything career-wise without these guys. If I cut my skin open, I’ll bleed 4s.”
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As the group prepares for their album to drop, the years they’ve spent starting over are now paying off. Poised to deliver a project that will introduce them to the world is only part of it. Being the hip-hop lifers they are, the combined strength of their convictions allows them to enjoy what they’re doing, regardless of the outcome.
“From the very beginning, when we decided to be a group, Nu3tron and I talked about it, and that was the main thing” Moses says. “We said, ‘Okay, this time, let’s just have fun with it. Fuck all the other shit—just have fun, and all the other shit will come later. Let’s not go in with any preconceived notions of other bullshit that’s going on.’”
It seems to be working. The growth manifested through each song has Four Finger Ring living on the edge of every beat and enjoying every moment. Will it ever be perfect? Probably not, but more important is their fight to keep perfecting themselves. And they all understand they have a better chance of doing that together.
“It’s about taking away the ego part and getting down to the nitty gritty of ‘Is this a good song?’” Nu3tron says. “It depends on how you look at it; if you’re the guy always trying to get your idea off, then it would work against you if you can’t work with people. But I think that’s what makes us beautiful. My goal when we’re writing a new song is to make everybody have their moment.”