ZACKEY FORCE FUNK
By Chris Ziegler
Photos by Palma Wright, Diana Dalsasso, archival c/o The Hit+Run
He was born to the desert, raised to the drug trade, awakened to a new consciousness in an Arizona Supermax and reborn as Zackey Force Funk.
Zackey Force Funk is the lo-fi sci-fi DIY alibi for a lifelong outlaw. He went out with a line of last big scores the kind of criminal-on-criminal insanity that made Omar from The Wire so popular. He survived the game of jacking dealers to make totally freaked-out, fully committed mutant funk built for lowrider cruises through Burrough’s "Cities of the Red Night".
Zackey’s funk is powerful and dirty stuff, as much Chrome as Prince, as much Can as Zapp, as much Sky Saxon as Rick James. This is kind of music made while confined to house arrest in Tucson after an unexpected last-minute reprieve from charges that, by all rights, should have put the Force Funk away for decades.
The isolation of the ankle bracelet forced Zackey to communicate online with the L.A. instrumental beat scene which was soon to manifest into what is now known, worldwide, as Flying Lotus.
After fifteen years of life on the wrong side of the law Zackey emerged as a singular musical force, voraciously focused and ferociously enthusiastic about every esoteric type of music he could grab.
This new found love of freaky things led Zackey to a Tucson strip club where he collaborated with kindred spirit Tobacco (of Black Moth Super Rainbow) for the creeped-out “Demon Queen" project in 2013.
In 2014, Zackey would go on to drop a knockout set of albums for L.A.’s Hit + Run label: Money Green Viper, Chrome Steel Tiger, and the early-days comp “Electron Don”. "Electro Don" is a trilogy that tracks Zackey from his bugged-out first years to his up-to-the-second modern funk collaborations with notablesin the underground scene such as “Egyptian Lover”, “XL Middleton, ” and “Superior Elevation’s” Tom Noble.
Now Zackey spends his days—well, his nights, really—building rocket ships and thinking about all the different forms a future can take.
ZFF: I was born in Tucson then moved out to Portland, Maine—St. Joseph’s, right there on Wilmot. We moved back east for a couple years with my mom and dad, then they split up and my mom brought us back solo. We stayed right there on 29th and Craycroft—I was there for forty years! My dad was back east and we were living with my mom. As a young child with my brother on 29th street in Tucson … it was a bad scene, I guess, but we didn’t fucking know. One of my earliest memories I tell people is going to this ranch in Sahuarita south of Tucson and building forts and playing cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers with bales of hay. And I always noticed sometimes the bales of hays at my uncle’s ranch were different … and not until I get older that these bales of hay aren’t bales of hay, they’re bales of marijuana. Hundreds if not tons of marijuana pounds. Since I was a young age, I’ve been around this. It’s kind of built into the family—family and friends have just been that way forever. And not only that … in high school, I remember this dude at Santa Rita high school. Fat disgusting fucking Mexican dude, could never pull a bitch in his life. But because his dad was a Mafioso, this dude had a $70,000 Ford Bronco with gold undercarriage shit and he always had like fucking the finest bitches because he had money and coke. So I was like … dude, dude, no. I gotta go. Because of my family, it was a natural path.
ANIMALS: Tucson is a distribution hub, isn’t it? The first stop after Mexico.
It is. Because of that we really don’t sell dime bags and shit. It’s like you need to send out a hundred pounds to New York, or half a ton to Cleveland. That’s how it is. And these are kids doing this! Their dads are Mafiosos in Nogales, and there’ll be 17 18 year old kids doing this. It's different how it is in other places. I’m sure El Paso, Juarez and shit—but it ain’t how it is in other big cities. Like on the ranch like I said—there are ranches where you wouldn’t know if there’s two tons in their barn. It’s not like they’re out on the corner slinging. And plus my family … my dad was back east, the Jewish side of the family … it was meeting people back east and understanding that it was twice as much to get a pound of weed in New York or Portland, Maine, than it was in Tucson. So you just put two and two together and next thing you know, you’re making thousands of dollars a week.
When was the first time you got busted?
I got caught so many times. Stupid shit. The first time I really got in big trouble as an adult, I was 17 and I was … this is when I was crazy! I was smoking mad crack, getting mad hookers and I had a bunch of crack houses and I was slinging keys, not really sending so much weed back east. I got busted—this is why I always tell people I don’t drive. Cars are like death traps! I was driving and cops pulled me over and I was all fucked up and they searched my car and fucking found like a ounce of crack under my seat all broken up—I was in a brand-new $40,000 Camaro—the cops hated me! I was only 17 so they fucking waited til I turned 18 cuz I was so close. They kept it til I was 18 then they street-charged me but there was six months in between, and as soon as I turned 18 I was already sending mad weed back and my homie got busted over in fucking Ohio and snitched me out and I got caught, so I got two charges hitting me at once when I turned 18. The cocaine charge I got when I was 17 plus the new weed charge—this Ohio connection type thing that they were watching us. Two major charges. So at 18 years old they gave me four years in prison.
Did you think you’d got away with it?
Yeah! I was like, ‘Even if they do wait til I’m 18 and charge me, it’s still gonna be a first-time offense as an adult and they’re just gonna give me probation.’ Plus I really was really really bad. I was doing tons of drugs back then. I was bad, bro. I wasn’t even on fucking planet Earth. They sent me to Winslow and did a bunch of time up there. I didn’t even have a normal prison time. That’s why I’m writing this book. My prison time was fucking crazy. My first two weeks there, I got my ass whupped by some dudes from Casa Grande. I was like, ‘Dude, fuck this!’ They jumped me during a fucking dominos game and I’m fucking 18, never been to prison before, like dude … freaked me out. What the fuck am I gonna do? So a bunch of the homies from Tucson came and kinda showed me what was going on. Then this big-ass white dude I knew who actually fucking knew my dad—older white boy who’d done a ton of time in prison and was an old timer in prison … he was a white guy, though.
I was chilling with the Mexican dudes cuz of my mom and shit. He came to me … he told me he had what they call a C-Clearance. They would let him leave the prison to go build the medium prison next door. They let certain guys work as construction workers. He was like, ‘There’s this milemarker … if you have any people or girlfriends or anyone, if you get these drugs underneath this rock by this milemarker, I can get this shit in.’ So I was like … I gotta do something. There was these girls who were like … all these fucking chicks who were mad in love in me who would drive all the way up to Winslow from Tucson and bring me whatever I needed. Heroin, coke, weed … and this dude would bring it in for me and divide it halfway. When you bring that shit in, the first thing you have to do is kick down whoever is running the yard, out of respect. So right away—this is within like three weeks, cuz I’m like, ‘I gotta do something or I’m not gonna make it here.’ Cuz I was half-white, have a white dude’s last name, trying to fucking kick it with the Mexicans but most of my friends on the street were black … it wasn’t working out for me, dude. So I started getting mad drugs in prison and kicking down the main Mafioso dudes, and because it was helping them out they protected me. They didn’t want nothing to happen to me. Didn’t want me to get in trouble, didn’t want me to get fucked with—now they’re getting money and drugs from me and they have this new plug from this kid who just shows up in prison.
Next thing I know, I got cliqued up with Tucson and they put the patch on my back, and next thing I know I’m kicking it with the dudes who run all of prison, you know what I’m saying? Then some dude got beat up and snitched out some Mafioso dude so they started reading my letters going out. When you sell drugs in prison, you have to do street to street.
Let’s say if I sell you $300 worth of coke or heroin right now, you don’t have $300 in prison. So your sister or your mom or your girlfriend sends my mom or sister or girlfriend the $300. They call them ‘street to streets.’ But obviously you have to coordinate through letters and telephones, so they started watching and receiving all my letters, listening to my fucking phone calls … and they came and swooped me up. Got me with all the main dudes from La Eme and La Tucson and they’re like, ‘Dude, we’re gonna street-charge you—we’re gonna give you more time cuz we have this whole conspiracy charge that you’re bringing contraband into the Arizona Department of Corrections, blah-blah-blah-blah.’
So I thought I was fucking done! ‘They’re gonna give me five more years.’ That’s what they were threatening me. So I guess they have 60 days from the time they put you in the isolation to come street charge you, and nothing never happened! The dude never testified. So on the 59th day … I’ll never forget it! The warden came down to the isolation and was like, ‘Listen, we’re not gonna street charge you, but we’re sending you to SMU Florence.’ Strategic Management Unit—24 hour lockdown. Where they only send like mafiosos and shit. She was trying to threaten me: ‘You’re gonna get fucked in your ass, you don’t even know what you’re going into!’ Trying to scare me. So they send me to fucking Florence—the Supermax. I’m like … how is this even fucking happening to me? I’m 19 and already … like my mom and them are the nicest people in the world! How is this even happening in my life? I didn’t even have a normal prison sentence. It was nuts.
How long were you in Supermax?
A year. The only way you can get out is if you one: kill your number, and they have to kick you out. Two: work your way down, don’t get any write-ups in there and then work down to a medium prison. They won’t give you parole. No one gets paroled from SMU cuz you become an animal. So I got real spiritual. Shit got crazy for me in there cuz I just started questioning a lot of things about myself. And just reality! Dude, you don’t see sunlight! It’s almost meditating—going out-of-body type shit. I was starting to get crazy. I tried to put some practices of this spiritual stuff I was learning into it.
I just got real spiritual. I don’t talk about it too much. I just started practicing shit. It started in prison—in the SMU. They gave me a Bible when they put me in there. The only thing they give you for two weeks is a sheet, a mattress—they don’t even give you a sheet, I’m sorry. They give you a mattress, a pillow, your boxers—you’re basically naked—and a Bible. By law. So I’m sitting in this cell for two weeks like, ‘This place is crazy!’ These dudes will get piss and shit and throw them at the COs, and the COs will be like, ‘OK, we’re not gonna clean that up—if you wanna live in piss and shit, we’re not gonna clean it up. Enjoy your life.’ So I had nothing else to do but start reading the Bible. But in the Bibles they give you, in the New Testament, the words Jesus said were in red, and everything else was in black. I’d already read the Bible a few times over and I just didn’t get it. It was too fucked up for me—too contradicting, too weird. So I was like, ‘I’m just gonna read what Jesus said.’ So I start reading this shit like … he kept talking about faith and moving mountains with a mustard seed. Weird shit. That’s when it started. I was like, ‘I got nothing to lose.’ So I fucking practiced this shit. To me, I was still thinking like praying to some dude in the clouds, like a god in the clouds, Jesus with the beard … at that point I was still thinking that way, but I was like, ‘Lemme just fake myself my out and believe this is really gonna happen.’ I’ll never forget it—I went to parole and I freaked myself out, I told myself I’m getting out and I would not believe otherwise. I remember, I was the last person to go on parole and there were 30 people in front of me, and the dude in front of me even spit on the people on the parole board, so everyone’s like, ‘You’re not getting it, bro—just get it out of your head.’ ‘I’m getting it. They’re letting me out, homie. They are. I swear to God.’ I walked in and told them this whole situation like I’m kinda telling you and … there was only two people in 1996 that got paroled out of thousands and thousands of people and I was one of them. They paroled me. I got out when I was 21. I turned 21 in Supermax.
Then you opened your record store.
Exactly. I remember watching Rap City and shit in prison. This is when people were starting to rock Tommy Hilfiger, Karl Kani, all these street clothes were coming out. I was like, ‘I’m gonna fucking open up a shop and sell hip-hop clothes and shit like that.’ Before I went to prison, they didn’t have shit like that in Tucson. I got out and I drove out here to L.A. to Santee Alley and the Fashion District and bought a bunch of stuff and brought it back to Tucson and just doubled up on everything and started selling everything and asking kids what they wanted! They were like, ‘Yo, can you get breakdance tapes? Get this such-and-such?’ And I would just get it to them. So next thing you know, it morphed into this hip-hop shop where I was selling records, turntables, breakdancing tapes, graffiti magazines … we were doing open mics, breakdancing contests. Whatever I could do for the kids. Next thing I know, I’m not only in the hip-hop scene but actually creating one in this city for a lot of people—it’s now thriving cuz of that, I pretty much think. Cuz it wasn’t there before I fucking went in, you know? And sat the same time … it was just a great way to get back into drugs! The Mexican guachos were like, ‘If we give him ten keys of coke, where’s he gonna run to? We know where the store is.’ So it was instant street cred and all the guachos fell in love with me and it was just an easy way to rinse money, too. I got back into a life of crime unfortunately. Because I had a kid! The store was doing great—they say if the store can pay for itself, it’s a great business. And the store did pay for itself, so it was a great business. But it wasn’t putting a lot of money in my pocket. And at the same time, I’m having kids now—I’m like, ‘Man, I gotta do something. I need serious money.’ So I got back into crime.
Then you got caught again—part of a big multistate drug operation, right? Or were you really robbing banks with a baseball bat like your bio says?
That’s so stupid! My homie’s buddy, he robbed a bank but he didn’t do it with a baseball bat. This motherfucker robbed a bank and went around the corner—he lived right next door the fucking bank!—and took a shower, and to this day I got pictures of the front page of the paper with him cuz he was in his shower bath towel when they went and kicked down his door and got him. I’ll never forget—stupid ass! And lived right next door, and went next door and took a shower like nothing was happening. He just walked into his house. And they kicked down his door and grabbed him, and he got ten years. When I got busted the last time it was major, major, major shit. U.S. Customs came in—federal shit. The feds dropped the charges and the state picked up the charges like, ‘Listen, man, you’ve already got all these fucking felonies…’
I kept getting different lawyers to come in and interview while I was locked up in jail and every lawyer I got was like, ‘Look, kid—here’s the fucking statute, blah-blah-blah. We cannot get you less than ten years. We could probably plead down to 8 to 10 and that’s pushing it.’ I’m thinking to myself … what the fuck am I gonna do? I told my mom, take all that money I had and put it in my son’s bank account so I can at least say I got my kids to college while I’m locked up so I don’t feel like a piece of shit. But my mom took that money without me knowing and got Walter Nash, who’s super famous in Arizona—he’s the fucking Johnny Cochrane of drug mafiosos in Mexico and Arizona. So my mom gets this guy and dude—everything fucking changed. I’ve never seen so much power in my life. It was fucking weird, bro.
They pulled me out of jail at six o’ clock at night and drove me to Pima County Superior Court, and I meet this fucking lawyer I’d never met before. He puts me in this elevator and I’m going up with this other old guy who’s in a tank top and board shorts. Me, my lawyer and this old guy. We go upstairs to the top floor and this guy’s putting on a judge robe! And they’re sitting there talking about going to have a drink at some fucking speed raceway so they can drive each other’s drag cars. Turns out it’s my lawyer and the judge sitting here in this elevator with me. So then he puts me with this lady sitting in this tiny-ass room, like a recorder maybe who can record all the words we’re saying, and they basically do some fucking legal bullshit and they let me out of jail that night. And I was already on a probation hold—a parole hold—from when they let me out of prison, so I couldn’t even bail out. And I was out within fucking minutes. I never seen no power like that in my life. So I get out and I’m like … fuck it. I’m thinking, while I’m fighting the charge, that I’ll get ten or twelve years. I didn’t know what’s gonna happen while we’re trying to fight the charge. So I know these motherfuckers can’t get me in prison. In prison, I got fucking … you know, clout. They can’t touch me in prison. But on the streets they can get me. So I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m just gonna rob everyone I know, and if they try to fuck with me, I will be in prison and they can’t touch me.’
So the plan is go after all the local dealers, get the money for your kid and then go back to prison before anything can happen.
Yup—that’s it. I sold my store to Murs, the famous rapper Murs, and I just started robbing everybody. My cousin was doing that. That’s what got me into it. He had a couple dudes that were all cracked out, but they had a bunch of SWAT uniforms from the Tucson Police Department. So they’d dress up as cops and kick down drug dealer’s doors, and then tie ‘em up and take everything. So we started doing that to everybody, and I got a bunch of money and bought a fucking condo for my lady before I got locked up—cuz we were on section 8 and shit! When I was slanging all this shit just getting away and they took that shit from her, I was like, ‘Dude, how’s she even gonna live if I’m locked up? I need to buy this girl a house.’ So I bought her a condo.
But then Nash gets you off—you just get house arrest instead of prison time. Didn't that mean you suddenly had a lot of people ready and able to come after you?
They killed my best friend—Danny Carpio killed my best friend Alan Altamirano. You can look this all up. It’s all news. Kind of for those reason, and then they came to my house—the people who witnessed the murder came to my house cuz they were from New York City and they didn’t know anyone. See, when I got busted last time, I gave up all my customers to my best friend Alan Altamirano, cuz I couldn’t sell any more. That’s what you do. So this dude’s out here from New York buying tons of weed from my best friend, and he sees my best friend get killed, and he doesn’t know anyone—he gets away and he doesn’t know anyone in Tucson, so he comes to my fucking house and tells me what happened. I’m already out the game, but I’m like … dude, he’s like my brother. So I called the cops. I went over to the cops and told them—I told them the truth. So for years, I was one—worried about people coming to get me back that I robbed, and two—this dude Carpio’s family, they’re famous for like killing people. He killed my best friend! They’ll go kill you, bro. It’s no bullshit. So I went and tried to testify on him, and I thought they were gonna come kill me. This is at the same time—thank God—my girlfriend, my baby’s mom, left me. She fucking leaves me and goes up to Scottsdale and takes my kids and that’s a good thing cuz I thought they were gonna come after me. So long story short—I didn’t know this, but he robbed some more people and got eight years for home invasion, and then they recharged him for my good friend’s murder and he ended up accepting the plea. Thank God. Cuz I really was about to go testify. This was recently. So my best friend gets killed in the mid-2000s and that’s when I’m thinking all these people are gonna come get me. So they put the new charges on Carpio literally 2010 or 2011—maybe five years ago—so even up to that day I was worried about these people coming to kill me. But he accepted the plea and I think he got an extra ten or twelve years for manslaughter instead of murder. So I do … up until recently, I did think about it and worry about it. But my kids weren’t in Tucson anymore and I was like, ‘Fuck it, if they get me, they get me.’ I don’t fear death, you know what I’m saying? And it’s even cooler out here in L.A. now. I live kind of in the black community, I can see these motherfuckers coming a mile away with their boots on and shit!
So after all this you finally start making music.
In a way, it’s really helped out being older … if I started in my mid-20s, let’s say I blew up or got a little bit of fame … then I’d get into my mid-40s which I’m about to go into and they’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this dude’s an old-ass man!’ But cuz I came in my mid-30s to 40s, I’m starting to hit my middle age here—but that’s all they’ve ever seen of me. That’s what they know—this older fucking guy. They already expect me to look old, you know what I’m saying?
But it’s definitely different than everyone I meet in the music scene out here in L.A. It seems like they’re all younger kids, a lot of ‘em … I’m not gonna talk shit cuz I wish I was like them, but if you’re good at a young age playing a piano, it’s probably cuz you stayed inside the fucking house and learned how to play the piano throughout your childhood. You were not robbing drug dealers and doing crazy shit with strippers like me. It’s very different. They’re not used to seeing an old man who’s been to prison, build rockets, work hard outside of music … I think they’re intrigued by that. I really wasn’t trying to be a musician—this was therapy to me. My brother really got me into music. He’s a year younger. I had the record store and we created some kind of scene, but him and his friend Tony Nicoletta were doing bands and shit together—they were this small contingency of artists that were really progressive.
We knew about style and biting, we knew if you tried to take something from someone else they would talk shit to you. ‘Dude, you bit that.’ In a friendly way. Then we kinda wanted to one-up each other, and cuz we knew about style and not trying to bite each other it grew into this thing. And now everyone just split off. It’s successful, I guess, because of that. And this was all in Tucson. To me, when I think of funk, I think of Sunday night when I was young child—cruising either Reid Park or when I became a teen, we’d cruise down south 6th. That’s what we’d do on Friday or Saturday nights to get pussy. Back then, in the Reid Park days, it was lowriders bumping Zapp & Roger. The lowrider with that music to me being that age, it just blew me away to this day—it’s a huge part of my whole psyche. My blood. When I got older, I wanted to do weird shit and have my own weird takes and I wanted these cholos in these lowriders to bump my music but not in the traditional Zapp way. On some weirdo shit. And that’s how I feel I succeeded cuz now they do!
Arizona is weird. I used to go to punk shows where you’d have to get waved on to a dirt road by a dude with a pistol in his belt.
That is the epitome of Southern Arizona music. We’d be out there by Old Tucson—same shit. You’d go out and there’d be a dude with a pistol at his waist standing in the middle of nowhere, like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ And he’d have to wave you in, and you’d drive like two miles into the desert. But it’s cool cuz you know damn well it’s not getting busted, so these parties go on for … literally I’ve seen ‘em go on for days.
I’ve done shit in Nogales on the other side where it was straight Buenos Aires area where it’s just hardcore gang people. Same shit: drove me to the middle of nowhere. I thought I was gonna die or some shit! But I get out there and they had this huge system out in the middle of nowhere with mariachis playing and banda and I got on and did some weird shit and they’re like … what the fuck is this? Everyone’s going to Joshua Tree shit now. I don’t know if Joshua Tree is like that. I have no idea.
At that show, I rolled up and my homies were in the car behind me so these dudes didn’t know who I was when I pulled up, and dude—they were gonna rob me. They were gonna take my car. And then my boy had to come out and stop them. It was crazy. I don’t fuck with Nogales no more. Those clubs are crazy. You’d go down there and see mafiosos walking around the club with swords! Swords in their belt!
Did that kind of thing make L.A. seem tame to you?
The gangs out here stay in their own areas and don’t fuck with you if you don’t fuck with them. Whereas where I come from—29th and Craycroft—it’s fucking wild wild west. Everybody’s for everybody. I been here two years now and never heard one gunshot. In Tucson that’s every other night! The last week after I left a dude got killed on my fucking front porch. I was judging a beat battle at Club Congress and I came home and they had my whole house fucking surrounded and they wouldn’t let me come in. I was like, ‘What’s going on?’
They let me know what happened cuz they were mad—they were asking me about my cat cuz my cat kept playing with the shell casings that they had circled. ‘Get this fucking cat out of here!’ Luckily they knew me in the hood and shit, but I was even nervous. I wouldn’t wanna walk down the street—without getting fucked with, or at least asked by a prostitute if she wanna suck my dick. I do not encounter ANY of that shit out here, and when I do, I just know how to handle it.
You wrote your Demon Queen album with Tobacco at a strip club, didn’t you?
My homie’s strip club—that’s been around the corner from my house where I grew up since I was born. Since before I was born! Throughout time, the dude who managed it is a good close friend of mine. The home who DJs is a close fucking friend of mine. Half the girls that go in and out of there I know from the hood. It’s like a neighborhood thing. It’s like my second home! It’s not even considered a strip club. It’s where I go and like kick it. I spent a lot of time thinking there, writing shit … Demon Queen had a lot to do with that kind of thing.
Wasn’t it hard to concentrate?
People trip out cuz strip clubs out here are a little bit different. Tucson strip clubs are different. You really don’t sit down and get like … you feel almost like a pervert if you pay for a dance while you’re sitting down. It’s almost like a club. You just stand up, walk around, and if a girl wants to rap to you, you mack to her—it’s a way different fucking vibe. Not like out here where you have to pay $20-$30 bucks to get in the door, if you want a girl you have to go in the back and pay $20-$30 and you can’t even touch ‘em—some weird fucking shit going on out here in L.A., man!
Why is music therapy for you? Because it’s something you can completely control?
I just feel like I need to get shit out of me all the time. It’s an easier thing for me that people seem to enjoy more than graffiti. I really wanna start painting bad, but it sucks cuz spray-paint is super expensive now and the shit’s probably gonna get buffed over so minimal people will see it. I could take a flick on it and put it online and that’s basically where it’s gonna exist. It’s a hard meeting for me. But one I really wanna do again.
That was therapy to me and it could still be therapeutic but I just get these creativity things I need to get out, and it’s easiest for me to do it with music right now. I hardly ever make beats anymore. Now I hang out and party with the best modern funk musicians on planet Earth. Now I just have musicians! I have even people singing for me. Now I’m writing songs that I can’t hit the notes cuz I can’t sing. But I’m meeting people out here like Monique who can sing their asses off—I go to them like, ‘Sing these words in this rhythm and this melody’ and they’d done it and it came out fucking tight, dude! Now I wanna be like … start writing and producing with me not even in the song. I’ll just write the song and have these other people sing for me over these producers, and I think I can make some really really hot tracks.
How do you actually write? Were you at that strip club with pen and paper?
Everything’s pen and paper. Usually on the back of a bill or check stub. I’m sitting on the train and the words pop into my head or a rhythm or a melody, and I’ll start writing on whatever I have in my pocket. I wanna actually put an art book together of every song I’ve ever written. People would be like, ‘Dude, is that your fucking bank statement?’