David Weldon grew up in South Central Los Angeles. As he was coming of age as a hip-hop producer in the early '90s, he got caught up in a feud between the two biggest West Coast rap names of the time: Eazy-E and Dr. Dre. The pair had great success together with N.W.A, bringing gangsta rap to the masses, but Dre left the group over a financial dispute and allied with former bodyguard Suge Knight, as part of the upstart label Death Row Records.
Weldon, who goes by Rhythm D, was initially aligned with Death Row, and left not long before the release of Dre's legendary 1992 album The Chronic, complete with its eviscerating Eazy-E disses on "? Wit Dre Day." "You ? with me, now it's a must that I ? with you."
Weldon instead joined the camp of Eazy's Ruthless Records, stepping into Dre's role as the label's in-house producer. Weldon's most memorable production to come out of this era, Eazy's "Real Compton City G's," was a response to "? Wit Dre Day," and was equally raw: "Watch the sniper, time to pay the piper," Eazy rapped, as well as mocking Dre for the feminine outfits he'd worn in his previous group, World Class Wreckin' Cru.
Weldon went to great lengths to convince Eazy that the G-funk sound on "Real Compton City G's" set the appropriate tone. That the song was a hit — and helped Eazy get the last word in the famous battle — owed much to its sinister beat. Rhythm D's star was in orbit. But his newfound notoriety came at a cost: Those involved with the Ruthless/Death Row dispute had reason to be scared for their lives, and Weldon was watched over by a bodyguard named Big Animal. "I couldn't go nowhere," Weldon says. "It was a real beef."
Indeed, such beef would take the lives of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, and by the early 2000s Weldon had had enough. The Southern rap sound was ascendant, and he began making frequent trips to Atlanta. "Our music was caught up in gangsta rap instead of making people dance and have a good time," Weldon says. "The business was flourishing out here more than anywhere else. Instead of being mad at the South I came down here."
Working with rapper Bonecrusher and shown the city's ropes by V103's DJ Nabs, he became increasingly enchanted with Atlanta. "People here are a little more warm, with the Southern hospitality," he says.
Following the death of his sister from cancer, he quietly moved down here permanently in 2010, and now resides near where Atlanta meets Cobb County, off of Marietta Street. Not a lot of Atlantans realize they have a '90s production legend in their midst; Weldon also crafted the classic Paperboy track "Ditty," and helped Bone Thugs-n-Harmony define their sound on their first album. But Weldon seeks to make a big splash this year. His entertainment company is launching a pair of artists, and he thinks the Atlantans, from audiences at the strip clubs to the local colleges, will enjoy what he's trying to do. "Their minds are a little more open to a different sound."
Weldon is tall, fit, and resembles Key & Peele actor Keegan-Michael Key. He discussed his plans recently at his studio, which is adorned with gold records for artists he's worked with such as Snoop Dogg and Mack 10. For his new company, which launched last year, he has partnered up with an industrial marijuana grower named Ben Shlesinger, who splits his time between Atlanta and his fields in Oroville, California, an hour north of Sacramento. As marijuana's legalization slowly spreads throughout the country, the misty countryside of Northern California has emerged as a primary supplier to smokers everywhere. Using Weldon's production royalties, the pair have formed Red Ram Entertainment. Aiming to be more than a record company, they envision a music distribution service along the lines of TuneCore, which places artists' music with digital stores such as iTunes.
That operation hasn't yet gotten off the ground, but in the meantime Red Ram is promoting artists including Shlesinger himself, who raps under the name Ben Familiar. His new album, Cannabusiness, has a medicinal flavor as well. Single "That Loud" name drops a dispensary's worth of marijuana strains, and its video was filmed on Shlesinger's farm, in front of plants taller than he is. Another single, "All Work No Play," has a glossy feel, a clean, hypnotic beat from Weldon, and a video filmed in Miami. Shlesinger is most compelling when he's musing on his real life as a grower, however, which he also does on a reality show called "Kush Rush," for which Red Ram is seeking distribution. The program documents the glories and the setbacks of the business through the eyes of Shlesinger and his girlfriend.
Though marijuana is becoming mainstream, there's still an outlaw feel to its cultivation, and it all fits well into hip-hop, a genre where seemingly every rapper brags about dealing — or at least smoking — a ton of weed. "People don't know what you go through to make those harvests happen," he says. "Even though it's a peaceful flower, the business behind it is very serious."
Weldon met the company's other artist, Billie Jeanz, while working with Bonecrusher. She was signed to his Vainglorious label, and has done acting and modeling as well. An Atlanta native born Priscila Tejeda who lives now near Atlantic Station, she has a sharp-edged new track, "How2Ack." In the video she wears a bandana across her mouth and, at the end, douses the object of her scorn in gasoline and sets him on fire. It's an extremely compelling piece of hard R&B, a sound she and Weldon are positioning as a subgenre called "ratchet pop." "It's pop with a little hood flavor in it," she explains, adding that she and Weldon compare it to Katy Perry's recent hit "Dark Horse," which has a trap music-style breakdown.
She adds that Weldon is a dream to work with. "He's so creative. We get work done so fast, but it's quality. He just vibes, and I end up writing to the track as he's actually doing the beat."
As for Weldon, he's anticipating both the upcoming N.W.A biopic, Straight Outta Compton, and the 20th anniversary of the death of Eazy-E, who passed away in March, 1995 from complications due to AIDS. It's a chance to reintroduce himself to the masses. He says now that "Real Compton City G's" reflected Eazy's sadness about losing Dr. Dre more than anything. "He played The Chronic all the time," Weldon says. "He was mad but he still thought it was dope." Eazy's relationship with Knight was another story. "He wanted to ? Suge, to be honest with you," Weldon says.
But beyond G-funk, Weldon is also focused on "what's popping in the clubs," and is working on a compilation of EDM music from artists that aren't normally associated with the genre, including Ying Yang Twins, Houston O.G. rapper Scarface, and Musiq Soulchild.
Even if Weldon's work remains, for many, the soundtrack to the combustible gangsta rap era, Weldon is focused on staying current and relevant. After all, such instincts are what brought him to Atlanta in the first place.