The day he read Negashi's e-mail, he'd been busy putting the finishing touches on Supreeme's long-awaited Gold Medallion album: Warner Bros. had finally granted the group permission to release it independently. But with Negashi out and third member Sam "King Self" Terrell already quitting to pursue culinary school, the trio's career had come to an abrupt halt.
So Shaka decided to send his own e-mail to a handful of Supreeme supporters. In it, he would include Supreeme's last testament — not Gold Medallion, but another LP apropriately titled God Bless the Child. He and Negashi had recorded God Bless on a whim, with minimal contribution from Sam, in two short weeks before Negashi's exit.
In Shaka's bedroom studio, the group founder and producer/MC worked into the wee hours mixing the last album. "Fuck it," he thought to himself after downing a bottle of Hennessy and smoking some weed with his roommates, "I want this to be over."
As he mixed the tracks, the raw vocals of his former partners in rhyme were almost haunting. "It was kinda eerie, all night for hours and hours on end, just listening to them screaming raps at me," says Shaka. "It's a crazy experience to mix an album and hear somebody's voice like that — esepcially if you have certain feelings about them."
Though Shaka felt betrayed by his partners, he had nothing but love for what they'd accomplished. In a city where the craft of hip-hop often takes a backseat to the business, the three teenage friends from Grady High had found a way to turn their love into their livelihood — if only for a moment. In the end, the industry experience they gained cost them their innocence, and ultimately, the group. Supreeme's swan song, God Bless the Child, mourns that loss of innocence while celebrating a coming of age.
Burgeoning producer Shaka, and gifted lyrical technician Sam were sophomores at Grady High when they befriended 13-year-old Negashi, the self-proclaimed "middle school freestyle champion" at Inman Middle. Supreeme solidified two years later after they spent spring break in Destin, Fla. "We did all kinda shit in that spring break," says Shaka. On the drive home, they bumped Ghostface's Supreme Clientele. "For some reason on that trip, we all became obsessed with that album. From then on, we were a crew. We were Supreeme. And as soon as school finished, we made that Syllabus I Mixtape album."
One year later, they followed up that ode to their days at Grady High with Church and State. Using the theme of globalization as a metaphor for Supreeme's takeover, they cast themselves as a trio of pseudo-international playboys. Sam, Shaka and Negashi became King Self, Dope Pope aka Tom Cruz, and Negashi Armada, respectively.
While the likes of OutKast and Lil Jon domintated Atlanta rap in 2004, Supreeme created an alternate universe where intelligent discourse and adolescent desires somehow made perfect bedfellows. Contrary to the traditional underground hip-hop ethos, Supreeme was more interested in using precocious wit to mack on your girl than to tackle the ills of the world.
"The whole thing with Supreeme is that we're kind of wide-eyed, like the world is so exciting to us that we're not worried about anything," says Sam. "That's kind of the whole aesthetic of Supreeme — just these kids who don't give a fuck. It's very punk rock."
That brash attitude helped earn them their record deal after challenging L.A. indie rapper Murs to a freestyle battle. Murs turned them down, but was so impressed by their CD that when he got an A&R deal with Warner Bros., Supreeme was the first act he signed to its Record Collection subsidiary in 2005.
Released nationally in 2006, Supremacy earned critical praise, including four out of five stars from OkayPlayer.com and Scratch magazine. Though the poorly marketed release barely moved 4,000 units, estimates Shaka, Supreeme still came out on top: A label exec decided to upgrade the group directly to Warner Bros. In 2007, Supreeme received a $150,000 advance and moved to L.A. to begin recording Gold Medallion. That album, however, would never get a proper release.
After working on Gold Medallion for months in L.A., the project began to languish. Without a steady manager to blame — mainly because few could stomach "dealing with some stubborn-ass teenagers," says Negashi — they began blaming each other.
According to Shaka, Negashi's and Sam's decisions to leave L.A. before finishing the album put Warner Bros. on alert. The label froze his budget thinking he'd lost control of the group. But Negashi says he and Sam were already feeling the financial pinch. "Me and Sam did not come home early, we came home when Warner Bros. stopped giving us checks," he says. "There's no way that I was about to get a job to support some $2,300-a-month rent in L.A. without a Warner Bros. check. Shaka was still getting money because he's the producer; he had to mix the album. So at that point I just flew home to Atlanta to get a job."
The long-term shelving of Gold Medallion had more to do with Warner Bros. being in over its head with an alt-rap act than with Supreeme squadering its major-label opportunity, says Negashi. But he also shoulders part of the blame for allowing himself, and the group, to get too comfortable. "I kind of expected it all to come together once I had a record deal. I thought all I had to do was like show up and rap," he says — a major switch for a group that used to act as its own publicist, or at least pretend to.
With their label status tentative, they went back to what they knew. Between November 2007 and September 2008, they independently released (via free download) two mixtapes — American Badass and Bronze Medallion — and the album Silver Medallion. But the end was already approaching. Within six months, Sam would reveal his exit strategy. Shaka felt so betrayed at the time that he composed a thinly veiled diss aimed at Sam, which kicks off "God Is a Friend," the best song on God Bless. "Some friends are not loyal, who was there for you/when the pot boiled and the snake coiled," Shaka raps.
Despite being hurt by Sam's departure, Shaka wasn't totally blindsighted. Sam had always been the ready soldier — capable of delivering rapid-fire flows, but not necessary willing to live the Supreeme lifestyle.
"Sam was never down with the life of a rap star. We'd go on tour and after the show me and Negashi would be taking girls to the room; Sam's on the bus reading a book," he says. "Me and Negashi always lived the Supreeme lifestyle, and we do to this day. The things that we talk about on songs, those are the immature thoughts that we actually think. Sam, on the other hand, a lot of times those aren't his core values."
Sam heads to the Culinary Institute of America in New York next month, Shaka has been shopping his beats to major labels, and Negashi has already moved to Oakland, Calif., where he plans to begin his solo career. While he chalks Supreeme's downward spiral up to youth and inexperience, he still considers the last six years "a beautiful adventure." He does regret the manner in which he chose to leave the group, though. "Ultimately, I do think that the way I left so abruptly was a bit wrong, not a bit wrong, I'm just going to say it was wrong," he says. "I shouldn't have just dropped it on [Shaka] like that, but really I feel like everybody would be disappointed whenever I left."
Shaka, who initially viewed Negashi and Sam as traitors and blamed their girlfriends for influencing them to leave the group, has since come around, too. "I was emotional about it 'cause it hurt me," he says. "It was just something that was going to happen because we're talking about a long span of time when people are changing from boys to men."
As for Supreeme's future, none of the members rules out the possibility of reuniting in the future. But for now they're content with the catalog they created – even if most of the albums failed to get the proper releases they deserved. In the coming months, they plan to make all of their independent records available online for free.
"I've been listening to Supreeme a lot," says Negashi, "especially because of this whole breakup or whatever. And I do truly believe that over time this may be like a Pixies thing or like a Stooges thing. People are gonna look back and be like, 'Damn, they were really dope.'"