A group of women on their lunch break do a double take. "Is that Guerilla Black?" one of the twentysomethings asks her friends as they settle into their seats at a Miracle Mile restaurant two days before Christmas. "I like him," she continues. "He sounds just like Biggie Smalls."
It seems as though the Compton-raised rapper, who in 2004 released his impressive debut album, "Guerilla City," cannot go anywhere without escaping comparisons to the late rapper Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls.
Amiable and pleasant in person, Guerilla Black, whose appearance and voice are strikingly similar to B.I.G.'s, happily signs autographs and poses for photos with fans at the restaurant.
But not everyone shares in the affinity for Black. In a three-star (out of five) album review in the October 2004 issue of Vibe magazine, for example, writer Toshitaka Kondo made it clear that Biggie was a far superior rapper. "His baritone voice and hyperactive delivery recall the Notorious B.I.G.'s," Kondo wrote of Guerilla Black. "But unlike Biggie, his lyrics are mostly drenched with cliches and predictable rhyme schemes."
Yet Carlos Broady, who produced Notorious B.I.G. and Nas, among others, disagrees. "He's a good MC," says Broady, who produced three "Guerilla City" songs, including the single. "There's a million cats out there sounding and looking like Tupac and nobody says anything about them. The media doesn't have anything better to do."
As he eats a late shrimp-and-pasta lunch, Guerilla Black seems to appreciate any media coverage he garners. "Less than a year ago, there wasn't even a thought about who I am," says the rapper, born Charles Williamson. "They were writing about the rest of the artists that were out at the time. They were getting light and I wasn't getting none.
"I always knew that with me looking and sounding the way that I [do], I've got to work harder than the rest of the artists. Biggie is one of the greatest. I'm Guerilla Black. If I can get to three-fourths of where he was at, I'd have this locked."
To this end, Guerilla Black performed 85 shows in 2004, including multiple stops in Washington, D.C.; Dallas; Salt Lake City and Miami, as well as Puerto Rico, in hopes of getting fans to acknowledge his own sizable skill and look past any similarities to B.I.G. "Guerilla City" has sold nearly 200,000 copies since its September release, a solid but not spectacular figure, and Black's current single, "You're the One," is among the Top 25 songs on Los Angeles radio station KBBT-FM (100.3 the Beat).
"I think the new kids like him and his songs are banging," says producer Fredwreck Nassar, who has worked with Snoop Dogg and Westside Connection and who produced one "Guerilla City" song. "You play it in the club and people are dancing to it, and that's what counts."
Before the comparisons to B.I.G. started dominating his music career, Guerilla Black faced a variety of other obstacles. Born in Chicago and reared in Mississippi and Compton, Black was working as a security guard at Target, dreaming of making it as a rapper.
Black fell in love and in 1999 married Charleen Stewart. They moved to Gardena, and soon after they married the couple was watching a soap opera in which a woman got sick and her man stood by her side. "My wife asked me, 'If I ever got sick, would you just stay there for me and be down for me?' " Black says. "I was like, 'Yeah. Why would you ask me something like that?' It was second nature."
Less than two years later, Stewart died of complications from spinal meningitis. Depressed and unmotivated after spending nearly all day, every day at UCLA-Harbor Medical Center as his wife was dying, Black quit rapping.
After encouragement and nagging from his brother, Black reluctantly returned in 2002 to the recording studio.
"I just had to keep living," he says. "If not, I would have just been stuck in a shell, man. I had to pick up the pieces and keep pushing forward.
"That's been one of my biggest things, just trying to push forward."
One day, Black recorded three songs in less than an hour. When he stepped out of the vocal booth, he was startled. "The day that I recorded the songs, at first, there were like 10 people there," he says. "When I finished ... there were 30 people there."
Black's vocal similarity to the Notorious B.I.G. stunned his brother's friends, some of whom had music industry connections. Soon thereafter, representatives from Def Jam, Atlantic and Interscope Records started courting Black. He signed with Virgin Records.
With the South and Midwest ruling rap in the new century with their energetic beats and lively deliveries, Black made a conscious decision to make an album that didn't sound decidedly funk-inspired and laid-back, two trademarks of the West Coast sound.
"That's why I put my album together the way that I did," Black says. "I saw that I was going to need universal music to get other regions, other people supporting me and what I'm doing."
So he worked on "Guerilla City" with such producers as Broady, Mario Winans (Destiny's Child, Mary J. Blige), Jazze Pha (Nelly, Ciara) and Rodney Jerkins (Destiny's Child, Brandy) and delivered an album that represents a new type of West Coast rap artist, one who willingly incorporates a more pop-minded approach into his work.
Hoping to build on his success, Black has plenty on his schedule for 2005. He has songs in the can that are slated to appear on albums from Jamie Foxx and Tyrese. He will be launching his Dollar Figga record company and he is also executive producing the music for an untitled video game for Ubisoft that will feature a character with his likeness. It is due in May.
Despite his detractors, Guerilla Black views 2004 as a breakthrough year.
"I'm just so thankful that God has blessed me so much this year," he says. "Every day this year has been Christmas.... I'm just going to continue to keep working."
Soren Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.