Record producer Mikal Kamil recalls the first time he saw gangsta rapper Napoleon. Standing in a North Hollywood recording studio, the protege of the late Tupac Shakur held a Colt 45 malt liquor in one hand, a marijuana joint in the other, and was surrounded by about 15 members of his rowdy posse.
During the introduction, Kamil was surprised to discover that Napoleon's given name, Mutah Wasin Shabazz Beale, was of Islamic origin.
"You a Muslim?" Kamil asked. The religion forbids drinking and smoking.
"Yeah," said Beale, encircled in a thick haze of marijuana smoke.
Two years later, Beale is one of the more unlikely Muslims making the annual hajj, or pilgrimage, this month to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. An estimated 2 million Muslims, including hundreds from Southern California, are expected to participate in the five-day observance that begins today in the birthplace of Muhammad, the preeminent prophet of Islam.
Hajj, one of the basic tenets of Islam, is a journey that Muslims are expected to make at least once in their lives, health and finances permitting. Hajj package trips, which cost between $3,500 and $6,000, are tightly controlled and coordinated by travel agencies that work with the Saudi Arabian government.
During the observance, Muslims perform a series of rituals connected to the sacrifices made by Abraham, whom the faithful regard as a prophet and father of their faith.
"[Before] I didn't care about living or dying," said the 25-year-old hip-hop artist, who lives with his fiancee and 3-year-old son in Santa Clarita. "Now I recognize how beautiful life is. I love to have another day to pray to Allah."
That night in the recording studio, Kamil said he silently vowed to get Beale to embrace his faith seriously.
"He was a beast, a barbarian," Kamil said. "But he also impressed me as a leader who could get people to move in any direction -- he had 15 or 20 people doing exactly what he said at all times. If he became a true Muslim, he could easily bring in thousands and millions more to the faith."
Beale was known as a member of one of the industry's more notorious rap groups. An heir to Shakur's violent legacy, Beale drank hard and fought hard, finishing a fifth of Hennessy cognac every two days and carrying a gun. He made national news in 2001 when his group, the Outlawz, was kicked out of a rehearsal for MTV's 20th anniversary special after he grabbed the microphone from Sean "Puffy" Combs, starting a shoving match.
And he wrote lyrics such as: "Now why this [expletive] wanna test me out? It's this thang I'ma protect myself and blow his brains out."
Beale, who grew up in New Jersey, shared East Coast roots with Shakur. When he was 3, his Muslim parents were gunned down in front of him and his two brothers, Beale said. He was raised by his Christian grandmother, but he "never felt at home in church."
He did feel at home in the streets -- stealing, fighting and dealing drugs.
In 1993, Tupac organized a group that later would become the Outlawz. Its members -- including Hussein, Kadafi, Kastro, and Komani -- were named after enemies of the United States. Beale said Shakur dubbed him Napoleon because of his height (5 feet, 6 inches) and "I was so evil."
Though he worked in an industry where many of its superstars have been murdered, including Shakur in 1996, he said the deaths had little impact on him.
"All my life I've seen death," Beale said. "I knew death was a part of life. I took death easily, you know what I'm saying?"
Kamil went to work on Beale's faith. He reminded Beale of his Muslim roots, gave him advice based on Islamic teachings, and fed him bits of scripture and prayers. Kamil said he was careful not to push. Instead, he tried to be an example of the serenity that Beale could have if he embraced Islam.
"I knew it was just a matter of time," Kamil said.
On the rapper's first trip to a mosque, about 20 friends tagged along.
"I think about 10 of them became Muslims that day," Kamil said. "That's the kind of leader Beale is."
Ramadan 2001 was a turning point. Beale decided to observe the monthlong Islamic holiday, which includes abstention from alcohol.
"That broke me," said Beale, who started learning prayers, reading Islamic books and attending mosque prayer services regularly. "I was still doing some wild stuff, but I was getting closer and closer to God. You feel when God wants you to do something."
Beale said he felt "the empty hole in my heart" filling up with God, and soon his anger became manageable. He says he hasn't had a drink since.
His friends noticed the change immediately.
"He was, like, city raw," said Doc Bull, a longtime friend. "He was real, real bad, hard on women and hard on the dudes he didn't love. He turned his whole life completely around. I don't want to say I didn't think he could do it, but I knew him when he was evil."
There's a lot of street still left in Beale. Even now he embraces the memories: drunken violence, womanizing, scribbling hard-core hip-hop lyrics.
"I don't regret nothing in my past," Beale said. "People respect me more because of it. It shows that only God can humble someone like me."
The Studio City barbershop he owns with his brother maintains a distinctly hip-hop flavor. Baggy shirts and pants and sideways baseball caps are the standard uniform at Platinum Kutz. Platinum records featuring Shakur and the Outlawz line the mirrors. ("The records I've appeared on have sold 40 million copies," Beale said.) And hair-cutters occasionally pause in their work to critique the rap music videos playing on televisions mounted to the ceilings.
Beale laughs when he thinks about people within the hip-hop industry reading about his religious conversion:
"They'll never believe it." He's working on a solo album called "Scriptures From a Thug's Point of View," featuring cleaned-up lyrics. But Beale's quick to point out that "everything still comes from my heart. This music is just ridiculous."
The pilgrimage to Mecca, a place only Muslims can enter, is another step in his spiritual journey, a trip he believes was a call from God.
"They say only Allah invites you to Mecca," Beale said.
Beale and other Muslims will perform holy acts that include circling the Ka'aba, the stone building that Muslims believe was built by Abraham and his son, Ishmael; throwing stones at three pillars outside Mecca representing Satan's temptation of the patriarch; and the supplication to God on the plain of Arafah, where Muhammad delivered his last sermon, the climax of hajj.
On the final day, Muslims worldwide will celebrate with communal prayers, gifts to children, and visits with family and friends in a Festival of Sacrifice called Eid ul-Adha.
Beale said he wants his pilgrimage to be a time of spiritual cleansing, allowing him to be a better example to young rappers and "the cats on the street."
"I don't try to preach to them," he said. "You can only lead by example."
Beale also said he's not concerned about the possibility of a war in Middle East while he's in Saudi Arabia.
"I found Allah, I'm not worried," Beale said. "And I've been in many Jersey neighborhoods worse than any war."