"The true gentleman is friendly, but not familiar." - CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

NEW ORLEANS BRASS BANDS and MY HURRICANE KATRINA EXPERIENCE (Rime)

(written several months before Hurricane Katrina)
THE AIR IS THICK IN NEW ORLEANS. AND NOT IN A FIGURE-OF-SPEECH KIND OF WAY, EITHER. The moment you exit the sanctuary of air conditioning for the outside world, the very instant your body traverses any load-bearing structure whose walls separate ‘inside’ from ‘outside’, the consistency of that big empty nothing forever surrounding us reverts to something not quite water, yet not quite not, and the 20% of your body that isn’t water suddenly becomes besieged at every pore, orifice and corner by a dripping, swampy heat that smacks into you in repeated gusts, like rubber flaps in a carwash. New Orleans is as close to the mythical town of Atlantis as a city can get without being, well, a myth – and the humidity is only the most telltale sign. The theory that a strong enough earthquake could cause Southern California to crack off the continent is known bullshit today, but there’s nothing imaginary about the elaborate system of pumps, canals and levees that work constantly to keep Lake Pontchartrain and America’s longest river from turning Louisiana’s largest city into Discovery Channel material for our-great-grandchildren. The city at the clitoris of the Mississippi River is eight feet below sea level, and sinking onward at a rate of three feet per century, leading some scientists to predict that by 2100 the whole city could be underwater, if the enormous flood that the same scientists have been predicting for years hasn’t already taken care of that by then.

In many ways, New Orleans is half underwater already. Moisture and mold stains the walls of most buildings. Torrential rainstorms come and go before the money in your parking meter has a chance to run out. Partially drained swampland doesn’t make for very good burial grounds, so coffins are stored in tombs above soil, a practice which also lessens the chances of Aunt Connie’s remains floating down Canal St. every time a flood decides to roll through town. And the air is goddamn thick; thick with sweat and cooker steam and the rank smell of warm trash mingling with the sweet aroma of Cajun food, and the ghosts of slaves and pirates and the feeling that all this history could disappear tomorrow, all wafting through town on a bed of humidity that turns your clothing into hot, wet towels that stick to you like flypaper. Many cities are famous for their unique atmosphere, but in New Orleans it’s on your skin, it’s up your nose, but maybe most of all, in your ears - which is to say, your soul.

********

The Deep South of the United States is to popular music what the Middle East is to religion. Just as the barren terrain that now comprises Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia is acknowledged as the spawning grounds of Christianity, Islam and Judaism - the world’s three most dominant faiths - the bordering southern American states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee make up the area where the twin cultural behemoths known as blues and jazz first came to be. Jazz became the first original American artform, redefined contemporary music, and gave us a universe of immensely talented figures that gave us some of mankind’s most enduring tunes - and the originators at the center of all this were residents of the worn-down wards, penniless parishes and dollhouse slums of New Orleans, a place where music and turmoil have been the only two constants since French colonists first set up camp roughly 400 years ago.

A century before Jewish mobster Bugsy Siegel turned a tumbleweed town along an extra long stretch of nowhere named Nevada into man’s temptation and a scoundrel’s salvation, New Orleans was the original Las Vegas. The airplane still but a mere dream at the time, the seas were the skies of the 18th century, and the French knew that a city built at the point where the Mississippi River runs into the Gulf of Mexico would allow them to regulate and profit from the shipment of goods and people up and down the Mississippi, maintain military control over North America’s underbelly, and attract boatloads of visitors in the process. Building and operating a city on marshy, flood-prone, mosquito-ridden swampland proved to be just as impossible as it sounds, and as hard as the French tried – much as the Spanish did for the 40 years after they took over southern Louisiana in 1763 - it wasn’t until the Americans gained control of the area in the early 1800s that the stars above New Orleans finally aligned. Epidemics of yellow fever and cholera continued to periodically send bodies floating through the city’s almost permanently waterlogged streets, but now bodies were also starting to pile up in the avenues and social establishments of the famed French Quarter, and these ones were alive and kicking – and drinking, dancing, gambling, fucking, fighting, and everything else they couldn’t do back home in half as much style. Every day, sailors, merchants, tourists and fugitives stepped off boats onto the damp Louisiana soil in search of a good time, and every night they found exactly that within the many ‘pleasure’-based establishments of the Quarter, and Storyville - an adjoining neighborhood established in 1898 as the only legally operated red-light district in the U.S. before being bulldozed into oblivion in the ‘40s. It was here, in the bars and whorehouses of the Big Easy, that the rest of the world was first exposed to the local musicians’ freeflowing take on the traditional brass band, fused with the sounds and customs of Africa and Europe and the spirit of a people at a juncture of many worlds - a phenomenon we now know as jazz. And it is downtown New Orleans brass bands like the Rebirth Brass Band and Soul Rebels that are taking this sound – and its lineage – into the future.

“There is a structure, but there’s not a structure,” explains Phil Frazier, tuba player and spokesman for the Rebirth Brass Band, of his band’s approach to songs. “Everybody know where the melody at, everybody know the head and the beginning. In between, we let it flow. As long as we hit that ending and that beginning.” This musical framework, a trademark of jazz, was first stumbled upon around the turn of the 20th century by horn players and drummers who would play behind funeral processions as they journeyed through the streets of New Orleans on the way to the cemetery in a ceremony now known as the jazz funeral: a custom with roots in Catholic wakes, military street parades and West African tribal practices, which all share a common thread of celebrating as well as mourning the death of a loved one. The band plays somber instrumental renditions of Protestant hymns on the way to the funeral, but once the body has been buried and the procession exits the graveyard for the return walk, the drummer strikes an up-tempo beat known as the ‘second line beat’ over which the musicians play improvised lines with a joyous, raucous feel as mourners and passing strangers alike dance behind. “The artform of second line is having a good time, dancing on beat, no matter what you do, as long as it’s on beat,” says Phil.

The popularity of the jazz funerals sparked the creation of musical fraternities called ‘social clubs’, whose members would turn each other onto gigging opportunities around town and loan each other money when in need, but most importantly, would come together to play the second line at a fallen member’s funeral procession. This trend turned jazz funerals into public grounds for local social clubs to flex their chops in front of each other, and, coupled with the practice of ‘cutting contests’ – jam sessions where musicians unable to keep time with the veterans were sent offstage – made the New Orleans brass scene a very competitive place, as it remains to this day. In high school, band class is taken as seriously as football and basketball is taken in most other high schools, and regular street parades featuring different area high school bands also act as displays of musical proficiency towards one another. “It’s like a fun battle,” Phil continues. “If you went to an uptown or a downtown high school, you always wanted to have the best band.”

This spirit of competition is alive and well between the brass bands of today, if the words of fellow outfit the Soul Rebels are any indication. “The difference between [other brass bands] and us is the difference between Fred Flintstone and the Jetsons,” one member replies with a snicker when asked his opinion on the rival groups that they share the New Orleans brass scene with. At once peers and rivals, the Soul Rebels and Rebirth maintain an intriguing relationship as two sides of the same brass nickel: Soul Rebels slightly more progressive than Rebirth, but both injecting a large dose of funk, rhythm and vocal participation into the time-honored jazz equation. Where Rebirth is more of a traditional brass band, sticking largely to a mainstay of rhythmic jazz with funk and soul inflections, the Soul Rebels bring more of an edgy, hip-hop feel to the brass experience. In effect since 1991, the Soul Rebels’ discography is four albums deep, the most recent release being this year’s Rebelution, which features appearances from Scratch (formerly of the Roots), Wordsworth, percussionist Bill Summers, and reknowned New Orleans DJs Maximillion and Calculus. “From the start, we wanted to be hip-hop,” says founding member Lumar Leblanc (snare drum). “We grew up in the hip-hop era, so we were examples of their music. Even though we had a lot of jazz in us, we still love hip-hop too. When we started out we were like Public Enemy-style. Raw beats, raw horns, and a whole lot of conscious-type rap. But now it’s all about the music. The main thing was, we didn’t wanna be categorized into just one area. We wanted to have enough music to please everybody, so we had R&B stuff, we had the rap stuff, we had straight-ahead second-line… we tried to please every crowd.”

In contrast, Rebirth’s history stretches a little further back. Founded by Phil and brother Keith (bass drum) back in their high school days in 1983, Rebirth has recorded with the likes of Maceo Parker, Ani DiFranco, Robbie Robertson and the late Soulja Slim (Phil is Slim’s stepson and Rebirth performed the second line at his funeral), and have five albums under their belt. Though generally regarded as more traditional than the Soul Rebels, Rebirth was pioneering the fusion of rap music into brass music years before the Soul Rebels came to be. “We was raw,” Phil recounts of Rebirth’s early days. “We was real raw, but you could tell a sound was developing. We was straight out of high school, we was still a marching band. We got around the older guys. The older guys said ‘y’all need to learn this song, y’all need to learn the traditional music.’ So we learned traditional music. At the same time the brass bands were dying down, and that’s when rap was coming out. “Rapper’s Delight”, that’s our era. So we ‘sampled’ the music from them and the younger guys started liking it and we kept doing it every day, and a lot of people started taking interest again, like ‘brass bands are getting cool again. Ain’t that same old traditional stuff no more.’”

Indeed, one of the biggest pitfalls plaguing the brass bands of today is the ordeal of cluing the world (more specifically, the show promoters of the world) on to the fact that while jazz may act as the foundation of their sound, this is definitely not music for your average grandfather’s dinner party. “The way [show promoters] advertise us is as a jazz band,” Phil laments. “But people who know us from New Orleans know we’re beyond a jazz band. They know we’re more like a funk band, a hip-hop band, like Tower Of Power. So once some new people get turned on to us they say, ‘Man! Why are they advertising you as jazz?’ We can do jazz, we can do hip-hop, we can do funk. Any category you put us in, we’ll play that kind of music. We also do cover tunes by other artists. We do a song that we call ‘Don’t You Wish’ but it’s actually Stevie Wonder’s ‘Part-Time Lover.’ We can change it around. It’s more like a Tower Of Power, Earth, Wind & Fire-type thing, but at the same time we’re still a New Orleans brass band.”

Carrying such a heritage into the future is an honor neither band takes lightly, and no matter how far they may veer into other genres, both groups stay true to the improvisational, free-jazz spirit of brass music in studio as well as onstage. “We have not really rehearsed in over two years,” Lumar says of the Rebels. “We may have a one or two-hour rehearsal before a recording session to go over some things, but on the whole we just do gigs and we bring whatever we learn on the gigs to the recordings. Most [song ideas] happen onstage, and half of it is from a mistake from one song, and we might just take that shit and turn it into something new, and the whole band just vibes off of it. We feed off of each other. Everyone has their different methods of coming up with songs, but the majority of the stuff comes from just getting on the gig and releasing.”

Release is one thing this community has come to need plenty of, in recent times as much as any other era in its already tumultuous history. With New Orleans consistently claiming one of the highest murder rates per capita of any city in the country, its brass bands find themselves being employed for their second line services way more than they would prefer. Phil attempts to shed light on the situation. “In the ‘80s crack hit New Orleans so hard that brass bands started playing for more crack funerals. We have the French Quarter, the red light district. New Orleans is built on corruption as it is. So crack – I hate to say it – was built for this city. You got everything that’s illegal [available to you], 24-hour drinking, everything stays open 24 hours. Crack hit this city real hard. When it hit the city, we had a lot of crack killings, crack funerals, friends dying on crack, friends killing friends for that stuff, fast money.”

********

And the beat goes on. Tourists from around the world continue to flock to New Orleans year in and out to experience the sights, smells, feel and sounds of America’s first Third World city: the bastard child of aristocrats and criminals, conquerors and slaves, soldiers and whores. As the murder rate rises like the surrounding waters threatening to turn the Big Easy into the Big Punchbowl, its residents do what they have learned to do best over the years: celebrate in the face of doom. Born in the graveyard, formally introduced in the brothel, jazz is the sound of war: the descendants of slaves, blowing the pain of hundreds of years through brass instruments in the formation of a military band. But on a stinking wet Southern night in one of the countless local bars and clubs that Rebirth or the Soul Rebels or the Dirty Dozen Brass Band or The Stooges regularly perform at, a buzzing crowd of mohawked punk rockers, ghetto folk, hip-hop heads, out-of-towners, college kids, ravers and regular old New Orleans residents of all ages and races can pop the top off an Abita, spark up a cigarette in the front row, and add a few more buckets of sweat to the air while rocking to some of the most electrifying, life-affirming live shows you’re likely to catch in your lifetime. And therein lies the spirit of jazz.


Check http://www.therebelzone.com/ for more info on the Soul Rebels, and http://www.rebirthbrassband.com/ for Rebirth. Special thanks to Bam & Real of 13AM Productions for having my back like brothers, and to Jacque-Imo’s for one hell of a meal.



**POSTSCRIPT** My post-Katrina editorial.

In October 2004 I traveled to New Orleans, where I stayed for a couple of weeks, crawling the lopsided streets and gutbucket bars of Algiers, Uptown, Downtown and the Quarter with my N.O. squad (big ups 13AM Posse), just as I’ve done every summer since 2001, the year I first touched down in the Sunken City. On that visit I interviewed two of the city’s premier brass bands, the Rebirth Brass Band and the Soul Rebels, and had local photographer Tyler Austin shoot both groups live on stage. The story languished on the ass end of my to-do list through the first half of ’05. I had discovered a completely unique music scene, drenched in history and culture, living and breathing within a city unlike any other on the face of the earth – and in the United States, a place where all the things that are supposed to make a country special, from the cities to the music to everything else, are starting to look and sound eerily the same. I considered this the most important story I had ever worked on, and I was not about to rush it for anyone or anything.

“Rebirth Of The Soul Rebels: The Next Generation Of New Orleans Brass Bands” ran in issue 15 of RIME, which made print mid-August. By the time it was finished, it was as much an essay on the history of the city as a report on the brass scene, and the first portion of the piece discusses N.O.’s precarious position between – and below – two major bodies of water, and the good possibility of a flood one day filling that gap. On August 24 I jumped on a train bound for New Orleans with a box of issues: one for Tyler, one for every member of the two bands that gave me their time, one for every friend of mine who fed me and chauffeured me around town and put a roof over my head. The story was my gift to the city and its people, and anything other than personally delivering it wouldn’t have felt right to me. I jumped off the train 10pm on August 26 at the Amtrak station on Loyola Avenue, and caught a ride to the home of some good friends Uptown. 24 hours later, we were lugging furniture up the stairs of their home as wide-eyed weathermen adjusted sweaty collars on the living room TV before a satellite image of a cloud formation the size of Europe moving in stop-motion jerks around the Caribbean, now almost completely blotted out by swirls of white and grey. By sunrise, we had three carloads of family, pets, food, and everything else we could fit and couldn’t live without inching down the Airline Highway, surrounded bumper-to-bumper by miles of other cars. That night, we checked into a church recreation hall turned hurricane shelter in nearby Lafayette, Louisiana, where we stayed with two hundred disheveled, freshly homeless New Orleans-area residents as Katrina made her rounds. The prevailing attitude at the shelter was that people would be allowed back into New Orleans a few days after the storm left, at most. When word got out that children were being raped in the Superdome restrooms and there was a sniper on the roof of Tulane Hospital, we packed up and drove to Houston, where we put the older folks in our convoy on a plane to Los Angeles. From there, the rest of us drove back to L.A. in two days flat. Louisiana license plates trailed us all the way home.

A week before I jumped on that train, a friend of mine offered to buy back my train ticket and fly me into New Orleans on the 27th so that I could attend an event she was throwing in L.A. the night before. Looking forward to two days of peace and scenery on the Amtrak, I turned her down. The flight I would have been on had I accepted was cancelled because of Katrina. In retrospect, it’s only right that I was there to witness what turned out to be both the next chapter of the story I was on my way to deliver, and the last weekend of Old Orleans. I always used to ask myself: How can such an antiquated, decadent, defiant city still exist in 21st century America? This is a question that we are now going to need a real answer for.


link to an mp3 of a live New Orleans-area AM radio broadcast covering Katrina as it happened, recorded on my mini-tape recorder over a car radio as we were evacuating (click to stream, or right-click to save)



the traffic jam on the Airline Highway out of New Orleans, one day before Katrina hit



the recreation center of The Rock church, in Lafayette, LA, which was converted into a hurricane shelter, which we stayed in for three days




the chow line outside the shelter, day three

a diner in Arizona that we stopped at as we were driving to Los Angeles from the shelter.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

EUROPE: CONS & PROS (Rime)

WRITER JAMES DUNN WAS RAISED FOR MUCH OF HIS YOUNG LIFE IN VARIOUS COUNTRIES IN EUROPE BEFORE MOVING TO LOS ANGELES. IN THE SUMMER OF 2007 HE TOOK A TRIP BACK FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 15 YEARS. IT IS NOT AS HE REMEMBERS IT



CONS.

F**KING EXPENSIVE. Hanging anywhere in Europe reminds me of standing on a corner, getting punched in the stomach, coughing up a $20 bill, saying “thanks!” and moving to the next corner. In particular, England’s 2007 vacation season has been referred to as the Summer of the Two-Dollar Pound, a friendly way of saying you didn’t know that 75-pound bar tab you charged to your card actually cost you $150 until the sneering bartender calmly explained the currency exchange rate before suggesting you go “ask one of your mates for it.” It was exactly a week from there to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus (just google it), the proud owner of maybe the strongest currency in the world - currently $2.50 for each Cypriot pound. Thankfully, we were given permission by the government of Cyprus to turn in our wallets at the airport and sequester ourselves at the beach.
COIN OVERLOAD. The Europeans, and Brits in particular, are very fond of coins. They have one-pound coins, two-pound coins, two-pence coins, five-euro coins, etc., so nine times out of ten when you hand over your equivalent of a week’s eating money to some sullen barback in a promotional hat, you won’t even get a handful of pretty bills – you’ll get a big gruesome pile of coins that will weigh your pants pockets down so much that you’ll look like you just robbed your mommy’s penny jar by the end of the day. If Europe had the amount of bums America has, you’d never make it down the street. I think this is a tactic to make you spend all the change in your pants just so you won’t have to lug half a kilo of metal in each pocket for the rest of the day, a theory I feel is confirmed by the stuffy look you will receive from 90% of the retail workers if you ask them to exchange your change for a bill. You do not exist to a European retail worker unless you have paid him to exist. And forget about needing change for payphones because…
THREE QUARTERS OF EUROPEAN PAYPHONES DON’T HAVE COIN SLOTS. Apparently two dollars for a three-minute local phone call (during which a computerized voice repeatedly threatens to cut you off throughout the last minute) isn’t enough to warrant a coin slot for your money. All they have is a slot for your credit card or calling card. And this is if you can even find a payphone. We have walked blocks upon blocks – in major metropolitan areas – before finding a payphone booth, which almost always smells like a public toilet, because it actually IS a public toilet, but more on that later. Current point being, you will eventually decide to do what you think is the smart thing and buy a calling card. And half the time…
THE CALLING CARDS DON’T WORK. The first calling card I bought was from some bootleg cellphone store in London’s Oxford Circus. Every single time I used it, I received an automated message telling me “this service cannot be used with this phone”. Apparently only certain calling cards work with certain brands of payphone, and of course, although I tried this card on maybe 30 payphones in the London area, not one of them happened to be a payphone compatible with my card. The second calling card I bought was from a convenience store in Gent, Belgium. This card was supposed to work in any country in western Europe, but did not work anywhere – not on any Belgian payphones, not in my hotel room, not in any of ten payphones in a row I tried it on in Paris. I’m perfectly willing to spend triple what the cards cost me ($20 in total) in long-distance calling charges and skip on health insurance for one more month to call their help lines and ask them what the fuck is on their mind.
NASTIEST PUBLIC TOILETS IN THE DEVELOPED WORLD. Some say that the surest way to measure a civilization’s progress is to visit their public toilets. Considering that, it’s tough to believe that at one time Great Britain ruled most of the world, because I can’t imagine a public toilet in Malawi smelling too much worse than the average London bog. They all use hand dryers instead of paper towels, and since there’s normally only one per restroom, there’s a line to use it, and since drying your hands with a hand dryer is time-consuming even when there is no line, most people just skip the whole handwashing process and walk the fuck out and go shake five peoples’ hands with shit on their fingers. Maybe that explains why there is almost always at least one person hacking and wheezing and coughing something disgusting up in every toilet you’ll enter (just as is the case in pretty much every bus, waiting room, restaurant and other public area in England). And eight times out of ten there is an old lady sitting outside the door at a rickety desk who actually wants to charge you to get in. Faced with all this, the average shitty-drunk Brit will just dip into the nearest phone booth, steam the windows up a bit, and keep walking. And that’s why ammonia and ass is the smell of England’s toilets as well as its phone booths, one of the many side-effects of the European philosophy of Pay & Obey. In Europe, there is no public service, good, right or any such thing that they aren’t – or aren’t working on – charging you for, or making slower, dirtier, or more difficult. If they can’t make money out of it, they’re doing their best to make the ordeal as painful as possible. The fact that you can’t go ten seconds in the city without being faced with a sign telling you what to do is only the most obvious tipoff.
Take DRIVING, for instance. The best example of this is the Central London Congestion Charge, a policy where if you drive a car into a certain section of the city, a camera on a lamppost will take an automatic picture of your license plate, from which point you have until nighttime to walk into a convenience store, post office or the like and pay the eight-pound Congestion Charge, or face a healthy fine. What this basically means is that broke drivers are not allowed in Central London anymore. And where is all that money going? To projects aimed at easing the traffic congestion so that one day the Congestion Charge will no longer be needed? I doubt it. As confusing as the London street system is, you can easily end up in the charge area without knowing it, struggling to read a complicated map as your head repeatedly bashes into the ceiling of your ridiculously small European car thanks to the three million speedbumps that seem to line every square foot of road. This happened to us twice, right after stomaching three or four $35 toll bridge charges on the way to and from Amsterdam.
The fun continues at THE BAR, where a bottle of water is half the size and twice the price. Bartenders measure each shot of alcohol down to the milligram with the seriousness of scientists, and you’ll need ten to get any kind of buzz, and a few bottles of that expensive water the morning after to deal with the inevitable headache you’ve developed courtesy of the awful quality of the liquor, all the fake smoke you inhaled from the smoke machine, and the awful house music. Ask for a drink in almost any establishment and you will get a rinky-dink hotel glass two-thirds full of something approaching cold, with a glaring lack of anything floating in it. Ask for ice and your server will drop one ice cube from a dusty ice bucket into your drink using a pair of lightly stained tongs. If you want four ice cubes, you will have to ask four times. Pay & Obey. And consider yourself lucky that you got any ice at all. Because in Europe…
CUSTOMER SERVICE DOESN’T EXIST. Service workers in Europe love nothing more than telling you they can’t help you, and normally in a manner that could make a peaceful person punch through a foot of bulletproof glass. I’m asking a lady behind the counter at Disneyworld for directions. “UH-UH, UH-UH,” she barks, without even looking up from her magazine. I’m getting into the pool at a water park from a ladder that I shouldn’t be, unbeknownst to me. “OI! OI OI OI OI!” the female lifeguard thunders at me as if I was a dog sniffing at a buffet table. They’re very helpful when it’s hotel room checkout time, though. If you’re in Amsterdam, they’ll send two dirty Arabian men into your room to rip the blankets off your bed, even if you’re still in it. Add all this to the fact that almost everyone is pretty rude to begin with - and even ruder once they figure out you’re American – and I now understand why guns are illegal in Europe.
EUROPEANS SMELL. I lived in several countries in Europe and the Middle East off and on before I moved to the US at the age of fourteen. Ninth grade was a lonely year for me, because it was almost a whole year before any of my new American friends had the heart to tell me that in America, people take showers every day, and use deodorant and cologne – every day. For the most part, the people of the rest of the world do not do this, whether out of financial difficulties, lack of running water, or simply the fact that everyone around them smells musty too, so being too clean would actually almost be weird. Whatever the case, the fact remains: most Europeans smell. Believe me - I was one of them.

10 RANDOM GRIPES
- Freezing cold cross-country buses
- Heathrow Airport is a joke
- Half the food leaves your stomach in knots
- Most restaurants have never heard of vegetables
- Like three trashcans on the whole continent
- Everyone smokes
- Every joint is half tobacco
- Girls have no ass (Africans and Parisian women excepted)
- Kilometers / meters / liters / driving on the right side of the road / different wall plugs. What is the point?
- Racism. I saw a basket of Sambo dolls in a gift shop in the south of England. The opening paragraph of English writer Michael Bywater’s bestselling book Big Babies equates black men with terrorists. A black friend of mine visiting England from America was detained by immigration authorities, who chided her for not listing her nationality as “African-American”, as if African-American is even a nationality.


PROS.

GOOD AIRLINES. Air flights are maybe the one area where Europeans have America beat as far as customer service. Unlike American airlines, European airlines aren’t too broke to actually give you a real meal every time you fly, at no extra cost. Shit, sometimes they’ll give you an extra plate if you ask. And on the whole, their flight attendants are much younger and hotter; I was waited on hand and foot on my Lufthansa flight by a small unit of tall, tanned, smiley German women plucked straight out of Hitler’s dreams. You really get the feeling that flying is something special again, as opposed to the cut-rate cattle-transport vibe you get on American flights. Bargaining with some 60-year-old over an extra bag of pretzels is not how I get my kicks.
TITTIES. I’m guessing that since Europe is not known for being a place where you can find a lot of large asses, it is attempting to compensate by being the go-to spot for titties. And how. Bare titties on the beach. Bare titties on network TV. They almost converted me to a tittieman. Almost.
GOOD BEER. Europeans invented beer, and the beer game is just on a whole other level over there. For shame, America. You cannot compare their beer to the swill we make here. And most of the imported beer we drink tastes even better over there, because that’s where most of it comes from.
AMSTERDAM. What a place. The place is dripping with history and character, it’s almost scarily efficient as far as public services and transport, the food is great, the Heineken factory is there, and you can drink and smoke weed and party without feeling like a criminal. There’s nothing like walking into a bar, ordering a beer and a bag of weed, rolling a joint at the bar and then smoking it with friends, in a room full of people also smoking with friends. It’s the feeling of freedom, the feeling of being respected as an adult who enjoys getting intoxicated and partying and nothing more, not some kind of junkie. The government has even chained thousands of bicycles up around town which people unchain, ride wherever they need to go, and then chain back up at the nearest corner for the next person to use. The fact that you would never see half of those bicycles again if such a plan was implemented in a major city in America is as much the government’s fault as it is the peoples’. We’re an immature country full of immature people. In Europe, 18 is drinking age. Last call varies, but by and large, getting a drink is rarely a tall order, at any hour of the night. And weed is generally not a big deal to the police. Makes you wonder why it’s such a big deal for American law enforcement. You would think a country with the highest murder rate in the western world would opt to focus that energy on more pressing issues.
UK GARAGE MUSIC. Best described as Jamaican toasting and badass female R&B singing over breakneck, constantly changing beats that are somewhere between drum ‘n bass, hip-hop and techno. UK rappers need to stop trying to mimick the American hip-hop. The UK has its own genre of hip-hop, and it’s a lot more interesting and exciting than 90% of American rap is today. And they ain’t nothing sweet either. Garage cats roll like it’s The Bronx in the ‘80s. Big crew, big chains, and best believe the show is no sausage fest.
GOURMET JUNK FOOD. England has hands down the best junk food in the world. If you’re the type of person who needs some grease in your life here and there, this little island is your Promised Land. The choices on display on the racks of your average U.S. convenience store is enough to make you opt for a piece of cardboard instead. In contrast, a stroll through an English corner store will present you with a wealth of tasty options. Rows and rows of all kinds of candy bars, at least half of which are made by Cadbury’s, world-renowned purveyors of bomb chocolate. Potato chips with shapes and flavors you won’t find anywhere else: steak-and-onion flavor, ketchup flavor, gravy flavor… it’s like having Willy Wonka on every corner. Fish and chips is England’s signature dish, and half the reason I have been there twice in two years. The English breakfast is a thing of beauty: fried eggs, fried baked beans, fried toast, fried tomatoes, fried mushrooms, fried bacon, fried sausages, and you don’t have to worry about eating for the rest of the day.
BETTER CELLPHONES. Most European phones have the video conferencing function where you can see the person you’re talking to live, and Europeans are obsessed with it. Everywhere you go, there’s someone talking very loudly at a cellphone with a little face on the screen yapping back at them. And the Europeans I spoke to were all very surprised that video conferencing is not a standard feature on American cellphones. It was actually kind of embarrassing.
HILARIOUS FASHION. Almost with exception, you can only walk so far down the street in any city across the whole continent before running into someone who’s wearing some shit that will make you fall out laughing like you’re a crazy person. Luckily, since awful fashion is so widespread out there, they almost never seem to realize you’re laughing at them, and it gets to be like a fun game that you can play with your travel partners. It’s impossible to list all the many different varieties of offender here, but they basically fall into two camps: people who aren’t trying to be hip, who tend to dress much like children on the special bus did back in school, and people who are, most of who look like what would happen if Kanye fucked Fabio.
TASTY PEACHES. Don’t ask me. All I know is I lived on peaches for like a week. They taste like peaches are supposed to taste like in cartoons, all sweet and soft and dripping down your chin.


Oh, and that whole taking-it-easy-and-enjoying-life thing they do out there is pretty cool too.

SWAMPED: P.R. TIPS FROM AN EDITOR TURNED PUBLICIST (Unsigned)

In an uncommon moment of generosity, neo-publicity uber-mogul James Dunn of quasi-publicity mega-firm Dunn Deal PR has graciously agreed to publish his patented, foolproof, rap artist press-kit biography template for the readers of Unsigned. Previously bestowed upon artists only after exorbitant consulting fees and at least three very expensive lunch meetings, this legendary text is finally available in its entirety for free. Simply add your personal information in the blanks, use the sentences that you feel best describe you in the order you choose for that personal touch, and you’ll have enough text for the first paragraph of your bio. And you can put anything you want in the other paragraphs, because nobody ever reads past the first paragraph of an artist bio anyway!


SENTENCE 1
• Brace yourself and your loved ones for the unmistakable talents of (ARTIST NAME), here to take the entertainment world by storm.
• Prepare to get your face partially caved in by the sledgehammer sounds of (ARTIST NAME), poised to capture the rap scene with a blinding vengeance.
• So swift on the microphone that at times he seems lyrically invisible, the man born (GOVERNMENT NAME) is on a mission to bring real skills back to the AIDS-infected cesspool that the hip-hop game has become.

SENTENCE 2
• Life has not been easy for this native of the bullet-shredded alleyways of (HOMETOWN), but like the late ghetto poet Tupac Shakur, (he/she) continues to survive and strive “against all odds”.
• Hailing from the blood-soaked streets of (HOMETOWN), life has been one roundhouse kick to the mouth after another for this self-described “urban survivalist”.
• A former heavy metal singer and kindergarten teacher is the last person you’d expect to find rocking the mic with the vengeance of a wise, vengeful shogun, but when the emcee in question is from the roomy college town of (HOMETOWN), you can expect them to be “anything” but ”run-of-the-mill”.

SENTENCE 3
• “I feel like this album is my first opportunity to show fans the real me,” the outspoken player exclaims about (NEW ALBUM NAME), an addictive blend of hard-hitting rhymes served over speaker-pureeing beats that was recently released to hardcore love from the illest and realest magazines on the stands.
• “I think I grew a lot artistically on this record,” the rough-and-ready flowmeister relates when asked about (NEW ALBUM NAME), an intoxicating potpourri of no-frills lyricism laid atop trunk-suplexing productions that has been received with rapturous critical acclaim from bloggers and southern rap fans alike.
• “I don’t just want to make hip-hop music. I want to make music, period,” the mysterious microphone practitioner states on the subject of (NEW ALBUM NAME), a minimalist cacophony of soul-maiming flows and forward-thinking soundscapes that dropped recently to a stupefying response amongst the avant-garde pop culture cognoscenti.

SENTENCE 4
• (ARTIST NAME) is a breath of fresh air in the public toilet that is the contemporary rap scene. Consider you’reself warned. [Punctuation error included, for when you want to give your biography that “grassroots” feel.]
• (ARTIST NAME) is a gust of warm wind through the Antarctic no-man’s-land of modern hip-hop. Don’t say you weren’t properly notified.
• (ARTIST NAME) is a shot of pure adrenalin in the dying donkey that is today’s record industry. Welcome to the next level of rhythm and poetry.

JAMES BROWN DEDICATION (Rime)


I was supposed to be something else.

A college professor, happily gathering dust and grey hairs amongst piles of books written by dead people in some cluttered office on some pretty campus. A dignified author with a picture of myself smiling reservedly under grapevines in my spacious Northern California backyard on the inside covers of each of my many celebrated books. If you had told me even fifteen years ago that I was going to be an emcee, music writer/editor, hip-hop publicist and DJ, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to laugh. The idea that music could become my life never even entered my head as a possibility. But in the end, assuming that people who have barely been on the planet long enough to grow hair between their legs have any real clue of their future is giving 99% of them too much credit, so I don’t dwell too much on how things panned out. I’ve never even stopped to wonder exactly who it was that turned music from entertainment to everything for me, but as it turns out, I got an answer to that question last Christmas. Death has a funny way of making everything crystal clear sometimes. I could ooze on for pages about everything this man was, everything he changed, but I think the other music writers have already come up with quite enough adjective festivals on the topic (immeasurable, revolutionary and timeless pretty much cover the bases anyway). Therefore, I will simply sum up my feelings by announcing that December 25th is officially James Brown Day, from now until the asteroid hits. Jesus’ gift was Christianity, and James’ gifts were funk and hip-hop. And when music is your religion, that’s no contest at all. Music was supposed to be the soundtrack to my life. I’m still not sure if music was supposed to be my life. But I’m going to spend my youth finding out. And you can blame James Brown for that.

NAS: WHERE IS THE LOVE (Rime)

NAS IS THE ONLY RAPPER WHO HAS WHAT IT TAKES TO SAVE HIP-HOP. AND HE THINKS IT’S DEAD. OR DOES HE?


After a decade with no new admissions (the last being 1997’s Donnie Brasco), a new movie finally joined the hallowed ranks of that tidy shelf-full of Required Mob Flicks like Once Upon A Time In America, Scarface and the Godfather trilogy with the release of The Departed, an ugly little tale of duplicity and dead Irishmen that bagged up a cool 120 million in theaters last year. An A-list affair on all fronts, the cast boasted Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and one gleefully unhinged Jack Nicholson as well as Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen. At the helm was Queens, New York native Martin Scorsese, the director widely regarded as the man who in the 1980s turned the art of modern moviemaking from actors in clean shirts and primped hair exchanging lines in Hollywood studios into dirty, bleeding, sweating, psychotic men in shabby suits trying to kill each other under the loom and gloom of Rotten Gotham, and assumed the popularly accepted title of most influential post-war American director as a result – without ever having won an Oscar. Over a decade later, it’s still almost universally understood: movies are never better than Goodfellas, Taxi Driver or Casino, just different.

Scorsese brought all his trademark tricks back with him in The Departed: long tracking shots, cokehead-swift montage sequences, Catholic paranoia and, of course - having virtually invented the modern movie soundtrack - the constant use of blues and rock ‘n roll songs throughout the movie. Numbers from icons like the Rolling Stones, John Lennon and Van Morrison bubble away fervently in the background as the bodies drop onscreen – with one lone exception. Where an old ditty from Cream or Muddy Waters would have normally gone, Marty sets an early scene in which DiCaprio’s character pushes a mid-‘90s Mustang through Boston’s Southie Projects with a life sentence’s worth of cocaine in a Manila envelope to the tune of Nas’s brutal 2004 single “Thief’s Theme.” It’s obviously not the first time a hip-hop song has been used in a big-budget movie, but it may be the first time that a song by a director of Scorsese’s stature has placed a hip-hop song on one of his soundtracks, and alongside music from artists like Lennon and the Stones, names that are normally preceded by or followed with the term “classic” in popular conversation. Essentially a loop of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”, the signature hit from ‘60s metal pioneers Iron Butterfly, “Thief’s Theme” seamlessly matches the grungy sonic texture created by the rock icons that dominate the soundtrack, and Nas comfortably takes his place beside them as peer and equal, a legend in his own zone. But in the end it’s Marty, the man behind the camera, that Nas has the most in common with here.

Throughout the years, there have been many rappers who qualify for the term ‘great’. Rappers who came out of the gate as greats, and have remained, if not constantly top-tier, relatively on point to this day (you’ll only need one hand for this). Rappers who started off mediocre, but have evolved into greats over time. Rappers who were once great and lost it forever. Rappers who were once great, lost it, but periodically graze greatness on a handful of songs per year. Falling into any one of these categories still gets you the title, as one perfect song is more than enough to make history. But the Queensbridge kid with the gleam in his eye has remained one of the world’s most important emcees even as the majority of others in his league consistently release better albums by touching, or better, embodying, a level of greatness that no other rapper ever has or perhaps ever will again – himself included, and Rakim excluded, arguably. The dethroning of New York hip-hop as the barometer against which all other styles of hip-hop are measured, along with an overall popular disgust for intelligent, literate rap has cleared the way for a Revenge Of The Nerds-style assortment of bored hipsters and new-booty rap fans to sling shit on Nas’s name, as if his impact, influence and position is even up for debate. Get real. There’s taste, and there’s just plain facts: Nas is the truth. No rapper in history was ever handed the crown so fast and so young as Nasir Jones was in 1994, when he released Illmatic at the age of 21. In one year, he gave us what has come to be regarded as the quintessential hip-hop album, and took the art of rapping a quantum leap forward, initiating a stylistic revolution that has raised the bar for every rapper since. He was the upgrade card that turned rap three-dimensional, bringing a whole new depth of detail, perspective, emotion, but most importantly, hope, to the ghetto experience. Like Scorsese, Nas is a trailblazing talent fighting to create high art within the confines of a corporate entertainment industry that seems to be doing its best to kill it, so much so that even he has buckled to the pressure in the past on albums like I Am and Nastradamus (just as Scorsese did with The Aviator and Gangs Of New York). And as far as he’s concerned, the industry has just about succeeded – so much so that he bet his last album on it: Hip Hop Is Dead.

“I think hip-hop is dead for the obvious reasons. I think you shouldn’t even have to ask me too much about what I mean behind it,” Nas casually retorts when asked the inevitable question, with the air of a man who’s been asked this inevitable question way too many times for his liking. “The money factor, the raping that record companies do to today’s artists, the disrespect artists have for each other at a point where rappers are getting shot and shit, and yet none of the execs that are non-black that are making money off these rappers ever get shot? Niggas don’t own no record companies. Niggas don’t own no TV channels that play rap. Niggas don’t own no radio stations that play rap. So who is it in the hands of, and who’s protecting it? Not nobody that loves rap.”

All true. Yet, at the same time, that’s not exactly news. The notion that the people who own the music industry could give two shits about rap music has been proven so many times that it’s now more cliché than fact. Rich white men never cared about hip-hop, and it still managed to take over the world. Hip-hop is in a state of emergency today because the people who are supposed to care just don’t anymore. The fact that hip-hop is now seeing its second generation of stodgy old farts – the class of ’91-’96 – is proof positive that it isn’t dead. If anything, it means we’ve officially landed as a genre; one of the best measures of a scene’s endurance is the number of grizzled elders it has lying around. But an even better measure is the number of genuinely talented new artists doing the rounds, and where most older rock ‘n roll fans remain fiercely proud of the music they grew up to, many of their hip-hop counterparts are so disgusted with the direction the music is taking today that they are distancing themselves from it in every way, sticking strictly to their old favorites or giving it up altogether. It’s not a hard position to empathize with. When you tell someone you’re a hip-hop head, and the only hip-hop they hear is the stuff on the radio or TV, nine times out of ten that person is likely to come away from the conversation with a slightly lower opinion of you. Things wouldn’t be half as dire if most younger rap fans had any degree of interest in the artists of yesteryear, as new-school listeners of every other genre almost always do. “We can sit here and have this conversation,” Nas says. “Whether you agree with me [or not], we wanna have a conversation because we are both passionate about rap, and there’s nothing wrong with it. There are other motherfuckers that can have this conversation, but only in a one-sided way, because a lot of motherfuckers don’t know that Busta Rhymes used to be in a group called Leaders Of The New School. They don’t know the history. I’ve had young guys tell me that the guys I like are not hot! And they don’t wanna learn. I didn’t really get Afrika Bambaataa as much because I was a kid, but I knew what them sounds was. When I went to sleep I still heard them sounds in my head, and it made me wanna figure them niggas out.”

Of course, fans only take their cues from the artists that set the trends, and the gap between older and younger fans is a direct reflection of the disconnect between the new breed of rappers and the old guard. Hip-hop has always had a problem with age, a sentiment perhaps first voiced by Tupac on “Against All Odds” – “…all you old rappers trying to advance / it’s over now, take it like a man…” For Nas, this is central to the issue, his issue. “We’re getting on to the main, main reason I titled the album. I remember coming up, the older guys really did not wanna see young guys get in the game. And that’s the difference with today. Today, the younger generation hates on the older generation. They’re going, ‘Yo, get outta here. Give me some time to shine.’ You can’t ask somebody to move. You’re supposed to take your position. I had to take my spot. Snoop had to take his spot. We didn’t come in here asking for shit. And we looked up to these niggas. Snoop shouted it out: ‘…I’m ‘bout as crazy as Biz Markie / spark the chronic blunt real quick…’ and brought Biz out at his first New York concert in Queens, New York, during the frenzy of Doggystyle. I gave love to Rakim. I was in videos with Kool G Rap. We wanted that anointing.”

Where Tupac gave a catchy slogan to the idea that old equals irrelevant, 50 Cent virtually christened it conventional wisdom when he released the single “How To Rob” in 2000, which depicted him relieving a host of rappers - past and present - of their belongings, a move that marked the beginning of the 50 Cent era of rap, where last year is considered old school, beef is a perfectly acceptable method of garnering publicity for yourself, and a rapper’s skills come a distant second (if that) to his criminal resume. The fact that 50’s “How To Rob” strategy worked so well is not lost on the new generation of rap hopefuls, ready and willing to do just about anything - short of actually learning how to rap - to get rich or die trying. “These are kids who ten years ago wouldn’t have even wanted to rap!” Nas exclaims. “But the thing about it is, it’s cool because 50 had a method that worked. But kids are looking at him like what he did was nothing, like they could do it too. Because they got a gun, they feel like they could do it too. They don’t understand that 50’s actually a good artist. They look at him and say ‘I’ve been through some times too. I can do what he did.’ No, you can’t do what 50 did. They get mad and say, ‘Well I’m a real nigga. I’m still slinging.’ And they start losing focus on what this shit is all about. We talked about rapping to get out the fucking game. They need a format and an outlet to get the establishment, the executives and the artists to get excited about coming to a showcase to see their talent - not see the guns, not see them on DVDs talking shit, but see the talent! And I think that’s been missing because of the sensationalism of 50 Cent that came from the Biggie and ‘Pac era is what niggas think is gonna get them to the top. They’re almost saying “Why I gotta have talent? I’ll just tell my tale.’ Try to make an album with no beef, and let’s see how good you really are. Don’t dis one nigga on your album, and let’s see if it works. Let’s go back to that. B.I.G., Nas, Jay-Z.: we had careers before any beef.”

We can deal with labels not caring about rap. But when even rappers stop being passionate about rap, the game is over. And from Golden Era graduates to gold-toothed rookies, rappers who act like they don’t wanna rap is the new trend. The godfather of the too-cool-for-school movement, Jay-Z has been threatening to retire ever since dropping Reasonable Doubt 11 years ago and actually attempted to make good on his promise a couple of years ago, only to sheepishly return as a bona fide Old Rapper, vultures swarming overhead. Andre 3000 continues to infuriate humanity by releasing approximately one perfect rap song for every album’s worth of Prince impersonations he comes up with. Acting claimed Mos Def soon after recording his classic solo debut Black On Both Sides, which he nevertheless insisted for some reason on following up with the stupefyingly misguided The New Danger, and Tru3 Magic, which somehow managed to be even more off. Cee-Lo is currently uber-marketing screamo alterna-rap for those same bored hipsters with a man who wears a mouse suit. Eminem’s court and rehab schedule leaves little to no time for the studio. And it was so hard to give up hope in Q-Tip a few years ago that we don’t even want to put our feelings on the line by giving him another chance. According to Nas, being intimately associated with hip-hop in its current incarnation is only more uncomfortable for those who have been around long enough to witness the before and after. “That’s where you have this problem where motherfuckers is getting into rap in such numbers where it’s embarrassing now. I can’t go to certain places and say I rap, because if they turn on the rap video channel they will see – not all of it – but a great portion of embarrassment. So it’s hard for niggas who really take themselves seriously – not just myself, all niggas who take themselves seriously – to even wanna do this shit anymore when you got those dudes thinking that they the shit.”

On paper, the odds grow depressingly high. Rappers who don’t want to rap. Fans who don’t want to learn. Labels that don’t give a shit. And now, maybe the most gifted rapper alive telling us it’s all over? “Every artist says it’s dead every day when they say ‘we’re not rapping, we’re hustling,’” he laments. “I’m just putting it in plain English for everybody. Everybody knows that it’s dead. It’s just scary when Nas says it and brings it to the attention of the people who don’t wanna acknowledge that they’re bullshitting with it and don’t wanna acknowledge the responsibility we have, and don’t wanna acknowledge that we’re leaders, that don’t wanna acknowledge that we have to take control of the business side.”

Granted, but boiling the issue down to denial on the part of the artist is over-simplifying the message, as well as short-changing the messenger. At a time when so many of our last true remaining greats are in front of their bathroom mirrors singing into hairbrushes as hip-hop goes down in flames, Nas is a living legend who has always stayed true to his god-given gift: rap. Sure, he was in Belly, he endorsed Esco clothing, just launched his Jones Experience label. But he has never for one moment allowed the public to get the idea that he was anything but an artist first and foremost. For him, props really is a true thug’s wife, and that’s why Nas is the truth, the same reason why so many rappers will always be jealous of him in a way even they themselves can’t explain. So yeah, it is scarier when you say hip-hop is dead, because deep down, many of us feel like you’re the only rapper who has what it takes to save it.

He pauses. “Well, that’s one hell of a compliment and I do appreciate that people feel like that. That’s what makes me make this title, because it makes the ones who are not caring about it have to think! We have artists who say, ‘Yo, I don’t agree with Nas.’ I’m forcing them to be thinkers now, about what this shit is. And that’s all I wanted. I’m like, ‘Yo, let’s continue to have our parties and drive our Maybachs and everything, but let’s shed some light on hip-hop, this thing that gave us the voice and the paper.’ It’s really a conversation piece. That’s what this album is all about. Of course we know [hip-hop’s] a big business. Of course we know it didn’t disappear. Of course we know the money it makes and the potential that comes from it. Of course we know that. That goes without saying. I’m saying it’s a time for a whole new change, dog.”

What this change involves, it seems not even Nas knows for absolute certain. At present and into the foreseeable future, Hip Hop Is Dead is a conversation piece with no conclusion, and will probably remain that way, just as it most likely should. Here, the conversation is the conclusion. Art makes you feel something, and as long as you can feel, there’s always possibilities, dreams, hope, all the things hip-hop was built on, all the things that are almost totally missing today, except for artists like Nas. More than hip-hop, hope is dead, the idealism and positivity that defined the culture back in the day when it was a bunch of ghetto kids trying to dodge the street life, not revel in it. But as long as the Nases of the world are doing what they’re supposed to, hip-hop should be OK. “I might sound crazy, because I’m totally free now to do whatever I want. I’ve been holding back so many years. Now I can do whatever I want now because I’m so free about it. I said hip-hop is dead, so now I can move on.” Here’s hoping that no matter where he moves on to, he’ll still be a rapper when he gets there.

JAY BRADY THE HOMELESS WRITER (Rime)


I FIRST MET JAY BRADY AT THE COFFEE BEAN IN THE STRIP MALL ON VENICE BLVD. AND MOTOR AVE. IN WEST LA early in the year. I was chipping away at a story on my laptop one evening in a seat outside the storefront when, after quietly observing me from his table between drags of a cigarette, a man bearing a strong likeness to the actor Nick Nolte in deep character-actor mode asks me from across the patio, “Excuse me, are you a writer?” Turns out I am. And turns out he is too – the proud author of Home Sweet Homeless, an autobiographical account of his life living on the streets that he wrote, despite the considerable handicap of actually being without a home when he wrote it.

The second time we sat down together at Coffee Bean was slightly more planned. I brought my voice recorder, along with a flood of questions that had been accumulating in my mind since the day I saw a homeless person as a child, and first registered the fact that there were people in the richest country in the world with nowhere to live. He brought a dog-eared copy of his book for me to read, and a lifetime of memories that I understand, but don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully comprehend.



Tell me about Home Sweet Homeless.
It’s one man’s travel of going cross-country, being homeless with his wife, doing swap meets and meeting other homeless people across the country, like in Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Texas. This is where I saw more people and got a broader view at the fact that this was not just Los Angeles, or New York having a homeless situation. It’s in a couple of bookstores on consignment. It got a good review, and that blew it up and got people’s attention. I started the project on a whim in 1996. I never took up writing until I was in my mid-40s. I just started writing on the [3rd Street] Promenade to pass the time.

What’s your background?
I grew up in Pacific Palisades, a very affluent neighborhood in Los Angeles. My father was a screenwriter for Warner Bros. He wrote 77 Sunset Strip. My grandfather had a textile company and I was vice-president. We made very good money in the ‘70s. I came from a good, educated background, a very non-prejudiced background. I was always taught to treat people as equals. Maybe that’s why when I became homeless the injustice hurt me more.

How many homeless people do you estimate come from from relatively well-off backgrounds?
A lot of people, actually. A lot of people had problems where they were discarded by their families, or they had financial situations they invested money in at a time where it wasn’t the right thing to do, and they lost their money and became homeless.

What do you find to be the most common reasons for being homeless?
If you slice it down the middle, most of it’s just plain alcohol and drug addiction. The others could be from family problems, financial tragedies, clinical depression. That was my situation. I had to deal with the death of my parents very suddenly. I became clinically depressed and didn’t handle it well. The bottom line is, if you’re homeless that means you’re basically not doing anything. And a lot of people, to escape that mental situation, probably do drink a little bit too much because of the pressure of having no hope. When you’ve lost all hope, it’s hard to deal with without losing your mind. The thing that scares me about being homeless is the fact that I could lose my mind.

How does the local shelter system work?
They have cold weather shelters that are daily from December 1 to March 1, so after that you’re thrust back on the street. You have to get on a waiting list [for a regular shelter]. It’s a program where if you’re on SSI you give them 60% of your money and they put it away like a bank and give it to you when you leave. At the end of the six months you usually have enough money to go out and get an apartment. But singles are going for $900. If you don’t have a job to perpetuate the money that you save, what are you gonna do? You’re not gonna take four or five thousand dollars and get an apartment and not have any income that will balance out your living expenses and apartment. And most homeless people don’t have very good credit. You can get two or three people to go in [on getting a place together], but that’s hard too, because most people don’t have my point of view when it comes to getting off the streets. They’d just as soon stay on the streets, spend their money, because things have become so hopeless in their minds. I’ve known a few people who went into a shelter for instance, saved their money, got a job and got back into society. It can be done. But there’s not enough shelters to help the mass majority out.

What do you think could realistically be done to help the situation?
Well, they have lots of closed-down army barracks, for instance. They could open those up. The people that are willing to get help, they could train them for jobs. The ones that aren’t willing, you can’t do anything with them. The terminally mentally ill – the ones Reagan let out of the hospital in the ‘80s – they have no chance. You can only feel for them because they have no brains. They can’t figure it out. Reagan closed quite a few mental institutions down. Homeless people don’t have enough effort to really get to any place to make a difference. They’re not fed properly, they’re crashing behind buildings, they don’t get enough sleep. They just don’t have it in them anymore. If you’re sleeping outside at night, trying to stay non-visual, you’ve got the police to deal with, you’ve got people that will come up and slit your throat for money, you have other homeless people, so you’re ducking and dodging all the time. They look at the homeless as lepers who are deserving of their plight, and that’s not true. And until something powerful happens – hopefully a movie, because everything in this country is visual, where they can actually see these injustices going on – then maybe we’ll come to a little bit more of a realization that something needs to be done about it. That’s why it would be great to have a Dennis Hopper or a Mickey Rourke or a Nick Nolte in a serious role about homelessness. It would catch peoples’ eyes.

THE GAME AT THE VIBE AWARD RIOTS (Rime)


…And it was either this or jail, imagine tryin’ to fit birds in a Hyundai Excel / and they caught on to FedEx mail, so we stopped doin’ business chirping on NexTels…
The Game, “Dead Bodies”



It is November 19, 2004, and the second annual Vibe Awards have returned to Los Angeles. A crew of Manhattan’s urban-est has transformed a cavernous airplane hangar at Santa Monica Airport into a full-on ceremony hall, and a hefty cross-section of the year’s busiest artists, actors and industry people are in various stages of arrival, cheesing their way down the duct-taped red carpet or canoodling around the hangar’s corridors and walkways as their publicists scuttle behind in their shadows, tapping away at their Blackberrys. Alicia Keys saunters around the main area, face glistening from an onstage song rehearsal. Several model-looking females surround Nelly in the main corridor, following his every word and hand motion. Irv Gotti and a couple of anonymous white tees post up on folding chairs in front of his trailer, conversating amongst themselves. Pharrell paces around in tight circles by a cluster of outdoor eating tables, cellphone attached to his ear. Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg, Warren G and Bishop Don Juan hover before the main stage peeping the artist rehearsals, Suge Knight cradling a half-full cognac glass mere feet behind them. The faces of DJ Quik, Bokeem Woodbine, Twista, Beenie Man and Scott Storch bob in and out of the mass of veterans, newjacks, and etceteras exchanging excited bearhugs and polite handshakes. Ki Toy and Vida Guerra have every straight man in the vicinity doing subtle (and some not-so-subtle) double-takes the moment they float past.

Two hours later the cameras are rolling steadily as 50 Cent and the Game throw the cherry on their performance of Game’s first album single “How We Do”, a row of young women in Chuck Taylors, khaki shorts and wifebeaters gyrating on lowrider bicycles behind them. Vibe founder and musical legend Quincy Jones is at the podium with Snoop, speaking on Dr. Dre’s many accomplishments in preparation for the presentation of his lifetime achievement award. Def Jam mega-mogul Russell Simmons is barking offhand comments into my voice recorder about how “hip-hop just keeps getting better” when a cacophony of shouts, screams and screeching chairs and tables cuts our conversation short. The area around Dre’s table, at the foot of the main stage and not twenty feet from where we are standing, has turned into a human whirlwind of flying arms and fists, sending a host of your favorite celebrities bolting for the exits as Quincy looks on helplessly. A combination of adrenalin, dim lighting and fight physics makes it hard to discern faces, but I notice the unmistakable grills of 50 and Lloyd Banks through the swell of swinging shoulders and airborne chairs.

The riot barrels through the black curtain partition, knocks a large glass platform clear across the walkway, shoots down the corridor, through the security entrance and spills clear onto the street outside, as a pair of nearby Santa Monica cops sheepishly bleat into their jacket radios for backup. 50, having apparently extracted himself from the melee, comes to a stop outside the front entrance, surrounded by three of his boys. Trademark half-smile hanging comfortably on his face, he takes off a thick chain, hands it to one of his friends, and they quickly foot it across the street into a parking lot, speeding off in an all-black Range Rover moments later. Shortly after, the figures of Young Buck and a few other men morph out from the shadows of the same lot, and are promptly picked up by one of many heavily-tinted SUVs now zipping up and down the avenue, all manned by private security guards yelling into walkie-talkies. A fleet of cop cars invade the area, deem the ceremony hall a crime scene and seal the security entrance, leaving a dazed throng of ex-award attendees dusting off their clothes and trying to piece the events of the last ten minutes together. The young man said to have kicked off the whole fight sits on the sidewalk looking like a deer in the nearby cop car’s floodlights, as two paramedics prepare to treat the long, bloody gash eating ever deeper by the second into his bony chest. Several over-excited teenagers leap around for the news cameras, whooping and hollering in fits of post-fight glee.

Thus the most prestigious urban music award ceremony today, filled with some of popular culture’s most important figures, turned into an all-out slugfest involving some of the biggest names in hip-hop music, and somewhere near the center of it all, the guy who had just gotten offstage with one of the biggest rappers in the world: a 23-year old kid from Compton who has barely been rapping four years and has yet to sell one record on his own. He got game, indeed…

“I was backstage about to do press,” Game remarks over the phone. His manner is as close to gruff and matter-of-fact as one can be simultaneously. “Then I walked to my trailer after I had finished with that and that’s when [the fight popped off], and they wouldn’t let me back in. I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. I had all my Black Wall Street niggas on the other side of the fence; like fifty of them. Buck and all the G-Unit fam ran past my trailer trying to hit the gate and saw all my niggas in all red, and I guess they thought it was Suge and them so they stopped, and I let them know that was Black Wall Street, so they hit the gate and got outta there.”

In an industry where your buzz level can make or break your future, events like these make for the kind of attention that guarantees a place on everyone’s lips, the kind of attention label execs imagine in their dreams for an artist of theirs who hasn’t even dropped an album yet, and the Game of Compton, CA gets plenty of it – more, it’s arguable, than any other new artist in rap history. Boundless support from Interscope, one of the savviest labels in the industry. The most successful producer in hip-hop history, Dr. Dre, squarely behind him. A place in G-Unit, the hottest rap group on the planet right now. A just-released debut album, The Documentary, with beats from Dr. Dre, Hi-Tek, Buckwild, Timbaland, Scott Storch, Just Blaze, Kanye West, Swizz Beatz, and guest appearances from Busta Rhymes, G-Unit, Faith Evans, Eminem, Nate Dogg, Snoop Dogg and Mary J. Blige. The official co-sign from just about everybody in mainstream hip-hop who matters. His own record label, Black Wall Street, for which he is already scouting talent for. The bulk of an entire under-appreciated coast rooting for him. And of course, a punchy dose of good ol’ rhyme skills. In every aspect of his career, the Game’s stars are almost perfectly aligned. The only other rapper to enjoy this kind of publicity and support before even dropping a record is Dre’s most famous protégé Snoop Doggy Dogg, during the period between the release of Dre’s earthstopping The Chronic album and Snoop’s Doggystyle debut in the early ‘90s, both released on Interscope. A decade later, the label/producer combo of Dre and ‘Scope have a new kid on the block rocking the Converse, and as funny as it may sound when Game proclaims with the utmost conviction, “I’m as big of a star as fuckin’ Jay-Z is,” it’s tough to dispute that if he isn’t quite on that level yet, it’s only a matter of time. If a new rapper has ever been a sure-shot bet, the Game is it.

The Interscope Records marketing juggernaut is largely responsible for some of the biggest rap careers of our era: Eminem, Dre, 50 Cent, G-Unit, the Death Row roster in its heyday. The house that Jimmy Iovine built has been continuously fine-tuning its hype machine throughout the sixteen years following its inception, and the vast majority of its artists and releases have proven to be some of the most anticipated and successful of the ‘90s onward. But even considering all their many accomplishments, from one look at the unprecedented level of publicity surrounding the Game, it seems Interscope may have outdone itself this time. From large features in every major magazine on the racks to ringtones, websites, two-way alerts, his voice in a videogame (check for his cameo as a drug dealer in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) and even a just-released DVD also titled The Documentary, his scrunched snarl is everywhere the average rap fan looks, and – as he repeatedly points out on the mic as well as in interviews – all before selling one record. Add these factors to the requisite music videos as well as a slew of pre-album singles, and what you have is the next level of artist marketing. He keeps his responses well within the lines: nothing but love to the people who put him on, nothing but disdain for the people he professes to have problems with, and unwaveringly tight-lipped on situations that could get him into trouble. Dre and Snoop are “tutors,” Tupac was “a rap apostle,” Bay Area rapper/hustler and Game’s former investor JT Tha Bigga Figga is “a clown,” and more pointed questions regarding the Vibe incident are met with several shiftily-delivered variations on “I don’t know nothing about nothing, man,” until bare silences forces me to switch topics. There’s no doubt that he’s sincere when he speaks; Game seems well aware that he’s a very lucky man. But that still doesn’t stop me at times from feeling like I’m talking to a presidential candidate staring into a teleprompter.

But then, is there really any need for him to talk much at all at this point? The story of his past has been recounted practically verbatim in almost every one of the many press releases, online bios and published discussions with or about him, and a team of Hollywood producers couldn’t have come up with a better tale for a gangsta rapper on the rise. Former high school basketball prodigy becomes a full-on Blood after his older brother is murdered. A volley of bullets absorbed at close range in an October 2001 ambush on Game’s crackhouse sends him to a hospital bed, where he lays meticulously studying a collection of CDs he had his other brother buy him – Ready To Die, Reasonable Doubt, Death Certificate, Doggystyle, etc. – with the intention of becoming a rapper. “I was a fan of hip-hop ever since I could remember but I never started rapping until 2001. After I got shot I just taught myself how to rap in three months. A bullet in the heart - it can do wonders.”

In 2002, after hearing the first verse of “Compton Compton”, Game’s mixtape remake of a hard-to-find Jay-Z song called “Marcy Marcy”, Dre invites Game to his studio in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley where 50 Cent is putting the finishing touches on his first collaboration with Dre, a catchy little number called “In The Club”, as WC and Busta Rhymes look on. “I met Dre and played him some of my new shit, and after the first verse of the first track he cut it off, and was like, “whatever I gotta do to sign this kid, let’s do it.” I just remember walking in like, ‘Oh shit, this is fuckin’ Dr. Dre!’ That shit was crazy, man. Besides the birth of my son, that was one of the best days of my life. It’s been rap ever since then.”

The red ink had barely dried on his Aftermath contract when the publicity machine rumbled into motion. More and more eyebrows continued to raise as the blurbs, press releases and interviews piled up regarding the “West coast gangsta with the East coast flow” that nobody had ever heard of, and who Dr. Dre was now standing fully behind. Here he was, being compared - and sometimes comparing himself - to the great rappers of our time, rocking N.W.A. chains and invoking Eazy-E’s name, promising to resurrect the West – all before 99.99% of us had heard a lick out of him. Even Snoop was introduced music-first to the world through his appearances on “Deep Cover” and The Chronic. Nevertheless, there was something about him - his defiant smirk, his unabashed confidence, his reverence for the old school at a time when most newjacks show little respect or relation to their predecessors – that made many want to believe the hype, even before hearing it for themselves.

They didn’t have to wait long. Following 50’s lead, Game has turned the mixtape scene into his personal playground, issuing hip-hop a whopping dose of his rhyme style – a smart, calculated flow delivered in a throaty timbre that can rock a traditional cadence and triple-time with equal parts ease – over a number of street releases in the past two years to the point that, as Game himself puts it, ”you can’t even sell your mixtape if Game ain’t on it.” Lyrically, Game stays strictly in the first-person, rapping from exactly the position his life is in today: that of an L.A. gangbanger freshly transplanted into the 2005 rap world. Blending numerous sports references and wanton threats with ruminations on the fast life and commentary on the real-life events ever unfolding in the celebrity-thug scene he now finds himself in, the end result is normally somewhere between solid-but-unexceptional and spectacular; the latter end of that scale best represented by “200 Bars And Running” - his infamous freestyle over the “Deep Cover” beat, composed of one rhyme that clocks in at 210 bars nonstop. It is a testament to his integrity as a serious emcee, as well as his knowledge of and respect for his rap forefathers, that Game goes the extra mile to display his commitment to the art of rhyme in this manner – especially considering the fact that a rapper in his position could easily drop a series of lazy sixteens and still end up on TRL. “Them days is over, man – them Rakim days, Kool G. Rap, fuckin’ BDP, N.W.A.s. Niggas nowadays is just rappin’ for the chains and the cars and some bitches. I’m trying to be a hip-hop legend before I go, so that’s why I do things like the two-hundred-bar freestyle, the ten-minute freestyle. I’m coming with a three-hundred-bar freestyle before the new year. Fifteen minutes, man. Niggas ain’t doin’ that ‘cause niggas don’t got the discipline, because niggas don’t love hip-hop as much as they say they do. Everyone’s looking for the easy way out. I’m not looking for the easy way out. I’m trying to find the hardest way possible to get in and stay in.”

As the buzz continued to build in the streets, enterprising minds continued to plot behind closed doors, culminating in the addition of Game to the label boardroom experiment that is G-Unit. “It started off with Banks, 50 and Yayo. Then Yayo went down and they was looking for a third member, so they found Young Buck who was stuck in L.A. because of the Juvenile situation. So 50 had the East coast with Yayo and Banks, and he had the Dirty South in Young Buck. After time went on they dropped Beg For Mercy, and I was putting it down on mixtapes. Jimmy Iovine decided that G-Unit was missing something - West coast shit. So we all sat down - Dre, 50 and Jimmy Iovine - and we decided that it was a good idea, and I joined G-Unit. And I’ve been doing my part ever since. That way we would sew up the whole board.” Call it the rap equivalent of a Microsoft/Apple merger: the forces of Eminem, Dre, 50 Cent and the hottest upcoming artists in Banks, Buck, Yayo and Game, all under the business expertise of Jimmy Iovine and Interscope. “It’s like a family, man. [And] at the end of the day we all come together and we put it down. We’re the modern-day N.W.A. for all-platinum artists as solo artists. The Shady camp, the Aftermath camp, the G-Unit camp, the Black Wall Street camp, we all under the Interscope umbrella and if you ain’t under that umbrella your ass gon’ get wet.”

Game liberally peppers his lyrics with the names of his newfound famous friends, as well as the names of his idols whose classic albums he studied during his hospital-bound rap education, and you can hear heavy traces of all of them in his rhymes – Jay-Z’s repetition, Kool G. Rap’s machine-gun flow, Dre’s tidy metaphors. Compelling as his style is, at this point it is more a patchwork of his influences than it is his own. In terms of pure skills Game easily smokes just about every other new mainstream artist out now (as well as many of the vets), but in comparison to the rap greats he is constantly mentioned alongside, he remains a student for now. But with all his talent and support he could easily grow into a legend over time, and that’s what makes Game’s career so interesting, so unique. Where most emcees spend a cool decade in the trenches working on their style before opportunity knocks, Game was thrust into the public eye after only three years of rhyming experience, with the biggest names in the game (no pun intended) giving him their full support, and media documenting his every move. It’s almost like a rap reality show: take a gangbanger straight off the streets, give him the kind of career most rappers only dream of, and follow him around for the next few years to see what happens. We get to watch Game’s career trajectory from rookie to vet (tragedies and acts of God notwithstanding) in real time.

Of course, a rap career just wouldn’t be right– let alone the rap career of a G-Unit/Shady/Aftermath artist – without adhering to one of the cardinal rules for success in ’05: Rapper Beef. Game has definitely done his mentors proud in this respect, going to town on the likes of Memphis Bleek, Yukmouth and Joe Budden in the last year alone. “Do not forget that I’m from the West coast. We not supposed to be able to be as lyrically inclined as an East coast artist is. And after everything is said and done, niggas went running back home with they tails tucked between they ass. After all the beefs I’m the only nigga that’s still standing firm in his position.” Curiously, Game has since squashed most, if not all of his rap beefs, according to various media reports. But if history is any indicator, it’s safe to say that the allure of drama, with all its pros and cons, will follow Game throughout his career. Occurrences like the Vibe awards riot are just another page in the encyclopedia of trouble that the Aftermath/Shady/G-Unit conglomerate has been a part of over the years, and by joining this camp, Game has inherited all beefs and grudges – old and new. And while this collective’s tendency to all get involved in each other’s many beefs paired with a long and perpetually growing arrest sheet guarantees them tough-guy publicity for many years, it does come fraught with a considerable amount of real-life danger. Dre put the gangsta in rap, so logically Dre’s camp will have more problems than most: the sins of the father will visit the children. What wasn’t as easily anticipated was the lasting effect gangsta rap has continued to have on the entire industry.

Once upon a time, rap held the streets at arm’s length: existing side by side, but never quite one and the same. Today, fifteen years after Dre and Priority Records (a label heavily affiliated with Interscope) first introduced the rapping criminal to the mainstream with N.W.A. and turned the industry upside down, the underworld element has fully invaded the rap world - both behind the scenes and on the microphone. Rappers like Game represent the millennium breed of rappers: gangstas who just happen to rap. Real street cats with real scars and real stories – and being from L.A. only makes it more of an issue for Game. “It’s just the lure of this L.A. lifestyle that can fuck anybody up. It happens all the time, man. Look where Big died. Look where Pac died. Look at all the bullshit going on. It’s always L.A. Everywhere else in America they have a fuckin’ culture. The only thing that we got is gangbanging. That’s our culture. But we still divided. You go to the East Coast and everybody on the same shit. Go to the South and it’s gold teeth and dreads and ‘what up shawty…’ Then you come to L.A. and we the most diverse motherfuckers on the planet. Everybody’s jealous of each other. Nobody wanna see nobody do nothing good. We got a bad habit of shit like that. It almost seems like you gotta be from a gang or from the streets or from some type of violent past to even be a rapper. It’s fucked up, but it’s just how it is. I don’t know when the turning point was for gangs to play such a big part in this hip-hop shit, but now they are now more than ever. The shit’s crazy, man. I don’t know how it happened; it just happened. Now the streets is a bigger influence than they ever was.”

As for Game’s perspective on drama, if it worries him, it sure doesn’t show. “At the end of the day a nigga gotta sit in the corner and die by himself. You can’t hold my hand, I can’t hold yours. You bleed just like me. We share the same air. We need oxygen to live, so come on, nigga. Bring it. I don’t give a fuck about none of these niggas, man. My family, my close friends, everybody that I work with, and after that you niggas can suck my dick with that bullshit, man. I ain’t letting these niggas push my buttons. But at the same time I’m a good nigga. I’m down-to-earth. I’ll fuck with everybody. I won’t leave until the last autograph is signed. I’m playing with the kids. I stop my car, get out, get on the hoop court. I don’t give a fuck what kind of clothes I got on or how many minutes are left before I gotta get to the photo shoot. I live my life accordingly, the way I want to. With all the beef shit and niggas hatin’ me and wanna bring me problems? I’ll bring them problems. The more richer I get, the easier it’s gonna be to break your fuckin’ neck. I’m somebody’s father, man. Niggas is gon’ respect me at the end of the day.”

OC TALKS ABOUT THE MURDER OF BIG L (Rime)




BY THE TIME HARLEM, NY RAPPER BIG L TOOK HIS LAST BREATH after taking seven bullets to the chest and head in front of an Uptown club, he was set to be one of hip-hop's next greats. His '95 debut album on Sony, Lifestylez Ov Da Poor And Dangerous, was deemed an instant classic by The Source thanks to the combo of L's syllable-shredding wordplay, guest appearances from then-rookies Jay-Z and Cam'Ron and the rock-solid East Coast jeep beats provided courtesy of his home team Diggin 'In The Crates, the legendary crew which also claims Fat Joe, Lord Finesse and Show & AG among its esteemed members. L's style was a clash in contrasts. Conceptually he was the gutterest of the gutter, "...pistol-whipping the priest on Sunday..." being just one of his many outlandish-to-the-point-of-plain-evil boasts. But lyrically he was the Jaguar of emcees: he often rhymed two or three times in one bar, his punchlines were some of the fiercest in the game, his rhythm and timing flawless. In 1998 L released his landmark single "Ebonics", a breakdown of most every East Coast street slang term imaginable. Roc-A-Fella was a week away from announcing his official signing to the label when L was put to rest on January 15, 1999. His sophomore album The Big Picture was released in 2000. One of the people in L's circle was Omar Credle a.k.a. OC, author of the 1994 real rap anthem "Time's Up". OC and Big L can be heard together on "Dangerous", the DJ Premier-produced collaboration featured on OC's sophomore release, Jewelz.


L was a funny dude. He would get you upset quick. He could taunt you and get under your skin, then at the end of the argument it would be like, everybody cool, everything is everything, everybody would laugh it off after they got upset with him. You couldn't say nothing around L without him commenting on it, because he knew how to fuck with you. Him and Freddie Foxxx got into it one night in the studio. I recall Foxxx telling him he would take him somewhere in Brooklyn where he'd drop him off and the wolves would get at him, and L told Foxxx he'd take him somewhere in Harlem where they wouldn't even find his ass, some shit like that. Everyone in the studio was bugging. I think Foxxx was mad but Foxxx is in the circle like that too, so he just brushed it off. And that was it. Nobody ever really came at L ready to hurt him, but when he was in the room and he would start that shit some niggas would walk out like "I don't feel like being bothered with this kid right now." But he did it on purpose because he knew he could get away with it. He was the youngest and that was his character.

He was different from what he rhymed about. He wasn't no sucker or nothing like that, but a lot of people didn't know him like we knew him. They just knew Big L the MC. He was animated with his rhymes in a devilish way. With female situations, a lot of [his lyrics] was probably true. but come on, like cats are talking that murder shit in their rhymes and really doing it. He was just telling a story. He wasn't no killer. He was in the streets. Everyone knows he grew up in Harlem: 135th and Lennox, 139th. But he didn't do nothing no different than any other cat growing up in the hood: trying to get paper, messing around with the chicks, trying to floss, whatever. Me and L was on tour [the last time I saw him], maybe the same year he died. We was in Croatia, Japan, Amsterdam, London, Casablanca, Switzerland... What I really remember from that tour is that he was writing "Ebonics" for a year. That was a thought-out song right there. Every slang word he done heard in his life he done put in that song.

I was in the studio waiting for L [the day he died]. I spoke to him on Valentine's Day. he called and I told my wife to tell him I'd call him back. He didn't show up to the studio so I broke out. When I got him wifey told me L was dead. I was confused just hearing "dead", so I was thinking about Finesse. I don't know what made me think about Finesse. We called Show and Buc and everybody else, and Fat Joe and Show rolled over the 139th St. Bridge - they got the word quicker than anybody, right after it happened. They went down to 139th and seen him laid out, that's how we confirmed it. Fat Joe and Show seen his boots under the sheet. It was basically some street shit. That's all I can put at you.

It broke our hearts, man, for a minute. That was a big blow right there. He was about to have a very good career. Hov and Dame and them had it set up to bring him on. It just left us fucked up, man. Diggin' wasn't the same after that, put it like that. To this day, sometimes I just hope dogs is gon' call me on the phone or something, nawmean? I wish he could just pick up the phone and be like "I'm here" or whatever. We lost a few cats in our crew after that who wasn't emcees, so we had a black cloud over us for a minute. Personally, it opened my eyes to a lot of shit. Just life - enjoying life and waking up the next day and being healthy. Money comes and goes. I can always make paper so that shit doesn't really matter to me no more, it's just a necessity. Cars and clothes and all that shit, that shit is non-descript to me. Plus he's a Taurus; he's a Taurus and I'm a Taurus. I just turned 33 recently. So it's like I beat the odds.

THE MAKING OF THE BIG PUN MURAL (Rime)


In the world of graffiti art, few organizations stand taller than New York City's TATS cru. Started in 1979 by writers Brim, Bio and Base, TAT ("Teenagers Are Tough" being one of the acronym's many supposed meanings) played a crucial role in shaping and defining hip-hop as it appears to the eye, its members' craftwork appearing on album covers for Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five as well as the video to Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock", not to mention the countless subway trains that trundled around the five boroughs for years, bearing their multi-colored mark. When Hollywood turned its camera on hip-hop culture in the mid-'80s TAT was front and center for the intense interest in graffiti that shortly followed, helping bring graf into mainstream art galleries as well as the multiplex. TAT expanded the very definition of bombing to encompass platforms such as art, movies and graphic design, showing graff writers a legal and profitable way to bring fame to their names. TAT added the S to their name in the early '90s following the merger of TATA and TS, a crew headed by Crack, a fellow Bronx writer better known to the world as Fat Joe. TATS member Nicer was present on the day Joe brought the late Big Pun into the fold, and he was also present on the day they decided to paint a wall on Reverend St. James Street in the Bronx in Pun's memory.


When we first met Pun, he had the only helicopter haircut. He had real long hair on the top, a real tight fade on the side. Brim said, "Show these niggas your hair." Pun took off his skully hat and turned his head in a helicopter movement and his hair started moving and we screeched on him. It looked like a fat nigga about to fly. But the more you snapped on that nigga, that nigga would tear you an asshole, bee. All fat niggas get snapped on, so the fat nigga can snap back. You could not find a funnier nigga on this whole fucking planet than Pun. When Joe brought him through to meet everyone, that was it - he was family. No question.

[When Pun was preparing for the release of his first album Capital Punishment] the company had taken off. We were doing work for Coke, Seagrams, we did a commercial for Reebok, and there was a little cheddar in the company. So now we were approaching landlords like "Fuck this illegal bullshit - I'm gonna buy the spots that I bomb on." Joe put together a team to blaze the city with stickers, and the stickers coincided with the walls we were painting. So not only were you seeing the shit large on all these walls, but now surrounding that mural was block after block after block of stickers of the same image. On top of that, we were blazing the city with snipes. So Pun's joint drops - people went nuts.

[For Pun's second album Yeah Baby] we had gone from 42 walls to like 58 walls. We had gotten about five done, and we went to our office. Somebody called the office, like, "Yo, is it true? Somebody said something happened to Pun." I was like, "I don't know what you're talking about." So I hang up and we're getting ready to go out and paint another wall for his album. Another person calls, like, "Is it true? Is Pun dead?" So now Bio comes in like, "Someone just called me asking if Pun was dead." So we call Joe and Lorraine, Joe's wide, picks up. She sounds like she's crying. She says, "We just got here to the hospital," Bio says. "People are calling here asking if Pun is dead." Lorraine says, "Bio, it's true." She hangs up and we're sitting in the office, bugging.

More and more people were calling. We started talking about Pun and we were like, "We gotta do something." So, being that we already had the van packed up with spraypaint and ladders and scaffolding and we were going to paint a wall for him anyway, we were like, "Let's go paint a memorial wall for him." There was this wall where he took his first 8x10s (publicity photos) in front of, when Joe was shopping him around. It was a wall of a Boricua character on a cross holding two Glocks with a bulletproof vest on and a bandanna of the Puerto Rican flag on his head. This piece had become kind of iconic in our neighborhood. Pun loved that wall so much that he did all his shots in front of it, and he would always tell me, "That wall is dope! That's the greatest wall!" So when we were thinking about where to paint the memorial, I was like, "That's Pun's wall, bee."

So we went out, and it's about six o'clock in the evening by now, and the news is all over mad radio stations and was starting to get on the [TV] news. While we were painting so much loved poured out - there must have been hundreds of people out there on that street, and it's a small block. So we're painting and people are coming from everywhere, lighting candles and bringing flowers. Angie Martinez got on the radio and cried and let the world know that Pun had passed away, and she also mentioned that we were painting a wall in memory of him. People drove from Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island, Jersey... there were so many people there that the cops came, and we said, "Ah, they gonna shut it down." You know what they did? They parked across the street and turned on their headlights and gave us light for two to three hours, until the lieutenant came and shut it down. I had never seen so many satellites in the air. Jimmy from Jimmy's Bronx Cafe came through with at least seven thousand dollars' worth of Pun's favorite food, for free.

So we're out there painting the first fay and it all got so overwhelming that we couldn't even finish it. So we called it a night and we bounced. We go back to the wall at around 12:00 the next day setting up, and it's the same vibe. Mad people showing up all over again. People brought wreaths, bouquets of flowers, people left messages on bandannas and cardboard and laid all this out against the wall. people were crying and talking to the image of Pun on the wall. Like, in Jerusalem they have the Wailing Wall? For people in the Bronx, this was the new version of that wall. People were going to it and letting out their anger, their frustration, just crying against that fucking wall.

So we finish painting and I say goodbye to everybody and I dip up the block in my car. I turn the corner and I say to myself, "Why is this cop following me?" The nigga pulls me over and I'm like, "What's going on, officer?" The nigga said, "Can you get out of the vehicle?" So I get out and say, "Why are you arresting me?" He said, "You were doing something you weren't supposed to be doing." I said, "I was painting today, so I don't know what you're talking about." He said, "That's what you weren't supposed to be doing." he handcuffs me and puts me in the back of an unmarked car and we drive back towards the wall, where there's still mad people. So now I realize why I'm there - they're waiting for Bio and BG to leave. They pick them up too and take us all to the precinct. What ended up happening was, just to bust our balls, while we were painting, the cops called up the owner of the property and gave her a very vagye description of what was going on. They told [the owner], "Right now we have five guys writing on your wall. WOuld you like me to arrest them?" The owner's a sweet lady, we've known her for mad years - we've been painting that location for years. And that was all the cop told her.

So what ended up happening was, people start calling the precinct: politicians, senators... Lisa Evers had a show on CNN, and she's calling the precinct, telling [the cops] "You'd better tell me something or I'm going on the air with what I know." Jimmy from Jimmy's Bronx Cafe goes in, saying "Why did you arrest him? They're painters in our community, they beautify our city..." So noe we got those politicians, the media, and mad people coming to the precinct. These niggas are getting nervous because they're like, "We can't let them go because we just booked them, so what are we gonna do?" So they end up taking us to Central Booking. The cops say, "We're gonna put you in the holding cell. Don't tell the other prisoners what you're here for." We say, "Alright, no problem." We go in, and cats in the holding cell ask us what we were ther for and we say, "We were painting the Pun wall!" They were like "whaaat!" Them niggas started making a ruckus in the fucking cell, beefing with the cops! So they drag us outta there an dput us in individual cells. Now it's six in the morning and we can't sleep. Bio is in the next cell complaining that his cell has roaches in it. They eventually come open our cells. We go down a flight of stairs, then they make us sign some papers and give us copies, then they walk us down some more stairs all the way to this door. We're at the back of the courthouse, at some back exit. [A cop] opens the door and says, "Look guys, no hard feelings, we were just doing our job... The owner probably doesn't wanna press charges." I said, "I told you that shit yesterday!" So the guy lets us out the door and we're in the back alley of the courthouse. I'm like, "Why did this fool let us out the back?" So we walk around the corner and there's mad fucking press out there! Pun was a funny nigga, bee. I think even in passing, us getting arrested was Pun's way of fucking with us.