Today we have a great story about the life of a young rapper by Nick Sansone. Engine engine number nine, on the NY transit line...
By Nick Sansone
In high school I had a friend who wanted to be a rapper. We were seniors, both of us still reasonably unacquainted with failure and therefore capable of pursuing our fantasies with conviction. PlayStation being my lone passion at the time, I hoped to be a video game designer.
My friend was good at what he did. In our junior year he won second place in the battle of the bands contest put on each Fall by area schools. He finished behind a four-person punk ensemble whose vocalist sang through his nose, and who (badly) incorporated the harmonica into the act, really stretching the limits of the term “punk music” in a very offensive fashion, at least to me. The following year my friend placed first. He beat out several other gifted musicians and about a dozen more tone-deaf dilettantes. For his victory he received a two-hundred dollar gift certificate to a music supply chain, which he used to buy the cheapest wireless microphone they had in stock, and then he pocketed the difference, spending the rest, as best as I could tell, on weed.
Rightly he felt encouraged by his success. He applied to several music colleges, most of them up north, with the vague idea that he would go there under the auspices of training for the trade of, say, a sound engineer, and instead wow his classmates with his lyrical prowess and become somehow famous. I thought this was a bad plan, but I kept it to myself. I had learned over the course of our friendship to let his schemes play out to their natural conclusions. (Around this same time I sent in applications to several two-year tech schools that offered degrees in video game design.)
Towards the end of senior year my friend turned eighteen, now old enough to compete in a freestyle contest held each Wednesday night at a club downtown. He entered several weeks in a row. Each Thursday morning in class I could tell how he fared the previous night; he was lethargic and gloomy, and he kept his head planted on his desk for most of first and second period.
Up until that time he called himself D-Light. He had performed under that name in the battle of the bands, and he sketched out elaborate logos in a composition book during fifth period geometry, using the public-school-property protractors to draw intricate and flawless lines. He said he was deciding which one he wanted to be on the cover of his first CD.
However, after his consecutive defeats, my friend thought he should change his name. During his matches, he told me, his opponents used it against him, calling him things like “Sunny D-Light” and “D-Slight” and “D-Light-in-the-loafers” (a withering line, he said, that his opponent managed to rhyme with chauffeur). He needed a handle less open to ridicule.
“How about ‘orange’?” I suggested at lunch one day, probably thinking about a glass of Sunny Delight. “That word doesn’t rhyme with anything.”
“What?” my friend said. He looked betrayed, as though he felt I didn’t understand, or care about, the seriousness of his dilemma. “How exactly could I use that word in my name and not have it sound completely stupid?”
I knew little about rap—in fact I still know little about it; ska and punk was always more my scene—but I did understand the importance of a persona. (The lead singer of The Dead Kennedys would not be nearly as memorable if his stage name wasn’t “Jello Biafra.”) I apologized. Then, trying to be supportive, I said: “I always liked your old name. It suits you.”
“Makes me sound like a pussy.”
We were both silent for a while.
“Nothing rhymes with ‘silver,’ either,” I said eventually. “Or ‘nostril.’”
The next several weeks my friend skipped the club competition. He deliberated a succession of aliases—all of which were better than my suggestions—and he practiced in front of his mirror, trying out new lines with each new name, noting his favorites in the same composition book that bore the endless incarnations of his fantasized album covers. And at school, during lunch, out by the benches in the courtyard, he tried out those lines on other kids who liked to perform for the attention of girls. Many of these kids were the same ones my friend whipped at the battle of the bands the past two years.
Shortly thereafter my friend and I got responses back from the colleges to which we had applied. I was rejected from my top schools because of poor math scores (I had yet to learn that algebra figured heavily into video game design, or technical design of any sort for that matter). I was, however, accepted into one program in digital arts that was run out of a local theme park, and the admissions adviser promised that my low scores would not be a huge hurdle because they taught remedial courses and provided tutorials to help me catch up. “Just make sure your tuition is paid,” the adviser had advised. My friend, he was more successful, but equally dissatisfied. He was offered a seventy-five percent scholarship to a university in the state capital, but was unanimously rejected from his top choices as well. I tried to console him. “It’s cold in the north east, anyways,” I said.
It was then that he told me he intended to go to New York. He assured me that that was where all the industry bigwigs were. Maybe he would try out for MTV or something. Normally I would have ignored his plans and waited for reality to sink in, but I found this to be a dangerously boneheaded move. “Does your mom know? Because I bet she’d smack you if she heard you were turning down free money.”
“I’m an adult,” he said. “Besides, I got a savings. I need to be where I can get exposure.”
The next time my friend entered the nightclub’s freestyle competition I had also turned eighteen. It was just after graduation; we were both preparing for after summer, me for the little technical school located at the theme park, and my friend for New York, where he had a cousin who would let him stay at his place until he got settled. In order to be encouraging, and with the half-formed idea I could talk him out of going up north, I accompanied him to the club. I could see he was nervous. He gestured wildly as he drove, and his voice quavered, his words piling up in miniature collisions as he spoke. Though, even had I been less deductive, I would have caught on to his nerves by the time he dry-heaved in an alley a block from the club.
“Every time I do that,” he said.
“You should stop.”
The bouncer stamped our hands with a big X so that the bartender would know not to serve us alcohol. He collected my ten-dollar cover charge (my friend got in for free since he was in the competition), and we went inside, walking towards the dazzling array of strobe and laser lights. The bass from the massive speakers compressed my chest and obliterated all other sounds. Women in skimpy outfits gyrated with each other on raised platforms. My friend went backstage, and I staked out a spot in a booth with a good view, of the stage not the platforms.
That night I smoked heavily from a pack of six-dollar cigarettes I purchased at the bar. I was excited to be old enough to do it in public without the fear of the police showing up and messing with me. My friend was in the third pair of first round competition, going against a man probably twice his age, a gigantic Puerto Rican who called himself Big Z; “like snooze, right?” my friend asked when the emcee pointed the microphone at him. The crowd oohed, Big Z scoffed, and the tightness in my stomach relented for the moment.
My friend went first, and, while I thought he performed masterfully, delivering several cutting shots about his opponent’s weight and speculated incapacity to view or reach his penis, Big Z, when it was his turn, mowed down my friend in a merciless assault of rhymed insults. I winced. The emcee solicited the audience for applause to determine the winner. It was not even close. I could hear my own voice above the polite applause from the others in the audience, and the lack of support soon cowed me into silence.
“You kicked ass tonight,” I said when he joined me in the booth after twenty or so minutes. I gave him a cigarette. “Fuck what these idiots think.” I swept my hand towards the people in the club.
“Thanks,” he said. His voice sounded small and broken. It was then I attributed his delay to crying. On stage the emcee was reintroducing the first-round winners before commencing with the second part of the competition. “I got stomped.”
“You have all summer to—” I said, then hesitated, unsure how to complete the thought.
“Not all summer,” he said. “I leave for New York in a couple of weeks.”
“You still plan on going?”
My friend was quiet.
We left the club before the final round, though Big Z made it in the top two, and I pointed this out to my friend in a misguided effort to cheer him up—no shame in being beaten by the best, or some such platitude.
“There’s always shame in being beaten,” he said.
We hung out together a few more times over the next couple of weeks, played some gratuitously violent video games and smoked weed. After that I didn’t hear from him, and I didn’t bother to call. I assumed he was in New York.
In August I started the two-year technical school and stayed enrolled just long enough that I was unable to get a refund when I dropped out, having discovered that design was all math, and way over my head. The following semester I matriculated to the local community college to see if I could find a career more suited to my skills, whatever those were.
A few months into my first semester at the community college I got a letter from my friend—an actual, physical one—and enclosed inside was a flier for his first show. He had scored an (unpaid) gig at some small venue as an opening act with a couple of people he had formed a group with. The return address was to his campus mailbox at the state university.