A week ago, I got into a freestyle rap battle.
Now, I know this is not something that a 37-year-old father of two should ever be writing, but for some reason, last Wednesday night – I felt a burning desire to join an intimidating rap circle and try and drop some dope-ass, quick-minded, funny lyrics on some totally unsuspecting strangers.
If there is ever a moment in my life I could have back, it is this one.
Standing out in front of the Smokehouse restaurant in Burbank – in front of my wife and another couple – whose kid is in the same kindergarten class with our son, I decided to stumble over into a “cypher,” or crew of people rapping together in a cyclical pattern. I suddenly turned from “the bearded weirdo who always drives the soccer practice carpool,” into “the drunk dad from the kindergarten class who thought he was Eminem.”
Let me back up here a minute. See, I used to be a rapper. That is not a typo. I didn’t “wrap” presents… I RAPPED. I recorded a few CD’s and everything. I had skills. A future. A following.
I know, laugh it up…my outside appearance is deceiving. I am white, fatherly and pasty. I wear basketball shorts and t-shirts 90 percent of the time for “comfort.” I occasionally have non-dissolved Rogaine foam in my hair. I am not intimidating at all.
But, believe it or not, at one point in my younger life I was a bona-fide, authentic, legitimate, validated, record deal – having, somewhat admired freestyle rapper. Arguably, one of the best in the world. I could rhyme like Dr. Seuss on a mushroom trip. I could think off the top of my head faster than 99 percent of all improvisational actors I have encountered. I used to perform my skills live with bands in nightclubs, at late night parties and at sketch comedy shows. I garnered mad respect. People would come up nightly and ask me, “How the hell does your mind think like that?” The truth is? I had no idea.
I bet you’re wondering how this all started…
In 1987, if you had asked my mother what career she thought I’d pursue as a young man – based on the thousands of dollars I made mastering Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire’s signatures – she most likely would have said “professional autograph forger.” (A quick arrest at the local baseball card shop in 1989 ended that career…)
She might have guessed I could have followed my father – who is a doctor – into medicine – but a quick “D” in chemistry my sophomore year of high school stifled that dream. (I even cheated. And I still got a D…)
I may have even been able to make a living in the courtroom, brandishing my gift of gab in front of honorable judges while trying to convince the jury that the defendant was not even in the country when the crime occurred… But to me, law school was for the geeks who couldn’t talk to girls at junior high parties. Or make them laugh at summer camp… Or freestyle rap their way into their pants.
“Yo Melissa/ I wanna kiss ya/Take off your dress and I wont dismiss ya…”
The first time I made a rhyme up about a girl was in eighth grade. Her name was Melissa, and we were at Dana Restival’s Halloween party. Everybody knew I was the best rapper in school – and when I dropped those lyrics to her in front of a crowd of people, she continued to follow me around the party for the rest of the night. Around 9:30, we snuck away, near a saguaro cactus in the Tucson desert – and shared our first kiss. It was sloppy, but unbelievably perfect. Brilliant and everything I had ever imagined. In my mind, Melissa was going to be my girlfriend. I thought I had it made… Problem was, she ended up letting John Coates – school hesher – feel her up on the school bus a week later.
Back in the 1980’s, if you were into rap music, it made you unique. I had a partner in crime named “Ryan the Rhymer” (Now a dentist in Tucson) – and we comprised the tightest white-boy rapping outfit at Townsend Junior High School in 1989. We were a two-man wrecking crew known as “SO FRESH.” I wore African leather medallions to school and sported those 3rd Bass/ Dwayne Wayne flip-up glasses as a way to seem more “intelligent.” We wrote raps and performed onstage as a crew at talent shows, and were basically laughed at for not listening to cheesy hair-cock rock like Poison and Slaughter. Back then, we were the musical outcasts, because we liked Beastie Boys, Shinehead and Boogie Down Productions. Then, one day, we won a student council election based on one of our raps (Called “Do it for the School!!!”) – After that, we were no longer considered out-of-touch losers.
The first rap I performed at my high school was when a kid named Eric Tiberon challenged me to a rhyme-off in ninth grade. He was black, and had the entire school behind him mainly for the sole reason that he had a high-top fade that looked like Kid from “Kid ‘N Play.” When I accepted his challenge, people were somewhat scared for me… but the final parking lot battle went a little differently. Eric basically recited Eazy-E’s classic Eazy-Duz-It. I made up a rap about how much being in ninth grade sucked.
Eric rapped about his cars and his girls (Both of which he did not have).
I rapped about being beat up by a high school bully named Jason and getting a C in Geometry. I remember my verse well.
“School sucks, I get up so early/ Bully named Jason always looking so burly/ Said I looked like a freshman girlie/ stuck my head in a toilet and gave me a swirlie…”
Yeah, I know it was WILL SMITH-ish… It wasn’t hardcore or gangsta – but it was funny – and the people loved it. So much so, that Eric and I became friends after that – even going to see Ghostbusters 2 together just to hear Bobby Brown’s new song “On Our Own.” (Still holds up today. CLASSIC jam).
After that, high school was certainly an awkward stumble through athletics, music, girls and experimentation – but hip-hop music was always a staple in my life. I rapped over Humpty Dance break beats at high school proms and earned my juice on the dance floor busting out the Running Man, Roger Rabbit and the Butterfly to songs like The Choice is Yours by Black Sheep during my junior prom. By my senior year, I thought I’d even try to make a legitimate rap album.
And then The Chronic came out.
Dr. Dre’s album changed my life Suddenly, dancing wasn’t cool anymore. My style of rap sucked and whatever street cred I had amongst my Tucson, Arizona brethren went out the window. I was Vanilla Iced-out. Squashed. 187-d. Ignored.
At the time, I was surprised at how little I cared. In fact, it was a relief to know that my rap career had ended… And the following fall I enrolled in college at USC in Los Angeles – where I engulfed myself in West Coast G-funk – but also expanded my mind into other areas of music as well. I picked up the acoustic guitar as a means to get laid – and even started my first band with my pal Jason Richards. (The only other freshman that could play more than 3 chords) We were called, sadly – “Two College Freshman.”
We were at USC – which is a terrific campus in the middle of south central Los Angeles – and we were one year removed from the famed LA riots of 1992 – so the West Coast dominance of rap music was everywhere – but I no longer wanted to be a rapper. In fact, based on the amount of girls I got when I rapped compared to how may I got when I did an acoustic guitar cover of “Your Bright Baby Blues,” I suddenly realized that I really wanted to be JACKSON BROWNE. Especially when legends like 2Pac and Notorious BIG were murdered, I knew the rap game wasn’t exactly cut out for a 3.8 GPS-having son of a Jewish doctor.
I ended up paying tuition and making ends meet in college by DJ-ing and Emcee-ing fraternity parties and weddings – and I eventually branched out into Bar Mitzvahs after school (An entirely different story altogether). But by the time the late 90’s rolled around – and I found myself hanging around musical friends like the bands Matchbox 20, Paperback and even boy-band acquaintances like ‘NSYNC – I noticed that everybody always talked about the newest rap music out at the time. Puff Daddy, Mase, Nelly – you name it. This was the music of the time, and even the biggest musical stars I knew were obsessed with the genre. I’m not sure where it happened for the first time, but I was around some guy who began freestyle rapping. He was decent, but his trite choice of lyrics and lack of originality made me consider attempting my own rap. I jumped in. He nodded along, probably unimpressed – but nonetheless enjoying my effort. When I was done, he gave me a fist bump and walked away.
I did it again with the guys from ‘NSYNC. Living in Los Angeles in 1998 meant I had a lot of young friends who were trying to act, sing, dance, direct, produce – you name it. One of my buddies had grown up with Chris Kirkpatrick – probably best remembered as the guy Eminem threatened to beat up in a song in 2000 – and the dread-locked “bad boy” of ‘NSYNC – the most popular boy band in the history of the world. Chris and I would get drunk together and end up in some random hotel room with a bunch of girls and background dancers and rap producers at two in the morning. Somehow, after 30 Heineken bottles littered the floor and a few joints were passed, people began rapping. I started stepping in. I started getting the laughs. Making up rhymes – and ultimately having the tightest flows of any so-called “rapper” hanging around these after-parties.
Once, around 1999 – I ended up in the Standard Hotel with Dr. Dre. He was surrounded by 300-pound bodyguards and a crew of slinky women who looked like they were in En Vogue. – He employed a personal “blunt-roller” and was encircled by about ten wanna-be rappers. That night was the first time I was actually afraid to rap in front of somebody in nearly ten years. In fact, after witnessing three saggy-pantsed douche-nozzles try to rap Dre’s ear off, I decided that perhaps my rap future was a pointless joke. I guess I always knew what I did in hotel rooms with my friends was more of a party-trick, and less of a career choice, and it didn’t bother me. I had no interest in becoming a professional rapper. I was committed to having fun and getting laid and occasionally jumping on-stage after 10 drinks to freestyle along with my friend’s band at their Hollywood club gigs. None of it made any sense. We were 25-years-old, wasted and happy and sleeping until noon. We were young, dumb, naïve and convinced that fame and success was just around the corner. One of my friends, a former hip-hop dancer for the local rap station Power 106 – began calling me “Zachariah.” I immediately took on the moniker as my rap handle. “Zachariah, the Rhyme Messiah.” There it was. My party trick. I would go around any room and rap about what people were doing, wearing, drinking, you name it. I never thought it would lead to anything but a few free drinks and some laughter.
And then somebody offered me a record deal.
The first studio time I ever had booked was around this time. A girl I had fooled around with named Lisa knew a rap producer named “Cookie” and she arranged a meeting for us at the Skybar on Sunset Boulevard. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do during this meeting, but I put on a cowboy shirt and fluffed my hair up to Lindsay Buckingham –heights. Anything to seem somewhat marketable and charismatic.
At the time, nobody in LA had any type of haircut but a short spiked boy-band thing, so my wild Jew-fro gave me a little edge. It somehow made me a bit more reckless. Maybe even dangerous – if only in that “I don’t give a fuck” drug-addict look that you see outside of Venice Beach grocery stores.
At the Skybar, “Cookie” – as he introduced himself – told me to order a beer. Lisa was next to me, and I think I ordered a Corona because Mexican beer was about all I lived on in my early 20’s. Lisa bragged about my ability to freestyle and Cookie then stared me down, took a long pull off his beer and asked me to “do something impressive.”
It was on. Was he serious? I nearly froze. I was unsure of what to do. Should I recite some lyrics? Tell him some song ideas? I wasn’t sure. Instead I rapped off the top of my head to the cocktail waitress.
“Come here now for a second Miss blondie/ Any chance you wanna get on me?/ You live in LA? I’m from Arizona/ Do my boy Cookie a favor – another Corona?/ Don’t mistake this – I Cant fake this – you’re so hot for a waitress/ Do ya have fake tits? I cant tell/ That’s alright, I still think yer swell/ My name is Zachariah, how do I look?/ Trying to rhyme for this dude named Cook/ Ill steal yer heart like a bona-fide crook/Ill take yer naked photos and put em in a book/ So lets just let this relationship bloom/ So here’s the key to my hotel room…”
The waitress smiled. Cookie looked at me and said, “I want to capture THAT in the studio.”
I made out with the waitress that night.
So a week later, we were in Cookie’s studio, known as “LeftSide.” I had written a song in Las Vegas with my friend Jason Jacobs called “Runnin’ Shit” about two guys who slept with girls, traveled to Mexico and Vegas on random Wednesdays – and got high and drove really nice cars. In reality, we were both Southern California Bar Mitzvah DJ’s. The last time I had been to Mexico was with my mother over a family Christmas vacation (typical Jewish trip – Mexico over Christmas) and I drove a 1989 Dodge Lancer.
To top it all off, I was desperately unable to do anything in the studio that night – but SUCK.
The studio was a small rented office space off of Slauson and La Cienega. Cookie hooked me up with a producer named Warrior – who was a master of the MPC 3000. We smoked some weed, made a beat and put together a silly rap song full of voice imitations and bad jokes and pop culture references. It was called “Come On” and I was convinced it was my ticket to the big time. A crossover hit… a massive smash. Cookie started marketing me to record companies as “If Eminem hung out at Dawson’s Creek.” I should have quit right then.
I put out an EP on Q/LeftSide Records – and it went triple plastic. Every major label denied me. I ended up with a closet full of 3500 CD’s – which included a song called “Other Side” featuring the powerful voice of a silk-voiced friend of Cookie’s named Stacy Ferguson. Today she’s known a little differently. She’s Fergie from Black Eyed Peas. I never thought she had much of a future. She did have a voice from God, but so did a lot of girls. When we stopped hanging out, I didn’t think she’d go very far.
After LeftSide folded, I ended up starting a country rock band that dabbled in hip-hop. We had a little local success, but not much more. From there, I caught a lucky break and got on TV – where I was able to convince the folks behind the screen to let me attempt to record some songs for nearly every show I have been a part of. Today, those residual checks amount to roughly 63 cents a year.
I also recorded a bunch of stupidly silly comedy rap songs about Cartoons I’d like to F*%&, White People Problems and the TSA. I have released a few CD’s on some small labels and I have been hired by over two dozen companies to write and record rap songs for their products, from Levi’s Jeans to Netgear. So, I guess, technically, I once called myself a rapper… but I certainly never took it seriously. And now, the style of rap is so much different, I have no idea how to imitate lyrical geniuses like Lil Wayne and Drake. I’m still stuck in that Will Smith meets Skee Lo style. Storytelling, comedy and fluff rap.
According to my calculations, it had been nine years since I truly “battled” somebody. A battle is when you trade rhymes with another emcee, often including insults, braggadocio and clever wordplay. A lot of rappers suck at this. For some reason, I was always able to come up with quick rhymes. In fact, I have never lost a battle in my life. Other fools have claimed they out-rapped me, but most of them recited something I could tell was written beforehand. I was strictly improvisational.
Freestyle rapping is like working out. You need to do it all the time or you get rusty. Rarely do you take nine years off and step up to the microphone and sound like Rakim. For some reason, however, last week – following a few glasses of red wine, I thought I was back in the Skybar in 1999.
The three dudes standing outside of the Smokehouse restaurant in Burbank were sharing a joint and rapping about “Maybach’s” and “Stackin’ Chips.” The valet parking attendant took our ticket as I caught one of the guy’s eyes. I guess in the 90’s you would call what he was doing “Mad-dogging.” I would normally run from any large crew of wasted black dudes in a parking lot at 11 o’clock at night, but for some reason, I felt the need to jump into the rap battle. Maybe it was because he kept staring at my wife and obviously commenting under his breath about her. Whatever it was, I felt like I needed to say something. I took a step towards them.
“Punk ass bitches get stitches like snitches/rub you out like a genie, grant ya 3 wishes/ Im a killa, son, drinking Miller, son – All the tracks on my album dope, no filler son…”
I heard the guy’s rhyme. Not bad, but I knew I could hang. I sort of stumbled over as my wife failed to pull me back and stop me from entering the cypher. As I walked up, they noticed me and rapped about my approach.
“White boy stepping up, what the fuck he want/ Gonna kick him in the dick if he pull a stunt…”
The 3 guys laughed uproariously. I started getting nervous. I heard my wife gasp. The other couple we were eating with immediately signaled for their Volkswagen Touareg to be ready to drive off should I get into a street brawl or something. I slipped up to the crew of rappers.
“Are you guys rapping?” I asked, realizing I sounded like that fat pledge in Animal House asking the frat brothers if they were playing cards.
They burst out laughing. I thought I was doomed.
“Yeah, you wanna step in?” A large man with a diamond encrusted grenade-chain offered.
“Well, I actually freestyle… was hoping to get in on the cypher.”
More laughter. They punched each other’s shoulders and leaned their heads against one another.
“Are you gonna put your doggie bag down first?” One of the guys asked.
I looked down. In my hand was a plastic bag of leftovers with a red bow around it. I looked like the schlub I used to make fun of when I was younger. The out of touch chump who was taking home half a New York Strip and three pieces of cheesy-bread after a double-date night. I knew the only way out was to rap. I began firing.
“Yo -I take a bag of leftovers from the smokehouse/ you can continue with your jokes now/I’m broke now – so I have to eat this for breakfast/ When’s your next concert? Put me on the guest list/ I spent my weed money on my wife’s gold necklace/ That’s her over there, she’s got the Best Tits/ I’ve ever seen and they aint even fake/ We live in a house over in Toluca Lake/ I bust freestyles in only one take/ Put the kids to bed stay up late and get baked/ and I know I look lame and somewhat old/ You guys look like a younger De La Soul/ But my wife’s calling me to get the car and go home/ Because she don’t want me to catch another cold/ So I’m out – thanks for giving me time / I doubt any of ya’ll can defeat that rhyme!”
I stepped back and took a breath. Wow. I had dropped 16 bars in front of a crew of three hardcore hip-hop heads who probably took rap music more seriously than I ever did… I had held my own. I was proud and I looked back at my wife and the other couple, who were stone-faced and somewhat impressed. Wait until I tell my son about this!!! I thought to myself.
And then one of the guys began answering my challenge. His name was Black Angus.
“Yo, white boy – your white noise aint right boy/ yeah I see yer wife, she no longer tight, boy/ cause I did her last week/ in the back seat of my Jeep/ Did it in five seconds without a peep/ while you was asleep/ getting kids ready for school/ I gave her my tool and took a piss in your pool/ Smoked your bullshit weed/ pulled it indeed/ Killed you like Drago did Apollo Creed/ Planted a seed – inside her – you mind?/ Now you wonder why your kid looks like mine?/ Don’t step into my circle unless you bring skills/ go home to your anti-anxiety pills/ Watch whack white TV like that show the Hills/ and keep being a sucker and paying yo’ bills/ You a dumb-ass honky who cant rhyme for shit/ Now go back to your Minivan before you get HIT.”
The crew cheered. Our friends Touareg sped off and I was silenced. A terrifying chill, like one I’ve had on airplanes when we hit some odd air pocket that scares even the flight attendants, engulfed my body. I was smoked. Forget winning a freestyle battle, I had been pulverized, insulted, dissed and clowned by a dude outside of a steakhouse that I would probably never be able to go to again. I faked a laugh, and tripped backwards towards my wife and our awaiting car. Which, by the way, is NOT a Minivan.
“How’d that go for you?” My wife asked as we raced off into the Burbank night.
“Uhm, not well,” I said.
After five minutes of complete silence, I uttered my final words of the incident.
“Why’d they have to be so mean?”
I sulked into my home. Being a little buzzed, I passed out watching SportsCenter and the thought of rap music sickened me with every commercial starring Andre 3000 or Ice Cube. It was a cold bucket of water to the face that reminded me that I am – at best – an above average rapper. I am a decent freestyler, but in no way cut out to be a professional. Bottom line? I am too much of a pussy.
The next morning, I pulled out the leftovers from the Smokehouse and considered making a steak-and-egg omelet. The one indulgence I was going to allow myself. When I saw that half of a New York Strip in the bag, it brought back too many bad memories from the night before. I tossed the meat in the trash and settled for a bowl of Trader Joe’s ‘Honey Nut O’s’ instead.
That afternoon, the new Rolling Stone arrived.
Fergie was on the cover…
– Zach Selwyn, September 12, 2012