This morning I drove past two skinny homeless men with multiple missing teeth who were smoking cigarettes before nearly running over a mangy stray dog panting in the street. I made a left turn at the Hustler Hollywood store, narrowly averting a woman who was squatting and urinating into a discarded water bottle. I eventually parked and walked around my car, side-stepping two discarded needles some dog crap and a used condom. I dodged a speeding Hyundai that was being driven by a dude vaping and texting at the same time before opening the passenger door… and helping my kid get out of the car.
“Ready for school?” I asked.
Welcome to Hollywood.
I was raised in a peaceful, quiet corner of the desert where coyotes and jumping cholla cacti were my biggest fears while walking to school. I didn’t see a homeless man until I was about 13. Hustler was a magazine that only prisoners and truckers read and needles were something only a doctor could get a hold of. Yesterday, my son asked me why the guy who lives in the dumpster across the street from his carpool pick-up lane is always shouting, “Ho ass bitch” while shuffling down Selma Avenue.
I am raising my children in Gomorrah and it’s starting to freak me the fuck out.
This school year, my son’s entire fifth grade class was moved to a new school campus – about 10 blocks north of the previous campus where they had been since kindergarten. The new campus is on Selma Avenue and is a stone’s throw from the Hollywood YMCA. It’s also a block south of Hollywood Boulevard, nearly 10 medical marijuana dispensaries, six seedy bars, smoke shops, two run-down hotels, a vintage street clock that has been permanently set to 4:20 and about nine tattoo parlors.
Back in my 20’s, when I was stumbling out of the bar Boardner’s (a block away from the school on Cherokee), I could never imagine that someday my son would be taking “Beginner Spanish” 50 yards from where I once puked after a night of Vodka – Red Bulls. I never thought I’d be raising my kids anywhere but some pristine little tucked away school with manicured lawns and open fields and morning sing-a-longs. Little did I know that barbed wire fences, metal detectors and cement soccer fields were going to be the norm for my children…
At a back-to-school meet and greet two weeks after the first day, some other parents expressed their concerns as well.
“We just don’t like the way the school feels,” an angry parent offered.
“We are striving to make everybody comfortable,” the principal, a 40-something man named Reggie replied.
“It’s hard to be comfortable when I smell marijuana every day when I drop my kid off,” another mom piped up.
Hollywood has changed immensely since the rundown 1990’s. Tourism is up, souvenir stores are making great money and people from all over the world are still traveling here to take photos of the sidewalk where an actor’s name is etched into a star. Of course, when the tourists come, so do the hustlers. You’ve seen them selling rap CD’s, trying to get you to take the TMZ Tour and drunkenly swaying into your photos while dressed up in a piss-stained Spider-Man costume demanding five dollars.
Look, my high school was no picnic. I witnessed a shooting, a lot of fights and certainly saw my share of LSD and dirt weed from Mexico, but I was in high school… Not fifth grade. Being raised in the desert certainly shaded me from the inner city realities of gang-ridden America, but I was also lucky enough to travel to places like New York and LA to see how other kids were growing up. Ultimately, their fast-paced lives had a strong effect on me because I headed for college in Los Angeles the minute I turned 18. Thinking back about my childhood dreams, I turned my son one day after school.
“Hey dude, where do you want to live when you grow up?” I asked him.
“Probably the beach… or New York I guess.”
Obviously he hadn’t thought this one out. Not me. By the time I was ten, I had it narrowed down to Los Angeles and Los Angeles.
My son is also already planning out his first tattoo, based on a conversation we had last week. After pouring over NBA star Brandon Ingram’s arms as we were watching a basketball game, he asked me a question.
“Dad, if you could get a tattoo, what would you get?”
“Oh wow, I dunno – probably your name and your sister’s name,” I said. “Something small and hidden and meaningful.”
“I’d probably get Savage in cursive across my eyebrow,” he said.
“You’re not getting a tattoo,” I told him.
“Why not? All the sickest rappers have face tattoos now…”
As we listened to my kid’s Spotify playlist, I heard no less than ten “N-Bombs”, three songs about abusing Xanax, Percocet and Molly and over ten about Gucci, 80,000 dollar watches and ‘Lambos. Every song featured sound effects like “Skrrr” for a cool car or “Skrrrrratatatatata” to mimic an assault rifle peppering an enemy with bullets… Look, I love rap music. I chased a rap career myself at one point… but no 5th grader should be asking his dad what Codeine, Mountain Dew and Jolly Ranchers taste like together.
Alas, the reality of this situation is that I can’t afford to shell out 35,000 dollars to private academies like Campbell Hall or Oakwood… Although from what I remember from college – most of the heaviest partiers came out of these schools. Which gives me some hope… And truthfully, other than the dead guy who was wheeled away from the apartment down the block last week, the school is fun, diverse and growing and I’m actually proud to be a part of the community.
So, as the years roll along, I’ll just have to deal with the syringes, homeless guys and Hustler Hollywood foot traffic for a few more years until junior high. Luckily, that campus is located downtown in a much more secure location…
It’s across the street from an outpatient clinic for opioid addicts…
Re-Examining the 1997 NBA Draft – If I Had Been Selected…
(Originally published @Nerdist Sports 2017)
At the end of my senior year in college – despite having not played organized basketball since high school and maintaining a 1.8 blood alcohol level for four years straight, my friends dared me to declare for the NBA draft. I wrote an official letter the NBA commissioner David Stern and presented my accolades: Six-foot-two. 3.8 G.P.A. Fraternity scoring leader and dunk contest winner on the 8-foot hoop in the parking lot.
I wasn’t selected.
Looking back now, I have to argue that I might have been a better pick than 75% of the players in the 1997 NBA draft. Sure, the draft produced perennial all-stars Tim Duncan (#1), Chauncey Billups (#3) and Tracy McGrady (#9), but for every one of those guys, there are three Ed Elisma’s (#40), Bubba Wells’ (#34) and Ben Pepper’s (#55). Who’s to say that if I was chosen in the late second round I wouldn’t have made a better impact than a guy like 44th pick Cedric Henderson?
I was too short to be a forward, my high school position. My handle wasn’t strong enough to compete for a point guard slot, so basically, my only shot was to be drafted as a shooting guard – and my guess is I would have been picked somewhere around 46 – where Orlando took Alabama marksman Eric Washington. (Whose best year came with the Idaho Stampede in the NBA D-League in 2010).
Due to some late garbage time minutes, I estimate I would have averaged roughly 1.2 points a game… Which is more than draft picks C.J. Bruton (#52), Roberto Duenas (#57) and Nate Erdmann (#55) ever averaged in their careers.
The 11th pick of the draft was a guy named Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Nobody past the top 10 picks truly ever made a big statement in the NBA. Sure, Stephen Jackson (#42) was a key piece to the 2003 Spurs, Bobby Jackson (#23) was a sixth man sparkplug and Mark Blount (#54) was a dependable center for a few teams – but overall, 1997 was pretty mediocre… Even though I once bought into the ESPN theory that Jacque Vaughn (#27) would be the next Allen Iverson.
My own personal draft journey began after a two-game playoff run in the annual 1997 fraternity basketball challenge.
It was in a game against Pi Kappa Alpha. Their starting point guard tried to take me off the dribble to the left. I stuck my arm just above his bounce and poked the ball free into the open court. I ran after it, scooped it up and laid it in for the victory. My fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi had won our first play-off game in 10 years. In our next contest, we gave the brothers of Sigma Alpha Epsilon a good run, and I poured in 21 points. Ultimately, we lost on a late technical foul call when I got kicked out for calling the referee a “dickbag.”
It was after that game, while consuming a lot of Natural Light beer, that I decided to declare for the draft.
On draft day 1997, I sat on my mother’s couch with baited anticipation as the others had their moments. I ordered some pizza for my family. My mother thought I had lost my mind.
As the evening progressed, I had seen enough of the long, tailored mustard and pinstriped suits making their way to the podium to shake David Stern’s hand. I watched as guys like Tony Battie (#5), Danny Fortson (#10) and Antonio Daniels (#4) put on those crisp new NBA caps. I accepted the inevitable as the first round telecast came to an end.
The second round was only on the radio, so I sat in my Civic, listening in.
“And with the 48th pick in the 1997 NBA Draft, the Washington Bullets select Predrag Drobnjak from KK Partizan, Serbia.”
Really? A guy named Predrag was taken? Nobody could even pronounce his name. So what if he was a six-foot-eleven three time Euro League National Champion? I played on the frat tournament second runner-up team!
Most of the players from the ’97 draft ended up overseas, injured or, in Ron Mercer’s (#6) case, involved in a strip club assault or two. I was no different – except for the fact that I never played one minute in the NBA.
Then again, neither did Serge Zwikker (#29), Mark Sanford (#30) or Gordon Malone (#44).
I still think I would have had a shot.
Ed. Note: Zach Selwyn currently averages 15.2 points per game in his over 40-YMCA league.
I am uncomfortably straddling a white folding chair with 40 other people, ages ranging from 21-60 on a 103-degree day in Alta Dena waiting to work as an extra on a network TV show for the day. The pay isn’t terrible – $142.37 – or something like that, plus whatever gargantuan amounts of Craft Service snacks, candy, sodas and mini sandwiches I can shove into my shoulder bag to take home, but the overall feeling is grim. There is some old Greek food suffering beneath a sneeze guard nearby, a lot of discarded banana peels and a large fan blowing cool air towards us to keep us comfortable – like we’re NFL running backs playing a September game in Phoenix.
The scene has a prison-like feel to it. There are the lifers, the newbies and the guys who are only here for a few days trying to get their health insurance. I fall into that last category, but the fear of getting sexually assaulted by one of the older “inmates” is very real. Only problem is I can’t kick anyone’s ass to prove that I’m “tough.” Instead, I choose to bury myself into my iphone and hope the 45% charge lasts another 8 hours.
A year ago I was in New York City promoting my own TV show in Times Square for Tru TV. Now I am listening to a 22-year-old kid talk about how Hot Tub Time Machine is the main reason he dropped out of college to try to make it as an actor. You gotta love this business.
The majority of chatter amongst these “background players” or “atmosphere” is about the world of extras. Many relay the legendary scene in Ben Hur where an extra forgot to take his watch off during the chariot race. (Look it up – it’s hilarious). Others talk about how Ricky Gervais ripped off their idea when he did his Extras TV show. However, the subject that keeps coming up time and time again is the “bump up.” A “bump up” is when an extra is promoted from an extra to a principal role. Suddenly, the lucky bloke can go from zero to hero and earn Screen Actors Guild daily rate. However, according to everyone, incidents like that are more rare than finding a piece of sushi that hasn’t been in the sun for six hours beneath the cast and crew food canopy.
I am here today because I need to make $6300 before the end of the year as a way to qualify for Screen Actors Guild health insurance, a plan I have somehow managed to attain for the past twelve years. This year, however, the jobs dried up, a ton of work went non-union and I have finally aged out of the commercial actor category of “young, shaggy haired beer-drinking party guy.”
At this pay rate, it will take me working nearly every day for three months to earn the necessary SAG income to keep my family on the health plan. Alternative options – Obamacare and Cobra – basically guarantee that I will be paying 75% more money for lesser benefits. It has long been noted that SAG has terrific health care. The problem is that you need to earn an outrageous amount of money to qualify for it, and this year has been an ice bath as far as SAG work has been going.
“My dad was Jimmy Smits’ stand-in on LA Law,” a man named Sonny who was dressed as a Native American jewelry salesman bragged to the lot of us huddled beneath the blue pop-up tent. “He told me to find a niche as an extra. When I started out I only played Latino, only roles were for prisoners or a gang members. Now that I play Native American, I work all the time.”
I suddenly found myself wishing I had some Native American cheekbones.
As the day rolled along, I began to hear everybody’s story. You coop someone up for long enough, they will eventually tell you their life’s narrative. Every extra on set seemed to have a tale about the one legendary time they were “bumped up” to a principal role. One woman claimed she was bumped on Two and a Half Men because Charlie Sheen fired the original woman who had been cast for her one line of “Suck it, Charlie.” A guy who often plays blue-collar types said he got his bump on Dharma and Greg and had his career-defining moment in a bar fight scene when he raised his fists and said, “Meet my two friends… Mary-Kate and Ashley.”
And then there was Sonny, who said he specifically learned the extinct Native American language Kiowa to nab a line in a Civil War series. His line was “D’on T’ap Piii.” Which translates roughly to “See deer eating.”
I stared at Sonny for a long while. He did look familiar, as that Native American guy you sort of see in films, but I wasn’t sure. Which meant he was a great extra. One who blended in. He bragged of his work on The Alamo, Oz, The Longest Yard, Texas Rising, Hatfields and McCoys. Dances With Wolves and of course, That 70’s Show. The way he saw it, he was an integral part of these films. A guy who went uncredited – but felt he deserved all the success.
“There should be an extras lifetime achievement award,” he offered.
As a young actor, I did some extra work at age 22. At the time, like most young dreamers, I thought I was a small break away from my own series and I treated the other kids in the high school dance scene like castaways and future failures. When I started booking some jobs and enjoying the confines of an air-conditioned trailer with a private bathroom, I swore I’d never go back to the extras holding again. Yet, here I was. A 15-year TV veteran with a decent resume that I was too embarrassed to share with the other inmates. I decided to shut up and do my time and maybe get out of there with a few Clif bars and some coconut water.
Then, there was a call to action.
“Peter, Mike, Donna, Marla, Zach – party scene, now!” An Assistant Director yelled at us, directing us towards the makeup department to get touched up.
I put down my phone and walked over to the area, when Donna, one of the younger extras, mentioned that she often worked on the show. She then proceeded to refer to one of the makeup artists as her “glam squad.”
A short, effeminate man named Ty erupted in her face.
“Don’t call me ‘glam,’ don’t call me ‘glam squad’ or I’ll shove this hairbrush up your ass,” he screamed.
Emily, another makeup artist stopped him before any penetration took place. It was surreal. Never in my life had I seen a fight between an extra and a makeup artist. It was like the Cubs-Pirates bench clearing brawl in the National League Wild Card this season. You couldn’t believe it was happening.
It was a major altercation. Apparently, Ty was sent home and Donna was threatening to sue the show for harassment. It didn’t make sense. In my opinion, being called the “glam squad” wasn’t nearly as bad as being referred to as “background” or “ambience.”
My scene was fairly easy. I had to drink some iced tea and mouth the words “peas and carrots” to another extra. The entire time I was placed in the corner of the party and they shot about 9 angles and we let the main actress do six takes before she was happy. As the director stood merely three feet from me, I tried to convince him that a line would be appropriate for my character. I pitched him ““D’on T’ap Piii.”
He didn’t respond. Apparently he didn’t speak Kiowa.
Lunch was at 1:00 and the extras were told to not touch or come near any food until the entire cast and crew had eaten. I was actually quite full from snacking – so I didn’t need to rush, but a lot of the extras bitched and moaned about the lack of respect. I turned to a fellow extra named Tony, who was about my age.
“Why can’t everyone just relax?” I asked him.
“Welcome to the Screen Extras Guild,” he responded.
An hour later, following one of those naps when you fall asleep with your chin in your hand, there was a small rumbling about a potential bump up for one of the extras. Apparently, a producer had seen one of us and wanted to add a line. The bit was that the lucky person would confront the female star of the show – who was wearing a fur jacket – with an uncomfortable long hug and then said, “you feel like a plushie.” All the extras began rehearsing their lines as if this was an audition for the next Coen Brothers film and we all got excited. I even took a walk around the tent and worked on my delivery.
Eventually, the female star and the director came to the extras tent and started looking around at all of us as if we were cattle being sold at a livestock auction. The female actress passed the first few folks, skipped the youngsters and then whispered to her director, “I need a middle-aged schlub.”
I am certainly creeping up on middle age, but I don’t feel like I look that way. I’m in great shape and still have hair and my skin has been hiding from the sun throughout the years as I write my life away. However, I was chosen as one of the three finalists to play “middle-aged schlub.”
We all went and had a private audition with the actress and director. I immediately messed up my hair, raised my jeans to mom-jean height and did my best to look like a total Midwestern chump who would give a hot girl a “long hug” and make her uncomfortable.
“Mmm, you feel like a fluff – wait, what’s the line?” The first guy said, immediately messing up his chances.
“You feel like a plushie,” said the next guy who was 40 pounds heavier and 100% balder than me.
When my turn came, I looked deeply into the actress’ eyes. She stared back at me for about five seconds. I knew this was my job to lose… so I did my best to “eye-bang” her and get the job on the spot. Instead, before I could get my line out, she interrupted me.
“You look like that guy from that Tru TV show,” she said.
“I am that guy!”
“What are you doing in the extras tent?” She replied.
“Trying to get my health insurance,” I said, hoping she would feel my pain and give me the bump up on the spot. I dug deeper into my plea, mentioning that my family had been sick a lot the past year and I was a huge fan of the show.
“You might be too recognizable,” she blurted. “Second guy, you got the job.”
And with that, the fat, bald guy went off to his own folding chair, better food and a holding area behind the video village where the producers and directors hung out.
I returned to my spot in the tent. All the other extras wanted to know what had happened and I told them I relayed the story as best I could. When I mentioned that the female star had said I was “too recognizable” the tent wanted to know why. After all, not one of these folks had any idea who I was. I told them. Nobody had even heard of my show.
“I get recognized all the time,” said Sonny. “People stop me when I walk down the street.”
The rest of the day I watched my phone dwindle down towards the 3% range and eventually die. In a way, I felt like that iphone charge… A year back I was flying high at 100%. Now, I was hanging onto 3.
Before I left, I managed to fill my bag with enough high fructose corn syrup snacks to kill a small village and I hopped into the first awaiting white van that would shuttle us back to the parking lot. Luckily, I ended up in the same row as the female lead actress from earlier.
“Hey,” she said. “I’m sorry about that moment back there… I just recognized you from that other show – I didn’t mean to make you feel bad.”
“Amazingly, you’re the first person to know me from that like, ever,” I said.
“I’ll tell you what. Give me your manager’s name and I’ll make sure we get you in for a small role this season,” she offered.
I couldn’t believe it. Here she was telling me that she would go out of her way to get me a speaking part on her show. I got her personal email and said I’d be sending my demo reel and headshot over immediately. We exchanged good-byes and I returned my mom jeans to the costume department and signed out for the day.
As I walked to my car, the lead actress shook my hand and said I would be hearing from the production office very soon.
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.