His Name Is What?!
“You can’t stop me! / Not even your bad breath / You can’t stop me! / ’Cuz my rhyme’s so def / You can’t stop me! / Not even when I’m calm / You couldn’t stop me with a motherfuckin’ nuclear bomb / You can’t stop me!” These lyrics still echo in my mind, evoking visions of Tupac rapping in the hallways of the Baltimore School for the Arts with startling conviction. This is where I first met Tupac back in 1986. My best friend at the school and fellow visual artist, Gerard, told me of this new kid who was entering as a sophomore who was supposed to be a rapper. When he told me the kid’s name was Tupac, I was like, “His name is what!?” He simply laughed and shook his head, confirming that I had heard him correctly. Gerard was familiar with the new kid’s reputation as a rapper from his friends at Roland Park Middle, where he had graduated one year before Tupac’s arrival in 1984. And his bus to and from the School for the Arts passed Roland Park on its way, so he had seen the new student several times wearing a T-shirt with mc new york written on it, rapping among his friends. A lot of guys were rapping at the time, so I wasn’t overly impressed. But there was obviously something about this kid that had caught Gerard’s attention.
The thought of a new rapper entering our ranks, particularly one whose reputation had preceded him, definitely sparked our curiosity, and probably our teenage insecurities. In our first two years at the school, Gerard and I, along with a number of other Black students (primarily guys), had dedicated a lot of time and effort to rapping. We were all driven young artists whose primary passions were for the talents that had won our admittance into the school. But as young Black inner-city boys in the mid-nineteen-eighties, we were drawn to rap, and the rapidly developing hip-hop culture in general. In the neighborhoods at the time, all of the boys and girls were listening to rap music. Although it was still underground in Baltimore, rap was almost the only music we were listening to. And many of us at the School for the Arts, already endowed with a definite artistic flair and creative disposition, were trying our hand at this popular new art form.
We regularly tested each other’s lyrical ability in informal contests held mostly outside the school building on the sidewalks of Cathedral Street and Madison Avenue, the two thoroughfares bordering the school located on the corner of their intersection in downtown Baltimore. Admittedly, these contests were born from regular joke-cracking sessions, and maintained a lot of that feeling, focusing more on humor and insult than delivery, melody, and composition: the real measures of rap. Students with personal vendettas used this forum to attack each other as personally as they could. Anything and everything was fair game. And whoever succeeded in embarrassing the other more was the victor. But steadily, all of the jokesters were brushed aside and the rappers took center stage. It was through the course of these impromptu sessions, known as “The Dozens,” that we established an informal hierarchy among the rappers. And with this hierarchy we were beginning the new year precisely where we had left off the previous spring. I was anxiously awaiting the opportunity to assert myself anew and gain new ground. I had written some new rhymes over the summer and was ready. I suspected the same of a few peers but I knew I would catch others sleepin’.
The most popular rapper was still Zorian, another name that always struck me as funny and odd. Zorian was a short, stocky, dark-complected stage production student with thick eyeglasses who always tried to hang with the brothers in the break-dancing crew. But he didn’t have the flavor or the skill, and they weren’t impressed. So he concentrated on rapping, where, in all honesty, the competition wasn’t so intense. And he got to be pretty good, using a lot of humor effectively in his rhymes. Although he had graduated the previous spring, he was still around the school a lot, visiting with friends and presiding over The Dozens. The primary members of the rap crew in the school were Zorian, Ernest, Kendrick, and me. I was always a little closer to Zorian and Kendrick because Ernest tended to have a lot of mouth, kind of a braggart who was comfortable talking about people. Gerard was also part of the crew, but he was more a DJ than a rapper. None of the various other contributors to our sessions presented any real challenge.
The arrival of the new rapper posed a problem. Where would he fit in, if at all?, I wondered, before brushing aside the question. It was not my problem. He was the new guy, and would have dues to pay. I could remember my first days at the school, the strange, mansionlike building with its polished marble stairway spiraling upward from the front foyer, the intimate studios, winding basement halls, and grand ballroom hovering dreamily within some plane of reality far removed from any school experience I had known, or even imagined: the shock, the touch of anxiety, the sheer newness. To become excited over the arrival of some greenhorn, some neophyte, would be ridiculous. Establishing one’s self artistically in a student body so rich in talent spanning the full range of artistic pursuit was not easy. And regardless of the low buzz that had reached my ears, I knew it would not be easy for him.
I first noticed the new student walking down the marble front stairwell, talking with some of his classmates. He was dressed as if for church, with dark dress pants, a sweater over a dark dress shirt, and dress shoes. “Him?” I thought to myself as I looked at him through the door of my last-period sculpture class. Gerard and I shared this last-period class (really a studio) on Wednesdays and Fridays. And it was in this class that Gerard had been telling me more and more about the new kid every day. In fact he had just finished a Tupac story only minutes before.
The classroom was adjacent to the front foyer, with an outside door that opened on to the sidewalk on Madison Avenue, right in the middle of the throng of students gathering in the lobby and outside the front door everyday at four o’clock when everyone was dismissed for the day. Since students often stayed well after the end of school and into the evening to complete their assignments, teachers were not concerned with our taking frequent breaks and walking in and out of the studios, as long as we got our assignments done. So Gerard and I talked freely during this time in the studio, catching up on gossip and current events as we worked. And we frequently took part in the end-of-the-day commotion that erupted outside our classroom every day. It was at such a time, when virtually the entire student body was passing our room, that I saw Tupac walking down the spiral steps. I attempted to see before me the guy about whom I had heard so much, but I couldn’t. This guy looked nothing like what I expected from all that I had been hearing.
Apparently, Tupac and Gerard lived on the same side of town (though Gerard was farther out, toward the county line) and caught the same bus to and from school. And according to Gerard, the seemingly quiet and guarded new kid blossomed into quite a different character once outside the school doors, serving as the life of the ride on most days. Gerard would always come to class with a new tale of Tupac antics from the back of the bus, unable to help but laugh as he relived the scene: “Man, he had us all dyin’,” he would say. It was as if Tupac ran a regularly scheduled show every day, anticipated and even expected by all who would catch the bus. A lot of times Gerard would have a funny-ass rhyme to regurgitate to me in class, the best he could remember. I would urge him to remember as well as he could so that I could hear the rhyme for myself. He had also heard Tupac rapping a couple of times down in the basement by the cafeteria. He said he hadn’t heard a great deal, but what he did hear sounded pretty good.
As time passed, other reports of the new kid’s rapping prowess began to circulate through the school. One student in particular, Herb, quickly became a bona fide fan, heralding the praises of his hero without shame or exhaustion. I began to find all of this talk a bit annoying. When I next took note of the new curiosity, he was walking through the halls in blue jeans plastered with the title mc new york outlined in thick black ink, filled in red. There were various other doodles on the pants that were more a haphazard work in progress than some finished masterpiece. With the jeans, he wore a cheap-looking, nondescript button-down long-sleeve shirt and a pair of badly worn tennis shoes. His hair was cut into a two-level high-top fade, with the small section along the left side a centimeter shorter than the rest, exaggerating a part on that side. He was talking with some other new kids, primarily white faces that I did not recognize; I figured they were classmates, most likely theater students like himself. I could hear him speaking in a New York accent that, looking back, was probably more pronounced than it had to be. Still I paid the new figure on the scene no mind. He was green and brand new to what we had been developing for some time. As far as I could tell, he was like any other new kid: reserved, unsure, and relatively quiet. Again, I didn’t see before me the same kid that Gerard had been telling me about, or the kid about whom Herb had been so enthusiastic.
But this would soon change. Though he began the year timid and uneasy within the new environment of the school, as awkward and clumsily dressed as the impoverished upstart adolescent he was, the new sophomore began to come into his own, outshining defiantly from within what was often laughably crude and uncoordinated without. In a natural way he began to let go of the restraints upon his hungry persona and fell comfortably into his default cockiness, boasting a definite swagger behind those unthinkable clothes, causing one to look beyond them, barely noticing.
He made friends readily, largely in the drama department, at first among the younger students with whom he shared most of his classes. I would see him between classes and around the school with these kids and think nothing of him. But it was not long before he began to find his way into the older, elite crowd which boasted the most popular, well-established students in the school: the “high-bred” brothers and sisters of DuBois’s “Talented Tenth,” and their white counterparts: kids with private school backgrounds, from two-parent households in the more exclusive neighborhoods in and around the city. Many of these students were fellow theater majors, their natural personality slant toward histrionics propelling them to the fore of the social scene, more so than the students of any of the other artistic disciplines. But regardless, Tupac just seemed to float into and fit into their vibe effortlessly. In no time at all he was a party to the bizarre hug fest I had witnessed with sheer awe on my first day at the strange school. “Why is everybody so happy!?” I had thought to myself that uncomfortable day, genuinely confused. It seemed as though everyone were cousins or something. I had come from a typical Baltimore City middle school where wariness hung in the air and a tough persona was of strategic importance. What I saw on my first day at the Baltimore School for the Arts, I had never seen before. But this new kid seemed to have quickly made himself at home. He appeared to be both comfortable and familiar.
From humorous and clever small talk with a definitely unfamiliar bent in and about his theater workshops and classes, to far-reaching lunchroom conversation over a bummed cigarette (made more intimate for the gesture and sacrifice), this charismatic new kid was making some very interesting friendships and gaining access to the very top of the social strata: the kind of friendships one makes sharing smoke breaks with teachers in the cafeteria, as was still common at that time, friendships that neither I nor the other rap enthusiasts had made in two or more years at the school. This was not necessarily because we couldn’t; they simply represented another crew, another crowd of another ilk, from another world. Yet this skinny, poorly dressed new kid was sauntering across some invisible bridge as if there were no gorge at all. And unsatisfied with his speedy ascent among the popular kids of the school, he soon turned his attention toward our corner of the small encapsulated universe that was the School for the Arts.
Only a month or so into the year came the challenge. Apparently the upstart was really feeling himself and wished to waste no time in laying claim to his rightful place within the rap hierarchy. In fact, he went straight to the top, brazenly throwing down the gauntlet before Zorian himself. The cocky little sophomore did not plan to fit into the hierarchy; he was going to walk all over it. Of course this rocked the boat considerably. The day after the haughty challenge, Kendrick and I met up with Zorian and Ernest in the lunchroom. Tupac had heard Zorian outside and approached him. Zorian played it down, but the way Ernest told it, it was a cavalier attack upon all who represented the established rap talent in the school, a slap in the face.
Tupac and Zorian set the date for the night of the Beaux Arts Ball. I was already focused on a big performance that Gerard and I would be giving that same night in which we would become Run-DMC for an evening. It was a big deal as the ball had never before included a performance of any kind, and some teachers and administrators were against the idea. However, after working our butts off and petitioning various school personnel, we were given the okay. So my attention was focused on the approaching performance. But Ernest was persistent with his alliance-building pitch, and I agreed to say at least one rap in support of the crew at the battle.
Later that day, as Gerard and I were up on the sixth floor where the music classrooms were located, practicing for the performance, Herb walked into the room and started talking about the battle. “Pac gonna beat y’all . . . Pac gonna beat y’all,” he repeated a few times. “Y’all? Fuck you talkin about?” I immediately replied. The whole battle thing was their beef, Tupac and Zorian and Ernest. I had agreed to lend some support, but I wasn’t thinking about that. “Y’all gonna be rappin’?” he asked. “Yeah, we gonna be rappin’,” I replied, but I was talking as much about the performance as anything. That’s what I was hyped about. We had always seen our friends and others in the dance and music departments performing and shining before the school, on stage. As visual artists, painters and sculptors and such, we never had the chance to perform. This was Gerard’s and my big opportunity to shine, to make a name for ourselves in the school.
“Man, I’m telling you, man, he gonna beat all y’all,” Herb persisted with an annoying smile.
“Man, whatever, man. Fuck you. Who the fuck is Pac? Fuck Pac. Shit, this is gonna be the shit. This Run-DMC shit!” I had heard enough about this dude. I hate to hear people all up on somebody’s nuts, like Herb was all up on Tupac’s. Especially when I feel I’m good myself. Gerard and I blew Herb off and went back to what we were doing.
The following afternoon out in front of the school, I was caught off guard when I noticed the stringy new character walking directly toward me from the front doorway. I was talking with Kendrick. We were winding down from the school day, standing at the bottom of the steps by the railing. Without a hint of hesitation and full of arrogance, the new guy easily approached Kendrick and me with a particularly matter-of-fact expression on his face, stopping at the top step and looking down on us as if he had scripted it that way. He looked me dead in the eyes. “So y’all gonna be in the battle?” he asked in a voice that smacked of mockery. Immediately, I knew that Herb had given a report, most likely an inflated report, on our conversation from the day before. We hesitated for a split second, taken aback by his directness, but answered with a resounding “Yeah!”, eyebrows furrowed and chests pumped out.
His challenge was too public and too void of deference for us to even consider backing out. And I harbored no such thought until some time later when the big performance and all of its requisite parts and preparation returned to my realm of consciousness. The battle was Zorian’s beef; somehow, I had become involved. But still, my sights were set on the unprecedented performance. The next two weeks were spent practicing and preparing for it. The impending battle barely crossed my mind.
As our musical support, Gerard and I enlisted Todd Miller, who was the best guitar player in the school, and John Tamokis, who was the best drummer. With great attention to detail, the four of us worked the two-song routine to an exact science. We were performing “Perfection,” and “Walk This Way” by Run-DMC. This was our big opportunity. When the day arrived, we were ready.
The ball began at eight o’clock in the evening. The school took on a different look, a different vibe in the evening. There were new shadows, new things highlighted under the concentrated glare of unusually bright lights; a haunting silence periodically broken by random sound. The dark, skinny halls stacked upon each other seven stories high in the retrofitted antique hotel were like mysterious catacombs, resonating with the faint-sounding music of late-night dance exercises from some far-off corner of the school, or the echo of two lone voices reciting lines.
Gerard and I emerged from the locker room on the basement floor decked in our Run-DMC outfits of black imitation leather pants and jackets, Shell Head Adidas with no shoestrings, black T-shirts, fake fat gold chains, and black hats. Completing the effect, I donned a pair of fake Gazelle eyeglasses, black with gold color around the lenses. With an air of expectation, we climbed the basement steps to the first floor and entered the ballroom. It was already teeming with people dressed in all sorts of strange outfits, from guys in long dresses and heavy makeup to the more traditional costumes of Dracula and the like. Two years before I might have found this spectacle shocking and unnerving, but as a veteran of the school I was duly desensitized; it was normal. All I now saw around me was a growing audience. After half an hour or so of milling around and enjoying the party, the four of us walked up on stage and got ready. Seeing us take the stage, everyone redirected their attention. Before I knew it Todd and John were rockin’ it like professional musicians on the drums and electric guitar; Gerard and I easily got into the flow. Swaggering comfortably about the stage we hit every line perfectly, like clockwork. We sounded good. I felt like a star up there, working the enthusiastic crowd, doing all of Run-DMC’s signature moves and mannerisms perfectly and having a ball. It was even better than I had hoped.
Toward the end of our first song, “Perfection,” I spotted Tupac in the crowd. There was no hint of admiration in his eyes. He stood there, still, oblivious to the hyped-up students around him. A shorter, equally thin, brown-skinned guy was standing next to him, also still. They appeared to be together. When my eyes met Tupac’s he locked on, glaring at me squarely, challenging, and voicing with his very eyes, “You ready?” He held no regard for my moment in the sun. I tried not to look at him again; my little taste of pubescent fame, my long-awaited, carefully planned moment in the spotlight he wished nothing more than to take from me. But I couldn’t help it and glanced back several times; and still the same stolid expression, no detection of any movement in either of them. I brushed it off through the remainder of the short set, but it remained in the back of my mind.
When we finished, Gerard and I raised our fists in the air victoriously, smiling widely to the cheers of the crowd, many of whom probably didn’t know our names despite the smallness of the school and its student body. I stepped down from the stage eager to collect the praise of my friends and curious looks of interest from those I didn’t know; but Tupac would have none of it. As my forward foot hit the ballroom floor after stepping down from the stage, the skinny kid dressed as if for a school dance of an entirely different sort, black dress shoes, black slacks of polyester or some similar-looking material, a dark cardigan sweater and dark dress shirt underneath (almost the same exact outfit I had seen him in several times before in school), walked right up to me. “You ready?” he said coldly, exactly as I had heard it the first time while in the midst of the performance. There was nothing to do but reply in the affirmative and abort my hard-earned victory lap, setting out instead to collect Zorian and the rest of the crew.
In the middle of the crowded ballroom Tupac immediately entered a zone, what I would later come to recognize as his zone. A switch tripped inside him. “Come on y’all. We gonna battle. . . . We gonna battle,” he said several times, corralling the students around him, motioning toward the door of the ballroom. Now the spotlight would rest where it should, where it belonged as far as he was concerned—on him.
We walked out of the ballroom into the hall, and down the steps leading to the lunchroom and locker rooms, the crowd growing with every step. I looked down to my shoestringless Adidas flopping about and slapping against the tile: Gerard and I were still clad in our slick black outfits. Zorian, Kendrick, and Ernest were in regular clothes. I fidgeted with my glasses. The gold coloring of the frame gleamed under the fluorescent light of the lamps along the ceiling, seeming almost real. The whole way down the steps I fingered the iconic representation of the very soul of the hip-hop culture, as if to summon some hidden genie more so than to achieve a more comfortable alignment.
When we hit the basement floor we all stopped in the hall outside the cafeteria, near the locker rooms. The crowd gathered around us, Tupac and the friend of his who none of us had seen before, Zorian, Kendrick, Ernest, and me. Gerard, deferring to the four of us in regard to rhyming talent, stood off to the side, making himself one of the crowd. Tupac posted up against the wall, leaning against it with his arms folded, looking completely unconcerned and at ease. He introduced his companion as Mouse (aka Dana), a partner of his from his neighborhood. After everyone settled around in a circle it was immediately obvious why Mouse was there. “Yo D, box!” Tupac exclaimed, just as LL Cool J had in that tense scene in Krush Groove. Mouse’s beatbox ripped through the crowd of students influencing all to begin moving in time. Broad smiles erupted on bobbing heads. Several softly voiced expletives expressing approval peppered the air. . . . It was on.
Right on beat Tupac stood himself up and jumped in with a dope-ass rhyme. “You can’t stop me!” he hurled from deep inside, kicking off the battle with authority, rockin’ it! The two of them were in perfect harmony, playing off one another, bouncing lyrics back and forth like a perfectly passed ball maneuvered too quickly for the eye to follow. It was clear they had practiced extensively. From the very first moment it was painfully obvious that we had entered an arena in which we did not belong, one in which we were obviously underexperienced and unfamiliar. The two-man hit squad of cardigan sweater–donning sophomores who looked more like altar boys than rap artists crushed the four of us decisively. With unbelievable skill and precision execution they nailed each and every line of each rhyme.
After Zorian and the rest of our crew ran out of rhymes they continued on, ripping more than seven in total before it was all over. Zorian, Ernest, and Kendrick were quickly demoralized, surrendering early on. I saw Gerard join in with the crowd, jockin’ all of Tupac and Mouse’s stuff, but I refused to concede defeat so easily. Desperately, I relaunched an attack, resorting to old, stale rhymes since I had exhausted all of my current material. But it was useless. After my last relatively sad attempt, they dropped the sickle on our necks, delivering the final blow. As if in reply to what I had just thrown out in desperation, they busted out with, “You’re Talkin’ That Bullshit!”, their grand finale. Everyone completely zapped out at this. Mouse went crazy on the beatbox and the entire crowd danced along, yelling out their approval, jeering. In grand fashion Tupac had dethroned Zorian and won the distinction of undisputed King of Rap. And we were embarrassed in front of what seemed to be the entire student body. I cannot explain to you the full extent of the embarrassment. Not only was I denied the fruits of my well-orchestrated moment in the limelight, but I was humiliated in its stead. That night I saw exactly what had gotten Herb so hyped. This kid was extremely talented.
Excerpted from Back in the Day by Darrin Keith Bastfield. Copyright © 2002 by Darrin Keith Bastfield. Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.