Jacob shivers as he lights his cigarette. He takes a puff, steps back from the wall and I follow. His eyes fixate to the curves, colors and enormity of his creation. His eyes are wild melons. They glaze over, look stiff and rigid; looking as sweaty as a clinched fist. His cool breath rises into the air. He lets it wash over him as he says his peace: “There it is, that’s for you, bro.”
The place we’re at thumps, from the long grass, to the toothy brick building next to us. Everything sways when Jacob waves his hand and pulls the trigger. The paint wisps onto the bricks. The boombox behind us is bumping low in the night, whispering poetry, But money don’t grow on trees, and there’s thieving emcees who cut throats to rake leaves. They’re lyrics muffled by the clunky pop of the bass drum.
Jacob rocks his head back and forth spurting lines that cover up the music. He makes the words clearer. Keep pointing the finger I’m that nigga to blame, the main reason why you duck the chain. He tells me it’s by Wu Tang Clan as I scrawl “Do You Really” into my little green notebook. He asks me if I’ve heard it before. I haven’t and I say so. “Well, it’s a good song,” he says as he puts the painter’s mask over his face.
(photo from http://realdaytonohio.blogspot.com)
There are cars driving by in the distance slapping rain off the ground. I flip to a page in my notes and read aloud, “Here’s a definition: Hip Hop is a subculture especially of inner-city youths who are typically devotees of rap music. What do you think?” I tighten the grip on my pen, he turns away from the wall, and his eyes meet mine. “Where did you get that?” The distance between us feels miles deep. And, if you’d heard that before it’s because we’re miles deep in the crook of Dayton streets. Streets puzzled with one-ways and crosswalks. West Third Street, notorious for gang violence and public schools waxed in ivy make rent $380/month, when three miles east it’s $505/month. Our record labels, vinyl stores and pawn shops call this place the “Gem City”. He continues, “Because that’s bullshit.”
Where we’re standing the breeze sweeps the leaves and sends mists of paint off course—draping the weeds beside us. “Hip Hop isn’t that. It’s…” his tone softens just as the wind dies down. “It’s just what I grew up on. I mean, I’ve been around, I mean, it’s not just the music.” The words trip out of his mouth, stumbling on syllables and silence. “I mean, the people I’ve met mean more to me,” he takes his two index fingers and points at his heart, “than the music.” He looks over to the wall.
“What kind of stuff do you listen to?” I say, “stuff” lingering. Did I just say stuff? His Cincinnati Reds cap twitches as a long gust pushes on the brim. His short blonde hair pokes out, his features turn fleshy and I can really see his face. His tall face, almost horse-like, his nose is still half-hidden above a crooked smirk. His bushy eyebrows escape the shadows. He begins, “I listen to a lot of stuff, I grew up on Wu Tang, GZA [pronounced jizz-a], Mama Say Knock You Out [an LL Cool J album]. I bump all that shit,” he says with a slight laugh. “My brother showed me a lot.” He motions towards me. What ‘stuff’ do I listen to? He must be asking. I freeze and fumble for artists he might think are cool.
(photo from onethirtybpm.com)
“I’ve been listening to a lot of old-school shit lately,” I say. “Tribe Called Quest, you know, uh, De La Soul, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.” His face comes into the light. Now, I can see the expansion of his teeth, the crows-feet; the wrinkles of a large smile brewing. “Fresh Prince, you mean, Will Smith’s shit?” he shares with a chuckle. “Yup, Will Smith’s shit,” I reply. The mood sticks.
We laugh as he takes a paint-splattered cardboard from his backpack. He positions it stern against the uneven bricks. The laughter murmurs out. He wields the spray can as white specks trace a jagged border. A touch of paint moves like dandelion seeds with the lumbering draft dotting his shoes. “Fuck,” he shouts under his breath to the mid-flight drops of paint. He immediately turns back to the wall. I take a step back to remove myself and now I’m unseen. He sprays circles.
The innards of the design look like Jacob set fire to the building. “It looks like the whole place is going to fall down,” a passerby would say. Candlelight colors are woven onto the building. A long “U” is beginning to take shape. “N” begins to jet through the “U”. I finally step into his peripherals. I’m no longer ghosting. “What’s this?” I say. “Wildstyle,” Jacob answers. “It’s just when all the letters come together, mixed up and shit.” I ask him to go further, but he says the same thing. He puts his painters’ mask back up and asks, “Do you have brothers or sisters?”
I say I do, a younger sister, I tell him she’s really different from me, but then back away. “That was weird,” I say. Hunching over in the low light, he stays close to the concrete, one knee touching the bitter earth. A plastic bag works its way toward us in the wind, flopping and brushing against the grass. He wipes a bit of paint from his hands, pulls his mask down and I listen. “Have you ever heard of The Animal Crackers?” He looks at me. “My brother used to rap with them, he’s rapped with Talib Kweli, know him? He’s from Cincinnati.” His eyes loosen for a moment.
“My brother really got me into Hip Hop, I mean, uh,” his throat thickens as he moves to work again, “Unseen is his emcee name; you should look him up.”
I did—the next morning I lay in bed with my laptop, searching. Stepping away from how tired I am. Unseen is rapping in a video, tapping out insults in the microphone to a worthy opponent. His sunken eyes, voice, dense eyebrows, mimic Jacob’s. His tattooed arms direct the flow of his rhymes, You ain’t had enough of this, you’re sillier than an ape Snuffaluffagus. There is fire in his delivery. His lines are stoking embers. The faces watching him, they’re cheering him on. There isn’t a scowl in the densely packed room. But Bryan, MC Unseen, born on May 5th, 1981 passed away on December 9th, 2006 at the age of twenty-five.
He shakes the aerosol can as his XXL shirt rocks back and forth. I think his shirt is too big for such precise movements. Though, it acts like a cape when the wind is going. He’s a modern day supervillian, society’s vandal, and rogue artist. Jacob puts the cans in his backpack, tosses the cardboard into the street and crumples the mask in his hands. “Do you smoke?” he asks, pulling a pack of Marlboro Milds out of his shorts. “Yes,” I nod, taking the thin menthol from his outstretched hand. I get out my Bic lighter and peer at the shabby building’s artwork.
Jacob shivers from the chill, shaking as he lights his cigarette. He takes a puff, steps back from the wall and I follow. His eyes fixate to the curves, colors and enormity of his creation. His eyes are wild melons. They glaze over, look stiff and rigid; looking as sweaty as a clinched fist. His cool breath rises into the air. He lets it wash over him as he says his peace. “There it is, that’s for you, bro.”