That's me on the right, doing a thing I'm not 100% proud of.
My mother loves to tell a story about me from when I was around seven years old and we were both in the car driving somewhere. We’d come to a stop at an intersection – I don’t remember where specifically, but since we were in Salem I’m sure we were within spitting distance of a church, an adult shop, and two meth labs – when a tricked out Honda Civic with tinted windows pulled up next to us, the driver blasting aggressive, bass-heavy rap music.
The way my mother tells it, I covered my ears and said, “Mom, that music makes me want to hit people.” So yes, in case you were wondering, I have been a crotchety 65-year-old WASP for my whole life.
I aggressively hated rap music for most of my childhood and adolescence. I thought it was noisy, abrasive bullshit that required no real musical skill to produce, and as I got older I found a lot of the lyrics to be pretty offensive, too. As far as I was concerned, it was just a loud bassline and a lot of swearing – and while I’d always had a healthy appreciation for creative usage of profanity, I was of the opinion that whoever decided to call it music should go take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut.
Like most sheltered suburban upper middle class white kids I grew considerably less pretentious in college, where I was exposed to a wider variety of rap music and came to realize that like any other genre of music there’s both good and bad examples. Good rap has incredible artistry and depth, and in many ways is sort of a modern form of poetry, and even bad rap can be fun sometimes. I also realized that, as a classic rock fan, I really can’t talk down to anybody about offensive lyrics – literally every song written between 1965 and 1980 was either about heroin, dirty sex, or, in the case of Brown Sugar, both (and also slavery).
All that being said, I still don’t enjoy rap music.* Now I just don’t write it off as ‘not art’ simply because I don’t like it.
*With the notable exception of remix artist and all around genius Girl Talk. It’s like the only way I’ll actively listen to and enjoy rap is if a white guy from Pittsburgh mixes up all the best parts from 100+ songs into a big urban smoothie for me.
My conspiracy theorist anarchist rapper friend Jonathan Denmark understands and respects this – he’s from Oklahoma originally, so he’s got plenty of friends who like him but can’t quite wrap their heads around why he spends so much time and money on aggressive music videos and complex, avant-garde stage performances.
On Monday, Denmark called me while I was at work.
“Truman.” He said. “You’re still coming to my show tomorrow, right?”
“Of course.” I said, immediately.
“Cool.” He said. “Want to dress up as a Halliburton oil worker again and come onstage during my set?”
“Of course.” I said, less immediately.
A week after Denmark and I met on a commercial shoot, he’d recommended me to one of his friends who was looking for a freelance copywriter to work at a small video game ad agency. Since Denmark is indirectly responsible for every paycheck I’ve cashed since February, I can’t in good conscience not help him out when he needs it, even if that means becoming the centerpiece of an incendiary rap performance about FEMA concentration camps.
“Awesome.” He said. “It’s really simple. All you need to do is stand there and be awkward.”
“I’m your man. I’ve been preparing for this role my entire life – especially when girls are around.”
“Oh, yeah, speaking of girls. My backup dancer might grind on you a little bit while you’re up there. She’s a sweetheart; her name’s Machete.”
“Of course it is.”
He laid out the details in an email later that day – at the appointed time in the show, I’d go to the back of the bar, put on the orange, oilstained Halliburton jumpsuit Denmark bought at Goodwill, and then muscle my way to the front at the start of the next song and stand completely still onstage without showing any emotion. My entire job was to stand still for three minutes. I spent the next 24 hours picturing all the ways that I could fuck it up.
My anxiousness reached a fever pitch as I arrived at the bar on the night of the performance. More than anything else, my role in the show didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I didn’t get what me standing around in an orange jumpsuit and helmet would contribute, other than making a room full of people think I was weird – something I am perfectly capable of doing in street clothes without some girl named Machete rubbing her privates all over me.
If I learned one thing in college, it’s that on some level, alcohol can solve all of your problems. Two incredibly strong $9 Jack and Cokes later, Denmark was onstage rapping to a packed house while I was clumsily crouched behind the cashier’s booth, fighting against both time and my own blood alcohol content as well as the stubborn, rusted zippers on the jumpsuit.
I’d just gotten fully outfitted when it was showtime. Suddenly – thanks either to mid-range bourbon or my innate method acting skills – I was a Halliburton oil rig worker. I was mean, I was angry, Dick Cheney was my boss, and my job was to stand the fuck on that stage for three minutes.
I barged through the packed hall without so much as an ‘excuse me’ – stone cold badass – and planted myself onstage. And inexplicably, the crowd went nuts. Never before have I entertained so many people simply by standing around looking bored. I very well may be a natural. (Denmark’s energetic performance and Machete’s dancing probably helped, too.) When the song was over, I left the stage, went to the back of the bar, and quit being a Halliburton employee.
I don’t like rap, but I love watching great performers, and Denmark is absolutely one of those. And watching the rest of the show, I realized that I was really glad to have been a part of it – the bizarre, shared, angry energy between Denmark and the crowd was intoxicating. The alcohol I drank also was intoxicating.
This morning I sent Denmark a text message to let him know how much I’d enjoyed the show and how happy I was to be able to help him out. He responded immediately:
“Next time you’ll be dressed as a riot cop. So… Prepare for that.”
Perhaps I’ve found my niche in Hollywood – putting on costumes and standing completely still during underground rap shows. It’s an easy job and a great way to meet groupies; the only downside is that if I get too demanding I can be easily replaced with a mannequin.
Truman Capps will post the video of the show as soon as it’s edited.