Rap is here to stay.
Initially dismissed as a “flash in the pan,” hip-hop’s hypnotic blend of rhythmic rhyming and street vernacular is now past the quarter century point, with its earliest fans now raising families, embedded in careers, and engaging in the pursuits of everything associated with middle age.
As we approach the end of Black Music Month, we profile a compelling figure from its Golden Age, and a brash new comer committed to carry the mantle into the millennium.
Strong survivor: Demetrius Shipp remembers
Well before he caught Stevie Wonder on Sesame Street, Carson native Demetrius Shipp was embroiled in music. His mother was proficient on the organ and piano, and the whole brood would gather and perform at their grand folk’s home in Long Beach.
Young Demetrius’ childhood was dictated by his music and the bullying he encountered in his neighborhood.
By the time he was 15, recording equipment filled his bedroom and his mom was enlisted as his personal receptionist/secretary, screening interruptions to his creative process. “Hold my calls, I’m in the studio” was the order of the day, and since then, he has incorporated a combination living area and recording studio wherever he laid his hat.
The multiple beat downs he suffered made him determined to never again endure an a*s kicking, and in his words he went “Crip Crazy,” to the point where school authorities would keep track of who he was “beefing with” to curtain possible hostilities.
By age 20, his musical endeavors were generating enough income and notoriety to garner an invitation to visit east coast industry bigwig Teddy Riley, so he shipped his Mercedes cross country for an extended visit.
“He was that guy,” who opened Shipp’s eyes to the possibilities of a career in a business with no visible horizons. In addition, the lively party scene at Virginia Beach, Va., and the attractions of nearby Hampton University provided an intriguing balance of work and play.
“That’s when I knew I’d work in the business,” he remembers.
In short order, he was exposed to the likes of Clarence Avent, Don East, Jack the Rapper, Hank Shocklee the BOMB SQUAD, Black business exec Steve Stoute, and scores of notables in front of and behind the mike. People like Avent were the first Black men he interacted with who owned buildings, ran companies, and lived the champagne and Rolls Royce lifestyle that previously had been just a rumor. In time, he was slated to build up Death Row’s R&B section.
Industry “buz” circulated about a talented young rapper with a striking resemblance to Shipp. Introductions were made, and thus began a friendship, socially and professionally with Tupac Shakur, starting with the soundtrack to 1992s “Juice.”
This association continued with the landmark 1995-6 sessions for “Toss it up.”
Initially a love song, it devolved into a “diss track” (short for disrespect), a common feature of the hip hop genre, fueled by the rivalry between artists.
Shakur became so amped up he would call out to Shipp behind the mixing boards for additional targets to aim his lyrical animosity at.
“Meech, who else we don’t like?”
Shakur was intent on speaking his mind about any and everyone who crossed or otherwise offended him.
“Everybody gotta know nobody is safe,” he declared.
By the time the Death Row entourage made plans to hit Las Vegas to attend the Sept. 7 boxing match for the WBA heavyweight title between Bruce Seldon and Mike Tyson, Shakur decided to ramp hostilities up a notch by premiering “Toss It Up” before the fight. Recording artist Jewell aka “Ju-L,” the “First Lady of Death Row, had a premonition of foreboding as the event approached.
Later “Meech” presided over a recording session with Jewell Caples, aka “Ju-L,” The First Lady of Death Row.” Working to the point of exhaustion, she fell into a deep sleep during which she dreamed of Tupac Shakur’s demise. She was wakened by a call from the superstar just before him and rap impresario Suge Knight left to attend the heavyweight fight in Las Vegas between Bruce Seldon and Mike Tyson. Shakur ignored Ju-L’s pleas not to go, and would be gunned down afterwards, on Sept. 7, 1996.
Shipp was shocked “…to see the streets come back and snatch the rug out from under me.”
The murder traumatized him so much that he asked Suge Knight not to release “Toss it Up.”
His salvation came via an invitation by gospel music executive Vickie Mack Lataillade to fellowship with her at Inglewood’s Faithful Central Bible Church. Reinvigorated, he continues his career with renewed confidence.
“Give me a shell of a beat, and I’ll rap over it,” he declares.
Most recently his son, Demetrius Junior, was cast as Tupac Shakur in the biopic, “All Eyez on Me.”
Confident in the future, he points to his life as a cautionary lesson.
“You exploit the streets and the streets will come back to exploit you.”
On her own two feet: The journey of Lyric Michelle
“I’m African by blood and heritage, American by endurance and strength.”
It is an annual rite of passage for expatriates from around the globe to seek a better life within the fruited plain of America. For Nigerians, the last few decades have seen them prosper to the point where they are considered the most successful of any new comers to the United States. As with anything however, this path is dotted with trial and tribulation.
For up and coming rapper Lyric Michelle, her quest for fulfillment has been hampered by the well meaning concerns of her parents, and the natural resistance to foreigners in this, the land of “the free.” Born in Chicago to Nigerian immigrants, her family relocated, seeking sanctuary from that city’s historic legacy of violence, specifically to Houston, Texas.
Even then, the transition was rocky, in part by the expectations set by the grown ups in contrast to the artistic sensibilities of their daughter.
“They dreamed of doctors and lawyers as children-winding up with a rapper wasn’t the easiest pill to swallow,” she remembers.
“Across the world, the darkest of us have been the most looked down upon,” she says.
Compounding the fissure was the conflict between westernized concepts of attractiveness and her West African features. This was offset by a large and nurturing extended family.
“…though the world told me my Black wasn’t beautiful as a kid, I would leave school and go to a wedding or celebration and be in another world.
Like most kids their age regardless of nationality, she and her siblings were bombarded with hip hop culture. Though her siblings appeased the parental desire to confront to stability, Lyric marched to a different drummer. The urge to create drove her into poetry and on to spoken word with a kindred spirit in a writing partner who later moved to New York. In her absence, Lyric found her own voice rapping over music, and keeping late hours performing at poetry slams and in recording studios, to the displease of her mom and dad.
In time, the friction with her parents led to her being thrown out of the house. This led to a series of abusive boyfriends, sleeping on sofas, homelessness, brief incarceration, and the professional hurdle of being taken as a sex object instead of a relevant artist.
This week, Lyric, who was in L.A. for a photo shot with Nike, broke away from her busy schedule to reflect on her artistic path thus far.
“Across the world, the darkest of us have been the most looked down upon,” she says, “…but that connection of endurance and pride crosses man made boundaries for me.”
Today she bounces between Houston and Los Angeles in her pursuit of her dramatic/musical aspirations
In a nutshell, Lyric’s life-and her music-involves her search for autonomy. She believes these travails have given her music more depth.
Just as her pursuit of her art has been cathartic in addressing her personal issues, she hopes it can help others.
“I want to effect as many live as I can in a positive way.”
Lyric Michelle will perform a soundtrack over an art exhibition at the Red Bull sponsored “Sip and Drip” tonight at 7 p.m. at 3801 S. Main St. For more information, go to her website at: http://www.lyricmichelle.com/.