First off, let’s start by saying that there is a fair bit of salty language in this week’s story, including not-infrequent use of a certain racial slur. If a community reclaiming this offends you for whatever reason you may have, this isn’t the story for you.
This story is a collaboration with an up-and-coming artist native to my city, and a very talented one at that. It was inspired by their song of the same title. You can find Bensap Grimm via Instagram @Bensapbadass and Twitter @BenSapBadAss.
A tall, broad and built young man stood at the bus stop, tapping away on his phone. The hem of his jeans was wet from the February slush on the ground. It was cold, but he wasn’t wearing a coat, just a thick sweatshirt.
A battered sedan pulled up on the curb. He looked up, barely raising an eyebrow at the driver.
“Ay man, you need a ride?” Ratface asked, leaning forward out of his window to spit on the ground.
The young man considered. “Aight.” He stepped around the front of the car to get in the passenger door. He held his phone in front of the heat vents to warm the screen.
“Working on them rhymes, I see.” Ratface observed, pulling away from the curb and merging with the traffic on the busy street.
“Weird Lion still tryin’ to make it. I respect that.”
Weird Lion said nothing, just went back to rearranging words on his phone, chewing on the gum in his mouth.
At a stoplight, a pretty dark-skinned girl crossed in front of the car. Ratface honked. The girl looked at him with pursed lips, but smiled at Lion as she gave Ratface the finger and ran across the street.
“Whatever bitch, you ain’t that fine no way!” Ratface yelled out of the window as the car flew through the intersection.
“Ay man, can you chill out with that shit? She don’t owe you nothin’.” Lion said, rolling his eyes.
Ratface turned his head to look at him. “Oh so you a pretty boy with that hair, so now you think you know somethin’ about women?”
Lion knew that he was handsome, but couldn’t see how that was at all relevant, so he shut up.
“Man, you need to listen to me. I’m tryin to get you to where you want to be. Them rhymes ain’t gonna get you nowhere. Shit, there’s a million niggas on the block that can rhyme. What makes you so damn special?” Ratface had a bad habit of giving out unsolicited advice, and seemed to think he knew more than Lion, despite being only six months his senior.
“The fact that they all come to me for beats. How many dudes you know can make beats like I can?” Lion responded, tapping the dashboard for emphasis. “Not one. NOT ONE!” He exploded.
“Ay ay ay, whoa. You ain’t finna mess up my shit over your bad day.”
Lion waved at the air. “My bad, you right. Long day.”
Ratface dismissed his statement as he pulled into the driveway of Zombie’s house. Since the sidewalk was iced over, they had to walk up the driveway to the backdoor. Weird Lion rang the doorbell as they waited on the steps, hands shoved deep into their jackets.
Zombie came to the door in old sweatpants and a shirt with stains and holes. He smelled like stale weed smoke and spilled malt liquor. Zombie also had a bad habit of never using lotion, which gave his skin a grey sheen over the dark brown.
“Y’all late as hell.” He said as he held the door open so that Lion and Ratface could walk in. “Your boy HiTop is already here, Li.”
“Coo.” Lion said, taking off his shoes. Zombie himself was a walking pigsty, but his house was immaculate, a fact that he could never wrap his mind around. Ratface finished before him and headed to the kitchen in the next room.
“Y’all ain’t order the pizza yet?” Ratface called to Zombie, who was leaning up against the wall near the staircase to the basement.
“It’s downstairs. Get yo ass outta my fridge. You don’t pay bills here, nigga.” Zombie yelled back.
Ratface clomped back to the entryway, his top lip pulled back to display his protruding front teeth. Lion straightened up and shrugged his hands. Zombie led them into the basement, which was already filled with a cloud of smoke. HiTop was sitting with his feet up on the messy card table that was littered with empty bottles, ashtrays, a few pizza boxes, and several half-completed decks of cards. Lion nodded at him, and HiTop nodded back as he kept smoking.
“Where the hell you been at, HiTop? We been tryin’ to get ahold of you for weeks.” Ratface started in as he swung a rusty metal chair around so that he could sit on it backwards. Lion followed suit. Zombie was sitting in an old armchair with a rip along one of the seams, exposing the foam underneath.
“Nigga, I don’t run on your schedule.” HiTop emphasized each word as he dotted his blunt in the air to signify punctuation.
Ratface started to roll up and ignored HiTop. “Weird Lion is on a ego trip about his beats.”
“Li knows what he’s doin’ with his beats.” HiTop retorted. “The real question is, what are you doin’ on these streets? You know you got probation.”
Zombie perked up. “Aw, real? What he got probation for?”
Weird Lion and HiTop exchanged a look and laughed. “Nigga got picked up for not payin’ child support!” HiTop explained, tears rolling down his cheeks. “You shoulda been there, he was cryin’ and shit, sayin’ ‘Please don’t take me to jail, Officer!’ On my life, funniest shit I ever seen ever in my life.”
Ratface looked at the three of them with disgust as the tips of his ears and nose turned red. “Y’all finished yet?” He reached for the pizza boxes and picked a slice. He took a vicious bite and proceeded to talk with his mouth full. “Where the fuck is Pharaoh?”
Zombie shrugged through his residual laughter. “He said he would be here.”
“Did he say when he would be here?” Ratface pressed, still making a show of the chewed pizza in his mouth. Lion reached for a slice and ate it while looking away from him.
“Do I look like Pharaoh to you?” Zombie asked.
Ratface took his turn to laugh, spraying pizza everywhere as he did it. “Nah, nigga. You don’t look a thing like Pharaoh.”
Zombie scowled. “You ain’t that pretty your damn self. You a rat, and your dad is a rat too.”
“And my granddaddy before him. Fuck I care?” Ratface answered, starting on a second piece of pizza.
Weird Lion and HiTop said nothing. They knew that they didn’t have a horse in this race anyway. HiTop threw his vice into the ashtray in the center of the table and addressed Lion.
“Li, you finish them beats?”
Lion nodded. “Yeah, I emailed them to you. I sent you a couple of options.”
“All I want to know is,” Ratface interjected, “where my beats are?”
The table went quiet. HiTop dropped his face from an easy smile into an expression of absolute derision. Lion sat back in his chair and said nothing.
Zombie snatched the box of pizza from Ratface. “Giving you beats is like giving a hog a gourmet meal.”
“Y’all niggas gonna get enough of pushin’ me around.” Ratface warned, sucking air between his front teeth. “Li, why are we waitin’ for Pharaoh anyway?”
“I told you, I told you, I just got some stuff I gotta ask him.” Li explained, pounding the dirty card table for emphasis.
“I done told you everything you need to know man, you JUST. DON’T. LISTEN.”
“Oh yeah? Like what? Abandon music, abandon my craft, to do what, my nigga? What are you doing with your life that’s so-“
“I’m just tryin’ to help you get to the next level!”
“What the hell do you know about the next level?” HiTop challenged Ratface. “You barely playin’ the damn game! Didn’t we just go over this?”
“I really hope no one is trying to convince Weird Lion to give up his music.” A voice said from the doorway. Lion, HiTop and Zombie jumped up.
“Pharaoh, man it’s good to see you.” Lion said as he shook his hand.
“Sit down, Li.” Pharaoh said gently. Lion sat quickly, blushing at his eagerness. Zombie took his spot after offering Pharaoh a beer, which he declined. HiTop remained standing, and stared down Ratface as if daring him. The stare turned to a glare when Ratface began to speak.
“Where you been, Pharaoh?” Ratface asked. The mocking in his tone was not missed by all.
Choosing to ignore it, Pharaoh answered. “I’ve been busy. I graduate in a few months.”
“Congrats.” Zombie said. HiTop and Lion nodded in agreement.
“Thanks.” Pharaoh turned to Lion. “Li, what was it that you wanted to ask me?”
Lion fumbled with a bottle cap on the table. “I just… I had some questions about my music.”
“What about your music?” Pharaoh asked, surprised.
“I just don’t know if I’m where I should be at.” Lion admitted. “I’m trying but it’s hard to be self-made, and-“
“Self-made?” Pharaoh asked. “No.”
“No?” Weird Lion asked, not comprehending.
“No. You are far from an island. You were cradled in this craft, you were raised by it. I’m surprised at you, Li. You sound ungrateful, and out of touch.”
“I’m not ungrateful, but I am doing this by myself.”
“Because you have that ability. Because people gave you that ability. People sweat so you can keep having that ability. Li, come on man, we go over this every six months.”
“Look man, I wasn’t looking for a lecture. I’m fine, I’m taking care of my business.”
Pharaoh shook his head and rested his fingers against his forehead. “Your musical growth is fine, ok? Success takes time. But monetary success is not the only thing.”
“It’s not the only thing but it’s important.” HiTop volunteered. Pharaoh shot him a look.
“It’s petty. Money is petty. Look at me. Look at all the money I just spent on another degree. That money I may never see again. It doesn’t matter. I did the right thing. Lion, you’re doing the right thing. We need your music, like I needed to be educated. But you need to be committed to the craft the way the craft committed to you. Even if you don’t blow up, you blow minds.”
Lion nodded. “You always give the right answers, man.”
“Nope.” Pharaoh said. “You just ask the right questions.”
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