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“Rich:” Beme The Rapper in Oakland

22 May 2013

“Obesity is the only epidemic that you can cure by keeping your mouth shut.”—Richard Berman,
The Center For Consumer Freedom

1: Genre Preference, Prejudice, or Envy?

I was working the door [at our Oakland warehouse space in San Pablo] one night when we had a last minute change in plans. A show at The Stork Club, one of the few legal music venues left in Oakland, had been double-booked apparently. The booker wanted to know if we could combine it with our regularly scheduled show. It was a low-fi hip-hop show (old school, just a DJ and 3 MCS), and we jumped on the chance to do it. I was suspicious that the Stork Club was really double-booked, as the manager had his share of white supremacist tendencies, and had already alienated much of the black community in a recent incident, but their loss could be our gain.

When we told the already booked bands about it, they got uptight. We reached a compromise; the rappers (Beme, Grl Abstrakt, and Pill Kosby) could play, but only if they don’t get paid. BeMe said that was fine with him, and I told him we’d book a show soon in which he could get paid. Still, the already-booked white bands were less than thrilled. During the first, very short, hip hop set, a guy from one of the bands came up to me with blood in his eyes, “How the fuck are we supposed to follow that?!” I could’ve regaled him with tales of Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, to enjoin him to take it as a challenge—but instead I just gave him a “dude, get over it” look and went upstairs to get a more physically imposing doorman to back me up, just in case….

Meanwhile, the women got the dancing going, and many of us were won over by the low-budget beats of Pill Kozby and the charisma of BeMe. Beme got progressively more comfortable as he performed, falling into a touring band’s drum kit that had been set exactly between the stage area and the audience. The tour-manager freaked out; she went up stairs and started shouting, “this is unacceptable” and such. He certainly wasn’t trying to be violent; it was more like moshing; besides, why did they chose that particular spot to set up the drums?

We tried to calm her down; “it’s just like punk” Matt & Evan reminded her, yet the night made it clear to me how much prejudice and latent racism exists in “our” scene—-not any more than at SMC, but not really better either. Frankly, what Beme was doing was even more ‘punk’ than what these bands were doing. No wonder they didn’t want to share the bill with him. None of them got people dancing or even bobbing their heads as much as he did. I got so swept up in the spectacle, and trying to dance with my bad leg, that I had very little sense of his words (probably for the same reason I suck at free-styling; I get distracted by the beat especially on first listen), aside from the chorus:

Five in my pocket just spent two skinny jeans own the ain’t new
I can’t wait till I’m rich rich Imma buy a whole lotta shit

When I posted the video and learned the song was called “Rich,” I wondered if it was typical of most commercial hip hop in glorifying consumerism and personal wealth, though later Paddy was pontificating about BeMe’s lyrics. “Oh, he’s conscious hip hop. Only clueless folks who know nothing about rap are into that.” I was just happy to be a part of the event. How important is the overplayed difference between “conscious” and “gangsta” anyway? I am more than willing to admit I’m clueless about hip hop in general, but when I finally heard all the lyrics, they cut as deep as any page-based poet as well as any of the more known ‘poetic’ white bands I’ve worked with.

A month or so later, we invited BeMe back to the warehouse for what I had hoped would be a paying gig. My new band was playing as was a new band featuring ex-members of The Cuts and Detroit’s The Go, but there had been a big December rain storm and the slum-lord, one Mr. Thomas Leung, had still failed to come through on his promise, and legal obligation, to fix the leaks. I discovered the warehouse was flooded, puddles everywhere. Wading in ankle-deep water with a flashlight, we discovered the PA was destroyed.

We went through with the show, but even the people who lived in the warehouse were so pissed off they had left to crash on other people’s couches. Thus, there was no one to work the door, and hardly any one came (I had largely become a shut-in). I felt terrible after what had happened to BeMe at his first show, and started suspecting that the flood was just an excuse for the other guys in out so-called “collective” to screw him again—-but I have no proof of that, as I tried to stay focused on the common enemy, Mr. Leung and the City of Oakland’s crackdown on live local nightilfe culture. All of the plans Nehemiah, Matt and me had for the warehouse seemed to be going down in this flood.

Still, BeMe was much more into performing even to the audience of 20 at best, even though he had found out his drum machine wasn’t working. I asked him if he’d be up for us backing him up. We could do one of our instrumental two chord jams and he could do one of his raps—what do we have to lose? He was into it. It took a little arm-twisting; Jed was intimidated and preferred to do the set we had rehearsed. Eric was into it, but didn’t want Nick Allen to join us on guitar. I thought that would be amazing, but I saw Eric’s point: BeMe’s raps and my piano playing are both rhythmic and melodic, and it could be too busy with the guitarist on the fly, especially for a bassist who doesn’t like being treated like “glue.” We could do it next time (or so I thought…).

BeMe chose to do the same song, “Rich,” he had performed at the first show. The band was sloppy as hell, but grooving and fun. Maybe it was all the adversity preceding this, but it was one of the best live performances I’ve ever been a part of, so good that we decided to record it with at The Creamery.

II. “Eating Disorder” (Courtesy of Washington Lobbyists)
“Obesity is the only epidemic that you can cure by keeping your mouth shut.”—Richard Berman,
The Center For Consumer Freedom

In the studio, I realized the song was primarily about his eating disorder, and suggests a way out of both our culture’s “obesity crisis” as well as the energy crisis. Once I heard all the words, the chorus becomes deeper and more complex than a mere ode to salvation through consumerism:

Grew up on the floor wishing i had more\
Chillin with my sister waiting by that door
Wishin bought something from the liquor store
She threw down in the kitchen “can i have more”
Maybe over did it got too chubby cookies and cream ice cream was my buddy
One of the only way she could show that she loved me

The first verse portrays inner-city ghetto life, and even echoes Dickens’ Oliver Twist. The speaker has special powers, as his wishin’ can get him food, but limited horizons. “She,” as we soon discover, is his mother. One of the hardest things about being a parent is saying “No.” As a kid, my mom used to pour milk and loads of sugar onto a bowl of strawberries. I loved it, or thought I did. It took me years to realize that strawberries were actually sweet without all that.

Though we didn’t have to rely on the liquor store for food, we were also nutritionally challenged. “You look sad, you want a sandwich?” Of course I did; it tastes good. You certainly aren’t going to hear too many 5 year olds complaining that pizza is not a vegetable. He’s sympathetic to his mom, and can’t blame her for living in a culture in which “food” becomes the main way to show love. As post-industrial America became increasingly alienated from the body; this was sold as “progress” to the first generation under this new food regime, and increasingly the “norm” to Beme & my mother’s generation.

When I told Beme I could immediately relate to the psychological truth here, he told me that as a teenager he had actually been around 300 pounds. This admission blew me away, as one who has struggled with food all my life, the fact that he was able to lose all this weight, and write a song about it, was absolutely heroic to me. There just aren’t that many songs in any genre these days with lyrics this blatant about dieting; there are much more songs about hunger, whether viewed as desire or need:

We couldn’t go to Disney land we was livin with Mickey’s fam
Sometimes even seen roaches
Thats the life that you live when your po kids
Dreaming of the promise land like Moses
But didn’t make it “sorry coaches”
Mama said you gone buy me a house boy
I’m still workin on it mama no doubt boy

The verbs propel the song, as they chart a progression from chillin’ to waitin’ to wishin’ and dreamin’ to workin.” As the nouns move from “more” to “door” to “store,” to “poor,” his horizons expand; he becomes aware of the stigma of poverty. But his horizons aren’t the only thing that’s expanding, as he’s growing up, and out. It might have even been healthier had he been eating “Mickey’s fam.” The speaker of this feels pressured by love for his mother to lead her to the “promised land” as well, and just as feeding him fattening junk food was how she showed love, making the coach’s team would be a way for him to show this love; as sports is almost the only legally sanctioned way to the succeed, or even survive, when you’re “po kids.” As a chubby kid, it’s a lot harder to make the team, unless you’re an O-Line or D-line type (but Beme’s more of an aerial attack kinda guy). When the chorus returns, it now has deeper significance:

Five in my pocket just spent two skinny jeans own they ain’t new
I can’t wait till I’m rich rich Imma buy a whole lotta shit

He seems very happy that he’s still got $5 left, perhaps because he didn’t waste it on all that rich, fattening food, and is wearing old clothes—skinny jeans.
The second verse offers a “before and after” picture that helps make sense of the chorus. It starts with a list of the food-like things he could be buying with that $5 in the skinny jeans—but if he did, he would have no money to buy the Fat Pants he’d have to get. A “while back” he was just a consumer, now he’s working his butt off, and loving it.

What you know about dollar cup breakfast
3 dollar Loko’s livin reckless had that on my 7/11 checklist
Next to oatmeal raisin cookies and chips
And next to that a sandwich looking up at the owner like dude I’m famished
that was a while back…

Then a resolve:

Livin clean and sober bout to get my money right
Working out daily bout to get the honeys right
Did you see my video yeah i got my tummy tight
Floyd Mayweather shit a big money fight
Fightin for my life and i don’t fight fair
Nigga stand when i rap i don’t like chairs
How you actin bored and i featured
How you actin poor and you ain’t paid to be here

It’s not just a song about spending less on food now that you have to work for it. Clean and sober also means skinny, getting his money right for the ladies—even if he has to get rich to do it. The dream of getting rich may be quixotic, but certainly no more toxic than the more ‘modest’ gratifications of junk food, as it embraces the emptiness rather than trying to fill it with food. As he works out daily, he spends the fat, and realizes it can actually buy him time to work on his music, as he turns his focus like a sanctified preacher to address the worst possible audience he can imagine: a sedentary one.

Since I’m paid to be here, and you’re not, why stand there bored dreaming of the Oatmeal Raisin and chips you’ll have when you get home? When he performed at Copland [The unfortunate name of our Warehouse space], many of the white guys were clearly acting bored, in their defensive hipster coolness, neither would they pay him. The girls weren’t acting bored, as he claimed space like a one-man army against The Center For Consumer Freedom. He’s not singing for his supper as much as for a video or a gym membership. These things cost money, but are much less than expensive than inadequate health insurance: Beme the rapper is a transformative factory, changing the shit you call food into the food you call shit, the shit:

Five in my pocket just spent two skinny jeans own the ain’t new
I can’t wait till I’m rich rich Imma buy a whole lotta shit…
And when its over give me DVD’s and a bad chick like eve
I big loft dolphins in the pool i don’t mean on the wall friends
Yeah yeah now thats cold Steve Austin
A winter in Boston the heart of a Slauson

You need more than $5 in the pocket so you can buy some new skinny jeans, but
The song has it both ways, working toward a better future (“I’m gonna”), but not at the expense of playing in the present: the future is the excuse for the present, the contagious carpe diem catharsis of “I can’t wait.” He doesn’t want stills, but moving pictures. Enough “pretty faces” and wire-mesh mothers that feed food, he wants animals, human warmth, even if he has to get rich to get it.

The funny thing about this 3rd verse is that you don’t really have to be all that rich to get DVDS or “even a bad chick like Eve,” if “she wants my honey not my money” (as David Bowie puts it in “Hang On To Yourself”). A big if, perhaps, and dolphins in a pool can be pretty damn expensive, and they’re not really happy unless they’re free. But you don’t have to buy the ocean if you can live on the beach. For Beme, mere bling is but a head on the wall, he wants the hunting, and “Rich” enacts the hunting, as the scope of this rhyme stretches from the coldest northern high-rent white supremacist town to the heart of South Central, and beyond.

Cause i shit talk give me ex-lax deeps a fine chick he’s got the best tracks\
Excuse me deep I’m bout to shit on these
These rappers bowin down cause they Can’t shit on me

III. “There’d Be Fewer Guns If Drums Weren’t Machines” (Food/Shit Dualism)

Beme’s defense of the right to shit, and to shit talk, is one with his war against mere salvation-through-consumerism in “Rich.” In the Bay Area culture, where self-proclaimed “foodies” have a large voice, there’s a lot of denial over the fact that there never was a foodie who wasn’t also a shitty, but shit produces, gives back, and can get you off the floor that too much food put you on. As the Oakland graffiti puts it, “stop buying/ shit, shit shit.” Shit, at least human shit, is largely outside commodity, and buying shit is like buying animals rather than buying food

Yet Beme’s rap goes beyond the mere food/shit dichotomy. Beme’s “shit talk” is also music; the body is not a bank, but the music is rooted in the breath, the free improvisatory flow of words that are also tethered to the formalism of rhyme. Talk is ex-lax; rap betters the talking cure. It, too, is a work out that can make you less hungry. As a mural from the Oakland-based Community Rejuvenation Project suggests: there’d be less eating disorders and drug addictions if people were allowed to talk more, if word-jazz and singing were more acceptable. In this sense, Richard Berman is wrong: it’s harder to solve the obesity crisis by keeping your mouth closed. The extra energy you get from dieting has to go somewhere.

Only a decade earlier, in NYC at least, it was common to see guys rapping and doing the dozens on the streets and subways. This may be a matter of both time and place, as the Bay Area has a smaller black population and is less music-friendly and more repressed than both NYC in 1999 and Philly in 1989. It’s not really a coincidence that the rise in black-on-black crime and drug use as well as obesity in the last 30 years parallels the loss of street-music culture and the increased tension of silence in the streets. There would be fewer guns if drums weren’t machines, but that’s not said too much. They’ve also been trying to take away the drums since Congo Square, and courtesy of Exxon, developer of Autotunes, have succeeded more than ever. In fact, Autotunes hates black people more than George W. Bush ever did. Beme’s rap this song may not be as “universal” as songs about love and death, but for me it’s a kind of anthem!

People as talented and prolific as Beme usually leave Oakland, but Beme has stayed here, trying to make something happen against terrible odds. Luckily, he told me he met his girlfriend at that show. After the warehouse went down in the flood, and KUSF got taken off the air by Entercom, I also felt that if I had to get the fuck out of this town if there’s any hope of continuing to play music, but Beme gives me hope, and even a reason to try to make something happen here. He gets the Gil Scott Heron and Baraka thing, as well as the post-gangsta thing. He is at home working the crowd as he is when leading the discussion in my class at Laney.

So make a movie about him, and release his singles! If we can ever get the loan for the radio station, or the MFA-In-Non-Poetry going, I’d offer him a job in either, or both, capacities, and hopefully we can make music again.