A rapper sat in his bedroom on a Sunday afternoon, scribbling on a notepad with a No. 2 pencil. He did not write about guns or drugs or gangsters of any kind. All such topics had been forbidden by his mother, who walked in and looked over his shoulder.
“Look how sloppy that is,” she said.
“It’s comin’ out of my head,” the rapper said. “Once I finish, make a whole verse, I make sure it sounds right. Then I write it nice.”
“Why don’t you write it down nice the first time?” his mother said. “Then you won’t have to write it down again.”
“Okay,” he said, with no further protest. Sunlight came through the battered miniblinds and fell in narrow stripes on the beige carpet. Loud music poured from the speakers of a Hewlett-Packard Media Center computer: a series of bold, spacey loops, with an accented 808 snare, appropriate for the witching hour at the Velvet Room. He had composed this beat the day before, on this computer, with a program known as Fruity Loops.
“I ain’t gonna say the hook,” he told me. By then his mother had left the room. “I’m gonna go right into the verse.”
“All right,” I said.
And Chris “Mook” Rasboro, age fourteen, launched into an untitled song about his favorite subject: swag, or personal style. I missed some of the words because he spoke so fast, but he alluded to Monte Carlos, Bugattis, Maseratis, horses, and a spontaneous medical condition called a “swag attack.” This was all appropriate from the standpoint of his mother—Carla Coleman, who had lately become his manager and promoter—because even though she and her two sons were “just getting by,” as she put it, she squeezed enough juice out of her part-time nurse’s wages to make sure they always looked good. (She grew up in foster homes and wanted better things for her boys.) She had even rustled up $2,000 to buy Chris the computer and various sound equipment so he could manufacture his beats.
“I’m gonna beat you in my good shoes,” Chris said. Somehow the topic of basketball had arisen, and I had agreed to play one-on-one.
A few things should be noted about our game, and all pertain to swag. I had arrived wearing dress shoes, but Chris was kind enough to let me borrow two of his many sneakers—a fetching gray pair of high-tops—which undoubtedly improved my performance. Conversely, he insisted on playing in his “good shoes,” as he called them, which he claimed were sneakers but which appeared to be something else. He also put on a gorgeous leather jacket and left it on for the whole game, while I played in a T-shirt. These factors, along with my four-inch height advantage, should help explain my 12–7 victory. In the department of swag, however, the disparity was incalculable.
His mother was standing outside when we got home. It was almost time for Chris to start his algebra homework.
“Pull those pants up,” she told him. We walked inside, where Carla showed me the MySpace page she had built to show off Chris’s music. For Christmas, she planned to have a soundproof recording booth installed in his bedroom.
“I believe in him,” she said.
“Will it be hard to get that money together?” I asked.
“Probably,” she said. “I’ll make it happen, though.”
I asked Chris how the booth would help him make better music.
“When she’s yelling at me,” he said, looking at his mother, “it’ll block it out.”
Photograph by Caroline Kilgore
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