It's no secret that mainstream rap is unapologetically bravado-based: The big stars get their street cred, get their shawties, and get themselves a record deal. Vallejo rapper Soldier Hard is no less passionate about offering tough testimonials (and seducing females), but his war stories run deeper than most in the hip-hop game.
Hard's revelations from the frontline drew me into his new CD, The Deployment: Recorded Live from Iraq, which gets a national release on Feb. 4 (he has self-released six albums over the years, available through his MySpace page). It's the first solo artist release from To the Fallen Records, a label run by ex-Army officer Sean Gilfillan. The label's previous releases are comps by hip-hop, country, and rock musicians in the military. Together they offer a perspective that's glaringly absent in music — songs about the Iraq war from those who actually lived through it.
Hard says he has seen his buddies killed by roadside explosives, his mom break down in tears, and his marriage shatter. "That's part of the deployment as well," he says. "I was married for nine years and was deployed to Iraq. Deployment won." His music offers a vivid portrait of a lover and a fighter, moving through everything from killing Iraqi combatants to hyping hyphy. It's a combination you never hear on the airwaves, where materialistic images of street life prosper. As he lays plain on "Real Soldier," Hard has little patience for players who use the lingo but are unwilling to serve on the battlefields. "When I heard that Destiny's Child song 'Soldier,' I was like, 'They're totally describing someone who's not a soldier,'" says Hard, who is known to the U.S. Army as Jeff Barillaro. "They're talking about the 'gleamin' grill' — that's not us. We didn't shed blood just for people to use our name to make themselves look better. Why don't you pick up that rifle and stand close with me and then you can say that."
Hard's words may read like threats, but over the phone they come across differently. This is simply a guy who is military by birth — his grandfather served in World War II, his father in Vietnam, and his uncle in Iraq. He was the kid growing up wearing camouflage and Army shirts. Speaking from the military base in Fort Bliss, Texas, where he's currently stationed, he says he first enlisted in the Army in 1995 and has served in Iraq twice, returning home in October 2006 after working as an armor crewman on a M1A1 main battle tank. He takes common naiveté about his lifestyle in stride. "Coming up in Vallejo, a lot of my friends will be like, 'You'll be all right, you're already from a combat zone,'" he says. "And I tell them our streets here are nothing like the streets [in Iraq], so please don't compare the two. A lot of people got that all mixed up."
Hard's teenage dreams didn't only come in camouflage. He was also weaned on the Bay's big rap daddies — E-40 and Too $hort are both name-checked on The Deployment — and he's been grabbing stage mikes since he was 21 (he's now 31, although when we first spoke he gave his age as "27, almost 28." When I catch him in the fib, he says with a laugh that his friends are always giving him shit for making himself younger on his MySpace page, where he's gone as young as 25.) When Hard last left for Iraq in 2005, he brought minimal recording equipment — a laptop, ProTools, and a microphone. All the extras, from beats to backing vocals, came via e-mail courtesy of producers from across the country — either friends or fans who saw his plea for music on his MySpace page. Vallejo native Baby Bash even brought his Houston protégés Da Stooie Bros. to rap on "In da Bay."
"In da Bay" is my favorite song from The Deployment — it's a love letter to regional goodies like poppin' collars, "ghost-riding our whips," and yadidamean as much as the Golden Gate Bridge and Oakland Airport. It's the perfect playful ode to the area, recorded in the least likely of environs. I can picture Hard performing the track at the talent shows he describes winning in Iraq, and making all his East Bay Army buddies homesick. The Yay Area shoutouts are brief respites from The Deployment's graver subjects, which are no less compelling even in Hard's grief. "Walk with Me" starts with a light piano melody interrupted by sirens and stormy sound effects. Hard moves through his morning routine — kissing his family's picture, talking to God — before taking a sharp turn into a "death trap" where his mood is bleak but resolute. "Butterflies in my stomach, I hope nobody else notices," he raps. "I look to my left, I see my soldiers so young/They can't forget what they see here/But we've gotta be strong."
I ask Hard if he can remember the specific event that inspired the track. "We went out on a convoy, and one of my buddies who was providing roadside security with me, his vehicle was hit by two roadside bombs," he recalls. "His vehicle was blown up, and I spent my Memorial Day in the field hospital." That night Hard finished the verses, releasing some of his anger through the mic, but the fear still lingers. Hard strains under the difficulty of the collective bloodshed he's seen in "Support Us," rapping about "too much weight on my shoulders/I'm gonna be like this forever, even when I get older."
Hard stays positive on The Deployment by countering his hardships with his pride in his job, but over the phone he chokes up a couple times during our conversation. Music is one of his outlets, seeing a "military shrink" is another, and in between he struggles to work through the damages the war has inflicted. He has trouble sleeping some nights, another theme in his songs. "The nightmares come and go, and I hate that so much," he says. "You think, 'God, when is it going to stop?' But I wouldn't trade anything or take anything back, because I'm proud of who I am."
His symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder aren't limited to night terrors. "I don't like to be in big crowds," Hard admits. "I get a little shaky and I feel dizzy and I have to leave. I was at a Lil' Wayne concert and I spent all that money and then I had to leave." Hosting concerts is another obstacle most other rappers don't think twice about. For Hard, it's both therapy and a direct line to the memories that inform his words. "When I perform live, I always find myself tearing up. You want to get the words right and everything that's going through your mind is about why I wrote that.
"You start remembering that and remembering people. I just try not to cry a river onstage," he says with a laugh, "but it is hard."
But neither tears nor dangerous war zones stop Hard from continuing his career in the military and on the mike. On a brief leave home this week, he will perform live in Fairfield. His new disc has earned him profiles on El Paso, Texas' NBC affiliate KTSM-TV, as well as on current-affairs program American Microphone. And although he won't volunteer to return to Iraq ("I'm looking into jumping on a mission to Afghanistan — it'd be easier to explain to my mom," he says), if his orders take him back there he'll grab his recording equipment and go.
Any troubadour can write a song about the war — almost none write from the side of having served in one. Soldier Hard brings the battle home in more ways than one.