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Get Your Freak On 

If you think rapper Dopestyle's debut album is compellingly weird, try talking to the man himself

Wednesday, Jul 7 2004
When beat-maker Tom Cleary signed on to work with underground Bay Area rapper Dopestyle, he didn't plan on the penis jokes. But after a show last month at the Independent, the duo's third public appearance as Dopestyle 1231, Cleary's brother, who works retail on Haight Street, was bombarded with kids coming in and saying, "I heard about Tom," and then "looking down at their dicks and laughing," as Cleary retells it.

Two days after the event, when I speak with him on the phone, Cleary is still cringing, because he had no idea Dopestyle, whom he met as Chester Smith in high school 16 years ago, could pull something like he did. Or rather, pull something out like he did.

"He went hard-core," Cleary says, sounding a bit rattled. "He pulled his cock out. It was kind of shocking. We actually sold one T-shirt after the incident, but it wasn't cool and I wasn't happy about it."

Prior to his Full Monty finale, Smith trolled the stage in a cat-boy mask and read his favorite children's book, My Magic Treasure, cover to cover, in dedication to his deceased mother and in spite of the loud boos of the audience. After the show, Cleary had "15 e-mails from [the duo's label] Waxploitation saying, 'This guy's nuts! I can't book shows with this guy,'" he recounts.

It would be a minor tragedy, though, if Smith were dropped from his label and written off as the rap G.G. Allin before debuting nationally. His fluid verses and morbid, twisted worldview offer a punch in the stomach of radio hip hop and its binge on club life frivolity, as well as a nudge in the ribs of the stoic boys' club that rules the underground. The brand-new album, KutMasta Kurt Presents Dopestyle 1231, is lurid and outlandish, like a horror comic book told over heavy breakbeats. (Underground stalwart Kurt is executive producer, and "1231" represents Cleary's and Smith's shared New Year's Eve birthday.) On it, Smith describes his body enacting many marvelous feats, such as pissing Zima and regenerating his dismembered dick the way a salamander does its tail.

Dopestyle 1231 makes hip hop by and for the maladjusted -- primarily adolescent-minded men who never traded in their Marvel and D&D collections for girlfriends and salaried jobs. KutMasta Kurt Presents is good like Charles Bukowski and dive bars are good: not gussied up with clever choruses or tales of happy times. "I sneak up like a cancerous prostate," Smith raps, and he's right. He refreshingly deals in a warts-and-all ugliness that rappers usually don't touch. So even after the angering show, I had to track this strange fellow down. Before I talked to Smith, however, Cleary warned, "He's pretty weird, man. He's definitely not scripted weird. Some people act weird for the camera, but he's really like that."

Smith gives an incredibly frank interview. In the first 15 minutes, he confesses that he talks to himself, uses cocaine in a ritualistic fashion three times a month (candles, curtains drawn), participates in San Francisco's S/M community, obsesses over the Norwegian black metal band Darkthrone, regularly consults an entity named "Crane" through a Ouija board, and grew up in an East Palo Alto crack house. All of this is said without the slightest acknowledgment that it's uncommon to tell such things to a reporter. Apparently, Smith is a natural at letting it all hang out.

So why the full disclosure at the show?

"Wow, man," he sighs. "What can I say? I zoned out, man. When I put the cat-boy mask on, at some point things shifted and I was in this monologue by myself. It took me back to this certain point in my childhood."

He then explains that his stepfather was a crack fiend who emotionally abused him and his mother. For some reason, stepdad would fly into a rage whenever mother took son to Fosters Freeze, so every time they went, Smith would be sworn to secrecy.

"But my stepfather, being the sophisticated manipulator, would somehow get the information out of me," he continues. "When he did, he'd make me stand in the corner for a couple hours wearing a clown mask. He wouldn't let me go to the restroom, so I'd urinate right there. So I'd be standing for a couple hours in a puddle of my own urine with a clown mask on.

"I think putting on that mask [during the show] transported me to that one point, and that's why the pants came down. But I sincerely apologize to everyone I offended, and especially Tom, Kurt, Waxploitation, and the Independent. All I can say is that it will never happen again, and I'm never putting on any more masks. And I'm taking my punk ass back to therapy, because I'd quit going for a while."

Smith says that he had been using music and the Ouija board as his means of treatment, hoping to go inward to work through torments from his childhood on his own (and with Crane, of course). Throughout the album, he references particular episodes but in oblique ways, so it doesn't come off like a confessional emo rap record. The opening lines of "Little Grasshopper" are about how he would get attention from his neglectful father by clogging up the toilet, and "Lone Ramblings" mentions his coping method in high school: hiding in a bathroom stall and talking to himself.

"This album is very cryptic in the sense that there are all these issues I would deal with in therapy but I'm mentioning them in the arena and the glory of the rap battle," he says. And his battle chops are sharp, going flow for flow on the album with guest MCs Del from Hieroglyphics, Motion Man, Vast Aire of Cannibal Ox, and Kool Keith (who, as a one-time patient at a mental hospital, is something of a kindred spirit).

The other buried influence on his rhymes -- Crane -- is an unknown variable, even to Smith. "A lot of my conversations with Crane, I get inspiration for lyrics," he says, adding that his, er, ghostwriter is heavily shaping the direction of his next album, an even darker and stranger record, described as the Buzzcocks meet the Beatnuts, and titled 41 Days in Sodom. And Crane is growing less content to be in the shadows, apparently even wanting a cameo in this interview.

"I talked to him briefly last night and I asked him about you," Smith tells me. "See, Crane, he's an asshole kind of a person, and I don't know if he's telling the truth or not, but he basically told me how you were going to die."

"What'd he say?"

"I'm not going to tell you that. It can be like a self-fulfilling prophecy. He might've said it because he knew I was going to tell you and he wanted you to walk around thinking about it."

"Well, was it a horrific death?"

"No comment, man. Self-fulfilling prophecy is a motherfucker."

And so is the prophecy for gifted but unbalanced rappers who pull little stunts onstage, as evidenced by the tragicomic careers of Ol' Dirty Bastard, Flavor Flav, and their forefather, Rick James. Whether Smith will submit more worthy efforts like KutMasta Kurt Presents or merely remain on the wrong end of dick jokes will ultimately be up to him and his therapist.

About The Author

Darren Keast


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