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Graham Arthur Mackenzie's Brushes With Fame

Lords of the Underground
Al Gore
Bobby McFerrin
Fatlip of the Pharcyde
De La Soul
Dennis Page, Publisher of XXL Magazine
Wyclef Jean
Kid Lucky
MC Paul Barman
Dan Savage
Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters
Sam Adams Mayor of Portland, Oregon
Reggie Watts
Colin Meloy of The Decemberists
Andrew Young
Cornel West
Haben Girma (feat. Stevie Wonder)

KRS-One   (^top)

Well, my biggest brush with Fame involved the great Blastmaster KRS-One, The Teacha.  I was working in upstate New York at the Rochester Institute of Technology as a staff American Sign Language interpreter.  My familiarity and level of comfort-ability with interpreting popular music, and especially hip-hop, had become known during my time there.  Thus, I was given first dibs on KRS-One coming to perform for R.I.T. students, which I immediately grabbed, naturally.  Time passes.  I’m excited and rehearsing like mad, listening to nothing but Kris’s music in my car for a month, studying print-outs of his lyrics, practicing phrasing in sign, etc.  The day comes and I’m on cloud nine, and prepared for more than just interpreting.  I’ve brought a back-pack with the following: a Walkman with a tape cued up to what I felt was one of my best beats at that time (“Vader”; I had yet to be able, equipment-wise, to record vocals on top of my beats at this point, I believe, or well enough to warrant sharing with others, anyway,) a disposable camera, and probably something to sign, I’m sure, as well as something to sign it with.
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So, interpreting the show is mad fun.  It’s not just KRS, it’s also Sonic Youth and some other bands who were cool.  But when I get on stage and start interpreting for Kris’s show, I get transported to another space-time where I’m doing the thing I’m best at in the world, as I was meant to do at least once in my life.  To call the experience perfect would be a huge slight.  I got all his cues, I hit all my marks, I did my best job with my heart full of joy.  The speakers were blaring some of the most beautiful hip hop ever made, Kenny [Parker, Kris’s brother and longtime DJ since the untimely demise of his former, original DJ and friend Scott La Rock] was behind the ADATs (digital tapes of the beats) and decks (turntables,) the crowd was jumping as one, on fire, Kris’s epic lyrics are flowing off my hands to the best of my abilities, I get caught up in the pure physicality of the music and how it molds me.  Kris + Kenny hype that crowd like nothing I’ve ever seen before or since by a factor of 1000.  My clients in the crowd seem to be enjoying what I’m giving them, or at least inspired by my enthusiasm, or just enjoying the show.  And then the best moment of the night: 3/4 of the way into his set, Kris comes over and gives me dap on stage in front of everyone! And I hit it right and don’t fuck up the dap and it’s, like, the coolest moment of my life, and I’m on top of the world!
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But that was just the beginning!  Coming down off stage and the high that it gave me, I was positively bursting – yes, from the experience I’d just had, but more for what it meant I felt would naturally be following immediately.  There is a considerable bit of time between major music acts’ breakdown and setup, so I knew my interpreting partner would be fine without me for a sec and went and found my stashed backpack full of stuff.  As if on cue, some dude from Kris’s posse came up to me and told me that Kris wanted to see me.  I followed him into a dream world.  I was lead through opening doors into a backstage dressing room where Kris + Kenny and a few other dudes were laying about, chilling, flush from the show.  I walked right up to Kris with a smile on my face wider than the sky, I’m sure, and a big smile on his face, too.  In my mind’s eye memory of the event he simply says, “Yo…” as tho we’re old friends.  We meet with a sharp handclap and a hug, and I can die happy now, no matter the rest of my days.  He is just as I imagined he would be: physically big, beautiful, caring, engaged, comforting, highly intelligent.  He is curious about my line of work and incredibly complimentary.  Before wearing that line of conversation thin, I jump right in asking if he would mind doing a few things for me and break out the backpack.  If I did actually bring something to be signed (which I’m doubting more and more as I work on this,) I’m sure I had him do that first. Then, the most incredibly coolest fucking thing happened.  I asked Kris if we could get a picture together and someone in his crew agreed to shoot while I directed.  I asked Kris if we could both pretend to be, like, male models in a dept. store circular, like one of us is, like, down on one knee while the other one is pointing off in the distance or some shit, you know the type… And he’s totally down for it!  Like, not even batting an eye, he’s into it and so I almost kinda push my luck getting like three different shots, and he’s so fucking cool about it.  So, then I slide the camera back in my bag and get down to business: the tape.  I ask if he wouldn’t mind listening to one of my beats and tell him about how I make rap music.  And we have the requisite exchange (“You make hip-hop?!”) but then he’s like “Hell yeah!” so I bust it out and he listens to the beat and seems to be not totally hating it, anyway.  So, Kris takes the headphones off and hands the Walkman to Kenny, telling him to listen to it (and I remember feeling a little bad cause right at that part in the beat was a lull with a sample of the John Cusack monologue from “Say Anything” where he’s frying burgers at 60 years old, wondering what life is all about.)  Regardless, the important thing is that Kris heard the right parts and we turn back to each other and -- I swear to you as sure as I’m sitting here writing these words what happened next is true -- Kris looks me in the eye and says, “We might have to talk about getting you signed.”  And now I can really, really, really, I mean really, just go ahead and do it, DIE! totally and utterly in a blissful state no matter what awful, horrible, mean things happen to me for the rest of my life!  NO JOKE!  No matter what happens next!  That one moment, being in the presence of THAT MAN and having him say THAT THING to me validated my entire life!  And, for, like, the 10th time that day I felt a sense of dreamy weightlessness settle over me.  Of course I immediately said something in the affirmative in response that was strenuously calculated so as not to seem overly eager.  Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t’ve just freaked out at that moment, like a game show contestant or something, but, instead, I was all about showing restrained enthusiasm.  I was all about treating KRS like a human being; like a person, just a regular person.  And, moreover, my pride in my potential at that point musically (22 - 23 y.o.) was such that I yearned most of all for Kris to treat me like a colleague, however impressively big-headed and presumptuous of me that might’ve been.  And I would strive to hold that ground even in the face of possibly captious offers of the sort that had just validated my entire life.  I’m pretty sure it was not unknown to me at that time that Kris held title as a Vice President at Warner Bros. Records, tho, even if not, I certainly knew he had the ability to back up his offer.
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Now, most anyone reading this journal is going to be aware that, ultimately, Kris did not sign me to Warner Bros. or any other record label (mostly due to the unmistakable feeling they are surely possessed of that they have no idea who the fuck I am.)  Having finished my meeting with Kris on the high note of my life, I exchanged contact information with his people who were all very warm and welcoming towards me.  They told me of plans for a wonderful concert a month or so hence to be held in New York City: the First Annual Hip-Hop Appreciation Week.  I was to come to the concert and provide American Sign Language interpretation, as I had done at RIT, and would be paid $500 for the incredibly sublime pleasure!  I said I would be there, of course.  I left the backstage inner sanctum -- with my backpack full of booty: a signed something or other (probably not, actually; see above) a camera with multiple pictures of me and Kris, a listened-to-by-Kris tape, and, most valuable of all, the overt suggestion that K-motherfucking-RS-One might like to help give my rap career a lift -- to return to working with my partner for the rest of the show.  (My partner later told me -- since I hadn’t been able at the time to take the time to tell him where I was going – that he saw me going, knew what I was likely up to, and was fine with it.)  I supported him as best I could through the yowling feedback of Sonic Youth in a dream state.  It didn’t matter, tho, that I was little to no help; none of the other hearing people who weren’t already familiar with them could make out any of the lyrics better than we.  I went home the happiest man on the planet that night, absolutely no question.
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Soon enough (some weeks later) the date of the NYC show arrived.  I drove to the city solo from Rochester in my used, white, wonderfully trusty and dependable 4-door Honda Hatchback; 350 miles; approximately eight hours.  It was not the first time I had been to the city, but it was my first time driving there, not to mention driving there alone.  To be plain, I was freaked out.  NYC very much freaked me out at that time (being more or less totally unknown to me; I live here now) and driving there for my first time?  Fuggedaboutit!  The way the city looms, impossibly, from a distance as you come up on it from ground level.  Impossibly voluminous and massy, it emerges from the ground, seemingly.  The drive itself, however, was fantastic, and fast, and extremely picturesque as the sun set, falling away from me, behind me to the West.  I feared I would be exhausted after the drive, but instead I was invigorated by the end of it, and not in a cheap way like on a fear high.  I was truly innervated by the entire experience and, magically, I arrived exactly where I needed to be with no problems and parked the car, for my first time ever in NYC, DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF MY DESTINATION!  I mean… I WAS IN GOD’S FUCKING POCKET doing exactly what I needed to be doing!  What’s more, the sun was still well up in the sky, bathing New York in a gorgeous rainbow sherbet.  The name of the place was Champs or Chumps or something, I remember it being sort of Midtown-y, tho, as I said, I didn’t know the city at all at that time (Ed. - The name of the place was Tramps, as a recently unearthed promotional poster I made for the show attests, and it was located at 51 W 21st St.) KRS 1 Tramps Poster
As far as I knew, I was on Murder Row or Crack Alley or some shit.  I tried my best to lock up my car in a calm, smooth fashion while still satisfying my OCD habit of unlocking and relocking every door three times and checking each door handle, including the hatchback one in the back, entered the club and found my contact.  And then I waited, and hung out, and the boisterous break-dance crew from the Bronx in their matching yellow outfits arrived and I waited and hung out (perhaps I’ll mention here that I was wearing brown boots and jeans and a white t-shirt underneath a grey one on which I’d had, previously at the Rochester mall, the words, “Speak Truth to Power” printed,) and the other performers and their entourages arrived, and I was invisible as most white people at these events are, and I hung out (this was in the downstairs green room, btw) and Kris’s posse arrived, and I hung out, but I didn’t get to greet him and barely saw him actually the whole time I was there.  In fact, I never once at this event got to see Kris face to face even for a brief minute either before or after the show to pick up the discussion where we left it at maybe getting me signed…  Backstage New York was a much different scene than backstage at the Rochester Institute of Technology.  I was a much, much smaller fish in this much bigger pond on this night and, moreover, Kris had court to hold.  I had been in contact with his staff since the RIT gig, and felt ever more comfortable with them, and ever more confident of my ability to perhaps find some reason to keep in touch with them for awhile after the NYC gig, but I had been keeping my powder dry, as political pundits say, for what I had hoped and maybe even assumed would be a very brief audience I might be granted with Kris in NY (which never materialized, ultimately.)  But before all that really depressing shit happened, I had a show to do.
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And the show was fat!  I still remember the bill was Funkmaster Flex on the decks, Heltah Skeltah from the Boot Camp Clik and some dude named Truck Turner who had the first, like, ridiculously huge dooky chain and charm I’d ever seen.  Truck I was not terribly impressed by with his run of the mill street hustler rhymes.  Heltah Skeltah I remember blowing their load early by dousing the crowd in water from bottles, but they were a fantastically chaotic spectacle and they positively vibrated with menace.  And I do like their beats; I bought one of their (meaning BCC’s, not HS’s) albums but can’t remember which (perhaps Black Moon’s first, which is a classic.)  I was not expected to interpret for anyone but Kris, so I was not on stage for these acts.  But then Flex did a set, if I remember correctly.  At one point he put on Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By”, the first song he had played that night that I knew very well, so I stepped out to the front of the stage to start interpreting.  It didn’t even occur to me that the show of Flex spinning records was anything I could’ve possibly upstaged, but, just beginning into the second verse of the song, someone (presumably connected to Flex) tapped me on the shoulder and beckoned me offstage in a rough manner.  Not a very auspicious start for me, and the crowd proved to be against my presence soon enough.  By the time Kris finally hit the stage I had been hanging out downstairs in the green room, going upstairs, downstairs, upstairs, hanging out… snapping photos… drinking water…  going to the bathroom…  I remember overhearing a story by one of the wild, vibrant members of the breaking crew (who did a great, quick show right before Kris took the stage)… the punch-line was that someone they knew who had tried to rob a bodega ended up taking the whole cash register in their arms, running down the street with it… hanging out with people I didn’t know and who didn’t want to know me… incredibly self-possessed black and Latino intelligentsia of the NYC hip-hop scene and their outrageous posses and incredibly, intimidating-ly fine girlfriends… people who probably assumed I knew who they were…  yet still people acting a part, playing a scene…  hanging out…  visiting with the few Rochester people in the crowd I knew, I banged and hurt my knee on the portable walls holding back the crowd, making a space where the club security guards patrolled like German Shepards…  By the time Kris got on and I set myself up in the downstage, stage-right corner where one of his people had specifically placed me during the sound check hours ago, including putting a tape “X” on the stage, the crowd was packed and surging and generating heat and pumped and excited.  My onstage photo from the eve shows a nicely mixed NYC crowd -- tho typically heavy on the wiggers, as these events often are.  Some dude associated with Kris was videotaping the whole event.  He put the lens in my face one time, expectedly, and I mugged, also expectedly.  Kris’s show was off the hook, of course, the only difference this time being this crowd was savvier than the one upstate and so Kris made less of a show of striving and more of a show of dominating; being the king on his throne.  And yet he never ever took it for granted.  He just seemed incredibly happy to be doing it, as he always does.  There was no personal connection between we two as there had been in Rochester, in fact I don’t remember him even acknowledging me once during the show.  This, and other things, of course, reinforced the general impression of this event that I would eventually come away with that (as has happened many times since and some before in other contexts) I was there as dross or, at best, as some sort of symbol of inclusion and disability access and not actually for access.  Suddenly, at one point between songs in Kris’s set, someone in the audience whose view I was blocking yelled at me to get the fuck out of the way.  I turned to the person and shrugged; my lifetime of professional stage training tells me I don’t move from the fucking place Kris’s man set me at, no matter except if a cry rises from the whole crowd generally, or, of course, if Kris asks me to; so far I’m just blocking one asshole’s view.  Kris says nothing to him -- nor does he acknowledge the difficult spot I’ve been put in by this outburst, preferably by informing everyone there of the obvious: that I’m there at his pleasure -- tho I’m pretty sure he has heard the dude.  I keep on, but my presence is tainted with a sort of air of pointlessness as the a-hole has, in my view, drawn even more notice to the fact that I am serving no purpose at this event in exchange for the inconvenience I am providing.  Are there any Deaf people here?  It seems not.  I certainly didn’t see any.  None identified themselves to me during the show, before or after it.  I’m just here, it seems, to get my own rocks off and to be in service of Kris’s vision of providing some novel kind of access to the First Annual Hip Hop Appreciation Week.  I would doubt seriously if any of the subsequent HHAWeeks that occurred had sign language interpreters provided (tho I was in talks to provide such services to the Temple of Hip Hop at one point; such never materialized.)  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in any way knocking Kris or the Temple; they saw an opportunity to provide access to an important event and they jumped at it, and for that they deserve nothing but credit.  Providing access, no matter if no one takes advantage of it is a good unto itself.  But it woulda made me feel a whole lot better that night if I had been able to be under the suspicion that there was at least one Hearing Impaired person in that crowd who could’ve benefited from me.  In other words, it takes more than just provision of interpreting services to provide access; there also needs to be outreach to the community in question to inform them of an opportunity that is not typically available to them.  (This is a not-obvious point which those novice at access provision cannot be faulted for not realizing on their own.)  At RIT, that dimension is taken care of by the fact of the large captive audience of the community in question, and the inclusion of outreach channels into the arena’s infrastructure. I do remember broaching the subject with Kris’s team, and I had put up handmade posters around RIT before the show advertising the fact of service provision, but as I said I saw no familiar Deaf faces at New York...  Anyway, the show was still hot, and still hype, and I still did my best, and I thrilled with pride at being an integral part of the First Annual HHAW.  Afterwards, some people talked to me.  They were very interested in what I had done, as people often are.  One dude spent a lot of time trying to rap to me about management, gave me his card, told me of his vision of seeing me on the Today show or some shit and how I was doing something he’d never seen before: sign-language mixed with music… it was very gratifying tho I knew nothing would likely ever come of it.  Also very gratifying were the two (or three) honeys of color who were chatting me up; one of my first experiences flirting with non-white girls.  They dug my shirt.  They were mad cute.
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By the time I got downstairs, the green room was a zoo and Kris’s dressing room was the center of a media circus.  The glimpses I caught into the room through the constantly opening and closing door seemed to show that he was simultaneously giving three interviews to a mob of reporters and camerapersons, like something out of a Broadway musical.  It looked like a post-game locker room in there.  I was never gonna get in there; I was never gonna speak to Kris tonight.  It was unlikely I’d ever get another chance to speak to him alone face to face.  He was based out on the West Coast at that time.  I was extremely bummed out.  I milled about, waiting to get paid and leave, dejected.  I held out hope that I might possibly get back to him via his staff later on, but knew that that would take some tricky and persistent maneuvering of the kind that I was not good at and not interested in.  The prospect of it seemed only potentially demeaning.  I had already spoken to Kris face to face.  He had offered to maybe see about signing me.  It would be unbecoming of me to deal with anyone “below” him at this point.  And each inquiry made about such with his staff (as tho I could ever make even one, “Uh, yeah, hi.  Kris said maybe he’d like to sign me.  Could I talk to him, please?”) would’ve cut my barely-existing-to-begin-with influence in half.  I met the dude who was to pay me.  He gave me my $500 cash in crisp, new 20’s.  The transaction felt deliciously shady.  The zoo was beginning to dissipate.  I grabbed my things and walked upstairs and out onto the street to find my car.  I came upon a black Range Rover driving away from some member of Kris’s entourage who was standing by my car (naturally, it being parked directly in front of the club.)  The staff member saw me and exclaimed, “Yo!  That was Kris in the Range [Rover]!  You just missed him!” Dying inside, I thanked him again for everything and got into my car, exhausted and depressed tho satisfied with the experience overall.  I was no longer in God’s pocket.  As always, I was left to wonder, “Did I do something wrong?  Or, is this just the way things were meant to be?”
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Having nowhere to go and having made no plans to stay the night in the city, I began (somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 or 2 in the morning) the drive back home to Rochester.  However freaked out I had been driving alone into the city hours earlier, I was triply freaked out driving out alone this late at night.  All I could think of was Judgment Night (a film whose sole purpose was to stoke just such kinds of wigger paranoia.)  I, of course, got turned around and pulled over late that morning somewhere in SE Connecticut in some very tony, craftshoppy, bedroom community.  I slept in my car in a random parking lot.  I awoke some hours later just past sunrise, unmolested.  I emptied my bladder and filled my tank and hit the road to home.
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On the long ride home, and at least once or twice a month every year since, I had an opportunity to consider the opportunity that had been presented to me and the way in which I had handled it.  Had I made a mistake in the way I’d handled things?  Perhaps a huge mistake?  Perhaps the biggest mistake of my life, hands down?  Should I have become a huge star as KRS’s protégé (almost co-instantaneously as Eminem was becoming under Dre.; the anti-Eminem and Dre in many ways)?  Could I have become another Channel Live (earlier protégés of Kris’s)?  Should I have dispatched post haste from the first moment with any and all considerations outside of “Press Kris on his offer to sign you”?  Certainly, I imagine there will always be people who read this story and slap their foreheads and shake their heads in disbelief and imagine that, in my position, they would’ve done whatever it took to leverage the casual manipulation of a living legend into fame and maybe fortune.  But I had been thinking about this shit my entire life.  I really was made to live through this experience.  And My God had made me proud for this moment, but not too proud.  It had made me self-assured but not cocky.  But I had decided long, long before this seminal moment that I would rather sell no copies as my own man – an independent artist -- than go certified multi-platinum under contract to another label.  I was soon to start creating my life’s work at this point, and I was going to own every last piece of it, no matter if I died totally, utterly obscure and unknown.  I was not going to bow, I was not going to grovel, I was not going to jump and scrape at KRS’s suggestion of an offer which, somewhere deep down in the depths of me I had known all along he was going to make.  If he really did respect me as an artist, and really did want to take a hand personally in my career, then he would simply have seen to it, and that would’ve been that.  But I had reason to believe the much more likely possibility that his utterance was merely the moment’s whim of a superstar who knew he needn’t be strictly accountable for his words finding the easiest way he knew of to flatter and compliment me -- as an interpreter and thereby an element in a novel performance experience -- on a job well done.
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And yet I still feel the need to take this opportunity to clue the average person in on why proactively resisting the wiles of the music biz which lay behind Kris’s offer is the independent artist’s best strategy, such is my guilt and anxiety over the way things turned out.  Most people out there are quite fooled by, and moreover seemingly quite happy to get swept up in, the illusions of the music industry whereof some “lucky” person gets elevated to some artificially hyped position of prestige (i.e. a rock star, a rap star, any kind of star…) and influence and non-responsibility.  Most people have never analysed the whole charade and therefore don’t understand why it is not only bullshit but very worth actively avoiding.  (First and foremost, any and all fantasies regarding escaping the difficulties of life through position or any other social construct is to be avoided by all persons disinterested in destructive self-delusion, but more specifically…)  Most people don’t understand that the long-time, well-known business model for Big Music is: 15% (or less) of a label’s artists financially support the other 85% (or more.)  And this was in the days before the widespread use of the Internet for downloading.  Put another way: Big Music ASSUMES FROM THE OUTSET that at least 85% of its roster of artists is NOT GOING TO BREAK EVEN!  (As it’s often put: it only takes one Madonna to bankroll a million bands of which you’ve never heard.)  The best way to think of Big Music is as a bank melded with some more or less robust infrastructure and apparatuses for producing, promoting and selling musical product.  In exchange for their financial assistance and access to their infrastructure, they take control over your artwork as a product (an exchange which, in this simplistic formulation anyway, I consider reasonable.)  It would actually serve the overwhelming majority of artists much better simply to get a loan from a bank and contract with some independent musician’s services, thereby keeping control of their work.  Big Music companies are barely regulated, if at all, and they treat their talent like indentured servants.  They decide upon your look, upon your presentation to the world artistically and image wise, they decide upon how you are marketed and promoted, they decide which songs are going to go on your album or whether or not your album EVEN GETS RELEASED AT ALL!  Horror stories of the kind where an artist’s life’s work gets shelved by a label that has lost interest in promoting the artist, or has decided for other (almost always financial) reasons to delay release of the work, are exceedingly common. And artists typically are contractually disallowed from going and releasing the album elsewhere with another label.  (If the idea of this in no way upsets or disturbs you, then you will probably never understand the stakes of the situation the average artist faces; our work is our children, in many cases more important than our own children, our friends and loved ones, ourselves and our own lives.  The idea of some A&R douche shelving our life’s work indefinitely for some financial consideration is HORRIFYING!)  Even if you’re a hit, they own the rights to your recordings, cause you recorded your life’s work on the machines they rented in your name.  They own the royalty rights, the publishing rights, the master rights, the sync rights, your band name, your likeness, your image, your lyrics -- They own you!  Every penny they spend on you, they get to recoup before you see one of your own.  And this is taken out of the, typically, at most, 15 cents per album you’re contractually entitled to.  And this goes on for 3 albums, 5 if you’re “lucky.”  This is the standard contract, which is typically hard if not impossible to renegotiate even if you blow up on your first or second album.  And even in those final pre-downloading, pre-digital-home-recording-studio days, almost no one got a full album’s worth of support, never mind more than one; and you can forget about a career’s worth of support.  All Big Music needs to squeeze out of you is one hit single, and that’s all they’re trying for.  And, in the process, you sell your soul along with everything else to them.  And you’re selling to people who don’t know music, who can’t make music, who have no idea what it’s like to be creative, only to suck creativity out of others for profit.  I am not opposed to profiting from creativity, but the profit has to be overwhelmingly mostly the creator’s.  Not to mention the larger issue of the meaning and impact, both personally and socially, of the whole “star myth”.  Honestly, the thought of being signed to a Warner Bros. imprint was barely enticing at all.  In fact, as unbelievable as this may sound, from my perspective it would’ve taken a heavy sell on somebody’s part for it to appeal to me.  But I certainly took Kris at his word at that moment, and appreciated the exquisite moment in itself for what it was and how important it was to me (which, in the end, is the only really important thing) even if the words employed were something as nebulous and noncommittal as “We might need to see about signing you.”  I mean, I couldn’t’ve expected him to be sold on the idea of me at that time on one rough track without vocals, but THAT’S EXACTLY THE POINT!  I could tell from a mile off that he was invoking hyperbole that was intended to be flattering, as much as I interacted with him at the time as though he were in earnest…
breakdance photo

So, don’t go shaking your head and saying to yourself, “I can’t believe you missed that opportunity, Grammar!”  You have no idea what the stakes are and what the reality of the situation is.  You have no idea of the responsibility that comes along with having talent.  All I had going for me in that situation was my pride and my self-respect and both of those things remained in tact at the other end of it, as was my wont and my aim.  Some seven or so years on, as I look back on the whole thing, I am still happy with the decision I made.  This is largely for two reasons: 1. I don’t actually believe in the ability to imagine “how things might have been” (this is largely due to technical and philosophical reasons which I won’t get into here, but suffice to say the only choice in such matters that I actually see is: “Accept your reality or don’t,” and I have chosen the former and done so well, in my opinion.)  And 2. The rise of the Internet.  As I have said, this episode occurred in the final days of pre-ubiquitous Internet.  (This was even before the point when you could more or less just assume that everyone had a cell phone, just to give you an idea…)  I was studying Information Technology (i.e. Web Design) at RIT, and so was perfectly situating myself to take advantage of the ascendancy of this new technology.   The Internet has been a blessing to many people in many different ways, but it literally saved my life because I have been allowed to share my artistic vision with the world (which is all any artist ever really wants) without dealing with a single middleman, without which outlet I’m sure suicide would’ve seemed even more appealing than it sometimes has already.  Seven years later, I own my own media business, I own all my own work, and I am now perfectly poised to profit from it.  My profile rises slowly but surely as more and more people learn about me, and it is legitimate interest in me and my work that compels them, and not the groupthink of massive popular music.  And I keep nearly every penny of profit…  Of course, things COULD have possibly worked out for me had I somehow ended up being signed and what not, and that might’ve been pretty sweet.  I might’ve been that astronomically unlikely anomaly of the world famous artist who is both loved by the people and respected by the critics, and perhaps I would’ve been unreasonably lucky enough to not only keep it from destroying me but to be able to use it as a means to help others, but… looking back on the body of work I’ve created and the things I’ve learned about the person I am, I rather doubt it.  It is, statistically speaking, incredibly unlikely; it is fantasy.  The real-world choice facing the overwhelming majority of we musicians is: give up control of your work to someone who may or mayn’t be able to boost your career, or keep total control and do what you can on your own.  Without the Internet, and home recording studios, the former would’ve been a risk much, much more worth taking, but at the time my work was coming to fruition it no longer was and continues to become less so every day.  At this point my site averages 10 to 15,000 new unique visitors every month.  My work is known from China to Italy to Kansas.  Now that I’m being distributed digitally (with iTunes and the like,) I’ve actually started to earn a trickle of profits from my work and it grows steadily.  I am able to point fellow artists to my site and they are now able to judge me on my sizeable body of work rather than merely on my potential and I am forming mutually respectful relationships with some of them, as I am with my fans who are finally finding me and finding it worth the bit of work they have to put in to do so.  ANYWAY!  Enough self-justification.  I was positively thrilled by getting to meet Kris, I was absolutely blown away by his offer, I showed great enthusiasm for it while maintaining self respect, and, in retrospect, I feel I did the right thing…
A crowd of p

But, there’s more to this story.  To pick up where we left off: I arrived home to Rochester exhausted, satisfied, elated, but it was definitely back to things as usual in my only-slightly-unusual-life as a professional sign language interpreter.  I thought of ways to stay in touch with Kris’s people.  I’m sure I even left a couple of messages or tried other ways to get in touch with Kris, but none of my restrained measures worked out, and he certainly didn’t contact me on his own.  I got back into the routine of my life in Rochester…  I brought the disposable camera to a local film shop to have the film developed.  I had brought the same camera to the show in NYC.  When I got the photos back, all the shots were there, EXCEPT FOR THE ONES FROM MY FIRST TIME MEETING KRIS BACKSTAGE AT RIT!  This meant I had no pictures of me with Kris.  They weren’t even on the negatives.  I asked the film shop what had happened, but they said they only print what’s on the negatives and if they aren’t there they have no idea.  I naturally found this situation maddening…  It’s one of those things in life I look back on and wonder, “Why didn’t I raise a ruckus til I got a real good explanation of what had gone down?”  I tried to consider what nefarious action, if any, might’ve been taken by the film shop peons, but could come up with no possible angle for them to have.  I mean, they can make as many copies of my pictures as they want; but keeping them from me could provide them with no benefit that I could determine.  Perhaps they were covering up for some fuck up on their part; I dunno...  It occurred to me that all of the shots from that meeting were at the very beginning of the roll and maybe there was something wrong with it...  I was terribly upset by this loss, of course, in very small part because it removed the proof to my story, tho I had thousands of witnesses to the first part on stage at RIT, and, moreover, a random picture of Kenny looking at DAT tapes (and, even more, my personal memory and fuck whether or not anyone else believes it.)  But still… it is still painful for me to think of the fact of the lack of this memento.  It breaks my heart, actually.
Funkmaster Flex et al.

Time goes on, I create a beat in honor of Kris (Blastmaster KRSone) that I’m hoping to play for him one day, and possibly to give to him for him to use or not as he sees fit.  A friend at RIT who is into hip-hop asks me how I could just let the connection with Kris drop, considering what he had said to me.  I refrain from getting into the diatribe inscribed above…

Anywho, so time goes on, years pass… I graduate with honors from RIT, I move back to Seattle, I start my own business, I record lyrics to my beats for the first time, complete my first few albums and put them up on the Web.  I languish in Seattle, stymied by the stultifying atmosphere (heavy on the rock, light on the interesting, exciting hip-hop, except for my crew, of course -- big up Mic + Eso + Ezra + Bishop + Freeze + Bits + Gash + Specs + Native + the whole Oldominion fam! -- but, even then, it is classic Seattle: lots of depression, lots of self-pity, lots of self-righteousness; cool beats, tho, especially from my crew, of course.)  I get fed up with Seattle, and need to get out again.  This time I am ready for the city; New York City.  It takes me some time, but I finally leave.  I take the long way there (down the West Coast, across the South, up the East Coast, but that is another story...)  I land in Rochester to get my footing, save up a bit of money, in order to make a successful siege of NYC.  I only plan on staying for a couple months, but some interesting things happen and it mushrooms into seven.

Finally, I make the big move and slowly settle into New York City.  I live on the Upper East Side for 7 months (see below), I move to the Upper West Side (where I reside still as of 6/27/2008.)  I integrate myself into the interpreting community.  I enjoy the hell out of myself and love my life.  I rarely go to shows (music shows, like hip hop shows, mostly because they bore me.)  But one shows up that catches my eye.  Literally, in the first place it catches my eye cause the poster I see for it is done in the style of old skool hip hop shows with, like, different peoples’ faces pasted into star-shaped cut outs…  And the fucking bill is mindblowing…  It’s at a club called SOB’s (in the West Village.)  KRS is the headliner and it also features, like, Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Caz and some other old skool dudes.  I remember Rahzel making an appearance.  I heard I missed the Beastie Boys right before I arrived.  I think the Beatnuts were there.  It was, like, fucking unbelievable.  And, of course, I couldn’t get any tickets by the time I heard about it.  But, I was gonna be there.  And I was gonna see Kris.  And I was gonna remind him of who I was and the small history we had if it was the last thing I did.

Funkmaster Flex from afar

So the first thing I tried was, I contacted members of the Temple of Hip Hop (a philosophical/altruistic hip-hop-culture-promoting organization that Kris is heavily involved in) and offered to interpret the show into ASL pro bono.  I felt emboldened in this by the earlier conversations along these lines I’d had with Kris’s people years before (see above.)  I received some positive responses from some people at the Temple, but nothing materialized.  So, I decided to pretend like it had been set up and went down to SOB’s under that pretense.  Now, to those for whom this seems an unethical manipulation of my professional position as an interpreter, I have this to say: I would’ve been happy to follow through with the plans initiated by Kris’s representative with the Temple of Hip Hop.  Had there been any Deaf people in the crowd that night, and with Kris’s blessing, I would’ve gladly interpreted the performance for them.  So, really, being thus prepared to back up my pretense, the only unethical thing I did was to fib to the doorman at SOB’s, and here is how it went down:  I, of course, walked right up to him like I belonged in the place and needn’t even bother with small fish like him.  I told him I was there to interpret the show into sign language.  The dude said, “Well, I dunno if you’re lying or not, but, if so, that’s the best excuse I’ve ever heard,” put a stamp on my hand and opened the door for me.  Perfect.  Beautiful.  I was back in God’s pocket...  A few steps into the club, though, the bouncer shouts at me, “Hey!” and I stop and turn around.  “Do some sign language!” he yells and I sign at the same time as I say aloud, “Hi, my name is Graham, and I’m here to interpret this show into sign-language.”  He laughs and says, “You deserve to see this show, man, whatever the truth is.”

Once inside the place, I decide to follow the pretext into the green room, and succeed.  Once I got downstairs, of course, I needn’t explain my presence and no one asked.  I was betting on seeing Kris and being able to speak to him for just a brief moment, but it’s boring in the green room and I was missing the epic show upstairs.  However, if I were to have left the green room, I might have a hard time getting back in.  Finally, I get so bored and want to see the show so bad (and am sure I can make something of seeing Kris on stage) that I finally walk upstairs from the green room, and at the top of the stairs I make sure the dude guarding the stairs sees me coming up and knows my face in order to let me back down again if need be…  Eventually, Kris takes the stage and he’s exuding a similar vibe as in Champs (or whatever the club was called) six or so years ago: This is my hometown, I own this stage, I am first among equals (cause there were so many unbelievable hip hop heavyweights in the crowd.)  It was an incredible show.  Kris not only owned the stage proper, he moved off the stage down into the crowd and owned the floor.  He kept moving from spot to spot on the floor and the show followed him.  The energy followed him and he fed the energy.  Kris is such an incredibly selfless performer in a live setting, which is what makes his shows so unbelievably raw and energetic: “You are hip hop as well as I,” he says, both literally and figuratively, and artistically.  “I am just channeling this thing that we are all a part of.  Be true to yourselves, live hip hop and you will add to the culture.”  It’s so wonderfully inclusive; you can’t help but get caught up in it if you have even the slightest affection for this shit.  So I’m following him as a member of the crowd from stage to floor to elevated floor.  I’m trying to stay in his view without getting directly in his face in the hopes that my daydream might continue, and he might somehow recognize me, remember me and pause for a second to say what’s up.  But that’s a crazy thing to expect, of course, and of course it doesn’t happen.  As nice an experience as he might’ve had with me, the majority of his life bas been one novel experience with complete strangers after another and that was OVER SIX FUCKING YEARS AGO!  So, of course he doesn’t actually recognize me, which I’m glad of, actually, cause I’d be hate to have interrupted his show, no matter how much it might please me personally to be recognized…  Anywho, eventually the show winds down and Kris says his goodbyes to the crowd and attempts to exit, stage whatever.  Lucky for me, there is no backstage at SOB’s.  His only choice is to break to the stairs down to the green room, and I see at this point that this is partly, if not entirely, the reason for his continuous change of locations mid-performance: to be near to the stairs.  Reason and modesty tell me, “Let the man make his getaway!”  But my desire for closure gets the best of me.  I practically run chasing after Kris to get to the stairs before he escapes.  He is most the way down the stairs, just about to turn the corner down the second flight.  The bouncer has barred my way this time, probably having just seen Kris’s show and my ass definitively NOT up on stage interpreting and realizing the jig is up.  So I yell, “Kris! Kris!” and, seemingly despite himself, Kris stops and turns to look up on me.  I blurt out something along the lines of, “It’s me, Graham Mackenzie -- Grammar!  We met years ago at the Rochester Institute of Technology where I interpreted your performance into sign language, and you invited me to come do the same thing here in NYC for the First Annual Hip Hop Appreciation Week!”  I have no reason to think he’s faking it, but whether he remembers or not he says, “Oh, yeah!” in his wonderfully theatrical baritone and enthusiastic manner.  “Here!” I say, straining to hand him one of my cards with my website printed on it, “This is a website where I give away my music for free!”  He takes the card, looks at the front side which says, “proGrammar.net” and the back side which says, ‘free, original, hip-hop music!” looks at me with his big grin, and says, “This is cool, man.” Then he turns around and finishes jogging down the stairs, disappearing around the corner.

Kenny Parker looking at a DAT tape.

And, of course, I go home after hanging around outside for a minute, handing out my card, and taking other people’s cards.  And many people, I feel, view me as an annoying novelty at best (white boy.)  But most are very cool, very calm.  These old skool hip hop cats, these brothers are preternaturally prepossessed.  It’s like: they’re living legends; they’re from a different era; they can afford to be kind to you.  That was the other fresh thing: by the time Kris hit the stage the crowd was thick with living legends and I took as much opportunity as possible after the show to tell them how important to me they were, and what big fans I was (and hand out my card, naturally, which, unfortunately for some of them, I think, undermined the asymmetry they might’ve been hoping for between big shot and fan which was, of course, mostly my intention as much as I could assume they likely couldn’t give a fuck about my music.  I really am an incredibly stubborn SOB, pun intended.)  So I go home and back to everything same as before.  And of course I don’t hear from Kris, and of course it is the same as before, except that I GOT FUCKING CLOSURE!  I can now definitively state that the issue of Kris boosting my career or not, or even just giving a half fuck or not about me and my music, is NOT IN ANY WAY DUE TO ME NOT DOING WHATEVER NECESSARY TO SPEAK TO HIM FACE TO FACE AGAIN.  I could not find another opportunity after the first NYC show to get Kris on the phone, but I got him face to face again, I did what I had to do to make sure I had done all I could do and the result was the same: bupkis, nada, no response, EXACTLY AS I BELIEVED IT SHOULD BE!  I mean, this is Kris fucking Parker; KRS fucking One!  This dude grew up in the projects in one of NYC’s roughest eras ever.  This dude was homeless growing up, sleeping in the park.  This dude is a worldwide superstar and living legend.  If this dude had one and only one thing to tell me, anyway, it probably would’ve been: Do for self, which I had been doing already since well before and after I met him, anyway, so what’s he gonna do for me at this point?  It might boost my ego and would probably boost my profile to have KRS in my corner in the hip hop world, but the larger world of Big Music (with all due respect and absolutely no offense intended to the man) doesn’t give a fuck about Kris anymore, and they haven’t since the early 90’s!  And it’s surely mutual!  Never mind the hey days of being a VP at Warner Bros., Kris don’t even fuck with major labels for his own shit anymore and hasn’t for years (he’s been putting out albums by himself and on indie labels) whether by choice or not, I don’t know (I presume the former.)  As I mentioned briefly above: the moment at RIT, and NOT what that moment might’ve meant for me down the road, was the meaningful part.  I am a lifelong hip-hop fanatic who was given and properly seized the opportunity to personally expose his music to one of his all time heroes and that hero mentioned possibly signing him!!!  That experience in itself was fucking perfect and nothing else ever need have come from it.

So, anyway… the message is as it ever was: God is good and gives us only what we need as challenges.  I must do for self, as ever, and not just cause I want something done right…  and that’s alright, as it ever has been.  As ever, I don’t ever want to be able to look back on my career and say, “My _______ (fame, fortune, whatever) is due to _________ (somebody, something other than myself.)”  I would rather die in obscurity than end up in a position where someone can say that what I have earned and achieved is due to something other than my talent, dedication and hard work.

So, anyway, that’s my highest profile brush with fame.

Me Holding $500

Das-EFX   (^top)

A similar story: while working at RIT, I went down to Gallaudet University (in Washington, D.C.) for the annual Brick/Rock festival.  They had a concert featuring, among other acts, fucking Das-EFX! (This was the late 90’s; well past the group’s prime.) But, the show (rather unbelievably) had no interpreter!  So, a song or two into their show (I was standing near the front) I get homie’s attention (either DAS or EFX, I don’t know which one -- just kidding) and told him I could interpret for them if he wanted, and of course he pulled me up on stage (I know, I know. I’m an incredibly opportunistic sonuvabitch.) Now, unlike with Kris, where I was not only familiar ahead of the time with a lot of his music but had a month to get familiar with the rest, I only knew one of Das-EFX’s songs well at all (“They Want EFX”, of course; their biggest hit) and maybe knew one other minor hit a little bit (tho the fact that I can’t remember even it’s title at this point is telling.) But, more to the point, this is fucking Das-EFX! And that means, as anyone familiar with their music knows, the shit is fucking hard to interpret!! The reason for this is largely that they’re signature thing is this dancehall-y way of repeating their lyrics (they’re famous catch phrase, as example, is, “Chiggity-check yourself before you riggity-wreck yourself” for crying out loud!) So, even had I had a lot of time to prepare, it would’ve been a ball-buster. Anyway, as usual, it was better than nothing and I had a great time and the musicians were pleased and the crowd seemed pleased, so… everyone was happy. But the best part was that I got to hang out with the dudes backstage afterwards and smoke a blunt…

Lords of the Underground   (^top)

While in Paris during 2001, I handed out my card with my website on it to this black dude (with some HOT chick) who turned out to be a member of Lords of the Underground.  I kinda embarrassed him in front of his chick cause I made casual reference to my understanding that their only hit was “Chief Rocker” and dude objected that No, they had had some other hits such as blah, blah and blah… I do remember kinda being like, “Oh, yeah…” to one of them, like he had jogged my memory or something, but I can’t remember now the title of the song; it was a pretty lame save on my part.  Dude seemed pretty miffed.

Al Gore   (^top)

I interpreted for Al Gore giving a speech at NYU, like 2004, 2005.  He was blasting the Bush administration (of course.)  My partner was being a goddamned stage hog, but the pro of going on second was I got to shake his hand ahead of time (right before he went on stage,) tell him what an honor it was to meet him, etc.  He said “thank you” in sign language before striding onstage, which I thought was a pretty classy (tho corny) move.  I can tell you, it was a real honor to get to physically embody the speech of the man who lost to “that dickhead”, the man who should’ve been our President, as he blasted “that dickhead” (who I hate immensely.)  And, my friend on the West Coast ended up seeing me on TV, interpreting the event (which was pretty cool, of course.)

Bobby McFerrin   (^top)

One time, back in Seattle, when I was in High School, and at the top of my trained vocal powers as a member of the area youth choir Vocalpoint! Seattle, my dad and I went to see Bobby McFerrin play with members of the Seattle Symphony at the Seattle Opera House (I fucking looooooove Bobby McFerrin; see Somaphone 2.)  It was a fantastic performance, of course, and in the second half of the show he took the stage with a jazz trio, just to sort of switch it up from what he had done in the first half.  At one point, during this part of the performance, he started scatting and came out into the crowd, looking for a volunteer to try and do the same.  Being near the very front of the crowd, I wasn’t able to get my nerve up until Bobby had passed by our section.  My bravery soon caught up with me and, in a moment of spontaneity, I jumped up, turned to Bobby as he proceeded up the aisle looking for volunteers (luckily, it was a crowdful of petrified wiggers; that is, I had few competitors by this point) and shouted, “Hey!”  He turned around, his eyebrows shot up, and he said into the microphone, “I take it you’d like to volunteer,” to small laughter…  I nodded vigorously, grinning, as he returned down the aisle.  I walked over the laps of the people in my aisle on my way out to greet him.  We shook hands and he began instructing me as to what to expect: We (meaning Bobby together with the crowd) were studying, as a whole, the concept of the basic blues chord progression and scatting.  He showed me how to hold the mic (something I had been practicing since I was 8 years old) and told me how he was going to cue me that it was my time to come in, and what to do (improvise scat.)  Now, I had never scatted before, but I was familiar with the standard blues progression, was very comfortable on stage and had a lot of confidence in what I was doing (none of which, of course, Bobby was aware of.  For all he knew I couldn’t sing a lick and was gonna suck to high heaven.  Of course, he would’ve made the most out of it entertainment-wise either way, I’m sure, but still… the smart money was on me likely being mediocre at best.)  So, you can imagine the surprise from him and everyone else when I, at the appointed moment, took a deep breath, threw my head back and blew out the best Ella Fitzgerald impression I could manage.  Bobby looked like I blew his socks off and I remember the crowd responding positively and warmly.  He got into it and started egging me along saying, “Yeah! Yeah! Go!” and pumping his fist.  This was years before my experience with KRS (see above) so it was the most amazing experience with a celebrity performer I had had up to that point.  It was all over in a minute, at which point, on Bobby’s suggestion, I took a number of short bows, shook his hand, waived to the crowd and sat down to roaring applause.

Fatlip of The Pharcyde

One time in the early/mid 90’s I saw Pharcyde somewhere at a fair grounds in Washington (I wanna say it was for Lollapalooza) and ran into Fatlip milling about in the crowd.  I rapped with him.  I’m pretty sure it was some written shit tho it might’ve been freestyle.  He was very encouraging and friendly.

De La Soul   (^top)

One time in the early/mid 90’s I waited on line for the De La Soul / Tribe Called Quest show at The Moore, I believe, in Seattle.  I was there HOURS before anybody else and was rewarded for my tenacity by catching De La coming in early to set up.  They were like, “You’re here this early for the show?!” and I was like “Hell yeah!” and PA Mase was like, “Cool, man. Thanks for coming.”

Dennis Page, Publisher of XXL Magazine   (^top)

This one doesn’t really count as a brush with fame, per se, but… more perhaps a brush with studied obscurity.  Regardless, it’s a pretty good story.

So, when I first moved to New York in the summer of 2003 (see above,) I moved in with my girlfriend and her brother in this capacious, 3-bedroom apartment they inhabited on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (a neighborhood that, for those not in the know, is one of the toniest in all of NY.)  They were able to stay there cause it had been, sadly, recently vacated by their aged grandparents, both of whom had passed within a week of each other a month of so before we arrived, which was a bit of a silver lining... Anywho, as most people reading this have probably inferred, the place was worth a lot of dough and there is absolutely no way in the world we could have hoped to live there had it not been for the fact that Caitlin’s (my girl) g-parents had finished paying the place off back in the 60’s.  But, in New York, there is still the matter of a “maintenance fee” even on places one owns, and this serves a double purpose: one the one hand, to cover certain absolutely necessary fees such as property tax and insurance and services such as trash removal, doorman, handyman, deliveryman, and on the other hand to act as a yet further discouragement to weed out the merely comfortable from the truly well-off.  So, despite the fact that nothing was owed on the apartment (which, as I mentioned, was huge, including: 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, a huge living room, a comfortable dining room, a sizeable kitchen and servants’ quarters.  The walls in this place were foot thick concrete and we of course did nothing to renovate the place upon moving in, so were charmed to put up with the velvet wall-coverings that the old folks had put up the last time they had decorated back in the 60’s, presumably) the maintenance fee still amounted to $3000 PER MONTH! which broke out to an incredibly reasonable (by Manhattan standards) $1000 a piece per month for the three of us and this was without the unpleasant obligation of a lease mind you, and a block from Central Park and the Guggenheim, etc. in one of the nicest neighborhoods in Manhattan.  Needless to say, it was a great place to make my first home in NY and I ended up staying for about 7 months before moving out into my own studio on the Upper West Side.

So, as I’m in the process of moving my shit out, I run into this older looking dude (middle aged with more white hair than his natural black) in the elevator who’s got the hipster look pretty down: thick “50’s-ish” black framed glasses, short cropped hair, zip up hoody, jeans, skate shoes.  Now, by this point I’ve spent enough time in New York to have gotten to be the best I’ve ever been in my life at minding my own business, and this is especially true in the case of this building I’m living in where I’ve learned that the dominant mode of its inhabitants is one of frosty distance.  But, at the same time, I never let an opportunity to ply my music on random passers-by pass me by and this dude is especially enticing cause of his whole “hip” get-up, especially one particular fact: the zip up hoody he is sporting is 555 Soul, which, as anyone in the know will tell you is pretty much a hip-hop brand.  Plus, I’m leaving the building literally that day, so I feel pretty emboldened and start in with my usual entrée while we ride the elevator down: “D’you like hip-hop music?”  The dude looks very taken aback, and literally withdraws from me a bit, shooting me a suspicious look.  “Why do you ask?” he asks all defensively.  And I respond by pointing at his hoody and saying, “Your triple five soul sweatshirt.”  He immediately relaxes visibly and says, “Oh,” and I soon understand why he reacted this way when he tells me that he is Dennis Page, the publisher of XXL, the #2 (most months, I believe) hip hop magazine in the world.  And it turns out, he lives RIGHT UNDER ME!; the past 7 months this was the case and I had no idea.  After making him aware of this fact he says, “Oh.  So, you’re the one making all the noise.”  I grin sheepishly, shrug my shoulders and apologize (later, it occurs to me that it is more likely Josh, my girlfriend’s brother, who was making all the noise, as I am pretty conscientious about it despite the foot thick concrete walls, but no matter…)  Anyway, we have a pretty brief conversation in the lobby about me and my music at the end of which Mr. Page sums up the situation thusly, “Well, you’ll probably never be in XXL.”  Now, certainly this is very likely true, and point (which he so graciously proceeded to expand on) well taken, but still… you never know! which makes his statement kind of an unfortunately unnecessary dis.  Anyway, that would’ve been that (of course I later did the requisite plying him with all my CDs which, of course, came to nothing) were it not for the fact that over a year and a half later I had the opportunity to take part in my friend Kid Lucky’s awesome event where he invites a bunch of beatboxers and rappers to take over the last car of a particular subway on a particular day and run it to the end of the line and back making a huge ruckus, having a lot of fun, making live unamplified music…  And so, it just so happened that a freelance reporter working for XXL contacted me about the event and a nice, juicy quote by me made it into the magazine so: UH! Take that, BITCH! You were TECHNICALLY DEAD WRONG! MWA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!  (It truly is all about the little pleasures. Thanks to Kid Lucky for providing this opportunity.)

xxl photo xxl photo
xxl photo

Wyclef Jean   (^top)

In the Fall of '99, I interpreted for Wyclef Jean at RIT. All I remember of it was that he was pompous enough to play the guitar behind his head on the very first song and that he switched guitars literally every song and would hand them off to a scurrying guitar tech for a re-tune. Thank God, for the sake of the people of Haiti, he was not allowed to run for president.

Kid Lucky   (^top)

MC Paul Barman   (^top)

pmb certificate

My proudest hip-hop possession.

Dan Savage   (^top)

For a while there, right after high school in Seattle (I'm bad with dates sometimes), I volunteered at a short-lived but entertaining radio show that Dan Savage hosted (he had an awesome lesbian co-host whose name eludes me) that was broadcast on KEXP (called KCMU at the time.) I was the lowest form of life in the show's ecology, so to speak, and I remember the executive producer as being the kind of asshole who relishes being an asshole. Everybody else was very friendly, including Dan. One day he started a very friendly conversation with, "You're 18, right, Graham?" He was asking me to be his date to a fetish club. He assured me that Terry (his boyfriend at the time; now his husband, I believe) would know all about it and have no problem with it (especially important since I saw Terry most every time I came to work on the show.) "I know you're not gay," Dan said, "so I figured it might be no problem for you to consider this. You don't need to do anything, just come as my arm candy." Youthfully amenable to flattery and desirous of idolatrous attention - regardless the gender of the idolatrix - as I was, I said, What the hell...

I remember we met on Capitol Hill, at Rosebud, the (more or less) lesbian cafe, which gave me a thrill (I am particularly keen on butch / tomboyish girls); pretty sure it was my first time ever in there. Dan and barely-18-year-old me sitting across from each other around a round table. He asked to check my ID; I gladly furnished it. The cavernous, pitch black loft space festooned with all manner of equipment, toys and stage sets we were soon to enter loomed at the top of the building across the street from us. He prepped me on what to expect: I will be unabashedly leered at by various groups of men. I will not be in any way recorded without my explicit consent. I might be asked to do things but there is no expectation that I will do anything. We will be surrounded by a variety of kinky activities that, in a sense, have nothing to do with us, other than the fact that they're happening in the same place as we are. If, at any time for any reason, I said I wanted to go we immediately would, no questions asked. I felt comfortable and safe, though exhilarated at the prospect of the utterly unknown world I was about to glimpse and said, Let's do it!...

Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters   (^top)

Jake Shears (we knew him as Jason Sellards) was a year or two behind me in high school. One of the friendliest people there (and it wasn't an unfriendly place); genuinely sweet. He also hung out at the aforementioned Dan Savage radio show sometimes, as they were friends, and it was always fun to see him there. Later, when I had just moved to Manhattan and right before the Scissor Sisters started to take off, he was one of my first connections on Friendster. A few years later, we finally had a date to meet. I came to his place on the Lower East Side. I wasn't sure what to expect, but was trying to keep an open mind. I was, in part, interested in verifying whether my sexual preferences included men or not (I often treat my life as one big experiment.) With compunction and empathy towards Jason's existence as a human being separate from myself and my agendas, and with nothing more than a hunch that he might have any interest in me physically, it seemed conceivable to me that the homophobia ingrained in me by my society might be so deep that homosexual experience might be most compelling (and, thereby, most telling if thusly ineffective) if the pursuer (as I wasn't interested enough myself to pursue) were in-the-flesh (as opposed to merely a fantasy), young, good-looking, intelligent, talented, a known friend of mine (in a way), well off, and famous - in other words, as attractive as possible - all of which Jake was at the time. (I now know that the amount of overthinking on display here is proof enough that this is not where my loins' desires lay, haha, at least enough to be the pursuer.) In the event, we drank beer after beer after beer until 3 o'clock in the morning, but he never made a move so after a few pleasant hours of chatting and listening to records, I went home, leaving most of my hypothesizing untested. We haven't hung out since...

Sam Adams, Mayor of Portland, Oregon   (^top)

In late summer of 2011, I interpreted for the Portland City Council’s public forum on The Office of Equity (I can divulge this because it was, as stated, a public gig) chaired, of course, by our somewhat scandal-tarnished -- it involved a barely-illegal son of someone affiliated with his campaign -- openly gay Mayor Sam Adams, who had just recently announced that he would not be running for re-election. A couple of weeks later, I saw the Mayor out with an attractive young gentleman at one of my favorite new bars in Portland (co-run by a friend of mine), The Beech St. Parlor. At one point in the night, I ended up in the drinks line behind Mayor Adams as the couple in front of us bought Hizzoner a beer, for which he graciously, and tipsily (or so it seemed to me), thanked them. I took the opportunity to introduce myself to the Mayor and tell him what a pleasure it had been to interpret for him recently, for which he also graciously, and tipsily, thanked me. His soft-focus gaze settled on the name-necklace I had on, and his fingers followed into my unbuttoned-at-the-top dress shirt to touch the appellated pendant. “Lisa?” he asked with a hint of a smirk on his face and in his voice, “Is that your girlfriend’s name?”

“No, it’s my nickname.”

Your nickname is Lisa?!

I explain that Lisa was a bit character on “The L Word” who was a biological dude who identified as a lesbian.

“So, you’re a lesbian?” asked the Mayor, confused, “But you’re presenting as a man!”

“No, not a lesbian, 'cause I’m not a woman; 'Lisa' is more of an inside joke for those who know that show. Rather, I identify as Genderqueer,” a term the Mayor had never heard before. “It’s a relatively recent coinage,” I reassure him.

Soon I find myself attempting to explain the concept and chemical etymology of “cis-gendered”, another term novel to the Mayor. I express surprise at his never having heard these terms before, and he confides to me, “All I ever do is work.”

At one point, I mention that a small part of my motivation for identifying as Queer is how keenly I prefer to focus, sexually, on my, typically, female partner over my male self -- a very, to me, un-straight thing to do -- since, among other reasons, “for a man, you can just blow on the thing and problem solved.” “Wait till you hit 40,” the Mayor deadpans. "This is surreal," I think to myself.

“Do you feel supported here in Portland?” he asks with evident concern, and I, of course, say “Yes, I feel tremendously lucky to be Queer here.”

After a brief pause, the Mayor remarks a bit wistfully, “That’s how I am identified, among the Mayors of the US -- at the yearly conventions -- I am the openly Queer Mayor." I detected a tone of bemusement in this final remark.

And then he gave me a fist-bump.

Reggie Watts   (^top)

When I was growing up in the music scene in Seattle, right after graduating high school in 1994, Reggie Watts was making a big dent in it with - amongst many other projects - his twin accomplishments of the beautifully-executed-unabashedly-commercial-crowd-pleasing R&B covers of Hit Explosion and the serious-musician-respect-garnering-technically-demanding neosoul of Maktub. I was a big fan and was stoked to be introduced to him by a mutual musician friend at a party near Leschi one night.

Years later, when we both lived in NYC, I saw him do a solo set at the Upright Citizens' Brigade theater. By this time, he had started doing his unique blend of comedy / improvised singing & beatboxing with a looping pedal. I enjoyed the show a lot and was intrigued by his equipment. He was kind enough to speak with me after the show and inform me that the pedal he was using, which was his instrument of choice, was the Line6 DL-4. I more or less immediately went out and bought one, but for some reason which is unknown to me, the idea of me doing a similar thing myself hadn't yet really caught fire in my mind.

A short while after that, I saw him do his thing again at the now (sadly) defunct Bowery Poetry Club. Some friends of mine were also on the bill, so I found myself in the green room backstage afterwards smoking a jay with them & Reggie. He was mad cool and very friendly. By this point, the idea of me doing a similar thing as he was had definitely caught fire in my mind, and I must've been pretty high, because at one point I got super hyped and blurted out, "Dude! I'm totally gonna bite your style!" My friends and Reggie all looked non-plussed, but I meant it as a compliment. Also, it was kind of my way of being a responsible adult hip-hopper by just publicly copping to the fact that I was gonna attempt to emulate his mojo.

Years later, I saw him tear down the house at a club in Portland, OR. By this point, he had won the Andy Kaufman award and been a featured guest many times of Conan O'Brien's and recorded the theme song to Louis CK's "Louie" and given his TED talk and, more to the point, had just generally honed his exciting, entertaining, awesome act to a high sheen. He had the crowd sweating and dancing and laughing its ass off with nothing more than his incredible voice and a looping pedal. (At this point, he had actually added an Electro-Harmonix 2880 - which I more or less immediately went out and bought later that week - in addition to the DL-4; a fact I learned by clambering up a staircase next to the stage during a break in the set and peering down at his set-up.) After the show, I was very happy to be able to approach him and tell him, "Though I'm sure you won't remember it, a few years ago we were backstage together at the Bowery Poetry Club and I at one point started yelling that I was gonna 'bite your style'; sorry about that." He was totally blissed out post-performance and said that he has no memory of the incident and that he was sure it was fine.

To this day, people (naturally) ask me all the time, when they hear me perform, if I've heard of Reggie Watts.

Colin Meloy of The Decemberists   (^top)

After moving to Portland at the beginning of 2009, I found a place I was stoked to move into with relative ease via Craigslist. While the roommate interview process was going along, I learned from the house manager that the place was owned by a rock star. He didn't want to tell me who, but when I later told my friend Tim Perry that the owners were named Colin and Carson he chuckled wryly and said, "Dude, you're going to be living in Colin Meloy's house..." I didn't know who that was "...from The Decemberists?" Them I knew! (Tim had actually opened for The Decemberists at their CD relase show for "Her Majesty, The Decemberists" many years earlier.)

Before I could be cleared to move in, Colin wanted to briefly meet me. The house manager called me out of the blue one afternoon and asked me to drop by the house asap and don't be weird. When I pulled up on my bike, I saw Colin (and Carson) loading things from the house into a moving van. They were very friendly. I had prepped myself to not bring up the fact that I love his band, or even mention them at all. To me, he was just my potential future landlord. I found it kinda funny that he was wearing a Decemberists sweatshirt. The meeting went fine and I got the ok to move in.

A few months after moving in, I swapped my upstairs bedroom for the basement bedroom. When the Meloys had lived there, I had been told, this was Colin's guitar room and the closets I was using had been custom built to fit his guitar cases. A couple of times while cleaning, I came across the stray guitar pick and wondered if it was worth keeping as a memento (I decided not to.)

Simultaneous with all of this, I had become a founding member of a local indie rock band named AgesandAges, now stylized Ages & Ages (Tim is the songwriter / lead singer.) We had a fair bit of local success, such that less than 3 years after getting going (on 8/26/11, to be precise) we ended up opening up for the Decemberists at McMenamin's Edgefield resort for their sold-out final show before they went on a hiatus of indefinite length. At the lovely catered party backstage after the show, I shook Colin's hand and said, "Nice to see you, Landlord!"

Andrew Young   (^top)

One of my very first interpreting jobs upon moving to Portland in 2009 was for the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial happening at Portland State University. I took the job without knowing who was speaking, but when I showed up to the packed auditorium I knew it must be someone special, and it turned out to be righthand man to Dr. King, former UN Ambassador, Mayor of Atlanta, three-time Congressman Andrew Young! I flipped out!! It was an awesome night, an awesome speech, an awesome experience. (He mentioned, among other things, that he wasn't into Obama at first and was an ardent Hillary supporter until the very end.) Afterwards, I got to shake his hand. At first he was just on autopilot, but then he realized that I was the dude who had just been on stage interpreting for him for the past hour so he snapped out of it and said, “Thank you! That must be hard work!” “No, sir," I said, "tonight it was easy,” and I truly meant it.

Cornel West   (^top)

A few years after the above story, in late 2012, I saw some friends talking on social media about Dr. Cornel West coming to speak at PSU (again, for the MLK memorial) and I immediately contacted PSU to put my hat into the ring as a potential interpreter. What followed was a very strange experience. The people coordinating the event seemed utterly clueless about the fact that an ASL interpreter (two, in fact) would not only be a good idea, but a necessary one. I also made things unnecessarily difficult by mentioning, in the first instance, that I was so enthusiastic (I am a HUGE fan of Dr. West) about the job that I would do it for free, such that it took a lot of backpedaling to explain that whoever the interpreters were, they would need to get paid. I even had to convince them that PSU undoubtedly had the funds to compensate interpreters, as they seemed in doubt about this at first. Eventually (albeit, at the 11th hour) they were convinced that interpreters were necessary and would be paid by the University, and one of my favorite colleagues and I were luckily chosen for the job! (Thus, in a way, I take credit for helping PSU to avoid a major PR embarrassment by not having interpreters for their 2013 MLK day marquee event.)

I was filled with excitement on the day of the event; thrilled to soon be sharing a stage with one of my heroes, an icon of our time. I prepared myself mentally as best I could to be up to the challenge of attempting to match Dr. West's (to put it mildly) dynamic, energetic, highly literate, deeply soulful speaking style. Luckily, I knew his speeches are extemporaneous such that there was no possibility of studying his speech ahead of time (while terrifying to some interpreters, I saw this as an upside, as it meant I got to avoid delving into prepared remarks, which research I often find to be tedious.)

My interperting partner was sweet enough to divy up the work such that I got to do the lion's share of Dr. West's speech, but the timing worked out such that she got a hug from him as he came on stage (I was so jealous!) However, he did end up sitting two chairs away from me in the front row (interpreters must often sit in the front row at such events in order to be ready and able to swap each other out multiple times) and he reached past the HULKING dude sitting between us to shake my hand and bow his head slightly in thanks, which was awesome! Also, he received a number of people after his speech and, when it was my turn to greet him, he gave me a hug and thanked me for my work. An amazing, beautiful, humbling experience.

All the more so because it was not the first interaction I had had with Dr. West. Back in the late 90’s, when I lived in Rochester, NY, I had gone, on the suggestion of a friend, to see Dr. West speak at a local church (I am pretty certain it was on September 17th when he delivered the 1998 Edwin T. Dahlberg ecumenical lecture at Aenon Baptist Church on the subject of “Dismantling the Legacy of Racism”. I wanna say it was the church was near the U of R.) Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a diary back then, so I don’t have detailed records of the speech or my reaction to it, but I’m sure I found it very illuminating and moving, and I do remember a few choice details of the evening. Dr. West was kind enough to take questions from the audience after the speech. I can’t remember if I was simply the last person interested in asking a question (extremely doubtful, not the least of which reasons being because I definitely remember the room was packed) but, in any case, I was notified that I would be the last person allowed to ask a question, so I decided to ask two (yes, I was quite cheeky back then.) Again, I don’t have a perfect recollection of my questions or Dr. West’s answers, but my memory of the first question was that I began by announcing that I was a hip-hop musician before delving into a lengthy prologue where I went to great lengths to explain how well I knew that no amount of empathy I might possess could give me an inkling of the minutest fraction of an iota of what the life experience of the average African American was like (at which point, a - I’m assuming - black woman sitting in the balcony called out, “That’s right!”) but that I still oftentimes found myself dismayed by self-destructive behavior perpetrated and perpetuated by black friends, community members, and especially other hip-hop musicians (even if I strongly suspected that it was an effect of, or response to, institutional racism) and how I might forcefully but respectfully weigh in on such matters in my life, specifically my music. My recollection is that Dr. West encouraged me to seek out a balance between, on the one hand, the ego necessary to have and champion one’s own artistic voice and, on the other hand, the humility necessary to always remember that you are but one voice among many, many, which advice I found very sage and have benefitted from meditating on time and again throughout my life. Secondly, I briefly mentioned that I had a vision of founding an elite but tuition-free college-prep high school for gifted young black men and what did he think of that / did he have any advice to give. “Sounds great, and good luck!” was something like his answer, I believe. This encouragement was essential to my founding The Hip-Hop Academy some years later. After the lecture, while walking back to my car, a white lady approached me and remarked, seemingly approvingly, that I had some real chutzpah. I took this as a compliment, and the smile on my face matched hers.

Haben Girma (and Stevie Wonder, sort of...)   (^top)

The differences in the amount of work and structure of monetary compensation between New York City and Portland, Oregon came as a rude shock to me, such that I was immediately open, more or less upon arrival, to alternative ways of earning a living from American Sign Language. Thus it was that, in the fall of 2009, I came to be an ASL tutor to an extremely pleasant, wickedly funny, and devastatingly intelligent senior at Lewis & Clark College named Haben Girma, who also happened to be both Deaf and blind. (She could speak for herself perfectly well and had received auditory information through other means thus far - chiefly through an FM system and transcripts of lectures - but was interested in attempting to access such information through ASL interpreters, hence our lessons. She would receive my instruction by lightly resting her hands on mine while I signed - the common way such information is passed between many Deafblind people.) Our more or less weekly lessons continued for the rest of 2009 until Haben decided that it just wasn’t going to be a practical method, compared to text-to-braille, of receiving information, especially in a classroom environment. This was of crucial importance to her, as she was planning on applying to law school for the fall of 2010. I, of course, thought it was wonderfully brave of her to consider attending law school, but didn’t for a second think she’d be anything other than a great success at it. But even I was bowled over when she emailed me in the spring of 2010 to inform me that not only had she been accepted to law school, but to Harvard Law School! Thus, she became the first Deafblind person ever to graduate from Harvard Law. Truly an amazing accomplishment, for which she was honored at the White House. We still keep in touch, and I’m so pleased to be able to call this inspiring person my friend.

The last time Haben visited Portland, we met for dinner and conversed via a wireless keyboard that I would type into that would transmit a signal to a device in her lap that would turn what I was typing into Braille by raising and lowering an array of pins (she, of course, still spoke for herself when responding.) At a certain point, Haben told me that that keyboard I was typing on had been used by some pretty big big shots. “Like who?” I asked. “Well, Stevie Wonder, for one,” she replied. Woahhh… I looked down at my fingers on the keyboard and grinned.

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