By COREY LEVITAN
Gangsta rappers don’t have to be thugs from the ‘hood before beginning their music careers.
Tupac Shakur was a well-adjusted New York City kid who acted in musicals, sang in the church choir and wrote sensitive poetry while attending Baltimore’s High School for the Performing Arts.
Ice Cube grew up middle-class.
But what are the limits of gangsta rap’s ability to impart hard-edged street cred? Can anyone become a gangsta rapper?
These sound like questions for Hard Corey, my alter-ego.
To begin my career in gangsta rap, I consult with Doc Holiday, a rising rapper whose presence suggests a young Ice-T and who spells his name with one less “l” than the outlaw gunslinger. Holiday is currently recording an album called “Guerilla Pimpin'” for Hawthorne-based indie label Dungen Recordz. (Yes, Guerilla has only one “r,” Dungen has no “o” and the “z” at the end is correct. There is a high correlation between the publication of articles about rap music and the resignation of copy editors.)
“I could see you as a white pimp,” says Holiday, 28, who was born Willie Johnson III in Pomona and now lives in Inglewood. “There ain’t that many white pimps. There’s probably none.”
Finding an original niche is one of gangsta rap’s core principles — nearly as important as titling your album’s opening track “Intro” and filling it with the sounds of gunshots and screaming. But I suspect that the pimp image isn’t for me. Bright colors and feathers looked masculine on Rooster from “Baretta.” But on someone like me? Not so much.
“That’s cool,” says Holiday. “Can’t everybody be a pimp.”
Holiday knows about pimps because he happens to be one in real life. Kicking back in the living room of his apartment near the Hollywood Park racetrack, he introduces me to his “ho,” a 27-year-old East L.A. resident named China, who is wrapped in a leather skirt and sparkly gold bikini top.
He offers her to me, as one would a bottle of Heineken to a visitor.
I thank Holiday politely, clarifying why ethics dictate that I decline. I try and explain away any implication that China might not be a good or attractive enough ho for me.
“What’s the matter, you scared of (expletive)?” Holiday snaps, referring to a highly specific part of the female anatomy. “Well, you kickin’ it with a pimp, man. If you was kickin’ it with Snoop Dogg, and he wanted to smoke a hydroponic butt with you, would you? Of course you would.
“Well, you kickin’ it with Doc Holiday and I’m trying to give you some (expletive).”
Our image consultation session isn’t going as smoothly as I had hoped. After several more sputtering starts, Holiday offers to accompany me down the street to my car, “so you don’t get shot out there by yourself.” En route, he has a flash of insight.
“I guess you could just be yourself,” he says. “Come up with a list of things that are important to who you are and we’ll talk about lyrics.”
The Geto Boys, Alkaholiks and Bad Azz (there go those “z”‘s again) glare down from photos on the walls of Black Hole Recording Studios in Hawthorne. They’re not the only famous onetime residents. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony recorded its first album here, and Eazy-E is said to have recorded some post-N.W.A. tracks while staying in a Torrance hotel.
The couch in the lobby is crammed with rappers and their friends. Either waiting for studio time or lending support, they watch “Ricki Lake” and make cell phone calls heavy on the phrase “shut your little bitch ass up.”
In the studio, business is being conducted between potential Doc Holiday producer El Nino; rapper Ammo Arsenal, whose Dungen album, “Da Ghetto Warrior,” is in stores now; and Papi Rico, 28-year-old Dungen president and owning partner of Black Hole, who is also a rapper with his own album, “Look Listen & Learn,” coming out on Dec. 12. (Please forgive the promotional interruptions. They also serve to promote my safety.)
Holiday escorts me into an empty room to begin our lyric collaboration. I have written three stanzas so far. Following Holiday’s suggestion, they involve things that are important to who I am: being a journalist, hailing from Long Island and — because it rhymes so easily with “beat ass” — drinking wheatgrass juice.
“You got to explain this wheatgrass stuff,” says Holiday during our brainstorming session. “What is wheatgrass? Grass that grows out of the ground — like out front? Why would you drink that?”
Feverishly scribbling, he begins the translation of my hopefully amusing musings into true gangsta-speak. Then he makes an unexpected announcement: “You know I expect compensation for my work, right?”
I explain that I don’t have any budget for this article. In fact, I just paid $20 out of my own pocket for the bottle of Hennessey cognac that Rico required to secure his cooperation with my gangsta makeover.
Holiday grabs his notepad down and storms out the door. First I turn down China and now this? If Holiday is telling the truth — and I am certainly not one to suggest that he’s not — then he has just finished seven years in prison for armed robbery in Van Nuys and two separate spousal abuse sentences.
I may soon have something in common with members of the Clanton gang — getting killed by a guy with the same name.
I inform Rico of the artistic differences between Holiday and myself, but he has other matters to attend to. We are running late for our session and delaying other reservations at the studio.
“You have a half hour,” Rico says. Reminded of his promise of supplying the wardrobe for my rap debut, he reaches into a bin and pulls out a grey Dungen Recordz T-shirt, a pair of dark jeans seven sizes too big and a black ski cap that resembles the one other third-graders would yank off my head to play “keep away” with in the schoolyard.
I stare in a mirror and threaten even myself.
“No, the butt has to be hanging over your belt strap,” insists rapper Sugar Cane, a 24-year-old Hawthorne resident who has just involuntarily volunteered to be my stylist.
“You have to s-a-g,” he says, revealing how his own boxers protrude above his pants, which hang nearly down to public-toilet-hovering level.
“That’s it,” he says as I make the uncomfortable adjustment. I now understand why gangsta rappers walk so funny. It’s all about keeping the pants up.
I inquire about gold chains. “Nah,” says Cane. “We don’t do the chains thing on the West Coast. That’s for the East Coast cats, the bling-bling. We don’t do it like that, because if you got that on, you might get jacked.”
With my half a song, I enter the vocal booth, my belt chafing against my thighs. Rico is too busy to engineer my rap debut, so he hands the duty off to Holiday, who wants the practice anyway. Rico reminds us that we have only 15 minutes left. The pressure rises as my pants fall.
After Holiday lowers the boom microphone to kiddie height, he offers me headphones. Playback begins of a CD prerecorded by Black Hole and normally licensed out for $2500 per song to rappers who wish to base their own recordings around it.
Staring at my lyric printout, I contemplate singing like a famous gangsta rapper — angry and gruff like DMX, smooth like Ice Cube or lilting beyond the bounds of the English language like Snoop Dogg. But Holiday’s words keep going through my head — not the ones warning me not to “(expletive) up” through the headphones, but the ones he said back at his crib: “Just be yourself.”
With the extra confidence in my thugness that only potato sacks hugging my thighs can provide, I discover my inner gangsta and the rhymes begin flowing practically by themselves.
“My name is Hard Corey!” I pronounce. “I got the story, hit ya like a two-by-four-y!”
Did I mention that I received no help with these lyrics?
After my initial vocal, Holiday requests another, for an effect called double-tracking. When I peer up through the heavily tinted glass into the control room, the entire lobby has emptied out to observe me. There is more hooting and hollering than at the transsexuals on Ricki Lake. Sugar Cane, in particular, is ecstatic.
“You have a flow!” he enthuses. “Not a Slim Shady flow, but you have a Hard Corey flow! This is original right here. You feel me?”
Cane, who thought I was a narc when I first walked in, is so thoroughly converted that he agrees to be my MC, the Flava Flav to my Chuck D.
“Oh-ohh, Hard Corey!” he shouts over and over during the recording of what are known as the ad-lib tracks, which are added to the mix for background effect.
Of course, at just over one minute, my song is a little short for gangsta rap. But then, at just over 5 feet 6 inches, so am I. But no one at Black Hole seems to mind.
Even Doc Holiday comes around, slapping my back after Rico completes mixing the track down.
“You’re pretty good,” he says.
“You’re not the very worst rapper I’ve worked with,” adds Rico.
As I leave the studio, a rapper named OG Dino invites me to a pre-Thanksgiving party he’s throwing.
“You have to come!” he insists. “You’re a gangsta now! You’re one of us!”
I don’t know if I proved that anyone can be a gangsta rapper. But I certainly proved that gangsta rappers have a sense of humor.
I’m still alive, am I not?