words by milo
photography by Andrew Zeiter
illustration by Joshua Manoles
In high school I would sometimes let myself think about what being a rapper could feel like. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in calling myself a rapper. Sometimes I pulled off a freestyle sort of well and I had the necessary famous people rap verses memorized from songs like MF DOOM’s “Accordion” or Nas’ “Half Time,” the requisite rap listener tropes—I knew them well, and I felt like my written material wasn’t half bad either but a freshman year talent show fiasco stifled my ambitions.
And they remained stifled until I was a junior and then a senior in high school when I met Nicholas Donalds and his brother Andy Donalds who liked rap and we formed the rap group Nom de Rap and the word rap was our buzzword. It felt good and powerful and safe. Sometimes we would all crowd into Nicholas’ living room (which was our studio) and it felt like church. It felt sacred and holy and if I think about it for a nanosecond too long I want to cry. We wanted to make a mixtape before we graduated high school.
So then, we made a mixtape. We boldly titled our first and only effort, “Greatest Hits Vol. 1” and sometimes people liked that mixtape. Sometimes the people that liked that mixtape were very important to me like my friend Rob, who I wrote my first solo record, “I wish my brother Rob was here” for. Rob loved that mixtape and I loved Rob. A lot of our friends were beginning to champion our art. I was still sometimes letting myself think about what being a rapper could feel like.
I never let myself buy into those rap dreams though. Not in high school or in the start of my college career. My parents dropped out of high school. I was born to a teenage mum who herself was born firmly in the working class of Chicago’s southside. Art and an artistic lifestyle was often considered unintelligible and the luxury of, at the very least, middle class people. For a little bit of time theater was my love and my parents expressed, again, an apprehension for any type of career in the arts. The old chestnuts about a stable lifestyle, something better for your kids, retirement funds, etc. These people are my parents, these people are wizened elders. I didn’t really argue much.
In college I studied Philosophy. I would sometimes let myself think about what being an attorney could feel like. I had a lot of confidence in my arch toward that career. I am cunning, critical, and while not entirely logical—I am convincing. Everyone in my life affirmed this goal. Indeed, aye, of course, yes, Rory! You would be a great attorney. I didn’t really argue much.
Then, right before my second year of college began, Rob drowned. I have always been a pensive boy, one who broods. It’s documented in photo albums and home videos. I have been taken on fabulous vacations and frowned in the sunlight; I have been taken to my favorite restaurant, surrounded by my favorite people and frowned openly. Sometimes I am just sad. When Rob drowned I became depressed and I learned firsthand what the difference is. It was rap and not school or philosophy or books that helped me crawl out of that hole. I owe a lot to rap.
Now it is June or July two years later and I am standing in the courtyard of Michael Eagle’s apartment complex, speaking too loudly on the phone. I have flown to Los Angeles from Milwaukee to promote my new mixtape Cavalcade. There are whispers I am going to have a meeting with Interscope. My shirt has no sleeves and I have either just eaten or am about to eat at a Chinese-Portuguese fusion restaurant. The entire scene was decidedly Hollywood. On the other “end” (why is it called that?) of the phone is my father who lives in a no-nonsense Chicago suburb where he drives a pickup truck and buys groceries at a store called Meijer. Not 10 minutes earlier I had been in the same courtyard talking on the same phone (too loudly) to a different person, that time Andrew Martin, who was interviewing me for MTV Hive. My dad and I are getting kind of mutually drunk off the idea I will be featured on Music Television’s Hive-mind website.
This was a month or two (being dependent on whether or not it was actually June or July) before I was supposed to finish my last year of college. I had been attending the type of school that has prestige protected by obscurity. There’s a saint in the name, the population is sub-three thousand, and there is a latin word (“communio”) being thrown around a lot by campus proselytizers. The whole college sits on a river and there are little curvy brick paths that have very little functionality leading you from Main Hall to this or that other hall. I think the owner of Applebee’s is alum. There certainly was a lot to boast about. My parents wielded my attendance at this college like a fucking bardiche in their day-to-day conversations. In short, my family was incredibly proud of me. Their boy had come far in two diametrically opposed worlds and was nearing the finish line. That’s why the idea my father was about to inject into our phone call was so gripping.
“Why don’t you take some time off?”
At the time and even now it seems like a trick question. Something your dad poses to check your internal barometer, an effort to see if the hype is getting to your head. But I could hear the sincerity in his voice. My father was suggesting I take time away from thick, yellowing books by people with names like Husserl and Whitehead to travel the country and rap at people-from-the-Internet’s faces. I think we might have been giggling, too.
I was invigorated by classes. But I had problems fitting in that left me with serious bouts of loneliness, panic attacks and really miserable cries for attention taking the form of vague conversations about my mental health with my parents. Rob drowned. People sometimes called me, “nigger.” On Halloween, black face was never off limits to white students. I was sort of over the whole experience before it began and now I had found refuge on the internet as a rapper. So while we were both giggling I decided, yes, I would like to take some time off.
On my little sister’s 8th birthday, after her party where we played mini-golf and drank frappes, I filled out a two-page form and was formally withdrawn. I told very nearly no one and even now my Facebook says I attend a college I no longer do.
I believe in being college-educated. I believe going to college and sleeping in a very small, cinder block lined room with a communal shower is important to a young person’s development. I believe in stealing books from libraries. I believe in eating cafeteria food and talking energetically about Egyptian revolts and Syrian peace treaties. I believe in the college process, it works. I have benefitted from it. But I also believe in art and virtues and whittling and driving 18 hours straight to play basement shows for twenty-seven very sweaty 19-year olds.
There is a legion of DECA activists and business majors trying to convince you to hedge your life-bet on a 4 year odyssey that may or may not mire you in debt and insecurities and anxieties and depression; their argument has merit. Your parents and certainly your friends’ parents would love to see you graduate college; their argument has merit. A college degree, at the very least, guarantees that people who take the easy route in conversations will have at least 5 questions for you, no matter the room you are in. That’s certainly nice.
However there is merit to learning a trade and teaching a large group of tweens how to grow rutabagas. There is merit to working an appalling day job to pay rent bills and light bills and heat bills while you develop your solo accordion act. There is merit to corralling your 3 closest pals together for a 26 state tour and hijacking your mother’s prius to make it happen. There is merit to selling very small batches of your art on the internet to buy chairs and green onions for your first apartment in a city that’s so large it snatches your breath away. There is merit in pursuing whatever provides you with a calm. It can be difficult to realize that this moment is all anyone has and being mindful of that, acting on that knowledge, is incredibly hard to do. And it takes a lot of courage to know yourself well enough to make that sort of decision.