Legends of the Fall

A conversation in Purgatory

The rapper and the politician's son are in a doorless chamber. Its walls, ceiling and floor are bare, polished steel. There is one window, which looks upon a milky, swirling mist, and one piece of furniture -- a long, gray leather couch. The two men sit on opposite ends. The rapper is scratching in a notebook.

"Excuse me," says the president's son. Waits. "Hey."

"Whassup?"

"I was, uh, I was wondering -- do you know where in the hell we are?"

"No, but I know this ain't hell. It's too chill."

"What do you mean?"

The rapper waves one hand around the room. "About this here?"

"Right."

"Well, check it: I got me a pen that never gives out of ink, a pad that never gives out of paper, and a sack that never gives out of weed. That ain't hell."

"So this is heaven, then."

The rapper's mouth curls. "Nah, man. If this was heaven, we'd have us some bitches. I was strictly solo, until I looked over and saw your dazed, white ass sittin' there."

The president's boy looks at the backs of his hands, spreading and closing his fingers. "Where were you, right before you ... came here?" he asks the rapper.

"Yo, I was on the Strip."

"The Strip?"

"Vegas."

"Oh."

The rapper puts down his pen.

"It was right after the Tyson fight. I was rollin' with Suge Knight in his BMW, when these crazy niggas in a white Caddy crept up on us, and straight-up started blastin'. It was like Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!"

The rapper jerks his body, a gruesome marionette. Then he starts writing again, asks, "What about you?"

"Plane crash."

"Oh, shit."

"I was the pilot."

"Oh, shit." The rapper smiles wide. "People must be trippin', yo. All them vultures pickin' over your bones, talkin' 'bout the little white boy with the famous salute. Symbol of a nation's grief, now a tragedy his own self."

The president's son gets up, goes to the window. Stares into the mist. "Apparently you know my name."

"Better question be, do you know mine?"

"I recognize you. You're a gangster rapper."

"Wrong. I was the gangsta rapper. Get your shit correct."

"Sorry."

The president's son taps a finger on the windowpane.

"Yo," the rapper calls out. "Your daddy and I got something in common."

"What's that?"

"We was both assassinated."

The son tenses, turns to face the man on the couch. "My father was assassinated. My uncle was assassinated. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were assassinated. You weren't assassinated. You just got shot."

The air grows cold as the rapper locks eyes with the president's son and whispers: "You don't know me, bitch. You don't know what I represented, or why I had to die. You don't know shit, little prince."

He points to a tattoo across his stomach.

The president's son reads it: "'Thug Life.'"

"That's right. The only one I was born to have."

The rapper opens a cigar box marked "Phillies."

"Let me tell you what time it is," he says. "I'm the nigga America made me, born from the womb of 400 years of hate and evil. One angry young black man who's the wrong nigga to fuck with."

He splits the cigar down the middle with one slow cut of a sharp thumbnail.

"Comin' up, I wasn't havin' no fast-food-joint or high-rise toilet scrubbin'. Back then, the only niggas showin' me love were the homies slingin' rock on the corner, so they little brothas and sistas could eat."

"Don't forget the gold jewelry," says the president's son.

"Oh, I don't. Or the Karl Kantis and the Versaces. But ain't that the American dream?"

The rapper peels the cigar apart and shakes out its tobacco innards.

"Anyway. I played the crack game, right? Making bank. Defendin' my corner. Pullin' drive-bys."

The president's son watches, arms crossed, as the rapper pinches marijuana from a Ziploc and sprinkles it into the cigar wrapper.

"A lot of my homies went to prison," the rapper continues. "A lot of my homies got shot. One died in my arms. All the usual bullshit. Still, it was enough to twist a nigga's mind up. I just tried to maintain.

"Then once I went platinum -- shit, quintuple platinum -- the script got flipped. Two niggas went to war inside me. The weak one, he only wanted peace and comfort. The strong one was a soldier. He peeped around, saw all the money and the women and the power and said, "Wait -- where are all my niggas? Where are my niggas from Watts? From Bed-Sty? Where are my niggas from East Orange, D.C., Baltimore? Where are my niggas from the projects? They still doin' the ol' same nigga shit. Why? Because they can't rap or play ball.' That shit ain't right, yo."

The rapper finishes twisting up the weed, strikes a match on the zipper of his baggies, and fires up the blunt.

"So," he says, exhaling, "I kept livin' the life. You know -- still runnin' with mad niggas, keepin' it real, packin' steel, gettin' high, rappin' "Life's a bitch and then you die.' Yet because I was so public, I knew some crazy motherfucka was gonna blast my ass, because I was gamblin' with my life, every day, just like the rest of my niggas."

The rapper taps ash on the floor. A moment later it vanishes.

"Shit got real hectic once all that East Coast-West Coast bullshit got hyped by Vibe magazine and the rest of them. I felt death doggin' me every day. But ... I was down with it."

"You wanted to die?" asks the president's son.

"I wanted to be a symbol."

"You mean a martyr."

"I s'pose. Just like your daddy."

The president's son walks back to the couch, sits down, points. "I was just a small child when it happened, but I know that my father never wanted to die. And if he had lived, or his brother after him, gangster rap never would have come to exist. You'd still be alive."

The rapper shrugs, says, "Could be," then takes a deep hit. When he exhales, the blue smoke forms a halo over his head.

"You know, it could be this chronic here," he says, holding the blunt before him, "but I think I just solved it."

"What?"

"The riddle, motherfucka, the riddle: why you got brought here, with me."

The president's son cocks his head, says, "I'm listening."

"Okay. Let me break it down for yo ass: You're rich and white. I'm black and from the streets. Your daddy was president, I never knew mine, and moms was a Black Panther."

"So we're opposites."

"In the eyes of the world. But in the eyes of God, we represent the same shit: wasted potential. Much wasted, because we both went and got ourselves killed, before we was even gettin' started."

The rapper tamps out and pockets the blunt.

"Now, you were there after I was gone. Most white people, they just thought I got what I deserved, right? Live by the gun, die by the gun."

The president's son nodded. "Mostly."

"Course they did. But I know a lot of black people saw it different. They saw me as ghetto hero, cut down in his prime. A voice silenced, far too quick. Same as you, right? Now you gone, everybody's talkin' about how you coulda been this, coulda done that."

"Probably."

"No, most definitely, little prince. A lot of 'em wanted you to be king someday. They believe in your blood."

"There's something else we have in common," says the president's son.

"Yeah?"

"You spoke of those two selves, fighting within you?"

"Yeah."

"I can relate."

"I bet."

"One of me just wanted to live as normal a life as I could -- run a magazine, travel, roller-blade. Enjoy my wealth, love my wife, live long and prosper. The other ... I guess it believed in my blood, too.

"Because of who I am, there were always people, powerful people, wanting me to run. They said with the right backing, I could have any office I desired."

"You got to be president, you coulda unsealed all the records, find out who really blasted your pops."

"Don't go there."

"Aight then. Yo, what year was it when you ... left?"

"1999."

"Bill Clinton still the man?"

"Barely. He nearly got fired. Sex scandal."

"Fucked the wrong ho?"

"Pretty much."

"Yo, I remember the day that cracker got inaugurated. Paper ran a color photo of him kneelin' at your daddy's grave, like he was prayin' or some shit. And I thought, 'That motherfucka is frontin' like he's somethin' he ain't.'"

"Yeah. My father."

The rapper laughs. "Billy couldn't handle his bitches, huh? Your pops didn't have any problems there. Homies in your family always got the fine bitches. Marilyn Monroe, Daryl Hannah and shit."

"Hey -- don't go there, either."

"Aight, aight. I'm just fuckin' with you. So, who gonna be the next president?"

"Well, the front-runner was George Bush."

"Oh, no. Oh, no. Step the fuck back. Man, in 1991 I was rappin', "Fuck the CIA, fuck the FBI, fuck the B-U-S-H.' Man, that motherfucka's like Jason in Friday the 13th."

"Not that George Bush. His son."

"His son? Well, see, there you go: the power in a name, in the blood. Those Gs who wanted to get your back, they came correct."

The rapper picks up his pen, starts writing, asks, "So what was it gonna be? Politics or life?"

The president's son gets up and begins to pace the room -- 10 steps, right angle turn, repeat.

"As I grew up, and learned, I began to sense the legacy of my father, to believe his leadership was the high-water mark for America. Johnson tried to hold the line on civil rights, but after he quit, the country's soul receded, back into the pit of ignorance and injustice. The forces that created you came to power. My uncle picked up the torch, but ..."

"He got capped, too."

"Right. And that blood leaking out of his head onto the floor ... that blood was our country's hope."

The rapper follows the president's son with his eyes.

"Was that hope in your head, too? Did you believe in your blood?"

The president's son stops again to stare into the mist.

"I was biding my time, making sure of my heart. But yes, I felt the destiny. Eventually, I would have gotten in the game."

"Think you woulda won?"

"Unless I got shot in the head."

The rapper gets up, walks over, stands beside the president's son.

"Well, you know what I used to rap on all my albums."

"No."

""A coward dies a thousand deaths. A soldier dies but one.'"

"So," asks the president's son, "which was I?"

"You went out just like me," the rapper says. "Somewheres in between."

Contact David Holthouse at his online address: dholthouse@newtimes.com

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