Onstage, the cocked baseball caps of 2 Live Crew bobbed to the thumping beats that vibrated from the DJ booth at The Rock in Tucson.
In the back of the dark, sweaty nightclub, the pulsations were intoxicating Bryan Erwin, who hardly looked at the stage as his blue visor dipped decisively to the rhythms. The 20-year-old rapper needed only to feel the bass line to get pumped for his performance after 2 Live Crew left the stage.
Just moments before, Erwin was practicing outside, sitting in his silver Jetta in the nightclub parking lot, the only car rocking back and forth as he and his friend pumped their heads in unison to muffled rap beats. Erwin was in heaven. In less than an hour, he would be up onstage, rapping his own lyrics in front of a rowdy crowd, forgetting about the terrifying ordeal that helped bring him here.
"I'm on a second life," says Erwin, his voice the booming monotone of someone who can't quite hear himself talk. "I'm living proof there's a God."
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But back inside the nightclub, after 2 Live Crew darted off stage and local rap artists began hogging the microphone, Erwin's gospel quickly dissipated into cuss words. After an hour of pacing behind the stage entrance, Erwin and his group were finally given the nod to jump onstage, only to be thrown off a few minutes later for yelling at the sound technician to turn up the beats.
Cursing at the club owners, Erwin stomped back to his car and cranked the stereo, drowning out his anger with rap.
Suddenly Erwin was in heaven again, bobbing his head to the throbbing techno, seemingly unfazed by being thrown off the stage.
"I wanna rap. I wanna live life by the microphone," Erwin says, his speech lilting in a rap tempo. "Hip-hop . . . it's my life."
Erwin's moods can flip on a dime, from a raging tantrum in the nightclub to somber solitude in the car with his music. And he admits that something's not right with his head since it smashed onto the highway pavement some two years ago. But Erwin insists that rap is holding his head and his life together.
Unfortunately, he had to go deaf to find that out.
Sitting forward, his tattoo-covered arms propped confidently on the sides of his brown leather armchair, Erwin looks comfortable, but alert, like he is ready to perform.
Wearing a belt that barely holds up his low-hanging jean shorts, Erwin is built like a defensive tackle. But today, his position is closer to street thug, with his buzz cut, his green-tinted sunglasses and his pit bulls barking in the backyard. Even the plastic disk of the cochlear implant above his right ear looks like a hip-hop accessory.
A tape recorder lies partially hidden in his lap. Erwin, who sits strategically with his implant cocked toward his guest, says he's recording the interview to use on his next CD, Overcoming Adversity, which he hopes to release by the end of the year. The CD follows the self-released album he made while entirely deaf, Trapped in Silence, which came out this spring.
Music authorities say Erwin is one of few deaf rappers in the world, and the only one to have recorded a rap album while deaf. Rap stars like Eminem opened the doors to a rampage of white novice rappers like Erwin, fresh from suburbia with their chin-dropping lyrics and rapid-fire beats. Black or white, wanna-be rappers bombard record labels with their demo CDs. Priority Records, a label coveted by rappers, receives as many as 1,000 demos a week.
But rhyming to silence, and keeping tempo with only the memory of beats, sets Erwin apart, and he knows it. Touching the implant above his right ear, he seems almost proud of his disability.
"I think I'm the best. I rapped an album deaf and I'm rapping now," he says. "I never heard of no one doing that."
The release of Trapped in Silence in March was a personal triumph, and a source of local intrigue. In Erwin's hometown of Tucson, where he uses the alias "The Golden Child," a local television station picked up on the story, announcing that "a young musician is about to make his dream come true." The broadcaster's sound bites of hope, that The Golden Child was beating the odds, were later spliced between tracks on his CD.
Erwin grins, remembering all the attention he got. People in town would recognize him and wave as he drove by in one of his signature cars, a mint green 1956 Cadillac. And Erwin took advantage of the attention, convincing Sam Goody at Park Mall to put his CD on its shelves. He got nightclub owners to let him jump onstage as an opener when major acts rolled into town. And he freestyled whenever he could -- at parties, on the radio and at clubs on open-mike nights.
"People didn't believe me that I was deaf," says Erwin.
But as the haze from smoked weed settles in Erwin's living room, all the signs of his small-time fame begin to come into clearer view. The videotapes of the TV broadcast, stacked under the coffee table, are covered in dust. The back bedroom, which was converted into a recording studio, remains dark most of the time. And the rest of the new house, from the whiskey and bourbon bottles lining the top of the kitchen cabinets, to the ragged carpeting and worn leather couches, has been torn apart by weekend parties and friends who couldn't care less about his deaf-rapper status.
"I believe I have no friends," says Erwin, slumping back in his chair, his tape recorder turned off and his pale, round face flushing red. These "so-called acquaintances," he calls them, only used him for rides, for a place to party or for the insurance money he got after the car accident that led to his condition. But all of that has ended, he says, his voice rising in anger. No one can push him around now.
"I'm loving what I got since the accident," he says, getting up from his seat in a kind of modern-day warrior stance. "The attitude I have now I didn't used to have." Then, walking through his tattered house to the kitchen table, where a copy of his CD lies face up, Erwin's red face washes out white again, his eyes turning serious. "I wish I was never deaf to make it deaf," he says, looking at the CD. "I would have rather lost my sight than my ears."
Rewind seven years, when Erwin remembers his first exposure to rap. A fight at school got him and his brother Steve suspended, and they headed over to their friends' house. Jerome and Aishon Coleman were mixing it up on the synthesizer, freestyling to all kinds of beats, and Erwin was hooked.
Rap became his obsession. Everything else took a back seat, including school. Classes were either ditched or spent writing lyrics instead of notes. Erwin's father, Mark, hated his son's addiction.
"I hated what [rap] stood for. Everything is money, sex and guns," he says. "I think, in all honesty, today's music has brought down society."
Mark wouldn't allow rap music in the house, so Erwin played it secretly, in his car or at his friends' houses. Slowly, Mark says he saw rap turn his son from a soft-spoken, loving kid to a rough, rebellious and angry teenager.
"I've done bad things in life," Bryan says. "We've hurt people, me and the people I kick it with. It was never my intention to grow up like that."
Sports gear was replaced with high-tech car audio. Cigarettes were upgraded to joints. And high school team shirts were left in the closet in favor of everything blue, the colors of the East Side Crips.
"I hung out with a lot of gangs. I got my ass kicked. I kicked it with the gangs," says Erwin, drifting into freestyle rhymes about his life. "I wore blue, I wore red, I was living my whole life in my head."
Like drugs, rap helped dull the pain of a hard life, he says. He tried to stop seeing, feeling, and even hearing what was going on around him. The outside world was replaced with Eminem, Outkast and his kindred spirit, Tupac Shakur, who rapped about his father leaving him and his mother.
Although far from the ghetto, in middle-class suburbia, Erwin compares his childhood with Shakur's. Erwin's mother walked out on his family when he was entering grade school, leaving his dad to raise him for 10 years.
Again, Erwin's life story turns into a rap lyric: "I can hold my own rapping, but I've never had a mother figure. I wish you had a father like mine."
Erwin's foundation was his father, a loving and religious man who coached him in Pop Warner football and tried to keep his sons away from drugs, gangs and rap. But his father had his own struggles: three more marriages, and a number of family relocations that forced his kids to keep changing schools. Soon, Bryan felt his foundation crumble.
Then the unthinkable happened. Erwin's best friend, Jabez Carnero, was racing another car on the way to Sabino High School, flipped his truck and shot out the window, snapping his neck. From the day a medical helicopter picked up his best friend's dead body, Erwin's pain became unimaginable. Nothing made sense to him. He dropped out of school and started smoking and drinking heavily.
"He was always talking stupid . . . suicide, talking bad about God," says his brother Steve. "He didn't really want to live that much."
All he had left, Bryan says now, was rap. He was writing lyrics for his rap group, the Rezavor Doggz, which consisted of his brother and his two friends Jerome and Aishon Coleman. But the music did little more than reinforce his depression. The group completed a four-song demo CD, which was mostly one-dimensional thug rap. Friends say Erwin didn't care about anything, including his own life, and it came through in his songs.
I'll cut you and pop your bladder with my fist,
and inject you with dog piss. I insist
that you scatter, bitches, before you get the death kiss, bitch.
Eliminated, eliminated, eliminated, eliminated
You've been eliminated.
Erwin may have been writing about eliminating himself. Shortly after finishing the demo, he says, he planned to take his own life. Rap couldn't save him. As it turned out, only trauma doctors could.
With Erwin wallowing in suicidal despair, it was fitting that he wanted to get his ears pounded at the Hard-Knock Life Tour in Phoenix. Bryan begged his father to let him go with a group of friends to see the rap extravaganza. Mark Erwin says he reluctantly agreed, feeling a twinge of fear. In his last conversation with his son before he left for the concert, Mark made Bryan promise to wear his seat belt.
On April 15, 1999, the 19-year-old and his friends piled into a Nissan Pathfinder, Bryan sitting in the front passenger seat with his seat belt buckled. Packed in tight and pumped for the concert, the kids skated down Interstate 10 at 80 miles an hour. Erwin wanted to listen to some rap. As he unbuckled his seat belt and reached behind him for his bag of CDs, the driver spotted a roll bar in the road, swerved to the left, then overcorrected, rolling the SUV eight times. Erwin's 300-pound frame slammed against the passenger door and popped it open, shooting him off like a cannonball, headfirst onto the pavement.
He was dead when emergency crews found him crumpled on the highway, lying next to the bag of CDs. Nine minutes later, when Erwin was revived, the first thing he heard was the pounding beats of helicopter wings.
At University Medical Center, the teenager was like a torn-up rag doll. With road burns covering most of his body, Erwin had a broken knee, a broken pelvis, a broken shoulder and a concussion that made his eyes bulge. But the biggest concern was his bleeding, wilted lungs. Doctors told Erwin's family he could die within hours.
Hooked up to life support, including a respirator that pumped pure oxygen into his lungs, Erwin was sedated to the point of paralysis. By keeping his muscles still, doctors hoped to conserve what little oxygen his body was hanging onto.
"I can remember nights not leaving his bedside all night for two weeks," says Dr. Steven Johnson, Erwin's trauma physician. "There were times when I didn't think he was going to make it." The mortality rate for patients in Erwin's condition is more than 90 percent, he says. "People like Bryan typically die."
Erwin says he did, in fact, die in the hospital, and remembers being on what he calls the stairway to heaven. "I tell people I saw heaven, I saw God. People say it was drugs, but I saw the brightest light and felt the most love. I felt God put his hand around my soul."
As the drug-induced coma dragged on, Bryan's time on life support was running out. He needed to come off his ventilator and start breathing on his own if he was going to survive. Dr. Johnson switched off the machine and the family waited in silence. Suddenly, the young man's chest rose and gasps of joy filled the hospital room.
Physically, Erwin was going to survive. But the true test of his endurance would come when he woke up four months later.
His medicine-bloated body covered in tubes, Erwin's eyes opened to a nightmare. No Pathfinder packed with chatty concert anticipation. No microphone at his lips as drunken partygoers gawked at his freestyle. Not even the chance to rail against his depressing teenage life. Just the white ceiling, his naked body and voices fading in and out.
During a month of physical therapy to get his atrophied legs back in shape, Bryan remembers being checked on by a beautiful young nurse. More important, he remembers her voice. "I could hear her talking to me, and one day the voice slowly faded away," he says. "I was upset. I started crying. That's when life became hell."
The deafness set in without warning. Bryan's doctor believes it's the result of an autoimmune problem, in which his trauma-shocked immune system turned on his own organs. Audiologists claim that his deafness is the side effect of gentamicin, the antibiotic he was given in the hospital.
Whatever the reason, losing his hearing became the worst part of an already painful recovery. Pushed home in a wheelchair and rolled in front of the TV, Erwin was helpless, his feeding bag tacked to the back of a kitchen cabinet. Lori Erwin, his stepmom, put a chair in the shower for him, kept a portable urinal by his side and stuck baby monitors in his bedroom, in case anything went wrong at night.
It was humiliating for Bryan, who found himself living more like the drive-by victims his rap idols sang about than a badass hip-hop artist. Slowly, he was able to eat and walk on his own again. Getting used to a life of silence, however, was not so easy.
Erwin started covering the white ceiling of his bedroom with covers from rap albums. He would give away CDs, then go out and buy more the next day. He blasted his stereo without reproach from his father, hoping to hear something in the songs. And he refused to go to the school for the deaf, or learn sign language.
But the reality of silence was creeping in. The sadness turned to raging self-pity as Erwin lashed out at everyone for losing the one sense that gave him rap, his only escape from everyday life. Family members got him a hearing aid, but even cranked at full blast, the device did little good.
Erwin's one solace was that in his car, with the stereo cranked, he could feel the beats vibrating through his feet. It gave him an idea. If he could just feel the beats, he could make his own CD. "I knew I could rap," he says excitedly, recalling the epiphany. "I believed I could do something to come out and be a deaf rapper."
Erwin rounded up members of his group, including his brother Steve, who didn't know what to think about getting back together. After an accident that scattered some of the group members in crumpled heaps on the highway, the last thing anyone wanted to do was rap again.
"When he was in the hospital, I didn't want to rap. I didn't want to do anything," says Steve. "But it was his dream to do it. . . . He wanted everyone to know he could still rap."
Throwing out his old lyrics from before the accident, Erwin started over, churning out pages and pages of new lines. "I ripped 'em up because I thought I died," he says. Rap was something he was alive to do, and now he had a hell of a lot more to write about.
It's so logical, possible
that my mind state got fucked
in the hospital
because me and my brain got struck
Too much pain in my dream state
and I can't wake up.
Finding a recording studio that would work with a teenage rapper, especially a deaf one, was difficult. Studio owners in Tucson, including one who turned Erwin away, say they are wary of the many requests they get from kids wanting to cut a rap album. "They don't have beats. They just want you to write a song," says Jim Waters, owner of Waterworks Recording. "They don't really know what they're doing."
After a failed attempt with his first studio, Erwin found Darren Boswell, a producer at Draco Audio who saw how much he wanted to record.
"It was a little bit more of a challenge, but nothing to be afraid of or walk away from," says Boswell. "I'm a pretty open person; I wait to see what they have. After I heard him, he was good."
The album, which would have taken any other rap group two to three months to complete, kept Erwin and his friends in the studio for more than a year. Recording the songs involved take after take, while group members helped him get the rhythm down.
Hunched over the speakers, with his hands feeling for the vibrations, Erwin watched his brother's head bob up and down while Aishon or Jerome tapped his back to the beat. The experience was frustrating, especially when Erwin came in when he wasn't supposed to. Then there were the blowups that erupted when Erwin thought the group wasn't taking the album seriously enough.
"He'd be thinking we're bullshitting around when we were listening to the beats," says his brother Steve. "He basically didn't know what was being said, and it's hard when everyone is talking at once. No one blamed him."
But Erwin was driven. Rap had given him newfound strength.
My fascination with death is starting to get out of hand
It seems as though life is testin' my essence
representing the land of the sand
I'm at my highest peak
But not high from that endo reek
I see everyone as being weak
Until they survive from bouncin' all over the street
I'm bringing on the heat.
By the time Trapped in Silence came out, Mark Erwin was calling his son a rapper. He started driving to work at Montech Financial Systems Management with his son's raunchy lyrics blaring out the car window. He began selling Bryan's story to local TV news. And he got in the habit of giving co-workers copies of his son's CD, its cover a computer-generated image of Bryan squinting in agony, flames shooting out of his head, back and fingers. He was proud of his son, Mark says, but more than anything, he was relieved. Finally, Erwin found something to motivate him and keep his son from sulking in silence. Now he was sulking out loud.
Life is hard
Days of Struggle
Now it's time to guzzle
Fight with my troubles
Bottle's empty, start to seeing double
I hate the struggle
Fuck the ups and downs
When is the good gonna stay around
Erwin began writing through the deafening roar of confusion, self-pity and guilt. At times he felt invincible, able to live and rap any way he wanted. But then fear and self-doubt would make him worry that the accident was payback for mocking God after his best friend's death. Maybe, he worried, God would lash back at him again for not appreciating the second chance at life he was given.
A soul like mine, I only hope you will take
I commit sin almost every day
I hope you believe I have faith
Sometimes I forget to pray
And I know I will have to pay
Then the pressure of penance would deflate as quickly as it came, and Erwin would be overcome with anger. By the time Erwin started pumping his head to the beat in the studio, group members say the anger pushed him to the brink as a rapper, singing lyrics that were raw as open wounds, with no apologies.
I'm the pure pressure of life, to make kids end it all
Like puttin' a gun inside your mouth
And bustin' your brains all over the wall.
I do wrong when I'm treated like shit
Releasin' anger in spits.
Flippin' my middle finger like Slim Shady
To every single bitch
Despite his deafness, friends say the accident made Erwin a real rapper. But it also made him a different person.
After the CD was finished, Erwin was trapped in silence again. It had been nearly two years since the accident, and Mark and Lori Erwin realized that the pounding his head took on the interstate had permanently changed their son.
"I'm not nice no more. I'm just waitin' to snap," says Erwin, smacking his fist into his hand.
Johnson, the doctor who treated him after his accident, told the Erwins to expect changes. Extreme trauma can affect the brain, and Erwin had a brain-stem injury.
"He can be loving and caring one minute, walk through a door and come back hell on wheels," says Mark. Something will send him into a rage, smacking his mouth and tearing futilely at his buzz-cut hair.
Today, everyday life is out of his control. Although he's lived in Tucson since 1986, Erwin gets lost while driving. He has a short memory, forgetting what his father told him just a few hours earlier, yet he can remember the lyrics to songs he wrote weeks ago.
"There isn't a day that goes by that Bryan doesn't call me with a crisis," says Mark. "He really knows how to push my buttons. We wish he was in his right state of mind. It's not the Bryan we used to know."
His parents have pleaded with him to see a neurologist, or at least a therapist, to work through his emotional tirades. But Erwin refuses, insisting that music is all he needs to get by. He also refuses to go back to school, which would probably be tough for him anyway, his father says, as long as his mental state remains in chaos.
As for finding work, neither parent has tried to sway him away from rap. "We just let him be himself because you can't change something that's so deep with someone," says Lori.
But that deep connection to rap unraveled as the hype from his CD wore off. He grew restless and angry, feeling stuck in his deafness. And as his mental state sank, he brought Kristyn Castro, his 17-year-old fiancée and the one bright spot in his life, down with him.
"He would get so frustrated because he couldn't hear, and he would take it out on everyone else," says Castro, who met him while he was deaf. "I tried to stay out of the way. At first, it was very hard on the relationship, but I wasn't going to give up on him."
In the meantime, Mark had been writing to his family's health insurer, asking the company to cover a cochlear implant for his son, which might help him hear again. Months later, the firm gave its thumbs-up, and Erwin was whisked into surgery.
After his head had healed for 30 days, it was time to attach the magnetic transmitter to the computer chip placed under the skin above his right ear, completing the circuitry that would send electronic signals to his brain.
But fears started creeping in. The implant surgery brought back the terror of waking up from his coma, covered in tubes, and the memory of helicopter beats pounding over him as he lay flat on the pavement. "When I woke up, I could hear the drill in my head," he says.
Erwin refused to attach the transmitter. Castro, his girlfriend, wanted desperately for him to try it out. "I finally convinced him," she says. "Things got way, way, way better after he could hear."
Sticking it on his head, Erwin heard the sounds of his fiancée's voice for the first time. At his parents' house, he heard his baby sister's cry. Then he sat in front of the stereo and inserted the CD he had made, but never heard. "It was a total shock that it worked," he says, trying to act cool while recounting the event. "I thought it was a hype."
Erwin locked himself up in his house for days, poring through all the CDs that had gathered dust on the shelf. He emerged a born-again rapper, connected to the techno hip-hop beats by the high-tech circuitry in his head. The implant, it seemed, had programmed him for rap. "I'm like a walking microphone."
The new way of hearing was strange. "It don't sound the way it used to sound when hearing like a normal person would," Erwin says. "It sounds synthesized, like Zapp & Roger's 'Computer Love.' But it's better than being deaf."
In the 1980s, Roger Troutman, the vocalist and guitarist for Zapp & Roger, popularized the use of the vocoder, a device that makes the human voice sound electronic. Erwin, however, listens to electronic voices all the time from one ear, a phenomenon he wanted to put to use in the studio.
Using money from the insurance settlement, Bryan plunked down $45,000 on equipment to turn one of his bedrooms into a home recording studio. Then he met a keyboard enthusiast to make beats for him.
"I can tell the difference between the drum and the bass line. I can't hear the bass, but I can feel it," he says. With Outkast's "So Fresh, So Clean" blasting in the living room, Erwin switches into sensory overload. "I hear just like I sound," he says, mouthing the words to the song as his head pulses back and forth to the beat.
Bryan was a rapper entering the hearing world again. But that meant leaving the deaf world behind.
The whole experience, going from a youth of hearing to the brink of death and back again, has had a profound effect on Erwin. But understanding how, exactly, he has been changed by the warp of events is difficult for everyone around him, including Bryan himself.
His family says he should be thanking the Lord he's alive, living every day as if it were a precious gift. He should clean up the language in his songs, and write about the Bible, his father says.
The reminders make Erwin wrestle with guilt, but only for a moment before he twists it into a rhyme. "I'm trying to clean up my F's," he says. "I'm worried about going to hell every day of my life and the choices I make. I'm trying to get faith instead of the hate."
But Erwin admits that he's still not sure what he wants. One day he will tell Castro they're moving to Florida, the next day he'll talk about buying a house on the other side of Tucson, where the friends who use him for rides and money can't find him. The rapture he felt after hearing his CD for the first time has changed, too. "They all lied to me," he says. "That's not me with such weak beats."
The experience of being deaf has faded, forgotten as if it were a bad dream. Even the miracle of his survival after the accident seems to have grown pale, too. His lungs, which popped 11 times in the hospital, remain fragile, but he's back to smoking Newports. Getting high on pot, a required commodity in rap circles, didn't stop, either.
"What gets me angry is he has no concept of what the doctors and the good Lord did for him to keep him alive," says his father, recalling the day Erwin's doctor saw his son walking across the hospital parking lot, took a picture of him and cried.
For his part, Bryan is quick to own up to the fact that he's still angry -- angry at being deaf, at getting into an accident, and at the life that's been thrown at him. "I'm still pissed at the girl who got me in the accident," he says, pausing at the idea of revenge, "but I ain't crazy like that." He's even angry at the hospital where his life was saved -- so much so that he rails against University Medical Center (UMC) in a song he plans to put on his new album, Overcoming Adversity.
The night he's slated to go onstage at The Rock, he wants to hear that track. Sitting in his recording studio at home, surrounded by the sea of knobs and buttons on his sound equipment, Bryan swivels anxiously in his seat. It's only minutes before he needs to be at the club to rap his new beats after 2 Live Crew. But first he wants to play that song. The lyrics, he says, are fresh and real.
You know I could kill if I really wanted
because everybody's got a free will.
I'll make it a reality in my backyard
with bodies stacked like Hamburger Hill.
Do you like the way I think?
It was brought on by UMC.
They fucked me up
Took my hearing
So I think they killed me
I'm alone in this world
Family tries to help
But there is no help you see
The only help, he says, is rap. "I know I'm messed up. The music thing is going to be the positive thing."
For now, the most positive thing is that he can hear himself saying this. Maybe rap can help him figure that out.