A lot of rappers call themselves teachers, but few have self-applied the title as accurately as Raheem Jarbo. For Jarbo — a.k.a. Random or Mega Ran — it's no holier-than-thou, conscience-rap boast. He teaches middle school English and social studies at Omega Academy in west Phoenix. At Omega, Jarbo puts his rhyming abilities to use in the classroom. On "Freestyle Fridays," if all his students ace their vocabulary tests, Jarbo performs an impromptu rap as the students hold up vocabulary words for him to use.
A little odd, sure. Effective? Jarbo says so. After a rocky start to his teaching career at another Phoenix charter school, Jarbo says he's happy to have found a school that appreciates his creative teaching techniques.
"In some schools, unfortunately, there's no room for creativity because they've gotta pass these state tests," Jarbo says. "They set up a curriculum — ABCD — and you have to do that, whether the kids are getting it or not. You can't do it a different way."
"I try to do as much as I can and bring it into the classroom in a positive way, because they're in seventh and eighth grade," Jarbo says. "It's the hardest time of their life. They're going through changes and they don't know how to react to them, so I try to make it as fun as I can. They still hate to write. Trying to get them to write is the hardest thing, but I love it. I kind of feel like I'm where I'm needed."
Starting with the Phoenix MC's first mixtape, TeacherRapperHero, Jarbo has managed to combine his biggest passions — teaching, hip-hop, and video games — into a three-pronged career that has earned him, if not yet fame and fortune, at least a degree of Internet notoriety and, more importantly, happiness and a sense of accomplishment.
Writing has never been a problem for Jarbo. He began writing and performing hip-hop as "The R" in his hometown of Philadelphia. He renamed himself Random (after the shape-shifting Marvel comics character) in the mid-'90s and released his debut album, The Call, in 2006. Later that year, after gradually growing tired of the brutal winters of the Northeast, Jarbo found a teaching job in Phoenix. After the move, his musical output grew exponentially. In less than four years, he has put out five full-length albums (one is a Japan-only release), an EP, and the aforementioned mixtape.
Jarbo frequently collaborates with his roommate and fellow Philly transplant, DJ/producer DN3. He's an unabashedly positive MC, with a flow reminiscent of Blackalicious' Gift of Gab and lyrics that eschew violence and "bling" culture for a more hopeful, uplifting vibe. The lack of profanity on his albums may make Random an anomaly is today's hip-hop world, but it's not a product of self-censorship, he says.
"I talk about some heavy stuff, and there are some heavy issues, but [cursing is] just not a part of me," he says. "I don't do it in everyday life, so it's easy not to do it in a song. Plus, if my mom heard it, I think she'd kill me . . . If I had to really censor myself, then that would suck because words are like colors in a painting. If you've got to say something, you can't just say, 'I'm not gonna use blue because blue offends that guy.' You can't do that. You've got to speak your mind."
Despite his accomplishments as a teacher and socially conscious rapper, Jarbo's biggest claim to fame has been the third component of the mixtape title: his "hero" persona, Mega Ran. Jarbo says the idea to make a concept album based on the classic 8-bit Mega Man video games stemmed from what was supposed to be a self-imposed hiatus from hip-hop.
"Right after I got [to Phoenix], I tried to remove myself from hip-hop for a moment, because I didn't want to make the same album twice," Jarbo says. "I felt like I had said everything I had to say in The Call. I rapped about everything I wanted to rap about. I set the music down and started playing video games."
While playing Mega Man, Jarbo was drawn to the background music and began hunting down MP3s of the game's soundtrack online. In 2007, he released Mega Ran, in which he portrays the titular character, rapping over samples from the game. Because of the questionable legality of such a project, Jarbo created a separate MySpace page in an attempt to distance Mega Ran from his work as Random.
Word of mouth spread and Mega Ran started gathering an underground following among fans of nerdcore, a subgenre of hip-hop devoted to all things geeky. Perhaps not surprisingly, it's one of the only areas of hip-hop populated mostly by white guys, but Jarbo sees himself as an emissary between nerdcore and traditional hip-hop.
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"Every rapper's from the mean streets, so it's almost not cool — it's totally not cool — to embrace your nerd side," he admits. "But every one of these guys has played Nintendo . . . when they were growing up. They all did all these nerdy things. We all watched Star Wars. We all watched cartoons. We all have done that, so there's nothing wrong with embracing that part of you that's there, instead of suppressing it. That's what I feel like I'm trying to do: Here's the cool table, the hip-hop table; there's the nerdy table, and I'm kinda in the middle. I like to sit at the middle table so I can maybe call a couple guys from the hip-hop table over and some guys from the nerd table and we can eat together."
Eventually, Mega Man manufacturer Capcom got wind of the Mega Ran project. But to Jarbo's surprise, the cease-and-desist letter he was expecting never materialized. Instead, the company gave Jarbo its blessing, inviting him to perform at the San Diego Comic-Con International, the largest annual comic book convention in the U.S. and a virtual mecca of nerdkind. Jarbo's partnership with Capcom also led to a sequel album, Mega Ran 9, which was released earlier this year as a tie-in to the downloadable game of the same name.
Due to the success of Mega Ran, Jarbo has decided to continue his efforts at bridging the nerdcore/hip-hop gap, alternating between video game-themed albums and standard hip-hop fare, all while holding down a full-time teaching job. So does Jarbo consider himself a teacher who raps or a rapper who teaches? The mixtape's title, as it turns out, is anything but random.
"I think I'm just a teacher, so I would say I'm a teacher who raps. I give them both so much of my time, and they're both so similar that they kind of run together. There's teachable moments on the mic as well as in the classroom. They're both almost identical in that you're getting up in front of a crowd of people and you're trying to convince them to believe in you, whether it's 25 teenagers that you're trying to convince to believe in you or 25 skeptical fans. So it's the same thing. You get onstage, you're being examined, you're being judged at all times, and you're trying to make them believe in you. So they run parallel."