Deaf Jam

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."

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.

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Jennifer Markley
Contact: Jennifer Markley