“You’ve been single for too long Eric. Tonight, I’m going to get a you a girlfriend”
Sophomore year and I was chilling with my homie Nya and a bunch of other friends. We were getting ready for a night out on the Temple house party scene. And Nya was looking out for me.
I dated some wonderful girls freshman year. Not wanting to get too serious, I let a really amazing one slip by. Now I was tired of the chase. The loveless sex. I wanted something real. Nya knew; it was time. As it creeped towards 10:30, our group of five or so people amassed to a drunken and high group of fifteen. We trekked through the North Philly streets looking for a nice house party to slip into. It was Friday night, so the choices were endless. Yet somehow we ended up somewhere way off campus.
It was okay I guess, when we stepped in. No one really dancing; just talking over loud music. The party looked like a last minute thing; it was already well past 11 and the only alcohol they had was a table full of cheap Russian vodka. I guess there was nothing left in the fridge to mix it with. So the residents just left it there, in front of a cooler of would be jungle juice. Just as things started to get poppin’ I caught the sight of a silhouetted afro bouncing in conversation. I was standing at the threshold of the row home as the silhouette grew bigger. Her face appeared from under her hair as she approached the light in the hallway.
“Yo. She’s one of the most beautiful girls I’ve ever seen.”
“You should tell her that then” Nya said calmly.
“G-gogo get her before she leaves! We got your back Malc,” slurred Sherry, another accomplice in Nya’s plan to get me a girlfriend that night. Her caramel skin glistened under the hard lights as she walked past me to the front door. I felt that instinctual impulse: that cold sweat feeling. Absolutely confidently trembling fear. Feelings idled while actions went on autopilot. I reached out and blocked the stream of students coming in. I touched her shoulder and she turned around.
“Yo, I just wanted to tell you that you’re beautiful.”
I brought her back to where I was posted up at and we chatted. It was brief, but longer than expected, considering her friends were already outside and ready to go. All the while, Sherry and Nya being as blunt as possible about making sure she didn’t leave without exchanging contact info.
“Do you know about the prison industrial complex?”
She asked me halfway through the conversation. What?!? That was some curveball for a first time meet and greet. But the fact that she had enough balls (no, not balls…ovaries) to bring something random up like that only made me even more interested in her. She could hold it down intellectually no matter the environment.
So you’re probably wondering, what the hell does this woman have to do with me and the Hungry Ghosts? Well there isn’t a direct connection between her and the Hip-Hop super clan I would eventually become bonded to. But the passion I had for her at the time inspired me to write my first legitimately good rap song. Something that, in a way, let me know I could step into the cypher and hold my own.
Maybe it was the situation I was in when I first met Juliana: my mind was primed with Nya’s words, “Get you a girlfriend, get you a girlfriend.” So I over pursued her and in the process, probably changed my own identity just to fit what I thought she liked. But that crazy thing I had for her was keeping me up all kinds of hours. It needed to be released. I was writing raps more often at the time. It only made sense that I use the same medium to get these feelings out. So pen met pad. Everyday after class. Fridays after the cyphers were when I wrote the most. I hadn’t felt such complete and total inspiration since I watched that Will Smith video the summer prior. I wanted her, so much that when I’d see her perform at open mics, I just wanted to grab the mic between sets and start spitting the song I wrote about her. Mentioning her name in it and all. I was so on the edge, instinctually, while sitting in the audience. Absolutely confidently trembling in fear. Sometimes I wonder how she would have reacted if I really did do it. I didn’t find out ‘til two years later that her favorite movie is Love Jones. Our instincts know more than we have yet to understand. Eventually she stopped responding to the messages and phone calls. My heartbroken self got the message. But the song was something I would still come back to work on; the subsequent verses describing how our friendship continued off and on.
That song, Aries in Love, inspired me to write more. It built up my confidence, and now I was starting to break into the cypher through beatboxing. I wasn’t the best beatboxer and it’s a thankless job in the cypher. But if there’s no beat, there’s no raps. I was good enough to keep things moving. Around the same time, the upper class veterans were showing up less and less, due probably to senior year obligations/job hunting. This made room for the younger cats: Omar, Matt, Basem, Bryan, Irv, Persuo, and Francois among others, to step in and not be shy to show their skills. Even at this time I was still scared as hell to drop a rhyme. When the crowds died down I’d spit a little four or six bars here and there, screw the rest up, and hope someone else would pick up after me. But the cypher, more importantly the students who participated in it, were just open and accepting. I knew my freestyling sucked, and so did everyone else. But no one ever called me out for it. It was probably because they knew. They knew how difficult it was to freestyle when they first started. How much practice they put in just to get to where they were. How much courage it takes to stand among a crowd of people and jump into the deep end. Nothing memorized. Nothing written. Just you, your thoughts, and the world around you as the canvas for your 16-bar, one-minute, thirty-second work of performance art. If I didn’t receive the encouragement I got from those emcees at Freestyle Fridays, I might have given up on this rapping stuff a long time ago.
Over time I got better, mainly because everyone else around me was so damn good. So even though I was more focused on the books instead of emceeing, I still improved through association. The cypher crew was growing. On some Fridays we’d be at the Bell Tower for almost five hours straight, and end up meeting again at a house party later that night. We could no longer be confined to just Friday afternoons. Any day of the week became fair game to start a cypher. If any one emcee happened to cross paths with another on campus, a rap session was bound to happen.
Of course, there were no official leaders in the 360º of Hip-Hop. By definition, a cypher is itself a circle. Everyone in equal standing, in a platform where freedom of speech is the only absolute. But surely there were some rappers who noticeably had an all around better skill set. Although never stated early on, Omar (Ghost name OHM) sort of became our default leader because he was, without a doubt, the best all-around emcee. As he started to get a feel for the various rappers that came to Freestyle Fridays an awesome idea came to his mind: The Hungry Ghosts.
The Hungry Ghosts: A Hip-Hop super group filled with the most diverse group of emcees since the Wu-Tang Clan. I still remember the first day I was inducted by OHM and Mad Matt Swayzie.
“Yo, when are we gonna figure out a Ghost name for Malcolm?”
We were sitting in Wendy’s on Broad and Cecil B. Moore, high as ever and getting our munchies fix. It had caught me by surprise; I had no idea Omar was considering having me in the group. I felt like I wasn’t good enough yet to be honest, but he must have saw something in me. In order to be fully inducted into Ghost Ghang (The Hungry Ghosts) you have to create or be given a Ghost name. This is a rap moniker that plays off the name of an actual ghost or dead person. At the time my rap name was a portmanteau of my middle name (Malcolm), and my favorite book at the time (The Alchemist). Hence, The Malchemist: The Bad Chemist. Since this name doesn’t directly reference a ghost in pop culture (e.g. Casper) or a dead person (e.g. Mad Matt Swayzie –> Patrick Swayzie, who also played a ghost in the movie Ghost…oh my entendre!), I had to create a new one.
We sat there brainstorming of famous dead people, both real and fiction-based. Nothing seemed to fit me. So I started to think about my personality: What do I love? Rap about? Enjoy talking about? Then it came to me out of the vast emptiness of existence. It was the dark vacuum, the galaxies, black holes and string theories. It was what NASA devotes it’s entire workforce to: The Universe.
So we thought, what are the names of dead things in Space? White dwarfs, red dwarfs, black holes…none of these seemed to reflect my entire personality. Who I was and the message I wanted to send to people.
“How about supernova?”
“Yooo! That name is tight!”
“Yeah, you right. But I don’t know. I think this shit is bigger than just one star.” I thought some more. What’s a more epic space phenomenon than the death of a star? Then it came to me; an entire galaxy.
“My name is Quasar.”
“Yooo, that shit is dope!!!”
And there I shined while munching on my french fries, the brightest thing in the known Universe.
A Quasar represents so much for me. The coexistence of total light and absolute darkness. The Marvel superhero. The Story of the Universe. Hence, a universal story that all could relate to. Off and on, since that day until now, I spent time fleshing out who I wanted Quasar to be. Yet what I wanted the entity to be was always changing. It took me some time to realize it was me who was doing the actual changing. As I grew as a person, the lyrics I may have written a year prior suddenly didn’t seem as ill as I thought they were. Writing was so much different than freestyling. If I dropped some wack shit in a cypher, it would have been forgotten by myself and probably everyone in attendance. The beginning of each verse was the beginning of a new clean slate. Since it was all improv, I knew people wouldn’t take what I said word for word.
Written lyrics, on the other hand, are permanent. Once you record and release that song, people don’t forget the lyrics. If it was wack, they may not consider listening to you again. So for the past three to four years I’ve been going back ‘n forth between writing, recording, and discarding. If The Hungry Ghosts ever had a show, or shot a video, I would just freestyle my verse. I felt more comfortable in spitting an average freestyle and using that as a fallback if I got criticized. My obsession for perfection crippled me.
Yet it was more than this obsession. There was fear there as well. I spent my last year of high school trying to get my parents to understand my choice to major in film. Then at the end of freshman year, I switched majors. I couldn’t just drop this rap stuff on them. They would think I was beyond crazy. Of course, I’ve kept rapping sort of a secret from them. Eventually though, I am going to have to tell them. From their perspective, it probably seems like I have no path after this English teaching gig in Japan. No future plans. Every time we skype, graduate school somehow gets mentioned. Law school, business school, and a bunch of other shit I have no interest in. My fear of my parent’s opinion, and the opinions of many others who have their own ideas for me, is probably the reason why I’ve spent so much time writing this instead of writing rhymes. To those of you out there who have an ideal picture of who you want Eric Christopher Malcolm Burton to be, this is for you. With each page turn, I hope you have begun to see that I’m not exactly who you think I am. Let me do Me.