Christylez Bacon attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a prestigious high school in Washington, D.C. that also counts Dave Chappelle and Meshell Ndegeocello among its alumni. When it came time to write a final paper for his U.S. Government class, he wanted to craft something more reflective of his upbringing in the city's Southeast quadrant — an area hit hard by crime and drugs in the 1980s. Bacon convinced his teacher to let him deliver an essay on public aid in the form of a rap called "Welfare Check."
"For me to be here, and to be a product of Southeast D.C. — that's a feat," says Bacon, who now makes his living as a hip-hop musician and performs "Welfare Check" as part of his repetoire. "I always make sure that I state that I am from there, because you could be of your environment, but that doesn't have to keep you from being who you want to be in the world."
Christylez Bacon spoke with NPR's David Greene about learning rhythm as a bucket drummer, collaborating on a Grammy-nominated album and his newest release, Hip Hop Unplugged. Hear more at the audio link.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A few weeks ago, I saw a Grammy-nominated musician named Christylez Bacon perform here in Washington, D.C.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CHRISTYLEZ BACON: (Singing) Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. See, I was born into a thought...
GREENE: When he's on stage, he does his own style of hip-hop. He beatboxes, and he sings about life in the nation's capital, where he grew up. Christylez dresses to the nines in concert. He dropped by our studios with his guitar and looking stylish, as always.
BACON: Well, I always have the afro. The afro is just how my hair grows. So, I pick it and pat it every day. It's just me accepting my own hair and how it is in the world. I always wear a hat, because I don't feel like picking out the full afro. That's too much work in the morning, and I'd be late for things. I tend to wear patent leather shoes every day of my life these days, ascots and nicely colored socks.
GREENE: Pink polka-dot going on there.
BACON: There it is.
GREENE: I read about your bio, and anytime you're written up, it says that you grew up in Southeast Washington D.C. For people who don't know this city, our listeners all around the country, explain to them what that area of the city is like.
BACON: All right. So, Southeast is a side, I would say, that is underserved. We didn't really get a sit-down restaurant until recent years. I'm talking about like with waiters and waitresses and everything. And during the era during in the mid- to late-'80s, crack hit D.C. pretty hard, and specifically that Southeast quadrant was really crazy. So, for me to be here and to be a product of Southeast D.C., that's a feat. And I always make sure that I state that I am from there, because you could be of your environment, but that doesn't have to keep you from being who you want to be in the world.
GREENE: You were one of the kids in the city out on the streets drumming buckets.
BACON: Doing the buckets, banging on the buckets and trashcans, yeah. We couldn't afford to the drum sets, so we made a way, you know. And you would hear like these almost West African-like drum circles. And instead of Djembe drums and all the West African percussion instruments, you had buckets and trashcans.
GREENE: You have a song called "Welfare Check."
GREENE: Does that come from a personal place? I mean, does that speak about your upbringing?
BACON: That comes from a very personal place. And strangely enough, that was my final paper for a U.S. government class at Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
GREENE: A very well-known and prominent high school in Washington...
BACON: Amazing high school. My goodness. I convinced my U.S. government teacher to let me write my final paper in the form of a rap. You had to write about some type of, like, government system or body instruction. I was like, oh, I'll write about the welfare system. The verse is: It's 1998, and we ain't got cake. While cats was getting laced - you know, like doing crack - mom put food on the plate. When the first summer came, people traveled the same...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BACON: (Singing) ...to North Capitol Street for their food stamp claim. Now, we've been standing in the line since early in the morning, get a piece of the pie, grab stamps and then we're gone.
That's how it was for us growing up. My ma has a disability, and that prevents her from working like the average job like a parent would do to provide for their kids. So, in this case, ma would take any other job that she can take in addition having, like, food stamps, her disability checks that she'd get from the government and child support from a father who was not present. My ma did what she had to do.
GREENE: Well, there's something about your songs today that really connects to real life. There's this feeling when I saw you perform in Washington recently, I mean, it was sort of, you know, you have a song called "Wireless Signal" that I sort of felt like it make sense to me. Explain to me where that song comes from.
BACON: So, all of my songs are rooted in, like, just like every day experiences. It just so happens that life is kind of interesting if you focus on the little details. And with "Wireless Signal," that was a personal experience while I was teaching creative writing in D.C. public schools, which I did for four years, and that you always had to send in these timesheets. And so I procrastinate, wait till the last minute, and I would always hang out at this coffee shop on U Street called Mocha Hut. And I wait until the last minute, I'm eating my little waffle. Twelve o'clock is when it's due. If not, you're going to have to wait an entire, like, new pay period to get check your check. And...
GREENE: Oh, wow. So, you got to get this in by noon.
BACON: I got to get this in by noon. And so I try to send it, and I'm like, oh, you're Internet is down. Oh, my God. Like, you know what I'm saying? I'm, like, I really got to start paying for wireless now, because this is, like, crazy. And I just decided I'm going to write a song about that.
GREENE: Well, can we hear a little bit of "Wireless Signal"? I know you got your guitar here. We could...
BACON: Ooh, indeed. (Singing) To put it down on paper, the situation makes you want to pay for wireless, but I don't have the paper. I'm walking down the street, down the sidewalk, crying for my computer to the sky to get the timesheet out. You know what I'm looking for is a wireless signal, so if you had a hookup, let me grab my pencil.
GREENE: We should say all of the sounds there, I mean, all the percussion sounding things, that's all your mouth. That's beatboxing.
BACON: Yeah, yeah, indeed. That was a skill I cultivated as a kid, and that's one of those lack of drum set instruments right there.
GREENE: Just teaching yourself? Did you just pick that up yourself?
BACON: Yeah. You know, as a kid, I couldn't really whistle or snap my fingers. I could just do this...
(SOUNDBITE OF BEATBOXING)
BACON: ...so I would just do it as a pastime, going around. And so from that point on, I knew that I could take this...
(SOUNDBITE OF BEATBOXING)
BACON: ...and make rhythms.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEATBOXING)
GREENE: You make it seem so easy.
BACON: Oh, man. It takes a little bit of practice, though. It takes a little bit of time to get your mouth used to doing different sounds like that.
GREENE: In a very moving moment when you performed the other night, you looked at the audience, and you said that a lot of people have certain stereotypes about hip-hop.
GREENE: What did you mean by that? What was your message there?
BACON: Well, see, me, right, all of my records that I come out with, you might notice that they don't have any parental advisory stickers on there. And this is not saying that I'm against current hip-hop all the way, because there's a balance. There's this part of hip-hop. There's the more artsy side. There's the more conscious side, and then there's the gangster rap stuff too, right? But the light is only being shined upon gangster rap.
GREENE: This message that you shouldn't necessarily have negative stereotypes about hip-hop or make assumptions about hip-hop or you when you're coming to perform, that led to a song called "Children Album Gangsta."
GREENE: What is the meaning of those three words?
BACON: So, "Children Album Gangsta," it's saying, like, a status thing. Like a person could be this type of gangster, this gangster-gangster, or he's not like regular gangster. He's like children album gangster. Like, just making fun of it. Being like my gangster thing is I go up in the schools, and they be like oh snap. It's Christylez Bacon. Or I go to a bar, like in the first verse, which actually happened, and they're like, oh, I'm about to pour the Patron for this man. I'm like, well, actually, I don't even drink alcohol. But if you could get me some cranberry and some orange juice, you know, I would be happy.
GREENE: You're going to be happy.
BACON: I'm a good man on that one, you know?
GREENE: Can we hear a little bit of "Children Album Gangsta"?
BACON: Indeed. (Singing) A children's show is harder than the "Showtime at the Apollo," and they don't need a sandman to take you away pronto. Now, kids stay excited, but if kids don't like it, they ain't gonna boo you, but they will start crying. Children let you know that it ain't about the gold. It's about having good times and having a good soul. To keep it honest with you, they the realest of folks. It's crazy how much we could learn from them, even as adults.
GREENE: That's Christylez Bacon, performing in our studios, in his hometown of Washington, D.C. His new album is called "Hip Hop Unplugged."
BACON: (Singing) Society puts us inside these boxes, while sealing us airtight. But I'm Christylez Bacon. I'm a rip, what, in the patter, I could freestyle in the hood and then...
GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.