The famously wry author of Go The Fuck to Sleep sketches a semi-autobiographical portrait of 90’s Brooklyn and rap dreams gone up in smoke.
he apartment in Fort Greene was like a dynasty in the late stages of decline by the time I moved in. When 156 Adelphi Street started getting handed down from friend to friend, it was a princely thing, an honor, to live there—and it was a direct line of descent. Guys and girls as cool as the original three—who were all musicians in a funk band that became a different funk band, then became a reggae band, then became a High Life band, then blew up—filled up the vacancies, and for maybe ten years during the lateish eighties to lateish nineties, it wouldn’t have been unusual to walk into the living room and find anybody who’d ever lived there hanging out still.
I inherited Carlos’s spot when he bounced to Williamsburg in the spring of ’97, but then I had to take a trip and couldn’t actually move in until the fall, so I sublet the room to my man Twenty-Twenty, who’d been looking for a chance to leave Boston (like every hip-hop producer living in Boston) and, more specifically, his parents’ basement. This cool-ass girl named Sue, who was most definitely in the direct line of descent and her then-boyfriend were about to occupy the big room, which had also just become vacant, and this off-brand cat named Dakar was in the middle room.
By off-brand, I mean he was nowhere near the line of descent, in terms of this particular circle of artist-musician-writer types, who had mostly attended one of two colleges uptown, some graduating and an almost-equal number dropping out. Dakar worked with Carlos at an after-school center around the way. Carlos taught the kids to paint and stuff; I never really knew what Dakar did, unless he taught them to be thieving lying scumbags, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
In terms of my own lineage, I was a half-prince, maybe. I’d arrived at college just as the dynasty’s founders were leaving, but I’d rhymed with the band a few times and briefly dated a girl who was a definite dynastic queen and a former 156 Adelphi resident herself—although dated is too strong a word.
By the time I got back to town, 156 Adelphi had been reconfigured. Sue and her man had broken away, citing “bad vibes.” A couple hundred bucks they’d left lying atop a dresser had vanished, and they blamed Twenty-Twenty—he was the guy nobody knew, after all, and an oddball to be sure: six-four, bigheaded and long-dreaded, a mumbly cat who stayed in his room making beats and smoking blunt after blunt with our other man from back home, Knowledge Born, who was living with his moms and little brother a few blocks away.
Dakar, meanwhile, had been holding down 156 Adelphi for two years, plus he had a nice smile and he worked with kids. He was Your Friendly Neighborhood Dread, and he knew how to make white people, which Sue was one of, heave invisible sighs of satisfaction when they realized that this burly, ex-college-football-playing dude was just a big ol’ teddy bear. He dated white women exclusively (that is, the women he dated three at a time were exclusively white), and all his homeys were white too, facts which would later coalesce into supporting evidence against him—as would his tendency to bump the Wyclef Jean album while getting his ass whipped in chess by me or Twenty-Twenty, or even Knowledge Born who couldn’t play for shit.
Sue didn’t confront Twenty-Twenty or anything, she just packed up her stuff and bounced, leaving Twenty-Twenty enveloped in a cloud of suspected sketchiness but also with a vacant room to move into rather than returning to Boston when the summer ended. So the reigning crew was me, Twenty-Twenty and Dakar, and 156 Adelphi’s illustrious past became a flickering memory.
It was an awkward situation at first, in that Dakar was on some real “Hey fellas, what’s the plan for tonight” instant-Three-Musketeers shit.
Twenty-Twenty and I had known each other since the days of jumping over our own legs at house parties, and we both came up at a time when hip hop was a participation-based, dues-paid-up-front thing. If you didn’t rhyme, breakdance, spin records or write graffiti, you weren’t shit—you were corny, a civilian. That’s what Dakar sounded like to us: a civilian trying to find out where the jam was at. He’d come hang out in Twenty-Twenty’s room when K Born visited and we did our customary freestyle-and-blunt-cipher thing, but he couldn’t flow or deejay so he just kind of took his hits and took up space.
Nevertheless, by October we’d more or less upgraded Dakar to the status of family—partly because it’s hard not to treat somebody that way if they’re already playing the role, and partly because, through a misapplication of the transitive law of mathematics, we’d decided that if you’re cribbed up with a dude, then by definition he’s gotta be fam or else you’re wack for living with a sucker. Also, to be fair, Dakar was a perfectly plausible cat to sit around and smoke and play chess and talk shit and listen to music with. He brought home more food and beer than any of us, and better weed, and he was generous with all of it. Another factor was that Knowledge Born was quickly revealing himself to have become—in the two years we hadn’t seen him much—something of a freeloading wino, although he could still rhyme his ass off. The spectacle of him crashed out on our living room futon, after keeping everybody up until 3 with one of his cokeheaded God-Body-Science slick-talk rants, tended to provide the bulk of the domestic unrest at 156 Adelphi in those days.
In hindsight, Dakar did plenty of things that, to quote your boy Arsenio, should have made us go Hmm. Or did make us go Hmm, but didn’t form an alarming enough of a pattern for us to really say “Hold up, this bears serious investigation.” He was always conniving one or another of his waifish, none-too-brilliant girls for one thing: screwing Chickenhead A while Chickenhead B thought he was out of town for the weekend. He’d make me and Twenty-Twenty answer the phone and lie for him sometimes, and once or twice even get the door while he hid in his room. So it’s not like Dakar was fuckin’ Airtight Willie with his mack game. I know now, as a grown-ass man, that anybody so gleeful and braggadocious about dogging women will dog anyone, given the chance, but at the time I probably half-admired Dakar’s half-assed pimpology.
ll our friends were young and idiotic and a little sleazy back then anyway. Twenty-Twenty, for instance, was so broke he’d buy a Heineken at the bodega, hide it in his jacket, and bring it into a bar so he didn’t have to buy a drink, then approach women with the same moronic line about being Puffy’s cousin over and over until he’d been categorically rejected by every female in the place—unless enough of them complained to the bouncer first, and he was asked to leave. Knowledge Born, in lieu of a job, would resell nickel bags as dimes to the outtatowners with whom his mom attended grad school. I myself trooped up to my old college radio station at least once a month and stole as many rare slabs of vinyl as I could inconspicuously carry, then sold them to Son, You Ain’t Hip-Hop, the snotty British record spot in the Village. And I had a job.
So everybody did their little dirt or whatever. I guess it’s ironic, then, that Dakar’s squeaky-clean routine was what made us perk up our ears and be like, This dude is
full of shit. For me, bells started clanging the day he came home from work with a zip drive (they probably go for 13 cents on Ebay now, but in ’97 they were the new computer thing) and was like, “My job let me borrow this. Can you use it?” I said no. Then a few days later it was, “My job said I could keep it. Do you know anybody who might wanna buy a zip drive?”
Maybe everything would have turned out different if I’d looked him in the eye right then and said, “Motherfucker, nobody cares if you boosted a zip drive from your job. Just say ‘Yo, I boosted a zip drive from my job’ and don’t expect me to believe your boss strolled up to you and said ‘Hey, Dakar, why don’t you take this random expensive piece of computer hardware home for a few days, even though your ass doesn’t own a Playstation, much less a computer?’”
Or the time he claimed he’d done this painting we had in the crib. It was of the metal latticework on the fire-escape door, which might sound dumb but it was actually quite a beautiful piece that kind of tied the indoors to the out, if that makes any sense. I knew for a fact that the dynastic queen I mentioned before, the one I’d semi-dated, had painted it when she lived at 156. One day when I ran into her at a party she said she’d like to have it back. I thought it was a shame to let it go, and also that it wouldn’t really make any artistic sense divorced from its inspiration, but I said cool, come over whenever, I’ll put it aside for you. So I went home and took it down, and that’s when Dakar told me he’d painted it. That there were two versions of the same painting—she did one and so did he, and this was his.
Never mind that nobody had ever seen the dude anywhere near a paintbrush in his life. He got me. I was like, “Okay, if you say so,” and I left it alone. Because—and this is a good lesson—the way to tell a lie is not to make it simple, like some people say, or outlandish, as others believe. The key is for the lie to appear completely unmotivated. That will throw 90 percent of the lied-to off the trail.
Shit got heavy around February. By that time, our hip-hop thing had evolved from freestyle ciphers to actual recording sessions, albeit on a crappy-ass eight-track in Twenty-Twenty’s room. But the music was starting to come together, and a local label was offering to press our 12-inch. We’d added a fourth cat, my man Roam the Wanderer from Queens, who was keyed into the dynasty by way of rhyming in a hip-hop offshoot of the original 156 Adelphi funk band.
His living situation was a little tenuous, some murky thing involving a relationship that had ended well before the lease on the apartment he and ol’ girl shared, so Roam just started unrolling his sleeping bag on our living room floor every night. He was one of those camouflage-wearing urban-frontiersman-monk-weedhead-mad-genius motherfuckers, who traversed the city with all kinds of gear and ponchos and Wilkerson wrenches and flare guns crammed into a big Army-surplus rucksack, and he could pass out anywhere—sometimes with a lit blunt in hand or a fork halfway to his mouth. He got up before anybody, however, and used the alone time to clip his toenails on the kitchen floor, or do calisthenics in his drawers. Twenty-Twenty would walk out of his bedroom in the morning, empty tea mug in hand, see that, wrinkle up his nose and turn right back around.
It’s pretty shortsighted to be crapping where you eat when there are four dudes holding down the spot, none of them with any loyalties to you, right? I mean, if you’re Dakar and you’re move-faking on a major level, you’ve either got to truly swear you’re slick or have major psychological issues and not understand the ramifications of your actions. When all the facts were out in the open, a good case for the latter started to emerge, in light of some of Dakar’s lies being totally nonsensical—like telling us the rent was 80 bucks less than it really was.
It started with a phone bill. Dakar called Twenty-Twenty from the Verizon office, where he’d gone to get our service turned back on after we’d been sloppy and forgotten to pay, and told him that we owed another 60 bucks for reinstatement or whatever, and he, Dakar, didn’t have it. Twenty-Twenty reluctantly gave the Verizon guy his credit card number and we got our dialtone back. The next day Roam swung through and told us that when his phone got turned off there hadn’t been no 60-dollar reinstatement fee. Hmm. Twenty-Twenty called Verizon. Sure enough.
We sat on that until the weekend, knowing Dakar was going upstate to see some buddies he worked with at a summer camp or something. The minute he was gone, me, Twenty-Twenty, Knowledge Born and Roam convened a council of war. First we ransacked his room, on what you’d call a fact-finding mission. And boom, some petty you-deserve-an-asswhipping money shit became a beef you could legitimately kill or at least permanently disfigure a dude over.
hat we found, aside from a bunch of nasty porno mags (which, oddly, featured nothing but black women) was a nightstand drawer full of the kind of overdue rent notices they slip under your door when you’re seriously fucking up. Month by month we’d been falling deeper into debt, by the amount Dakar was supposed to pay plus 80 bucks. As the ranking member of the apartment, he made it his job to collect our checks to the holding company. He’d been mailing them in, he just hadn’t been writing his own. We owed about 4,000 dollars, and they were threatening to take us to court and throw us out. Why they’d even been this patient was a mystery.
Then we found the lease and it started to make more sense, and less. I have no idea how E.B. Holding Co. managed to botch a simple document so badly, given that they’d been getting checks with people’s correct info on them all along, but damn near every name on the thing was an amalgam, a misspelling, or an outright fiction. They had Dakar as Darnell, and instead of his last name, Troutman, they had him as Fuentes—Carlos’s last name. I was Alan Mursbucci. Twenty-Twenty wasn’t listed at all, but one of the original dynasty dudes, a trumpet player named Joel who’d been gone for probably eight years, was still a lease-holder. His was the only name typed right.
Again, and maybe I’m just saying this to make myself feel better, if Dakar had sat us down, shown us the lease and said, “Fellas, none of us is legally responsible for this rent money. How ‘bout we stop paying and ride it out as long as we can?” me and Twenty-Twenty woulda been like “Bet.” Who knows, maybe Dakar figured consistent two-thirds payments would keep the holding company at bay—or maybe he figured nothing at all. As I stood in his room, sifting through this mess of sheets red-stamped with Past Due and Final Warning and Eviction Pending, I imagined Dakar sneaking to the front door early in the morning and snatching up the notices before any of us saw. Why had he kept them, though?
In the same drawer was Dakar’s phone book. Twenty-Twenty grabbed it. “I’m calling everybody in this nigga’s life,” he said. This might be the time to mention that despite his various and sundry eccentricities, Twenty-Twenty had grown up in a household where chess was important, and his end game was no joke. He saw the board the way they say point guards see the floor, he knew how to cut off the enemy’s retreat routes before commencing his attack. I looked at him then and knew that’s what he was doing. He’d already decided that Dakar was about to be homeless. Twenty-Twenty wanted to make sure he stayed that way.
None of us was ready to put a plan together yet, and confirming the breadth of Dakar’s scumbaggery seemed like a way to build up to it. I called the after-school center, got his boss on the line and told him the zip drive story, and the rent story too just for context’s sake, careful to frame my motivation as concern, not vengeance. By the time I hung up, Dakar’s job was all over but the shouting.
Knowledge Born left a detailed message for the summer camp director Dakar was so chummy with, on some very convincing think-of-the-children shit. Twenty-Twenty hollered at every one of Dakar’s girls we’d met or talked to or heard of, and even gave them each other’s phone numbers in case they wanted to cross-reference the dates and times on which they’d been two-timed. He tried to get one of them to meet him at Frank’s Lounge for a drink, too, but that’s another story. When there were no bridges left to torch, the four of us sat down over a bottle of Ray & Nephews overproof Jamaican rum and 25 dollars worth of cheap, greasy Chinese takeout and got serious.
It was Twenty-Twenty’s idea to run the portable tape recorder when we confronted Dakar, so whatever he said he couldn’t unsay. But it was me and Knowledge Born who sampled the sounds of screams and baseball bats against flesh, and made a song called “The Truth” the following afternoon. I’m listening to it right now, on a Maxell cassette labeled in black marker, and it’s some disturbing shit. Part of me is proud that we turned an ugly thing like kicking a dude’s ass and throwing him out of his house into art, but it’s some pretty ugly art. Even though I was going through my sound-like-Rock-from-Heltah-Skeltah phase, dropping my voice about 12 octaves, you can hear the emotional rawness there, the attempt to tell a story that hasn’t been processed yet, the bravado layered over something rappers are supposed to pretend doesn’t exist—maybe remorse. The song starts with us trading off, line for line. Knowledge Born sounds like he’s still amped, like he took a quick time-out from the beatdown to step into the studio and drop a verse. I sound exhausted.
You got treated like family
Uncannily, I got suspicious
The truth shall set you free
But if you lyin’ we turn vicious
Extended the benefit of the doubt
and heard you out
your facts don’t correlate
Grab your shit and just be out
Before I have to go upside your head
to change your mindstate
When I find snakes, there’s no mistake
I’ll see you at the wake
I peep every move you make
plus I know the girl you date
She told me everything…
that’s how I know you fake
When Dakar arrived home, the four of us were sitting in the living room, waiting. Twenty-Twenty, as planned, told him, “Sit down, we need to talk to you.” Dakar’s eyes darted to me as he sank onto the futon, but I kept my face flat. Knowledge Born and Roam were on the other couch. All our weapons were beneath our seats: Roam and K Born had bats, I had a hammer, and Twenty-Twenty, standing above Dakar, was leaning on a metal cane someone had left behind.
“I called Verizon,” Twenty-Twenty said, hand on his hip. “There’s no such thing as a reinstatement fee. You owe me sixty bucks.” Dakar looked up at him—probably relieved that was all, and ready to talk his way free of it. The cane hadn’t registered yet.
“It wasn’t a reinstatement fee, dude, it was the money we owed on the bill. Plus they said they had to charge us for basic service in advance because we didn’t pay.” Dakar looked around the room, then raised his voice a little, slapped his palms against his knees and bowed his arms out from his sides. “What, you think I tried to rip you off?” he asked.
It was interesting to see how quick he played the wounded indignation card. I could see why it was so effective with people like Sue, or even Carlos: it forced your hand, made you feel guilty and unsure, yet at the same time there was a note of intimidation in it, like You’d better back off quick because even a righteous man will rise up to defend his honor, and lest you forget I happen to be a large bear-like motherfucker.
We’d agreed to pick Dakar apart point by point, try to get him to cop to the small offenses before we raised the major stuff, but that opening statement killed Twenty-Twenty’s patience. He dipped into his room for a second, Dakar still trying to clarify the phone situation to our satisfaction.
“You can call Verizon right now. Ask them if we—”
Twenty-Twenty reappeared and dropped the stack of overdue notices into Dakar’s lap. “You know what? Fuck the phone bill. Why are we four thousand dollars in debt?”
I gotta give Dakar credit. His face fell, but he picked it right back up and tried to turn the shit around.
“What the fuck were you doing in my room?” he said to Twenty-Twenty, rising off the couch a few inches.
nowledge Born sprang to his feet. “These niggas ‘bout to get evicted!” he shouted. “You better tell ‘em something!”
“This has nothing to do with you, K Born,” Dakar said, all paternal like this was family business and if the guests couldn’t keep quiet then he’d have to ask them to step outside so the three of us could discuss matters in private.
“It’s got plenty to do with me,” I said, cold, and Dakar’s head snapped over. I reached under my seat and picked the hammer up. “Why are we four grand in debt, Dakar? Why are you hiding bills?”
The bats came out from under the couch and Dakar stood. “I can explain!” he yelled, finally starting to appreciate his situation. He sputtered for a second, just long enough not to explain, and then Knowledge Born hit him in the shoulder with an aluminum bat left over from some long departed’s softball league of yore. Roam swung next, another body blow, and then Twenty-Twenty doubled Dakar with a cane jab to the stomach. I dropped my hammer. I’d been pretty sure I wasn’t going to use it.
We all backed off, and Roam yelled, “Why are we four grand in debt?” and Dakar, balled up on the couch, said “Fuck you, you don’t even live here!” and got hit again.
We all deserve a lot of credit, in some ways. Four on one, with baseball bats and whatnot, you could easily kill a dude. We kept it civilized. Nobody hit him in the head—except once, sort of, ten minutes in, after countless starts and stops and fruitless tell-us-the-truths. Dakar was punch-drunk and leaning back against a wall while Twenty-Twenty shouted the same questions at him and swung the bat in the air to keep him at bay. For some reason, Dakar walked into the swing and got clipped in the forehead.
When all the facts were out in the open, a good case for the latter started to emerge, in light of some of Dakar’s lies being totally nonsensical, like telling us the rent was eighty bucks less than it really was.
It was scary. His eyes rolled back and he buckled at the knees, but he stayed on his feet. That’s what Dakar gets credit for—being tough as rocks. He took a ton of punishment, and he never really went down, or gave up. But he never admitted anything either, except that he didn’t really paint that painting. I threw it at his feet somewhere in between, during a bit of a lull—right after I flipped the tape over, as a matter of fact, so 45 minutes in—and was like “Who painted this shit?!” He looked up at me, groggy-eyed from being beaten, and muttered the dynasty queen’s name.
Our goal was to get Dakar out of the apartment, to convey the clear message that he was no longer living at 156 Adelphi. It was harder than it should have been. For a while in the beginning he kept trying to break for the door, but we weren’t done with him and he couldn’t get past us. By the time we were ready to throw his ass out, though, Dakar would not be moved. That was when the whole dreadlock justice thing went down.
Roam, Knowledge Born and Twenty-Twenty, all dreads themselves, decided that Dakar had forfeited his right to wear locks, and so Twenty-Twenty went to get a kitchen knife. Dakar went wild when he saw it, lifting up his tattered shirt and yelling, “You gonna fuckin’ cut me, Twenty-Twenty? Huh? Go ahead then, fuckin’ cut me!” Twenty-Twenty, in his goofy nasal voice, answered “Naw, man, I’m not gonna cut you, I’m gonna take your locks”—and that freaked Dakar out more than the thought of being stabbed. We got him on the ground, and the three of them yanked each and every last dread out of Dakar’s dome. I helped hold him down, but a white boy has no place ripping out a dread’s locks, so I took no direct part in that. Dakar was wrenching back and forth, bellowing “Take them! Take them all!” So that was what finally broke him. When we let him up, he took off running.
You know a man has done some foul shit in his life when you kick his ass and throw him bald and bleeding into the street, and the person he runs to calls you and instead of yelling “What the fuck!”, she just sighs and says, “What did Dakar do now?” That’s what Christine, his ex-girl from up the street, asked me an hour later over the phone. I told her, and then she asked if Dakar had cheated on her while they were together. Hell yes, I said. With that girl Barbara, she wanted to know. Among others, I said. Then Christine threw him out, too.
Dakar came over the next day to get his stuff when I was the only one home. I took a knife out of the dishwasher and slid it up my shirtsleeve before I opened the door. He was twice my size and could have killed me a dozen different ways in a fair fight and I was scared to death. I only let him in because I suspected he was too humbled to attack me—not by the violence, but his own unmasking.
I was right. We smoked a blunt over the chessboard, and he begged me not to call anybody else in his phonebook, especially his mother or the camp people. He’d already lost his job, he said. I promised I wouldn’t. I didn’t tell him the light on the camp guy’s answering machine was already blinking. He filled a duffel bag with clothes and left.
That was the last time I ever saw Dakar. For as long as I lived in Brooklyn, I kept expecting to run into him, or hear something, or get jumped on my way home and beaten senseless. But he just disappeared. When the story of what had happened at 156 Adelphi got around, all kinds of people stepped up with, “Yeah, I always knew that dude was shady” stories. None of those clowns had said the first thing by way of warning when I was moving in. That’s that hippie shit, I guess.
Knowledge Born moved into Dakar’s room, and Roam took over the futon, and we never wrote another rent check. You’d think a free crib would help cats get ahead—let them stack dough, give them time to do music—but it was the opposite. Twenty-Twenty quit his job. Knowledge Born became a full-time drinker, and eventually killed our record deal by going to the studio hammered and belligerent one too many times and convincing the label dude that he was more trouble to work with than he was worth. The label dude was Roam’s boy, and when the deal fell through Roam and Knowledge Born came to blows in the middle of the living room. Twenty-Twenty and I broke it up, but the two of them couldn’t really be in the same room after that—not alone together, anyway.
o more music got recorded. Cats started having arguments over who’d smoked the roach in the ashtray, who’d eaten the last of the rice, whose turn it was to go to the bodega—petty shit that only broke fools squab over. One night around two in the morning, when Knowledge Born refused to stop running his mouth, Twenty-Twenty walked across the room and just straight knocked him out, big right hand to the jaw. The next day, it was like it hadn’t even happened.
By the time E.B. Holding finally took us to court, we owed a little over ten grand. Twenty-Twenty and I put on ties and went to housing court, already talking about how much a storage unit would run us. We spent all morning listening to folks who owed five, six, seven times what we did plead their cases, and either get put on payment plans or get their two weeks notice. Our case was the last one called before lunch. E.B. Holding hadn’t bothered to show up and the judge dismissed their complaint.
I moved the fuck out of 156 a month later, one week after Twenty-Twenty pawned his eight-track and the possibility of any more music being made had vanished. Most of the furniture was mine, so when I bounced the apartment was reduced to crackhead status, two chairs and a half-broken TV. The phone got disconnected shortly afterward, so if you wanted to visit you just had to show up. Cats were always home, anyway. The doorbell didn’t work, but neither did the deadbolt, so it all evened out. I didn’t go that much, though. Blood was still smeared on the one lampshade I hadn’t taken with me, and I knew Twenty-Twenty kept Dakar’s yanked-off dreadlocks stored in a Dutchmaster cigar box in his room.
K Born and Twenty-Twenty lasted another fourteen months, running the tab past thirty grand before E.B. Holding finally threw them out. Twenty-Twenty lost it when that happened—got drunk, broke back into the apartment, and smashed every window in the place. Somebody called the cops, and he spent the night in The Tombs before migrating back to his parents’ house with nothing to show for his two years in New York but a backpack full of eight-track tapes. And like all things, the dynasty came to an end. Whoever lives at 156 Adelphi now, I don’t know them.