I think it was the great philosopher, foodie and EDM DJ Sun Tzu who once said — “Rockstars come in different shapes and sizes.” Or, maybe I just made that shit up.
Anyway, when I was in college and my dreams of being in the music business weren’t even big enough to really be called dreams yet —seems I was never much of a visionary — I had a loose group of friends who I nominally did music with (as if it were crack or some shit).
We had a small studio and wanted to be record producers, rappers, DJs and executives. Truth is, we didn’t know what the fuck we wanted to do, but we wanted to do something.
Having a studio and a talented team of producers and rappers and DJs is nice and all, but when nobody knows you exist, what is the point, really? So our big idea was to begin throwing parties; we could meet people and advertise our local business that way. We lived in New York, albeit in an outer-borough, but still, it wasn’t like we were in bumblefuck Ohio. Maybe something would come of it?
I was only 20-years-old; not much of a partier at the time, or even really a social person at all. Because I was in school studying communications, where I spent half my time pondering Erving Goffman’s “Frontstage/Backstage theory,” and the other half with how J Dilla got his basslines to sound so motherfucking fat and funky, I hated throwing parties. I thought they were a waste of time, and the local business a waste of time, and everything back then — because maybe I spent too much time thinking and not enough time doing — felt kind of like a waste of time.
One night, during one of the parties, which wasn’t really a party at all, but rather an open mic night that gave my friends an excuse to do poetry and meet cute girls with funky hair who listened to Lauryn Hill, a guy named Mex came by.
I’d never met him prior to that night, but his name would often come up in conversations. While I didn’t know him, my friends did — they’d gone to school with him — and he was towering figure in the Staten Island scene. Mex might have been all of 24-years-old, but he was already a legend. It wasn’t for making music, however, it was for promoting it. He started out throwing parties in high school, continued partying through college, and by his early twenties he could summon thousands of people to an event merely by casually mentioning he was having one.
He managed a popular local DJ, ran with all the big neighborhood rappers, was practically best friends with a Hot97 radio jock, Megatron (R.I.P.), and could tout that he had once, as a youth, briefly worked on the street team for Funkmaster Flex, who was then still the most powerful DJ in all of hip-hop. These were big bona fides for a Staten Islander. In the ‘hood, Mex was that dude.
Because he was a rather large man, a light-skinned Puerto Rican who probably weighed close to 300 pounds and stood over 6 ft. tall, at our party he unknowingly drew attention to himself. I think if memory serves me correct he was wearing a large-fitting throwback basketball jersey and a flat-brimmed cap. He might fit right in at a Fabolous concert, but here, in incense-and-finger-snap central — nominally, what you might call the early-2000's slam poetry scene — he stood out.
And yet we talked briefly, wherein he told me his big plans for having a well-connected company of his own, in which if someone ever needed anything, they would only be a phone call away. This included original production, which was what my producer friends and I were trying to peddle, but I figured that there was a great deal of distance between where his head was and ours. He was a big deal and we were pretty small. Plus we didn’t look like we were coming from the same place, and I was too young to really understand how little appearances matter when you’re silently bonded by the pursuit of a greater goal.
We exchanged numbers that night —he had a Motorola Timeport 2-way pager, not even a phone — and I expected nothing to come of it. But lo and behold, my clunky Nextel cell phone rang the next evening and there was a gravely voice on the other end.
“Wanna hang out?” Mex asked.
I was initially taken aback. I didn’t really even know how to answer, but I said I did, and suggested that he come by our studio later that evening. I then hung up and dialed my partner in the studio, who lived in the Port Richmond-area house where our DIY studio sat in a shadowy basement with a low-slung ceiling.
“Mex wants to hang out,” I said.
“Wow,” he replied. “That’s big. Mex wants to hang out with you? You’re popping right now.”
While this was a pretty small thing in the grand scheme of things, that was my partner’s confidence-boosting way of talking, and to be honest, it was a rather empowering thing to be around. Everything I did was a big deal to him — though it really wasn’t — and the way he treated such small victories made me feel good. He reassured me that little things were actually really big. It was his way of instilling a confidence in me that I was lacking. He wanted me to feel like I was the man, too.
Mex came by and we showed him around the place, the three bedrooms on the main floor, the makeshift production studio in the porch-to-junior bedroom conversion at the front of the house, the basement with the bigger studio, the one we’d built — after many sleepless nights sourcing materials at a 24-hour Home Depot near the Goethals Bridge, purchased with money he’d made working as a manager at a cell phone store, I by working retail at Sears in the Staten Island Mall, and a silent third partner who pitched in cash earned from his job installing telephone wires — with our bare hands.
I don’t know if he was impressed, but the three of us — he, myself and my partner — wound up sitting in the studio for hours, talking about the best way for us to work together; for us to, as the parlance of the day typically went, “get it popping.”
I think the idea that this local legend, celebrity — a rockstar, if you will — was there in front of us trying to see how we could team up, when just a day earlier that seemed practically insane and almost inconceivable, said a lot. It was, momentarily at least, hard to process. But it taught me a lot, actually.
For one, on an almost microscopic sociological level, it showed me how there are two levels of perception. There is the way people are perceived by others who are theoretically outside the rarefied group — the rockstar group, for lack of a better term — and then there is the way people are perceived by others who are inside the rarefied group. Sometimes, people inside the group can’t really see the way outsiders view them.
Assuming, of course, that the hallowed space Mex occupied was the rockstar group, because people certainly perceived him to be a very important person, I realized that that group wasn’t as exclusive and hard to break into as it seemed to be, but what held people back from breaking into it — for example, my group of friends, who spoke of this particular man like he would never even be bothered to talk to little people such as them — was fear.
It was the fear that someone out there was bigger, cooler, more important, more of a rockstar, and because of that, they were unreachable. But the reality was, even on this micro-celebrity scale, Mex was just a person who, even though he was locally-celebrated, still had hopes, dreams and feelings just like everyone else. He wasn’t too cool for anyone. People just thought he was, and as a result, even though he knew thousands of people and his pager never stopped ringing, he also seemed incredibly alone.
I remember that night very well, because when we entered the studio around 10 PM, it was dark and cold outside, and maybe our meeting would last all of 30 minutes, since we didn’t know each other that well. But it didn’t. When we emerged, after a full night of talking, the sun was shining, birds were chirping and there was a full day ahead. We’d become friends.
By and by, time would pass, we would become even better friends — I learned what the fringe benefits of rolling with someone so cool and important were — and I would go on to get into the music business for real, where being the coolest person in the room is all that really matters anyway.
I think back on that night occasionally, that bond fostered over a 12-hour period, where ideas and conversation were flowing, when I wasn’t thinking about much of anything, but rather just trying to learn as much about a local rockstar as I could, and I see a pattern like that repeating. It has, in a way, typified my life.
It taught me, even at that early age, that rockstars — whether they made music or not, because a rockstar can be anything these days — really were just like us. And from then on, I knew the greatest truth of all. That I was a rockstar too, if only I really believed it to be so.