He Will Not Be Moved
FEATURE: Antonio Ennis was stabbed, jailed, and flamed by the media. Now he faces his nastiest adversary — big banks.
By Chris Faraone
Originally published in the Boston Phoenix (February 2012)
A few months ago, Boston hip-hop vet Marco Antonio Ennis stepped into a home studio in Dorchester to cut a verse for an old friend’s teenage son. The young MC was trying to break into hardcore rap, and a verse from Ennis could help build that credibility. Having once belonged to the infamous Hub outfits Made Men and the Almighty RSO, Ennis has spit more murderous rhymes than most.
Beats got played, and everyone got writing. But after a half-hour, Ennis came clean: he couldn’t conjure any relevant rhymes. With three decades in the game under his belt, he’d exhausted the shoot-’em-up rhetoric that earned him a rep as one of Boston’s most dangerous artists. Despite grief from the guys in the studio, Ennis respectfully bounced, hopped in his weathered minivan, and rolled home.
It was an unusual case of writer’s block for the 45-year-old. Since the late ‘70s, Ennis has been a high-profile roughneck rapper, famous for explicitly illustrating Boston’s foulest gutters. Members of his crew have been shot and killed. He himself has been brutally stabbed, and once served state time on weapons charges. If those street credentials fall short, Ennis’s urban fashion line, Antonio Ansaldi, attracted major controversy in the mid-2000's with a line of STOP SNITCHIN’ T-shirts.
Despite all those stripes, though, Ennis couldn’t muster up a deadly medley.
“It’s crazy to think that some of the dudes I used to run with have sons who are making gangsta songs now,” says Ennis, a father of six girls. “Gangsta rap is a bunch of lyrics and wordplay, and I done fucked with them every way you can. How many times can I talk about popping off a gun? I’m 45. I have grown daughters who listen to my shit now. I have other things to worry about.”
Last year, Ennis nearly lost his Dorchester home to foreclosure after falling behind on mortgage payments. Starting around 2008, when the economy slipped, his apparel business hit a rough patch, and in 2009 he was forced to close the Antonio Ansaldi boutique on Washington Street after eight years at that location. At the same time, two tenants in his three-family home on Wheatland Avenue lost their jobs and were unable to pay rent.
As a result of being stuck, last year Ennis started working with City Life/Vida Urbana, a Jamaica Plain–based housing-rights group that’s as renowned for doing good as Ennis is for crime rhymes. With help from the organization — where he now works as a part-time outreach organizer when he’s not running his online clothing business — Ennis saved his house. But the experience of almost losing it taught him as much about adversity as did his former street trials.
So while Ennis couldn’t think of lyrics about drive-by shootings, he discovered a new source of inspiration. After bailing on his friend’s son, Ennis drove back to his own home studio and wrote “The Bank Attack” — his first of many songs about the most vicious enemy he’s ever faced.
“I’ll never kick no dandelion raps,” says Ennis, who’s in the process of mastering a 10-track album, tentatively titled The Bank Attack, about the ongoing foreclosure crisis. “But I will kick raps about shit that’s going on. Some dudes just don’t grow up. They think you have to be gangsta — killa, killa, killa to the end — and that you can’t change anything that’s wrong. I used to think the same thing. Now I know that’s not true.”
MEANS TO AN END
Ennis was 16 when a friend pulled up to his Wheatland Avenue stoop in a brand new Chevy Corsica. At the time Ennis was working at Charrette, an art-supply store in Woburn where he had worked his way up, starting in the ninth grade, from picker, to forklift operator, to assistant manager. He had some money saved, so when his buddy told him that he secured the Chevy with a measly $250 down payment, Ennis wasted no time. “The next day,” he says, “I went and got the red, red, red, red coupe.”
The gig at Charrette introduced Ennis to new and interesting frontiers. Not having traveled much outside of Dorchester, it was a chance to meet white friends and get drunk in the woods. But what he most loved was the financial freedom. Though raised in a middle-class home with a social-worker mom, a grandmother who was a nurse, and a handyman grandfather, Ennis — whose family came to Boston from Honduras in the ‘60s — was one of four children and did not have a father to provide. With his job, he was able to sport stylish clothes and a mint two-door.
After more than three years at Charrette, Ennis’s suburban lifeline got cut when, along with a number of other employees, he lost his job amidst a recession in the early ‘80s. Retail employment proved impossible to come by, and, with car payments mounting, Ennis became desperate to earn the kind of ends to which he’d grown accustomed. It was a no-brainer to ride along with his mother’s then-boyfriend, a Jamaican who owned a variety store on Lucerne Street and Woodrow Avenue.
“They sold shit like candy and chips, but what they really sold was weed,” says Ennis, revealing his frosty gold fronts as he grins at the memory. “I used to sit in there and sell it for him — little yellow manila envelopes with five or six joints’ worth of weed. I was already smoking since I was 11 years old, so it was nothing. But that was just the beginning. It was just a few months before I got into some real heavy shit.”
DOWN THE TOILET
Along with accomplices who also lived near the Four Corners neck of Dorchester, Ennis spent most of the ‘80s and ‘90s selling coke and partying. Their chief motivation was to make music, and by moving weight, they were able to press albums, tour in class, and shoot big-budget videos. Ennis’s rhymes were illicit from early on — reflecting a time when caricature Cadillac pimps ran the ‘hood — and soon enough, Ennis’s mic skills would get him as many props as his chromed-out Lincoln Mark IV. By the mid-’80s — after dropping out of Dorchester High and serving an 18-month bid for gun possession — his neighborhood crew, the Body Rock MCs, were winning battles all across the city.
“He’s always been the same guy — ever since he used to put together these wild routines for [Body Rock],” says Robert Minzie, who remains best friends with Ennis today. “Looking at the community stuff that he does now, and everything that he did with his clothing business, it’s obvious that he was a leader from way back then.”
Through mutual friends, Ennis eventually met Ray Scott, a/k/a Ray Dog, from Boston’s premier hip-hop franchise, the Almighty RSO. Ray was known for hard rhymes and his relentless power of persuasion, and in 1986 he convinced Ennis to leave Body Rock and switch teams. One of the group’s main hitters, Orange Man, was heading to jail on murder charges. Ennis, who was rapping as Emo-E, renamed himself the Mack Devil E-Devious, and joined RSO.
It would be five years before RSO and Ennis caught a big break from Tommy Boy Records, which signed the group to a deal in 1991. By that time, two RSO members had been killed, and most group affiliates were toting shotguns and slinging blow by the ounce. So it should have come as no surprise that RSO’s major-label debut single, “One in Da Chamba,” packed a violent message. Still, despite the plethora of gun rap on the radio at that time, “One in Da Chamba” — released soon after Ice-T’s controversial “Cop Killer” — gained the ire of, among others, the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association and conservative provocateur Oliver North. Within weeks of the blowback making headlines, Tommy Boy cut the group from its roster.
“It was like we watched everything we’d worked so hard for get flushed down the toilet,” says Ennis, “and that was just the beginning of the shit.” Soon after losing the Tommy Boy deal, RSO recorded an EP for RCA. But the group was also dropped from that imprint after members brutally beat two critics from The Source magazine — in which Ray Dog owned a large share — during a press junket at the label’s New York offices. The writers had thought it’d be a good idea to serve Ray legal papers, over a work dispute, in front of the media. RSO disagreed.
“After that, we were really blackballed,” says Ennis. “The worst part was that because of all the controversy, people weren’t giving us due for our music. But that was our heart, even though we were also in the streets in a major way. I had a daughter at that point. I had to make money any way I could.”
Ennis finally got some artistic validation in 1996, when the iconic Houston label Rap-A-Lot released his group’s first full-length album, Doomsday: Forever RSO. The album made the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart and is regarded as a Boston classic. For Ennis, though, real success in the rap world came as a designer, after he teamed with an unlikely partner, Brookline-based leather seamstress Roseanna Ansaldi, that same year. The two met through the downtown boutique High Voltage, where RSO regularly copped concert threads.
With Ansaldi stitching, Ennis quickly became the rap industry’s go-to guy for custom leather. The Lox wore his coats on the jacket of their breakout LP. DMX ordered canine outfits by the case for his beasts. Mimicking the Kevlar joints they rocked in public, Ennis — along with his first cousin and conceptual collaborator, T.A.N.G.G. the Juice — made a killing with a line of novelty bulletproof vests, as well as with a series of STOP SNITCHIN’ T-shirts that would later garner extraordinary popularity and controversy when America’s Most Wanted, among other outlets, implied they were being worn to intimidate witnesses at murder trials.
The fashion buzz came as Ennis re-entered the hip-hop scene. With RSO’s rep beyond repair, Ray — now rapping as Benzino — convinced the squad to change its name to Made Men. Ennis became Twice Thou, and in 2000 it looked like their marquee dreams had come true when the group scored a $475,000 deal with Interscope. Once again, though, the dark cloud hovered, and that year a series of unfortunate events spelled the final end for the unit after more than a decade in existence. In April, after opening for the Ruff Ryders at the Fleet Center, Ennis was stabbed three times backstage with what he believes was a security wand that someone had fashioned into a spear. Five months later, then-rising Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce was stabbed at a downtown nightclub where local rappers, including Ennis, were also partying. Ennis was never personally implicated in the crime, but the suspects — two of whom were eventually accused of assault — were known affiliates of Made Men.
“A whole bunch of things eventually convinced me to slowly leave the group,” says Ennis. “One was my 13-year-old daughter, sitting there on the side of my hospital bed while I had three punctures wounds and more than 30 stitches in the middle of my back. We’d also been investigated for all kinds of street shit. . . . I started to grow up around 1996, when I started Antonio Ansaldi. But when I left the group in 2000, that was when I saw the fork in the road.”
DAMN IT FEELS GOOD TO BE AN ACTIVIST
Ennis was watching a Celtics playoff game last April when a neighbor knocked on his door. The neighbor said he had seen Ennis’s Wheatland Avenue home listed for auction in the newspaper. Ennis had bought the property from his mom in 1999, but he’d fallen behind on his $2500 monthly payments, and hadn’t realized how bad things had gotten until now. The neighbor, also a troubled homeowner, said that City Life could help, and Ennis attended his first meeting the following week.
Ennis began to dabble in philanthropy around 2006, after a long and public spat with Boston Mayor Tom Menino over the STOP SNITCHIN’ line. At that time he founded the rap group and charity 4Peace with former rival Edo G, and, after one of his young store employees was murdered in a quadruple homicide at a Dorchester recording studio, Ennis had started working with local anti-violence hero Cindy Diggs on her “Start Peace” campaign. But City Life showed him a kind of activism that he’d never seen.
“My first time there I sat in the back and didn’t say anything,” says Ennis. “I had to learn more, so I went back the next week. The week after that they asked for volunteers, and I said that if I’m going to be in this fight, then I need to do more than just sit here in a chair. From that point I went out with them, and I saw a family get evicted, babies crying, and a grandmother have a heart attack right in the driveway. I’m not scared to say that tears ran down my eyes. It was some real shit, and it was the day when I knew that I had to really get involved.”
In the six months since, Ennis has occupied US Senator Scott Brown’s offices in Washington, and last September he manned the bullhorn for MassUniting’s massive march on Bank of America’s Federal Street offices. Now an outreach leader, earlier this week he led a protest against predatory lenders in downtown Boston. With more than 100 people in tow from groups including MassUniting and Occupy Boston — plus a visiting delegation from Occupy Wall Street — he stomped down Atlantic Avenue, guiding the horde in chants against Fannie Mae and JP Morgan Chase.
Like with his old rhyme routines, Ennis helped choreograph this past Monday’s action. To symbolize the millions of mortgages that are “underwater” due to predatory lending, protesters wore snorkels, while some bounced around the streets in wetsuits. Ennis guided the call-and-response number, but instead of a nautical outfit, was decked in an all–Antonio Ansaldi ensemble from his fitted hat, to his camouflage cargo pants, to his all-black parka. Like his gold fronts and charisma with the crowd, Ennis’s threads are reminders that while he may no longer sling drugs or gangsta raps, he’s still a badass dapper street dude who takes shit from no one.
“Coming from the image that he came from, it was a little harder for Antonio to come out of his shell than most people,” says Diggs. “With that said, I always knew that he had it in him to take his hardcore skill set and do something more valuable with it.”
Adds Ennis: “At first I was worried about people driving by and seeing me. But after a few times leading the pack, I said, ‘Fuck it — this is bigger than me.’ I don’t care if anybody finds it corny — right now this is what I feel like I was put here to do. These banks are some tough motherfuckers, and I know I have a voice that this movement needs.”