"I tried to call on the Lord, no minutes on my phone."
That line, one of the first on 83 Cutlass' self-titled debut mixtape (City Paper's pick for "Best Mixtape"), released late last year, sums up the whole thing, the story of a man so haunted by his plagued past that he can't seem to carve a way out, though he's vehemently trying.
83, aka Chad Dawson, grew up in Northeast Baltimore listening to his grandfather-a percussionist who specialized in Latin music-play music all day. When he wasn't with his granddad, he'd be at his great-grandmother's house on the next block, where Aretha Franklin would be playing while family and neighbors came over to play cards, smoke, and drink. Those early connections to music led him to start rapping in his preteens, although he's just starting to record and release music now, in his 30s. His debut album comes out in November.
"I recorded a lot of the first project by myself," he says during a wide-ranging conversation in which he touches on French rappers and people turning into zombies after absorbing scopolamine. "I enjoyed that raw quality to it. If you listen real close, in some songs you'll hear people screaming in the background. That's because I was recording at home and people were telling me to turn that shit down."
His methods may be quirky, but the industrial sounds in his mixtape fit into an increasingly popular trend within rap-using punk and noise aesthetics-that even Kanye West adopted for his latest album, Yeezus. And much like Kanye, 83 Cutlass leaves no mystery as to what's going on in his mind; a good chunk of the mixtape's content is a continuous confessional about his long struggle with drugs, how he wants to be a better father to his children, and how the hell he's gonna get to the next stage of his life. For one thing, he's convinced that conventional practices don't generate his best material.
"On the 'I Say' song, I told myself that I was gonna make a traditional rap song with a verse, hook, then another verse and a hook," he says, with a tinge of regret that makes it clear he wasn't happy with the result. "I somehow felt obligated to do that. I had to get it out of my system."
The new project won't follow any formulas whatsoever-a format with which he's more familiar. "I didn't know how to write bars until well after I started rapping," he tells me. "I started writing raps when I was around 11 or 12-the same age I started to smoke weed. They were way too long because I equated a verse with a full page of paper," he laughs. "So I had all these verses written, and when I started recording, I couldn't use any of them. I'm kinda going back to that. The new music I've recorded just goes long enough for me to get out what I need; once I say what I want to say, I end the song."
The biggest draw of 83's music is his transparency-a quality that's sadly nearing extinction in rap music as radio churns out hits with the same subject matter and a rotating roster of artists who recite them. The pain expressed in 83's music is more therapeutic than ruminative, as on "Grandmother's Basement": "My teenage years was never lived inside of my momma's home/ 15 years old in my grandmother basement/ Suicidal, a nigga went ape-shit/ Expressing myself with words and weird paintings/ If not for friends and drugs what coulda saved him?/ When I was all alone/ it seemed the walls was starting to cave in."
Ironically, Cutlass says his honesty comes from the freedom he had during his childhood.
"Luckily, my mother let me do whatever I wanted," he says. "I didn't get into trouble, but I was able to explore." At 14, 83 says that he was writing graffiti, rapping, and following the teachings of Dwight York-a controversial figure who started the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, which mixed UFO religion, Egyptology, and Black Supremacy. To put it plainly, his family thought he was insane. But to him, the privilege of being raised on an extended leash was not having to hide anything from his mom.
"I may have been the only person in my group of friends that could have people over to smoke and drink as a teenager," he says. "I never had to sneak and do things, so me being transparent and honest in my music is second nature. I'm not forcing anything, because I can only tell my own story. It's much easier that way."
More than anything, he says, the main goal for his new music is to push limits and to maintain conscious content while still sounding good. Being real-that most played-out but resilient cliche in the hip-hop playbook-is already covered.