Periscope Depth

I'm a leader at last, this a don you with

Clayton Bigsby: Hey, niggers! Turn that jungle music down! Woogie boogie, nigger! Woogie boogie!
Hip-Hop Fan: Did he just call us niggers?… AWESOME!

- Chappelle’s Show

“Ol’ Dirty Bastard, ‘Gimme My Money,’” I asked, covering the mic with one hand.

DJ Paul, who runs the karaoke at Asgard on Wednesdays, has the most extensive selection of any karaoke-jockey I’ve ever seen. I rarely have to check the book anymore; I just ask him for a song. I’ve been going there for well over a year at this point.

Paul shrugged. “I don’t have it. What’s your backup?”

Ten seconds later, the loop from Sugar Hill Gang’s “Apache,” stretched and down-pitched, blasted over the speakers. “I hope all of you like Nas,” I told the crowd (largely friends), “because that’s what I’m fuckin’ doing.” I pounded the shot of Canadian Club I’d just purchased and took off.

Now let’s get it all in perspective,
For all y’all enjoyment, a song you can step with
Y’all appointed me to bring rap justice
But this ain’t 5-0, y’all know it’s Nas, yo …

I struggled a bit with the last drops of whiskey for the first verse but picked up some horsepower. Even folks who didn’t recognize the song – or know it as well as I did, wandering into the crowd with my back to the screen – bobbed their heads in time.

At about this point (and here I rely on other witnesses), a guy in his 20s walking by the Asgard’s open window stopped and stared open-mouthed. He had a knee-length T-shirt and a Celtics cap with a flat brim and the sticker still on it. Leaning through the window, he stopped his girlfriend with a hand on her elbow and pointed.

They shootin’! Aw, I made you look
You a slave to a page in my rhyme book
Gettin’ big money, playboy, your time’s up
Where them gangstas? Where them dimes at?

By the time the final verse rolled around, I’d loosened up fully and fit into the flow. I still hadn’t turned my head three feet to the right and seen the conversation transpiring just outside the bar, of course; that might have thrown me a bit.

“Made You Look” ends with Nas freestyling after the track shuts off, which the karaoke prompter doesn’t always transcribe. So you have to really know it and really sell it in order to cap the song well.

And I like a little sassiness, a lotta class
Mami reach in your bag, pass the fifth
I’m a leader at last, this a don you with
My nines’ll spit, niggas lose consciousness

The audience applauded, I handed the mic back. The whiskey swam in my head with an earlier Guinness, giving everything the arm’s length distance of a plausible dream. That was the end of it, I thought.

The young guy with the baggy shirt had now leaned halfway through the window and beckoned DJ Paul and I over. Confused, I followed.

“Yo, that was tight, man,” he said, clasping my hand and snapping off it. “That shit was all right. But I hear that coming out the windows, you got me wound up. Now I’ve got to get on that mic.”

“All right, man,” I said. “Go for it.” I’m used to people making exorbitant promises on karaoke night; you expect that sort of thing. What I didn’t expect was for the man to lope in through the front of the bar ten seconds later and make his way right to the back.

“Yo, rewind that,” he said. “Gimme that same track again.”

And this complete stranger proceeded to rap two tracks of his own devising off the top of his head while a dazed Cambridge audience – composed entirely of white people and Filipinos, I should add – watched and applauded. “I just wrote this one a couple days ago,” he said, between sets. “Still working it out.”

Having absolutely ripped it, he returned the mic to DJ Paul – and to thunderous cheers – and headed out. “Which one of you’s taller?” Paul asked of the two of us.

“How tall are you?” the rapper – whose name we’d since learned was Blacklight – shouted across the bar.

“Six five and a bit,” I said.

“Six four,” he said, with a shrug.

“So you won that contest, at least,” Paul said.

Looking back on the whole thing, I would think the whole thing was a dream if I didn’t have twenty close friends as witnesses. The whole affair had that shifting vagueness conferred by a pleasant buzz to begin with. But the situation on its face – some stranger off the street says I’m rapping all right, but comes in and takes the mic for two tracks of his own, and the DJ says it’s okay because I’m taller than he is – barely seemed real.

I got into economics because I love situations where two strangers can meet and trade and both walk away profiting. He got to work the mic in front of a crowd and show up a stranger. And I was considered worthy enough to be rapped against by a hungry pro at the game. A win on both sides.

I’m still not sure I believe it happened.

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