Antoine is nervous.
Thirty minutes until lights-camera-action and the butterflies are mosh-pitting in the hollow void of his stomach. In the real world, the artist known as Madgesdiq is as laid back as Mr. Rogers on horse tranquilizers. On stage, he exudes quiet confidence. It's the waiting that's torture.
Then again, 30 minutes is nothing next to 30 years of spelunking the depths of his soul for a true calling. Madgesdiq is the reincarnation of Antoine Stoudamire, the scion of the second-generation Portland basketball dynasty that produced embattled Blazer Damon and rising Arizona Wildcat Salim. Stoudamires sling Spaldings, not lyrics. Antoine's future in the NBA was preordained, long before he headed to Georgetown or even set foot on Jesuit's hardwood.
What's in a name? Try blessings, returned phone calls and open doors. The flip side: curses, stupid questions, wrong assumptions and suffocating expectations of shouldering the legacy.
True to his roots, Stoudamire chased the roundball around the globe, but his hoop dreams careened off destiny's autobahn and became a gnarled 20-car pileup. It's understandable then that his nerves might splinter when he's rising from the ashes to save himself and, just incidentally, hip-hop's soul. No coincidence, he titled his November '02 debut The Rebirth.
Tonight, Corvallis' Fox & Firkin is the site of the latest insurrection of his resurrection. Nice place. A cozy pub with lights low and pints aloft. The Wall Street Journal is pinned above the urinal. The vibe is strictly poetry-night: flickering candles, orbiting disco ball, small crowd heavy on Gloria Steinem groupies.
A pint-glass graveyard litters the tables with carcasses of spent suds, leavings of those who came for the emotive, burn-the-B-cups and damn-the-Schicks shticks of opening acts Kid Quiz and Orangestick. The leftovers form a chattering chorus on the patio as they score a nicotine fix in the arctic night.
Madgesdiq stands and gives the microphone a "test, one, two" to lure the fragmented audience back to the stage. He still has the wiry 6-foot-3-inch frame of an athlete with a feathery jump shot and negative body fat, but his transformation from a groomed guard to a vagabond of verse is complete. The born-again 31-year-old gazes at the room, looking like Bob Marley's ghost with his glazed eyes and twisted nest of black dreads. He salutes the crowd, nods at the DJ and brings the mic to his lips.
I'm music-driven/ Hip-hop's the reason that I'm livin'/ Love it or leave it, kid, your decision/ Me myself gave it a life commitment/ In the new millennium/ Hip-hop the new religion. ("The New Religion")
Madgesdiq was conceived long before The Rebirth. Stoudamire forged his hip-hop identity back in the day of ghetto blasters, Puma sweats and Adidas sans laces. In his youth afternoons in North Portland were spent on the corner with his boys, freestyling, break-dancing, shooting dice and playing hoop.
"Cats was poppin', breakin' and rhymin' all the time, calling girls, playing ball, just messing around with your friends after school," Stoudamire recalls. "We didn't have a lot, but my mom broke her neck to give us everything we did have, and it was enough."
A typical day consisted of Antoine, his cousin Damon and their best friend Erin Cowan playing Ping-Pong at Antoine's house or hooping at nearby Peninsula Park. Inevitably, somebody would call out for Antoine to lay down a soundtrack to the festivities.
"We'd be playing pong or whatever and 'Toine would freestyle for us," Cowan recalls. "He was always laying down the dopest rhymes. We all had basketball skills, but he always had skills as an MC, too."
Yes, there was the basketball pedigree. It started with Antoine's father, Charles, and uncle Willie (Damon's dad), who tag-teamed opponents at Washington High and Portland State University during the Chucks-and-'fros era. The next generation spawned top-shelf talent that included Damon, Antoine, and his younger brother, Salim, a sophomore at the University of Arizona.
Hoops heritage or not, Antoine's mother, Reba, made sure her son didn't coast in the classroom: Holy Redeemer School, uniforms and the whole nine, then Jesuit. In high school, Stoudamire and his cousin Amil Bowles volleyed rhymes while waiting for their TriMet chariot across town. Inevitably, Antoine's high-altitude aptitude on the court, not his poetic prowess, garnered attention, but the two were intertwined.
"Hip-hop and basketball sprouted from concrete," Bowles says. "Growing up in an urban environment, they're just two prongs on the same fork."
Hoop earned Stoudamire a ride to Georgetown, where he contributed as a freshman on a team featuring Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. But viral meningitis and homesickness were major factors in derailing his Hoya career, and he transferred to the University of Oregon. He studied for his NBA with the lame Ducks of the early '90s, but was passed over on draft day and had to settle for a sociology BS. The Blazers invited him to camp in 1993, then cut him.
Stoudamire's b-ball career went on life support after that, as he played stints with professional teams in Brazil, Cyprus and Malaysia. Los Angeles summer leagues rife with pro talent and pro egos followed, then traveling teams like High Five America, the last-gasp orphanage for athletes with solid skills but nowhere to hang their sneakers. Stoudamire had the ability but lacked the conviction needed to grind out an athletic existence. In his mid-20s, his hoops career went Hindenburg and his passion disintegrated along with his NBA dream. He finally pulled the plug and walked away during halftime of a 1998 summer-league game.
"Mentally, I was done," Stoudamire says. "I just said, 'Fuck it.' I didn't want to play basketball anymore."
As his basketball world circled the drain, Stoudamire eased the torment by spending hours listening to everything from Ben Harper to Bjork, poring over his problems and pouring out his thoughts and emotions on any napkin, receipt or scrap of paper within reach.
"When you've been chasing the same dream for so long, it's hard to let go," Stoudamire says. "I needed to release my anger and frustration, and I was able to ventilate that tension through writing. That was my catharsis."
Through writing I find peace/ Avatar born to speak/ Industry gives me the creeps/ Freedom of speech used to teach/ Happiness is all I seek/ You and me, same underneath. ("The Avatar")
Stoudamire went Kerouac--reading, writing and rhyming his way to Atlanta. For six months, he stayed in ratty motels and absorbed the Dirty South sound with his cousin Amil, who was beginning his own hip-hop career in the ATL as Mr. Bowlz. Stoudamire also made sojourns to Toronto, where he had lived with Cowan and Damon for weeks and months at a time during Damon's tenure as a Toronto Raptor. As he interrogated Rand and McNally, Stoudamire watched intently as hip-hop regurgitated assembly-line tales of bumpin' Escalades and bikini-babe escapades.
"Hip-hop is about lyrics, substance and the elevation of mind, not this bling bling MTV shit," he says. "It's straight-up Xerox with the same thing every time. With each copy the quality fades, and by the time you get to the 25th cat who sounds the same, the shit is wack."
Stoudamire decided to return to Portland in 1999 and pick up a microphone instead of a ball. Many people reacted to the decision as if he'd volunteered to test a new Ebola strain.
"I caught a lot of negative heat," he says. "My family is all about sports. For me to break off from that was a real shock to a lot of people, but at some point you just have to follow your heart."
The decision to shed the basketball albatross from his neck was a personal emancipation proclamation. Any subsequent doubts of life in lyrical liberty evaporated while he watched his trailblazing cousin struggle to stay afloat as a huge fish in his hometown aquarium after two marijuana busts and relegation to the bench.
"Athletes live in a box," Antoine Stoudamire says. "Everyone analyzes everything you do and any mistakes are on Page 1 the next day. It's tremendous freedom to be able to speak what you feel, think what you feel and put it on paper to share with the world."
Vow with this second chance/ To drop words that will enhance. ("The Rebirth")
Freedom, however, isn't free--a point that is driven home as Stoudamire pulls new CDs sheathed in impenetrable plastic wrap from a cardboard box and sets them on a counter at the Music Millennium on Northwest 23rd Avenue. The price of his emancipation is working at a record store for slightly north of the minimum wage. An NBA player may lose some independence, but the landfill of cash from an NBA contract means he doesn't have to inventory 'N Sync to keep the Visa hounds at bay.
A few early risers are pawing through the store's selection as Stoudamire and his coworkers sort the latest arrivals. Every day is causal Friday at an independent record store, which suits Stoudamire just fine. He's wearing baggy patchwork pants, a beaded necklace and a yellow Adidas T-shirt over a white sweatshirt. He peers calmly at the morning world through brown Buddy Holly glasses, his tangle of Medusa locks hidden beneath a wool hat.
The store's top 30 sellers line a few shelves on the back wall. At the bottom, right after the latest efforts from Blackalicious and the Foo Fighters, sits the 30th best-selling album. Careful inspection of the graffiti-art adorning the cover reveals the title: The Rebirth by somebody named Madgesdiq.
It was back in 1999 that Stoudamire discovered that Salim had a friend dabbling with hip-hop production. Ben Braun taught himself beatcraft with a drum machine, emulating Jay Dee of Slum Village, DJ Premier, Alchemist and Dr. Dre. The son of Hall & Oates drummer Michael Braun, Ben activated his musical genes to compose rough tracks with which Stoudamire could freestyle rhymes. As the pair lobbed lyrics and instrumentals in the basement of the Braun home, their subterranean jam sessions began to evolve.
"It was almost unconscious," Braun says. "There was just something there where I'd make a beat and he'd make a rhyme, and it would just flow."
Now known as Speechless, the 20-year-old Braun became the brains behind The Rebirth's production, sifting through old vinyl for samples to wrap around Stoudamire's molasses rhymes and recruiting outside musicians, including his father, to add an instrumental edge to the album.
"It's like peanut butter and jelly--it works that well," Stoudamire says of the collaboration. "We just create a vibe together that's bumping."
With help from area vets like Shinez and Jumbo from Lifesavas, the pair began the painstaking process of piecing together their first album. Stoudamire also began road-testing his rhymes. He soon discovered that nervousness in the basketball spotlight couldn't compare to the nauseating tornado of anxiety and anticipation that churned within him as he waited before every show to bury his basketball burden and prove his mettle on the mic.
"You may have 20,000 fans screaming at you in a basketball game, but there's nine other people who are on the court with you," he says. "As a musician, you have a crowd of people with their eyes completely fixed on just you. It's an amazing feeling when people are concentrating on your art, but you either have to bring it or get the hell off the stage."
Madgesdiq continued to bring his art to the half-empty bars in no-horse towns and the claustrophobic clubs in the cities while he and Braun created their own label, Highbrow Enterprises, and put the polish on their album. After almost three years, The Rebirth was finally born.
The Rebirth is a solid, even outstanding debut, and Stoudamire's maturation on the mic reads like a growth chart across the album's 19 tracks. His smooth soliloquies remain consistent, but his material ranges from cover-girl fantasies in "Dreamz Meet Reality" to exploring the labyrinths of race and poverty in "Soul Saver."
The transition from the first half of the album to the second marks Stoudamire's evolution from Mr. BragArt, a flow-flaunting showman philosophizing on women and weed, to Madgesdiq, the melodic orator rhyming about Malcolm X and Leonard Peltier.
Rhymes, I got plenty/ Stay blazing, 4:20/ This is for you blunt-smokers, bong-hitters and joint-rollers/ Lovers of the dodja/ Light your pipes/ Highbrow gonna get you high tonight. ("4:20")
This world's in a state of chaos/ Sleepwalkers being exploited for them large payoffs/ Victims of the system lost/ So our future pays the cost/ Knowledge, wisdom, understanding/ Conquers information false. ("Soul Saver")
The metamorphosis didn't happen overnight. Stoudamire has always had what Jesuit English teacher Dick Hazel calls a "native intelligence," but it wasn't until he shucked the blinders of basketball tunnel-vision that his social awareness and lyrical consciousness really began to blossom.
In a quest to steer hip-hop back to its roots, Stoudamire "found himself," says Cowan. "When he first started doing this for real, he was more concerned with the physical and with negativity toward what other people were doing. Now, he's prioritized his life, and he knows who he is and what he wants. Mentally, he's on point."
The kid who was supposed to join his cousin in the NBA is now a man who uses music as an outlet for his frustrations and observations. With his arsenal of literary lyricism, Portland's other Stoudamire is able to fashion a smart and smooth sociopolitical sound that seems a natural fit for the land of the truth-seeking, tree-hugging latte liberals.
"The reason people felt Kurt Cobain is because he came from the heart," Stoudamire says. "Cats like Cobain and Bob Dylan made statements. You bring in Tupac and you have artists who put heart and soul into their music. I'm trying to do the same thing."
Some of Stoudamire's more thought-provoking work hasn't even made it from the stage to the studio yet, but elements of his live performances already reflect a further progression from The Rebirth, which was completed in late 2001. He has begun to dip into social causes like they were dime sacks, and though his taste for herb could inspire wise investors to gobble Visine stocks, he lacks nothing in the ambition department.
"He's doing a good job representing himself and his sound," says Terrance Scott, the nom de reality of veteran Portland MC Cool Nutz. "Antoine is just getting his foot into the game, but he's farther ahead than a lot of people."
He's ahead of the game for several reasons, among them: 1) he's got skills, 2) he's Antoine Stoudamire, and 3) he's Antoine Stoudamire.
"We do have a bit of an upper hand," Braun admits. "His last name helps us have an extra step in the door, and my family is intertwined in the music community. So we have more leverage than someone starting with nothing."
No question, the Stoudamire name opens a few doors locally, but that doesn't mean Highbrow Enterprises is sucking from a golden bong. Damon has provided some quiet support; other Blazers, such as Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells, are reported to own copies of The Rebirth. But the story of Antoine Stoudamire's reinvention is noticeably short on silver spoons. In fact, records show at least two creditors have taken him to small-claims court.
Madgesdiq has been performing from Portland to Pendleton since his stage debut at Berbati's during Poh-Hop '99, but he still does most shows for free. A small promotional campaign eats up a month's salary from the record store. The tour bus is a rented minivan. Fifty bucks earns 60 minutes in the studio, and Highbrow has to scramble to cover the price tag.
"This shit is expensive, and neither of us is sitting on a pile of money," Stoudamire says. "We get some help, but Ben's a student and I work at Music Millennium. That gives us limited resources to do our thing."
Though a contract with an established label would expand his audience, Stoudamire is wary of corporate control in a business far more concerned with bottom lines than lofty rhymes.
"If you fall into the trap of making what the industry wants to sell, you're gone when the next trend comes along," he says. "People who keep it real, keep it authentic, they leave when they want to leave."
Art form dying/ Cause: dollars and cents, ignorance/ Revoke your deals, you lack skill/ Carpe diem/ Heads starve, so I feed 'em/ Expand cerebrums, teach 'em--main priority/ After death, fuck it, maybe purgatory. ("The Avatar")
Regardless of his commercial future--and the sell-out/buy-in dilemmas it may or may not pose--Stoudamire has survived the plague that afflicts young men from Killingsworth to Kansas who spend life pining for what might have been had fate not interjected on their talent. His resurrection is at hand.
"This hip-hop thing, it saved me," he says. "I have a long ways to go, but our potential is unlimited. We haven't even begun to do what we're going to do."
At the Fox & Firkin, Madgesdiq prophesies an audio apocalypse like Nostradamus from the block. Hip-hop's plight hardly has patrons quaking in their Birkenstocks as the buzz of distracted conversation hums over the thumping beats. But the man plays on. More people trickle in, and by the time Madgesdiq launches into the Mary Jane opus "4:20," there's a shallow sea of bobbing heads.
Stage left, a martini-marinated man and woman lurch in a series of awkward motions the generous might call "dancing." Everyone is vibing. The audience howls for an encore. Madgesdiq delivers. The Feminine Mystique posse and a handful of townies become happy converts. Madgesdiq finishes, shouts "Peace!" and sets the microphone down.
Show's over. And so is the wait.
I dead and buried all my hoop dreams/ That's one door closed, another open. ("The Rebirth")
The cover of
features a drawing of Ganesh, the four- armed Hindu god. In his hands, Ganesh holds a microphone, marijuana leaf, hourglass and musical note.
Stoudamire gives a shoutout to Dick Hazel, his English teacher at Jesuit High School, in the opening lines of
's title track.
Stoudamire's cousin Amil Bowles and Braun's father, Michael, both make guest appearances on
. As Mr. Bowlz, Amil raps with Madgesdiq on "Highbrow (Anthem)" and "Knuckleheads," while the senior Braun provides drums on "Forbidden" and percussion on "Soul Saver."
Long before Stoudamire and Ben Braun became Madgesdiq and Speechless, the MC first met his producer when he dated Braun's babysitter.
Stoudamire names Mos Def, the Roots, Outkast, Common, Wu- Tang Clan and Gang Starr among the contemporary hip-hop acts that make the rotation in his disc player.
Damon's not alone: Antoine Stoudamire admits on
that he, too, toked the bubonic chronic during his basketball days.