The words rattle like Uzi bullets, crisp syllables snapping and tumbling out, fast and clean, zipping through two, three, even four bars. The inhales must wait. Sometimes it seems like rapping comes as easy as breathing to Erik Bothazy.
They call him P.R.E.A.C.H., and his flow is sick. He is 26, unsigned and grinds out nine-to-fives at a New Balance store. Yet his name brings incredulous grins to the faces of hip-hop heads across St. Louis.
Usually the first thing people mention when they talk about P.R.E.A.C.H. is that he is Romanian. He was born there, and his family moved here when he was six. But it is his talent for fast rapping that has most defined his identity as an artist, that has established him as a torchbearer for a dying breed, keeping alive the tradition of the Midwest chopper.
"'Cause I'll be damned if they ever try to stop me in the midst of making money and taking my city to a higher level of flowetry bringing nothing but the poetry so you can notice me all day," he raps in a breathless four bars on the third verse of "Raise Up."
Each of P.R.E.A.C.H.'s lines are precise, clear and tight, like a drum roll. He often nails a syllable to each note, as if he were racing the hi-hat to the end of the verse. Then he'll downshift into half-speed for a couple of bars before exploding into another flurry.
The chopper flow has been the Midwest's indelible stamp on hip-hop. Through the '90s acts such as Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Twista, Do or Die and Tech N9ne (who coined the term "Midwest chopper") pulled the region onto the national stage with their mesmerizing high-speed staccato verses. Nowadays, the style is less common. Perhaps that is because top tier names like Kanye West and Nelly shifted the region's musical direction. Perhaps it is because tastes change as a generation passes. Or perhaps it's because choppin' is such an imposing craft to master.
Listening to a quality fast rapper is like watching Dominique Wilkins dunk a basketball: Part of the appeal lies in the sheer implausibility of the task, in appreciating the beauty of a man doing something that seems to go beyond the bounds of nature. For the rest of us short-breathed stammerers, human tongues and lungs aren't built to withstand these lyrical barrages.
"I feel that God gave me a niche that many people couldn't even achieve in a lifetime," P.R.E.A.C.H. says. "I humbly say that I was given a true gift, and I would be crazy not to notice that gift. I feel like not a lot of people can do it, but it was embedded in me for a reason."
It is unclear if one must be born with the gift or if one can acquire it through relentless drilling. P.R.E.A.C.H. isn't sure how he learned how to rap fast. He suspects he picked up the vocal flexibility thanks to a trilingual childhood — he speaks Romanian, Hungarian and English. The skills were then developed as he listened to, rapped along with and inevitably memorized heaps of Bone Thugs songs soon after arriving in the states.
The family — mother, father, older sister and P.R.E.A.C.H. — left Romania in September 1991.
"We came over here with two suitcases and $200 in my parents' pockets," he says. "We came over here dirt poor and with a dream."
His father, who grew up during the Nicolae Ceausescu communist dictatorship, had long wished to come to America, waiting fourteen years for his visa. P.R.E.A.C.H. doesn't remember much about the trip, but he does remember being amazed when he first saw the airplane.
"What is this a bird made of metal with wings that flies?/747 Boeing stood in front of my eyes/I looked behind my shoulder once more but kept going/Hours later I was half way across the ocean," he raps in "The Transition (Melting Pot)": "The luggages were claimed, the passports were stamped/The look on my parents' face was priceless, I'll be damned/ My father's dream came true."
They settled in south city. Six-year-old P.R.E.A.C.H. didn't speak English, so he started off in English as a second language classes. A couple of years later, his sister introduced him to Bone Thugs. The first time he popped in Creepin on ah Come Up, the rhythms and lyricism of hip-hop hooked him. And the more he listened to hip-hop, the better he grasped his new language. By the time he turned fourteen, he was writing songs and recording tapes.
His father worked in a factory, his mother in nursing. The working-class upbringing and the rocky path to assimilation shaped his worldview, chiseled a deep empathy toward the plight of all those standing near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.
"What inspires my writing mostly is everyday life, man. Everyday people's struggles. People's day-by-day experiences," he says. "Reality. The things that go on in this world that people don't touch on really. We are human. We can never lose sense that we are simple people, with such power at our fingertips."
A theme of maintaining hope through social injustice and personal strife strings through much of his music, like "The H.U.R.T." and "Real Talk," whose hook begins, "I'm the voice of the people, spokesperson to the streets." His name, after all, is an acronym for "peacefully respect everyone amongst continuous hate."
"So many struggle while breaking their back and working that nine to five/So many of my brothers and sisters are forced into a life of crime/ Little Michael has been on his own ever since the age of nine/'Cause both his parents are smoking crack rock with no reply," he raps in "S.A.I.N.T.S."
P.R.E.A.C.H. hasn't yet reached the point in his career where he can live off his music. He's pushing closer. He has independently released two albums, Expect the Unexpected in 2007 and Dark Religion: Chronicles of the NoKturnal in 2010. He performed at 80 shows over the past year. He has collaborated with Tech N9ne. Fans recognize him at gas stations and grocery stores.
But P.R.E.A.C.H. is a man infatuated with the art of the craft. On a recent evening, he sat on a Starbucks couch and talked hip-hop with the twentysomething next to him. The twentysomething asked him if he could freestyle as fast as he can rap written verse. He jumped right into it.
"Man I'm sitting under this lamp, while I'm drinking on this tea..."
As he picked up speed, his hands bounced higher, his eyes widened, and his voice grew louder. He ended after four sharp bars and cracked a smile. Then he turned around to face a man sitting at the table behind him staring at a laptop screen.
"Brother, I'm not being too loud, am I?"
"Oh no, not at all, go for it," replied the man with the laptop.
P.R.E.A.C.H. wasn't aware that the man had been listening closely, with raised eyebrows, clearly astounded by the spectacle.