The Jedi Mind session is a hardcore rap fiend’s Mecca; even Jus Allah, the Camden MC who abandoned the group five years ago but recently returned, comes through to detonate. The only disappointment is that Vinnie’s producer, Stoupe, never shows up. I should have anticipated this since Stoupe doesn’t tour, avoids interviews, and is rarely photographed without bandannas wrapped around his face; but optimism cut my oxygen. The devilishly melodramatic symphonies ringing through the studio are absolutely his, but, as I’m told the routine goes, Stoupe records beats at home and sends them to the engineer. Over beers, Vinnie offers a glimpse into the background of his partner and one of hip-hop’s all-time most infamous recluses:
“Stoupe was robbing crack houses with AR-15s when I met him in high school. And then our friend Edwin got locked up for killing a Jamaican, and the Jamaicans retaliated in jail and killed him. I remember because it was in late ’93 and we were recording our demo when we saw it on the news. From that day I never saw Stoupe talk about or be involved in another crime again.”
Vinnie’s own rap sheet may be lightweight, but that doesn’t mean he should be regarded lightly. Fans wouldn’t know this, since he doesn’t smile in public, but he’s missing several front teeth. I take it as a reminder, whether deliberate or not, that, despite being one of hip-hop’s top selling independent artists, the Jedi Mind frontman still slugs Jameson at dive bars and hangs his gat on the blue-collar block where he came up. Vinnie gets respect at every turn; from the moment he steps in the lab clutching his thick spiral rhyme book and a 40-ounce St. Ides, his squad waits anxiously for him to slay Stoupe’s latest opus. When he’s done, they throw pounds and applaud his savage hysterics.
After the studio, we roll to Ray’s “Happy Birthday” Bar in South Philly. The throwback Depression-era spot is directly next to Geno’s Steaks — the neon-lit red meat attraction made famous by Boys II Men’s “Motownphilly” video. Ray’s is remarkably authentic, and as a result of liberal late-night smoking policies, I’m actually able to buy butts (from a working machine, no less) and light up inside while the bartender pours rounds well past closing time. Miramax couldn’t clone this place with a million-dollar budget and a team of CGI wizards; it’s the ideal nook for Vinnie, who grew up just blocks away, to school me on the Philly rap scene as he witnessed it.
As an Italian dude with a mob-boss physique who limped around town in camo vests and work boots, Vinnie never fit molds carved by white New York acts like Beastie Boys and 3rd Bass. “The Roots used to be called the Square Roots, and me and my cousin Frank knew them back then. Black Thought and Malik B used to see me around, and they couldn’t believe that it was even possible for an Italian kid to rhyme like me. There was nothing else like me in Philly, so there were always two types of reactions: either I was unwanted, or it was unheard of.”