A few months ago, Boston hip-hop vet Marco Antonio Ennis stepped into a home studio in Dorchester to cut a verse for an old friend's teenage son. The young MC was trying to break into hardcore rap, and a verse from Ennis could help build that credibility. Having once belonged to the infamous Hub outfits Made Men and the Almighty RSO, Ennis has spit more murderous rhymes than most.
Beats got played, and everyone got writing. But after a half-hour, Ennis came clean: he couldn't conjure any relevant rhymes. With three decades in the game under his belt, he'd exhausted the shoot-'em-up rhetoric that earned him a rep as one of Boston's most dangerous artists. Despite grief from the guys in the studio, Ennis respectfully bounced, hopped in his weathered minivan, and rolled home.
It was an unusual case of writer's block for the 45-year-old. Since the late '70s, Ennis has been a high-profile roughneck rapper, famous for explicitly illustrating Boston's foulest gutters. Members of his crew have been shot and killed. He himself has been brutally stabbed, and once served state time on weapons charges. If those street credentials fall short, Ennis's urban fashion line, Antonio Ansaldi, attracted major controversy in the mid-2000's with a line of STOP SNITCHIN' T-shirts.
Despite all those stripes, though, Ennis couldn't muster up a deadly medley.
"It's crazy to think that some of the dudes I used to run with have sons who are making gangsta songs now," says Ennis, a father of six girls. "Gangsta rap is a bunch of lyrics and wordplay, and I done fucked with them every way you can. How many times can I talk about popping off a gun? I'm 45. I have grown daughters who listen to my shit now. I have other things to worry about."
Last year, Ennis nearly lost his Dorchester home to foreclosure after falling behind on mortgage payments. Starting around 2008, when the economy slipped, his apparel business hit a rough patch, and in 2009 he was forced to close the Antonio Ansaldi boutique on Washington Street after eight years at that location. At the same time, two tenants in his three-family home on Wheatland Avenue lost their jobs and were unable to pay rent.
As a result of being stuck, last year Ennis started working with City Life/Vida Urbana, a Jamaica Plain–based housing-rights group that's as renowned for doing good as Ennis is for crime rhymes. With help from the organization — where he now works as a part-time outreach organizer when he's not running his online clothing business — Ennis saved his house. But the experience of almost losing it taught him as much about adversity as did his former street trials.
So while Ennis couldn't think of lyrics about drive-by shootings, he discovered a new source of inspiration. After bailing on his friend's son, Ennis drove back to his own home studio and wrote "The Bank Attack" — his first of many songs about the most vicious enemy he's ever faced.
"I'll never kick no dandelion raps," says Ennis, who's in the process of mastering a 10-track album, tentatively titled The Bank Attack, about the ongoing foreclosure crisis. "But I will kick raps about shit that's going on. Some dudes just don't grow up. They think you have to be gangsta — killa, killa, killa to the end — and that you can't change anything that's wrong. I used to think the same thing. Now I know that's not true."