My ex-girlfriend hipped me to TopR, short for Top Ramen, around 2003. We were driving in her car, and she cracked open the newly released Burning the Candle at Both Ends (Earthlings/DWA) and slid it into the dash. I'd like to say it changed my life, but to be honest, I can't remember it. I do remember that she described TopR as this homeless, couch-surfing rapper who'd slept on her previous boyfriend's couch. It was classic case of his reputation and lifestyle preceding his music.
Later I met TopR or Topper Holiday, as he's ceased using his first name at 111 Minna Gallery, where I still work a side gig as a doorman. Throughout my years there he's been a semiregular fixture, posted at the end of the bar, skeezing free drinks. He's well loved but has this Dennis the Menace air surrounding him, like, "Oh, Topper's here. Here comes trouble." One night in Minna alley, I remember him a big, bescruffed white dude in a fitted New Era cap, somewhat rotund and more than a little faded striking up a conversation with some bland, buttoned-down types, telling them he was a rapper and following up with a drunken freestyle. I came away feeling that it was a little sad, like he was busking in a BART station, trying to impress the squares.
"Fuck being glamorous I'm cantankerous." So goes the first line on "Frankenstein's Topster," the opener off his latest, fifth album, Marathon of Shame (Gurp City). It was playing when I walked into Dalva on 16th Street to say hello to my friend Toph One and reintroduce myself to TopR. And quite a reintroduction it was: even before Top starts rapping, the track is a fucking winner, anchored by a sample of Black Sabbath's "A National Acrobat," the driving guitar riff married to an überfunky drumbeat by producer Dick Nasty.
A good hip-hop album is like a good comedy record: the shit's got to be so sharp that you want to listen to it more than once, want to scan back on the CD and point out lines to your friends who are riding with you. In Top's case it's an apt comparison since he's influenced by stand-up comedians as much as by other rappers and samples Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks on his previous disc, Cheap Laughs for Dead Comedians (Gurp City, 2006). Marathon is packed with lines that'll make other rappers wish they'd written them, from favorite one-liners like "Puttin' squares in their place like Tetris" to heartfelt couplets such as "I don't want to fit into this banality factory / Where together we can all make profit from tragedy."
It stands to reason that TopR can come up with witty rhymes: he's been rapping since he was 12. Now 30, he gained his rep as a battle rapper at parties and clubs. "From '93 until 2000 all I did was battle," he says over a pint at the Richmond District's 540 Club. "I didn't record music. I didn't put out anything. I just made a reputation for myself through battling. If I was putting out albums in '95, '96, I might've been an actual artist like Living Legends, Atmosphere, and Hieroglyphics. You can only be a battle rapper for so long. After a while there's not very much creative outlet for it. You can only make fun of someone for so long before you actually want to express your real problems and your real feelings about life.