And you do that through writing songs."
In a time when your average radio rap track has more advertisements for sneakers and pricey booze than a copy of GQ, TopR represents a more compelling side of the hip-hop spectrum: the storied tradition of rapper as traveling salesman, hawking CDs "out the trunk," or in his case, out the messenger bag, since, as he says on "Siren Song," "the Muni is my chariot." And while he often calls himself out as lazy in his songs, TopR's tale is a cross between the 1984 runaway-punk movie Suburbia and the classic Horatio Alger story.
A self-described "troubled kid," TopR left his parents' home in Santa Cruz at 15, living in squats and hitchhiking to San Francisco to hit open mics and do graffiti. He was arrested for vandalism, went back home, and left again, sleeping on couches if he was lucky and outside if he wasn't. He attributes his notoriety in the bar scene to necessity: "The fact that I was homeless I had to be in bars every goddamned night, looking for places to stay. I had nothing better to do."
Slumming, bumming, and battling eventually led to some Greyhound cross-country tours and a devoted following of party kids and misfits, unhappy with the status quo and, like him, struggling to get by. There's no shortage of the usual hip-hop bravado on Marathon: "I'm a piss artist who spits darkness at bitch targets," TopR raps on "Siren Song," "<0x2009>'cause the music that's honest is the music that hits hardest." True, but the track isn't merely empty braggadocio: it's nothing less than an existentialist crisis with a beat, one rapper's The Sickness unto Death, asking the eternal questions of the artist and, ultimately, everyone who's been "up against it."
And while it's the struggle and the willingness to cop to it that makes Marathon so compelling, it seems TopR might finally be on the bus toward Figuring It All Out. On a tour in 2005 he met his fiancée, Kelly-Anne, perhaps the muse of "Siren's Song," bartending at one of his shows in Asheville, NC. He stayed in the South for more than a year before getting an apartment, with a couch and a bed, in San Francisco's Sunset District. "I came up as 'the homeless kid who slept on couches,'<0x2009>" he explains. "But I was good at graffiti young, and I was a good rapper. I got away with a lot of stuff that some punk little kid wouldn't because people respected me for my talents or whatever. But I've mellowed out." Here Top takes a contemplative pull on his pint. "I mean, I'm fuckin' 30. I've got a dog now."
I'm going to do my part to go tell it on the mountain, to put this disc on when we're cruising down the street, to make sure you hear the hilarious lines and crucial cuts. But on the other hand, one reason why it's so good is because you ran into him in the bar and bought a disc so he could have beer money. TopR may have reached escape velocity from his day job, but he's still orbiting the homelessness of his recent past. The line that sums up TopR for me is from "I'm on One" on Cheap Laughs: "It doesn't take a genius to see that we're livin' stressful / The secret to my success is that I'm unsuccessful." It might be better for him if he got the juice to leave orbit altogether and rocket into the outer galaxies of hip-hop superstardom, but would it be better for his music if he weren't "livin' stressful?" Living hand to mouth myself, I'm heartened to see someone who keeps grindin', who tries to live a creative life in the face of SF-size rent, the approaching years, and a music industry that may never give a shit.