Who Is This Man?
It was a casual recording at Hi-Def Studios in Manhattan, no more auspicious than the hundred others occuring that summer night in Brooklyn, Atlanta, Detroit, or Los Angeles: just some more local ghetto heroes trying to become stars. The last of five MCs had finished laying his verses for a New Jersey underground mixtape and even though it was nearly 4 a.m. loud music and adrenaline still filled the air.
“The track was up, the beat was banging,” recalls promoter Ramón Eisley, who had been hanging there with friends. “Then Petey said, ‘Yo, let my man hit one.’”
Engineer Petey Kimble nodded towards a tall, slim guy in a navy hoodie who was hanging back by a table strewn with take-out cardboard and styrofoam. Most had assumed he was the pizza delivery guy. One or two knew him as Kimble’s cousin, just back from a long hospital stay and not looking so good. “I figured it was amateur night at the Apollo,’ says Eisley. “I started packing up my shit.”
But as the track played on, the quiet, heavy-lidded guy walked up to the mike stand. Hands in hoodie pockets, he closed his eyes, started nodding along. After another bar or two, he dipped with in with a few “check-it”s then droped the now infamous opener: “A city undead by the Delaware bred the basis/Put fear in the faces…”
Rapping about his hometown of Camden, New Jersey (perched miserably across the Delaware River from Philadelphia) the bouncing, unforgettable basso of the man now known as Swayze continued unspooling tightly interlocking, ferociously inventive rhymes — chorus after chorus of them, each line packed with a spring-loaded punchline or jaw-dropping insight – as they charted twin narratives of one city’s decline and an Ubermensch’s rise, simultaneously, without anyone in the room realizing what was happening until the verse was nearly over. It ended with the cliffhanging refrain: “bear witness, scared shitless.” In six months, the song would join Prodigy’s “Apostle’s Warning,” Rakim’s “Follow the Leader,” GZA’s “Beneath the Surface” and other landmarks as one of the best hip-hop verses of all time.
“When he finisehd, the track kept playing for a while,” Eisley says. “Everyone sat their with their mouths open. Like “the dude from Domino’s did that?”
In a flash, the name Swayze was on the streets. His deep, rubbery-sounding rap verse, released as “Bang,” appeared on the New Jersey-based mixtape Prajex, then went airborne. Hip-hop tastemakers competed online to throw the grandest praise, declaring him “an improbable, almost unreasonable talent” who, “like Jay-Z or 50 Cent, could carry the whole East Coast on its back (Hardly Art, Hardly Garbage).
In December, Camden’s Agripina nightclub booked a showcase for Swazye, filling the place with VIPS and starting a lie that went down West Street. I waited with everyon else until 4 a.m., when the club finally shut down: Swayze was a no-show. A meet-and-greet was scheduled the following week at Cue Recrds on South 4th Street in Philly. Another long line amassed, jammed hoodie-to-hoodie with hip-hop heads, A&R executives, Camden hard-knocks. Again, the man of the hour failed to turn up, failed to even phone in an excuse.
Swayze seems to prefer unannounced live appearances. In January he jumped onstage with Jersey rapper Joe Budden at B.B. King’s in Times Square –- the crowd becoming a moshpit at the first sound of his voice. A few weeks later he came out right before Papoose at SOB’s in Manhattan. GOD SHOWED HIMSELF TO MAN!!!” raved an entry on billmatic.net, which included a shakey video of Swayze – thin, goateed, in a navy watch cap and New Jersey Devils sweatshirt.
No one would put up with such erratic behavior if they weren’t convinced of Swayze’s talent. “You hear one verse and you know he’s a real street nigga,” says Ghostface Killah. “Anyone can rhyme about crack and chicks, but this guy, he uses his brain.”
With just one track on his resume, Swazye has summoned a hurricane of industry interest. Eminem’s Shady Records is reported to be offering a deal worth millions. Producer Pharrel Williams has posted “Wanted Reward” fliers to anyone who can introduce him to the phantom MC. L.A. Reid has instructed his staff to guarantee a six-CD deal. And Swayze has ignored these and every other entreaty and love letter sent to him.
“We been tryin’ to hook up with him for a minute,” says Def Jam recording arist Juelz Santana. “But you can’t get to him! This could kid could be a legend if we wants to be. Shit, he already is a legend!”
Swayze’s lack of interest in signed a record deal has started a string of rumors: he was a felon dodging arrest; he was a beefing gang memberafraid of retribution; he was Fabolos in disguise. There was even a rumor that Russell Simmon had finally gotten through, only to have Swayze hang up on him.
In late February, another verse surfaced, this time on the song “Rushin’” by Jay-K and Slaya, on which Swayze’s loping rap detailed the life of an arms trader. “I ain’t movin’ no rocks. Desert E’s and Glocks/Hollow points and AKs behind the Jack-in-the-Box/A nigga hookin’ u p the block, you know he earning his bones/So keep regarding, Henry, call me Indiana Jones.” The hype flaredhigher, and Hot 97 DJ Angie Martinez secured an appearance on her afternoon show. But despite having once hosted Bill Clinton, she couldn’t get Swayze to show. “Obviously, we’re very disappointed,” Martinez told me.
And trust me, so was I. With no label, no publicist, and no phone number, Swayze proved impossible to contact. No one I talked to even knew his real name. He was powerful but invisible – no wonder he’d named himself after the actor who played a phantom in Ghost. By March, his cousin and engineer Petey Kimble stopped returning my emails and calls.
With no more sightings or new Swayze tracks, I kept messaging Kimble’s Sidekick – “Just want to talk,” “No strings,” “Please, baby, baby, baby, please.” Then, in March, I got a phone call at 3 a.m., an hour that usually brings no good news. On the other end was that unmistakably weird deep voice that raps on “Bang.”
It said through a chuckle, “You don’t fuckin’ quit, do you?”
In 2004 and 2005, an independent reseach firm declared Camden “the most dangerous city in America.” Once the manufacturing home of Campbell’s Soup, the country’s second poorest city was destroyed in the ‘60s by white flight and riots. Today, 3,000 buildings have been boarded up. Heroin and crack sales occur in plain view. “Driving into Camden,” a New Jersey editorialist wrote, “is driving a few miles into hell.”
It’s not the kind of place anyone wants to hang out alone, even if to meet music’s Next Big Thing. But during our call, Swayze suggested we meet at noon at the corner of North 5th Street and Vine, just blocks from a police substation where locals often toss cinder blocks onto cruisers. A couple of hours past the arranged time, a black Escalade pulls up as the river’s window rolls down.
“Yo,” says a round-faced, 30-ish black man, apparently unpuzzled about the identity of the sole white guy within 30 blocks. Since it seems safer inside a stranger’s SUV than outside, I get in behind the two huge guys up front.
In the passenger seat is Kimble, who says he’ll take me to meet Swayze as soon as he gets a call. In the meantime, we drive to a Dunkin’ Donuts.
Kimble points out Woodrow Wilson High School, which Swayze attended or a few months before he droped out and, to support his aunt and family, turned to Camden’s biggest cash crop: drug sales.
“You was either slangin’ or you didn’t eat,” says Kimble, who spent some time working alongside Swayze. “But once you got in, you couldn’t get too big, you know, or you got shot. Swayze got out that game, got into something steadier.”
“The music business?” I ask.
Kimble snickers and shakes his head side to side. “Nah. Not the music business.” In fact, Swayze never showed any signifcant interest in rap. “He did the yes-‘y’all shit, making tapes, but he never took it serious. Never, had the time.”
“He wasn’t even good,” adds the driver, who gives his name as “D.” “We knew lots of niggas on the block rhyme better than Zee. When he got out of the hospital, it all was all different.”
We’ve driven past the battleship New Jersey on the waterfront, ABC Bail Bonds, Bail Bonds of America, and the boarded up Nefertitti Lounge, where Swayze’s crew started in the drug game, wearing black hoodies to let prospective buyers know their occupations. Nether Kimble nor D seem interested in sharing what they now about Swayze’s exact route to the hospital.
“Why the hosptial?” I ask. “Did he get shot?”
“Nah, somethin’ else.”
“Nah.” Kimble turns up the radio.
The winter sun has turned even fainter in the sky when Kimble says. “When need to make a stop, D. Let’s check on T-Dub.”
The Escalade pulls up at a blasted curb on the North Side, and we enter an iron-gated apartment building, then climb three flights. Petey hands a knapsack to Tiffany Woodruff, a pretty 23-year-old physician’s assistant who has a daughter and a son by Swayze. Unlike the rest of the world, Woodruff doesn’t seem too impresed with her baby-daddy, though she’ll share some basic stats. He was born in Philadelphia but doesn’t know either parent. He was raised by an aunt, now deceased, in Camden. Oh and Swayze’s real name? Clifton Toney: “Tone.”
Sitting cross-legged on a green sofa, Tiffany smokes Newports and talks shit. “He’s always leaving stuff here,” she says of Clifton. “Never staying — running out to ‘handle business,’ comin’ back late, runnin’ out again.”
Kimble has told me earlier that Swayze wasn’t in the street game any longer, so at first it’s not clear what Tiffany’s talking about. But her narrow hallway is lined with oily, canvas postal sacks, wrapped in Kryptonite locks. In one, I see what looks like rifle stocks poking out of the flaps. Since Swayze rapped about gun-running on “Rushin’,” I ask Tiffany if he’s somehow involved in the arms trade. Her expression doesn’t change. “I visited that nigga in the hospital more than anyone.” A toddler howls in another room. “I sat with him, talked to him. Then he wakes up, and he get out, and he like — whoosh!”
Tiffany’s just getting started, but Petey grabs my elbow and stands me up from the couch. Later, at around 8 p.m., we’re in the Escalade eating burgers when Kimble checks his Sidekick. He throws the rest of his meal out of the window. “Let’s go.”
In the south part of the city, in the shadows of the Walt Whitman Bridge, a few rows of two-story houses stand on an otherwise razed section off South 6th Street. We stop before one of the condemned buildings. Clifton Toney opens his front door, either not seeing or ignoring my proffered handshake. He’s a rangy six feet and look to be in his late 20s. He has a latte complexion, neatly trimmed goatee, tight braids and a platinum stud earring. He wears a black North Face jacket, baggy Rockawear jeans, and Timberlands. Kimble sets a bag of Funyuns and a bottle of Snapple Peach Iced Tea next to Swayze, who doesn’t touch either. Visible just below his sleeve is a tattoo of Bart Simpson clutching an AK-47.
Swayze seems a bit jumpy, shaking his right leg and talking in bursts. When he looks at me, I notice a slight drift to his right eye.
After some awkward small talk, we move to the crux of the mystery.
What’s your problem? Why don’t you want to be famous?
“I dunno,” he says, bouncing his knee. “Man… I ain’t feelin ‘it.” In the past three months, he’s had messages from just about every player in the music industry. “First their assistants call a few times,” he says. “Then they call.” He took a call from Dr. Dre, but that was about it. “No disrespect, but I got nothing to say to most of them niggas.”
Although a small stack of CDs sits behind a suspicious-looking rucksack and a brand-new-looking sofa, there’s no evidence of dedicated rap fandom. How seriously does he take the craft? Does he, like Eminem, keep notebook after notebook of rhymes he’s always working on?
“Nah. Matter fact, every time I try to write shit down, I fuck it up. Mostly, the track does it, like by itself — like on “Bang.’”
Wait. Is he saying that one of the greatest tours-de-force in recorded hip-hop history was a freestyle?
Kimble’s laughing in the corner. D’s reading a magazine. Swayze shrugs. Petey laughs and says. “Dude looked like he just woke up.”
When I ask about making an album, Swayze shrugs and looks away.
“I dunno,” he says at last. “We see how y’all did ‘Pac and Biggie, knamean?” I try not to glance too obviously at the apparent gat bag beside the couch. Is Swazye’s life now really safer than a major rap star’s?
“Nah, but, you know…” He trails off.
“Couldn’t you at least use the extra money?”
“There’s money in the hood,” Swayze says. ‘It ain’t just rappers makin’ loot.”
But wouldn’t you rather rhyme than run the streets?
“Who says I’m ‘runnin’ the streets’?” Swayze snaps, and Kimble and D tense up.
“Are you involved in selling guns?” I blurt.
“’Involved’? Swaye snorts. “Why, you need some?” His icy glare suggests that this particular line of questioning is over.
I ask about his hospital stay. A car accident? Chronic illness?
“Nah.” Swayze says nothing. I wait. Finally he says, “O.D.”
An overdose? On what — ecstasy, heroin, coke?
He chuckles. “Adderall.”
A pharmaceutical stimulant often prescribed to kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Adderall can decrease impulsivity, stubbornness, and aggression. It can also cause palpitations, psychotic episodes, dizziness, loss of motor control, and host of other problems that include death. In Swayze’s case, it brought on a stroke, followed by a four-month coma.
“It’s around,” Swayze says of Adderall, which is hardly the most toxic substance in a local drug scene that includes “burn bags” filled with crumbled sheetrock passed off as crack. “You get sick of smokin’ weed, takin’ hits, you wanna try somethin’ new.”
The last thing he remembers is sitting in a buddy’s crib, high watching “Family Guy.” When he woke, he couldn’t speak or move his right side. “I didn’t even know who the fuck I was.”
By all accounts, Swayze hadn’t recorded a single notable verse before 2006. After recovering from a coma, he’s being tendered blank checks by major-label record companies. How is this possible?
“It’s a gift,” Swayze says, fixing my gaze. “You don’t call ask God why he gives you somehting. You just say ‘Thanks.’”
But Swayze doesn’t seem convinced by his own words, or so sure this particular gift isn’t booby-trapped.
“It’s like…” He searches for the right words. “Somethin’ about all this…this – these skills comin’ from nowhere? It’s fucked up.”
He shifts his mouth, whips his head back to the window. He shakes his Peach Iced Tea but doesn’t open it.
“You know what?” he says finally. “I gotta bounce.” And immediately, Kimble grabs my elbow. Neither he nor D say anything as we drive to the railroad station. The atmosphere is creepy and funereal. “Ahhhh,” Kimble mumbles, as I stand outside the car looking in. “I’m a get with you later.”
And of course he doesn’t.
If you’re looking for a predecessor to Swayze’s story – uninspired part-time rapper O.D.’s and awakens with Promethean gifts – there’s only one case and he’s not even real: Peter Parker. Shy, weakling photographer bitten by a radioactive spider and given superhuman strength.
Two weeks after my trip to Camden, I reach Swayze’s ex, Tiffany, at a new number in a city I’ve agreed not to name. Still annoyed with her former boyfriend, she goes into a few more details about his livelihood. “He had pieces” – guns – “all over the city. Somebody told me he was moving, like 10 Gs a week. Me and the kids, we didn’t see none of that.”
Arms dealing was an easy career transtion from drugs, as Tiffany tells it. Tony required minimal changes in his network and allowed to keep most of his employees on the payroll. He acquired goods through “straw buyers” in Philly who could pass background checks and then deliver guns to Tony’s people, who would ferry them over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge for distribution in New Jersey. “He didn’t do shit,” Tiffany says. “Just sat on his ass and got paid.”
Then last spring, after weeks without hearing from him, Tiffany got a call. Toney was in the hospital. He’d been partying with his boys and suddenly slumped over in his chair unconscious.
“I show up and he’s lying there, a big tube down his throat,” she says. “And the doctor says he probably won’t come back.”
After three months, there were initial signs of consciousness. Eight days later, Toney opened his eyes and looked around, then tried to pull out his breathing tube. Three weeks after that, he was released from the hospital. Not much later, he showed up at the studio in Manhattan and went “Bang.”
Comas are usually debilitating, but in Toney’s case it may have upgraded his synaptic RAM — call it the Peter Parker Syndrome. “In some instances, the part of the brain that controls free-associative thinking is just extraordinarily well-organized” explains Dr. Benedict Brunner, a researcher at New Highland Institute for Neurocognitive Research. A catastrophic injury to that region can actually enhance this level of organization. “Theoretically, if the temporal lobe sustains the right kind of damage in just the right way, it could essentially rewire the circuitry.”
Like when you bang on the side of your TV and fix it?
“More or less,” says Brunner.
Since there’s no one official to comment about Swayze’s future plans, blogs have run riot with rumors. He’s cut a duet with Jay-Z. He’ll be a Mary J Blige remix. He’s starring alongside Terence Howard in a film based on his life story.
Yet hip-hop’s Peter Parker seems reluctant to use his powers. Maybe Swayze feels the superstar spot awaiting him is unearned. Maybe he’s suspicious of this late-onset MC savantism – fearful of its source or that it might suddenly disappear. Or maybe he’s not so keen on being music’s most famous freak.
In any case, Clifton Toney is still out there like the ghost his handle signifies, hustling, scrambling, and keeping everyone in the dark.
Several weeks after our interview, Petey Kimble sends me a message from a new Sidekick account. Abrupt, inscrutable, and slightly creepy, it definitely sounds like Swayze.
“Yo. Stay tuned. All will be explained on the next joint. Coming soon. Hot like the devil’s tail.”
Two days later, that Sidekick account no longer exists.
© 2007 by Chris Norrism, Blender