THEIR WAY: “I’ve always had the Frank Sinatra philosophy that if you can make it where you come from, you can make it anywhere,” says Vinnie Paz.
Jedi Mind Tricks frontman Vinnie Paz instructed me to meet him at a barren studio beneath a highway overpass in South Philly, where they were at work on their latest, A History of Violence (now out on Babygrande). My cabbie gets hopelessly lost looking for it, but after detouring through an industrial wasteland, we arrive at a brick bunker in the shadow of the interstate. From across the street, the spot looks like the sort of black hole where pedophiles store their game, but inside I find a cozy lab with Vinnie and a half-dozen Jedi Mind associates who are cool enough to share some brews.
Some of Vinnie’s protégés warm the booth before the big dog barks. Recording at this studio is a rite of passage in this sect of Philly’s scene; the walls showcase discs that were conceived here, from Reef the Lost Cauze’s Feast or Famine to Ritual of Battle by Army of the Pharaohs. This City of Brotherly Love is a violent, lawless place, and many of the rappers who communicate as much through exceptionally scripted unapologetic rhymes march in Vinnie’s army.
You’re pretty much allowed to pack heat in Philly, and I recommend it since everyone else does; since I have a strictly non-violent criminal background, I can file for a permit today and be legally strapped by my departure on Sunday. It’s obvious why this is the East Coast’s model murder capital, and why Vinnie weaves more gat talk through his lyrics than rogue country singers: Pennsylvania is an NRA Graceland.
“I carry a gun, but it’s because I’m not playing — not because I think I’m John Gotti,” Vinnie explains. “I have the constitutional right to protect myself against someone who might be stupid and do some goon shit. You also have to understand that this city has been plagued with police brutality since the beginning, culminating with the Mumia shit. Everyone I know hates the cops to varying degrees; my cousin Frank hates them, but he’s the most peaceful person I know. I hate the cops and I’ll fucking kill one.”
With dirty cops to watch out for, Vinnie’s peacemaker is just one line of defense. His homeboys — from goomba cousins on the South Side to black and Latin thugs who catch his back up north — have intimidating credentials. His associate King Magnetic, who drove tonight from not-so-nearby Allentown to lay a verse for A History of Violence, is a menacing 6’9”, 400 lbs. In person, he’s a kind giant; on paper, Mag has done some serious time. Tomorrow Mag has traffic court, where he plans to ask the judge whether he can serve a short prison sentence for speeding tickets. “I guess when you’re seven feet tall, that’s a lot easier than paying fines,” Vinnie half-jokes.
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.