Saturday, October 17, 2009

Why A Waffle?

I get asked about the origins of my nomme de rap Doc Waffles all the time. Its an unusual name for a rapper and has kind of an interesting back story which I'm happy to dish.

But first let me clarify this now for all the people who see me at the Steak Hut eating a tossed salad for breakfast and can't wrap their head around the idea that I'm not about to go in on a heaping plate of waffles: the name Doc Waffles does not elude to my gastronomical preferences. I don't eat waffles, or breakfast foods in general, and I have no particular affection for the waffle as an aesthetic object. I can honestly say that I have not eaten a waffle since May of 2005, when I got waffles and ice cream at the Golden Nugget in Chicago with my main man in the antiquities game John King. That shit was on point but it takes an unusual set of circumstances for me to eat a waffle, and while I'm glad they seem to enrich the lives of others as a food staple, I could take them or leave them.

I am however attracted to the idea of "waffling" when it comes to the transmission of meaning between artist and audience. As a lyricist I try to give listeners some wiggle room, to elude isomorphisms, to make songs that evolve with repetition, where each listen is a different trail of bread crumbs to follow. Thus if you were trying to explain the meaning of one of my denser efforts, "Bug Bites," perhaps, to a 99 year old man or a lifeless rabbit, it might be sort of challenging. It might force you to waffle.

The deliberate obfuscation of meaning to create a vaguer but more uniquely personalized listening experience is a practice articulated most exquisitely in the work of Ghostface Killah. I don't hide my affection for Wu-Tang, Ghostface in particular, and I class him as not only the greatest rapper guy in history, but probably one of the most vital American artists of any kind over the last twenty years. Tony Starks' brilliance is demonstrated by his sophisticated feel for abstraction, alternating from brutal to delicate, and his ability to make tracks that get their point across holistically, atmospherically, and with as much verbal intrigue and misdirection as possible. Its not a style with no face, its a Ghostface, distinct, memorable, haunting, but impossible to pinpoint and wide open to interpretation. He glosses himself after his artistic impulse, and this is kind of what I'm getting at with Doc Waffles.

But that's not the story of why that's my rap name, which here follows:

In the summer of 2001 my homeboy Darren would visit my penthouse apartment at the Alphabet building to smoke Sunday morning blunts with my literary agent Julius Caesar McGee and I. We'd put on records and freestyle while we burned down. D was on his way to serve brunch to yuppies at the Whitney, so these sessions included an unusually high number of references to high tone breakfast fare and the hyperbolically upper class lifestyles we figured were no doubt being led by the Whitney patrons. "Sun Drench dip to Club Med, stretch benefits, holidays on hollandaise sauce: Eggs Benedict." Naive fare along those lines. We figured this kind of visceral, luxurious aesthetic was perfect for a couple of broke ass service industry job having unknown rappers, and started calling ourselves The Yolks. Darren adopted the name Soft Boiled Brown. Julius chose Jimmy Dean. And I decided to be Doc Waffles.

As a rapper I was just coming out of my nascency. I was beginning to finesse a style that felt earnest and my own. I'd honed my freestyle skills and was starting to get a rep on the battle scene as a cat who could light up the nicest if slept on. I was recording with Charles Scavellini and while I knew what we were making was a step towards making real album quality tracks, we had a long way to go before putting anything down worth dropping. I was still trying to pin down my identity as a performer.

I was entering a lot of battles, using a different name each time I got in one. Ivan Eye Exam. Richard Mutt. Morris Watts. Different names kept me slept on, and I loved it when other rappers would size me up, figure they come soft based on my less than imposing appearance, then look astonished when I bitch slapped them with the tooth decay. Like they never saw it coming. So when I entered a big money battle at a west side rec hall called The Cotillion Club I figured Doc Waffles would be a name that would encourage people to not take me seriously, and maybe let me sandbag my way through the first round.

The battle turned out to be kind of a big deal. All the top cats in the scene were there, and the battle was being judged by D12, whose celebrity at the time was peaking. I won't go into great detail but I rapped real swell that night, outing four well known and respected emcees before getting outed in the semis by Qwest McCody. I don't really know how I accomplished this. All I really remember doing that night was smoking massive amounts of dope with my crew in the back of The Cotillion Club, a delightful facility where you can get high openly and have your picture taken in front of a lurid, fifteen foot high air brushed mural of downtown Detroit, with the phrase, "Murder City" written on it.

The next week I went to go see Del the Funky Homosapian at St. Andrews. Word of my exploits at the Cotillion Club had spread, and now people were coming up wanting to tell me what a superlative emcee I was. Like, duh, man, Doc Waffles, the white kid from the Cotillion Club battle who deaded Swann, I thought you already knew. This was more shine than I was accustomed to, and honestly, I hoped it would be fleeting. I was getting ahead in the game partially on the strength of my anonymity I saw no reason to keep putting myself out there as Doc Waffles now that it meant other rappers would know I was nice and treat me with more considerable gravity. Besides, I really liked the name Richard Mutt (neck deep in Duchamp adulation at the time, and sinking) and a couple weeks later that's the handle I tried to use when entering a Mic Krush battle on the east side. As I was putting my name on the bracket one of the promoters approached me and scrutinized it.

"What the fuck are you doing, Waffles? Richard Mutt? You're a funny dude man." He scratched out what I had written and scrawled Waffles, MD. "Yeah, Doc! Let's get it!"

I won the battle that night, served some of your favorite local rappers back before they were your favorite local rappers, continued to get love on the scene, and I've stuck with Doc Waffles ever since. I should mention that if I had to do it all over again I would have avoided the theatricality of it all and been just plain Ben Ness from jump street. Future generations of rappers will all have just plain names like Billy Joel and Elton John and will mock my contemporaries and I for giving ourselves cheesy, indulgent titles.