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Tim McClure seems sedate on a recent afternoon as he sips on a cold coffee drink at a corner table in Fort Lauderdale's Brew Urban Café. It's a marked contrast with how the 24-year-old appears onstage, where he's known as local rapper Protoman. With a crowd's eyes on him, he's a wildly gesticulating ball of energy. But he'll be the first to say he wears his heart on his sleeve. "Some days, I walk around and crack jokes," McClure says, "and other days, I just avoid eye contact."
On those bad days, he says, he writes and records songs like "Gigapet," a self-conscious track that opens a portal to his soul. A lyrical sample: "Look into my eyes/Shit, tell me what do you see/I bet it's something sad/It's something that's not free." Intense.
But on good days, he'll freestyle along to Notorious B.I.G.'s "Hypnotize," singing humorous lyrics that flirt with rap's tough and sexist exterior but maintain a plebeian sense of vulnerability: "I put Miami hos into my Malibu/Tell them it's new like it's still 2002/Break down on 13th and Collins Avenue/Tricks, one of you is gonna have to push."
Few MCs these days would want to describe anything that would deflate their larger-than-life images. But if commercial rap is aimed at selling product to the masses, Protoman aims to actually be relatable to the masses. So, why would an ambitious young rapper portray himself, however humorously, in such a compromising position?
"All of my friends are broke. Music fans are more lower-class and middle-class than upper-class," he says. "I don't know how they buy this stuff from people talking about how much money they have. Kids in these raggedy-ass Accords are playing 50 Cent or Rick Ross talking about how much money they have."
And so it is that Protoman rhymes for the Everyman, exploring life's angles, both humorous and serious. He can switch from light to dark in an instant, and even the reasons he cites for his biggest influences are contradictory. For instance, masked rapper MF Doom, he says, is "ingenious" and "untouchable" because "you don't see him as a human being or a rapper," while Charles Bukowski inspires him by "living life and not putting up a front." Does Protoman want to present a character, or does he want to show us all of his cards?
Such a creative struggle is typical of intelligent young musicians (even though McClure says he feels like he's old). And he's prepared to take the time to work out his artistic identity. "Musicians are always in their early 30s when they break through. I look back a few years on my music, and it's hard to stomach," he says. "Good music comes with age. It's like anything in life. Not everyone's a prodigy."
Still, he got his start early. McClure was 13 when a middle school teacher assigned a project about Paul Revere that first ignited his interest. "You could do a skit, write a poem, or do a rap. I thought, 'I think I could do this rap.' I wrote a rap, and this kid was doing the beat with his two pencils," he recalls.
As he moved on to high school, battling with friends became a part of everyday life. "It was me being a big hip-hop fan, wanting to be part of the culture. I wasn't very artistic. I wasn't good at graffiti, and DJing was too expensive. Writing happened by accident, and once you get going with it, it's hard to leave it."
Along the way, Protoman was born. Like MF Doom, McClure culled his stage persona from a fictional source. The character name Protoman comes from a videogame called Mega Man. But the moniker also subtly resonates with one of McClure's favorite movie quotes, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. "Benicio del Toro's character is hopping on his plane, and Depp's character says, 'There he goes, one of God's own prototypes.' This person is like a rough draft that has issues and glitches, and he has to live with them. Everyone around him doesn't have those problems. Sometimes I feel that way in real life; we all have demons and shit wrong with us."
Although he spent several years exorcising those demons in freestyle ciphers, he's left the battle circuit behind. Recently, he says, he found himself head to head with a 19-year-old kid at a show at the club Area 7 in Oakland Park. "I just felt like a bully. When you battle, you hate the person; you want to murder them and make them rap never again. That's your goal. It's something you get out of your system."
Turning instead to building his proper career, McClure has focused recently on collaborations and live performances. He's quick to point out that he got a leg up on this front from Jasper Delaini of Fort Lauderdale's the Secondhand Outfit, who, he says, helped him book shows, put out records, and find the right direction for his career. Since that time, Protoman has released two records, Analog in 2006 and Grey Area in 2007, and collaborated with funk hip-hop outfit Fusik on a 2008 EP called Kill the Radio.
Currently, he's working on a new EP with Los Angeles-based audio engineer Sebino. What's interesting about this one, McClure says, is that he raps from the perspectives of other people. "As I get older, my ego gets smaller and smaller. I don't want to put I in front of every sentence. My life's not that interesting; let me talk about your life a little bit. Florida is such a crazy swamp. There are so many stories."
Protoman has already released the single "Movie Star." The lyrics are from the perspective of a serial rapist who poses as a movie producer and slips drugs into women's drinks. The EP 86'd will feature this song and five other tracks and will be released on April 6.
In the meantime, he continues to selectively hit the live circuit. This Friday finds him performing at Propaganda in Lake Worth with fellow locals Jabrjaw and DJ Dee Dubbs as well as touring Rhymesayers artist Toki Wright. It remains up in the air, though, which Protoman will rear his head onstage. "There are some shows where I invite people up on stage," he says, "and there are other shows when I hate everyone in the room." Let's hope for the former.