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Most rappers have never lived in their car, and even fewer are eager to admit it. However, Protoman and I are parked near the intersection of SE Ninth Avenue and Broward Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. This nondescript street of single-level dwellings, only steps from the fat-pocketed tourists populating Las Olas Boulevard, was where the rapper used to sleep in a 1985 Mercedes 300D for months at a time. The tall, fair-skinned rapper in a fedora rolls up his sleeve and shows an intricate rendering of the "old Floridian boater car" tattooed to the inside of his left biceps.
Dating back to his first proper album, 2006's Analog, Protoman's personal rhymes can remind you of just about anyone, especially yourself. Named after a character from the popular '80s videogame Mega Man, he often dwells in a meta, self-deprecating universe where, as he proclaimed on "Why Do I?," "I love hip-hop just a little bit more than I hate it." Lazy listeners might lump Protoman in with "backpack" rappers cut from the cloth of Atmosphere or Cannibal Ox — and a brief association with Rawkus Records for 2007's Grey Area helps them along. But the style of Protoman can mimic Jay-Z's precise delivery, and he has rapped with area funk act Fusik and trip-hoppers Astrea Corporation. Add collaborations with his hilarious pal Bleubird, an equally comedic supergroup he coformed called the Party Monsters, plus a mainstream-leaning, harder-edged outfit with Miami's Bizerk called Alligator City ("A major motion picture," he calls it) and it's damned near impossible to categorize Protoman without a wheelbarrow full of hyphens.
109 SW 3rd Ave.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33312
Category: Bars and Clubs
Region: Fort Lauderdale
On that sunny Saturday in November, the 26-year-old rapper, born Timothy Neal McClure (he often introduces himself as Neal), sent a text four minutes before our scheduled interview time: "Here. Didn't know it was so close." As it turns out, he lives only two blocks away in the mixed-income Sailboat Bend neighborhood we share west of downtown Fort Lauderdale.
With a Pandora station cued up on his phone that shifts from Aesop Rock to vintage Beck, we drive through the main drags and side streets of his past in another Mercedes — this one's a gray station wagon that doesn't look that much newer than the one etched on his arm. A child seat and a Dora the Explorer backpack belonging to his 3-year-old daughter are the passengers behind us.
"It's like being reborn again," McClure says of his daughter. (He's no longer with her mother.) "You just rediscover shit through her. I wouldn't be doing a lot of things if she wasn't in this world right now. It's kind of grown-up stuff. You feel like you can't say certain things because you're a father."
Now we're at Broward and Andrews, and a bearded panhandler walks up to our open window. "Twenty-five cents is all I need," the man says. "Good, that's all I have," McClure responds methodically while handing over a quarter. As we speed away from the man, he remarks upon the importance of remembering how lucky we all are. And it's especially true for a guy trying to stay in hip-hop in South Florida when it's just as economically tough to be onstage as it is off.
Over the next hour and change, Protoman sketches a life growing up around Fort Lauderdale that is typical for locals. Privilege mixes easily with tragedy; beaches, boats, skateboards, malaise, divorce, drugs, and disorientation are never far away. McClure calls himself a bad kid when referring to his days at Fort Lauderdale High School. He cut class to smoke weed and write rhymes and dropped out during his sophomore year.
Although you wouldn't know it by listening to him. Even after he got busted for drugs, the mandatory counseling sessions pointed to McClure's deeper intellect. "My counselor, a former crack addict, was like, 'What the fuck are you doing here?' " he recalls. "The other kids were like, 'You sound like a philosopher.' I knew I was too smart for that."
Since then, McClure went back for his GED and has willingly taken college classes on art appreciation and creative writing. These days, he comes off as a voracious reader, and as we park at the Galleria Mall to hunt for sunglasses, he cites Malcolm Gladwell's Blink to describe his artistic drive.
"He talks about how Larry Bird would stay in this perfect heart range," he says. "If your heart would beat any faster, you would fuck up, but if it beat any slower, you wouldn't make the correct decision either. I try to do that with life. Don't get freaked out, but don't be too lazy, man."
Another book on Protoman's shelf, Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, proves to have a darker connection to his life, however. A few years ago, an experiment with psychedelic mushrooms at a party went horribly wrong. "If it wasn't for my pops — he would be totally distraught — and my daughter — who was about to be born — I might have killed myself," he says. "It's so cliché. If you read the first chapter of Power of Now, that guy hit the bottom of the bottom, but the next day, it's extreme clarity. That night, I took some sleeping pills, and I woke up and I felt great. Ever since then, I had a weird fascination with death, and that's where the songs came in."