On a summer day in 2003, nomadic b-boy Mario Treadway embarked on a shamanistic journey -- what he calls his vision quest. It was in that mystical space that he encountered the spirit guide who bestowed the name he uses today.
"He approached me while I was in a trance state," Treadway remembers. "He covered my ears and said 'Souleye.' Then I woke up."
Treadway recounts the story as we sit in the kitchen of the Boca Raton apartment he shares with his girlfriend. He's brought out hot yerba mate and homemade, organic flatbread pizza.
Between his shifts at Whole Foods just down the street, Treadway has been spreading a type of New Age hip-hop that was recently featured at the Fort Lauderdale Saloon and in West Palm Beach at Ray's Downtown.
"I'm on a spiritual path with my music," he explains. And that path extends to his working life. "At Whole Foods, I help people with cancer, strep throat, stress, everything. I'm learning about all these healing agents from zinc to acidophilus, and it's a lot like what I'm doing with my music. When I can heal one person, it's awesome."
Though he moved to Boca from Massachusetts just five months ago to be with his girlfriend, this isn't his first visit to South Florida. For the past five years, the rapper has made some serious tracks. Treadway was born in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, the son of an Italian mother and a father who's part Native American. While he was in his early teens, Treadway latched onto rap music after hearing Kool Herc and Grand Master Flash on a mix tape. He continued his love affair with hip-hop through high school, graduating in 1999 and earning a basketball scholarship to Western New England College.
But after a year in school, the aspiring point guard got restless. "I wasn't learning what I wanted, and I really just wanted to grasp my passions," he says. So he left school and hit the road, Kerouac style. Treadway ended up hanging in Delray Beach for a few months after being caught in a rainstorm at a place called the Crystal Garden in Boynton Beach -- a peaceful den of crystals, incense, and herbal tea.
With South Florida as a home base, Treadway has traveled up and down the Eastern seaboard, hooking up with a cypher of bohemian rhymers from New England called the Transcendental Alliance. The crew existed like b-boy drifters, taking coin-toss road trips they called pilgrimages, filling up notebooks with rhymes in college coffeehouses, crashing all-night rap sessions in studio basements, sleeping on kitchen floors and in friends' foyers.
Then everything suddenly changed. A few months after his fateful vision quest, the newly christened Souleye learned that a childhood friend was dying of cancer. This was, he figured, the perfect opportunity to use his music for good. "I got there, like, two days before he passed," he says, "and his parents told me that he waited to see me. I got to make him laugh. I rapped to him -- freestyled. Played a bunch of beats..." Treadway's blue eyes get misty.
Despondent after his friend's funeral, he took a retreat -- this time in a friend's attic overlooking Vermont's Mount Greylock. Treadway says he "just wrote, burned incense, danced around, and drank water" for a week. "I was in the woods all by myself, and I wrote the Flexible Morality LPin five days." That was his first album. Despite the creative release, things only got harder.
While still mourning his friend in April 2004, Treadway was again struck by tragedy. His older brother, who was mentally ill, committed suicide. Treadway was in Delray visiting friends when he got the news. He returned to Massachusetts for the funeral, and while cleaning out his brother's apartment in New Hampshire, he made a discovery.
"My brother gave me a sticker a long time ago that says Music Matters," he says. "I put it on my favorite rhyme notebook. The place where he hung himself had the same sticker on the ceiling."
Since then, Souleye has taken the slogan seriously: He strives to make music that matters. At a hip-hop showcase earlier this month at Hot Dogs Sports Bar in Lauderhill, Treadway spit his "Roll Call:" "Hey yo, the Spirit guides me, gives me a burst of energy/Patience is the key, relax and breathe, we've got a long way to walk to self-mastery." With his glitchy, self-produced beats and conscious lyrics, he had everyone -- from hip-hop heads with tams on their heads and crystals around their necks to young girls in heavy makeup -- bobbing their noggins.
He followed that track with "Sand Dollars," a song with an eerie, Prodigy-meets-Mobb Deep vibe on the "Quiet Storm" tip, but instead of demanding respect or boasting about wetting his enemies, he asked the crowd, "What are we going to do to fix this earth before the time's up and we all miss it?/When will humans finally accept that love is the answer and we mustn't forget that?" It was an uncommon sentiment coming from an uncommon musician.
And it turns out Treadway is full of such sentiments. The self-penned liner notes for his 2004 album Universoul Alchemy read, "Life is such a precious gift so remember what you have been given." The picture on the back of his CD shows him with arms outstretched, baseball cap, fatigue shorts, and backpack on, but the oft-used hip-hop descriptor backpacker doesn't faze him.
"Those are just labels," he says. "People can call me what they want, but everyone has a backpack on when they are learning and seeking knowledge. It's a never-ending quest. Even when you're 98, you're still gonna be working on self-knowledge and growth."
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