From first impressions of Fort Lauderdale-based rapper Protoman, one can´t help but notice the wrinkles under his eyes. With his rugged face and mature presence, you´d guess his age to be late 20s or early 30s. Not close. The 5-foot-10 lanky MC shows you his driver´s license, displaying DOB: 09-29-1985.
¨I feel like ten years older than I´m supposed to be,¨ Protoman says over a chilled frappuccino at a local coffee house. ¨I always hung around older people, so I got to see things and do things earlier in life.¨
Protoman, born Tim McClure, is a budding 21-year-old with some grand aspirations. While a lot of kids his age are wrapping up college, still figuring out what they want to do in life, Protoman has been zealously pursuing the title of underground hip-hop wunderkind for the past four years. His debut EP, Analog, was self-released last year and sold 1,000 copies -- respectable numbers for a homegrown first attempt. In the midst of capitalizing on that mini-success, the people from the famed New York hip-hop label Rawkus Records (former home to Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Pharoahe Monche) recently heard something they liked and picked him as one of the 50 most talented MCs to watch, in their ¨Rawkus 50¨ project. Not bad for a high school drop-out who at one point was too broke to buy a real mic stand. ¨I had a shoestring tied to my ceiling [to hold up the microphone],¨ Protoman says, laughing about his former woes. ¨It worked out pretty well.¨
Although he was born in Dallas and moved to Fort Lauderdale at the age of four, Proto´s had a rather unique South Florida upbringing. Raised by his father in a beachside condo (think Florida´s version of Melrose Place), his memories of childhood explain why he grew up so fast. ¨My dad became like an older brother, he was very hands-off,¨ he says. ¨He pretty much let me do anything because he trusted me. He learned from his mistakes when he was growing up, and he knew that I would learn from my mistakes as well.¨
Protoman remembers the first album he ever purchased, Snoop Doggy Dog´s Doggy Style, of which he asks sarcastically, ¨Isn´t that a perfect record for an 8-year-old?¨
Still, it wasn´t until he got an off-the-books job working at a local skateboard shop when he was 13 that he got his first true taste of school hip-hop. Like a typical hip-hop junkie, he even remembers the exact moment that his understanding of the genre was permanently changed by a close friend named Carlos.
¨Puffy came out with that one song, PE 2000,´ and he had that crazy synth sound in it, and I´m like, Ah man, I love that beat,´¨ Proto recalls. ¨Carlos looked at me and he put on the Public Enemy original. That was my first time ever realizing that people sampled, and at that point I realized that there was so much that I didn´t know. It was such a turning point in my life, because everything that you were admiring was...¨ he pauses to think for a moment ¨...not fake, but you just don´t know the whole story. All of a sudden, the more you know, the more you don´t know.¨
Armed with this epiphany, Proto began to study hip-hop´s history. His interest in the culture extended to graffiti, he confesses. With his skateboard in tow and spray can in hand, Proto and his crew of vandals reeked artistic havoc throughout Broward County, bombing Tri-Rail stations.
By then, Proto was also testing out his b-boy skills and hoping to collect enough money to buy turntables. Out of all of hip-hop´s main elements, one talent stuck. Proto took to the microphone, steadily compiling stacks of notebooks filled with complex rhymes. Inspirations for his lyrics come from subjects ranging from the everyday mundane to personal traumas of his childhood.
Proto bluntly confesses that he hasn´t spoken to nor seen his mother in 11 years. ¨It´s like every year that passes, it´s less of a chance for me to pick up the phone or send her an e-mail because it´s been so long,¨ Protoman says. There was a messy divorce when he was 4, then a custody dispute. Protoman speaks about his estranged mother with an almost dazed-like fervor. ¨My mom´s crazy... I mean, not crazy crazy, but she just turned into a different person when they got a divorce. She put me through a lot.¨
The topic of the absentee mother has been repeatedly tackled in Protoman´s lyrics. With such verses as: I´m haunted by my mother´s laughter/The frustration I just take out on other rappers/I´m at the point where I´ll break/I hear my momma´s voice in the grey saying how her first boy´s a mistake.
However difficult it is to relive these rhymes, Protoman is still quite proud of their effect. ¨Yes, I´m doing it for myself,¨ Proto explains, ¨but I´m really doing it for other people, because I know other people have gone through that and I don´t want them to think that they´re the only ones. I don´t want to feel like I´m the only one.¨
There´s a secret to hip-hop success somewhere in all of that.
Protoman takes a final sip of his now-lukewarm drink, letting his wise-beyond-his-years persona shine through. ¨You can´t just talk about how dope you are on record, you gotta have some kind of connection with the fans,¨ he says. ¨They want to know more about you through the music and as a person. That´s the key to getting fans and keeping them.¨