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.
"That was the car of my dad's old fiancé, and she passed away," he says in clipped, street-worn speech reminiscent of actor Mark Wahlberg circa The Departed.
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.
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."
These are the songs that make up Beat a Dead Horse 'Til She Resurrects, the album he releases officially Saturday at the Green Room. As we delve into the work he says he's most proud of to date, McClure taps his horn at an old, sun-baked prostitute hooking on the sidewalk next to Federal Highway. She flips us the bird.
" 'Sup, mama; don't flick me off — what if I was gonna pick you up?" he says with a laugh, then refocuses. "The first track ['You'] is really introspective."
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He's correct in that self-assessment. "Throw me that tall boy and play some beats/I want to rap about all the shit that's not wrong with me," he says with intensity over a dark, melancholy synth line. And the album to follow traces the pathways of trying to please the fans still stuck on his Analog shit from five years ago, trying to create something that his daughter can be proud of, and being successful enough to feed her too.
" 'Roots' I really like because it says no matter how much I change, I go this way or that way, I never forget my roots," he says. "It talks about riding the bus and being hip-hop as fuck and killing rappers. Doing all that cliché boom-bap shit. After that, it goes into a whole different realm. In the end, it's just beating a dead horse, an old concept that isn't there anymore. Either history repeats itself or it resurrects."
McClure is comfortable revisiting his past — he lives with his father again in a yellow house that used to be a horse stable in Sailboat Bend. And he'd even consider living in a vehicle again, albeit under slightly different arrangements.
"My dream is to get an RV and dip out, set up camp," he says. "I want to learn to grow my own food, get my own place, and have a trailer there. I want to be prepared in case something happens. I want to touch back to human beings' true nature. I want to acquire enough — be it wealth, knowledge, or experience — to where I'd be OK with disappearing with my family and starting somewhere new."