Halloween is one of Elijah Rentas' favorite holidays. The inside of his two-bedroom Margate apartment is lined with skulls and crossbones and looks ready for trick-or-treaters to show up at any minute. The 1978 cult film Zombi is blaring through his television set and intermittent blood-curdling screams fill the air. There's an inescapably creepy feeling in the room that might cause the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up. Asked how much of the ghoulish atmosphere is related to Halloween, though, Rentas looks genuinely perplexed.
"None of it," he says with a shrug. "This stuff is always here."
To be fair, Rentas isn't the one speaking at the moment; his rapper alter-ego, J Hexx, is. The difference between the two is striking. Rentas, 31, works by day as a credit counselor, and he's one of the most soft-spoken and polite individuals you'll ever meet. But when he starts rapping, he takes on the persona of a horror character from the 18th Century.
As a Gemini, Rentas is comfortable being a split personality.
He dresses the historic horror part as well. Tonight, he's sporting a long black gothic overcoat, black shoes and pants, a decorative vest with gold embroidery, a Renaissance shirt, and a black hood over his head that makes him look like a serial killer circa the French Revolution. He's also sporting an impressive make-up job, done by his make-up artist/fiancée, that took over an hour to complete. All of this for a late-night interview with New Times.
"Hey, I figure if you're going to interview me about my music, you might as well see me in character," he says.
Rentas puts a lot of effort and energy into his J. Hexx persona, as it's his main outlet for music and creativity.
Whenever he performs in public (at venues like Brass Monkey in Coral Springs or the Kevro Art Bar in Delray Beach), he's dressed in outfits like this, and he raps more violently than Freddie Krueger on a rampage. A big part of his fetishism comes from Rentas' horror film fanaticism. He's enthralled with low budget, grindhouse-style films of the '70s and mentions directors like Wes Craven, George Romero, and Dario Argento as huge inspirations. In fact, he says he gets a good portion of his motivation and style from the Italian band Goblin, which scored the film Dawn of the Dead.
"The first horror movie I saw was The Exorcist when I was 3 years old," Rentas says. "I'm sure you can imagine what it did to me. At first, it horrified me, but it had a huge impact and eventually changed my life."
That merger of horror-core and hip-hop can be heard on his debut album, The Seven Doorz to Death, a 23-track disc that begs for a parental advisory label and features J. Hexx killing as many imaginary characters as possible. It's a smart merger of late '90s Eminem and the Gravediggaz. While some of the songs may test your gag reflex, it's a healthy way for Hexx to get his aggression out creatively.
"There's millions of people, especially now, who feel lots of anger based on the way things are," Rentas says. "People are often afraid to go to that dark part of their minds and express how they really feel. I make music to help people go there."
On the deranged, "I Hate You," his rap veers into a wild, necrophiliac rant: I love to fuck a bitch after death so she won't argue about how bad the sex sucks and how she hates to suck cock, after I jizz in her twat. I strangled the whore, hung her with a belt off the floor. That's one of the tamer verses on the album. Songs like this will remind listeners of what early Slim Shady sounded like, raging against his baby mama, Kim Mathers. Much like Eminem, Rentas found his truest rap voice because of beef with his son's mother.
As a New York transplant, Rentas spent the first 26 years of his life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, living with his Dominican and Puerto Rican parents. He ran into relationship troubles with his ol' lady at the age of 22 and wound up in jail because of it.
"I was having a very dark period in my life, going through trouble with my son's mother," he says. "She wasn't allowing me to see my son. She did a lot of things to me like getting me locked up and she was just vindictive." After doing a three-month bid in jail on a domestic violence charge for an incident he denies ever happened, Rentas claimed he wanted to die. But hip-hop helped save his life.
His early rapping style was more on par with golden-era New York vets from the mid '90s.
"I was really deep into Gangstarr, KRS-One, and De La Soul coming up," he says. "I built my style of how to write a verse off of those cats. Even though my music is morbid, it's conscious too. I get that from watching Leaders of the New School, Native Tongues Blackstar, and Company Flow, and it helped me figure out where I wanted to fit myself."
But something about their rapping styles didn't fit his. The missing link was horror. He says he didn't get bored with rapping like a Rawkus Records artist (the go-to label for conscious rappers of the '90s). But he discovered he needed to add blood and gore to his sound to feel complete.
"I just found that this horror thing, since its embedded in me, was the best way to describe myself and feel that I had all my integrity. It helps me be true to what I'm speaking about... it feels more like home."
He's versed in scary movies and raps about the analogies between horror and reality.
"Zombies, for example. You think, OK, they're flesh-eating people. But I look at them as people who wander around without a purpose in life... like dead carcasses trying to feed off people to survive. There are also vampires, people who suck the life force out of you, then move on and leech onto the next person."
That's what makes his music so captivating. Just when you're disgusted enough to turn it off, he drops some piece of stop-you-in-your-tracks wittiness into a few verses, making you hit rewind and compelling you to continue listening.
It is partly why prominent horrorcore label 3rd Shift Entertainment signed him to a record deal last week.
Asked how far he plans to take his style of horror-core rapping, Rentas says: "I want to take it as far as I can take it without the censors coming after me. How often do you see someone dressed like me get on stage and rap with this type of passion? At least I'm not copying everybody else."