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Punch Drunk

There's a sense when you're watching Punchanello perform that he's simultaneously the most loved and hated MC in the room. Watching him onstage instantly puts a smile on your face. And his long, Samsonesque locks and ability to freestyle story raps better than most people can write them is impressive — especially when he's doing it live. His wordplay and stage presence are so strong that crowds can't help getting amplified in the middle of his sets.

If you're on the lineup after him, well, you might not like him so much.

He's dealt with both sides of the situation (being a loved and hated-on MC) since moving to South Florida eight years ago, and as he peers back at his local legacy, he knows there's a lot more work to be done. The question is: Will he get the opportunity?

In a sense, Punchanello, born Chris Purdy, who'll be 31 next month, is still in the prime of his career and shouldn't be looking back on anything. Listen to his solo material or the new music he's been making lately with his partner, Name Brand, and you can tell that, creatively, he's reaching an apex. But he's also at a crossroads of sorts, one that's more mentally challenging than he could have ever anticipated. After years of building his rep, first as a battle cat — one who would take on any rapper in a freestyle competition and usually emerge victorious — and then as an ace lyricist with his Miami-based Earthworx crew, Punch is on the verge of splitsville.

Although it's not confirmed yet, he may be leaving town for a considerable period of time to care for an ailing family member in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where Punchanello was born and raised. He's glad to do it. Doesn't think twice about it. But the reality that he could be leaving the Miami hip-hop community he's been ensconced in for so long is starting to sink in.

"I've done all this work to build my name up in Miami, a big city, and it looks like I have to move back home now," Punchanello said during a recent phone chat. He's already back in Harrisburg for an extended two-week trip checking on his family, and he might need to stay longer. It's not just hip-hop that's he worried about, though.

Aside from being a rapper, Punchanello is also an educator and a community advocate. He runs an after-school program working with at-risk youth in Opa-locka — one of Miami-Dade's more rundown municipalities. Opa-locka's a lot like Compton or the South Bronx — creatively, it shines like no other, but economically and educationally, it lags far behind. Every day, Punchanello "tutors" young people. But anyone who's ever worked a job like that knows you're more of a mentor, coach, nurse, guidance counselor, and surrogate parent than anything.

"I really don't want to leave those kids at all," he says emphatically. "Just the gravity and the implications of this potential move are big. It's not like dropping a pebble in a pond."

That attitude explains much of the grassroots rhymes that are so prevalent in his material. As far as conscious rappers go in South Florida, Punch has always been at the top of the list. And whether he's rocking solo or with a live band behind him (which suits him best), there's a sense that the '90s-style Black Star/Common/the Roots vibe is flowing through him. He's not imitating anybody, and he's a far cry from the thugged-out rhymes lots of hood rappers preach, but he walks the same streets that Brisco and Flo Rida do, and he'd rather rap about the conditions that create poverty than write lyrics that are conducive to it.

"I have the luxury of splitting my nuts on both sides of the fence," he says, meaning he can go underground or mainstream. "I get a lot of love from the hipsters, the nonblack undergroup hip-hop fans. The flipside of that coin is, I can go to a Sobe Live or the same venues that Rick Ross would play and get lots of love too. But if people are just showing up to get their lollipop licked, they're not trying to hear uplifting lyrics. They want to hear some whore-mongering; they want to hear some misogyny. And I won't do that shit. I get my respect for not succumbing to the politics."

It's a noble way to approach one's artistry. At the same time, he's not sure that if he leaves South Florida, people in certain hip-hop circles will even miss him. He and his rhyming partner, Soarce Spoken, have little patience for untalented rappers, and Punch is outspoken about his love/hate relationship with Miami hip-hop. It was through dealing with BS locally that he and Soarce Spoken first linked up in 2001.

"We were just tired of the politics in the music scene here," Punch says. "It's like a city full of dick riders — if you're making moves, people want to big you up. But when you're on the outside looking in, they hate on you, especially if your skills are better than theirs."

Sure, he talks much shit and drops quotes that even he has to laugh at. But he backs it up. Just two weeks ago, he stood on a rickety stage at an underground venue in Hollywood, freestyling a three-part story rap about arguing with his lady, going to a strip club to blow off steam, heading to an afterparty, and then coming back home, all without cheating on his woman.

It was the stuff of Slick Rick/Kool G. Rap proportions, and the crowd was eating up every word. Connecting like that, completely improv, is what keeps his skills sharp. As Name Brand works behind him, making live beats on the spot for him to rap over, you get the sense that, with the right push, Punchanello should have already blown up. According to him, he's still eager to give it one more try. He'll be back in town this weekend performing and then working at a feverish pace over the next month to drop a solo mixtape and put out a new Earthworx album.

Asked if he had any last words for the hip-hop community, he says, "Yeah, I'll be back like I left something! My spot ain't going nowhere. I've got about 45 or 50 tracks that haven't been released yet. I'm learning how short life is right now, so it's up to me to make it happen."

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Jonathan Cunningham

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