My mother would say, “This head wind of opposition is a wall of sentences pressing the clouds down over us. We are the oppressors and the pressed.”
_____-Chris T speaking to a group of at-risk youth shortly before his incarceration
The first letter Rebel wrote to Chris T was childlike in transcription and ignorant in content. Mommy loves you, it said, Mommy’s representing. But Chris T was too young to read that first letter. It was read to him by his grandmother. She pronounced the last word of that letter as re-presenting as if giving birth to twins, as if being born again. Perhaps this is the way it was meant.
Chris T would continue to listen to his mother’s words, transmitted through his grandmother’s voice, while lying prone on the carpet. He ignored the window’s view, and the city’s sound. These things would come later. Instead he stared into his grandmother’s face like she was the magic eight-ball he could read his future in. He reached for the giant foam blocks in front of him and built leaning pillars on the worn carpet that would tilt and fall, during construction of the fourth or fifth levels. Chris T didn’t laugh like other children, but he smiled hugely every time those block buildings toppled.
And when that smile met his mother’s defenses, on the opposite side of the visitor’s, sterile, metal table at the lockdown women’s facility, the ice inside Rebel melted and streaked down her cheeks like Rocket popsicles at end-of-July block parties.
Chris T’s grandmother reached across the sterile table to catch what had once hardened inside Rebel, her daughter, and was now melting. A guard clearing his throat loudly from the corner brought all their hands to their respective sides of the invisible line. Grandmother’s hands wrapped back around Chris T’s tight tee shirt and childhood potbelly. Rebel’s hands shook slightly at the edge of the table. The two women sat on the steel benches with their eyes locked, while Chris T balanced on his grandmother’s knees. A trickle of tears ran from the corner of Rebel’s eye and darkened the cloth at the V-ed collar of her blues.
“Mama,” Chris T said extending his tiny hand across the semi-reflective expanse.
“Yes?” Rebel said, but Chris T’s grandmother knew it wasn’t meant as a personal endearment. He was merely reciting one of only three words he knew at the time. Chris T called his grandmother “Mama”. Chris T called the women on the TV in the living room with the rabbit ears on top “Mama”.
“I woo woo,” Chris T said to his mother.
“I love you, too,” said Rebel. And his grandmother didn’t tell her daughter that “woo woo” was how Chris T referred to his diaper being good and soiled. She didn’t tell Rebel that there was no logical way he could know how to love the woman he’d only seen once, at birth, and now here, across the table that separated the unfree from the rest of them.
When they left the visitors area Chris T’s grandmother took him to the restroom. She was surprised to find his pull-ups bone dry. “I woo woo,” he said again and then spun in a circle, with his absorbents at his ankles, peeing on the tile walls and flooring, smiling hugely.
Chris T didn’t speak again until age five when he said, “This is all fine Grandmother, but there is more to it I think,” and then went to his room, and closed the door, and composed his first letter to prison that started with Dear Mama and ended six pages later.
The end of Rebel’s prison sentence would not come for five years after that first dictation; an entire decade motherless. Even though his mother was not physically present Chris T would refer to his childhood neighborhood as:
[A] place where fathers are mythologized in invisible footsteps, internalized to Christ-like status, and crucified on street corners. But mothers are the beating bass of the driven rhythm you freestyle your life over. Mothers are the endurers of the metropolitan melting icecaps, and the incubators of biological bastards, and the inspiration for a generation of story warriors.
-From the Chris T interview in XXL
The time between Chris T’s first word and his first full sentence was punctuated in absences. The long periods of awaited letters pulled closer together as the short visits over sterile tables grew further apart. When his grandmother wasn’t working she was cooking or singing, or rocking in her wooden chair by the window, looking out on the projects with eyes so sad that he felt as if the world were expanding and contracting within his thin chest and bulbous belly, his back rising and falling in rhythm to the outside wind. This mythologized intensity within Chris T can be observed in photographs of his wide, unblinking eyes looking up from the carpet of his grandmother’s living room. Chris T’s grandmother had written of the power she witnessed in him within her journal writings.
I see [Chris T’s] mother in him. His father, too. [Chris T] has the power to heal or destroy anything he touches.
-From the journal of Teresa Tittle
The first day of school came early for Chris T. He was physically underdeveloped, coming up only to the shorter kid’s shoulders. There were tetherball tournaments on the paved playground, Double Dutch jump rope breakdowns, improvised lyrics that his peers sang to taunt him,
Midget man walking with the so-so sadness,
When he found out his baby doll’s pants fit.
For two weeks Chris T endured being undermined. By the third week there were words scrawled in chalk over the uneven hopscotch boxes on the blacktop, in yellow, that read, Anything can be used as a weapon, and a gleam in Chris T’s eyes; his pockets filled with broken chalk and pencils.
By his second year at school, Chris T had grown a head taller than the tallest children, and his peers began following him, watching him, waiting for him to grow three heads taller again.
Chris T still didn’t speak much—mostly communicating through his writing—but he would occasionally point to a situation and say, “See that?” and others would look. He would tap out polyrhythms from the back row of the class; his hands playing a 6/8 while his feet held a 2/2. He would write messages on the blackboard between breaks that his teachers would quickly erase and say, “Alright, alright now. Settle down, class.”
But they—the students and the teachers—would not be able to stop thinking about his words on the board while lying in bed at night, counting the headlights that crossed their ceilings, wondering what he meant by his syntax.
“I think Chris taught me things I’m still unraveling,” said his eighth grade math instructor, Mr. Melville, a highly reputable educator who insists on wearing polka-dot bow ties every Tuesday and Thursday.
And all the while the letters from Rebel kept coming to grandmother’s apartment.
“Never say ‘trust me’,” Rebel wrote, “it’s a wasteful sentence.”
“Always, never use ultimatums,” she wrote, but sometimes still did.
“Wear pants that fit, and well-secured glasses,” she concluded in one letter. “We are always running from something.”
At age eight Chris T’s grandmother started coughing and didn’t stop for two years. He would sit beside her bed after school and read Rebel’s incoming letters aloud. He’d wipe his grandmother’s mouth and forehead with a dish towel. He’d feed her tomato soup with a white handled spoon from the yellow bowl with green stripes. He’d pause for her coughing fits to subside, tapping his foot, counting the half-steps, creating the impregnated pauses that would eventually work their way into his rhymes that he freestyled to the pigeons in the park blocks, and projected in rap battles on the playground. During the two years that Chris T could not visit his mother, due to his grandmother’s condition, he wrote more letters than he previously ever had.
On the second anniversary of his grandmother’s coughing fits, Rebel was released from prison. While Chris T was feeding his grandmother there was a knock at the apartment door.
When he turned the brass knob and pulled, there she stood.
“You’re a decade old son,” Rebel said, smiling, acclimating to the gravity of her newfound freedom. “You’re, you’re…” she said choking back air while trying to find it, not wanting to lose all the hardness she’d acquired over the last ten years within the first seconds with her son.
The night she was released Rebel placed the dictionary that she’d smuggled out of prison in a laundry basket on the table in front of Chris T, in his grandmother’s apartment. She sank back into the opposing hardback chair. She felt more at ease with a table between them again. And Chris T smiled, but didn’t speak. He studied his mother, not knowing what to say to her street clothing and unbraided hair. He didn’t quite recognize her in a red cardigan.
“I woo woo,” Rebel said cautiously, not knowing where to find the correct words, trying to speak in the native baby tongue he’d grown out of, feeling born for the first time herself.
That night Chris T reread each of his mother’s letters back to her. They sounded like a long sad rap ballad. And she cried until she began to cough, and her coughing combined with his grandmother’s coughing, and together the congestion rose up and out of the apartment windows, and crawled down the fire escape and out into the Ralph Avenue intersection, and died where Chris T’s first well-known rap line would be born—the underground anthem Woo woo, that’s the sound of great peace found on mix tapes throughout the projects.
In the pulsing beats of the approaching sirens, and the echoing gunshots, and the night sky falling around them Rebel and her mother held each other. Their coughing fit convulsed through their bodies in unison; dry caves crackling. Grandmother turned to Chris T, at the side of the bed, and held one of his hands in hers, her daughter’s in the other, and the devil crawled from their mucus filled mouths and dribbled off their chins onto the carpet, and slithered under the gap in the front door jamb.
“I’ve had a vision thirty-two years baking,” his grandmother said. “And now I enter the future, fully cooked.” And she smiled and died in her bed that night. And Chris T gathered the white handled spoon from the drawer and placed it under her palm on her chest, and his mother ran her fingers down over his grandmother’s eyelids and closed them, and kissed them, and slept.
Rebel felt like a different person when she awoke. She would go on to say she’d been “reawakened.”
The death of Chris T’s grandmother was difficult, but paramount in his exploratory meter building. It is what he now refers to as his “angular-geo-grammatical styling’s slant on wordplay.” This style is most profoundly pronounced in such well-honed songs as “Ghettos Rising” and “The Last Sidewalk Cypher Selling Flowers in Brownsville.”
-Excerpt from an exposé in Hype
Chris T and his mother continued to live on in his grandmother’s apartment, and even though the devil she’d coughed out kept coming back to the door, Rebel refused to open it. She stayed away from old lovers both real and imagined.
She went on to organize her neighbors, and lead a fight against the housing district via peaceful protests and courthouse sit-ins until her disappearance. This disappearance was rumored to have incited the Great Brooklyn Riots—the riots that schools don’t teach about. Rebel’s body was never found.
The Chris T hit Housing Motherfuckers Don’t Float So Well touches on the animosity surrounding his missing mother, and the darkness that fell over him during this time. He began experimenting through other methods of reaching greater wordplay.
Hallucinogens became a staple honing process in Chris T’s life—greatly influencing the album Rap My Mind Around Your Motherfucking Middle Finger, and Blow— and his lyrical slingings became intricate almost to the point of being incomprehensible. Some still insist it was his most powerful and prolific work to date.
_____That album is other-word-ly, almost biblical.
-Point Blank (former member of Chris T’s entourage)
It was one fateful night in Bedford Stuy, at a friend’s house, that Chris T would meet Flurry—a mad lyricist in her own right—who wore her afro pulled skin-tight at the front of her head and exploding out the backside. She was beautiful by any man’s standards. There were sparks that went beyond cat calls.
They shared a love of other-word-li-ness. Their courtship led to a pregnancy.
The couple moved to a large loft space shortly after the conception, staying close enough to the city’s rhythm, but far enough away from the nonstop elevated subways.
They’d play Jimi Hendrix and Public Enemy and Digable Planets on headphones placed over Flurry’s belly. Sometimes Chris T would put his ear to her navel. He’d listen to the echo of her abdomen, and whisper, “I woo woo,” to the growing space within her. And the space would speak back, but it is unknown what it said.
“Did you feel him kicking?” Flurry would say, and Chris T would nod.
Yet, despite everything, Flurry and their unborn child, could not prevent Chris T from undergoing fate. Maybe it was the child’s impending birth that cursed him. Maybe it was the pull of the devil at the backdoor crease—secondary egresses becoming a common theme in Chris T’s music at this time—always having another exit. Either way Chris was good and cooked in his Humvee, in Brooklyn, the night that another man was murdered nearby. It is still unknown if Chris T was responsible. Chris T insists he wasn’t. I believe him.
But questioning if mere proximity was Chris T’s only crime does not remedy the fact that Chris T was nonetheless convicted. Chris T was burdened with the weight of following his mother, and her father, and her father’s father to prison.
Ultimately his sentencing would result in the entirely over-the-phone-recorded-album entitled Generational Recidivism where Chris T opined on the promise of doorways and the curses of fire escapes. The album was produced in the likeness of Mac Dre and X-Raided’s former prison recordings of earlier decades. It would rise to great heights and go on to win Chris T the Rap Grammy for the year.
While Chris T was telecasting his acceptance speech from behind bars, a baby was being born in an ambulance in Flatbush. Birth Weight: 5 lbs. 4 oz. The baby was born the same weight as its father’s Grammy and met the Grammy before it met him. There’s a picture of the child trying to chew it.