The Prince of Charm City
Nasty, Naive, and Backed by His Fans, MC Prince Charming Chazz Says Hampden is Just the First Stop on His Way to the Top
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On-screen, the white rapper works the crowd into a frenzy. Clad in jeans, a black T-shirt, a bandanna doo rag, and a golden crown with plastic jewels, he's flanked by DJ Uncle Blam and his backup singer, William Hayes, who waves a towel like a James Brown minion cooling off the star. The MC steps toward the small but enthusiastic group of fans, who raise their arms and obscure the camera's view of the scene.
Eat that pussy, Chazz, they chant. Eat that pussy, Chazz. The camera zooms into a closeup of the MC's face--doughy, acne marked, his mouth barely half full of teeth. And then the tongue comes, flat and wide, lapping wildly, and soon his whole face is into this pantomime.
The footage comes from a documentary film in progress about the rapper, Baltimore's Prince Charming Chazz. The filmmakers--Zac White, 24, and Tony Donoghue, 25, both from Ellicott City--also happen to be Chazz's backing vocalist and DJ, respectively. They've spent the past year and a good deal of their own money making the documentary, sculpting beats for Chazz's rhymes, setting up and promoting his gigs, and recording his album. They're his friends, producers, collaborators, and supporters. They want to bring Chazz's story to the silver screen.
Unlike the 2 Live Crew's Miami party bounce, though, there is nothing particularly compelling about Chazz's music. The beat is a perfunctory gallop, but Chazz isn't rapping to it. He's not really even rapping against it. He's rapping in spite of it, making up his own meter as he goes along, a cadence to which he doesn't stick.
His rhymes aren't sophisticated, either. He favors a simple one-two pattern of long vowels, and he's purely literal. It's all about what he's doing and how he's living. No whiplash wordplay. No sly disses. No wry metaphor. Not even the outlandish euphemisms for getting it on found in even the most thugged-out gangsta rap. Chazz is straight out telling a woman to put her lips on his dick and her tongue in his ass before he goes down on her.
Chazz is a different sort of white rapper than Eminem, with his percolating alliteration and fricative rhythms. Chazz is the kid who discovered rap in his teens and melded it with professional wrestling's cartoon braggadocio into his own peculiar vision of reality. And it's not pretty. Yet Chazz believes that he has what it takes to hit the big time, blowing up from his "Charm City hood all the way to Hollywood." He has no shortage of local fans who are willing to cheer him on, either. And when you watch for yourself this 31-year-old man talking misogynistic mack, despite the fact that you can't tell if people think he's good or just a good show, you may find yourself rooting for him, too.
"I have taken this to the streets like a politician," Chazz says of his music. Sitting upstairs at the 36th Street Royal Farms in Hampden, a few blocks from where he lives, he looks tired. He was up until 4 a.m. the previous evening cleaning the Hunt Valley Friendly's where he works, and he's showing the signs of lacking sleep. His eyes are red-rimmed. It takes him a moment to find the words he wants to say. But fatigue doesn't stop Chazz from talking up his Jan. 29 show at the Ottobar, his first headlining gig at the venue and only his fourth show ever. His first three were last fall.
"I have been door to door to every business that I know, downtown Baltimore, Hunt Valley, H-town Hampden, my hometown, putting out flyers, talking this concert up, to make sure all the city of Baltimore is there January 29," he says, easing into the clipped, throaty seriousness of a wrestler talking about his upcoming smackdown. "I'll lock the doors. Nobody's getting out of that motherfucker. Ready or not it's time to hear my hip-hop explosion, and I will use as much TNT as possible to fire away inside the Ottobar to rock the house that night. I'm not just going to be the prince that night. I'm the president. I'm Marilyn Monroe. I am Hulk Hogan himself. This is my night to be Elvis Presley for one night, though I think a little hipper version of Elvis."
Forget what you know about starry-eyed musicians, living-large rappers, and for that matter egomaniacs of all stripes. Chazz--born Chester Carlton Keener Jr.--doesn't fit any of those molds. For one, he doesn't seem to care--or to notice--all the obstacles in his way to fame. He's certainly encountered worse just to get where he is today.
He grew up in Hampden, getting picked on because "I was a fat kid and have always had teeth problems." He got kicked out of Hampden's Robert Poole Middle School for fighting and went to live with his grandmother in Woodlawn, attending Milford Mill High School. Since graduating in 1990, he's worked minimum-wage job after minimum-wage job. He got married at 22 and divorced at 25. Last year he met a woman online, talked to her on the phone for a couple of days, then headed off to live with her outside Pell City, Ala., a sojourn that lasted two months. (She's married now.) When he came back, he went to live with his younger brother in Elkton, only to get stranded at a ramshackle house when his brother went to summer in Ocean City, leaving Chazz with no electricity, no water, no nothing. He walked two hours down a highway to and from work at a Rite Aid until he eventually moved into a hotel. He's dealt with all of that, barely batted an eye, and still holds onto his hope for hip-hop success.
What he calls his biggest hits--"Tongue Ring," the song about going down, and "Piece of Shit," about being put down by his younger brother--are not the sort of songs you'd ever hear on the radio. But Chazz acts like he's been blessed.
"I figure, you're given a gift," he says. "My gift is my golden lyric. I say it just to play around, but it's true. I can pop something off the top of my head. I can write some awesome songs."
And then he's off:
Charm City Charm City is my town
I come back to rebound
'Cuz it knows I been away so long
But don't you know I came back to feel the gong
Of Charm City Charm City USA
Know what? The kid came back to play
All around in his town
Don't you know I'm still laying down my sound
Rapping backed up by Willie and Blam
My Charm City underground
It's not a bad bit of verse, but it doesn't have the corkscrewing dazzle of Jay-Z or the ballsy mix of severity, swank, and silliness patented by Tupac, two icons who Chazz claims to better. He also says he's the crown prince of hardcore rap because Eazy-E isn't around to hold the throne anymore. And he thinks his upcoming show is going to prove that to the world. It's the biggest night of his career.
"This is like my birthday, my Christmas, my Mother's Day, my wedding anniversary, wedding day, child's birth, my 81st birthday, all wrapped into one," he says of his imminent gig. "My family is coming to a party, and it's the entire city of Baltimore."
If dreaming is a vice, then White and Donoghue are Chazz's enablers. White met Chazz about two years ago when they both worked at the Mount Washington Whole Foods, where he was Chazz's boss. "We were outside on a cigarette break," White says. "And he was like, 'Hey, what's up, man.' And he told me he was a rapper, the greatest rapper who ever lived. And I said let me hear something. And he did his 'Tongue Ring' song. And I was just like, this guy's awesome."
White, a member of the Baltimore hip-hop outfit Shady Creepers, started hanging out with Chazz, making up raps. After a couple of months, White told his friend Donoghue about Chazz. White and Donoghue grew up together, played in bands together, and started making music videos. And they thought Chazz would be the perfect subject for a documentary.
"He's probably the most interesting guy we ever met," White says. "He's an entity. He's been up against a lot in his life. And I want him to make it. And hopefully, people will be able to see this movie and say, 'Man, if this guy Prince Charming Chazz can get out there and bust his ass and do this, then I can sure as hell do that.' Just his story--it's unbelievable what this guy has been through."
But wanting to tell a person's story can cross into exploiting that story, and it's not always apparent where White and Donoghue fall on that spectrum. As a documentary subject, Chazz seems something like hip-hop's version of Mark Borchardt, the thirtysomething Milwaukeean who was hell-bent on succeeding as a horror filmmaker despite a lack of funding, materials, and talent, as chronicled in the documentary American Movie. Director Chris Smith's portrait of the working-class artist pursuing his dream was both moving and funny, but underscoring the drama was also hint of bourgeois gawking at the Jerry Springer antics of the common folk.
The Chazz story could run the same risks, if only because White and Donoghue often come across as more fascinated by the drama in Chazz's story than they are in his musical career. "He had it rough growing up in Hampden," Donoghue says. "He would just get fucked with. And get in fights. All this random, horrible, horrible stuff that's happened to him, crazy random shit that comes out of nowhere that he's just dealt with and gotten through. Stuff that I couldn't deal with." And yet the foul-mouthed rapper still retains his simple innocence. He blushes when you ask him what his real name is. He laughs childlike at his own silly jokes. And when he found out that he was going to be performing at the Ottobar, he cried.
And like the notoriety that American Movie brought Borchardt, you suspect that if Chazz does become a famous MC somehow, it might not be because people are enthralled by his art. People may just want to see the underdog triumph. The rags-to-riches story is a staple in hip-hop, and Chazz earnestly believes in it. "When I heard Dr. Dre and Eazy-E, the old Niggas With Attitude, I said, 'I want to do that,'" Chazz says. "I was like 16 years old. I'd fall asleep at night listening to it. And what I'm about, I was born and raised right here in Hampden, and I want people to know what Hampden is. People want out of Hampden so bad, but you always end up back. And that's not always a bad thing. I want to rep H-town and Baltimore until the day I die."
White and Donoghue are doing everything they can to make sure that day doesn't come any time soon. They admit that Chazz doesn't maintain the healthiest lifestyle, and they know there's only so much they can do about that. But they did drive to Alabama last year to bring Chazz back home, stopping off in Memphis, Tenn., along the way because Chazz wanted to see Graceland and Sun Studios. They did rescue Chazz from sleeping at the abandoned Elkton shack--and later behind a building closer to his job--and helped Chazz's mother, Dottie Cole, procure Chazz a hotel room until he could afford to move back to Hampden. It's obvious that they care about the guy.
And Chazz knows it, too. "I know you want to do this story on me, but without a man named Zac White, none of this would be possible," Chazz says. "When I met him, I met my best friend in life. I have a best friend beside Zac, but Zac is the best friend I've ever had. Know why? Nobody ever believed in me, except my mother. And now with Tony, they've been here since Alabama. They went 950 miles to bring the prince of Charm City back to Charm City."
"We're going to be shooting a lot at the Ottobar show," White says. "It's always been his [Chazz's] dream to play the Ottobar. He talked about it and talked about it. And he's finally there, headlining. And we're going to be filming the week leading up to it. Just everything."
White and Donoghue first started the project almost a year ago with a three-hour taped interview with Chazz before he left for Alabama, and they've been shooting footage ever since. They shot footage of Chazz when they went to pick him up, on the stop in Memphis, when Chazz went to live in Elkton, when they helped him get a hotel room. They've shot Chazz at work, Chazz tooling around town, Chazz at home chilling out. And, of course, they've shot every one of Chazz's performances to date. Altogether, they have almost 44 hours of material on tape that they're sorting through and editing down--not counting any upcoming footage.
"We've been making this movie paycheck to paycheck for over a year now," White says. "We're always like, 'What do we need?' And it's a ton of things."
Fortunately, Chazz's enjoyment of the process--filming, recording, writing, rehearsing new songs--rubs off on the filmmakers. "He's having a blast," White says. "And that's what we enjoy, too. He's doing something right now that he will remember the rest of his life, no matter what happens. And it feels good to do something good for him."
Their biggest hurdle right now, however, is time. Editing is a time-intensive process, and White and Donoghue hope to get the movie finished by summer so they can start promoting it in time for the 2004 festival season.
"It's hard to find the time," Donoghue admits. "We both have jobs. And we tried to get grants and stuff, tried to get some money to really dedicate to it, but that's not going to happen. It's one of those things where we'd rather do it ourselves. We hope to eventually go on tour with him after the movie's done to promote [it]. We'll have to see what happens. But Chazz is like--he knows he's not the healthiest guy in the world. You never know what's going to happen to him, which is sad to think about. But he wants to play Madison Square Garden. We'll see if that happens. But we'd like to work that one out for him."
Prince Charming Chazz plays the Ottobar Jan. 29 with Jesuseater, Bombs Away, and Queen Anne's Revenge.