Some rappers emerge from the darkness of obscurity more super than human, holding more money that any of us have ever seen, consuming more drugs than any person seemingly could, taking nine bullets and seemingly emerging stronger for the wounds. These are the rappers we admire from a distance, watch like an action movie, reality stretched to almost ridiculous extremes.
Jimi Tents is not one of those rappers. When I spoke to the young Brooklyn emcee he was supremely human, eminently approachable, a young man with an obsessive love for music, filled dreams of becoming a rapper and nothing else. Not a CEO, not a billionaire, a rapper. There's no superhero backstory, no mysterious marketing strategy, no mythical aura. If 50 Cent is a superman, Jimi Tents is every man, and it's worth bringing up 50 Cent's name because that was the rapper that first sparked Tents' love for rap. His oldest hip-hop memories are of stealing an older cousin's copy of Get Rich or Die Tryin, popping it into his Walkman and listening in rapt attention.
"Get Rich or Die Trying made me want to start rapping, that and College Dropout," Tents said. "It showed me both sides of the spectrum. You don't have to rap about killing to be a successful artist. It just showed me a whole different spectrum, it balanced me out when I decided to start writing. It made me feel like I could tell my story."
For the record, when he says "when I started writing" he means when he was 8-years-old. At a time when I was still happily wearing sweatpants to school every day Jimi was already starting to fill up notebooks with rhymes and practicing his flows in the mirror, although he wasn't about to let anyone see him. "I was like, I'm not going to let anyone hear me rap until I can outrap everyone, which is kind of a crazy idea, because how do you get that good unless you're rapping in front of people? So it wasn't until I was like 16 that I started recording."
A hook up through a friend's Uncle resulted in cheap studio time, so Tents and his friends would pool all their money and lock themselves in the studio for hours, doing the unglamorous but neccesary work of learning through trial and error, Jimi slowly but surey finding his voice through repetition and effort. And so his 5 O'Clock Shadow album began to take shape, although the version we have now is technically his second attempt. He almost completely scrapped the first attempt at the album short of a couple of songs; there's that neccesary trial and error again, that constant drive for improvement. There was no hand reaching out to lift him up, no million dollar studio set-ups, just an everyman doing his best to make extraordinary music.
"When it came down to making this project, I was in situations when the power was getting cut off in the studio," Jimi related. "I had no budget, but we have live violins and cello, trumpet, trombone, people who played on Social Experiment on this project. It's just crazy to know that people believed in me. I'm just a 19-year-old kid with a dream. Seeing that, that was worth more than anything I can get paid."
When you're rapping for money and you're not making money, it can be devastating. But when you're rapping for the love of music and you're in love with the music you're making, that energy can genuinely sustain you. Even just an encouraging word from a hip-hop legend like Andre 3000 can be all the fuel you need, and Jimi knows because that's a real thing that happened in his real life.
"I'm waiting to go onstage [at CMJ], and I'm like, is that Andre 3000?" Jimi recounted. "I have no idea how he heard about me, but even so, he told me he was glad to hear me, that he knew what I was doing. That was all the recognition I'll ever need. Not to have a big head, but it's just great to know someone that I admire once admired me, that I'm pushing something with some of the same energy he was 20 years ago."
Jimi Tents may never become a superstar rapper, or he might. The movings of the music industry are a mystery even to it's most accomplished practicioners and sometimes the man continues to thrive as the superhero burns bright but then burns out and fades away. Jimi is a Top Prospect because he's a human unafraid to be human, which means that we can hear who we are in his music, and ultimately that's more powerful than any super power. Long live the every man for we all are every man.
[By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]