You want to hear from me? Half the time, I don’t want to hear from me. And yet, I am writing you.
Yes, as you say, we are very different. The subtext of what you know and don’t know about him is a sum of tall tales and fables. Every piece I’ve read on his group was horrible and yours was generally fatuous. Yet in the end, I am left with your story and I cannot abandon it. Out of all the stories of journalists who have contacted me, yours is the only one that has come at a cost. Even though you were not as affected as me, the group’s disintegration did affect you. I have some feeling for your tale of quitting hip-hop journalism, questioning what about fame allured and repelled you, and trying to create a different literary path with your publishing company in France.
I wrote draft after draft of a letter gently rejecting your offer for me to write about them, attempts to find the right words to tell you of the inflicted and self-inflicted damage I had done to myself and how I couldn’t deal with reliving the past that created the 11th Street Assassins. The core of your pitch—your seeking answers to what happened to them and what vis-à-vis affected you—prevented me from finishing. I would phrase, structure and sequence different sentences that explained how I never wanted to think of the group again, especially given their resurgence in popularity. Yet every time I tried to finish it, the sentence “Seeking answers is the only thing I haven’t done to try and get better” came out of my head, and did so in a way that seemed beyond me.
So my answer is to face my nothingness beyond on the page. Yes, I will take your offer to write a book about my brother, his rap group, and what made them who they were. Enclosed in my attachment is my bank information to which you can wire me the two-thousand-dollar advance, and I will take you up on your offer for hotel lodgings regarding covering their comeback.
Your financial support will be good for me because I can’t think of Rod the Predator or the Assassins now. To be specific, if I think of them too much, I want to get high. As much as I despise the social justice arts community’s online rhetoric about me, the core of their anger is based in fact: I am a black conservative and a crack addict. Harbor Springs residency isn’t the best place to hide from social media or my brother’s memory. A renovated old YMCA campground, the center is a glorified clubhouse for wealthy junkie twenty-somethings, but the staff is friendly. When I can limit the stimuli to my space and mind here, I don’t go in the binge detailed in hip-hop articles about me on woke social media. I live here rent-free, grateful for Tommy Fredericks (my girlfriend Helen’s father) being an inbred wastrel with money. Though if I think about it too much, I hurt so bad, I think about using to prevent pain: Helen is 50 miles away in Seattle, a parishioner at the church co ran by my former best friend, and given our history of relapsing, we need to be away from each other.
Mostly I hide at the center, heavily medicated with either psych meds or illegal substances. I get up, read the free New York Times the staff has for us, and eat the free breakfasts they have in the kitchen area from seven to ten. Then I go outside and stare at the view of the sound and try to jot notes for freelance gigs before the kitchen calls for lunch. Then I write in my room until the kitchen calls for dinner, eat alone, and go back to my room to watch Netflix before I go to bed. Doing this undisturbed on the dime of a cola heiress is a seductive purgatory, devoid of fire, full of paid amenities, and an atmospheric numbness as close to a dope stupor as they can manage to make it.
Yet until now, I was going to withdraw even from that life. I had planned to take a train to Portland and a bus to Cannon Beach with a vague idea to change my name and become someone new. Ever since OG Luxury Boy had a pop hit sampling my brother’s song and a hoard of glorified art revisionists have prodded me to help excavate my family history and get paid for it, I have had no peace. From the center lunch line to the occasional time I leave, everyone who has discovered who I and who my brother was has interrogated me regularly on the legend of Rod the Predator. I’ve done so many drugs in the last few years, I don’t know if I can give them an answer they’d like.
No, strike that: that last sentence was bullshit. I’ll give you the bulk of the dust cover for the book: My name is Terrence Steven Shannon and my brother’s name was Rodney Shannon. Not Rod the Predator. Not DJ Rodney. Rodney Steven Shannon, Jr. My brother didn’t come from a family of gangsters, killers and crack dealers. His story and mine both begin at The Black Cascadia, a DIY socialist weekly Sarah Shannon and Cecil Robinson ran for 10 years. Sarah, our mother, came to radical publishing via becoming disillusioned as a professor of African American literature at Nisqually University and a deputy minister at the Black Nation Collective. Cecil, my now-estranged uncle, was also a professor at Nisqually, the chief accountant for the BNC, and the Chief of Staff to my father’s failed campaign for a 32nd District state senate seat. Rodney Shannon Sr., my father, was the head of the Collective, a bestselling memoirist, and the founder of the African American Studies Department at Nisqually. After his campaign for state senate collapsed, he blamed my mother and uncle for his problems and consoled himself with drugs and alcohol. The extent that his theory is still believed plays almost as large of a role in why I avoid sections of Black Tacoma as the infamy of my brother. I can fill out the rest of the book cover when I can fill out the book itself: my plan is to report the video and the BET hip-hop live show, interviewing the surviving members of the Assassins and outside players in the process
My memories of Rodney Sr. are mostly in and around bars on the hill, him donning military fatigues and various states of sobriety. In those times, he would constantly lecture me about something I was wearing, some act I did that he deemed effeminate, or something that my mother and Cecil wrote that he considered being insufficiently nationalist. If my father was hitting both of his barrels (crack and alcohol), he wouldn’t even notice me.
No, my most vivid and formative memories of childhood were the Black Cascadia. It was my life as much as my brother, and my mother, and Cecil’s. She and he ran it from a house tied into a rickety garage that used to be one of John Brisker’s drug hideouts when he played basketball for the Sonics. It was only two miles away from the condo where I was born but seemingly a continent away regarding my own sense of safety in the neighborhood. My mother and Cecil dreamed the paper as a happy retirement from their years of activism, their way to continue giving back to the community that nurtured them. They had invested so much in the collective and then my father’s state senate campaign. When they were blamed for the downfall of both, they wanted to do something to let people know that they still cared about what matters.
This was my growing up; and in all of it I knew nothing of Rod the Predator. I thought of my brother as only Rodney (or tall Rodney, as the aunties in the neighborhood used to call him). My most vivid memories of him were in movement: mornings when he would walk me to school, late afternoons when he met me at the city bus, nights when he would cook for my mother while she was doing layout, finagling an article, or hounding for sponsors. In my mind, I can still grasp brief, beautiful pictures of him. Zipping my coat on winter mornings. The Saran wraps of food from Nisqually Academy that he would pick and save for me. Those spring and summer days when we would load the weekly paper into my mother’s Oldsmobile, talking about the articles we had published that week as we dropped them off to businesses and distributors on our route. We would have wide-ranging free-flow conversation with our mother about who should be mayor, what block was safe, or what black politician or hip-hop star was doing right or wrong by the community.
Those pictures were the sum of what I knew of him until I heard Rod the Predator on the radio. That moment plays itself in my mind almost daily. I can see the front of the garage, the door open, and the time in my fake Rolex: a little after 6:55. I can still hear my mother going into one of her monologues beforehand. Her ritual, after an issue was in the can, was to sit in her burnt mahogany rocking chair and go stream-of-consciousness. My job, after I finished my homework, was to pour her a ginger ale in her favorite crystal glass, put a hoagie sandwich next to it, and try to keep up.
“Hear that song, boy?” She said as I put a drink in her hand. “Stop looking at that fake ass watch and listen. And I don’t know where your brother got that shit. It’s gonna turn your wrist green.”
A jeep drove by, dingy but with 28-inch rims and the top improbably down. It was April and not warm; but it was the first day just warm enough to open the garage door, and the young man in the polo shirt driving by must have had the same idea. “You remind me of my jeep. I want I want to ride it? Something like my sounds, I want to pump it? That nigga doesn’t love a woman, Terrence, That nigga loves his car.”
She sipped her ginger ale, took a bite of her sandwich, then turned her body to the west in the direction of Nisqually College. “That’s what that dumb ass little boy was listening to in his car as well. He was listening to that shit when he came up here trying to get this internship. And he got mad I turned him down. Hell, the school got mad when I sent the boy back at them, I don’t care what the journalism department at Nisqually says, son. If their journo head doesn’t send me somebody who knows the culture, then I’ll look for somewhere else to get the funding.”
Another Jeep rolled by, a little fancier and with louder speakers. “There again, the same goddamn song,” my mother said, “Turn on the radio, Terrence. Something to drown this out.” I turned on the radio to a song that sounded like “Betcha By Golly Wow” but slower. Suspecting it was some sort of remix, I went to turn it to NPR, but my mother waved her arm. “I need to hear that today. Something sweet. Quiet.” Yet the song moved slow, too slow for the mental memory I had of it.
“Something wrong with the radio?” My mother said.
“Maybe the station, mama,” I said. “Let me turn it to — ”
“You’s a stupid bittttch. you a stupid biittch. You a stupid ass bitch…” The words from the speakers shocked like a pulse of electricity. Worse, one of the voices sounded like Rodney.
“Mama, “I asked. “Is that?”
She grabbed my hand before I could utter his name. My mother would do that to Rodney and me as a warning. Nervous, I looked to her to say something. The song kept pace as a nightmarish muddy dirge. “You a stupid-ass bitch…hating on a nigga trying to get rich. I wish I could put your ass into a ditch…You’s a dumb bitch…you a dumb bitch,“ though in my head I could still hear The Stylistics singing ,“There’s a spark of magic in your eyes./ Candyland appears each time you smile.”
“It’s not him, mama.” I said, trying to reassure her. “He’s gonna come in and—“
“Turn it to the classic soul station.”
Mrs. Willis’ Evening Slow Jam Hour was on. She had been a staple of our funding by paying for half of the page of space on our paper every year for 10 years.
“I was so sorry we had to make the announcement, but we had to do it. We had to cut funding for the Black Cascadia. This gangsta rap shit I just heard is too much from me. When I came up, y’all, we had “Cold Bold and Together.” “A Brighter Tomorrow.” “Bold Sold Sister.” And what do we have now, folks? What do we have now? The 11th Street Assassins. “You’s a Stupid Bitch.” “Money, Cars and Hoes.” “Rape Rod.” “Put ’em in the Furnace.” And you know Thom Bell Is gonna sue ’em for not clearing the sample.
And the worst thing about it? The worst thing about it? It comes from Rodney Shannon Jr., Rodney Sr. and Sarah’s boy. Yes, family, DJ Rod the Predator is the son of our ol’ Crackhead Sharpton and the socialist scold of the neighborhood. As much as I hate his partner in crime, DJ Bitch Killa, I expected him to be a tubby sociopath. I went to Nisqually, so I knew his father was a white-woman-chasing right-wing nut. I can see the shared depraved indifference to their people. But Rodney Shannon, Jr.?
My breath was gone. My muscle nerves felt like daggers were slicing through them. I looked to my brother bowling over in her chair, and raced to the radio to change the station, but she grabbed my arm.
I’m tired, family. I’ve known these people all my life and I’m tired. I was with them when they were up and down the streets talking about revolution and fighting the system. I saw them promise to serve us with the black nation collective, and I saw them promise to deliver something after we gave them dollar after dollar after dollar. And what did we get? What did we get? The Hotep crack Norma Desmond and liberationist who signify on our problems as if we were ignorant capitalist children. Is that all we got? Is that all we got from these people, family?
All the years Sarah and Cecil promised they wouldn’t take up space in the community because of Shannon Sr.’s bullshit. All those years Sarah and Cecil hectored us for being too church, being too conservative, and for not being red, black and green enough. All those times when we had neighborhood watches after we had to had to bury our babies, and she scolded us on that paper on how we didn’t go after capitalist institutions. Well maybe I didn’t, Sarah. Maybe I’m a naive bootstrapper who doesn’t understand. But I’m tired.
Yes, I wasn’t a fan of Weldon Robinson, Cecil’s daddy. Yes, I thought his urban league negroes were slower than a turtle on heroin when it came to my freedom and my rights. Yes, yes, I supported the black collective for most of my life, But I am tired of their mess. I’m tired about hearing Senior and his crack problem. I’m tired of being told I ain’t no good because I don’t want to share my money in no pie in the sky collective philosophy. And now I got to deal with Rod the Predator? Now I got to deal with Rod the Predator?
I turned off the radio off to see my mother immobile in the rocking chair. Her eyes were wide but still and her mouth was slightly open. She leaned over, and a drop of slobber slid off the side of her mouth. “Can I get you some water, mama?” I said, choking on the vowels in my throat.
Leg muscles that were normally a subconscious given suddenly gave out, and I wobbled to the door. Hyperventilating, I got to the sink, labored to turn the water on, and almost dropped her favorite crystal drinking glass from the second shelf to the countertop. I turned the water off and looked back to her, as still as a cameo portrait, looking at Rodney at the gate by the street pole.
“You okay?” The streetlight came on, and I could see pins of sweat come over his face. It took every ounce of will in my body to present her water glass in front of her, but she threw it to the side wall.
“Am I a bitch, Rodney?”
My mother stood up and moved slowly toward him in the pavement. “Momma, momma,” he said. “I was gonna tell you. “
“Am I a bitch, Rodney?”
“We signed us a half-million-dollar deal, momma.”
“They gave you a half-million-dollar deal? “
“No mama they gave us a half-million-dollar deal. You are us. My money is your money.”
“It is, mama. We got a chance at that much…and I’m gonna — ”
“Am I a bitch, Rodney?”
My mother suddenly sped from her chair into the house. I followed her halfway but stopped in the middle of the living room because Rodney was looking at me. He could barely get words out. “I…I…The money. I wanted to get us out. I was gonna find the right way to tell her. The news would have got out, anyway li’l bruh. I was doing my DJing with Rufus, Nona, and Aubrey and we got an offer. I’m gonna give all the money to mama, this is a way to get us out.”
“Under whose rule, Rodney?” My mother said. She took one of his belts and cracked it like a whip. “And you want me to deal with you as the boss of my house. I made this house, Rodney. I did. It ain’t no 500,000-dollar house. But it’s stable. It’s honest, Rodney, ain’t nothing honest about your ‘half-million dollars.’”
“You could still do that, mama. I buy you a house and you can still.”
“You could still do that. You could still do that.” My mother swayed as she mimicked him. “Your daddy told me, I could be a writer if I sacrificed myself to him first. My high school teachers told me I get a Woolworth job if I wasn’t too uppity. Cecil’s daddy told me I could be a loving wife and mother someday if I acted like a maid. Everybody, everybody told me how I could be a successful little black girl if I just did what they say, not tell about the boys that hurt me and give up my dreams — ”
“I don’t want to give up your dreams, mama.”
“Yes, you do, boy. All of you do. You, your daddy.”
“I’m not my daddy.”
“The hell you ain’t your daddy. You worse than your daddy. Your daddy didn’t even think to say something like Rod the Predator.”
Rodney fell twice before getting out the door. My mother got a hold of the belt and started to swing. “Why don’t you listen to me, mama. I didn’t mean bad from this.”
“You wanna rape me, Rodney?”
“I spend all my life raising you to be better than that. I went to schools teaching myself to be the best parent I could be, and all that got me was Rod the Predator.”
“All that got me was Rod the Predator.” She said, hitting him with the belt. “You wanna be Massa, Rodney?”
“I don’t wanna be Massa.”
“I can’t deal with Massa no more. I can’t deal with Massa no more.”
And with that, he left. Within weeks, Rod the Predator became a household name in the Pacific Northwest. My mother and I couldn’t go anywhere without someone talking about it. At the store, the bus stop, the library, and the fish house. Without solicitation, people dumped their pent-up feelings, mythologies and second-hand rumors on our feet. We could not breathe unpopulated air without hearing the maelstrom of wonder, curiosity and rage at “Rod the Predator.”
And as all this was going, “Stupid Bitch” got bigger and bigger. The CD single sold 200,000 records in a month just in the Pacific Northwest. A month later, it went gold. A month after that, their follow-up, “Burn That Bitch Down” sold 100,000. The Assassins were the most prominent topic in Washington media (not just Washington music media and not just Washington black radio). National music trade papers had published previews of their album with estimated sales. Broader shipping was all but set, and a music video was in the works. Reviews of the mixtape were on The Source and Rap Pages. And the night before they were supposed to go on a national tour, they found Rod the Predator, my brother, hanged from a tree next to the YMCA.
So as I said, I have reasons to say yes to this project.