Thursday, March 24th, 2011 at 7:45 pm
A new book on Southern rap by Ben Westhoff is set to reveal some of Scarface’s mental health issues. Westhoff, an author who has written for publications such Village Voice, Pitchfork, Oxford American, and web versions of The Wall Street Journal, NPR and Complex, has titled the book “Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip Hop.”
The book deals with how rappers from the South have changed the face of hip hop, but it also deals with the lives of the artists involved. The following excerpt deals with Scarface’s (who may or may not be in prison right now) life and mental health issues:
‘Face has always seemed older than his years. He’s got a wide face, sturdy frame, bad posture, and tends to make jokes about subjects others might not necessarily find funny, like killing himself, as he did in an interview with video blog site VladTV. He came up in Houston’s poor South Acres neighborhood, which he describes as close-knit. “Everybody was cool with each other,” he says. “We really believed in our neighborhood. It ain’t no different than the hood anywhere else.”
Music ran in his family. He learned to play bass guitar from his uncle, and nowadays makes occasional surprise appearances at Houston rock shows as a guitar player. But his childhood was traumatic; he attempted suicide by slitting his wrists with a razor blade when he was twelve or thirteen. Before long he was shuttled off to the mental health ward at Houston International Hospital, where he was plied with lithium and antipsychotic drugs. “When you go crazy in the hospital, they get like five or six big ol’ men to come in there and hold you down,” he remembers. “They pop you with that Thorazine and you go out.”
Even worse was when they locked him in a foreboding spot called the “quiet room,” which contained little more than a small mattress with no covers. “I spent a lot of time in the quiet room, to the point where if anybody said anything about that quiet room I was like, ‘OK! I’ll be good! I’m not crazy anymore!’”
‘Face says he had a schizophrenic uncle, who was “on drugs heavy, like he got high and never came down.” Other than that, however, he can’t point to any genetic or experiential reasons that may have sparked his mental health issues.
He remains unsatisfied with his treatment. During our phone conversation, he grows increasingly sarcastic and worked up as we discuss the subject, at one point Googling his doctor, who is now employed by the University of Texas Harris County Psychiatric Center. Scarface then proceeds to fire off an e-mail to him, which he reads aloud, pausing occasionally to laugh hysterically:
“I don’t know if you remember me but my name is Brad Jordan. I was at Houston International Hospital in the early eighties. Thanks for your help in the past. I’m one of the greatest hip-hop artists of all time. You sucker!”
There’s something poetic about this note, with both its slightly vengeful and oddly warm notes. Indeed, Scarface’s tribulations have repeatedly worked their way into his music. Unlike other rappers who’d have you think they’re psychopaths, his honesty makes his voice resonate.
Obsessed with the thin line between sanity and craziness, between living and dying, he captures the desperation of men at their wits’ end. “Everybody’s got a different way of endin’ it,” he raps on, “I Seen a Man Die,” “And when your number comes for souls then they send it in/ Now your time has arrived for your final test/ I see the fear in your eyes and in your final breath.”
It wasn’t necessarily his depression or treatment that informed his style, he says, but rather his therapy, which forced him to articulate what was going through his head. “We had one-on-one and also group meetings, where you had to talk,” he says, adding with a laugh that thirteen-year-olds like himself were permitted to smoke cigarettes if they had their parents’ permission. “It helped big time.”
Not long after departing the hospital, Scarface left home and stayed with some friends through his middle-teen years. He dropped out of high school and later got his own place with longtime producer John Bido. His career as a rapper was kicking into gear; he’d come onto J. Prince’s radar after an acquaintance passed along a tape of his song “Scarface.”
The book drops May 1st of this year through Chicago Review Press. Spotted at HHDX.