Julius Wright is taking hip-hop down to its bones. The South Philadelphian, calling himself the Lyrical God, uses ballpoint pens to bang out beats. His unplugged rhythms are starting to get noticed.
Sitting behind a card table in the Market East SEPTA station, Wright holds two plastic Bic pens in his fists and, using a variety of taps, clacks and slaps, lays down a rhythm he can rap over. If hip-hop could go folk, this is what it would sound like: he doesn’t use a microphone, a turntable, a laptop or a Vocoder.
“Cut out the nonsense and industry, the glamour and cars and clothes, things that don’t matter,” says Wright. “Beating with pens and a table became powerful.”
Wright, 21, says he started doing this on his desk in the third grade. He perfected the technique while serving time in juvenile detention for burglary. He says he would take plastic bins from the prison commissary back to his cell and beat on them.
“The bin sounded so good – it was awesome,” says Wright. “I would take the bin and put it right in front of my cell, on the bars, and beat and rap for the whole block.”
Wright says he was facing six years on a second burglary charge when the judge had mercy on him and kept him out of jail. He says he now keeps his nose clean by rapping about his tough upbringing as a runaway in Philadelphia, turning it into something positive. He calls it hip-hop gospel.
Wright attracts collaborators in the SEPTA station. Recently, his hoarse rapping voice was complemented by the more mellifluous tone of his friend Mark Harmony.
Commuter Sandra Blount stopped to listen. “The music sounded very nice,” she said. “He really did hook me with the beat.”
She’s not the only one. Wright was recently profiled as part of an Internet documentary video series promoting a Coca-Cola’s “Burn,” an energy drink marketed in Europe. Wright’s breakout YouTube video, “Let the Beat Ride,” has gotten tens of thousands of hits.
He has a manager. But he has no intention of making records.
“Albums don’t sell anymore, the industry has changed so much,” says Wright, who is concentrating on Internet video. “I feel more power because you have to come see me. With the table and pens you need me. You need me to beat and rap on the table. I have most of the control now.”
“Let the Beat Ride” was recorded as a studio production with electronic beats (it’s available on iTunes), but it can’t capture the ferocity of Wright pounding the table like an angry CEO. He says he’s a live act; you’ve got to see him to get the full impact.