Issue 6 - Fall 2007 - The Sound Issue
ME & MC
When Hillary Frank met Paul Barman, she knew she'd found a friend for life. Then he had to go and become a Jewish rapper
BY HILLARY FRANK
Long ago I was friends with MC Paul Barman. Back then, he was plain old Paul Barman. He could have been Painter Paul Barman. Or Illustrator-of-Funny-Looking-Birds Paul Barman. Even Silly-Dancer-to-Mussorgsky’s-Pictures-at-an-Exhibition Paul Barman. But Semi-Famous- Jewish-Rapper MC Paul Barman? No way.
I met Paul at the Rhode Island School of Design. It was his junior year there, and I was a visiting student, taking a semester off from my regular college. We wound up in the same figure painting class and bonded one night in the studio, cramming on a color chart homework assignment. He immediately guessed I was Jewish, which impressed me; my red hair often throws people off. “No, I could tell,” he said. “Just look at your face.” After that, I don’t know why, but I spilled my guts to him. I told him how I couldn’t get boys to like me because, to them, I was just one of the guys. He told me about his mind-numbing crush on a girl in our class — the tall, skinny one with the messy bob.
We started doing all of our homework for that class together. Each week we were supposed to paint something real — a still life, a person — and each week we chose each other. We drew each other even when it wasn’t for homework. We sent each other letters even though we lived only a few blocks apart. On weekends we hung out until three in the morning drinking Carlo Rossi, plotting ways to get our crushes to kiss us, and debating whether my roommate had big boobs or a small head. We also spent a lot of time talking about what we wanted to do when we graduated. I don’t think either of us really had a specific answer to that, although we knew we were going to be artists. We knew we were way better than the other people in our class. Sure, some of them could paint and draw as well as we could. But we had the brains you needed to really make it. We were going to be the next generation of famous creators, and screw you if you didn’t like our stuff.
I had chosen to spend a semester at RISD because I had wanted to learn the academic way to paint. Anatomy, composition, color theory — I was a super-suction vacuum for all of it. I painted strictly by the rules. And then Paul came along and taught me how to break them. He was hyper-critical if he didn’t like something, and there were a lot of things he didn’t like. He didn’t like people without a sense of humor. Or people who thought they were cool. And he didn’t like me being uptight. He encouraged me to use sloppy lines. He pushed me to experiment, to add my personality to my work. The first time I tried it was on a portrait of an attractive older student, Mark, who fascinated me because he’d had to leave school a few years before due to a brain tumor the size of a grapefruit. Mark posed for me in my dorm room and spent the whole time talking about how he couldn’t commit. When he left, I added words behind his head in all caps, quoting directly from what he’d said: “WOMEN. I LIKE WOMEN A LOT. I GET TO A CERTAIN POINT — SEX — FOR AS LONG AS IT’S FUN. BUT ONCE THE ‘C’ WORD COMES INTO PLAY IT’S TIME TO STOP. OTHERWISE I GET SCREWED OVER. SCROOOOOOOD OVER.” It was my first painting that I think Paul really liked.
Then there was Pearl, the geriatric nude model who carried around pictures from her youth in a Ziploc bag. Our teacher had surrounded Pearl with colorful drapes and props: a large urn, a white paper Chinese lantern. It seemed so ridiculous, this practically deaf woman with sagging boobs and a Mohawk-esque strip of gray pubic hair sitting naked among all of these objects, and so I made the scene even more absurd: I painted wasps flying out of the Chinese lantern, as if it were their nest. I did it to impress Paul. And it worked. He laughed like crazy when he saw it, told me it was the best work I’d ever done. I felt like a mad genius.
Now, it’s not exactly that I thought I could make a living selling paintings of naked old ladies with wasps buzzing around their heads. Not exactly. But I was on to something.
Of the two of us, Paul may have been the superior draftsman, but I was confident I was the better writer. I remember him showing me a short story he’d written, and I marked it up, telling him to be more direct, say what he meant, and leave out anything that wasn’t interesting. I showed him the little snippets I was working on — I never would have called them poems — ideas, boiled down to a sentence or two. Here’s one I know he loved:
Senior year, I went back to my school in Boston. Paul became the comics editor at the RISD paper, and he gave me a regular spot. Each week I’d send him an illustrated overheard conversation like this:
[INSERT "YOU'RE LOOKIN' PRETTY HOT TODAY"]
Paul would add extra touches to my drawings. Those hearts on the title are his. The “Happy Valentine’s” bubble, too. He always drew some little intro like that on my work: “WARNING: Hillary Frank,” “There’s no denying the Hillary Frank,” or “Stop the world, it’s Hillary Frank.” He’d position the words cleverly so they’d play off my drawings — as a sign stuck in a baby’s hand, water dripping from a diving fat boy’s foot. If anyone else had touched my drawings I would have been pissed, but Paul’s handiwork always made my comics seem more special. I think I imagined that our professional lives would be a lot like this — one of us creating something, the other tweaking it to make it better.
We stayed in touch during the fall semester through mail and phone calls. During winter break, I got a letter from Paul that included the sentence, “I am spending my last semester making rap tapes.” I just figured I’d keep doing my thing and wait for him to get over it.
During second semester, I was in a creative writing class and bored out of my mind. And so was everyone else. We all got a glazed look in our eyes whenever someone read his or her story. I was determined that when it was my turn, I’d write something that would hold people’s attention. I wrote a coming-of-age story about a girl in art school, and I structured it just like the comics I’d been sending to Paul. The whole thing was told in little vignettes, and there was a title and drawing above each one. I even considered taping little bags of candy to the story — anything to make my classmates want to keep reading. It was the first time I had thought about audience — an audience aside from myself, aside from Paul. And it was the first time one of my peers asked to hang on to one of my stories. I didn’t send it to Paul, though. I was afraid he’d think the drawings were too stiff.
Paul kept writing to me about the demo tape he was working on, saying he’d send it when he was done. “Demo tape” made it sound like more than just a school project — like it was an audition for becoming a rapper. A pro. At that time I knew a lot of Jewish guys who had recently decided they were going to be the next Beastie Boy. I always rolled my eyes when they talked about it. I secretly hoped he would forget to send me the tape.
Right after graduation I went on a cross-country road trip with two friends, and when we returned, the demo was waiting for me at my parents’ house. The tape was titled MC Paul Barman, dated 4/19/97, and the cover looked like this:
[INSERT DEMO TAPE COVER]
I popped the cassette into a boom box, and my friends and I crowded into my little brother’s room and sat there listening to it, shaking our heads in dismay. “What is he doing?” we said. Sure, the lyrics were funny — rhyming predicate with Connecticut and pinky with Helsinki — but we really couldn’t get past the crappy quality of the tape. It sounded like three nerds in a basement: Paul rapping, another guy beatboxing, and a third adding extra “yeah’s” in the background. Paul’s voice was often distorted, and not in an intentional way. He laughed at his own jokes. He burped into the mike. He was being the same old goofball he was in real life. I asked myself, Does that make for a successful rap star? No, I thought. No, it does not.
But this whole rapping thing was showing no sign of going away. There were rhymes scribbled on the backs of his letters — things like, “I like it ... you look like a pirate” and “When I get laid ... it’s Roe vs. Wade.” And when I visited him over the summer, he took me to a party where he sat in a corner, cracking up a group of guys as he freestyled. I was laughing, too, but to me it just seemed like a party trick. Word play on speed.
Like so many intense friendships often do, especially when you live in different cities, my relationship with Paul dwindled until it was nonexistent. There were no more letters, not even the ones from him asking what was wrong with me, telling me to write or call. I missed him terribly, but I just didn’t know what to say to him anymore. Three years later, I was in the car and a review of funny rap music came on the radio. I was barely listening, but I perked up when I heard the phrase “rapper MC Paul Barman.” The reviewer went on to talk about Paul’s debut album and how, in it, he “proclaims himself an unappealing mess and proud of it.” Yup, that was Paul’s voice coming out of my speakers. It was the same sort of intellectual rhyming he had done on his demo, but professionally produced, with real synth and drum tracks behind him. I was driving alone, but couldn’t stop saying aloud, “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck?”
The thing is, we had both kind of made it. In the time that Paul and I had been out of touch, I had made a book deal on an expanded version of that coming-of-age story I wrote in college. It was going to be a novel for teens. And I had also started getting stories on the radio show This American Life. Our shared fantasy of having careers as artists was coming true, only not at all how I’d imagined it. And not at all together.
It turned out I was totally wrong about the burping thing. Burping, in fact, does make for a successful rap star. Burping and farting. Or, at least, rapping about them. I saw it for myself when Paul toured through Chicago, where I was living at the time. He was performing down the street from my then-boyfriend, now-husband Jonathan’s apartment, and we went to the show together. Paul came out wearing some kind of orange flowy get-up. I don’t know what I was expecting — maybe the T-shirts with holes and cargo pants that were his usual uniform back in art school? But he had the same signature Jew-fro, and he looked surprisingly at home onstage. Everyone in the crowd seemed to know all his lyrics. They rapped along with Paul in unison, shouting requests between numbers and cheering for songs they recognized after only hearing the first few notes. About halfway through the set, Paul asked for a couple of volunteers to join him onstage. Suddenly there was a whole lot of arm-waving and screaming from the audience. Female screaming. I kept quiet. I was close to the front, but Paul didn’t know I was there, and I wasn’t sure I wanted him to. He picked two young women — girls, really — to join him for the next number. The music kicked in, and without any coaxing the girls started grinding against him. From either side. I felt as if I’d caught him in a very private moment, as if I’d walked in on him having sex or something. I pulled Jonathan’s arms tightly around my waist.
And then, in the middle of all that, he saw me. He saw me, and he pointed at me. It was an oh-my-God-I-can’t-believe-you’re-here-are-you-really-here point, crossed with a yo-baby-hey-wassup point. I think I kind of waved back sheepishly. It felt as if this guy shouldn’t recognize me. This was not the guy from the painting I had at home, looking all innocent in a furry winter hat with earflaps. This guy looked a whole lot like that guy, but he seemed so different that surely all his memories before he added MC to his name must have been erased. Still, the point he gave me was flattering. I was in a room jam-packed with girls who wanted to get nasty with MC Paul Barman, but only I got the point. It was as if suddenly, in the middle of singing “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” Mick Jagger had singled me out. Who, me? You’re kidding.
The next time I saw Paul I was in Brooklyn, showing Jonathan the neighborhood where I was born. Paul just came out of nowhere, and I nearly ran into him on the sidewalk. We said our hellos and then, pretty immediately, he said, “Hey, check out these fresh rhymes.” He used the word fresh not in the cool sense, like “Fresh Prince,” but in the literal sense, like “fresh produce.” Then he started rapping. Right there on the street corner. “Happy September 11th ... remember the dismembered in heaven ....” At that moment it was clear to me: Paul wasn’t just MC Paul Barman onstage, but in real life, too. I didn’t know what to make of that. He was taking himself so seriously, I almost burst out laughing. There seemed to be no trace of the old Paul, who had had no patience for people who weren’t at least a little amused with themselves.
It has now been a decade since Paul and I stopped hanging out — since he was the first person I wanted to share my work with, the only person whose opinion I cared about. These days, he doesn’t even enter my mind when I finish a book or a radio story. But there are moments here and there when I feel stuck on an illustration, when it feels too rigid. And then I’ll think of Paul. I’ll think of how he’d want me to draw the lines more freely. And I’ll think of how he’d want me to make the image just a little weirder. A little more mine. I can’t help but wonder, too, if those non-poems we used to write ever flash into his mind when he’s rhyming.
I recently called Paul to talk about his evolution from Paul Barman to MC Paul Barman. I sat there with a list of questions designed to create a slow buildup of answers, from how the concept of MC Paul Barman originated to a moment of self-reflection — an epiphany about what MC Paul Barman means. But that never happened. The conversation was a flop. It started with him asking me if I had an agenda and ended with me forcing back tears of frustration. In the middle, he dismissed my curiosity about whether he ever doubted that MC Paul Barman would work. I guess I thought he’d sound incredulous at his own success, but instead he was unrecognizably closed off. “I thought it would be much bigger,” was all he had to say on the subject.
And he resented my questions about having conflicting on- and offstage personas: “I’m too original to be pigeon-holed.” He said it like a rhyme. I kind of nervously told him how years ago I’d lamented what I saw as his abandonment of a career as an illustrator. He was quiet for a long time and then said, “You see me as an artist, and I see myself as an artist, too.” I asked if he could talk about that some more. “No,” he said. “Just that.”
That statement really resonated with me, and after I hung up I tried to figure out why. I think it all comes down to the word artist. There are lots of ways to be an artist. There’s the capital-A artist, which I wanted to be back when I was in college: the kind who creates purely to express herself, and screw the commercial world if they don’t notice. At some point artists like this don’t even need to make art — just being who they are becomes their art. And then there’s the kind of artist who is uncomfortable even being labeled an artist, which is what I became: the kind who sees her role as conveying information and positions herself practically in the commercial world. Paul went the Artist route. The opposite direction from me. His job, as a rapper, is to brag about how great he is; mine, as a journalist, is to step into the background and tell stories about other people.
In a way, I regressed to being the uptight artist I had been before I met Paul. And he went full-steam ahead toward experimenting, cultivating his personality. But we both make a living playing with words — mine in the form of meticulously developed narratives, his distilled into clever rhymes. I know now that Paul and I are never going to have joint exhibitions or publish a co-illustrated book. And it’s not just because he wound up in a place I hadn’t expected. I did, too.
I still have every letter he sent me. One of them is a miniature photocopy of Paul’s composition notebook. Inside, he’d stapled together a bunch of pages from one of our back-and-forth marathon portrait-drawing sessions. There’s patient Paul with folded hands, grumpy Paul slumped in a chair, mustachioed Paul with a word bubble saying, “Draw me, Hillary!” Then there’s me. Me yawning furiously, me lying down and grinning madly, me eating Goldfish. I treasure that little book. It represents the brief period of time in the mid-1990s when Paul and I met in the middle between artist and Artist and helped each other figure out who the hell we were. &