Publication Date: Friday, December 16, 2005|
(December 16, 2005) Palo Alto rapper finds his muse on the streets, writing while delivering pizza
by Rebecca Wallace
Alighting on your doorstep with a mushroom-and-pepperoni, the pizza delivery guy doesn't say much.
But out on the streets of Palo Alto, his weathered maroon Honda bursts with words. That's where 31-year-old Jon Prentice writes his hip-hop lyrics. This guy's got nouns and adjectives and verbs dancing and evolving, vowels lining up in symmetry and consonants going head to head.
You'd never expect the quiet, whip-thin guy working at Pizza My Heart in downtown Palo Alto to be a rapper. In an interview with a reporter, he's cordial but soft-spoken. Sometimes the only answer he gives is a shy smile.
But stick him behind a microphone -- or in the seclusion of his car -- and bam .
"You wouldn't even recognize him on stage. He's not loud and boisterous, but he just goes for it," said Andy Ridgway (also known as Raggedy Andy), who owns Soothsay Records, the small Montara label where Prentice just recorded his first CD. Titled "Polygonal Planet," the disc is under Prentice's stage name, Insomniac.
If you think about it, delivering pizza is a pretty good gig for writing rhymes. You've got plenty of time alone in the car to freestyle. Nobody's harassing you or throwing papers on your desk, and you can play your beat tapes as loud as you want.
"I'm kinda jealous," Ridgway said. "He's really content doing what he's doing."
The results are unusual, irreverent and intricate. Sometimes there's a tale or a theme to follow, such as in "TP Emergency," in which a hapless fellow finds himself in dire bathroom straits.
"I just started rhyming something stupid," Prentice says during an interview, surrounded by pigeons at Lytton Plaza. "It's kind of a universal thing."
Two other songs on "Polygonal Planet" present opposite sides of a coin. "Bad Day" and "Good Day" follow Prentice through the same sequence of morning events. Only his attitude changes.
When the sun pours in on a "Bad Day," he says: "Do away with useless days and these abusive rays illuminating leaving pupils straining to see, rather have the light vacate and let me be."
But on a "Good Day," his reaction is: "I'm replenished to live knowing this heated spot's starlit, there's been a switch of focus, emphasis to hopes and dreams."
Sometimes, though, Prentice's rhymes are all about sound; the theme and meaning are secondary. One experiment has impressed many of his listeners. On a few of the "Polygonal Planet" tracks, he's chosen one vowel sound and repeated it over and over throughout words.
The "A" song is "Ape Plague," in which a few of the lines read: "afraid warriors waver with malaise plated guts, can't placate the melee with claymore, saber or epee, but I remain brave with brainwaves engaged, weigh in with pens wavin'."
And the "I" song is "Why Try It." An excerpt goes: "Specializing in rhyme science I preside, and in light of the findings I prescribe for you a lifetime of miming."
This level of wordplay is groundbreaking, says Palo Alto rapper Luke Sick, who calls Prentice "the dark scientist."
"What an innovation. What a way to add to an art form," he said.
All these rhymes are paired with beats by various DJs, intermingled with snippets of other people's voices as well as pianos, horns and other sounds.
Prentice's first CD has been a long time coming. He got into hip-hop in while attending Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in Palo Alto, listening to "the classics": Run-DMC, Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim. He started composing his own rhymes around age 20, and by the mid-'90s he was a regular caller to Andy Ridgway's late-night hip-hop radio show on KZSU.
"I liked to have listeners call in and talk. We would put them right on the air if they wanted to freestyle. Jon would call in every single week," Ridgway recalled.
One night, Prentice dropped by the station in person and Ridgway let him jump right in and rhyme. "I turned on the mikes and said, 'Here we have one of our favorites, Jon the insomniac.' And that stuck," Ridgway said.
Prentice, Ridgway and Sick remember that time as a sort of golden era for their brand of hip-hop in the Palo Alto area. They'd spend hours at concerts or at the radio stations at Stanford and Foothill College, hanging out with records, rhymes and 12-packs. This was before there were more stringent laws against sampling bits of other music, so artists felt freer, Sick said.
"We love the old records," said Sick, whose band Sacred Hoop is putting out its fourth record early next year . "I've still got 9,000 pieces of vinyl in my house.
Some of the tracks on "Polygonal Planet" hark back to those days; Prentice says it can take him years to finish and be satisfied with a song.
Others date back three years to his four-month "Winnebago Death Tour" ramble around the Western states, when he drew inspiration from life on the road.
"If I could afford that all year round, it'd be nice. I'd put out an album every year," he said.
These days, he's doing some promotion of his CD by performing in such clubs as the Rockit Room in San Francisco. The CD is also for sale online and at Amoeba Music and Streetlight Records.
There aren't that many venues in the Palo Alto area, though. The few include -- oddly enough -- the occasional hip-hop show at The Sports Page sports bar in Mountain View. Rhymes also abound on Friday nights at Dan Brown's Lounge and Sports in Palo Alto, although that has more of a reggae dancehall flavor, says Sick, a regular patron there.
Sick also says there are fewer hip-hop radio shows and groups around here than there used to be.
"There are a lot of rappers, but no DJs or samplers. Just one guy on an open mike," he said.
Prentice doesn't seem to mind performing rarely, and he seems happy with however many CDs he sells.
While he wouldn't mind making a mint from "Polygonal Planet," he says, "If not, it's a present from me to the world -- whoever likes it."
Then he smiles and heads into Pizza My Heart to go to work.
Info: More information about "Polygonal Planet" by Insomniac is at www.soothsayrecords.com. For more about Luke Sick and Sacred Hoop, go to www.sacredhoopfan.com.
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