Outside Chicago, only the most up-to-speed hipster club kids know about Hollywood Holt, but he talks like he just finished a photo shoot for XXL—the last time I got this much attitude on tape was when I interviewed Billy Corgan. He fills maybe 40 minutes of our hour-long conversation with shit talking and boasting, swinging from standard-issue swagger (he’s a really good skateboarder) to breathtaking cockiness (celebrities feel really comfortable hanging out with him). It’s only his crazy charm that keeps you from wanting to smack the guy—and if he’s gonna pull off the plans he’s got brewing for a rap career more in line with his ego, he’ll need to use every bit of it.
To be clear, the dude’s boasts aren’t empty—he’s got the skills. What little attention he’s gotten from the outside world he owes to his rapping as much as his hustle—tastemaking mags like the Fader and URB have given him the nod; URB even named him one of its current Next 1000, alongside fellow Chicagoans like Matt Roan and Copperpot. In the city he’s microfamous as Nigel (his real first name), the club scene’s premier interdisciplinary partier, a fixture wherever Flosstradamus and the Cool Kids hold court but just as likely to go nuts for a bill full of punk bands or a Raise the Red Lantern set. He’s the guy who’ll start a breakdancing battle in the middle of the floor, grab a mike to beatbox along with the DJ, and then stage-dive into the audience. He doesn’t do any of it half-assed, either, like it’s some kind of joke—he drills on the four elements with the focus and determination of an athlete in training. “I can beatbox, breakdance, MC, DJ. I used to write,” he says. “Me and Mano”—that’s DJ and producer Million Dollar Mano, a friend since childhood—”used to be in a graffiti crew.” Holt’s philosophy is simple: “I want to smash the stereotype that you can’t be the best at everything.”
You’d think that such a hard-core commitment to classic hip-hop skills would earn Holt a warm reception from the backpackers and traditionalists who’ve made a religion of condemning the culture’s decline, but by and large their reaction to him has been salty. “I love to get into debates with these hip-hop elitist motherfuckers,” he says. “They’re like, ‘I’m a real MC, and fucking this, this and that, and that’s not real hip-hop.'” Their main problem with Holt seems to be that he’s a party rapper and thus irredeemably unserious. He got his start on the mike as a hype man for DJs like Mano, tasked with keeping the crowd pumped up any way he could, and his style as an MC evolved from there—which means lots of sweaty party jams and not a lot of sober reflection on what hip-hop really means. Holt’s made fans out of some of the traditionalists’ favorite MCs—he’s working on a song with Lupe Fiasco, whom he’s also backed onstage, and whenever Mos Def’s in town they go skating together—but that only seems to piss them off worse.
The broader hip-hop audience may not be opposed to party rap on principle, but it’s taken them a while to come around to it. Seven or eight years ago, Holt says, “I couldn’t play my music anywhere, because nobody wanted to hear that. They wanted to hear, ‘Bitch, I’ll shoot you in the mouth.’ I like hearing that shit too, you know what I’m saying—I like gangsta-ass music too. But when I wrote, I wrote about how I really am.” Now that gangsta-ass music has turned into a melodramatic, humorless parody of itself, hip-hop fans seem to be remembering about fun. “It’s a full circle,” Holt says, “and people are going back . . . the gangsta shit is old, the ballin’ shit is old, all that shit is old. They need something new to talk about.”
Holt wants to be that something, and a lot of people are cooperating. Bloggers hooked on Flosstradamus, Kid Sister, and the Cool Kids and hungry for anything Chicago went nuts over his recent mix tape, Holt Goes to Hollywood (download it for free at hollywoodholt.com), a set of air-horn-streaked, party-ready bangers that references everything from Cajmere’s “Percolator” to the 808 beats of vintage Def Jam hits. And the video for “Throw a Kit,” his moped-fetishizing take on Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s,” has racked up more than 84,000 views on YouTube since June and fueled chatter everywhere from online moped forums to trendsetting blogs like Discobelle. It’s also had an unfortunate side effect, in that some people now see Holt as a novelty MC. “Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, it’s the fucking moped rapper,'” he says. “We made it to be funny and fun, but it’s not a joke. It’s not a ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic song. It’s about mopeds, and that’s what we do, that’s what we ride, that’s what we’re on.”
Once Holt decides to do a thing, he throws himself into it 110 percent. He likes breakdancing, so he joined a breakdancing squad to make sure he practiced. He likes mopeds, so he got a job at a moped shop, joined the Peddy Cash moped gang, and then founded the Murder Club gang himself. He collects vintage boom boxes, but he won’t buy them on eBay because it’s too easy—instead he combs the south side. Sometimes another rapper will ask to borrow one, or maybe a pair of Cazal glasses from his stash, and he’ll usually help them out—but he can’t see why they don’t get their own if it’s such a big thing to them. “To me that’s lame as hell. Why would you want to push something that you don’t have? I’ve never understood when I see these videos with dudes sitting on Bentleys and shit, and it’s like, ‘Nigga that ain’t your car! That’s bullshit!'”
For the moment at least, the first stage of Holt’s plan is to get himself established as a rapper—and not by what he calls “the Spank Rock route, where it’s mostly just the indie crowd, the hipster scene.” He wants the mainstream. “I’m going to be on TRL,” he says—and he’s not just blowing smoke, if his collaboration with Joel Madden on an upcoming Junior Sanchez album is any indication of things to come. Next he’ll unveil his still-in-the-works punk band, where he’ll be able to indulge his love of Crass and the Adicts. After that—well, there’s always the chance he’ll fall into something else. Recently he was in Vancouver for a string of shows and, while struggling out of a pair of skinny jeans at bedtime, accidentally put his arm through a window. He got to the hospital in a hurry, but the doctors told him there was still a small chance they’d have to amputate. “I was seriously thinking about this shit, while I was laying out in pain,” he says. “‘If my hand gets cut off I’m gonna build some sort of cool prosthetic ape-man-style hand.’ And I woulda seriously built that.” v
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