We’re kicking off Giving Tuesday early this year! Your donation today will be matched up to $10K, doubling your impact! If you donate $50 today, the Reader will receive $100.

The Reader is now a community-funded nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on your support to help keep us publishing?

A man in tattered clothes staggers through the doors of the crowded Dan Ryan el car. His head is hanging down, so it’s hard to guess his age.

At the opposite end of the car a young man with a big boom box leans against a pole. “Today’s my father’s birthday, and I’ma do this rhyme for him even though he wasn’t around.” He’s midway through a verse that details his mother’s complaints against his father when the man in tattered clothes stumbles toward him.

“Now ya know all that ain’t true,” the man says. “I’m your daddy, and let me tell ya what I had to do!”

His head is up now, and it’s clear he’s young. But he starts rhyming with the slow, wry cadence of an old man, defending his role as the young man’s absent father, trying to convince him of his good intentions. Passengers start chuckling. When he finishes rapping he stoops and does his own version of the erotic butterfly dance, then passes his cap around for donations.

People nod their heads, as if they recognize him. One girl tosses a dollar into the cap and asks, “Hey, why don’t you cut an album?”

On another day on another train the same young man, now wearing a flannel shirt and a red bandanna, pushes through the doors that connect the cars. This time he’s alone. He sets his boom box down, and it takes up two seats. “My name is Genuine Draft, and I’m about to kick this rhyme dedicated to all you people leaving them kids home alone,” he says in a smooth yet hard-edged voice. He flicks on a tape, and out pour the rolling rhythms of vintage Barry White remixed with hip-hop beats.

“The ghetto streets is where I roam, / And I focus on the issue called Home Alone. / It ain’t just a picture / Because DCFS is straight gettin’ richer.”

People look up from their papers, and teens bob their heads to the beat. Some listen intently, some look uncomfortable.

“I got a story ta tell / About a mixed-up couple that went through hell. / His name was Shane. / He based his life on sellin’ cocaine. / His wife hated the fact / That the man she loves / Is out there sellin’ crack.”

Donnell Hudson, aka Genuine Draft, has been rapping on the el eight hours a day, six days a week, since 1990, pulling in an average of $40 a day. “I always wanted to rap, always knew how to do it,” he says. “I was always rhyming.”

From the time he was ten Hudson was a gang member, first in the Cabrini-Green housing projects and later, when his family moved, on the south side. “All my friends were in gangs, and I liked fighting. I liked the action. All I wanted to do was fight. I used bats, golf clubs, fists. This was before guns were everywhere.”

Having his head busted open and later getting shot in the head didn’t stop him. It wasn’t until he landed in jail that he began to think about his future. “I got arrested for battery when I was 15. I went to the Audy Home and then Cook County when I was 18. I was there for six months. Anybody smart wouldn’t have wanted to be there at all. I feel I’m lucky to be here. I coulda been dead.”

Hudson passed the time in jail writing verses and rapping with his cell mates. But when he got out he forgot about rapping and went to school to learn word processing. He was also working two jobs, one at the airport and one at Jewel, and they wore him out. Then he enrolled at a business college, completed the office-skills program, and set out to find a job.

“I put on my three-piece suit to go for an interview–and I see these guys rappin’ on the train,” he recalls. “It was Jett Blakk and High G, and they were making $40, $50 apiece. I started hangin’ out with them, writin’ rhymes and practicin’. I saw a future, I saw hope. It was something I liked doing.”

But it wasn’t what his father, Ron Williams, a music-industry promoter and manager, wanted him doing. “I wasn’t crazy about him rappin’ on els, because I wanted him to excel to another level,” says Williams.

Hudson’s parents had separated when he was young, but his father had always kept in close contact. Sometimes Hudson would stay with his father for up to a year, and then he would get glimpses of music studios and R & B politics.

In the 70s Williams worked for Original Dells Productions booking shows and managing groups. He also worked at a series of small production companies, where he saw the gritty business side of the music industry and watched many performers go broke as they handed their bookkeeping to outsiders. He didn’t want anything like that to happen to his son.

“When rap came in it was a natural thing for him,” says Williams. “Before it was just fun to him. It wasn’t a business or profession. But now it’s time to think about his future. My plan is to put out a decent product–an album, if possible, with a major record company. I want him to learn the business side of music too. It’s a hard business, but he has the personality and the hunger for it.”

For about a month Hudson has been recording a two-song demo that includes “Home Alone” at a studio near his father’s home in Harvey. “That rap is basically about kids being neglected and left alone,” he says. “I see a lot of people on drugs that leave their families, especially their kids. It goes on every day. I think of an issue going on today–gangs, drugs, depression–and I just write. I’m tryin’ to get brothers to see. They say they can’t stop drugs, but how is it getting here?”

Hudson, who describes his rap style as “laid-back, calm, and collected,” thinks he’s finally ready for the big time. “I used to be wack when I first started. I didn’t know how to freestyle, how to sequence my words. I used to forget the words that I wrote and memorized. I practiced, practiced, practiced. A lot of people felt I coulda been in the studio, but there was a lot about rap I didn’t know. I talked to Rap-A-Lot Records, but I wasn’t ready. Now I know the basics about writing and blending music. Now I’m ready for the studio.”

He likes underground beats with booming bass lines. Whenever he hears a single he likes he gets the instrumental version and uses it for the raps he writes. The music for “Home Alone” was custom mixed, with Hudson drawling the chorus “This is what happens when you’re home alone.” He says a rap takes him a good three weeks. “If I’m not putting my heart into it it takes a month. I perform the same rap for six months to a year.”

He’s now part of a four-member group called Untouchable Rap Rebels, and he sometimes performs with other rappers. But he likes doing his own raps best, especially on the el.

He stays on the south-side trains because the stops are spaced farther apart than the ones on the north, and he always looks out for undercover cops. “They lock us up for rappin’. I can’t count how many times I’ve been arrested. They hold you for 8 to 15 hours. They tell us to get off the train and don’t come back. I say, ‘I’ll be back.'”

Vendors on the train wind around him, acknowledging him with a nod as he raps.

“Because I’m Genuine Draft kickin’ another rhyme on this Dan Ryan. / I rap / And I’m kickin’ facts. / I don’t rob, steal, kill, or none of that. / But I do accept donations in my hat, / Because it’ll help out my crew / Nickles, dimes, quarters, dollars, and food stamps too. / You heard the rhyme nice and clear. / Peace out. / Y’all be smooth. / I’m outta here.”

The passengers dig into pockets and purses, tossing mostly dollars into his red cap. He picks up his radio and heads to the next car.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.