It's a freezing cold December day at a Romulus Mickey D's, and local hip-hop sensation P.L. is slouched in the back near a window. He's wrapped snug in an Al Wissam hooded bomber coat, watching patrons eat value meals. It's a scene he knows well. With hands in his pockets and hood over his head, 20-year-old P.L. looks cold for a kid whose rap career is hotter than french fry grease.
"I use to work at a McDonald's," P.L. says, looking around and shaking his head.
He did. But that was then.
P.L. (born Terry Fox; P.L. is short for Punch Line) has recently finished a four-week reign as battle rap champ on the prestigious "FreeStyle Fridays," a contest that airs nationally on BET's 106 & Park show. He says he's sold more than 8,000 copies of his various mix CDs, and he's already been featured on Detroit radio.
P.L.'s wit recalls Ludacris and the late rapper Big L; he can make you laugh while talking street shit. "Some people got to rely on their hook, beat or hood," he says. "I just need my lines. I let my flow speak for itself, no matter if I'm on a track with Em' or Elvis."
So it is that P.L.'s got the old tough-luck story, one that parallels his inner-city contemporaries. His father has been locked up since he was 6, and Mom worked two jobs raising him in a not-so-friendly Ann Arbor neighborhood.
"The west side of Ann Arbor is really segregated," P.L. says. "You got three hoods: Pine Lake, South Maple and Park Place apartments; that's where I stayed."
P.L. says his mother's 80-hour workweeks allowed him the freedom to start rapping. "I was always at the crib by myself so I just started writing rhymes and battling cats in school. When I was 14, my mom bought a Hewlett-Packard computer, and I started making my own CDs."
In 2002, the hip-hop collective Ruff Ryders set up a three-round battle rap contest at the University of Michigan. The deal was that if an emcee could kill the local competition in the first two rounds, and beat a Ruff Ryder artist in the third round, he would feature on a Ruff Ryders album. The 16-year-old P.L. aced the first round. Then the rest of the competition was canceled. P.L. was crushed.
Throughout the next year, the teen emcee churned out more mix CDs and won freestyle battles at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor and other bars. He also got the boot from Ann Arbor's Pioneer High School. He decided to split town and live with his girlfriend in Inkster.
"I wasn't out there banging guns; I just couldn't focus on my books," P.L. says. "After a while, I thought it would be best if I moved out."
The 17-year-old hooked up with fellow emcee H20 from the Major Hustlers Crew. P.L. found a kindred sprit in H20; here was another local emcee grinding it out. P.L. joined the MHC and was featured on mixtapes Through the Wire and The Proof.
Through the MHC, and his own resourcefulness, P.L. stayed afloat. "We would sell mix CDs at the mall and leave with like $250 each," P.L. says. "I would just walk up to people, ask them if they like hip hop and spit 16 bars for 'em. Then me and my boy Darnell would go down to Club Bleu [in Detroit] and do the same thing."
Soon, P.L.'s relationship with the MHC fizzled. ("I wanted to keep stepping it up; I mean, they was hungry, but we just weren't on the same page anymore.") So the rapper, with girlfriend in tow, headed back to Ann Arbor. The move was, he says, goaded by the news that five of his Inkster friends had been murdered in separate incidents.
But living in Ann Arbor ain't cheap, and peddling mix CDs at the local mall wouldn't cut it. So to keep pulling himself up by his bootstraps, P.L. reopened his books and graduated from Stone High School, a learning center for troubled youth.
"I had to get my grind on for real on some other stuff, and me doing rap took a backseat to me trying to live," he says.
By last year, P.L. was back sharpening his emcee chops, battle rapping, building up street cred and hawking mix CDs. He hooked up with aspiring entrepreneur Japan who was starting up a studio and label. In the coming months, P.L. and Japan recorded and released The Juice 1 and The Juice 2 mix CDs, but P.L. soon tired of taking baby steps toward a career.
Then one day last fall he was watching 106 & Park on BET and noticed its call for open "FreeStyle Fridays" auditions. P.L. didn't have a car, so he got his friend Darnell to drive him to the New York City tryout.
"We got there at like 5:30 in the morning, the auditions were at 12. It was like 700 cats down there, and I was No. 20 in line."
P.L. battled the cat who stood in line behind him; it lasted 30 seconds and P.L. was sent home. Four weeks later, the call from BET came, and P.L. and his pal headed back to the Big Apple.
"We were so broke we had to stay in New Jersey," P.L. says, laughing. "I had to battle some dude named D who was going for his sixth win. At first, I'm thinking, 'I ain't got a chance,' but he started stumbling, so I stuck my tongue out at the crowd like, 'Haaaaa, I got him.'"
P.L. won, and was the first emcee from Michigan to get past the first round. He went on to win the next two weeks. Major record labels began calling.
In the fourth week, P.L. went for broke.
"I was battling some dude named Mike Savage from Philly." P.L. says, his voice rising. "I pulled out my cell phone and acted like I was talking to his mama." Sweat and spittle flew, things escalated; P.L. had Mike Savage for lunch. The studio audience mobbed P.L., and one of the show's hosts called it the best battle he'd seen. P.L. was, as they say, the man.
Then things went south in late November, on the day P.L. returned to defend his title for the fifth week, as he tells it. Arguments with girlfriends soured the drive to New York. A flat tire in Pennsylvania held them up for two hours. They arrived at the studio 15 minutes before P.L. was to battle a Bronx emcee. His confidence had waned and his battle-essential observational skills were down the toilet.
"In the first round I came out with a good first line, but then the stage went blank, I couldn't hear the beat no more and at that point it wasn't about him, it was just about me not saying anything stupid," P.L. says.
When the contest continued, the challenger went first and capped his freestyle with arms held in an X formation while shouting out "BX," short for the Bronx. The rapper had the hometown crowd in his hand. For the first time P.L. felt intimidated.
The loss ate at P.L., but he did win national exposure and attention from the record companies.
"Labels just want to get the next thing smoking," he says, shaking his head. "I've talked to Universal and a few others. These labels don't have my best interest at heart, so we're trying to change that."
While his career might be about to launch, the rapper is still in the studio, still pushing the mix CDs. What's refreshing is he doesn't have that arrogance and fuck-you swagger many emcees use as a crutch to prop themselves up.
And the rap battling? P.L. says those days are behind him, as are, he hopes, the idea of returning to long days at Mickey D's. "I want to be known as a complete emcee," he says, as he leaves McDonald's.
Friday, Jan. 20, at the Northwest Activities Center, 18100 Meyers Rd., Detroit; 313-578-7500. This event, called the Paint and Airbrush Party, is a benefit for local high schools.
Kahn Davison is freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.