My stepfather had been good at taking photos. As a kid, I often saw zippered leather bags with the names Nikon and Canon on his dresser. Sometimes, there were rolls of film in the refrigerator. Sometimes, a loose camera on the kitchen counter. I knew not to touch these loose cameras because they were heavy, which meant expensive. Coincidentally, my father had also been good at taking photos, but this was before I was born. His old Minoltas were stacked in their leather bags behind an iron and a ceramic statue of Santa Claus in his office closet.
I’ve never been a photographer. The best photo I can take is with whatever Android phone I have that year. Basically, I know how to frame a shot, which doesn’t make me good at photography. I learned that fast.
Back in November, RVA Magazine sent me with BlackLiq, DJ Bando, and a Nikon COOLPIX P900, to document his performance opening for rapper and author Dessa (her book, My Own Devices, is available at Chop Suey) at the Black Cat in Washington, D.C. I was to conduct an interview and take photos for this article.
The first time I caught up with BlackLiq, I got more of an intellectual conversation than what I’d expected from a typical cup of coffee. Spend 60 minutes with Black and you’ll listen. You won’t be made to listen but compelled to. He is a direct (no bullshit) dude. I was in class and didn’t even know the bell had rung.
Using the Nikon is another story. It was a lesson in humility. Black would probably call this a blessing.
I saw it once, maybe it was a scene in a movie [It’s in Beavis & Butthead Do America. No bullshit. –ed]. Some desperate man tried to hit the ground running out of the trunk of a speeding vehicle. You can guess how that ended. I was this man.
After a while, I just used my phone to take the photos.
People naturally gifted in the arts have this effect on others. They make what they do seem easy. Maybe it convinces someone sitting in a beanbag chair that they can do it better. Most of the time this has diminished results. BlackLiq disguises 16 bars as iPhone photography when he’s really working with a Leica Q2 Monochrom. At different times, he implements each of the fixed Summilux 28mm f/1.7 ASPH lens’ 11 elements to make that $6,200 camera worth every cent. So good, he makes you think you can reach out and touch those 16 bars. It may be black and white, but the detail is impeccable. You don’t become this good by accident.
“I write rhymes for the reasons you don’t, you fuck,” Black spits on the first verse of “Endtro.” It’s the opening track from his Mopes-produced Strange Famous debut (the hip-hop label run by Sage Francis), Time Is The Price — an 18-minute masterclass on why naysayers should just keep hating in their beanbag chairs.
BlackLiq has been rapping in Richmond for years and years, and was once known for carrying self-released, handwritten CD-Rs in his pockets wherever he went. Sometimes superficial locals rejected those burned discs in paper sleeves as he handed them out. Then, BlackLiq started appearing on the bills with high-profile, national acts. His gloves-off lyrical content, coupled with a confrontational stage presence, maybe felt like a punch in the mouth to some. Audience members have even turned their backs on BlackLiq while he was on stage. I watched this happen once at the Broadberry when he opened for Styles P six years ago. All that performative shit just fueled the man.
They had missed the message.
BlackLiq was authentic. And he was coming from a hungry, desperate place.
If you’ve followed his story at all, BlackLiq’s past was grim for a number of reasons. A tough upbringing was only made tougher after his father was sentenced to life in prison. This would rock the foundation of any family. Yet, the emotional support from his parents didn’t stop. Even now, his father (who also goes by Black) calls weekly from prison, sharing the deep wisdom gained from being a man incarcerated. Always expressing pride in his son.
BlackLiq’s mother, Heed, is his ride-or-die. Her health and well-being a top priority. Heed is a warm and lovely woman, who is an instantly fascinating conversationalist. She’s as likely to hold your arm walking down the sidewalk as she is to talk about the 1960’s in her kitchen. I know this because both happened to me.
Social media followers are kept current with how each is doing.
You could write a book about his parents alone.
I took a few candid shots with my stupid phone. DJ Bando was relaxed in a chair before their set, while BlackLiq paced the floor of their dressing room, slugging coffee like he needed to stay up for a year. An intimidating, prowling presence – and wide awake.
I pressed record.
“I’ll fucking get up and I’ll do whatever,” Black began, “and I’ll connect with them. And they’ll see me as a thing. And that’s cool. That’s what I’m doing. That’s my fucking life. Some of the things, I mean. It’s not glorious. And it’s not… like, it’s not fun all the time.”
“Do you do it out of desperation?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s the stuff that makes it real. A surgeon performing surgery is nothing compared to the surgeon washing his hands before the surgery. He’s gonna have to do it. Then the post-op. Those are the things that are part of the process. It would be impossible for the process to be authentic without it.”
“It’s like going into another place,” I said. “The surgeon washing his hands. Sitting there, full of anxiety, thinking about it. People get stage fright, then they’re in it. It’s like, ‘Well, I have to do it. I’ve got no other choice.’ ”
If you’ve seen BlackLiq perform live over the years, you’d imagine stage fright isn’t something he knows a lot about. Backstage, he’s got the poker face of a neurosurgeon just prior to digging into the crowd. Someone who’s done this before with peers looking over his shoulder. If you were to make a Marvel thing out of it, you could get away with calling him Doctor Strange.
Nulla bubulum stercus (no bullshit) being the active ingredient here, and it could be the very antidote to all of our worldly problems.
“I go there every time,” he said. “It got to a point where I no longer had stage fright. And it sucked. I like to be nervous. I like to feel uncomfortable on stage. I’ll say stuff to people and connect with them in a genuine way. I [might] come out, like, ‘Yeah, bitch, I’m BlackLiq, fuck you.’ I might say that. But if I come out there and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m accomplished,’ that shit ain’t gonna be worth nothing, man. It’s gonna be performative instead of a performance. I get it, you’re numb and you don’t feel anything. And I got to that point. I opened for Fabolous, and it was like that. Except, a lot of things went wrong. My third show with DMX was like that.”
“I forgot you opened for DMX,” I said.
“Yeah, man,” Black continued. “Three motherfucking times, bro.”
“Did you meet him?” I asked.
“Yeah, like, briefly. He was whoever he was at that time. Because he was whoever he was, 100% at that moment.”
Impulsively, I interrupted, saying, “Damn, I remember where I was when It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot came out.”
He nodded, saying, “[At first] I didn’t like DMX. And I didn’t like ‘Get At Me Dog.’ I was like, meh. Then, my brother had left [It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot] in the crib. I decided to do my Algebra homework to that album, and I was like, ‘Oh my god. This is so incredible.’ This had nothing to do with, fuckin’ ‘Get At Me Dog’ and ‘Ruff Ryders’ Anthem.’ It’s like, everything else around that. That’s the shit nobody talked about. Like, ‘Let Me Fly.’ Nobody talked about songs like ‘Crime Story’ and ‘In The Air Tonight.’ The things he did were just so artistic, and so unique, and beautiful. It was always just like, ‘Yeah, he’s a blunt instrument.’”
Listen to Time Is The Price and you can hear what artistic, unique, and beautiful sounds like. A blunt instrument will simply bash a thing into no thing. Lack the proper technique and you’ll just rip everything apart. However, add some half-inch spikes to that blunt instrument and now you’ve got something to paint with. Something with teeth. BlackLiq is the same way on stage. He is precise and he will hurt you. His shows are calculated paintings of the dirty walls in this grimy town.
Maybe that’s why he was asked to open for DMX, 1-2-3 times?
People were desperate for that (no bullshit) approach. The antidote. Nulla bubulum stercus or whatever.
“I don’t like to meet my heroes but so much,” he said. “I made a decision a long time ago to say this is my peer. Like, I’ve been around artists who’ve played themselves as soon as they built up the respect. Blew it all on, ‘Can we get a picture, real quick?’ 200 likes isn’t more important than one friend, or maybe even just a meaningful moment hanging out with somebody and talking about life. That’ll last forever, because that’s between you and them. That’s all you need. You don’t need none of that other shit. Everybody wants so much icing. All you see in the game is icing. Then you find out icing belongs on a cake. Then, you find out the cake of this game is not so sweet.”
Back in August of 2021, I interviewed BlackLiq at WDCE 90.1 FM for an RVA Magazine (paid for by a grant from the VAABC) video series called My Sober Story. That September, I watched Black speak in front of a packed audience at Vagabond for part of the Richmond International Film Festival. In October, I saw him debut on lead vocals with his metal band, Armagideon Time, at a generator show under an overpass.
“You’re certainly not a one-trick pony,” I said.
He grinned at the comment. It was the same grin I saw him give to the audience at Vagabond. Someone seemingly in control of who they are as an artist and glad we’ve shown up to appreciate it. Pleased.
“You put yourself in a situation where you are the thing that you want to have for yourself. I wanted to be on the radio, so I became the DJ. I wanted to get shows, so I threw the shows,” he said.
You can sit that mentality right in the backseat next to the intro to the Busta Rhymes track “Gimme Some More.” Specifically, the lines: Knowing as a shorty / I was always told / If I ain’t gon’ be part of the greatest / Then I gotta be the greatest myself.
We talked for roughly half an hour. Two-thirds of that conversation didn’t make it into this article. It’s difficult to select a handful of BlackLiq’s comments to print when all of it is worth reading. However, if I just published a transcript of the entire conversation, I would’ve lost the job to my Android for a second time.
Preparing to head to the stage, almost as an afterthought, Black brought up carrying around burned CD’s to gigs.
“I went to see Project Pat [of Three 6 Mafia] perform at the Q Club,” he said. “I would test my enemies. If you’re not helping me, you’re an enemy. It doesn’t mean we have a personal beef, but if you’re not on my side, then you’re in the way. I gave him a CD and wanted to see if he’d do what I knew he’d do. Sure enough, I checked social media. He was like, ‘Some rapper gave me a CD tonight in a paper case with Sharpie written on it. Man, y’all rappers gotta come more professional than that.’ You want to shit on our entire community? Make [people] think paying somebody to burn their CD with a print label is going to make them better and means that they’re working hard? Like, I get the whole, ‘It’s all in how he presents his shit.’ But at the same time, I just felt bad he missed the opportunity.”
When BlackLiq walked on stage with DJ Bando to knock everyone’s teeth out, he was wearing his Richmond Is For Haters shirt. Hadn’t even opened his mouth yet and was already making it loud and clear. The truth stings. Maybe that’s the real reason people turned around at that Broadberry show way back when.
Nobody at the Black Cat turned their backs on November 21st, and I don’t foresee that type of thing making any kind of comeback. BlackLiq and DJ Bando turned the packed D.C. crowd into ground beef with old tracks like “RVA” and new dark magic from Time Is The Price. The entire room connected. Everybody needing dentures.
BlackLiq made it all look like a piece of cake. No icing.
I did the best I could with the Nikon COOLPIX P900. Anything worth keeping happened completely by accident. Like I said, it was a lesson in humility. This time I heard the bell ring.
Nulla bubulum stercus
Top Photo by Ryan Kent