My ex-girlfriend hipped me to TopR, short for Top Ramen, around 2003. We were driving in her car, and she cracked open the newly released Burning the Candle at Both Ends (Earthlings/DWA) and slid it into the dash. I’d like to say it changed my life, but to be honest, I can’t remember it. I do remember that she described TopR as this homeless, couch-surfing rapper who’d slept on her previous boyfriend’s couch. It was classic case of his reputation and lifestyle preceding his music.
Later I met TopR or Topper Holiday, as he’s ceased using his first name at 111 Minna Gallery, where I still work a side gig as a doorman. Throughout my years there he’s been a semiregular fixture, posted at the end of the bar, skeezing free drinks. He’s well loved but has this Dennis the Menace air surrounding him, like, "Oh, Topper’s here. Here comes trouble." One night in Minna alley, I remember him a big, bescruffed white dude in a fitted New Era cap, somewhat rotund and more than a little faded striking up a conversation with some bland, buttoned-down types, telling them he was a rapper and following up with a drunken freestyle. I came away feeling that it was a little sad, like he was busking in a BART station, trying to impress the squares.
"Fuck being glamorous I’m cantankerous." So goes the first line on "Frankenstein’s Topster," the opener off his latest, fifth album, Marathon of Shame (Gurp City). It was playing when I walked into Dalva on 16th Street to say hello to my friend Toph One and reintroduce myself to TopR. And quite a reintroduction it was: even before Top starts rapping, the track is a fucking winner, anchored by a sample of Black Sabbath’s "A National Acrobat," the driving guitar riff married to an überfunky drumbeat by producer Dick Nasty.
A good hip-hop album is like a good comedy record: the shit’s got to be so sharp that you want to listen to it more than once, want to scan back on the CD and point out lines to your friends who are riding with you. In Top’s case it’s an apt comparison since he’s influenced by stand-up comedians as much as by other rappers and samples Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks on his previous disc, Cheap Laughs for Dead Comedians (Gurp City, 2006). Marathon is packed with lines that’ll make other rappers wish they’d written them, from favorite one-liners like "Puttin’ squares in their place like Tetris" to heartfelt couplets such as "I don’t want to fit into this banality factory / Where together we can all make profit from tragedy."
It stands to reason that TopR can come up with witty rhymes: he’s been rapping since he was 12. Now 30, he gained his rep as a battle rapper at parties and clubs. "From ’93 until 2000 all I did was battle," he says over a pint at the Richmond District’s 540 Club. "I didn’t record music. I didn’t put out anything. I just made a reputation for myself through battling. If I was putting out albums in ’95, ’96, I might’ve been an actual artist like Living Legends, Atmosphere, and Hieroglyphics. You can only be a battle rapper for so long. After a while there’s not very much creative outlet for it. You can only make fun of someone for so long before you actually want to express your real problems and your real feelings about life. And you do that through writing songs."
In a time when your average radio rap track has more advertisements for sneakers and pricey booze than a copy of GQ, TopR represents a more compelling side of the hip-hop spectrum: the storied tradition of rapper as traveling salesman, hawking CDs "out the trunk," or in his case, out the messenger bag, since, as he says on "Siren Song," "the Muni is my chariot." And while he often calls himself out as lazy in his songs, TopR’s tale is a cross between the 1984 runaway-punk movie Suburbia and the classic Horatio Alger story.
A self-described "troubled kid," TopR left his parents’ home in Santa Cruz at 15, living in squats and hitchhiking to San Francisco to hit open mics and do graffiti. He was arrested for vandalism, went back home, and left again, sleeping on couches if he was lucky and outside if he wasn’t. He attributes his notoriety in the bar scene to necessity: "The fact that I was homeless I had to be in bars every goddamned night, looking for places to stay. I had nothing better to do."
Slumming, bumming, and battling eventually led to some Greyhound cross-country tours and a devoted following of party kids and misfits, unhappy with the status quo and, like him, struggling to get by. There’s no shortage of the usual hip-hop bravado on Marathon: "I’m a piss artist who spits darkness at bitch targets," TopR raps on "Siren Song," "<0x2009>’cause the music that’s honest is the music that hits hardest." True, but the track isn’t merely empty braggadocio: it’s nothing less than an existentialist crisis with a beat, one rapper’s The Sickness unto Death, asking the eternal questions of the artist and, ultimately, everyone who’s been "up against it."
And while it’s the struggle and the willingness to cop to it that makes Marathon so compelling, it seems TopR might finally be on the bus toward Figuring It All Out. On a tour in 2005 he met his fiancée, Kelly-Anne, perhaps the muse of "Siren’s Song," bartending at one of his shows in Asheville, NC. He stayed in the South for more than a year before getting an apartment, with a couch and a bed, in San Francisco’s Sunset District. "I came up as ‘the homeless kid who slept on couches,’<0x2009>" he explains. "But I was good at graffiti young, and I was a good rapper. I got away with a lot of stuff that some punk little kid wouldn’t because people respected me for my talents or whatever. But I’ve mellowed out." Here Top takes a contemplative pull on his pint. "I mean, I’m fuckin’ 30. I’ve got a dog now."
I’m going to do my part to go tell it on the mountain, to put this disc on when we’re cruising down the street, to make sure you hear the hilarious lines and crucial cuts. But on the other hand, one reason why it’s so good is because you ran into him in the bar and bought a disc so he could have beer money. TopR may have reached escape velocity from his day job, but he’s still orbiting the homelessness of his recent past. The line that sums up TopR for me is from "I’m on One" on Cheap Laughs: "It doesn’t take a genius to see that we’re livin’ stressful / The secret to my success is that I’m unsuccessful." It might be better for him if he got the juice to leave orbit altogether and rocket into the outer galaxies of hip-hop superstardom, but would it be better for his music if he weren’t "livin’ stressful?" Living hand to mouth myself, I’m heartened to see someone who keeps grindin’, who tries to live a creative life in the face of SF-size rent, the approaching years, and a music industry that may never give a shit. To quote TopR’s MySpace page, "Even when nothing goes right I still prevail."
TOPR CD RELEASE PARTY
With DJ Quest, Conceit, Delinquent Monastery, Thunderhut Project, Ras One, and DJ Delivery
Fri/1, 9 p.m., $10
2565 Mission, SF