A mixmaster would have plenty to work with Saturday night on U Street. Jeeps pack the streets booming asphalt-shaking bass. The sidewalks are a stream of sequined dresses, Armani suits, and other expensive shit. Clubs—throbbing in a line up and down the street—flaunt reggae, jazz, soca, and R&B.

In the midst of all the glimmer it’s easy to miss the joint with the split personality: Kaffa House—one part club, one part cafe. It isn’t the first-choice spot for club junkies. No pomp or flash, no pricey threads, just low lights and bean pies. Kaffa practically brandishes a sign—”Buppies Beware!”

All the better for Freestyle Union, a motley assortment of hardheads, Howardites, and locals who’ve assembled here tonight to praise the one true rhyming God—hiphop. It’s the second Saturday of the month, a holy day for Freestyle Unionites. Their attendance is required at Kaffa, for what they call a cipher. Loosely translated from raponics, a cipher is a circle of MCs freestyling, or rapping off the top of their heads. How a cipher will go is tough to predict; you never know who—or what—is going to come together.

It begins and ends with Toni Blackman, founder and Queen Mother of Freestyle U. She starts by outlining the rules for the cipher: “No battling”; “No hogging the floor.” Her voice turns to iron when she gets to the last rule: “The bitch-ho shit is out.”

The beat slides in at her beckoning, a loose drum track sprinkled with a few keys. Not the most complex musical composition, but it registers a 10 on the head-nod scale, and pounds harder than 16 ounces. As soon as it comes in, the cipher is transformed from a circle of slouching spines and folded arms into a ring of fluctuating backbones and tapping feet.

“Introductions first,” announces Blackman. Nobody steps up right away; then a bald, heavy-set kid fills the void, introducing himself freestyle. MC after MC steps up, running down his game, mantra, height, weight.

After introductions, Blackman takes the cipher through various exercises—a debate over Ebonics, alliteration for the sake of it, storytelling—freestyling all the while. There’s a lot of laughing and playing. A few of the kids snap on each other’s clothes or grill-piece; the guffaws become part of Kaffa’s backbeat.

But not everybody laughs. As the beats roll on and the jokes keep coming, a few kids just sit there nodding their heads, thinking of the next phat line to drop. Two in particular have caught my eye. Priest, a tall, golden-complected kid sporting a short temple-taper, and Sub-Zero, a slender dude with a gold nose ring and a flow that won’t quit. Their styles of rhyming couldn’t be further apart. Priest’s rap is spontaneous, all eye-pop and finger-snap; Sub-Zero’s is smooth, controlled, a volcano of energy coming from within. But they both take over every room they step up in. Eyes freeze on them, and the next MC knows he better come correct.

And with each exercise they come harder, each line slightly sharper than the last, each more forceful, more layered. Sub-Z hits his stride when the group does the exercise “Questions.” Each person in the cipher yells out a series of questions, and the MC must respond by rhyming an answer. Sub-Z steps to the middle calmly at first, answering each question rather simply, staying on beat and staying with the rhyme. But he gains steam as the queries mount, his voice crescendoing into another zone. Twenty seconds into it and he’s approaching critical, rhyming on instinct, his mouth moving before his brain knows what happened. Thirty seconds and he’s making references to Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, comparing himself to an angel with one wing dipped in blood and the other in heaven’s gate. Sub-Z’s hands chop and flay the red light that shines down from the ceiling, as if to slice the very air into blocks of sound. Pity the poor one who steps in behind him.

Despite tonight’s verbological triumph, Sub-Zero is not impressed with himself.

“For most of the night, I really didn’t feel like I was clickin’,” he says when things quiet down. “The way I look at it, it’s certain avenues, certain streets. So, like, a lot of times, I just be trying to find what track is happenin’ for me at that time.”

But Sub-Z says a few distractions in the house kept him from finding his way.

“The thing that kinda affected me tonight was when the cipher started gettin’ kind of crazy, you know what I’m sayin’, and I was already not that focused.

“And then there was this dude who liked my girl, and I was going through my whole shit with that. I’m lookin’ at him lookin’ at her, and I’m like ‘I’ll punch this nigga’…and I’m gettin’ simple like that. So I wasn’t really into the cipher,” he says simply.

Priest is similarly hard on himself, noting that he was at his best “50 or 60 percent” of the time, which is far below his standard. “If I only rhyme but for 30 seconds, and muthafuckas rhyme five minutes, I want my 30 seconds to fuckin’ just destroy a soul. My whole thing is when I step up I wanna rip shit. So if I only up twice, I wanna step up twice and fuckin’ levitate a building.”

Priest and Sub-Zero have been levitating things all over Washington for years. Levitating crowds, levitating obstacles, and most importantly, levitating hiphop to another level. And while the crusade is the same, their methods couldn’t be less alike.

Priest is the ultimate missionary, the merciful wing of the crusade. At any point, he can catch the spirit and launch into a freestyle about the glories of his religion. One moment repenting: “I can’t help it. O father, give me guidance/I developed slicing these wack MCs into a science.” The next, asking for blessings: “Uhhhummm my Lord/Help me to manifest my spirit through mike cords.” When he prowls the cipher, voice fluctuating with melody, fingers snapping with beat, and vocalistics spewing en masse, even the atheist is compelled to worship.

Words on paper don’t deliver the impact of his sermons, but the stuff that comes flying off the top of his head is a world better than poetry fretted over for years. Plus, Priest is a hellacious socialite: the guy who makes everyone laugh, smiles just right, gives pounds to all the hardheads, and makes the ladies swoon at will. Priest is the life of the party. If his sermon doesn’t convert you, his smile certainly will.

Sub-Z probably wouldn’t even be at the party. For him, the crusade is not a social affair, it’s a military campaign, where disciplined soldiers prevail over reactionary heathens. As Priest says, Sub-Z is on some “David Carradine kung-fu shit.” His slender build and quiet nature make him easy to underestimate. If an MC were looking to battle and scanned a room full of rhymesayers, he might chose Sub-Z as roadkill on his way to bigger battles. That MC would be seriously mistaken, and it’s quite likely he’d have his vocal cords handed to him. Sub-Z is the perfect assassin, yanked right out of one of those ’80s ninja flicks.

Two artists. One crusade. The preacher testifies over a break beat, raucous and spirited. The warrior duels between blue lines of looseleaf, stirring only to do battle. Priest converts through the Good Book; Sub-Z converts with the sword.

But for all their zeal, you may never hear about these kids dropping a platinum album. You won’t see them on BET pushing a phat-ass Benz with honeys hanging out the windows. And though both of them are signed to record deals, you may never see those records in the Wiz or Kemp Mill. And if you do, they’ll probably get squeezed between the CDs of other bums with better name recognition.

The odds against their making a career in the industry are steep. Start with the town: There are virtually no large hiphop labels located in the area. More importantly, go-go rules this city; this is the town where hiphop gods Run-DMC were booed off the stage. D.C. is the country where the natives will take half a drumstick to some pots, pans—even garbage cans—and somehow salvage something funky. Hiphop enters into the equation only when these kids are looking for some lyrics to lift. Rapdom, the land of break beats, is a long way from D.C. But Priest and Sub-Z remain loyal exiles, clinging to the mike in an indifferent land.

It isn’t as if they’re missing much, anyway. The music industry is a business, after all, and the hiphop biz has a well-deserved reputation for eating acts alive and spitting out the broken pieces. Both Priest and Sub-Z have earned their share of stories about promoters who promote nothing except a con game. Any concept about the music industry being about music first left a long time ago, and record execs begin with, “Show me the money!,” and rarely get around to talking about the work. Contracts are signed on the basis of how much cream the act can generate, a criterion only loosely attached to talent. Sub-Z and Priest are dinosaurs from a day that may well have never existed—a day when talent and money were not opposing forces.

Both could be doing other things and almost certainly making more money. But something—a force neither of them can explain—keeps them from choosing a less hectic, more certain career path. Maybe it’s how the audience flips each time they kick a phat line or how each word feels as it slips from their lips. Whatever it is, it’s got both Priest and Sub-Z by the balls, or better yet, by the tongues.

The 9:30 Club is only a few blocks from Kaffa geographically, but peoplewise it’s a different dimension. d.c. space, a defunct support center for the arts, is having its reunion here. The club is sprinkled with an assortment of alternative artsy-type folk. There are all of about five black people in the whole joint, and unlike Kaffa’s bald-heads and roughnecks, this spot features green hair, pierced tongues, and a flood of tattoos.

Freestyle Union is undaunted. The group takes the stage trying a call-and-response with the crowd, running through a minidemonstration of a cipher. Sub-Z plays the back, orchestrating the band, occasionally breaking an occasional verse or two. The audience isn’t quite sure what to make of what’s going on; most of the people just stand in their spots kind of rocking back and forth.

The Union presses on, oblivious or unconcerned. “Hiphopra,” a blend of a hiphop drum track and a sample from some opera I can’t pronounce, shouldn’t work, but it does. The shit is banging, and the eerie piano loop seems to have bridged the cultural gap. Sub-Z steps away from the keys and lets loose a quick verse, then jogs back to the keys and begins orchestrating again. Front or back, he is completely in the moment.

When the act ends, I catch Sub-Z outside the club. He’s hyper, like the soldier who hasn’t realized that the war has ended. After he drops some equipment off at his place, we connect over at E-Funk, a cafe directly across from the 9:30. Another Freestyle MC, Kokayi, joins us.

Sub-Z, Kokayi, and another Freestyle Union member, Black Indian, have just signed a deal with BMG-France. They’ve been recording all week, but for freshly inked artists, neither Sub-Z nor Kokayi seems too excited. Five o’clock the next morning, they’ll pile in the car and head to New York. “For the next few days,” says Kokayi, “we’re gonna eat, breathe, and live music.”

Sub-Zero has been drawing sustenance from sound since he was a 15-year-old named Terence Nicholson scribbling rhymes. The notion took hold when a kid named Shawn came to spend the summer with some friends of Sub-Z’s. At the time the 15-year-old Sub-Z was infatuated with Led Zeppelin, Kiss, and Jimi Hendrix. But when Shawn came to town toting a New York attitude, the wide-eyed youngster was awe-struck. “I just was fascinated with him,” says Sub-Z. “He must have been, like, three years older than us, but seemed much more worldly.”

More than just being cool, Shawn brought Sub-Z the new music that had boomed out of the Bronx and taken radio stations hostage. “I remember he would talk about rappers, cause he wasn’t really into go-go, he would always joan on go-go….Shawn used to play this tape, and the first song he would play was ‘It’s Yours’ by T La Rock. And I remember, man, he would play that tape and we would sit outside, and he’d be reminiscing about New York.

“But his description would be so vivid that it’d put me there. Plus, he used to write rhymes, so I was, like, ‘Damn, I’m gon’ try to write some rhymes.’” A slender smile creaks across his lips as he recalls the first rhyme he ever wrote. “It was called ‘GQ,’” he says, trying to hold in his laughter. “And it was, like, ‘The coolest guy that you ever seen/From the pages of GQ magazine.’”

Sub-Z’s infatuation with the power of words remained long after Shawn had left. He badgered his mother to get him a boom box, started doing graffiti, and became an all-around hiphop head. He was determined to go to New York and see what was going down for himself. At a funeral for a relative, he interrogated one of his uncles who lived in New York in a futile attempt to get there.

“The funeral was goin’ on and all that,” says Sub-Zero. “But all I wanted to do was go to New York with them. I was just, like, ‘Yo, when this thing over with, I just want your address cause I’m trying to go to New York’…I was, like, ‘I gotta get up there, man; I gotta see what’s happening, man. I gotta get in the mix.’”

Sub-Z’s mother was not about to let her teenage son go off to New York looking for the next big thing, so Sub-Z kept it close to home, writing rhymes and waiting for something to happen. Every Saturday evening he’d listen to hiphop guru Frank Ski’s mix show. On one of those nights, he heard locals Dynamically Fresh. It turned out they were looking for another MC.

Sub-Z hooked up with the group, and they quickly established themselves as one of D.C.’s tightest rap cliques, garnering several appearances on Ski’s show. “Nobody was seeing us,” he brags. “They used to have [hiphop shows] at the Landsberg Building. And we’d go down that joint, and people was, like, ‘Don’t even step to them, ’cause they can rhyme.’ You know what I’m sayin?”

A few miles away in suburban Prince George’s County, 11-year-old Larry Ware (aka Priest) received his introduction to Sub-Z through one of those many radio appearances with the Fresh ones. Even today, well over a decade later, you can ask Priest about Dynamically Fresh and he’ll recite one of their hooks for you without pause. It made a big enough imprint on Priest to make him want to pick up the mike.

Priest already knew something about performance: Before he had even heard Sub-Z, he was break dancing with a crew called the Fresh Force. Priest was notorious throughout his ‘hood for head spins and windmills. “Break dancing really got me into the shit. ‘Cause I always loved to dance. In nursery school I used to win all the dance contests,” he says.

Break dancing may have been his introduction to hiphop, but if any man was ever born to clutch a mike, it was Priest. For starters, he was born Larry MC Ware—his grandfather’s name was MC. Priest was so infatuated with the science of boom that in high school, while other kids sported thick gold chains and four-finger rings, Priest wore a microphone around his neck like a medallion and used the cord as his chain.

“In eighth grade, we’d just be beating on a table making up rhymes,” he says. “And I started writing rhymes, and we would just recite ’em everyday at lunch. And then it was just, like, kids wanted

to battle other kids, and I started gettin’ into this battle thing.”

As he describes the battles in his middle-school lunchroom his eyes swell with the recollection. “Every lunch period we’d battle for lunch money,” he says. “I’d come in there with, like, 50 cents and wind up with five dollars.”

Instead of heading off to college as his mother expected, Priest took a year off to shop his demo and get a record deal. But a year of shady promoters and money-hungry label men sent him to Plan B. He got his college applications together and took himself down to Hampton University, “to study journalism,” he tells me with a wry smile.

Sub-Z stared down the same hard choices when he finished high school. There was no college for aspiring rappers, but Sub-Z had begun drawing and painting, so he applied to the Corcoran School of Art and got accepted. He took a year off to get his finances straight, and entered the Corcoran in 1987. It was the beginning of a double life for Sub-Z.

Aspiring visual artist and obsessed rapper seemed like a pretty full-time gig, but Sub-Zero ended up adding knucklehead to the list. He started puffing weed, at various points trying to sell it, too. And at some point in his tenure at Corcoran, he began to drink heavily.

He interrupts his recollection of the bad old days long enough to pull from his wallet an ID card from his freshman year at Corcoran. “Terence Nicholson” reads the bottom of the card. The face stares out from its plastic casing, flashing a hard look, the eyes scheming, lips folded in a wicked half-smile. It’s a mug shot from a prior life. I turn to him to make sure he’s the same person. The face is identical—the person within is not.

Despite the drinking and the drugs, Sub-Z still managed to produce artwork that left his teachers dumbstruck. “I wore many hats,” he says calmly.

In ’91 his mother left the District, perhaps adding to the confusion. “By this time I was nuts; I was crazy,” he says. “I was getting drunk like a motherfucker, and [my mother] was talking about moving out to Wheaton, and I was thinking to myself, ‘Ain’t no action out in Wheaton’…So I found some roommates, and that same behavior I carried to the house with my roommates.”

Sub-Z says it wasn’t a pretty scene.

“My friends and me, man, we’d be in my room just drinkin’, and it’d just be like the crazy-ass drunk-weed-nuthouse. We’d just be in there buggin’ out, man,” says Sub-Z.

The world came crashing down when he graduated from the Corcoran in ’91. What should have been a joyous time turned into a Stephen King flick. His roommates, tired of his foolishness, moved out, and within a week of graduation Sub-Zero found himself in a homeless shelter.

Over in PG County around this time, Priest was scraping the bottom for different reasons.

“Man, I was broke as shit when I was down at Hampton. And it’s, like, Hampton is a private school…and it was freshman down there drivin’ Benzes. I ain’t have no money, no care package, nothing. I weigh about 215 now, [but] I was weighin’ 185 down there. I was a rail jack.”

Priest managed to pull a solid B average but couldn’t pull together the loot to stay at Hampton. And the old neighborhood wasn’t getting it either. “I was on some self-destructive shit…just fuckin’, clubbin’, and drinkin’, and dancin’. It was like my escape, man. Life wasn’t that cool for me at the time. I ain’t have no fuckin’ money.

“I used to get fucked up before I went to the club, then dance and just get busy and just dance, dance, dance. I’d wake up 2 o’clock the next day, fuck some chick, fuck some chick at night, and go to the club again….Basically, I was just taking up space,” says Priest.

It was a low hour for Priest, and while he wasn’t battling substance abuse the way Sub-Zero was, he was clearly about to become one more dude on the corner who might have been something. The time had come for Priest and Sub-Z to levitate some of the obstacles blocking the way. And in their darkest hour, the seer and the soldier reached for the same light.

To say hiphop saved Priest and Sub-Z would be an overstatement. It would be more accurate to say Priest and Sub-Z gave themselves to hiphop. The convert gives himself over to God and religion to be consumed by them; Priest and Sub-Z gave themselves to hiphop and it became them. The world for them is about making beats phatter, lyrics tighter.

Each MC crawled along until he built a reputation. Priest would be at clubs dancing, and DJs would call him up to rock verses. Sub-Z gained fame for complex lyrics and the ability to freestyle over jazz—not an easy task. The two rose like rockets launched from different sites around D.C. It was only a matter of time before they would meet.

“It was ’94 at the State of the Union,” says Priest. “They had some freestyle shit going on….At that point in hiphop in D.C., I had never seen anybody from this area that moved me.

“So it was this freestyle shit goin’ on. When I came in there it was, like, the typical hiphop environment, all these kids was on some ego, you know, drinkin a 40-ounce of testosterone. Muthafuckas was walkin’ around, like, ‘Yo, we ’bout to represent!’ And I’m just, like, ‘Whatever.’

“And I seen Sub-Z sittin’ in the corner, just, like, straight-lookin’, like a li’l herb nigga. He had his Walkman on, you know, and I looked at him and I looked at Manny, and I said, ‘I bet that nigga fuck around and be nice as shit,’” he recalls.

“And I had said that shit jokin’…and I ain’t think no more of it. And so Sub-Z had got up and started doin some written shit, and for some reason somethin’ happened and he turned around and he started freestylin’,” Priest says, thinking back. “And he started pickin’ out niggas, and he picked out one nigga and talked about where he was in his life according to the expression on his face. My boy Manny turned around and said, ‘Yo, this kid is nuts!’ I had never been hesitant to step up to rhyme, but this nigga fucked my head up.”

Priest, never one to succumb to stage fright, had to come up with something to at least match the unlikely intensity of Sub-Z. As the applause subsided, the butterflies in Priest’s stomach multiplied. But when they announced his name to the crowd, he knew what he had to do. Forming a hook from Mary Wells’ ‘My Guy,’ Priest freestyled: “Nothing you can say, can make me run away, from my mike, my mike. No matter what you do, I conquer whole crew, with my mike, my mike.”

Sub-Z, already a part of Freestyle Union, invited Priest to come to the ciphers. It was in the Union that both Priest and Sub-Z went from being well-kept secrets to two of D.C.’s illest rhyme slingers.

The Union may not be the epicenter of the Rap Nation, but Priest and Sub-Z built a reputation as two of the tightest MCs not just in Chocolate City but in all of rapdom. A mutual friend from New York who has seen a lot of MCs says that Priest is the dopest MC he’s ever seen—bar none. Another fellow MC says simply, “Priest is hiphop.” Priest, while an impressive lyricist, is an awesome showman. Seeing him onstage is like watching the Fourth of July in a very small room. Brother can flow.

Sub-Z is just as ill. He’ll make a reference to Socrates or Plato and just as quickly talk about Shine or Stagolee. At any moment he’s liable to say some shit that will send the brainiest of braniacs flippin’ through the encyclopedia. All D.C. hiphop heads know this. It’s the kind of renown that doesn’t come without sacrifice. Some of it came close to home.

Ann Warren, Priest’s mother, is a pious woman. The type of every-Sunday-churchgoing lady black communities are overflowing with. Her faith in her son almost equals her faith in her God. As she talks about his childhood, she can’t help but grin. “I never really had a vision for Larry, because I believe that whatever Larry wanted to do, he could do,” she says.

Priest’s girlfriend Sabria Ellis shares that faith. The women’s belief in his artistry, however, does not blind them to the fact that Priest has the intellectual gifts to do many other things with his life.

“Larry has a lot of talents and abilities that I don’t feel that music is utilizing,” notes his mother. “I don’t think that a lot of those skills are being used in the music industry.” Roughly translated, Priest’s mother is wondering what he’s going to do if the music dies.

Ellis expresses a similar sentiment: “I remember when we started seeing each other seriously. I would say, ‘Larry, what are you going to do?’ And he would basically say…that he can’t do two things at one time. And I would get frustrated sometimes.

“I feel that, especially for African-American males, we need more than the average person. We need education on top of creativity, on top of talent, on top of everything else,” Ellis says. “I know that Larry has a lot of potential, so for him to have [a college degree], it would just put him in a more powerful position.

“I would encourage him [to go back to school]. But after [a while] I saw it wasn’t doing any good. He really wasn’t listening to me and basically we would just get into arguments,” she explains.

Priest maintains that he will return to college, but for right now hiphop is his curriculum. Besides, he maintains he’s put too much into this to back down. Three years ago, he and a friend put up $1,000 to press up his single, “Janine.” In fact, Priest has spent pocket money for studio time, to get into showcases. Still no big breakthroughs—label dudes have flaked out, contacts have failed to materialize.

The misfires and rip-offs have left Priest freestyling his ass off in front of a full-length mirror. Or on rainy nights scribbling on his pad the last golden slivers of a should-have-been hit. Or even on good days, thumbing through Sun Tzu’s Art of War or Cornel West’s Race Matters in search of freestyle ammo. As for the industry, the industry gets the middle finger. It’s not about cream, platinum, or gold for Priest—it’s about craft. And he’s put too much into it to pull out now.

“I’m a dreamer and I’m a visionary,” he says. “And a lot of times people can’t get with visionaries until the vision happens. I know my vision is correct. If you can get with it, cool. If you can’t, cool. It’s all love.”

For the time being, his loved ones will just have to cope.

“I love my mother and I respect my mother for being a strong woman. But I know she can’t see things I can see, because she hasn’t lived the life that I’ve lived. I haven’t lived the life she’s lived. So it’s just, like, we have to respect each other and agree to disagree….But I’m the type of person that if I get no support, I’m gon’ still do what I gotta do.”

For a man who just walked away from a 40-hour-a-week job at the Library of Congress, Sub-Z is pretty calm.

“It cut into my art,” he casually notes. The fact that it was a guaranteed paycheck seems irrelevant to Sub-Z.

“I didn’t have no fear when I left, because it was stifling me. I’d rather live on less and be able to create than have a job where I’m guaranteed a check every two weeks but I stagnate in this comfort zone of gettin’ paid every two weeks to do some shit that I ain’t really feelin’, that’s robbin’ me of my life.”

He stands up and adjusts the ceiling lights in the house he and his girlfriend share. I wonder how he’s going to pay for it now. Across the living room, a few of his sculptures lounge against walls.

A sampler sprawls on its black platform. It had to run a him a few bills. It’s a nice setup, but Sub-Z knows better than anybody that he’s going to have to find a way to feed the monster in a town where props doesn’t equal gigs, and respect doesn’t translate to dollars.

He’s done the math and know the odds. He also knows—in his bones and heart—that he’ll make it. The BMG-France deal should send a few more shows his way, and with it, a little more cash. He’s willing to wait.

“I believe that if I had no principles I could have had a deal a long time ago,” he says as he plucks a guitar he’s hanging onto.

“One time this guy—he was a promoter around town, big promoter—he had all the parties and everything—and at the time, his cousin was managing me, and I did this song called ‘Flingah Linguah.’ The song was just about R&B singers all the sudden becoming these rappers.

“And dude said, ‘If you change the hook of the song to “flingah finger” instead “flingah linguah”—because you’d be on stage and you can just give the finger—then, shit, you ain’t gotta worry about paying for studio time. I’ll pay your studio time, push it, promote or whatever’…But I was like, ‘Naw, I ain’t gon’ do that.’”

If Sub-Z collapsed on the spot for a handful of bills, he might be just another Shawn, Kim, or Calvin rhyming over an old R&B hit, with no regard for principles and an even smaller regard for creativity. He knows that he’s got more talent in one eyelash than most of these folks could manifest in a whole album, but he’s indifferent to the topic, plucking another guitar string.

It’s not ’til we get to talkin’ about gangstas and players that I see his eyes flare. “All these muthafuckas walkin’ around talkin’ ’bout they four-fives or whatever…I just never got that. I never got talkin’ about killin’ muthafuckas, even if I did it. I never got that. Why rhyme about that shit?”

Hiphop’s current infatuation with name brands is another sore spot. “It’s almost like back to the days of Babylon. When Moses went up the mountain he come back down and muthafuckas is worshipping idols. Muthafuckas is actually practicing idol worship and don’t even know it! Muthafuckas can’t get through 16 lines without mentioning I don’t know how many name brands!”

Sub-Z is trying to buck a vast and strong tide. And if he were to just walk away? He looks up, pauses for second, then plucks another string. “Wow. I couldn’t even tell you, man.”

Priest is playing old videotapes of an impromptu cipher. It’s January ’96. He’s in Georgetown, outside the now-defunct It’s Your Mug cafe with three other kids. Ice and snow decorate the steps and roofs. Priest and a few others are kicking freestyles; globes of breath hang from their lips with each phrase. It’s rappinghood for the pure, unfettered joy of it, a rarity in today’s dawg-eat-dawg world.

“When the shit went commercial and mainstream and went million-billion-dollar industry, it touched a whole new crop of people. If somebody wasn’t making money off this shit, then the amount of people who’d be in it would diminish entirely, and there would only be people like us,” says Priest.

“My thing is that if you gon’ be about money be about that,” he says pointedly. “Don’t be kickin’ no shit about how you down for hiphop. If you gon’ stand for some foul shit, stand for that foul shit. You know what I’m sayin’? But don’t be tryin’ to straddle the fence. ‘Cause you’ll fall and slit your balls,” he says.

Priest’s side of the fence is the invisible one that BET and MTV never seem to catch. Both he and Sub-Z know that they’re paying a price for sticking to their guns. They probably will never see a Grammy or a gold or platinum record. “I’m not in it for fame, B,” he says.

The world isn’t all dark and gloomy for the two. They both love what they’re doing and wouldn’t have it any other way. Sub-Z and his partners’ BMG-France deal could be groundbreaking, and Priest has just signed on to be the first act with a fledgling local label, Black Horse Recordings. His first single will be the previously released “Janine”; this time it will have much wider circulation. Hopefully both can bridge the gap between creativity and the cold hard facts of life.

The video is near the end. As usual, when I watch these kids freestyling, my tongue is swabbing the carpet. In the last scene, Priest is in a cipher at one of Union’s old spots—HR-57. He’s in one of those zones, his arms flailing wildly through the air, each line slipping off his tongue easy as ice cream. He stares into the camera and pledges his love for a prostituted art, declaring that if it all fails, he’ll stand on a corner with a sign that says, “Hiphop or bust.”CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Michelle Gienow.