“I’m a success story,” says Rahmeece Chevosier Howell over lunch in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. It may sound like an odd claim coming from a 20-something lyricist who’s banking on his forthcoming sophomore album to make his name stick in the popular consciousness and, more serious yet, to feed his children. When an upbringing is hostile to the point that success is defined by simple survival, however, it’s a serious accomplishment. “A lot of my friends didn’t make it,” he says.
The word “rough” might not aptly describe the life that Howell, who raps as Fatal Lucciauno, endured growing up. Born in Chicago to an abusive household with a father who was addicted to crack and entrenched in the city’s gang culture as a member of the infamous Gangster Disciples, his upbringing is a Cimmerian tale of violence, drugs and poverty. Now, two decades after his family fled to Seattle in search of a brighter future, Howell is finally able to take stock of the tribulations that helped form the man he is today. “I was the one panhandling, singing, rapping Biggie songs over my dad’s rendition of a Temptations song in front of Subway so that me and my brothers and sisters could have something to eat at night,” he recounts.
Far from forgotten, his harsh memories fill his songs with tales of struggle and aggression, the realness of which, coupled with the fact that he’d recently served an 18-month stint in prison on a firearm charge, earned him an unceremonious black-listing for a time from the city’s premier venues. Though the local scene rallied, and eventually the ban was lifted, it’s clear that a bitter taste remains.
Howell’s new album, Respect (released February 21 on Sportn’ Life), finds its narrator not completely healed of his past wounds but fighting to live life. The father of six says he may have settled down for now but feels that he’d be doing his listeners a disservice to leave the streets alone on record. He says that his experiences, rugged as they might be, might actually lend strength to young people growing up in tough situations. “I’m not giving you a solution, I’m letting you know you’re not alone,” he says. “See, [kids] don’t want to come to their parents because they don’t want to be looked down on. They don’t want to go to their pastors, or whoever their role models are, because they feel like they’re on a pedestal they can’t reach. They’re around their friends, and they gotta put up a front, so they can’t open up. If somebody who really understands it speaks to them, they’re like ‘oh OK,’ and if they don’t see me hurting and bruised and battered, but know that I have been bruised and battered, then it’s another way to let them go on, because they’re not alone. I’m not watching a video. I’m not watching a DVD explaining hood life. I know what you’re talking about.”
Authenticity—and a local fan-base—Howell has, but in a time where the genre has veered toward the more upbeat, or at least dance-friendly, finding an audience on a large scale has been elusive. One of Howell’s primary collaborators, the Seattle-hailing mega-producer Jake “One” Dutton, believes Howell’s simply riding the natural ebb and flow of the national scene. “Everything [right now] is about being high on drugs and partying, but he doesn’t really do that too much through his music,” says Dutton. “He’s kind of going against the grain. Him getting more prominence on the national scene will probably happen once it pushes back to that, which inevitably, it will.”
Dutton has known Lucciauno for years, having first met at a studio in South Seattle where they both recorded. He says he recognized Howell’s natural gift right away and has worked with him constantly. “He’s just always had something about his voice and his presence that seemed real to me that I don’t get from a lot of people I hear rap,” continues Dutton. “He’s definitely good enough. I don’t have any doubt about that.”
But Howell is not without other marketable elements. Aside from the obvious strength of rhyme, he’s successfully harnessed the power of shock through the brutal language and vivid detail of his past exploits. Fans of, say, Odd Future, wouldn’t have to stretch too far to embrace a Lucciauno song like “Adolf Hitler.” The same natural progression could be made from Rick Ross’s tough-talk to Lucciauno’s real-life narcotic experience on “Cocaine (I Cry).” Whatever’s marketable in Howell’s repertoire, though, is most likely coincidence: He just tells it like he sees it. “They say ‘Everybody has a story, what makes yours so interesting?’” he poses rhetorically as he leans over the lunch table. The answer comes with the kind of wide-eyed bravado that has marked many successful MCs: “Because I lived mine.”