On the road with P-Lite, the home-school rapper
from the Autumn 2008 issue
The American Legion hall is shaking—literally shaking, the tremors caused by 300 or so pairs of pounding adolescent feet, clamoring for the show that was supposed to have started twenty minutes ago but was delayed because the star’s tour van stopped to pick up some hitchhikers. The kids don’t know this, though, or they don’t care, and they are stomping heartily in a display of giddy energy that is unnerving the members of the ladies’ auxiliary who are manning the concession table in the back of the room—popcorn from a pushcart and assorted store-brand sodas.
A sign on the paneled walls reads “Maximum Occupancy 184,” and every minute or so the Assistant Post Commander, standing by the door, looks up at the sign with nervous speakeasy eyes, as if anticipating a raid. The pounding is being leavened with shouting now, high-pitched cries for justice, and the whole thing can be heard perfectly backstage, as clear as the battle yells of some pubescent invading army. The main attraction—P-Lite, the home-school rapper, the one legitimate musical superstar of the insular home-school universe—cracks his knuckles nervously as he peers ever so slightly around the olive green curtain.
“They’re pretty stoked, yeah?” asks one of the hitchhikers, both of whom were, of course, persuaded to stay for the show and backstage buffet. Neither of them had ever heard of P-Lite—very few non-homeschoolers ever have—but they are noticeably impressed by the intensity of the admiration he is eliciting from his audience. P-Lite repeats the word, tonguing it gently. “Stoked.” He smiles at the guy. “I like that. Stoked.” He turns to me. “I’ll have to write that one down.” But instead of reaching for a pen, he grabs my hand, and motions with his free hand for everyone else to follow suit.
“I want to express my thanks for this opportunity to share my music with all these nice people,” P-Lite says calmly. The crowd is getting louder. “I especially want to thank Colonel Spellman for letting us use this beautiful hall.” Colonel Spellman, a florid man, blushes slightly. “Let’s do our best out there,” says P-Lite over a cascading chorus of chanting and pounding. “Let’s give these youngsters something they can remember.” And with that he squeezes my hand and struts out onto the stage as the anticipatory tension breaks into giddiness, as a chorus of inarticulate salutation greets his first words: “Hello, homeschoolers! Is everyone stoked to be here?”
YOU CAN'T FIND Bashford, New Hampshire on any map. This is intentional—in 1984 the town council, represented by a local attorney with the melodious name of Jamison Jackson, sued the Rand McNally Company, contending that the village had been included against its will. After a protracted legal tussle, Rand McNally settled out of court, agreeing to omit Bashford from all further maps and road atlases. News of the settlement trickled down to smaller map publishers which, under the threat of further lawsuits, decided to follow suit and leave Bashford alone.
Finding the village nowadays is akin to some sort of medieval quest. Interested parties have to stop at various filling stations and convenience stores and inquire of assorted pump jockeys and countermen, who will inevitably give you a provincial once-over before sending you on your way.
Although semi-retired, Jamison Jackson still practices law in Bashford. When I arrived on a recent Tuesday afternoon, he greeted me with a warmth unexpected from a man who has made a career out of shunning the outside world. “It’s not that we’re inhospitable,” the rangy, horse faced attorney explains. “It’s just that we value our seclusion. And, frankly, our security. That’s why we live up here. If we wanted to go in for all that hoopla, we’d move down to Manchester,” he says, waving his hand dismissively at the mention of Manchester.
Jackson has lived in Bashford for all but seven of his 64 years. Along with his late wife, Delores, he raised three children here amongst the hills and pastures—including his youngest son, Penn Jackson, who today goes by the name P-Lite.
Understanding Bashford is crucial to understanding P-Lite, as the town’s close knit seclusion is an integral part of both his music and his lifestyle. Over coffee and sandwiches at the Bashford Diner, P-Lite’s father sketches some of his son’s background details. “We pulled the kids out of the public school system back in 1987,” says Jackson. “The primary reason was the geography curriculum. We just thought it was biased. But there were a host of other reasons, as well—we figured we could do better on our own.”
In the late 1960s, several scholars independently concluded that children learned best in a non-institutional setting, and that traditional schools stunted child development—research that confirmed the suspicions of many parents frustrated by the disinterested teaching and lax curricula common to so many American public schools. The modern home-school movement—that rare revolution that appealed to both radicals and reactionaries—began soon thereafter. Today, approximately two million American children are home-schooled; most of these children substantially outperform their P.S. counterparts on every standardized test that exists. “We had a library of Great Books and two doctoral degrees,” says Jackson. “Of course we’d do a better job than some 23-year-old teachers’ college graduate.”
For ten years, P-Lite was home-schooled by his mother and father, studying a curriculum centered around writing, ethics, geography (“Beard your enemy in his own den,” notes a satisfied Jackson), and music. It was in this makeshift garage classroom that P-Lite first started to explore his gift, such as it was. As the interview winds down, Jackson reaches into his briefcase and pulls out a weathered piece of lined notebook paper, entitled “My Family”—apparently P-Lite’s oldest extant composition.
Jackson clears his throat and reads: “Mom and Dad / Dad’s got a coat and a woolen hat/ He’s not too fat/ We learn in the garage/ We sleep in the house/ We eat our fill of deep-fried mouse.” Jackson rolls his eyes and laughs. “We didn’t really have them eat mice,” he says. “I think he just couldn’t find anything else to rhyme with ‘house.’” Jackson pauses. “For a nine-year-old, it’s pretty good, though, don’t you think?”
In 1999, P-Lite left Bashford and enrolled at the University of New Hampshire, where he studied economics and music for two years before abruptly leaving school to pursue his music career. His proud father directly attributes P-Lite’s career to the lessons he learned as a homeschooler: Creativity is a gift, independence is a virtue, and don’t trust the machine. Jamison Jackson, 64 years old, actually says this, says “Don’t trust the machine,” and says it with such commitment and ferocity that you realize that Rand McNally got off easy by settling its court case. And you start to realize why P-Lite is so successful at what he does.
AS ONE MIGHT EXPECT from a Bashford boy, P-Lite brings a whole new meaning to the term “independent artist.” He books all of his shows himself, touring most of the year, rarely playing at traditional music venues. He drives his own tour van—an ancient, paneled Chrysler that he refers to, entirely unselfconsciously, as “Ol’ Woody.” He self-releases all of his CDs. He doesn’t tour with opening acts, and doesn’t employ a DJ, preferring to rap along to pre-recorded backing tracks. “Keeping it simple helps me keep it real,” he says. “It helps me stay true to who I am, and where I’ve been.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, P-Lite is a bit of a controversial figure. He gets no respect or recognition from the hip hop establishment, or even the underground scene. This frustrates him a little, even if he’s reluctant to admit it. Moreover, he has come under attack from some disaffected members of the home school community, who accuse him of glorifying a lifestyle that, they claim, is anything but laudable. “P-Lite is a shill and a propagandist,” says Ernest Lo, the former editor of a now-defunct newsletter called Home-School Watchdog. “Home-schooling destroys kids’ abilities to function in a world that’s based on interpersonal skills. He glorifies a life that is signally destructive.”
“They’re certainly entitled to their opinions,” P-Lite says of his critics. “And I guess I see where they’re coming from. Still, I don’t claim to be anything other than what I am. And it’s just music, you know?”
Besides his home-school background, P-Lite’s two biggest influences are Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, and he quotes extensively from both, often. “The RZA changed my life,” he says from the driver’s seat of his spotless Chevy tour van, before going into a word-perfect rendition of “C.R.E.A.M.,” the hit single from that album, the hook for which goes “Cash rules everything around me; get the money, dolla’ dolla’ bill, y’all!” P-Lite giggles when he hits the hook. “I love that song,” he says. “When I started out, I was going to call myself ‘Dolla Dolla Bill,’ but I wasn’t sure if I could be sued for doing that. Plus, it didn’t really fit, you know?”
Instead, he chose to cultivate a persona that’s some unlikely amalgamation of KRS-One, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Little Lord Fauntleroy: He’s gracious, clean, and intelligent, an extremely hard worker who enjoys obeying his parents and doing his chores. P-Lite is the boy that every mother wishes her daughter would marry; he is the non-sectarian personification of the Ten Commandments. (“The world’s first rap,” notes P-Lite, often.)
That’s not to say that he’s a poseur. Spend any significant amount of time with P-Lite, and you’ll note his extensive knowledge of and appreciation for hip hop music and hip hop history. His tour van’s stereo plays rap music from all eras—Sugarhill Gang, Biggie Smalls, Ludacris, an independent MC who calls himself Busdriver—and little else, unless he’s checking talk radio for traffic updates when approaching a city. P-Lite is currently enamored of Mike Jones, a Houston-based rapper who repeats his name over and over in several of his songs. “Listen to that hook,” P-Lite says, nodding his head along with the Mike Jonesing. “It’s really hard to write something like that.”
There aren’t many memorable hooks in P-Lite’s songs, and he acknowledges this readily and unapologetically: “I wish I could write songs like you hear on the radio. But that’s not me. That’s not my game. My game is the flow. The spit.” He is indeed a technically proficient MC, delivering his lyrically dense, message-laden songs with tuneful verve. On the surface, his music is about as thematically different from most traditional hip hop as one can imagine. He doesn’t dispute this—in fact, he champions the fact. “It would be disingenuous if I wrote on a life I knew nothing about,” he says. “I grew up in New Hampshire. I was home-schooled. But there’s disaffection and alienation in that realm, too. Maybe I’ve never been shot at, but I’ve seen some things.”
THE HIP HOP COMMUNITY, like few others, is consumed by the quest for and appearance of authenticity—the exhortation to “keep it real” is something of a rap cliche. The genre has thrived due to the popularity of albums and artists that boast of their connection to street culture—recounting gritty, dissolute practices with the easy familiarity of the expert—and of their disconnection to the established, dominant culture. The best hip hop records merge these themes, explore the process of embracing an insular environment because they don’t fit into the wider world.
In a sense, the home-school community is not all that different from the hip hop one. Disconnected from the ethics and values of mainstream schooling, homeschoolers remove themselves from that environment and embrace their own world, with its own corresponding code of ethics and values. The movement’s most avid proponents claim that home schooling brings traditional values and standards back into a diluted and broken system; that homeschoolers, in a sense, are the ones ‘keeping it real.’ Both subcultures are ostensibly engaged in the search for a path that is more resonant—more relevant—than the one trod by most members of society.
“It’s absolutely the same thing,” says P-Lite, when he hears this theory. “I actually heard that Jay-Z home-schools his kids, you know. When I heard that, it just made perfect sense. I was like ‘Word.’” P-Lite nods at the memory, then stops, catching himself. “You know what? I probably didn’t actually say the word ‘word.’ But I was thinking it.” He nods again. “I was thinking it.”
As best he can, P-Lite tries to incorporate this feeling of authenticity into his lyrics. He is very proud of both his lyrical output and his systematic lyric-writing process. Every day, he takes an hour-long hike with a personal tape recorder, working on verses while he gets some exercise. These sessions are stream-of-consciousness affairs, and very much impacted by what P-Lite sees while walking.
“For instance,” he said during one of these sessions,” do you see that plane up there?” He pointed to a barely visible jet, leaving a trail of smoke behind as it sped across the sky. “Well, it’s in the sky. So I think of God, of course. And then the smoke always makes me think of skywriting. ‘Surrender, Dorothy,’” he says, referring to the movie The Wizard Of Oz. “So you’ve got the makings of a verse about faith, right there. Or maybe about movies, but that’s a touchy subject for a lot of people, so we’ll just keep it safe and stick to religion.”
He turned on the tape recorder and, closing his eyes, began to versify. “Skywriting ... skywriting. Skywriting / Trail of smoke / Now you see it, now you don’t / Dissolving, you stare / Was it ever really there? / Was it just some kind of joke? / Surrender to the smoke / Surrender to the smoke.”
He trailed off, and, clicking the stop button on the recorder, walked in silence for about thirty seconds. “That’s good, right?” he asked, finally. “But kind of dark. That doesn’t always play well.” He shook his head and laughed. “My audience, man ... they would not really go for a song that compared religion to trails of airplane smoke. Even if it was just some sort of metaphor.” He sighed and jammed his knit cap down over his ears, as if to block out this unproductive train of thought. “I tell you, my friend. Sometimes it is not easy being me.”
P-LITE BEGINS THE AMERICAN LEGION SHOW with “The Garage,” the most popular track from his most popular album, a five-minute opus about what a garage can be used for—classrooms, car storage, youthful experimentation (“Kiss her on the floor where the car’s not parked / Call her mom to pick her up before it gets dark”). Unlike most touring musicians, P-Lite plays all of his best-loved songs at the front of every show. “A lot of these kids will have to leave before the show is over,” P-Lite tells me later, citing the strict bedtime regulations imposed by many home-school parents. “It’s not fair to them if I leave all my best stuff until the end.”
Even so, he performs for two full hours, delivering a forceful set revolving around themes including faith, respect, and alienation, of a sort (“Get your head in the game?”/ I don’t even own a ball / It’s a world about which I know nothing at all / No senior prom / No Coralville Mall”). This last song, with its reference to Disney’s High School Musical, draws wild cheers from the crowd.
Afterwards, he lingers in the hall for an additional hour, greeting and conversing with his fans and posing for pictures, until he’s compelled to end out of a sense of concern for his elderly hosts’ stamina. His merchandise table is paltry, featuring copies of three self-released compact discs and a limited selection of P-Lite apparel (“A lot of these kids’ parents don’t let them wear T-shirts.”), but it’s being browsed eagerly by dozens of fans.
“He captures the experience well,” says Brant Burdon, twelve, whose serious brown eyes scan the crowd during our conversation, as if he expects to get in trouble for talking to a stranger. Burdon traveled 150 miles to attend the concert; his father, who is tone-deaf, has been waiting in a nearby Shoney’s for the past three hours. “I’m really more of a Brahms man myself, but P-Lite is very good at what he does,” he says.
“He’s so accurate,” says a tall, pale girl with extremely long brown hair. “Don’t you think he’s accurate?”
“I like the song about not knowing where school ends and home begins,” says Burdon, ignoring the girl. He ends up buying two CDs, both of which P-Lite autographs in fluid, legible script. “Dear Brant,” the inscriptions read, “Thanks for coming out. Your Friend, P-Lite.” Burdon tucks the CDs under his arm and runs outside, where an armada of cars waits in the street, their blinking emergency lights resembling nothing so much as cigarette lighters flickering approval of the music being played inside.
By 10:00 the hall is almost empty as P-Lite boxes up his merchandise. He will be on the road for six more weeks, at which time he will return to his New Hampshire home base for a brief rest-and-recording interlude. Then, on the road again.
“I don’t get tired,” he says as he helps Colonel Spellman’s wife sweep the stage. “I’m doing good work. I’m doing what I love.” He motions me closer, as if to share a secret. “It’s as if I’ve got a banshee inside of me. A ... a home-school, rapping banshee. And I open my mouth, and these sounds come out. And I can’t stop it. I’m just the vessel.”
P-Lite holds my gaze for an uncomfortably long period before shrugging and returning to his sweeping. “I hope nobody heard that,” he says. “Some of my fans are weird about supernatural stuff. As well they should be. Am I a ghost? No. A savior, a prophet of sorts? No. Emphatically not! In the end, I’m just an entertainer,” he says. “Do my listeners learn things from my songs? I hope so, but that’s not the main point. They spend enough time learning things every day in their garages. When they spin a P-Lite CD, I just want them to feel it.”
- Justin Peters
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