It's my way of killing the sorrow
Higher than Kenyans ascending Kilimanjaro
I might have been tempted when I was feeling bizarro
But the future is now, so I'm stealing tomorrow
The two MCs, friends and collaborators who call themselves the Frozen Food Section, have a fair amount in common: Both are white. Both are devout Christian Scientists (except for the weed-smoking part). Both short-circuited their academic careers at Principia College (a.k.a. Christian Science U) in Elsah, Illinois, by toking. Toth runs a roofing company; Booth valets at a restaurant downtown.
But their day-job lives are miles away as they and two young women who've come along for the ride pilot west on Interstate 70. Their destination: Denver International Airport, where they're scheduled to pick up a girl named Claire. She's the girlfriend of an underground rapper from Minneapolis, Eyedea, who's performing in Boulder tonight with Abilities, his DJ counterpart. In exchange for the shuttle service, Eyedea's label has agreed to spring for their hotel room. But the 30-year-old Toth and Booth, five years his junior, aim to leverage the scenario into an invitation to come onstage during the rapper's set.
Why wasn't I born high
Like swimming in Jupiter's shorelines?
We're smoking poor swine like pork rinds
You're real nice but you gotta be more kind
Casey Sutton, who owned the now-defunct Galaxy club downtown, says Booth and Toth (real name Jonathan Getzschman) are the real deal.
"Other people like to talk about it, Jon and Tucker just do it. It's not some party to tell their friends about ten years later. They are going from town to town with their music. They have a goal, they have a plan."
The goal is to spread their Christian Science-meets-underground-hip-hop message to anyone who'll listen. Distributing hundreds of promotional CDs is part of the plan, as is panhandling on the Delmar Loop and sucking up to better-known indie rappers. So is performing in the trenches, which is what brings the Frozen Food Section to the Hanger 9 bar in Carbondale on a warm November night.
Carbondale's hip-hop scene is out in force for the show. As Booth and Toth take the elevated stage -- so elevated, in fact, that there's barely room for them to stand up -- the crowd, mostly black twentysomethings, mills toward the back of the bar, sipping cheap mugs of Blue Moon with orange slices. Most have come to hear the crunk sounds of the night's headliners, Modern Optiks. But first they'll sample Frozen Food's appetizers. The sight of the wispy-bearded Toth, who's decked out like a Secret Service agent in black suit and dark glasses, and Booth, who looks like a Mormon missionary, elicits guffaws from a boothful of women up front.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I am of the security of the First World tonight, and I am actually a time cop from the future," Toth proclaims. "I have been brought back for you tonight by the future president of 2012: Tucker Booth, the 44th president of the United States!"
Backed by a prerecorded CD of instrumentals, the duo launches into Tucker Booth 4 President's title track. It goes over well, as do "Rockstar on the Roof" and "Growing Pains," the latter an homage to Alan Thicke, Joanna Kerns, Tracey Gold and the rest of the cast of the late-'80s sitcom. Assorted head-nodders in the crowd are drawn forward like magnets to a fridge.
But during "Fast Living (fat children remix)," a technical glitch: The CD skips. And skips again. A sweaty Toth taps the player, but it's clear that the piece of shit is done for the night.
But rather than shimmy offstage à la Ashlee Simpson, Toth commences beat-boxing and Booth breaks it down a cappella:
Fast livin' in the back of a limo
Standin' legs akimbo over a bimbo
I said, 'You're real nimble'
But then she hit me upside the head with a hymnal!
In the world of indie rap, image and sales are bullshit; ingenuity is the currency. Artists at the top of this game -- such as Eyedea, Slug and the rest of Minneapolis' Rhymesayers crew, and RJD2 and El-P from New York City's Definitive Jux -- would never be caught rapping about popping Cristal in a Jacuzziful of shorties. They'll also never go platinum. But they consider themselves heirs to the thrones of Grandmaster Flash and the Sugar Hill Gang, who pioneered an art form and had fun doing it, and they've amassed worldwide followings of street intellectuals.
Toth is the Frozen Food Section's technical virtuoso, Booth its whimsical troubadour. Some of St. Louis' biggest hip-hop heads have called them a joke -- a criticism almost as vicious as that leveled by the Principia students who see their predilection for drugs as heretical. But don't doubt their commitment to hip-hop, or to a faith that advocates spiritual solutions even in the most dire of circumstances. To understand their beliefs, a good place to start might be Toth's Brainwashing, The Art of Hip-Hopera, which he describes as "Star Trek meets The Matrix meets Kool Keith meets Christian Science."
The album broke onto CMJ's college-radio chart and received play on influential radio stations from New York to Montreal. "I'm currently being bootlegged by some guys in Japan!" Toth boasts.
A chill fall breeze rustles through the parking lot at Denver International Airport as Toth and Booth escort the pulchritudinous Claire to their waiting chariot. Claire hasn't seen her boyfriend in weeks, and despite the chill, she's hot. So hot, in fact, that she tears off her shirt and begins fanning her skimpily covered chest.
Though the boys had aimed to take the stage with Eyedea and Abilities tonight at Boulder's Fox Theatre, the show's over by the time they and the girls arrive. Undaunted, they all head over to the afterparty at a bar a few blocks away.
They saunter in -- and there he is: DJ Abilities, a fat blunt in his hand.
A brief explanatory interlude: Originally Jonathan Toth from Hoth called himself J to the Getzschman. Somewhere along the line, "to the" was shortened to Toth. Hoth, he took from the name of the ice planet where the rebel base hid out in The Empire Strikes Back. (He was living in Colorado as a snowboard bum at the time and thought Hoth was a good metaphor for the place.) The Frozen Food Section is so named because, as Toth puts it, "Everybody wants to do some hot shit, but we'd rather be cold as hell."
When the weather's tolerable, Toth spends his days on rooftops, crafting songs in his head while he tears up his hands.
Toth founded College Roofers in 1996 along with his dad and two younger brothers. Pop's retired now and his brothers have left town, but Toth still does about 40 roofs a year. Maybe half his customers are Christian Scientists. For this reason, Bill Getzschman has always demanded quality work from his son.
"If we were going to live here for another twenty or thirty years, we didn't want to have to worry about people coming back to us and saying, 'Your son did my roof and now there's a hole in it,'" Dad says.
For Toth, the company serves mostly as a means to an end. He says he netted $25K last year and spent $17,000 of that on music -- mostly production and distribution costs associated with Frozen Food Section CDs.
Toth's University City apartment doubles as a recording studio, which he calls the Cooler. It's an ample set-up, if a bit ghetto. DJ Trackstar -- a local hip-hop mainstay and sometime Frozen Food contributor -- can hardly believe the quality of the music that's made in there. "The mic stand is literally a chair turned around, and the mic is attached to the top of the back of the chair!" he marvels.
Often the songs are inspired by the day's work on the roof. Toth employs a lot of rappers, cohorts who've taken advantage of the flexible shifts and the going rate (anywhere from $10 to $25 an hour). They have included Booth, Chicago-based MC Serengeti and local luminaries DJ Crucial and mixtape master Julian Venegas.
While ripping up shingles, the roofers mine their minds for two-bar punch lines -- rhyming couplets that tell a joke. Like a tennis player lunging for a return, they must react to what's thrown at them and spin the next shot to their own advantage. Booth might start with:
Your mom wears pasties, you're not that tasty
And in the battle, you were afraid to face me
To which Toth might reply:
No dog, you're spacey
Basically, you're just mad cause you got caught sleeping in Julian's basement
On one 100-degree day in the summer of 2003, Toth says, Serengeti's battle with the heat and humidity fueled a creative explosion. "We came up with a whole album's worth of stuff that day," Toth recalls. "I like working with fellow musicians. It's been amazing to watch concepts come out of thin air -- on the roof!"
The Frozen Food Section maintains a rotating roster and a Web site, www.thefrozenfoodsection.com, run by Jon's squeaky-clean 28-year-old brother Rob Getzschman (who has recorded folk-music discs on the label). Current members include Booth's girlfriend and roommate Christina Bereolos, as well as local DJs EngLebuRt, DJ Crucial and Helias. Perhaps the most explosive contributor of the bunch is Serengeti, a.k.a. Dave Cohn. Serengeti's latest album, Noodle-Arm Whimsy, executive-produced by Toth, recently scored a worldwide distribution deal with New York City's hot-selling Day By Day Entertainment.
"I think Jon and Tucker are both crazy -- crazy in a good way," Cohn says. "Tucker's the most whimsical person I've ever met in my life."
Toth attributes Frozen Food's success to the label's freewheeling approach.
"I used to be into the 'fuck society' political raps of Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine," he says. "But then I got away from that. Political rap is too topical -- you don't make lasting music. Within four years people are like, 'Who the hell are you talking about?'
"Tucker's album is basically asking: 'Doesn't everybody just want to have fun? Why would you vote for a dude who's not going to start the party? Vote for me instead!'"
Toth says his own disc, which he plans to release next Valentine's Day, "is asking: 'Don't we all really just want love?'" The CD, entitled The Lovecycle, "encapsulates the spectrum of love, from the depths of pain to the pinnacle of unconditional love."
With a big fat smile, Booth hands Abilities a copy of his promo disc. What with the groupies and the weed, Abilities couldn't give a shit.
"I'll probably never listen to this," he says, then finishes off the fat blunt between his fingers without offering to share.
Call Julian Venegas the talent scout of the local underground rap scene. Though he's still honing his own MC skills, Venegas has worked with the city's best and prides himself on a finely tuned ear for talent. When he meets someone whose style impresses him, he invites the MC to lay down rhymes at his U. City Loop apartment studio, a cozy sunroom-and-closet setup.
Booth caught Venegas' ear while busking for tips in the Loop. The budding producer took Booth into his booth -- and magic happened.
"He laid down four tracks in twenty minutes," Venegas recounts. "All freestyle, and they all came out good on the first take. To do what Tucker did would normally take people two hours. But Tucker was done before the mic even warmed up."
Booth's knack for spontaneous combustion has served him well on the battle-rap scene -- he won three competitions during the summer of 2003 at the Red Sea in the Loop, and this past August he competed in Cincinnati's prestigious Scribble Jam, which in the past has showcased the likes of Eminem and Slug. But in other venues his constant drive for self-promotion can piss people off. He says Vintage Vinyl banned him for a year for playing too loud beneath the store's marquee.
Howard Schwartz, a manager at the record store, won't confirm or deny the story.
"Sounds like spin to me," says Schwartz. "Spin is Tucker's greatest forte."
At any rate, these days Booth's CD is for sale at the store, and the Frozen Food Section did a recent in-store performance.
When DJ Trackstar met Booth and Toth, he thought they were a joke. Booth's take on hip-hop turned him off, he says, and he refused to listen to Will Rap 4 Food, Booth's first album, on principle.
"It was just a matter of style," explains Trackstar, whose given name is Gabe Moskoff. "Tim McGraw might be the greatest singer in the world, but I don't want to listen to his music."
Eventually, though, Booth won him over.
"I've definitely gained more respect for his creativity," says the DJ, who went so far as to perform on a track from Tucker Booth 4 President.
Booth's most outstanding characteristic might be his earnestness. He's so sincere that it sometimes hurts to talk to him -- the kind of guy who says it's great to see you even though he just saw you a few hours ago.
Says Tucker's father, Tim Booth: "Tucker's always been a free spirit. Even as a baby, he never did crawl. He always did army-style, elbows and knees. One night his mom had this intuition that he wanted to walk. She put these little tennis shoes on his feet. We were each at different ends of the hall, and then -- boom -- he was walking. Whenever he has had it in his mind that he wanted to accomplish something, he would just set his mind to it and then do it."
Toth's mother, Susie Getzschman, taught English at Principia Middle School and had Booth in her seventh- and eighth-grade classes.
"It was very difficult to teach him," she remembers. "He would come into the classroom -- just like a force field -- and everybody would say, 'What's Tucker doing today?'"
Sometimes the force field gets him in trouble. Aside from the (possibly apocryphal) Vintage Vinyl episode, Booth was recently busted for disturbing the peace, resisting arrest and attempted assault on a police officer outside the Pepper Lounge on Locust. The assault charge was recently dropped; the other two charges are pending.
"We almost came to blows many times," Venegas says of his bond with Booth. "Me and Tucker have an interesting relationship, and at times it gets brutal. I can hang out with Tucker about three hours a week, otherwise it's too much. He's a good artist and a good dude, but he would drive people stronger than me insane."
A detour on the long ride home presents itself in the form of indie-rap superstar RJD2 and his opening act, Definitive Jux labelmates Hangar 18, who are playing the Blue Note in Columbia.
After the show, one of the girls scores an invite up to chill in the Definitive Jux hotel room.
"I only do this so you guys will get my boys hooked up with some shows," she says, and unclasps her bra. The guys from Hangar 18 happily autograph her tits.
Unfortunately, RJD2 has skipped the festivities entirely and gone straight to bed.
When the party winds down, the upstart New York rappers escort the St. Louis road warriors to the door. "Get ahold of us next time you're in town," one says to Booth.
Not only can't you take illegal drugs at Principia College, you can't take legal ones either. You also can't drink, smoke or have premarital sex. Students sign a contract pledging as much when they arrive at the school. The rules apply whether you happen to be on or off campus.
"I'm not knocking it," Toth says. "That's why people come there: so they can be in the presence of other like-minded people. You have to decide if it's for you."
Founded by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879, the Church of Christ, Scientist functions these days as a comparatively mainstream Protestant denomination -- save for the occasional run-in with the courts owing to the sect's opposition to medical care. Thanks to Principia College and a campus in Town and Country that offers schooling from kindergarten through high school (both Toth and Booth attended), St. Louis is considered a worldwide Christian Science epicenter.
It was in college that Toth, whose family's Christian Science roots date back more than a hundred years, decided that some of the religion's finer points were not for him. The first time he got caught smoking pot, a dorm monitor smelled some incense he'd lit to mask the odor. When he asked Toth what was going on, Toth readily coughed up the sack. In lieu of discipline, he agreed to meet with the monitor to talk about his "problem."
"He later said he'd confused the smell of incense with weed," Toth recalls. "It was a pine incense -- didn't even smell like weed! That shows you how connected Prin people are with the real world."
By the time he was a senior in Elsah, he was toking every day.
"My rationale at the time was: I love Principia but right now I'm learning a new creativity in my music that is so fun and exciting and freeing that that desire trumps my original contract with Principia," Toth says now, with the events seven years in the rearview. "I'll be good Christian Science boy on the outside because that's what's required of me, but I'll be underground rapper/contraband abuser at night."
But after a roommate narced on him to an administrator, Toth was informed, four weeks before graduation, that he wouldn't be receiving his diploma.
"We would have turned him in if he hadn't turned himself in," says Susie Getzschman, Toth's mother. "It was a big disappointment. Instead of spending his senior year up in the environment that he chose for himself, he was down here with all his pot-smoking buddies."
Two years ago a similar fate befell Booth. After a classmate anonymously notified administrators of his clandestine activities, Booth withdrew from school, Richard Nixon-style, before they could kick him out.
Booth was banned from campus for a year -- a situation complicated by the fact that his parents happen to live there: His father is the college's special-events coordinator. (The administration eventually allowed Tucker to visit his family.)
"Every year we suspend a few students for drinking or recreational drugs or premarital sex," says Chestnut Booth, the school's dean of students -- and Tucker's aunt. "But we don't use the word expel. Our theology is such that we only use the word suspend. We welcome students back on their own honor."
Toth took advantage of the generosity and returned sober to finish his degree.
"He eventually did the right thing," Chestnut Booth says. "And we love that about him. Jonathan is one of the brightest, most intellectual and most poetic people I've ever met in my life. His intellect runs circles around mine; I struggle to keep up."
Booth, meanwhile, didn't go back for his diploma and doesn't intend to. He says he wasn't surprised he got ratted out; even his musician friends couldn't understand why he'd break the cardinal rules.
"People would say they were ashamed to have worked with me, because they thought drugs had created the music and they didn't want to be a part of anything that drugs created. I was like 'Why? You're a part of something I created with you, and more that that, what God created.'"
Toth is convinced he's doing God's work, drugs or no.
"We're the only life form who has been tricked into thinking that something is wrong with us," he argues. "Christian Science is supposed to teach us that we're perfect. Not perfect like a cookie-cutter thing -- it means that what you are is amazing, whatever you do."
When Toth broke his collarbone in a 1993 snowboarding accident in south county, his friends urged him to go to the hospital but he declined, opting to "try to work things out spiritually. I tried to see myself as a being of love and coordination instead of a physical set of ingredients who needed to be fixed," he says. Within three days, he says, his shoulder felt fine. A subsequent x-ray showed a fully healed break; Toth says his doctor was amazed at what had transpired.
Ten years later, on December 31, 2003, Toth awoke with a tremendous pain in his side, which was diagnosed as appendicitis. When his doctor recommended surgery, Toth eventually discovered the limits to his faith. A $19,000 hospital bill for the surgery, though, highlighted the fact that Toth had no health insurance.
So he had to resort to prayer after all. Toth says he tried daily "affirmations," based on his Christian Science beliefs and the teachings of self-help guru Napoleon Hill.
"The idea is that words are powerful, and when you say words, you're forced to realize how powerful they are," Toth explains. "Before you go to bed, you state what you want to happen, what's going to happen. And it will, so long as you truly believe it."
The hospital soon informed Toth that his debt had been forgiven in full.
Seventeen hundred miles on the Durango, and the Frozen Food Section's mission has been a total bust: No onstage invites from Eyedea or Abilities or RJD2. And no one's gonna listen to their promo disc.
But rather than wallow, the divinely inspired, eternally optimistic duo console themselves by freestyling.
Yo, no one stepped up, I guess it's time to blow
Like that weed that Abilities smoked
Came to the shows
Didn't get to perform, but I don't care, so...
Lyrics, those styles -- they're not hearin' it
I'd rather catch their ear with some seriousness
Whether it's jokes or roaming off the dome
It's nice to complete an eight-punch-line poem