It’s simply too hard to sum up Copywrite when you’re dealing with a deadline. I was determined to attempt that feat but within the first five minutes of texting Mr. Peter Nelson1 in prepping for an interview a few days later, the rabbit hole was being dug.
So next to “June,”2 what do you consider your finest moment as an artist?
“Performing at the same festival as James Brown in Europe,” replies Nelson almost immediately. Where in Europe is up for debate as Nelson admits to “smoking mad weed on a 30-day tour” to the point that he can’t remember.
Such is the polarity of Copywrite—he’s a world-renowned lyricist and emcee3 with boundless potential, but he’s always the joker, the controversial lightning rod, or just plain criminal. He’s been lauded for his work with Columbus hip-hop pioneers MHz and as a solo artist, but has also been called out for his sometimes misogynistic rhymes and participated in a very public beef with Jersey rapper and former Weathermen co-conspirator Cage.4 Though Nelson admits to “stealing since he was 10” and breaking into his first house at 14, the idea of true redemption, and righting any wrongs, has never been more palpable. He speaks of his misdeeds in the past tense.
“When I was younger I had one hell of an ego,” says Nelson. “I was used to growing up with a lawless sense about life. I used to just do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. I was just a cartoon. I’m also Gemini and I’m bipolar, so I never stop to think about the consequences. I felt invincible. As you get older you start to realize the shit that you did. All you can do is learn from the shit.”
Should you need a comprehensive refresher, take a spin with 2010’s The Life and Times of Peter Nelson. The album is Copywrite’s own Southside bildungsroman,5 telling the tale of Nelson riding off the rails, burning bridges, and eventually finding himself through the persistent specter of death. Without hesitation, Nelson acknowledges the recent loss of Brooklyn emcee Sean Price and the untimely passing in 2008 of the late, great Camu Tao, who was one of Nelson’s closest friends and is unanimously regarded as our city’s most talented hip-hop export. He starts to ruminate on mortality.
“When Camu passed it made me stop holding grudges. And now Sean Price. That has made me understand the small amount of time that I have left. I could die any day. I have to get shit done,” says Nelson. “I take for granted that I have fans in Africa and around the world. You get caught up in yourself and forget what’s important. I want to leave behind as much music as I can. I want to be true to my art.”
Indeed, Copywrite strikes a balance these days. He has to. In “dancing around” both a felony and misdemeanor probation, Nelson’s creative streaks are annoyingly interrupted by having to “constantly piss in a cup” or “ask permission to leave the state.” The man has a new affirmation for every new tattoo, yet he has now channeled both his witty, vitriolic persona and the obscene, oddball crier (check out his Facebook posts as Wharf Wellington6) into a red-alert realization to start working, to make that definitive statement and start leaving the legacy that his talent deserves.
As the girl at the counter admires the Mickey Mouse skull and crossbones on Nelson’s forearm, he stops to bask in the brass section of “Penny Lane” drifting from the coffee house speakers. Later he’s lamenting the inaccuracies of this year’s biopic of Brian Wilson7 (of whom Copywrite is a self-proclaimed obsessive). We speak at length about our love for Dayton funk and De La Soul is Dead. Copywrite is, above all, a music aficionado—not just an old-school head.
What I’ve heard of his next release, Blood Bath and Beyond, sounds like Nelson flowing over a Public Image Ltd. riff, or maybe the hip-hop equivalent to the DIY spirit of Times New Viking and Psychedelic Horseshit, an era which Nelson remembers fondly. As progressively different and confessional as the lead single “OCDADHD” plays, he insists that the record is back to basics during a time when things are out of whack.
“The boat is drifting far away from the dock in hip-hop,” says Nelson, adding that he’s not prone to listen to much new of the genre, save the latest Kendrick Lamar cut. “I’m not going to rescue it, but I’m from that last generation that remembers the ’88 stuff. I wanted it to be ignorant, raw shit. I don’t want to make depressing songs. I wanted to pick the hardest, best beats I could find.”
Do you consider yourself the best at what you do?
“There are three or four guys better than me,” says a laughing Nelson. “But yeah, you kind of have to think that way, or what’s the point of doing it anymore?”
Today Copywrite speaks with a reflective lucidity about his life and work, but humility was never part of his decorum in his early years. Still isn’t. Don’t ever try to battle him.
“When it comes down to it,” says Nelson. “I can actually get down to a little Riff Raff, Action Bronson, or Mac Miller. They all serve a purpose.”
The conversation shifts to being in awe of Nelson’s tenure in the rap game, his resume of “Wow Factor” guest spots,8 and how when it all began with MHz two decades ago, Copywrite was one of only a handful of “competent” white emcees.9 For a wrinkle in time he was even considered the bawdier Huck Finn to Eminem’s Tom Sawyer.
“It was tough because you had to rap your ass off to be taken seriously,” says Nelson. “Back in ’94 and ’95, you were the only white guy. You had to have skills or else you’d embarrass yourself.”
Is race still an issue?
“It is, but I think it’s backwards now. Rap is a melting pot now. With the Internet, everyone knows about everything,” reflects Nelson. “Now it’s almost easier for a white rapper. Once Eminem became popular, it was put in a box and easy to sell. So white rappers almost have an advantage—which is stupid, but it is what it is.”
For Copywrite it’s never a comeback, and in reality his skin never gives him much of an advantage. Instead, it seems like each new step is more instinct and survival. In his downtime one could imagine a Rocky-esque training montage full of bongs and babes. But in becoming more visible in celebrating his artistry, humility is a big part of the plan.
We’re in the final throes of an over-caffeinated, over-extended memory trip that’s passed through Bernie’s and the Groove Shack, eventually landing on the local hip-hop scene and how it has evolved. It’s here Nelson is most generous in his accolades and most willing to put aside himself for a moment. That Soul Position has reunited, if for only one show, is enough to cause a spark that breeds more than just nostalgia. According to Nelson, and he is most certainly an authority, RJD2 is a “f*cking genius,” Da Intalec “taught everyone you hear today and doesn’t get the props he deserves,” Fly Union are “doing leftfield, but in-the-club shit,” and Blueprint currently “holds the torch.”
“Everybody’s put their own brick into what is now Columbus hip-hop,” concludes Nelson. “Everyone has a different style here, so there’s not a definite sound to Columbus hip-hop. It has a lot to do with passing the baton and whoever is active at the time. Right now I feel like I’m sitting in a cave, just waiting to share what I’ve been writing.”
This month, you can catch Copywrite at Double Happiness (9.6), The Basement (9.11), and at Independents’ Day (9.19). To catch up on his prolific career, visit copywrite.bandcamp.com.
1 Copywrite’s pseudonyms include Wharf Wellington, Powerbar Ernie, Hulk Regan, Conway the Milk Man, and The White Sammy Davis Jr. Mixed with Tonsil Neck Larry.
2 The 12-inch single “June” being Nelson’s own Moonwalk moment, as it’s his exalted 2002 collaboration with DJ/producer RJD2 released on the then-nascent Def Jux label. “June” is a masterful mediation on the death of his father and a monument of Columbus hip-hop.
3 Copywrite’s best four bars? “When you’re born, you cry while everyone else smiles/ but when you die, you’re happy while everyone else cries.”
4 Search Copywrite vs. Cage on YouTube.
5 noun — a novel or text dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education.
6 Images found on the Facebook feed of Wharf Wellington include Nelson in a gold chain with a gold Legend of Zelda II cartridge hanging from it, wielding a Teenage Mutant Ninja skateboard, getting neck tattoos, sitting on Porsches under palm trees, 1998 mug shots, Jim Carrey in The Mask, hilarious rap-themed memes, and other sundries.
7 Love and Mercy starring John Cusack and Paul Dano as Brian Wilson.
8 Copywrite has split microphones with Danny Brown, Dilated Peoples, MF Grimm, Canibus, Cage, Aesop Rock, Mac Lethal, and Sean Price among many others.
9 Bonus White Rapper Question—Q: Did you ever audition for VH1’s “Best White Rapper Show”? A: No.