Brian Wharton needs to make $30 today--every day, in fact. That's what he pays for his room at the Lakeview motel he calls home. Wharton is better known around town by the variety of names he uses as a rap artist--most often Sharkula, Thigahmahjiggee, or Thig--but better still as that guy on the el platform who sells homemade tapes and CD-Rs out of his backpack.
He took a step up from the sub-underground in November when he put out a vinyl-only album compiled from years' worth of tracks recorded in studios, on friends' computers, and on his own trusty cassette player. Though packaged like his other work in hand-lettered, Scotch-taped sleeves (its title varies from copy to copy), it's his first release ever to be sold in stores. Saturday night he'll bring his low-res act to the Bottom Lounge as part of the arts-and-technology festival Version>04 (see Section Two for a complete schedule). Wharton's onstage charisma and lunatic flow place him in a line of wild-man rappers that runs through Busta Rhymes and Kool Keith, but the sound and feel of the LP--at once inventive, primitive, and genuinely unhinged--are closer to street level.
The 30-year-old Wharton spent his first few years on the south side, but his family headed for the safer streets and better schools of Homewood when he was five. In his early teens he was an avid skateboarder, hanging with a bunch of white kids and listening to bands like the Dead Milkmen, the Dead Kennedys, and Black Flag. But Wharton's older brother Rob was playing hip-hop and house records, and soon Wharton was hooked: "I got into [break dancing] and graffitiing and DJing around then. I was into Kurtis Blow, Jimmy Spicer, Doug E. Fresh, Busy Bee--all that stuff."
The Whartons' finances were never quite stable, however, and the family was forced to move constantly. "Sometimes we were poor," Wharton says, "sometimes we were middle-class. Sometimes there would be no gas, electricity, or water where we were living. It was weird, 'cause the kids I went to school with were well-off. They had cars. But I had the music. So they'd give me rides and I'd pop these tapes in."
Upon graduating from high school in 1992 Wharton went off to Southern University in Baton Rouge, where he was a walk-on pitcher for the baseball team. But after taking a line drive in the face one day at practice, he decided his future lay in music: he quit the team and before long the college.
Back in Chicago, Wharton attended classes at Prairie State, Western Illinois, and Columbia while working a string of low-stakes jobs, but he spent most of his time break-dancing with a crew called Blase Blah, which performed on bills with national acts like Big Daddy Kane, Tupac, Grand Puba, and Artifacts.
Inspired by the fanciful, often oblique lyrics of De La Soul, he decided to try making his own music. "I never thought I was ghetto enough to make it big or really say something," he says. "But when I heard [De La] I thought, I could do this." Drawing on a range of influences from TV and film comedy ("Richard Pryor, In Living Color...even Family Ties") to slasher movies, Wharton developed a quirky MC persona he called Thigahmahjiggee. His skewed lyrical sensibility owed as much to the punk and pop songs he'd heard as a skater as to the rap records his brother passed on to him.
A high school friend living in Boston convinced him to move out there in 1996. He'd frequently travel down to New York to sell the tapes he was making and soak up the city's hip-hop culture. "Wu-Tang, Nas, all this NYC freestyle was going on," he says, "so I'd make mixes and throw my stuff on there too."
When he returned to Chicago in '97 Wharton was newly determined to record music and get it out there; he soon put together his first cassette, I Wonder. The tape made its way into the hands of Lee Fraser, an electronic producer and half of the quasi-industrial British club act Sheep on Drugs. Fraser, who had made Chicago a temporary home base, enlisted Wharton to rap on tracks by his new jungle group, Bagman. They released Wrap on the local Invisible label in 1998, and Wharton performed as a dancer and MC on the six-week U.S. tour. Later that year Fraser invited Wharton to work with him and Brit producer Gareth Jones (Depeche Mode, Erasure) on a project called Ornithology. "It was supposed to come out on this label or that," Wharton says, "but nothing ever happened." Jones has since put MP3s from the sessions up on his Web site.
Wharton's response to the disappointment was to create a new persona: "Sharkula came about 'cause I got sick of getting sharked like that, so I said, 'I'm gonna shark you.' It was a more aggressive personality." Using that and a variety of other pseudonyms (Force Face, Cumberjack, Action Blackson) Wharton continued making his own mostly freestyle cassettes and selling them on the street. While some of the literally hundreds of recordings approximate conventional production techniques, many others are weird audio diaries, found-sound recordings that document Wharton walking around the city, riding the el, accosting strangers, and spouting--sometimes belching--his bizarre raps over the background noise in parking lots and record stores. "I just put it out all raw," he says. "Some people may say, 'This shit is crap!' But others might say, 'This shit is great!' Or 'It's good crap,' you know what I mean?"
Wharton has guested on recordings by several local crews and appeared on a pair of compilations by production team the Record Playas, but rather than falling in with an existing crowd, he's developed a singular following comprised of fellow street figures, indie-rock kids, dance-music types, and a few young Polish rap fans. "If you're like me," he says, "and you have to ask people to buy your music just to survive, then you have no choice but to meet different people, all kinds of people, and have them like you."
Last year, after a run of personal and financial trouble, Wharton found himself with almost no money and nowhere to live. He could have stayed with his family, he says, but they had moved out to the rural town of Crete some time before, and he felt he'd be too far from the city and its music scene. So he stayed in Chicago and tried to manage. "I know there were guys like KRS-One who were homeless in Central Park for like seven years," he says. "So I don't mind it. But you know, I thought I would be dead by now." Sometimes he slept at an ex-girlfriend's place, sometimes at the airport or on a train.
Working a corner in Wrigleyville one day last summer, Wharton sold a few tapes to Miles Tilmann, a local ambient and electronic artist. Impressed, Tilmann came back with a plan: he picked tracks for an album out of Wharton's archive, cleaned them up, had them sequenced, mastered, and pressed on vinyl, sent out review copies, and got the LP into local retailers, including Reckless, Hi-Fi, and Dr. Wax.
Sales have been solid for a record so far off the radar, but it's still homemade tapes that pay Wharton's rent. He's begun work on a collaboration with Phonograph Scientists DJ Chuck Sunshine to be called Martin Luther King Jr. Whopper With Cheese, and his current housing situation has inspired a new track he's cutting for an upcoming F5 Records comp--"Motel Blues: Roaches on My Eyelid."
"It's a true story," he says. "I know it's not too glamorous. I'll suffer some, and I gotta make sacrifices. But it allows me to live this lifestyle. I sleep four hours a night, but I can be out in the city all day and network with people and sell my music and perform. This is the only job I've ever had that I would consider doing for the rest of my life."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.