On May 8, a 19-year-old college freshman from Englewood named Trent Davis appeared on the WB game show Steve Harvey's Big Time Challenge and rapped the first 600 syllables of the Declaration of Independence in less than 60 seconds. The competition for the show's $10,000 prize was stiff: he had to beat out a six-member precision lawn-chair drill team, a man who climbed a 20-foot pole upside down, a dog that stacked Frisbees its owner had scattered around the stage, and a guy who snapped a bundle of pencils on his buttocks with an assist from his twisted-up boxer shorts.
Billed as "Motor Mouth" by the show, Davis fired off the words so fast they might as well have been a stream of encrypted data. Harvey played to the studio audience, waggling his finger up and down across his lips in the international sign for "babbling crazy man." But as soon as Davis finished, Harvey replayed the video of his rap in slow-motion with the text of the Declaration scrolling across the screen so everyone could see that he'd indeed been quoting the Founding Fathers.
There was some debate among the three celebrity judges--stand-up comedian Ant doubted at first that Davis had gotten the Declaration right because he'd never said "Thou shalt not kill"--but in the end they gave him a perfect score: three tens, enough to edge out the pole-climbing guy and earn him the prize. Former Saved by the Bell actor Mario Lopez seemed especially impressed that Davis had memorized 600 entire syllables, calling it "unbelievable," and WWE wrestler Chris Jericho tried to give him an 11.
Davis, a nephew of Congressman Danny Davis, admits that he couldn't recite the Declaration of Independence from memory before the Big Time Challenge people asked him to learn it for the show. As a student at Thornton Township High in Harvey, he'd put his skills to more conventional use, rapping in a hip-hop group called the Loose Cannon Assassins. They never put out any recordings, but in one of their songs they coined a new verb: "Yanging" was their word for cranking the hell out of the subwoofers in the trunk of a car. "Nobody else ever said 'yangin','" Davis explains. "It was just something we said."
Davis has also been trying to make a name for himself as Trent G, rapping at the East of the Ryan and at the Lick down in Harvey, among other places. He's got a few demo tracks circulating and plans to put out a full-length album himself next month, though he hasn't decided on a title yet. Back in early 2003 he enjoyed a few minutes of fame when Da Brat played the E2 nightclub: at the end of her show, when she asked if anybody in the crowd rapped, lots of people raised their hands, but Davis ended up onstage with her doing a bit of his own song "Any Style."
In March he sent the Steve Harvey show a videotape of himself performing another original, "Non Stop," and a week later a producer called back, asking him if he could apply the same breathless, mind-bogglingly fast delivery to the Declaration of Independence.
Davis didn't take the request as a dis of his lyrics--he got to work. "I had to go to the library," he says. "Call up the Declaration of Independence. Study it. Every night. Every day. And I pulled it off." He memorized the first 600 syllables and started practicing. "I timed myself in the house using the microwave. What I did was put the microwave on the minute. When I push 'start' I start going, and it comes out to about 54 seconds."
He sent Harvey's people a second tape with the Declaration material. "They called me back a week later, told me they wanted me in Hollywood the next day," he says. Davis had to skip some of his acting classes at Kennedy-King College, where he's a full-time student.
Most of the contestants appearing alongside Davis needed several tries apiece with the cameras rolling--either they couldn't get their routines right or the producers weren't satisfied with the footage. "They do so many retakes, it's ridiculous," he says. In part because he'd been practicing religiously and in part because he wasn't relying on a trained dog, Davis needed only a single take.
Before his spot on Big Time Challenge, he'd tried to jump-start his hip-hop career using a couple local connections--he knew one of Louis Farrakhan's bodyguards, who thought he could get Davis a gig at one of the minister's public events, and he'd met a guy who'd been in a few R. Kelly videos. Neither man was able to help him, but since winning a $10,000 prize on national TV, Davis is feeling more optimistic.
"I might be going back to LA to do Jay Leno," he says. "I'm pretty sure I'm going to get on his show."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.