My Mind Spray
He’s a true thug armed with 1,000 bars and two itchy trigger fingers. Buckin’ down wack MCs is Beanie Sigel’s daily operation. Don’t get too close or else you might get shot. By Noah Callahan-Bever.
“Alright, everybody! Let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves,” instructs Lanky Al, who wears his polo shirt tucked neatly into his Levi’s, which are just a hair too tight to be fashionable. The room fills with groans at his request, but Al’s in charge, and as soon as the order is given a portly, dark-skinned man at the front raises his hand. Clad in a fresh white T, shiny black jeans and white-one-white Air Force Ones, the big man turns to the lanky one without expression and announces, “Sigel, here.”
It’s been more than a decade since the man in front, Dwight Grant, better known as Beanie Sigel, squeezed his rotund frame into one of these small-ass high-school chair/desk units. But don’t get it confused, Beans ain’t Rodney Dangerfield, and this ain’t Back To School.
This is gun school, and Beanie, who has just put the finishing touches on his sophomore effort, The Reason, is here to do an independent study on “What A Thug About.” At this small firing range in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, Beans explains, “I wanted to take y’all to do one of my favorite things: shooting.”
The 15-minute tutorial is mandatory, but the general of the Roc knows his guns, and he’s ready to start licking off shots. As Al passes around .22 Lugar rifles to everyone, Beanie looks disappointed. “I’m a member of a gun club,” he says. “I usually use the Colt 9 mm. Can I get something with a lil’ more power?” Al looks surprised at Beanie’s knowledge of firearms and promises to bring him a Glock 9 mm rifle once he’s got everyone else going. Beanie looks at him flatly, rolling his eyes as if to say, “You ain’t tough, you a nut.”
As the class begins blowing though magazines of .22 ammo, Al is sent to discuss the 9 mm with his boss. To Beans’ excitement, Al returns with the larger and more menacing rifle. “I’m tryin’ to be calm but I’m gon’ get richer/With that thing that Malcolm palmed in the picture,” mutters the 27-year-old Philly native as he grabs the heavy weapon. Without instruction Sigel loads several magazines with bullets, smiling like Ralphie with his Red Ryder air rifle on Christmas morning. He then fingers through a stack of Speedwell newsprint targets, until he finds one that details a man in a ski mask with an Uzi in one hand and a little blond hostage in the other.
Beanie clips the 20-by-24 inch paper target onto its hanger and send it out about 30 yards into the range. With the butt of the gun nestled firmly against his right shoulder, Beans drops his head so his right cheek rests on the rifle. He slowly closes his left eye. And then “CRACK, CRACK, CRACK!” Beanie fires in short burst of three. “I’m gonna take the bull’s head off,” he shouts. From this distance one can barely see any damage on the target. Fully confident in his shooting, though, Sigel lets out his inner braggart and switches position to shoot lefty. “Oh yeah, I’m ambidextrous when it comes to shooting.” He fires off a couple more rounds and the mag runs out, clicking repeatedly.
“Scrap, you gonna see some real shooting right here,” he says, reeling in his target. As the newsprint poster approaches, one thing is plain as day: Sigel has done this before. The whole left side of the ski-masked terrorist’s head is perfectly perforated by the bullet holes. Beans looks at his handiwork with an elated chuckle. “I done told’em before: ‘I shoot four things nice so get it right: whether the pool, the ball, the tool or the dice,’” he says, quoting his own rhyme.
From the right side of the chin all the way to the top of the head, the target has been carved into a perfect semi-circle by Beanie’s bullets. “I wanted to get all the way around so the head would fall off, but I ran out of ammo,” he confides.
“What you should do is breathe out before you shoot,” explains Al. “Because if you pull air in, it can cause the barrel to jump, and you to miss the target.”
The crew hangs on Al’s every word, but Beanie seems uninterested. Instead, he smiles and shakes his head. “You ain’t heard me on Big’s joint?” He proceeds to slowly kick part of his verse from “If I Should Die Before I Wake,” enunciating every syllable. “When I squeeze don’t breathe/Keep it lined and even.” He grins even more broadly, raising his voice to a bellow. “So when niggas get hit they be cryin’, screamin’!” Dramatic pause. “Lyin’, bleedin’, from that iron steamin’!” On cue, his friends jump in and shout the last line of the couplet. “And I ain’t tryin’ to hear that bullshit/I ain’t mean it!”
* * *
This is what separates Beanie Sigel from this multitude of gun-slinging, drug-selling, multisyllable-rhyming crab rappers—dare we say Beanie Babies—that have bumrushed the industry in the last couple of years. While these MCs regurgitate tired clichés about infamous hustlers that they’ve never met and dope deals the size of which they’ve only seen in Scarface, Beans’ rhymes come straight off the block.
He is a man of true grit, and his raps come directly from the grimy minutia of his everyday life—you can check his fingernails for proof. So much that he drops his recorded rhymes, when appropriate, in his everyday conversation, as if to quietly say, “I don’t make this shit up.” A true artist, Beanie weaves these vivid stills into a complicated web of literal meaning, metaphoric meaning and, of course, flow.
“[I want] everything that you could want in a song [to be] there at the same time,” he explains hours later from the couch of his impeccably clean Jersey City apartment. “If you’re into the lyrics or the metaphors or the beat [or] just the rawness of the flow, it’s all there. My rhymes work on so many different levels, like a puzzle, and I’m just trying to make [all the pieces] fit together perfectly.”
Beans treats songwriting so much like solving a puzzle that he’s developed a method to it. “When I write I always listen to the music first,” he says. “I like to just sit there with my boys and vibe, like, ‘I feel this way when I hear this track.’ [Then] I just pull the picture outta the music, that’s all. I take whatever the music is saying and I put it into words.”
He peers over his shoulder, out the window towards the illuminated NYC skyline. “I just like to flip the language. It’s like I’m matching wits. I know that there’s people out there that is really listenin’ to the lyrics, so I like to give ‘em one to grow on.”
And then there’s his flow. Take the urgent, angry menace of Ice Cube’s early work, the tightly interacting multisyllable banter of Eminem, the wonderful nonchalance of mentor Jay-Z and an unmistakable Philly accent so thick that it borders on country, and you have Sigel, Sigel, y’all. “I’m not gonna lie, I let the music dictate the flow,” says Beans with surprising humility. “I just want my words to be another instrument in the track.”
No one is happier to excel at rap than Beanie Sigel, who literally lights up when discussing the ins and outs of his craft, but for most of his life none of this mattered at all. Growing up on the mean streets of South Philadelphia, he never even considered music as an occupation. “I was under a single-parents household, so I was just in the street,” he says of his sadly too-familiar youth. With a father missing-in-action (an issue he addressed beautifully on Jay-Z’s heart-wrenching “Where Have You Been”), Sigel’s mother worked multiple shifts as a correctional officer in order to keep food in the mouths of her four children. Her long hours at work left the kids unattended . By the age of nine, Beans was getting himself into trouble in the street.
But Beanie was more than just criminally minded and began to express himself artistically at a very early age. But it wasn’t with a mic. “I’m an artist on the low. I could draw you!” he says, grinning slyly, like he just let the cat outta the bag. “Anything: pastels, pencil sketching, graffiti, alla that. I started coping comics, then drawing my own comics, and then I was doing landscapes.” From his genuine excitement it’s clear that visual arts have always been a secret passion of the career-hustler-turned-MC. “When I was in second grade I was in art class with the sixth graders! When I was in the third grade I had double art!”
Unfortunately, once he began running the streets full-time, at the ripe old age of 13, Beans stopped attending school, and passions as esoteric as art were replaced by far more grounded necessities. Before his eyes, he watched his talent shrivel and die. “After a couple years of not drawing I didn’t have that same hand like I used to,” he says, shaking his head. “If you don’t use [your talent] the right way, or to its fullest extent, then God’ll take it from you. Straight up.”
The next 10 years of his life were like Groundhog Day. Same shit, different toilet, he might say. Hustle, get busted, get locked up, plea or beat the case, back on the street. Repeat. But then everything changed after he received his second felony conviction at the age of 23.
‘I [had to] look at my other options because my back was against the wall,” he explains matter-of-factly. “If I get knocked for anything it would be over for me.” As a two-time felon, Beans was looking at football numbers if he was caught again on the wrong side of the law, so he pondered the possibilities. “I used to play around rappin’, and people started sayin’, ‘Yo, you got most of these rappin’ dudes out there!’ I was like, ‘I don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout that,’ but then [the opportunity] was right there, and…” He pauses, looking for an analogy. “It was like The Matrix, like I had to choose either the blue or the red.”
He spent the next years honing his newfound talent running with local MCs like Major Figgas, Mil and Philly’s Most Wanted. But a chance encounter in a Big Apple studio with the then-ascending king of hip-hop, Jay-Z, would blast his career into the stratosphere far beyond that of his peers. As the fairy tale goes, in an impromptu cipher Sigel spit for ‘Hova and Dame Dash. Impressed, Jay asked Beans first to join him and The LOX on “Reservoir Dogs,” then to accompany them on the Hard Knock Life tour and eventually to bat third in the Roc-A-Fella lineup.
Despite his career’s fortuitous beginnings, the months that followed his signing were rough. Sigel had a lot to learn and he was determined to do it the hard way. With a few guest spots under his belt, Beanie had more buzz than an alcoholic on Super Bowl Sunday. To capitalize on this, he and Philly radio heavyweight Cosmic Kev decided to work cooperatively on an underground mixtape, The Best of Beanie Sigel: Strictly Skills. Kev did the DJing and handled the distribution; Sigel hosted and brought the exclusives. But the things went wrong along the way.
“We had a business disagreement,” he explains guardedly. “You could say it was about money, and something went down at the radio station that shouldn’t have. We were conducting street business at a radio station.”
Euphemism aside, Beanie and associates had a physical confrontation with Kev that resulted in Beanie being banned at Philly’s main hip-hop station, Power 99, as well as its 40 urban affiliate stations. Both Cosmic Kev and representatives for Power declined to comment. Though it has since been lifted, the ban hurt Beanie’s hometown sales, which failed to exceed those of Jay-Z’s gold Reasonable Doubt.
“I learn to live with regrets,” he says, quoting Jigga in reference to the almost two-year-old incident. “It was a learning experience that taught me about the business. Back then I had one foot in the street and one foot in the music business, and when you’re in the street you gotta live off of your aggressive instincts like an animal. At that point I had no idea that people cared about Beanie Sigel or was watching the things that I did.” Though he talks as if he’s learned from his mistake, nonetheless Beans was caught scuffling at a club this last fall during the shooting of MTV’s Diary of Jay-Z. To which ‘Hova responded, “Beans is a street cat and he doesn’t know any better.”
The steep leaning curve has caught up to Beanie in other areas as well. As he began work on his debut album, 2000’s gold-certified The Truth, his lack of studio experience quickly revealed itself. “Jay had to teach me all the basics: how to count bars, how to structure songs, how to write hooks,” he says. But writing a single song is one thing; putting together is cohesive album of bangers is an entirely different beast.
“I reached a point halfway through where I was really frustrated,” he says. “Like, what do I do now? I was trying to figure out how to make an album.” To his credit, Beans wanted to create an album that could be enjoyed from coast to coast by both men and women. But in searching to please all, with reaches like “Playa,” “Everybody Wanna Be A Star” and even his successful single “Remember Them Days” (“It was a hot song, but the track was happy and…it wasn’t really me”), Beans lost sight of the fact that the most important person to please was himself.
“I got to the halfway point [and] thought, ‘X all that, I gotta go into the booth and do me,’” he explains. “That’s when songs like ‘Ride 4 My Niggas’ and ‘Die’ came. Like, ‘Fuck it, I’m done searchin’. I’m just gonna give them the truth!’” Sigel found the idea of simply shooting from the hip and exposing the reality of his own life so compelling that he made it the album’s title. “[It’s] just me, just the truth.”
Happy with his work, but aware that he still had much to learn, Sigel took it to the heavy bad last summer, flexing his vocal chords on Jay-Z’s multi-platinum Dynasty album. ‘I’m sparrin’ with the best,” he exclaims before dropping another lyrical reference: “Steel sharpens steel. Me and Bleek sparrin’ with Jay it’s making us better. That’s how [Roc-A-Fella’s] supposed to work.”
With his confidence and determination at new heights, Beans stepped back in the lab in November to craft The Reason. Lyrically heavier and sonically more dense than its predecessor, The Reason is what the The Truth could’ve been had Beanie known what he was doing from the git. No wandering, no searching, no reaching. Just Sigel.
More Ralph Ellison than Donald Goines, Sigel sets the introspective tone of the album on the intro, saying, “I paint word pictures on the canvas of life, but I don’t control the colors.” He then goes on to confess deep-rooted anxiety that he is not only ahead of his peers but often ahead of himself. “I’m like a black rose growin’ in the concrete, crackin’ the pavement/There that voice go again, ‘Mac practice for greatness/Get paid for those immaculate statements.”
Ironically, despite the thoughtful nature of the album, Beans says it came easy. “Street free,” he says, elated. “It was more fun because I figured out how to make records. I got personal with my producers, I stopped writing rhymes down and I just knocked songs out.” In fact, Sigel claims to have completed an astonishing 12 songs in the first month of production.
* * *
Back at the shooting range the rapper and his adoring crew stand over a lunchroom table comparing each other’s targets so as to determine who shot the best. Lanky Al stands next to them, noticing that Sigel is far away today’s champ. Smiling, Sigel leans over Al’s shoulder and asks, “Scrap, what’s your everyday jaunt?” referring to Al’s “everyday” gun.
Al responds without thinking, “That’s gotta be the Glock 19.”
Sigel cracks up, “Me too. The Glock 19 is like white-on-whites. It’s a daily operation.” Al looks lost at Beanie’s reference to Nike Air Force One sneakers.
He’s not the only one. Why does a man who seems to be the happiest he’s ever been carry a Glock 19 on the regular? It seem bizarre, but one look into his dark, penetrating stare and you already know the answer. And you even if you had the balls to actually ask him why know what he’d say. He’d look you dead in the eye, with the frostiest ice grill this side of Anchorage, and he’d ask you one simple question: “What’s your life like?”
Beans’ is real.