The accidental gangsta

Elemental Zazen has been through some shit
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  May 21, 2008

ON THE REAL: Honest introspection makes for better hip-hop than insecure bullshit every time.
Elemental Zazen wears Sauconies on stage and has “World Peace” tattoo’d on his forearm. He doesn’t pack toast, flip bricks, or engage in any other euphemistic roughneck activities, and to his knowledge he has zero illegitimate children. But despite all of those stereotypically upper-middle-class characteristics, the Cambridge rapper might be the most gangsta motherfucker on the Boston hip-hop scene — depending, of course, on how one defines gangsta.

Over the past two years, Zazen has endured a raw helping of adversity, from losing his closest cousin to watching his apartment burn down to having doctors discover a raging tumor on his melon. Before that, he lived in his car, beat a heroin addiction, and was diagnosed with manic depression. His newest, The Glass Should Be Full (Gnawledge), hardly resembles a Mobb Deep project, but given the pain that moved his pen at such agonizing angst-addled angles, his sophomore release is as hardcore an opus as Tupac’s Me Against the World.

Thug life began at the International School of Beijing, where the US-born Zazen’s parents taught and where he graduated in 2000. At the time, he was completely uninterested in academics; apart from an interscholastic soccer career that took him through the Orient and an H-sniffing habit, he focused his attention on OutKast albums that were surfacing in China. “When I came to the States in 2001,” he says, “all I wanted to do was make music.”

Following some severe culture shock, Zazen enrolled at the Art Institute of Boston, and soon after at UMass-Boston, where his rap dreams often slipped farther out of reach. “By senior year I was living in my car, starving, and smelling like shit, and I figured I could go to UMass for some mercy. They called me a week later and told me that they were giving me $1000, but on my way to pick up the check I got pulled over with no license or registration and almost ended up in jail.”

Finally settled in a Dorchester apartment, Zazen milked enough credit lines to record his Adolescence Weapon debut, a catchy anti-establishment rookie Mass-terpiece that moved more than 4000 units without distribution. By 2005, he was showcasing with iconic underground outfits including Glue and Non-Phixion while plotting his second album. And then the shit hit.

“My cousin Brandon got in a snowmobile accident in January 2006; he was in a coma for three months, and his kid was born a week before he died. Then, when I was getting my life back together again, my house burned down and it drove me into the depths.”

Elemental Zazen, "Machine" (mp3)
With production from Kno (Cunninlynguists), Maker (Glue, Qwel), Joe Beats (Sage Francis), and Boston board gurus Confidence and J. Ferra, Zazen used The Glass Should Be Full to negotiate his personal strife. Mortality plays a leading role: after surgeons discovered and removed a massive tumor from his brain last year, he wrote rhymes and picked beats as if they might be his last. The resulting product certifies that honesty, vulnerability, and introspection make for better hip-hop than masked insecurity and bullshit every single time.

“Some of these so-called hip-hop kids hate on me because I’m not ashamed to be white. The funny thing is that I get along better with the hood dudes than those kids. It’s easier for people who are different and who are being themselves to get along on any rap scene. If I was trying to be hood, then I would just look like a clown.”

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