Ghetto Vader is a Force of Hip-Hop Jedi Weirdness
KINGSBRIDGE HEIGHTS — If Darth Vader was spawned a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Ghetto Vader came into being five years ago in Southern California, under the influence of drugs.
It was then that the Bronx-born DJ, rapper and graffiti artist realized that, at age 35, he stood no closer to fame or fortune than he had as a teenager in the 1980s, when he first began to spray and scratch.
Out of ideas, he turned to hallucinogenic drugs. Suddenly, a vision appeared — Darth Vader’s iconic, bug-eyed helmet covered in bright, psychedelic street art.
Five years, two albums, shows in a half-dozen countries and 200 painted masks later, Ghetto Vader is a full-fledged Jedi Knight, given to the weird side of the Force, who has returned to The Bronx to make music and art for the open-minded.
“People aren’t going to be bopping to it in the clubs and remembering the lyrics,” Vader, 40, said outside his mother’s condo, where he has been living since June. “But people dressed up in costumes — they’ll like it.”
Vader, whose persona involves concealing his legal name and his face, grew up in a high-rise near the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. That he wasn’t admitted into Bronx Science proved to be a blessing — Vader attended nearby John F. Kennedy High School, where 80s hip-hop culture was flourishing.
Before long, Vader was trekking downtown to all-ages rap shows and spraying his tag — SPX, for “special perceptions xceptions” — across the city. When he was 16, he “interned” for a renowned graffiti artist who airbrushed clothes in the back of a Westchester Square shop that sold cutting-edge rap records.
“That stuff like touched my heart,” Vader said about the heyday of Bronx hip-hop. “It stained my brain.”
In his 20s, Vader moved to California, where he scoped out the West Coast rap scene while he worked in clothing design and, later, produced skateboard videos. He also continued to experiment with music, sampling beats with an early four-track cassette mixer.
But by his 30s, with a wife and three children, he began to feel like he had squandered his talents as an artist. So he ingested some peyote and, in a cloud of aerosol, created Ghetto Vader — a one-man production team, performance artist and brand.
Vader’s music, over which he and friends rap, is laced with jazz samples and robot noises, and drenched in drug references. His loopy lyrics, on tracks like “The Royal Secret” and “Black Nerd Candy,” bake big words and weird images inside gonzo theories.
“They say my music is like going to college and learning a little algebra,” Vader said.
His musical references span the history of offbeat hip-hop — from Afrika Bambaataa and De La Soul to Kid Koala and fellow masked-rapper, MF Doom — as well as electronic and punk music. His persona, crafted in music videos, live shows and on the street, samples British satire, adult cartoons and the late hip-hop philosopher, Rammellzee, who offered Vader some performance art advice.
“He said, ‘You can’t do this halfway,’” Vader recalled, pointing to pictures of Rammellzee in one of his famous space samurai suits, which occasionally shot sparks. “He was tough — like a tap dance teacher.”
Like many hip-hop greats, Vader merges his art with entrepreneurialism. Just this year, he booked a Greyhound-driven DJ tour through the Midwest, released a Ghetto Vader phone app and led European tourists on a “5 Boro Ghetto Tour” of the city’s hip-hop hotspots.
He also records a regular podcast, has plans for a book and a zine and performs at children’s hospitals and bar mitzvahs, with light sabers and Storm Trooper masks for all.
“If you’re not doing something daily to forward your career,” Vader reflected, “then you’re taking steps backward.”
His quest to drag the world to the Weird Side is far from over. A new album is in the works and, he hates to admit, he has yet to play a show in his hometown.
As he led a reporter Monday out of the bedroom in his mother’s home where he sleeps and records — with a “My First Alphabet” poster hanging above his bed — he couldn’t resist suggesting a tagline for his profile.
“Ghetto Vader,” he quipped. “The 40-year-old rapper who reinvented hip hop — and himself.”