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Home / Articles / Music / Music feature /  Mad skills
. . . .
Monday, Apr 18, 2011

Mad skills

You can feed him pills, but Zany-Zane’s rhymes are still sick

By Dave Maass
zanyzane Shawn Smith doesn't need bling.
- Photo by Dave Maass

Zany-Zane talks 10 miles a minute.

With eyes turned away, the 31-year-old rapper answers questions in manic circles, spinning off on flashes of thought and winding back to repeat his original point. His hands pat the air like he’s dribbling a helium balloon that he just can’t keep down.

“I can walk down the street talking like I am to you right now and a police officer is going to swear I’m high, and I’m not even high,” he says, sitting at a table on the patio at Claire de Lune Coffee Lounge in North Park. “This is how I am and that’s the misconception, and I want you to get that from the interview.”

He’s just hyperactive, he says. He can hold it in long enough to listen to a question, but even during those few seconds, he seems about to burst. Then he floods the patio with his volume, which, like a lot of things about his behavior, he can’t seem to control. After five minutes, two women sitting nearby pick up and move to the opposite end of the coffeehouse.

Zany-Zane, born Shawn Smith, chose the North Park café for the interview because he performed here once in the late ’90s, with the Manifest Destiny crew. It’s been a long journey since—through prison, the mental-health system, homelessness and prescription-drug abuse. Today, he’s not sleeping on the streets, but he still doesn’t have a regular place to rest his troubled head.

What he does have is talent and two albums on iTunes.

Smith wears an upturned cap over a do-rag over a bundle of dreadlocks. Between his eyes, you can just make out a fading tattoo of a five-pointed star. He has to tell people it’s got nothing to do with the Vice Lords, the street gang that also claims the symbol. It’s about symbology and numerology, two subjects he studied while seeking daytime shelter in the public library. Smith also wears a tear-drop tattoo, which represents the death of his mother in 2006 and his father last year, whose passing he learned of through the county jail’s email-an-inmate system.

Smith was still in jail when CityBeat’s 2010 Local Music Issue came out, in which one reviewer trashed his self-released debut album, Rubber Room, as “standard thug-life posturing over cheap beats.” That was harsh—and off base. Remove the beats and what’s left are Smith’s original and obscene dispatches from ground zero of mental illness.

Alone now on the patio, Zany-Zane busts into “Medication Call,” a song from Rubber Room that he wrote while serving 26 months in prison on a residential-burglary conviction:

Yin to the yang, yang to the yin, pass the gin and Klonopin / I’m spaced out, burnt out, no doubt. Recipe Hennessy and a case of Guinness Stout. I like to black out when I’m taking pills / Seroquel is making me sick—two hours on the toilet when I’m taking a shit. Personality split, dichotomy / Bipolar, ADHD, going Stir Crazy like Richard Pryor. To calm me down, they feed me Cylert. Lobotomy, electro-shock surgery, my psychiatrist is trying to murder me….

Shawn Smith stumbles over words when he talks, but Zany-Zane strides when he rhymes.

“That song, man, people would request every time we was getting medication on the yard,” Smith says. “You know how music soothes the savage beast, not to be all cliché? Everybody would laugh and they have a better day.… Once I seen that, I could make a lifer laugh—that has life—I knew I had something special.”

Smith picked up the name “Zany” in prison. Another inmate said the lyricist was too comical, too wild to be “Demented,” the title of one of Smith’s songs. Smith agreed and added “Zane” to give it that old-school, Flavor Flav feel.

“Demented (Something Wrong with My Brain)” appears on Zany-Zane’s latest collection, Street Album, which was released digitally on March 1. Throughout the album, he raps himself ragged over simple beats, spitting rhymes about pharmaceuticals, jails and hospitals over samples from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. While some rappers brag about gang banging, Smith jokes that he’s an unpredictable madman, a psychopath who would “decapitate your ass and send it to your mother on Mother’s Day.” Frequently, his narratives are derailed by shocking non sequiturs, often sexual, violent or self-destructive.

“I’m going to write what’s in my mind right now, you feel me?” Smith says. “And that’s why you get it kind of rude and kind of raunchy. It’s not that I’m trying to be, but that’s just what’s coming out of my head right now. I’m not really a bling-bling type of rapper, so I really can’t talk about having much money. I just talk about what I see and what’s on the street.”

Smith has more songs to record, but life isn’t making it easy. His producer Jeremy “Robo” Bradshaw of Stay Low Productionz—a 240-pound redhead from Idaho—has been in county lock-up since three days after Street Album’s release. Smith wants to sell his albums online, and maybe burn a few discs to sell at the flea market.

“I want to make money like that, but if I don’t blow up like Jay-Z, I’m cool,” Smith says. “I don’t want to be on top. I don’t want to be on bottom. I want to be somewhere in the middle with my albums.”   

Zany-Zane’s Rubber Room and Street Album are available on iTunes.