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Vinnie Paz: The Ultimate Fighter.

January 31, 2014

VP2smallMAR02Text by Chris Malo. Images by Marie Alyse Rodriguez.

He is one-third of Jedi Mind Tricks, one-fraction of Army of the Pharaohs, one-half of Heavy Metal Kings, one-fifth of vodka into the studio session, and one focused and funny yet tortured and conflicted man.

Many details about Vincenzo Luvineri — aka Vinnie Paz — are well known, well documented and can be found with a simple Google search.

Paz was well known for the “I don’t give a fuck” attitude long before there was a texting shorthand for the phrase. Not that he doesn’t give a fuck about his music, the topics he raps about or his fans. He just never cared about the industry part of the game, and if staying true meant staying in the margins, it was a space he was only too comfortable to occupy.

Known for a voice that sounds as if a bulldog is dragging you across a gravel pit by the scruff of your neck, Paz’s sometimes controversial, sometimes contradictory, but always unapologetic lyrics have resonated with legions of fans, sometimes, at the price of putting himself in the media spotlight.

That transparency and opening up doesn’t mean he has been completely forthcoming about everything in his life.

“I’m very consumed with everything that is bad. I’m consumed with death. Rather than living life, I am worried about how and when I’m gonna die. It’s a fucked up way to live. I have depersonalization disorder and it runs my life,” Paz explains about the disorder that he has only recently began speaking about, despite having suffered from it for more than 15 years. “I am never able to live in the moment. Ever. I’m so envious of people who are.

Sitting in a chair at Found Sound Studios, an H2O hat crowns Paz’s head and a black T-shirt covers a torso he is slightly ashamed of. He rocks camo shorts and a pair of black and blue Nike Air Maxes as his arms work a bottle of Grey Goose and seltzer water sitting in a trashcan full of ice. The liquids are mixed before the ice is scooped with a Styrofoam cup and deposited in a red Solo cup. Paz reaches into the can, grabs a few pieces of ice, wets and then wrings his hands to clean them. The routine is repeated throughout the night.

Paz alternates between spitting out Pesci quotes from “Goodfellas,” watching a laptop that constantly plays one of the 30 or so fight DVDs from a stack next to the computer, talking with his longtime manager and lifelong friend Yan, discussing tracks he will work on with engineer/producer Scott Stallone and explaining his affliction – how it has and continues to effect him.

According to the Mayo Clinic‘s website, “Feelings of depersonalization can be very disturbing and may feel like you’re losing your grip on reality or living in a dream.” There is a sense from one with depersonalization disorder that things around aren’t real or they they are observing themselves from outside their own body.

This description goes on to note that symptoms include feeling they’re an outside observer of their thoughts or body and a numbing of their sense of the world around them. But also, “Awareness that your sense of detachment is only a feeling and not reality.”

How does Paz deal with such a crippling  disorder?

“I deal with it poorly” laments Paz. “I take medication. It doesn’t work anymore. I have been on medication for 14 years. It probably hasn’t worked in six. So, now is the crossroads. What do I do? Do I spiral and become some J.D. Salinger shit where I don’t leave the crib and I drink my own piss? Or do I become proactive in other ways?”

The answer is not a simple one. It is a complex dilemma, further complicated by cultural and generational influences.

“I’m so cynical,” Paz admits. “I’m an Italian kid whose family is from Italy, from South Philly. My father who passed away in ’88 would strangle me if I was to see a therapist. We don’t believe in that shit. That’s the crossroad I’m at. I don’t know what’s going to help me. Because the medication doesn’t work and I don’t believe in psychotherapy. That’s not recently. That’s right now. What am I going to do with my life?”

Paz fears becoming a recluse, like Salinger, one of his favorite authors.

“I haven’t toured in eight months because I can’t leave Philly without freaking out,” explains Paz.

VP2smallMAR01It wasn’t always like this. In retrospect, the touring and seeing the world was the best part. Performing in Australia. Rocking Bogotá and almost getting kidnapped. Shows in Istanbul and seeing the Blue Mosque. When tens of thousands of attendees at the 2009 Openair Frauenfeld festival in Switzerland abandoned 50 Cent’s performance to rush the Jedi Mind Trick stage, as a puzzled Lloyd Banks and miffed 50 tried to regain their composure. Those are the moments Paz cherishes.

At the time, he hated it. All of it. Except the physical act.

“Those hours are the best hours of my life,” he says about being on stage. “I love where I’ve been. It’s an honor. When I’m performing and there’s 2,000 kids in Oslo, Norway singing my words? Yo. I’m humbled. It’s beautiful. I’m one with them.”

Paz and his cohorts got there not by following the conventional major label route, but by creating their own path, on their own terms. It is hard to argue that signing and kowtowing to a major is the only way to go when Jedi Mind Tricks shared a bill and stage with Kanye West, Lil Wayne and the aforementioned 50 Cent in front of more than 100,000 fans over the course of a weekend at Openair Frauenfeld. It is the path of most resistance, but it also gives the artists complete control of their own destiny.

“Paz is one of the most successful artists to come out of Philly,” says fellow Philadelphia MC, Reef the Lost Cauze.

The two became friends after crossing paths in 2005, when Paz came out to the record release for Reef’s debut album, Feast or Famine. The two clicked and Paz invited him to become a part of Army of the Pharaohs.

“What he’s done is unparalleled as far as independent Philly artists go,” Reef notes. “What he was able to do completely independently is inspiring and it’s the blueprint that a lot of artists like myself try to follow.”

But it’s not simply highlights from life on the road, touring the world. There was a three-week tour of Canada, not sleeping, in complete panic, sitting on the end of his bed in a hotel, feeling a complete loss of control, feeling impending doom, the depersonalization disorder debilitating him, the meds not working.

“The way out? Just end it,” Paz recalls thinking. “Blow your fucking brains on the wall. But I can’t do that. I have a mom, my brother, my niece. I have a son now.”

Paz’s son, Marciano, lives overseas and recently turned one year old. Although he is off-and-on with Marciano’s mother, Paz is in constant contact with her. And Paz is as much a part of his son’s life that distance and disorder allow. From admitting to dropping more than $1,000 on Polo for his son’s birthday, to Skype conversations with his son or admonishing the mother for letting Marciano play with his half-sister’s pink toys, there is no being around Paz – watching and listening to him speak about his son – and not know it is one of the reasons he is alive today.

VinniePazCoveronlineYoung Luvineri’s namesake comes from the world of boxing. Aside from family and music, boxing is the thing Paz holds closest to his heart.

“Boxing and music saved my life,” Paz says.

That endless loop of boxing matches that plays in the studio, regardless if anyone is watching, is a small testament to this. Professing an eidetic memory, he can recall obscure boxing facts and details, like the punch sequences to countless fights. Paz’s love for the sport is something inherited from his father. As the Mike Tyson versus Lennox Lewis fight plays in the background, Paz recounts the time his father took him to see Tyson fight Tyrell Biggs fight in Atlantic City for his 10th birthday. Despite the love for his hometown and Biggs being from Philly, the young Paz rooted for Tyson, crying when he lost the first two rounds.

“My pop smacked me and told me to get my shit together,” remembers Paz, adding that his father then directed him to, “Watch what he does.”

Tyson came back to win the fight with a right hook TKO in the 7th round.

But with Italian blood coursing through him, Paz knew there was one boxer who personified the family spirit and mindset – untied and undefeated World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Marciano.

“Bang the body! You don’t got the headshot… Bang bang!” an excited Paz shouts as he jumps from his chair, shadowboxing as he  explains Marciano’s winning technique. An understandably weary Stallone is encouraged to put up his hands as he sits in his chair in front of the studio console so Paz, into the second bottle of Goose, can demonstrate.

“Bang the body dog,” Paz barks. “My father used to say, ‘Bang the body and the head will fall son.’”

Tears slip from Paz’s eyes and that voice of gravel begins to soften. But only a little.

“My father used to say it over and over again in Italian,” he says, his voice now trembling. “’They’re always going to be bigger than you. Always. You’re little.’ And I’m still little. Bang the body, the body will fold. Then hit them with the uppercut.”

Paz continues, although it is not entirely clear who is talking – himself, his father, Marciano, Marciano’s corner man, his memory or the vodka.

“My pop schooled me on this shit,” Paz says. “My pop knew what heart was and what skill was. I apply that to rapping. My father was like, ‘Marciano wasn’t the best but he wouldn’t fucking lose!’ He knocked Jersey Joe Walcott out. He knocked him through the ring. But he wasn’t that skilled. They said, ‘Look, what are you gonna do?’ He said, ‘I’m not gonna lose. I’m not gonna lose, Pop. Are they better than me? Yeah they’re better than me. But your heart ain’t bigger than mine. You’re heart ain’t bigger than mine!’”

Paz is yelling. Then he calms down.

“They all crumbled in the end.”

Until recently, Paz had never discussed his depersonalization disorder. But on his latest album, Carry On Tradition, which was released in October, he opens up on the track, “Is Happiness Just A Word?”

“It’s literally my heart on a record,” Paz says. “For me, it’s satisfying. It felt good.”

He heard the beat and passed it on to Stallone to write a hook. The two have known each other since 1998, when Paz passed him a test pressing of Jedi Mind Tricks’ 2000 album, Violent By Design. At the time, Stallone was working at the legendary Ruffhouse Records. The two have gone on to work together on almost every project that Paz has done since that time. Stallone also went on to produce, engineer or write for acts such as Lauryn Hill and Britney Spears. He recently mixed Danny Brown’s Old album.

“This dude is the reason I am at where I am at,” Paz says emphatically.

“This is the relationship, this is the music I base and judge all other projects on,” Stallone says. “It is literally the litmus test for all other projects. Is it as cool as this? Well, no. But is it cool enough? Yeah. Or does it pay enough? OK, fine. But is it going to be this? No. Is it going to be this relationship? No, it won’t be. Does it rank? OK, maybe I’ll take it on.”

Paz’s circle seems to have gotten smaller over the years. Stallone describes early AOTP sessions as having nearly 30 people smoking and drinking in the studio. For this album, it was essentially the two friends the entire time.

“This is like making a record with your brother,” Stallone says. “It’s not something you can manufacture.”

Time has seemed to turn some friends into acquaintances and other friends into family.

“More of a friendship than a music relationship,” says Reef about his good fortune to have crossed paths with Paz. “That’s my man. I’m forever grateful and indebted to him. That’s my big brother. He has done a lot for me and other artists and never really asked for anything back.”

When Stallone wrote the hook for the beat, it gave Paz the idea to do the track about his depersonalization disorder.

“It’s the first time I saw him shy away from a subject,” Stallone says, with the perspective of someone who would know.

From the beginning, Paz knew he wanted a woman to sing the hook and he flew in Yes Alexander from Iceland to do the hook.

But there was still the task of writing the song.

“Can I do this and make it good?” Paz pondered “Not, ‘Can I write about this?’ I can write about it for a whole record. Three records …”

He wondered if the subject was too esoteric. Would enough people get it so that it mattered? Could he make it knock in the speakers even if it goes over someones head?

“How do I make this sound dope about something so complicated?” he recalls wondering.

Managing to make the disorder understandable and yet personal in two verses of such a difficult subject matter was not something Paz took lightly. He thinks his best verse was the overlooked and underappreciated 16 bars on “When Crows Descend Upon You.” But looking back over the course of his career, he is definitely proudest of “Is Happiness Just A Word?”

Like any industry veteran knows though, it is a team effort, even if Paz ends up with the credit.

“It’s his almost as much as it is mine,” Paz says about the contributions Stallone made in making the track happen.

“Absolutely does not,” Reef says when asked if Paz gets the respect he deserves. “I’ve seen the impact and power he has. His success is inspiring.”

“I don’t think I deserve anything,” says Paz. “I don’t think I’m here to think myself to be deserving. The earth doesn’t owe me anything. I owe the earth.”

Right now, it is after 4 a.m., and Paz needs to get in the booth. He needs to record verses for the upcoming AOTP album. The same beat has been playing for three hours.

He has synesthesia, a neurological condition where Paz sees music in colors. This track is, not surprisingly, black and red to him.

Paz begins fixing a drink and unearths his rhyme book. It’s filled with bars and verses shaped by the likes of Dostoyevsky, Kenny Powers, Kubrick flicks, Slayer, black metal from Scandinavia, Frank Zappa, Kafka, Bill Hicks, Bukowski, Valdamar Valerian and the thoughts, views and perspectives of an artist who has stood up to the industry, stood up to the man and now finds himself battling himself.

He rises from his chair, swigs from the cup, puts on a new fight video and saunters into the ring.

  1. lance permalink
    February 4, 2014 12:00 am

    “Crows Descend Upon Me”? isnt the track called “When Crows Descend Upon You”??

    • Geo permalink
      February 4, 2014 12:26 am

      You are correct, and it has now been amended. Thanks for catching that.

  2. Jeffrey Crampton permalink
    April 11, 2014 5:49 am

    Vinnie come over to the d 313
    Its not that far from philly.

  3. Jeffrey Crampton permalink
    April 11, 2014 6:00 am

    Vinnie when i was in jr.high some stupid
    Kid picked a fight with the “duke” son
    His dad went the distance with Robertson
    He 1 punch k.o. the kid,i steeped over him
    And i called him a stupid fuck.he keep
    Harrising. Danny jr.jr did nothing,but
    When that d.a. grabed him that was it.
    Lights bodies home.

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