Higher Learning: Wordsworth Is Hip-Hop’s Class Act

Jerry Barrow and rapper Wordsworth talk music, higher education, and the transition from performing for crowds to educating the next generation.

It’s the fifth day of school for Mr. Johnson’s 7th grade reading class. Posters of Nas’s Illmatic album decorate the walls of the Florida middle school classroom and copies of books by Eminem, Jay-Z, and LeBron James sit on his desk.

“I gotta lot of things up on the wall that the kids can identify with,” says Vinson Jamel Johnson, aka rapper Wordsworth, the Brooklyn-born hip-hop veteran who has made Ft. Myers, Florida his new home. “I’m actually in the Eminem book; there’s a photo of us together back in the days. They’re willing to hear me because I’m willing to meet them halfway. I know the slang they use and the things they like. I teach the lowest reading level, and one of the kids asked to borrow my Return Of the King book. If I can get them reading I’m good with that.”

50 Cent and Eminem meet in NY

Johnson’s love affair with words began more than two decades ago when he was a SUNY Old Westbury student, writing his term papers in rhyme form—a skill that would morph into a career emceeing alongside his partner Punchline (As Punch N’ Words) and later with OGs like Q-Tip, Masta Ace, and Prince Paul. Wordsworth lived up to his pen name by wielding a confident yet subdued rhyme style rich in assonance that stacked couplet after couplet like Jenga blocks made of helium, never succumbing to gravity. When he wasn’t beating tracks into submission, he was narrating vivid tales from the hood like “One Day” which anchored his 2004 debut Mirror Music.

“That was my proving [album] to come from being a battle rapper/backpack MC to being a storyteller,” he says. “My whole mind state was rapping about things and life. I didn’t want to fall into that category, which is why I’m still here now. I was under pressure a bit, but I figured it out. That first album helped me become a better artist and a better writer.”

Since his debut, Words has released two albums as part of the group eMC and four projects as a soloist, including his latest, Our World Today, produced entirely by Sam Brown. So UGHH caught up with the MC-teacher after a long day of educating the youth to talk about how he’s incorporated all of his experiences— from performing on The Lyricist Lounge Show to recording tracks for Netflix Cartoons—into a successful career as an accomplished MC and educator.

In preparing for this I tried to remember the first time I heard you rhyme. It’s between Black Star’s “Twice Inna Lifetime” and Tribe’s “Rock, Rock, Y’all” from The Love Movement, but I’m not sure which was first. How did you get on two of the most anticipated albums of 1998 with no record deal?

Well, basically all of us were running in the same circles in the ‘90s: Kweli, Mos [Def], Jane Doe, me, and Punch were doing the same open mics at the Nuyorican, Wetlands, S.O.B.s. We all pretty much clicked just being around each other. Kweli and Mos were looking for somebody else to jump on a feature and at the time me and Punch had a cool buzz. So we went to the studio and laid it down [“Twice Inna Lifetime”]. We were honored to be on that project with them knowing they had a lot of clout at the time. They were signed to Rawkus and we were still trying to get a deal. Then around that time it worked out because A Tribe Called Quest stuff was going on at the same time. We got on The Love Movement because we did a Lyricist Lounge event at Tramps. Biz Markie was supposed to host, but he couldn’t make it and Q-Tip hosted. So it was a blessing because Q-Tip hosted, saw us perform and then called about us the next day. Within two weeks we started working on stuff with Tribe.

At the time Q-Tip had a label, and at one point his crew was gonna be all of us: Me, Punch, Jane Doe, Mos and Kweli as a CREW…kinda like Wu. That was gonna be the crew and we were all gonna sign to his label. There is actually an ATCQ record that we all did…it might have been a Dilla beat. It winded up being an interlude on The Love Movement album. [There’s] a beat on there that we actually rhymed on and didn’t use. [Instead] we did “Rock, Rock Y’all.” When we recorded “Rock Rock Y’all,” Q-Tip put up $100 for anybody that did they verse in one take. I came close. I think I messed up on my 12th bar though. Q-Tip went in and knocked his out with no problem. That was a cool session. That record shows you where we were going with the crew situation.

The irony is I remember Q-Tip was hosting another Lyricist Lounge event and I believe Rah Digga performed. I handed him my cassette back then, and I know it probably ended up in the trash. But back then you had so much hope. You think it’s a lotto ticket, so I handed it to him. Years later I was recording songs with him. Sometimes things just work out.

Around when were you hitting up the Lyricist Lounge shows?

The Lyricist Lounge stuff was going on in ‘92 or ‘93. I went to events not knowing it was Lyricist Lounge. It was more of a word of mouth thing. “We going to this spot and they rhyming.” Those were some cool events, man. Lines were crazy, always packed. You got to see a lot of raw talent.

Were the shows how you built your buzz in the city?

Our initial way we got notoriety throughout the city was on Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito with Red Hot Lover Tone from The Trackmasters. The Stretch and Bob show launched everything. That’s why when I went to open mics and said my name, they knew me from the Stretch and Bob tape. That’s what got us into the office to get on the Lyricist Lounge album.

We recorded the EP [Punch N’ Words EP] after I did the TV show, maybe in late 2000. It was just to catch all the hype of me doing the TV show. The producer was Curt Gowdy. He was part of Trackmasters. He did NORE, The Firm, Nas’s “Shoot Outs.” He took us as his boys and [we] put out the EP project with him. He produced the single for the Lyricist Lounge album as well.

That Lyricist Lounge Show on MTV is legendary….

Yeah it was crazy. We lived in a mansion in West Hollywood behind the Wiltern Theater in Cali. Me, Def Jef, and Thirstin Howl III came out. Punch. We just had a stable of writers and rappers; the job was to write rhymes. All night, every day. We rhyming. There was a point I lost my voice for a week. We were finally getting paid to rhyme. I was doing it on the corner in the street and now I’m doing it with my boys. What’s better than that? And the best thing about it for me is we brought people on the show we came up with. MTV rented it for a few months just like “The Real World.” We just had mad friends moving in from Wyoming and stuff. It got crazy. I was almost gonna live in Cali. I got a call from New York at Christmas, and I was in my shorts from playing basketball. It was snowing out in NY.

Wordsworth Mirror Music

Then in 2004 you released your debut Mirror Music on Halftooth Records. If you could have done anything differently with MM, what would you have done?

I don’t think there’s much I would have done differently. I’m here because of that album. I think if I second-guessed myself I may not [be here]. There was a lot of pressure for dudes to make club records. Underground dudes were on this bubble of hating being underground and transitioning to making songs. There was so much pressure that dudes were trying any and everything to be relevant. At the time I had Oddisee, who produced the single, making that transition. I’m glad I did it the way I did it because the integrity of the record still stands.

What was it like being on an indie like Halftooth Records?

I really appreciated being on there because they were taking a chance with me. Some of these underground labels were trying to transition into the commercial world. They were some young dudes trying to get it going. They had me, Oddisee, Kenn Starr, Median. Some people don’t get a stepping-stone at all. I’m not the type to be like “They should have put mad money behind me.” They did what they thought they could do. I think you gotta take those stepping-stones and keep building upon them.

You definitely had some interesting stepping-stones, like creating eMC with Masta Ace, Punch, and Stricklin. How did that happen?

It started because we were both putting a single out with this dude JF. JF was putting out a project with me and Punch, and Ace was producing a single for Stricklin. JF ended up playing our stuff to Ace and he said, “I like these dudes, I wanna put them on [“Block Episode” from Disposable Arts.] After a couple months we wound up going on tour together. We toured for years together, where me and Punch would open up and Stric would watch with Ace. And the fans saw us rhyme together so much that they said we should be a group. Then we recorded a song called “Four Brothers,” and from there made the eMC project. We did two albums and an EP as well. One of our biggest songs was “Charly Murphy” and he got to hear it. He bigged it up on his Twitter. Stric told me one of this boys said he had a show in Milwaukee and he came out to the record. That was one of our first singles on the EP. He was just naturally funny.

And around that time you did the Baby Loves Hip-Hop project with Prince Paul, Ladybug Mecca from Digable Planets, and Scratch from The Roots as The Dino 5. It was like a Kids Gorillaz.

Yeah, and Chali 2na (from Jurassic 5). It was ill, man. Paul liked to do stuff that was not of the norm. I was on his Politics of the Business album with Chubb Rock and DOOM, “Chubb Rock please pay Prince Paul the $2200 you owe him.” That was a rough one, Paul.

Oh, that had the De La Soul “Peas Porridge” beat. I remember that one.

That was crazy for me. Paul got wind of me and asked me to do some stuff. I went out to his crib and from then we built a cool relationship. Then he called me for Dino 5. We had the same publishing administrator and he’d call me for other things like the SpongeBob [SquarePants] Movie soundtrack and the Dexter’s Lab hip-hop experiment album. I went to talk to some kids in Milwaukee where Stric is at this thing called True School. I told them I did “Back to the Lab” and these grown kids bugged out because they remembered it from their childhood. Paul realized that with me doing TV, I’m not just a rapper; he knows I can write anything. He knows I know there is a difference between cartoons and songs for my album. Recently we did “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” on Netflix, Season 1 Episode 2. It’s a dream for both of us because we’re cartoons playing ourselves. It’s so cool. I just spoke to Paul last week; it’s so dope to know that if I have an idea for something that deals with different genres, I can call him up just to get his take on it.

On your 2015 album New Beginning and on the new project your stories are so descriptive that I wonder if they really happened. How much of it is true?

I’ve been through a lot of things. They repeat. Breakups happen forever. Whatever I’m talking about is either things I’ve been through or things people I know have been through. That album to me, up to that point was my best album. It was kind of the Part 1 to Our World Today. The same person did the artwork: different color, same font. After I did that album I did an EP called Blame It On the Music with JSOUL through HipNOTT Records. That had a song called “Satellite” which became my first #1 College Radio record. That was the project in between me working on this project with Sam Brown.

Since you mention the artwork—because I wanted to ask about the show you photographed for the cover of Our World Today—where was this show and what made you want to use that?

That’s in Switzerland. It was an eMC show, but there are moments in the eMC show where we do our solo stuff. A friend of mine Isabelle took that photo and sent it to me. I thought the photo was just kind of epic and we changed the color a little. If you look on the back of the CD you can see Stric and them. I like the representation of the MPC in there.

our world today album

The funny thing is I look at the cover now and I don’t see a stage, I see a classroom.

Sometimes when I’m in the classroom I feel like this was my calling. Everything accumulated up to this. The story behind me becoming a teacher is not just about me needing something to do. My daughter’s grades fell, and I went to see why. It turns out she had a substitute teacher, and the sub told me right then and there, “I’m a veterinarian. I don’t know what I’m doing.” So I go down to the Principal and ask what’s going on in the classroom. I’m livid. So she says we don’t have enough qualified teachers, so we just got random people in these rooms. I’m vexed. So I say I’m gonna become a substitute so I can teach my daughter’s class. That was my mission. So I go through all the hoops and hurdles. When I go down to the district to hand in my paperwork, this white lady says to me, “You don’t need to be a sub, there’s a lot of Black kids who need you in the classroom. They need role models. You should be a [full-time] teacher.” I said that’s the illest question I’ve been asked in my life. If these kids are out there wilin’ I have an opportunity to fix it. This is a white lady telling me that my culture and my race need me. When she said that to me I stood staring at her for like three seconds before I said “You right. Let me get this going.” I talk to the 8th graders and they see a Black male teacher and they listen to me. They know I know the rap stuff but they see me in the building. I’m Mr. Johnson. It’s definitely one of the biggest decisions I’ve made in my life thus far.

When did you move to Florida?

I got here about 12 years ago.

Have you been teaching the whole time?

Nah, I’ve been touring with Ace for the past 15 years. I was touring, working part-time gigs, too. I was working at Guitar Center. You get all of your equipment like 40 % off. So I could tour and keep my job. I was [working in the] warehouse and anytime I needed to tour I could tour. When I got a mortgage, you can’t rely on rap money all the time. I’m a realist, brother. It’s such a rollercoaster ride and you gotta put your pride aside and do whatever you gotta do and figure it out. It wound up being the best thing, coming down here. First I was a little culture shocked about how slow it is, but then it ended up being a blessing in disguise.

So, why Florida?

My wife’s parents bought a home down here and she got kind of homesick. We were living in Jersey and when I went out on one of those tours, she was down here looking for homes. I came back and put money down on it, and she’s closer to her family now. Happy wife, happy life. When I became a teacher it inspired me to get my Masters degree and do other things, so I’ll be good rapping or not. I started teaching in 2015. I teach 7th grade reading and 8th grade TV production. When I was doing TV, I paid attention to what was going on. I absorb from everybody. I watched the directors, the wardrobe. I wasn’t just there to be rhyming. I was hired [here] to do reading but they knew I had a TV background. I knew how to do the directing and stuff from life experience.

Wordsworth graduation

And you’re still learning…

I got a Masters in Music Business from the University of Miami. The journey is crazy, man. When I graduated from SUNY Old Westbury, I graduated writing all my stuff in rhymes. That took me to another level in college. Last year I was honored as one of the Top 50 graduates of SUNY Old Westbury because of what I’ve accomplished. The irony was I received the award from the president, Reverend Calvin Butts, who we know had it out for hip-hop. But years later after I graduated, I was the university guest speaker to introduce him. The world works in crazy ways. I was writing my “People, Power, and Politics” papers in rhymes— African Studies, Langston Hughes. I wrote about so many topics in rhymes and I still have the papers to this day. People always asked me for years if it’s true but they never saw the papers. I posted it on IG because people didn’t believe me. Then when I started teaching I started developing a songwriting curriculum, techniques to avoid writer’s block. I taught a 3-month course at this studio The Vibe Recording in Fort Myers. I charged people and wrote the whole curriculum. The studio is actually an accredited school for engineering, so why not combine the two? So I got my masters at the University of Miami in nine months. I think I’m the fastest person to get out of that program. I started in March and graduated in December. I’m trying to make sure if I’ve been doing this all this time, that the transition makes sense: to talk on panels and became a public speaker. I want to chill in a few years. After I graduated they did a story on me on the U of Miami web site. I’m appreciative of all that stuff. That blew me away.

Wordsworth

In the midst of all of this you’re recording music as well. How did you link with the producer Sam Brown?

I posted on Instagram that I was looking for beats and somebody tagged me to his IG page. So I heard a couple of them and I was like I can mess with this dude right here. I reached out to him to send me some beats. I did New Beginning and had never met Donel Smokes. We spoke on the phone but never met, so I figured I could do another project like that. Me and Sam went back and forth on the phone and we met about a year ago. He kept sending me beats and I knocked them out. The whole thing took about a year and some change. The “Hero” record, we just did that one last month and “The Election” record I did maybe three months ago. I always think about what is missing and added it on. That’s how it came together.

That “Election” record definitely stands out. Do you remember what you were doing on Election night in 2016?

I remember sitting in my guest bedroom in the back. That’s where my studio is, too. I’m sitting in there watching TV and hoping the numbers are wrong. Everybody was watching that joint like a race thinking she gonna catch up. Then after a while, once those Midwest states started coming in, I couldn’t watch the rest of it. I had to turn it off. I had to wake up with that brutal news.

But you channeled that pain into a great album. Why should people go and listen to it?

Because it’s mutual thoughts that aren’t necessarily being heard or spoken about all the time. And mutual emotions. When you hear a song like “Each One Teach One” where the parent is acting more like a friend, you can reflect on that. Everything on that album you’ve either been through it or know somebody who has been through it. I don’t even curse on the album. I haven’t cursed since the Punch N’ Words EP when I was still growing. The album is about what is going on today and what has been going on for years. Each song, almost anyone you pick, you gotta feel it. Even if you had no music and just said the rhyme to yourself, you’re gonna feel it.

 

Speak your piece in the comments below or over at the UGHH Forums