[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
Rheteric Ramirez raps like a welterweight prizefighter. His flow bobs and weaves. Double-timed uppercuts of words follow methodical chants. Rhyme schemes ring bells like a flurry of jabs. It is his rap-a-dope technique.
This is no coincidence. Over the last decade, the philosophical pugilist born Eric Betances has earned a rep for original cadences, bruising punch lines and naturally brass knuckles. He's a Glendale-raised music geek who also used to, in boxing parlance, “take teeth.” He's fluent in the catalogs of everything from Freestyle Fellowship to Arthur Lee's Love, Ariel Pink to Black Randy and the roots of Los Angeles punk.
“I'm basically a very respectful person who had trouble dealing with other people's sarcasm and the disrespectful things they would say leading up to a fight,” Ramirez, in his early 30s, says over iced coffee in Koreatown (he lives in West L.A.). “The only option mentally was violence, but I grew out of it by learning to confront things in other ways. I couldn't be a caveman.”
Like many good fighters, Ramirez doesn't bring up his toughness as a badge of honor. And like many interesting artists, his existence is an attempt to reconcile polarities. He grew up as the lone local Dominican rapper, obsessed with graphic novels and literature. He has knocked out dozens in rap battles and real brawls and worked as a machinist, telemarketer and property manager.
Ramirez seems like a character out of a Junot Diaz short story. He's quick-tempered, brainy and evolving, yet inked with tattoos of a man strangling a snake and the grim reaper. He spent time around various scenes (including fabled Project Blowed open-mic nights) but only recently managed to channel his talent and energy into a cohesive album. This strong debut was Dear Diary — an emotional, caustic and funny slab of experimental rap in the vein of Busdriver and Murs — released last month on Hellfyre Club.
“There were deals with labels [Mush, Machina Muerte] that didn't work out,” Ramirez says, wearing Dickies shorts, a sleeveless black T-shirt and a hat that reads “L.A. Butchers.” “There were people I'd been working with who became determined to make everyone else dislike me. Plus, my life is complicated, so it takes a long time to write.”
Dear Diary is replete with references to Latin culture, old Bay Area rap, the weird but hard-boiled L.A. underground and Jackie Treehorn from The Big Lebowski. It is the sum of Ramirez's experiences since he first started rapping as a student at Glendale's Hoover High School.
“I see myself somewhere between a comedian, realist and philosopher. I don't write in concepts. For me, it's about being as conversational as possible,” Ramirez says.
His recorded persona is similar to his everyday temperament. He's the guy who named himself after the art of discourse, and the conversation bounces with the agile unpredictability of his rap style.
There are asides on Dominican history, his early years in Manhattan's Washington Heights, little-known underground-rap cult figures, police brutality, municipal waste and the bizarre rides of L.A. public transportation. His personal philosophy is undergirded by personal accountability, loyalty, life's transitory nature and, of course, self-preservation.
“I'm not a veteran street fighter,” Ramirez says. “But I know that you need to hit first, hit hard, hit often and fight for the right reasons. But honestly, I've learned ritual male violence gets you nowhere.”
This is largely true, of course, unless you learn how to transfer that strategy into sound.