Illusions disintegrate when lead projectiles scorch skin and shred flesh. Hugh Augustine knows. In 2011, the 23-year-old rapper was the victim of another man’s gang initiation, shot three times (twice in one leg, once in the other) while walking in Long Beach with a large group of friends and family, five of whom were also hit.
Today, Augustine saunters to a booth at a Baldwin Hills café unfettered. No crutches, walker or cane, all of which he used during recovery. Sporting gold-rimmed glasses and a thick mop of unwieldy curls, he splits the difference between a liberal arts professor and Carlos Valderrama sans bleach. Though he never grimaces during our conversation, he’s reminded of the pain every day. “I still have [a] bullet right there in my hip,” Augustine says later, pointing to the faint protrusion. “You can feel it.”
Learning to walk again was draining, physically and psychologically. Yet, apart from the scars, Augustine has emerged relatively unscathed. Sleepless nights spent pissing in a bedpan afforded him a newfound sense of purpose. “[The shooting] made me more focused on my dreams and my goals and my ideas,” he explains. “I just don’t like to waste time now.”
For evidence of Augustine’s unflagging tenacity, see his catalog. Since 2012, he’s released three projects of increasing promise, and collaborated with rising L.A. rappers like Warm Brew. His next album, Massimo Ciabatta, will be released July 7 via the Order Label, the rap distribution arm of Alpha Pup Records.
The third release on the nascent label, Massimo Ciabatta is Augustine’s most accomplished work to date. The title, which Augustine translates as “maximum bread,” is both a nod to his mother’s partial Italian heritage and another meaning for “MC.” “I feel like Massimo Ciabatta is a good foundation for the work that I’m going to be doing in the future,” Augustine says.
The rhymes on each track are sharp and direct, the diverse beats culled from a coterie of burgeoning L.A. producers (L!sted, K. Solar) and longtime collaborators (Al B Smoov). There are hues of ‘90s rap aesthetics, but the album is firmly rooted in the present, in a city where racial tensions and disparate socioeconomics still divide like they did decades ago. However, Augustine uses his commanding delivery to temper the darkest moments with kush clouds of levity.
That Augustine pursued a rap career was practically inevitable. In the ‘80s, his father worked security for Run-DMC and N.W.A, and later managed the historic Up in Smoke tour. Though his mother wouldn’t allow Hugh, then in third grade, to attend the actual concert, she took him and his brothers to a dress rehearsal. “That was when I knew I wanted to make rap music.”
At the behest of his parents, Augustine attended Loyola High School. The public transit commute to a private Catholic school wasn’t easy, but schools near Baldwin Hills proved perennially unsafe and unappealing. “It’s sad that you have to leave your neighborhood to get a better education, but my parents wanted us to have the best opportunities we possibly could.”
After four years that included time on the football field and a semester abroad in Germany, Augustine pursued a bachelor’s degree in music business at Loyola University New Orleans. Unfortunately, financial aid wasn’t enough to cover both tuition and living expenses. He was back in L.A. by the second semester of his freshman year.
With his education on hold indefinitely, Augustine slept in the home studio of his friend, producer Bo Jacobson, and began recording incessantly. The only brief letup came after the shooting. Though any resentment would be justified, he’s adopted a much more humane perspective.
“If a fistfight can’t resolve it, is it worth taking someone’s life? Is it worth risking your life as the shooter to get caught and go to jail for the rest of your life? The kid who shot me is around my age, and he’ll be in jail for the rest of his life.”
Questions like this surface several times on Massimo Ciabatta. As he asks them, Augustine continually displays the kind of effortlessness afforded only to the practiced. “I know talent when I see it,” Freestyle Fellowship’s Self Jupiter says of his decision to release Augustine’s album on The Order Label, which he runs alongside Daddy Kev and DJ Nobody. “Hugh is a talented emcee.”
In the wake of his first Low End Theory performance earlier this month, Augustine will travel to Europe to perform, collaborate with European artists, and make a documentary about hip-hop’s ability to transcend cultural barriers. If he ever feels like taking a break, he only has to touch his hip.
“When [a near death experience] happens to you, it makes you realize that this shit could be over any moment. Every moment I’m trying to do something that’s going to push me or my family further, something that’s going to uplift my people and bring my community closer.”