Head Rap

In 4th-century Greece, Demosthenes famously trained himself into a great orator by speaking with a mouth full of stones. In 21st-century New Haven, Julio Francisco “Ceschi” Ramos remembers teaching himself how to rap with an old retainer.

“I didn’t really need it anymore, but I would put it in my mouth just to try and over-pronounce and practice rapping,” he says. It worked.

Ceschi, pronounced like “chess key,” is a singer, songwriter, rapper, multi-instrumentalist and co-owner of local record label Fake Four. His first album, Fake Flowers, came out in 2004, but his music career started long before, when he was nine years old. He was living in California at the time, and a visit to his grandparents in New Haven prompted him to write a song on a Casio keyboard. “It was about having to leave New Haven. It was this ’80s style pop song,” he recalls before crooning a few bars: “I never really wanted to go-o.”

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Interior design from Fairhaven Furniture

But his relationship with the city became more complicated in adulthood, as “Elm City Ballad,” a spare, moody track off his newest full-length, Broken Bone Ballads, attests: “I’m every lung that’s breathing in this filthy city waste / I’m trick-turning street-walking Mary full of grace / Undocumented worker wage-slave / A needle-pierced vein / I am black rose on grandmother’s grave.” He wrote the song after he was released from prison, and he says the lyrics are influenced by the “world he encountered and the people he met” during the narcotics anonymous meetings he had to attend.

“I do have a strong connection to New Haven. My grandfather was born here, and he’s the first American in my whole family. But I also see the darker side… That’s the side of New Haven I see when I drive home at night after a show.” The schisms in the city are made stranger for Ceschi by outside perspectives: “When it comes to the world, they think it’s all Gilmore Girls here,” he says.

While a city’s problems can’t be solved by the power of song alone, there’s one issue where it has more power: “We need a lot of work on our music scene,” he says. He grew up in such a rich sonic soup, he’s practically a scene unto himself. His boyhood in California’s East Bay was spent emulating the hip hop giants of the late ’80s and early ’90s—NWA, MC Hammer and Heavy D. At home, his parents introduced him to Nueva Trova, a Caribbean folk genre politicized by the Cuban Revolution. He was drawn to the psychedelics of ’60s rock. And he still remembers “deeply connecting with Tracy Chapman when I was six years old.”

His divergent influences are immediately and intriguingly present in his work, which prioritizes lyrics. There’s the irrepressible strangeness of “Bite Through Stone,” a magical realist tune that opens with: “For every bicycle in China there’s a cryogenically frozen embryo that will / Wake up in a cold sweat, run around in the veterans’ hospital wondering what gave birth to it.” “Same Old Love Song” mashes up a sugary take on Paul Williams’s similarly named classic with a fast rap litany of loves pursued and lost, but the trenchant political commentary of “Beauty for Bosses”—“Fuck a world where justice is impossible / Where governments call cynics hostile / And equality is a Utopian concept”—is anything but romantic. Gallows humor abounds on 2010’s The One-Man Band Broke Up, while the folk strumming of “Say Something” is accompanied by raw, earnest lyrics: “Oh disappointing mouth / Say something more than another word about how your life’s difficult now.”

Making a living as a musician is “fairly impossible,” Ceschi says good-naturedly. Instead, “It’s about a community. I knew at the time it wasn’t a good business. If I wanted to get into a ‘good business,’ I would get into investments or whatever. Not music…. I never expected to make money out of this, and I really haven’t,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve lost a lot of money.” Ceschi tours half the year to make ends meet; starting on January 21, he’s got 13 shows scheduled in the span of about two weeks, from Olympia, Washington, to Dallas, Texas. It’s grueling for him but good for his fans, not least because he writes on the road. “I just came from Florida and New Orleans and Nashville,” he says. “On these long drives, I’ll just dictate on voice memo when I’m driving. Eventually I can chisel that into something that makes sense.”

But Ceschi aims higher than mere cohesion. Perhaps the best example of his range is the breathtaking genre study “Take It All Back Parts 1-4.” The roughly four-minute track begins with a whiplash-fast rap, crescendoing to an anthemic chant reminiscent of early 2000s eyeliner rock, then breaking form again, this time with a thrashy, punk interlude that gives way to the earlier rap, ending on a redemptive note: “But I still pray for the human race / In my own way / Every word / Each song.”


Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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