Straddling a mountain bike at the corner of 71st Street and Dickens Avenue in North Beach last weekend, a man in sunglasses grinned, grooving to the music blasting in his headphones. His face was canvassed in scruff, and there was a certain street hardness about him. In his dirt-splattered hands was a sign: Papa Tiego Music.
It's a sign that's materialized in every part of Miami Beach over the last month: on the sides of North Beach buildings, slapped against an Ocean Drive wall, even across the JFK Causeway. And now, here it was again, in the hands of some dude who appeared substantially more jovial than his present activity called for.
"Hey, man," he crooned at an approaching stranger, who had what seemed an essential question. "Who's Papa Tiego? That's me, brother! I'm Papa Tiego!"
But Papa Tiego represents much more. Papa Tiego is, perhaps, Miami's only homeless rapper/producer who hop-scotches from city library to library uploading his jam to iTunes. His studio is nothing more than a MacBook pro, leftover from days when money came easier.
He exudes an unusual industriousness for a homeless man, tweeting incessantly, talking at a machine-gun clip, clacking out lengthy e-mails in minutes, and producing, in all, 27 songs in weeks.
Most are terrible. They sound like it's 1994, and you're playing Mega Man X on a Super Nintendo. And, if possible, their names are even worse: "Super high & Fly," "The Knight Runner," and "Brown Sugar Pop Mango." But all of that is beside the point. What's remarkable about Papa Tiego is that he's even doing this, and the passion he conveys for Papa Tiego Music.
He's always been industrious. Just in a different way. Born in Cuba as Alain Toubes, the 38-year-old came to Miami at the age of five, and grew up poor. He did nothing to help himself.
By age 20 in 1995, he collected his first felony, for armed burglary. Then he was arrested in St. Augustine in 2003 for breaking into cars and stealing credit cards. The mayhem continued in 2007, when he convicted of cocaine possession. Papa Tiego explains his former life thusly: "I was addicted to crack cocaine for 15 years."
That last stint in prison set him straight, he claims. He moved to Seattle where he got his life together, doing yard work, thinking of his next beat. He came back to Miami months ago to be closer to his mom, but his streak of poor luck continued. His truck was stolen, and his mom had too many people in her one-bedroom apartment, so he moved out onto the street.
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And this was where Papa Tiego was born, a new identity for a guy who'd ruined his former one. He's homeless, but with a new name and sound, he feels at last free.
Send your story tips to the author, Terrence McCoy.