Thirstin Howl III is probably the most professional man in hip-hop. I arrived exactly a minute early for a recent meeting at the Latin Café on Biscayne Boulevard, and he was already lounging, a half-empty glass of Hennessy and Coke dripping on the table. He was armed with a neatly packaged bundle of all kinds of self-promoting material. Think of the braids and the full-sleeve tattoos as camouflage to get a hand in people's pockets.
Howl, born Victor DeJesus 38 years ago in New York, is a hustler, no doubt about it, but not in that corny, rapping-about-dollars way. No, he makes moves in the classic hip-hop sense; over the past decade, he's maintained 100 percent creative control by doing everything from directing his own videos to manufacturing his own CDs. It's kept his career on a steady trajectory since 1997, when he first gained wide attention after landing a spot in The Source magazine's storied "Unsigned Hype" department. Well, that, and the lasting infamy he scored as a founding member of the Lo-Lifes gang, known around his Brownsville, Brooklyn, neighborhood for an unmatched collection of Polo gear, much of it proudly boosted.
Beyond that, the dude is a fierce lyricist with an especially impressive knack for freestyling clever punch lines. Above all, he's funny — this is the man who famously released a single in 2002 called "I Still Live with My Moms," which was turned into a cartoon featuring none other than the legendary Dolemite. At the Latin Café, he spoke with a barely contained grin that made him completely disarming in a charming but possibly unpredictable way.
He's at ease, probably because this is one of his favorite restaurants; he has even used it as a backdrop for various music videos. In fact, Miami is a second home of sorts. Most of his extended family lives here, and he did too, on and off through childhood. He attended Buena Vista Elementary and Robert E. Lee Middle School for a year each. His last full-length DVD project, The Polo Rican, was set here, and filmed by local director Jokes. Now he's is in town filming part of the followup. It focuses on the exploits of fictional gangster Big Cuzin, who's played by Howl's 10-year-old cousin. He's also written the lyrics for an upcoming, fully Miami-themed album that Big Cuzin will rap. One of their joint videos was filmed at the real-life 60th anniversary party of his grandparents, at their home on 26th Street. Awww.
Over a few more Henny and Cokes, and a plate of his favorite food — shrimp — Howl imparts some of the secrets to his longevity in an industry where crash-and-burn is usually the name of the game.
Secret 1: There's no shame in starting late. Oddly, Howl credits MTV with spurring him into the music business. The station was the first place he landed after leaving the pen, when a prison work-release program set him up with a job as a production assistant around 1994. "I was always a music fan, but I wasn't someone who did music yet. MTV really opened my eyes.... I thought, Wow, you can create any image, any illusion," he says. Soon after, he was with some friends and began freestyling. "I impressed myself that night, because words started coming out of my mouth in rhyming order, and I couldn't stop." He was 26 years old.
Secret 2: Once you've solidified your image, keep everyone guessing. Howl's collection of Polo sport gear is legendary, culled during the late Eighties and early Nineties when it was still hip-hop's it brand. His most common nickname is "the Polo Rican," and he maintains "massive collections" in storage. But at the Latin Café, he shows up in a plain white stocking cap and T-shirt. "You expected to see the Polo today, didn't you?" he asks. "But I am who I am without it. I could have showed up in some biker shorts."
Secret 3: Work with anyone trying to make it happen. Besides his own mixtapes, videos, and albums, Howl is known for countless collaborations. "I never say no," he says. "If I know you're out there grinding, then I'm gonna go get on your shit, because if you're pushing your shit hard, then you're pushing me on it.... You know about SoFla Kingz. If they're like, 'Yo, we wanna do a song,' I'll be like, 'All right, but you know if I'm gonna come out there, all the way to your studio, we gotta do a whole bunch of songs in a night....' Even with Garcia and EFN — ask them cats. I go to Garcia's studio and Garcia knows we've got a five-song minimum."
Secret 4: When life gives you lemons, make jack mackerel fish. There's no way a hustler like Howl would finish a few stints inside without turning the experience into something creative and funny. Behold his latest project, a TV series he's shopping around: Jailhouse Cooking is a series of full-length episodes based on comedy, music, and actual recipes like spicy jack mackerel fish, "straight from the island of Rikers," as he proclaims in one clip. "I also did the vanilla wafer pie, where you make the pie out of the vanilla wafer cookies. I did the tuna fish and noodles, the octopus and rice," he says. "I think if people try the recipes, they're actually delicious!"
Secret 5: If someone won't help you, figure out how to do it yourself. As part of the Anger Bangers trio, with E-Boogie and Ronny Ray-Gun, Howl creates the beats for most of his own tracks, as well as for most of the other Lo-Lifes camp artists. He admits that started as a necessity because, at first, people didn't want him around their expensive equipment. "Nobody took me seriously as being a rapper," he recalls. "They thought it was just a gimmick for me to get away with something else, to get in there."
Secret 6: Diversify, always. Howl has always been known for playing lyrically with Spanish, using a word or phrase here or there naturally, to fit into an unexpected rhyming scheme. Last year he dropped what he considers his first true "Spanglish album," La Cura. It's a sonically rich tapestry of tropical textures over hard-core hip-hop beats, with lyrics about 90 percent in Spanish. The response from new fans, Howl says, was crazy. "When I started doing full-fledged Spanish, it got me a whole other audience, and the acceptance level was 1,000 times greater." So now Howl has recruited two new Spanish-language artists to his label, Hurricane G and Greco El Padrino (from Miami), and is working on another Spanglish solo album besides a planned English album.
Secret 7: Create your own mythology. Nearly all of Howl's releases and projects, even those mainly by other artists, tie together. His last full-length DVD, The Polo Rican, is partly a series of music videos, partly a documentary about his Polo collection and his Lo-Lifes crew, and partly a comedy about Howl's exploits in Miami as he tries to evade the pintsize hardass Big Cuzin. None of it will see the light of day until 2009, Howl says, because he wants to take time to polish the final product and score a new, more expansive distribution situation.
Secret 8: Stay timeless. "The way I structure my songs is not for a certain time," Howl insists. "Hard-core, hard hip-hop is still timeless. You don't have to change with what's going on, especially if you don't like it."