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Featured the week of 9/11-9/18 by writer Chris Conti.
The Edgewood section of Cranston may not be known as a hip-hop hotbed, but that neighborhood raised a razor-sharp emcee named Romen Rok, who will finally follow through on his promise to deliver a full-length debut by the end of the year. His name has been well-known around the local independent/underground rap scene since his days with Funkbunker Fleet, who released one album, Slap & Spit, in 2003 and won the Independent Music Award for rap album of the year.
While friends and former colleagues roll in renowned camps like Poorly Drawn People and Labeless Illtelligence, Rok revels as a solo unit — particularly onstage, where the 28-year-old breathes fresh life into a show. He's his own hypeman and the madcap antics are complemented by a slick-witted lyricist who never loses focus on the task at hand. I witnessed a Romen Rok set a few months back at Jake's, when he opened for Albany, NY rhymer DEZ. Rok came out, looked over the setlist he scribbled down a few minutes before, then tore into a 30-minute serving of vicious bars and metaphors while running around with a giant pair of cardboard scissors and a Hannibal Lecter mask. I remember hearing "Ragu, Nanu-Nanu, eat cats like Alf do" all in one punchline. It was energetic, goofy, and fearlessly self-deprecating, and the 40 or so heads turned from head-scratching skeptics to all smiles by the end of his stint.
He came up with the Romen tag in 1994 while "doodling in a sketchbook high on Robitussin" at age 14. He attended Cranston East ("It was horrible") but never graduated "because of a failed history class in summer school.
"Looking back I should've just dropped out at 15 and done something useful with my adolescence, like live in South America and help people build houses," Rok told me. Writing rhymes developed from creative outlet to full-time obsession, as chronicled on "Lou Diamonds Forever," dedicated to a friend who recently passed away but left an indelible mark on Scampoli. The track will be included on Rok's debut.
"Lou rolled with a crew called Hazardous Material from Elmwood Avenue," Rok said. "I looked up to them and hearing them at the feasts back in the day, freestyling and beat-boxing, was amazing. You had to come with some serious styles to enter those ciphers. My man Lou Diamonds was the first out of them to show me love and became a mentor to my style."
And the first time he rhymed onstage in front of strangers?
"It would have to be the Pharcyde show at the Strand back in '95," he recalled. "I remember Slim Kid Tre asked the crowd if anybody rapped, I threw my hands up and he pulled me up on stage. I spit a verse and the crowd went nuts. My crew couldn't believe it."
Romen Rok has since shared the stage with indie icons People Under the Stairs, Mr. Lif, and Pharoahe Monch. He was recruited by Storm Davis, another renowned local wordsmith, for "Steps of the Brownstone" from his 2006 debut Kegstand Poetry for the Recovering Alcoholic, and has a working relationship with Joe Beats that dates to "The Clock with No Hands" from 2002's Reverse Discourse. Beats has returned the favor, producing four tracks for Rok's debut.
"Romen Rok is one of the purest artists I've ever met," Beats said, "but if it was up to him, rappers wouldn't need to release albums, they'd just say their piece on the street."
Rok sounds as if he's getting down to business; while "Poo Poo In the Pamper" and the hialrioius "White Chicks" (both at myspace.com/romenrahlo) won't make the album, Rok fed me a few lines of new material: "Hey yo, free yayo! Nah, Free Tibet/Free the minds of the youth, they obsessed with gettin' respect/It's like young bucks are too hard for their seat belts/They'd rather look real when they crash through the windshield."
Rok has temporarily pulled the plug on his live schedule as he wraps up his disc, but you can catch him and his crew spinning hip-hop downtown at Blake's Tavern every Saturday, where he occasionally rocks the mic.
"When people go out at night they want to be entertained and feel happy," Rok said. "I'm not scared to look ridiculous and make people laugh because I know I'm no joke and when it comes down to it — in the end, I'll bite your face off.