Quest For the Golden Rhyme

There’s a charged silence as 22-year-old Matthew Barrington Bethea IV, sitting in the Starbucks across from the New Haven Green, searches for the title of one of those songs he “put more of himself into.” He cannot remember its name, but he recalls the lyrics with ease:

Don’t wait up ’cause time ain’t waiting on you;

You let all the problems pilin’ up, now the weight is on you.

You been strugglin’ in the street, claim you’re hungry, tryna eat,

But what happens when you look in the mirror and the weight is on you.

His voice lifts the stale air of the New Haven café where we sit. Bethea, or “IV” (pronounced as two letters) as he’s known by his one thousand-plus fans on the online music platform ReverbNation, leans delicately over the table. He seems at ease, yet he never removes his heavy coat. The song he offers, “HOW MUCH REALER,” is one of his “struggle-slash-motivation” tracks. For his audience, it’s a call to action. For him, it’s a reflection on the weight he carries as a young rapper with a small following, trying to make it big. He wonders how to balance the uncertain future with his need to pay the bills; how to yank himself out of neutral to produce work that satisfies his standards and fans; how to speak to himself and to his audience simultaneously.

“I mean, I do it with the intentions and hopes that the one person who’s going through this is hearing this,” he says.

But how to reach that one person is an open question for IV, other rappers in New Haven’s small but active hip-hop scene, and artists worldwide. IV says his goal is to “catch the listener” with lyrics that matter. He has recorded tracks with Phil Blount, owner of the recording studio No Gimmick in southwest New Haven. Since the nineteen-eighties rapper Steve Williams, known as “Stezo,” got two singles onto the Billboard 100 R&B/Hip-Hop Chart, no recent rapper from the city has been able to build a comparable national audience and put the city on the hip-hop map. IV, like many others, wants to change that.

Connecticut’s first well-known rapper of the early nineteen-eighties, Tony Pearson (“Mr. Magic”), observes that New Haven’s hip-hop scene is a gold mine for new talent, especially with the advent of home-recording software that allows IV and his peers to mix tracks in their bedrooms. But there’s no established pipeline for that talent to go to the big leagues. In the wake of New Haven mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s decision to raze the New Haven Coliseum in 2007 because of the steep cost of operation, few venues remain.

“We only have one place,” IV explains, referring to Toad’s Place. “We need more.”

Blount recognizes IV’s potential to not only join the ranks of those rappers he places in New Haven’s rap elite—IB Trizzy, Tye Henney, and Wiley Don, who’ve all taken the stage on myriad occasions at Toad’s Place—but also to break through the limitations of New Haven’s music scene. Although IV has yet to reel in the number of local fans that IB Trizzy and Wiley Don have, Blount thinks IV could transcend their level: “IV raps way beyond his age in terms of his content.” According to Blount, IV “fits [New Haven] like a glove.”

IV has dabbled in the 203’s vibrant rap battle scene, recorded a few tracks with Blount, and collaborated with other local rappers. His ReverbNation profile says he “sounds like” Drake and J. Cole. But those artists are far away, and there’s no road map from New Haven to where they are.

IV’s interest in rap began when he was around six years old, riding shotgun in his uncle’s car with the radio blaring. “[My uncle] started rapping, and I asked him, ‘How do you do that?’ and he taught me how to do it, and then I started writing it,” IV recalls. “And he laughed at the first one I wrote, because it was garbage.” He worked from there. Throughout middle school, IV took the stage at poetry open-mic nights every second Thursday for cash prizes. In the family room with his mom, IV was immersed in the Motown sensuality of Stevie Wonder and Guess Who’s Back? by 50 Cent. “This is where I came from,” he says.

Born in Manhattan, he lost his father when he was 7 and moved to New Haven when he was 16; his mother recently passed away. In the song “28° Fahrenheit,” he offers an intimate, pensive rendering of his relationship with his parents. He raps about the marked contrast between the advice of “Moms and Pops,” and the fragmentation he faced after they died:

My tie between my Moms and Pops completely disassemble

They took the road to Heaven, then I can’t afford the rental

Vivid dreams play in my mind as I’m tellin’ them what I’ve been through

Pops told me don’t be gentle; Mom said live it through the pencil.

IV’s foray into serious music composition began in a concrete-walled classroom at New Haven’s Wilbur Cross High School. In January of 2013, Donald Sawyer, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Quinnipiac University, founded a hip-hop advisory program at Wilbur Cross. The inaugural class was made up of twenty-five young men, including IV. Many members had been affected by gun violence, economic deprivation, racial discrimination, and the daily reality of metal detectors and uniformed officers in their school hallways. Sawyer transformed his drab classroom into an artistic incubator, teaching poetry through the lens of music while encouraging each student’s unique voice.

Sawyer recognized IV’s potential from the beginning. “On the day we met,” Sawyer says, “it was clear that he was a talent. He had a mastery of the English language.” One of the most talented musicians of his class, IV stood out because of the way his lyrics confronted adversity head-on.

IV feels indebted to Sawyer, whom he calls “Don,” and the role he played in his artistic development. Aside from showing IV the value of weaving literary devices, irony, and rhyme into his work, Sawyer gave IV the tools to be a keen observer. “He taught me it’s all about taking in what’s going on around you,” IV says.

After his formative period in the “judgment-free zone” of Sawyer’s classroom, IV began performing in New Haven’s Arts and Ideas Festival in 2014, ‘open-box’ rap-sparring events on the New Haven Green, and cyphers (continuous freestyle sessions) in New York and Connecticut. He won a talent show at Quinnipiac University this past February. Despite his growing visibility as an artist, IV’s music doesn’t pay his living; he works at Bruegger’s Bagels on Whalley Avenue.

But there’s a reason why IV’s lyrics stood out to figures like Sawyer and Blount. His work takes from the wisdom of Jay-Z’s Decoded: “Bang out a rhythmic idea.” Even though IV was born decades after the lyricism of Gil Scott-Heron in the early nineteen-seventies and the dynamism of Run-DMC’s self-titled 1984 album, his music recalls those earlier styles. IV’s songs have what Sawyer calls “old soul […] touched by the golden era of hip-hop.”

When Sawyer drove IV to a rap battle in Lower Manhattan one late weeknight in high school, the roars of the crowd carried IV—“the kid from Connecticut?”—to a silver medal. “He showed that he was able to hang,” said Sawyer.

Even with the praise IV receives from Sawyer and Blount, there’s still room for him to penetrate the local New Haven music market by booking shows and marketing himself to the community.

When he’s not working his day job, IV directs his efforts toward refining his first mixtape for release this fall. “I’m still trying to learn to balance life and music at the same time,” he admits. He scribbles down verses in his collection of “old-school” notebooks, and he invites his sixty-eight Facebook followers to recommend beats. He participates in cyphers every few months, like Grind Mode Cyphers in New York this July. He posts weekly rap videos from his desk or couch. In them, slivers of a pillow, blinds, or a blank wall are barely visible behind him as he raps, his shaky camera work intensifying the urgency of his delivery. He strategically curates this new online material with hashtags and links to the social media sites of other artists.

Yet these current efforts leave IV’s career stagnant or, at least, slow-growing; his ReverbNation followers fluctuate by just one or two each week. He is counting on his pending mixtape to establish him.

Unlike local pioneer Pearson, who has always clung to his New Haven roots, IV avidly seeks to avoid the local musician trap. He explains, “I’m trying to spread, I’m not just trying to be in New Haven, I’m not just trying to be in Connecticut, because…I don’t want to be ‘local.’ ‘Just local.’”

For IV and amateur artists like him, the present moment is pivotal. As he tries to construct a distinct identity for himself, he must do so with sensitivity to the dichotomies that frame any early music career. At Bruegger’s, he’s Matt; on Facebook, he’s IV. As a lyricist, he studies poetics; as a musician, he wants to produce music that can be readily remixed in the club setting. He desires to bust through the boundaries of the “just local” 203; but, as Blount explains, he must wholly become IV, “change his government name,” define his audience, maintain virtual and physical proximity to that audience, and forge a brand that meets its needs.

For now, it’s easy for IV to envision a future in which he is Drake-famous, reaching fans worldwide. It is harder for him to figure out the route to that future. Every few weeks, as he publishes a new Facebook recording, amassing close to one thousand views, he addresses the anonymous fan and theoretical viewer he isn’t quite sure how to reach. Watching him, I found it nearly impossible to hold his glassy gaze. He seems to treat the camera like a mirror, rapping for himself.