It’s Nov. 23 at the Bronx Criminal Court in the South Bronx, and the defendant in docket number 020932 — the first case to be heard today — is a man named Chester A. Roscoe. The judge is a half-hour late getting to the bench, inducing a tinge of anxiety from the fellow defendants and spectators waiting for the proceedings to begin. But you wouldn’t notice that based on the body language of the defendant, despite his aggravated criminal contempt charge (a Class D felony). This isn’t a civil case, so jail time is a possible ending to this saga.
Wearing all-white Nikes, blue jeans with holes throughout the knee area, a white long-sleeve crewneck, and a Yankees fitted hat, Roscoe was ready to receive his fate. The defendant, 27, is better known as rapper Rx Papi — an internet folk hero whose tragicomic lyrics, madcap taunts, and surreal right-brain thinking have helped him become the best rapper on your YouTube feed, if not beyond.
During an Instagram Live session a few days earlier, Roscoe recorded himself and his accuser — an ex-girlfriend — having an argument. She says in court documents that the “defendant repeatedly grabbed informant (i.e. the accuser) by the neck, lifted her up, and dropped her on top of a heater.” As a result of this, the accuser says she has “bruising to her neck, back, and thighs, substantial pain to her wrists.” Roscoe says he’s innocent (the accuser was seen attacking him on IG live while he remains calm) but this is ugly for the rapper — it’s ugly to even look at the case file. On top of the accusation, the arrest was made on the same Instagram Live session, for everyone to see.
Born and raised in Rochester, N.Y., Roscoe is all too familiar with court dates and threats of jail time. Before this recent arrest for criminal contempt, the rapper spent a year in Elmira Correctional Facility on a robbery charge, spending his days in a four-by-four cell rather than a recording booth that allows him to take out pieces of his psyche for listeners to hear. After that experience, Papi doesn’t mince words in his music or in person.
“It feels good to be out,” Roscoe says, slumped in his chair at Simple Stupid Records in lower Manhattan. “I am happy as hell. I wasn’t stressing in jail, but I was stressing not being home. Not having the right clothes or jewelry or having money. I missed my mom [and] being able to FaceTime my family. I missed the studio so much. I couldn’t rap in there either! Fuck no. That ain’t me, writing in jail. I only wrote like two songs.”
Jail for a drug dealer and robber-turned-artist like Rx Papi isn’t something he can’t handle, but it isn’t a walk in the park either. Roscoe’s worst day in jail was before he was actually in jail. When the judge immediately handed him his sentence, it represented the reality that his freedom was gone. Every visit from family or a girlfriend would have to be through correction officers playing the role of middleman.
“I was like ‘Damn, a nigga about to be gone,'” Roscoe recalls. “But I didn’t know I would get the program I got. It’s this boot camp called Shock [a quasi-military prison alternative program created in the early ’80s]. 50 Cent did that. I was in two different jails — Elmira and Groveland in upstate New York — before I went to the boot camp. Elmira is the maximum and Groveland is the minimum.”
Once Roscoe got to the boot camp, a normal day was so banal and painful that he “didn’t even want to talk about shit.” As a prisoner in the boot camp, he had eight minutes to get dressed at 5:30 a.m. and eight minutes to eat. Then you either go to school or work for the day. Mercifully, Roscoe’s first job as a porter in the laundry room allowed him to sleep throughout the day.
“At the job, you could sit down and take a break — but I ended up getting fired from that job,” he says. “Then, they put me in the kitchen and the mess hall. I had to work double shifts for three days straight, washing dishes from that job. I hate that I got fired from the laundry job.” Roscoe also says that a particular corrections officer would disrespect him while singing an R. Kelly song. “He walked back and was like ‘You like singing?’ My man told him that I was a rapper. Then, every time the C.O. would see me, he would be like ‘Rap for me.’ I always thought ‘Do your fucking job and go the fuck home,’ but he would fuck with a nigga every day.”
Still, not being able to record was the most frustrating aspect of his incarceration. But while he couldn’t record nor release nearly as much as he would’ve liked, Roscoe still managed to release some new tracks while he was away via his producer St. Los.
“I was basically his curator and producer,” Los tells SPIN via phone. “I inherited that position from his old manager. I have the music vault, so I started dropping it the way he would have. Sometimes, I’d consult him before I dropped it. I once asked what was OK to drop. He didn’t care, as long as it kept dropping. I never said I was the one releasing it. People thought he had a phone in jail because we were dropping so much.”
“Facetime,” which was released on Oct. 21, has him spitting game to a lover, with lyrics like “She said Pap don’t compare to me to your bitch / I’ll never do anything that stupid.” But as a lyricist, Papi is a surrealist — one who could compare his prison sentence to Gregor Samsa of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, screaming into the void and confined to his room while out of his body and brain. Furthermore, he raps in sentence form —often creating powerful enough lyrics that they could function as Instagram captions. Roscoe’s unique flow has seen a particularly significant level of success when partnered with RXK Nephew, his longtime collaborator who he briefly feuded with before reuniting last year. While RXK Nephew is into conspiracy theories, Roscoe is into the corporeal.
“We been brothers forever, bro,” Nephew says via phone. “My dog coming home, been acting a fool. We on some CEO shit. If you want something right, we gotta do it yourself. We rob females, we beat cases. We did everything we needed to do.”
“We’ve known each other since we were like 12 or 13,” Roscoe says. “We did a lot of things together in the streets.”
His concern is with the self and his body, when you’ve seen your brother die in front of you, or when peacefulness is out of reach. But Roscoe is never discussing a theory. He prefers using absurdity — ridiculousness with context — about who he is and how damaged the streets made him. His rhymes may be non-sequiturs, but his references are encyclopedic and his voice hits octaves most rappers don’t touch — sometimes screaming like an uncontrollable manic episode bordering on exorcism. Sure, rap is performance art, but that understates what Papi does. He’s discharging his demons and virtues alike, because he would prefer to live in his crassness.
Lil B and Max B are Roscoe’s direct influences, but it would be trite to compare him to someone else. Papi’s complete command over a song makes him one of the most unique rappers alive. His details can get as nasty as a Charles Bukowski passage in Like a Flower in the Rain or have the emotional clarity of 2Pac. On “A Man Apart,” he unloads his troubling family drama and fatalism over a euphoric beat, almost as if these confessions are his way of showing his resolve. “My Auntie don’t like me and I don’t know why / She can’t look me in the eyes let alone say hi / Shit hurt but I don’t never fuck with my head / I blame you for my big cousin being dead.”
Rx Papi nearly always has a glock on him, because gun violence in his hometown of Rochester is surprisingly prevalent. It’s hard to blame him after losing both his father and brother to shootings.
“Growing up in Rochester was rough — real rough,” Roscoe says between joints in the studio, just four days before he was arrested again for aggravated criminal contempt. “My dad died when I was four. He got shot in a shootout in front of the crib. After that, it was downhill from there. From the moment things go downhill, that’s where it goes. By the time I was 12, I was full-blown in the streets. But it was also fun.”
When Roscoe says “This shit don’t stop,” he means it. He wants to release as much music as he can, in part to honor those who are no longer with us. (“You got to keep putting on. Them boys ain’t die for nothing.”). He asks how old 2Pac was when he died, and I tell him he was 26. He replies with “Pac a little nigga.” For context, the first time Roscoe was arrested for robbery was when he was 13 years old.
“I was convicted — arrested, tried, and convicted bro,” he explains. “The plan was to rob a nigga, but he was with a bitch. So the plan was to get this nigga, but we ended up robbing the bitch. But she knew who I was from my hood. She knew my M.O. A few weeks later, the police stopped me on some random shit and put me in juvenile.”
Roscoe’s play was to sneak up on his victim, ask them what time they had on their watch or phone, then stick a gun in their face as they pulled out their phone to check. When he was 19, he was involved in a police chase just weeks before he got stabbed.
“We ended up in this town, and we didn’t know it,” Roscoe recalls. “We’re so fried and burnt, and we didn’t think about putting the GPS back so we can get back to town. I hit the car that comes up behind us and run out. I ended up getting caught a bunch of blocks away. They charge me with the driving. They charged my friend because they caught him with the work.”
Outside of his run-ins with the law, Roscoe’s also been shot and stabbed — the latter of which still leaves a lingering pain within him. Papi and his friend, Bam, (“Bam got 25 to life. Free Bam!”) were shooting dice near a store when a man bumped into them. Bam objected and asked “You not going to say excuse me?” and the man answered in a disrespectful manner. (“I hate the term ‘little niggas.’”) Roscoe and Bam approached him, the former quickly punched him, and as he turned his back into the store, the man ran back at his friend. When Bam hit the assailant with a shovel, he stabbed Bam. As the now-rapper was punching the man to defend his friend, his adrenaline was so intense that he didn’t realize that he was actively being stabbed in the lip, stomach and nose. Bam alerted him, telling Roscoe that he was losing blood.
“When I got shot, it was different,” Roscoe says. “I was supposed to be in the hospital for two months. As soon I could walk again, I left after six days.”
Although those stories intensify the affection that some rap fans have for him, Roscoe doesn’t want to be fodder for rap lore. He had to deal with these incidents. The emotional pain of watching your father die at an early age manifests itself into a nihilism that puts you in physical danger. The intensity of the streets put Roscoe in a chokehold, and life has given him a world-weariness coupled with a “dog eat dog” mentality. He’s an example of how gun violence is a cycle that continues without mercy. And being in the position that he is now, it’s not so easy to put that kind of lifestyle in the rearview mirror. The mentality on a song like “First Day Out” ends up putting Papi in the same place that he’s always been, the correctional facility he never wants to go to again.
Still, his relationship with his family is the most important thing to him. When his little brother calls him on the phone, he stops the interview for a minute. They talk daily. “That nigga growing up,” Roscoe says. And just like in his partnership with RXK Nephew, he’s never glorifying his life. He’s talking about his torture, both inside the penitentiary and out.
“I’ll be on something like this: I got one foot out, and one foot in it,” Roscoe says. “I’m not saying I’m still doing street shit. That’s just some shit that I can’t ever forget. If this rap stuff don’t work, I can do this, that, and the third to get X, Y, Z. I know better than that. So, I am trying to do this rap shit — but still…”
Just because Roscoe has dealt with an abundance of trauma, doesn’t mean he’s all gloom. Three hours later, he’s sitting back talking about basketball.
“I don’t watch ball like that, but I’ll beat you in ball,” he says, with a conviction that’s equal parts hilarious and earnest. “I’ll layup on you, drive on you, clap on you. I’m deadass. Why you laughing? I’m deadass.”
As for the result of his most recent court date, the judge extended the restraining order against his accuser. Roscoe has his family, his freedom, and seemingly some calm in his life for once. But can that continue?