I first met Tommy2Stix at Kerbey Lane Cafe in Austin. I’d become intrigued after watching this relatively unknown self-described “motivational cripple” hip-hop artist starring in the video for his first single, “Cripple Flow.” The song is delightfully awkward and cleverly penned — a tongue-in-cheek rap that references his struggles with central core myopathy, a ultra-rare genetic form of muscular dystrophy that, for a portion of his life, rendered him extremely weak and completely unable to walk.
In the video, he’s depicted as hybrid hipster-thug atop two crutches (hence the “2Stix” moniker), striking fear into the cores of the tougher-looking and much-larger-in-stature League of Extraordinary G’z, an Austin-based hip-hop group. Throughout the song, 2Stix can be seen rolling through neighborhoods of the eastern part of the city in a haze of smoke, at times spitting rhymes from the driver’s seat of a shiny, wholesome Honda CRV. During other sequences, he can be seen gyrating with scantily clad, acrylic fingernailed women wearing booty shorts. It should also be noted that he’s sporting wayfarers and an American flag draped around his shoulders as a cape, with a posse of masked friends who silently show moral support by adding another dimension of strangeness. The video, like the song, is humorous, ironic and full of eclectic, colorful elements.
His entrance into the brunch spot that day was unmistakable – on his signature titanium crutches, he casually puffed an electronic cigarette that I would quickly learn was filled with (still-illegal-in-Texas) marijuana. He introduced himself and apologized for his tardiness (he’d been in the zone, writing) before ordering a Mexican-inspired breakfast. It was a laid-back brunch, nothing like, say, a meeting at the Texas Legislature, where he was working at the time. Tommy2Stix is able to bounce from serious to silly, but is never fully on either end of the spectrum – the lines are blurred.
I eyeballed his T-shirt, emblazoned with the phrase, “I am my own superhero” underneath a simple stick figure in a cape. I’d say that he broke the ice by opening up about his food allergies and a recent discovery that too much marijuana could actually make him throw up – but there was no ice to begin with. His raison d’être, it appears obvious, is to disarm people, writers visiting from New Orleans who admittedly know little about the genre, big-name rappers and audience members alike.
If Clark Kent is Tomas (he requested we withhold his last name out of fear that his rap career might hamper his ability to get into law school) — a bilingual, hardworking, studious, first-generation Mexican-American who graduated from American University in Washington, D.C.; the son of successful parents who were continuously on his case to study for the LSATs –– then Superman is Tommy2Stix, a rising hip-hop artist who’s fueled by medical marijuana, a recently discovered confidence and a strong wit that has helped compensate for years of physical pain, uncertainties and doubt about his health condition.
And Superman, though he may have difficulty walking, is starting to fly.
Tommy, whose spine is held together with steel bars and more than 20 screws after a high-risk, experimental surgery that he underwent at age 15, is surrounded by a legion of supportive hip-hop artists and fans, which is not something he expected growing up.
He says he never thought he’d be a “real performer.” He attended a private high school in Austin, St. Andrew’s, with dozens of theatrical, artistic and musically inclined friends and classmates. During that era, he says he was more of a listener than a performer — he admired jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley and Thelonious Monk.
“I liked jazz because so much could be said just in the sound, without really any words even being said,” he says. Beyond that, he enjoyed funk, rock, slam poetry and hip-hop. But it wasn’t until college when he “got into a shit ton of Kanye, Wu Tang, Mobb Deep, Jay-Z and Biggie. I ripped their entire collection and would just listen to them on shuffle or repeat, and my tastes grew from there.”
College as a turning point works in mysterious ways. Marijuana in D.C. had been recently decriminalized, so in between classes Tommy, who majored in Spanish/Latin American Studies, regularly embarked on “spliff walks” around the picturesque capitol, which he found both therapeutic and inspiring.
“Walking is a physically exhausting process,” he explained. “When people would ask me how I was doing, I’d answer, ‘I’m OK, but I’m tired.’ It was hard to just keep going. When I started to smoke, I started to get more energetic.”
During his final semester, a serendipitous encounter at D.C’s Howard Theatre steered him in a new direction. While attending an Action Bronson show, Tommy stood near at the front, waving his crutches while other audience members waved their hands. Bronson leaned over from the stage, grabbed a crutch and began using it as a prop.
“He tossed it on stage and rushed over to me, lifted me out of the crowd, and set me in front of his DJ,” he recalls. “My friends who were with me lost their collective minds about the fact that I was on stage with one of the biggest up-and-coming rappers around.”
He recalls through a cloud of smoke that “cell phones went off faster than a strobe light” to capture this strange moment. “Action saw that I was nodding my head to the beat in time, and a curious expression lit his face.” Bronson is known to freestyle a capella at his show, but this time, he handed the mic to Tommy, inviting him to be a part of the show. “He said, ‘Hey, kid, you wanna spit some shit?” With the crowd roaring, this “kid” gulped and said, “I’m down.”
“I just freestyled four bars, high as f*ck, and the crowd loved it,” he recalls. “Action laughed a lot and let me chill on stage for the rest of the show. That was when I first got the itch – like, hell, if I prepare more, I can make people vibe to what I say.”
He finished school shortly afterward and spent the next several months writing lyrics, getting stoned and networking with producers and other musicians; the bong of creativity had been lit and 2Stix had emerged from it.
In 2013, Tommy attended another Action Bronson show, this time back in his hometown at South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual film, interactive media and music festival that takes over Austin each March. News of his cameo with Bronson had rippled through the circle of his hometown friends. And that night, Tommy was toting a G-Pen — a portable personal vaporizer created by Grenco Sciences that can be filled with tobacco or marijuana. (The product itself is legal; what goes into it is arbitrary, of course, depending on state laws. The Los Angeles-based company strongly supports medicinal marijuana legalization.)
Before the show, Tommy again bumped into Bronson, who remembered their fateful night in D.C and facilitated another jaunt on stage together. Incidentally, Grenco Sciences endorses Action Bronson, and owners and representatives of the company had witnessed Tommy using their product in the Viceland area, where they would perform that night.
“Chris [Folkerts, owner] and I went over and introduced ourselves. Tommy told us his story,” said Tim Patenaude, vice-president of G-Life, the lifestyle brand of Grenco Sciences and the G-Pen. “He’s a medical marijuana patient; he was saying this pen had changed his life. We ended up hanging out all night. We were blown away. [When] he recorded the song, ‘Cripple Flow,’ later, the video was brilliant. We had tons of conferences with hip-hop artists, so we serviced it to our press list.”
They also invited him to perform at a Coachella party in California a month later that was co-sponsored by Huf, a skateboarding/clothing brand. From there Tommy gained momentum and spent the remainder of 2013 working on a full-length album (in addition to filling out law school applications). He also completed another music video for his single, “Oil Baron,” which was partially funded by BC Smoke Shop in Austin. In it, he portrays himself as a wealthy astronaut drilling for hash oil on an extra-terrestrial landscape.
Part of 2Stix’s appeal, of course, is the novelty of his act — disabled Mexican-American hip-hop artists, patriotic to Texas, Mexico and America, who are also aspiring lawyers, are certainly a rare breed. But part of it is that his lyrics are witty, well thought-out and soul-baring, though not so raw that they’re too painful to enjoy. There’s a calculated self-deprecation that makes people a little more comfortable with what he, and they, are confronting. Audiences are inclined to root for him.
In “Fuckin Wit Me,” produced by Reggie Coby of the aforementioned League of Extraordinary G’z, for example, he raps, “What do you expect from a crippled MC/ Physically limited but not when I speak/ Get back if you’re gonna act like I’m a freak/ I’m gonna be fact-checkin’ ya like a geek.”
“I’ve always wanted to be a fighter,” Tommy says. “I couldn’t walk [when I was younger]. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t get stronger and walk some day in the future. I never realized how empowering it was to be told I couldn’t do something. I had to prove people wrong, not to show them up, but more to prove to myself that I could do it.”
If anything has permeated his life, it’s — in his own words — an “awkward sense of humor.” He adds, “I like to give jokes that not everyone will laugh at. And people will really cringe in a way, because I say inappropriate things. Plus, growing up in a Hispanic home, you learn to give a lot of sardonic humor.”
Most of all, perhaps, he gets a rush from being on stage and engaging the audience.
“I like to make people laugh and think. I don’t mind being the smart ass. Honestly, I’m not the most threatening guy in the world,” he deadpans. “I mean, yeah, I always have two titanium sticks with me, and if there’s a slick part of the ground, I’ll be on my ass before you know it. But you can feel bad about situations or you can make a joke and move on and laugh through the pain.”
Tommy2Stix will be performing on March 10 at the 21st Street Co-op’s hip-hop showcase and at South by Southwest March 15 at G-Pen’s showcase at Emo’s Annex, (which will be renamed The G-Pen Annex for the duration of SXSW) on Red River and 6th Street. His album, 2Stix, is available on Bandcamp. Follow him on Facebook here and on Twitter here.