Brian “B-RAiN” McCall was staring into an abyss of 165 years in prison when he got word of his father’s death.
Both were struggling to get clean, but despite being locked up for 11 robberies with bail set at more than a half million dollars, McCall was still getting high. In fact, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, he didn’t see jail as a deterrent to his addiction at all.
“My dad and I would write letters, and the whole plan when I got out was that we were going to get high together,” McCall said. “Looking back, I see that was just me taking advantage of him. I looked at it like, ‘Here’s another addict I can manipulate, that I can lie to, that I can take from.’ But then he died of an overdose, and that (messed) me up, and from then on, I was using anything that came on the tier if I thought it could get me high.
“I smoked orange peels because I heard you could get high off of it. I would buy people’s pills, I made hooch — jailhouse alcohol. Whatever I could do to use, I was doing it, because when he died, I just went off the deep end. I literally used everything I could get.”
He was eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison, but because of a diversionary program for those with drug-related felonies, he was given an opportunity to seek addiction treatment as a form of alternative sentencing. At the time, he said, he was so consumed with self-loathing and grief over his father’s loss that he didn’t care one way or the other:
“I was OK with it, because I was literally of no service to the world at all,” he said. “I was only hurting people and only taking from people, and I felt like I deserved to be in jail. So when they gave me a chance to go to rehab, I just thought, ‘Perfect. I’ll do this, get out of jail, then go get high again.’”
Except his Higher Power had other plans, and today, B-RAiN is a successful hip-hop artist with 12 years of recovery under his belt. He pursues his craft full-time, and he used the money he earned from his last successful tour to invest in a recovery house to give back to others who are in the same place of dereliction and hopelessness where he once resided.
It has been, he said, the most incredible journey, full of gifts of the spirit he never, ever thought possible — and from that better place on the other side of this earthly divide, he feels confident that his father is beaming down upon him, looking at his son’s works and declaring them good.
B-RAiN: Recovery as an art form
These days, McCall lives in Maryland, north of Baltimore, but more often than not, “home” is wherever he lays his head when he’s on the road. Assuming the coronavirus pandemic subsides by summer, he’ll be mounting his next tour at the end of July, when he’ll join fellow artists in recovery Joe Nester, Colicchie and KC Makes Music for a reprise of last year’s “It Takes A Village” run of shows that also featured REM ONE. The new tour, McCall said, will expand from 15 cities to roughly two dozen, including a run up the West Coast. It’s a package experience, and for dudes in recovery from addiction, it’s also a trek none of them ever thought would be possible.
“It’s just such an incredible experience,” he said. “Last year, it was like going to summer camp — hanging out with your bros, drinking energy drinks and making music. We’re really taking it to the next level this year.”
And while the shows draw throngs of sober fans, they’re open to everyone — because like his musical hero Macklemore, B-RAiN doesn’t target the message of his music solely to those in recovery. That they find a particular poignancy in it honors him, but hope is a thing that everyone needs, he believes, especially in these trying times.
“There are plenty of people on Facebook who get clean and make a song about their story, but then it ends there; or, they might come out with one more song about their story, and then it will end there,” he said. “What me and REM One and KC Makes Music and Joe (Nester) do, we integrate our recovery into the songs we create. At least for me, I have a catalog of over 50 songs I’ve released, and they all touch on different topics and different things and have different feels behind them. They all serve a different purpose — but the message behind them is the same.”
After all, he knows all too well about needing a little hope to make it in a world that can often be hard on a tender soul. Growing up in Southern Maryland, he was the product of divorce, and his mother threw herself into bettering her life so that she could provide for her son His father struggled with substance abuse, but to B-RAiN as a young boy, he was just a fun guy to be around.
“Growing up, my dad was my superhero. He could do no wrong in my eyes,” he said. “Especially growing up, before he became homeless and stuff like that, when I would go over on the weekends to his house, he would stop using for the weekend, and literally his entire focus and attention would be on me. We would play baseball, we would go to the woods and light stuff on fire; he would teach me how to shoot BB guns.
“As I got into skateboarding and riding BMX bikes at 9 or 10, he would just sit there and watch me. My mom was building her own life and working 10 or 12 hours a day, and even though now I understand what she was doing — building something for her future — at the time, I thought she didn’t care, and that the only way to get her attention was to act up or something like that.
“In my eyes, my dad did fun stuff, but at my mom’s house, I felt like I had to be deceitful in order to do fun things, because she was very strict,” he added.
Trouble comes calling
As his father’s descent into addiction accelerated, so did McCall’s behavior problems, he said. Friends from the working-class neighborhood in which he lived, guys he’d grown up playing with, managed to avoid attending the same middle school as McCall, forcing him to fend for himself. His school friends didn’t live in his neighborhood, and the buddies on his block didn’t go to his school. That disconnect led to fractures on the home and educational fronts.
“There’s this noise that goes on in my head, and as I got older, I found that fighting and stealing would shut that noise down,” he said. “By the time I was in sixth grade, I failed it and got kicked out of school, and that summer was my first experience with institutions. I was in a group home for two months, and that was kind of like a perfect storm.
“I went to this group home, I got kicked out of school, and my dad’s addiction really took off. He lost everything and was living in the woods in College Park, and when I came home from that institution, I had learned about drugs and smoking weed, so as soon as the opportunity arose, I was like, ‘Yes!’”
Music, he discovered, was the only balm that would soothe his troubled soul. It allowed him to escape from the maelstrom in his head, and it dispelled the feelings of inadequacy that seemed to follow him like dark storm clouds. Theft, he discovered, was more to his liking that fighting, and when he found he could shoplift Robitussin from area pharmacies, he settled in on a parallel trajectory to his father’s.
“I loved stealing, and I could go steal two or three bottles of Robitussin and get obliterated,” he said. “I didn’t need money or anybody else; I could just go do it. And then I started hanging out with the people who were just like me and getting in trouble. At 13 or 14 years old, if the cops catch you for stealing or boosting something, they take you to the station and call your mom to come pick you up, and that was becoming a more regular occurrence.”
During his sophomore year of high school, his mother moved to Annapolis, Maryland, where he knew no one and instead seized the opportunity to reinvent himself as “a more hardened criminal, a bigger gangster, and I went off the deep end,” McCall said. He started using drugs every day, skipping school regularly and found himself trapped in the revolving door of institutions and juvenile detention. During his senior year, violence and drug use landed him in a program for addicted and at-risk teens in Oregon.
“I was there for seven months, but I thrive in institutions,” he said. “I need the structure, because I have no idea how to live my life. So I went out there and really just learned how to do more drugs. What I didn’t learn anything about was how to be successful. Basically, their philosophy was, ‘Get a job, don’t get high and good luck!’”
B-RAiN: Reaching the end of the road
Back home in Maryland, he felt like a caged animal. He wanted to get a job but didn’t know how, and he was sober but hated it.
“By the third day, I was like, ‘This sucks. I’m out. I’m going to use, because that’s what I know and what I’m comfortable with,’” he said. “I knew what the outcome was going to be, but I was pretty good at running from the police, so I went on the run. But by then, I was 18 — an adult — and started going to adult jail.”
The charges were minor ones at first — petty thefts and possession, mostly, and his weary mother seemed to always step up to bail him out. She didn’t know where to turn, and the mandates put in place by the legal system — probation, drug court, intensive outpatient programs — only served to introduce him to fellow addicts who expanded his access to other substances.
“That’s where the heavier drugs — cocaine and pills and opiates — came into the picture,” he said. “I’m not an addict because of the drugs that I use; I’m an addict because of the way I think and the way my brain processes things, so I was using anything to get outside of myself.”
Eventually, he found himself trapped in a cycle of robbery and burglary that led to his arrest and subsequent 15-year sentence. Notification of his father’s death sent him over the edge, and even the opportunity to go to rehab instead of prison was not enough to break the cycle. And then, about a month before his treatment began, a fellow inmate changed his life.
“He was a guy in the (recovery) program who had about 18 months clean and was in jail to deal with the wreckage of his past,” McCall said. “He was there when my dad died, and when he found out my plan, he asked, ‘Brian, how do you think anything’s going to be different if you’re going to rehab and getting high? What do you think your dad would want?’
“And at first I was like, ‘Fuck you, you don’t know me or my dad!’ But deep down, he did. He knew exactly who I was, and I knew he was right. I knew my dad always had my best interests at heart, regardless of whether we used together. That’s why I was able to take advantage of him.”
A week later, he was shipped off, and he arrived in rehab still resentful, still angry and still not convinced that there was a solution to his problems.
“None of this — being 12 years clean, being a musician, being a husband, a father, a friend — none of that was part of the plan,” he said. “All I was thinking was, ‘How long can I stay out of jail this time?’”
A hip-hop artist is born
He stayed in treatment for five months, and he met a girl there that discharged on the same day. They walked out with two trash bags — his and her sacks of clothes — and lived in a motel for several months that McCall’s mother paid for. It wasn't easy, and he readily concedes that their relationship path may not work for everyone, but for the two of them, it's been a beautiful journey. More importantly, he added, the seeds planted in treatment managed to flourish. That girl? She ended up marrying him, and together, the two are raising a family. And McCall hasn’t stopped working on his recovery ever since.
Music, however, was a late-blooming fruit of the spirit. He had found refuge in it as a kid — and fans of his hip-hop might be surprised to learn that as a child, he was a fixture at the bluegrass festivals his mother had attended.
“I was just entranced by these guys on stage, playing the fiddle and the banjo,” he said. “To me, it was just amazing. I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit — they’re making this, right now, with their finger? This is crazy!’ In that moment, the noise in my head was gone. In that moment, I was worried about being too small, too skinny, not cool enough or whether the other kids in the neighborhood had both parents.”
About the time he got into skateboarding, he also discovered hip-hop. The visceral delivery of artists like Busta Rhymes felt more familiar than bluegrass; after all, he was a city kid, and the urban anger and pain echoed in rap spoke directly to his young heart. He went from writing poems as a kid to freestyle rapping as he got older, but he always kept it on the down low, he said.
“I was a closet rapper and didn’t let people know, because I was worried about what they thought of me,” he said. “Eminem came out about the same time, and I just knew they would say, ‘Oh, you think you’re Eminem?’ I didn’t tell people, and I didn’t take it serious, either, but I knew that I loved it, because it was another thing to take me outside of myself.
“When I got clean, I still loved it, and I still had it in me to write. I came home from jail with notebooks of rhymes written in them, but I just put them away to keep them for nostalgia.”
At five years clean, he was actively involved in 12 Step recovery and picked up one of the guys he was sponsoring to take to a recovery meeting. The kid asked McCall if he could plug his iPod into the car stereo, and when an instrumental track cued up, the two started to freestyle. Once his brain, heart and mouth synced up, the words began to flow.
“So I went for probably the next 10 or 15 minutes, because finally, this person I felt comfortable with, that I felt like wouldn’t judge me, was there,” he said. “So I rapped, and that kind of became the thing for the next three or four months. The next day, I picked him up and some other guy, and he said, ‘You should rap for this guy.’ So we went to a meeting, I rapped for the guys, and some guys recorded me and put me on Facebook. That got some buzz, and someone said, ‘Why don’t you write some songs?’”
B-RAiN finds his calling
Around the same time, he began hanging out a group of fellow recovering rappers who formed something of a cypher circle after their recovery meetings. At first, fear kept him from participating, but eventually his willingness won out. The guys were putting together shows and rapping as a collective, and after asking to be included, he finally got the invitation.
“One day they were like, ‘We have this beat; wanna jump on it?’” McCall said. “They gave it to me, and I drove home from the meeting and wrote my verse for it. I texted him and said, ‘Hey, I’m done,’ and we met up at the meeting the next day. In the parking lot, they were playing the beat, and I was shaking, because I’d never written anything down and taken it seriously — but now, because I had, I could be judged and made fun of.
“Fortunately, having 5 ½ years clean, I had experience with walking through fear, and I knew that if I at least walked through that fear, right then, I’d know I had tried.”
They didn’t judge or ridicule; in fact, they were so impressed that they drafted him into the collective, helping him set up his first shows in front of 10, 20 even 50 people. After a year or so, however, they went their separate ways, and McCall was again forced to face down fear.
“I was left with, I don’t have my safety net anymore,” he said. “With them, if you didn’t like my music, it wasn’t that you didn’t like me; it was, ‘You don’t like us.’ So I was sad and down, but when I started talking to people, they started telling me, ‘We really like what you do. You should make your own music.’ So I said alright, even though I was scared to death.”
His first solo song under the B-RAiN moniker was “Night Owl,” but once he put pen to paper, the words didn’t stop. Another track, “Ain’t Nothing Funny,” was written about a friend’s overdose, and after he rapped it in front of members of his recovery fellowship, a friend who filmed it put the video online, where it notched 8,000 views. That prompted him to film his first official video, using a Galaxy 5 and some train tracks through the woods as a backdrop, which garnered him another 30,000 views.
“That’s about the same time Joe was putting out music and going on his first tour, and the label he was with at the time reached out and wanted me to be a part of it,” McCall said. “I was so pumped, and I got to do two shows with them in North Carolina. I brought 10 people with me, because it was my first show outside of Maryland, and I went down with the full intention of, one, blowing people’s minds and, two, learning as much as I could.”
Talking with Nester after those shows not only led to a friendship; it supercharged McCall’s ambition, and he returned to Maryland on fire for both recovery and music.
More will be revealed ...
His first album, “Journey to the 754,” was released in 2017 as the soundtrack to a journey through the 12 Steps. His production and style reflect the earnest, cerebral hip-hop of fellow rappers Matisyahu and Sage Francis, but his passion and power put him on a musical par, at least, with his hero, Macklemore. In 2017, he helped organize the first Addiction and Recovery Awareness Music Festival; also that year, he booked his own tour of Pennsylvania and Maryland. And in 2018, he reached even higher.
“I started getting booked for shows in the Midwest, and I put out another album (“555: The Journey Continues”), and then there was this indie band contest, where you could sign up and have fans vote for you, and if you won, you got to open for Macklemore,” he said. “I told everybody, ‘We’re winning this,’ because I feel like that if there’s any artist out there similar to my vision and sound and being in recovery, it’s him. So we grinded for three months and mounted a huge social media campaign, and we won.
“With my wife and daughter, we went and did this show in Rhode Island, and it was the most amazing experience in music ever to that point. I had 10 minutes to perform, but that was all I needed. The show went flawless, and we killed it, and there were probably 10,000 people there. When we got done, I came into the crowd to give away merchandise and stickers and sign autographs. I wanted to make sure people knew I’m just a regular person, that I’m just a guy in recovery.”
Those connections strengthened last year’s “It Takes a Village” tour, and this year, he’s continued to roll out new songs, maintaining his focus on the provision of hope to all while safeguarding the recovery principles that changed his life.
“There’s a fine line between our craft and being of service, but I’ve never broken a single tradition with my music,” he said. “I’ve been in recovery for 12 plus years, and I’ve worked the 12 Steps and Traditions with my sponsor, but in my music, I don’t talk about fellowships. That was my primary focus from the jump — I just want to talk about my story and my recovery.
“If I put my mind to it, I can do anything — I just can’t give up, and I can’t lose focus or lose sight of what the mission is, which is to do my music and reach as many people as I can. I do have a story to share in my music other than just the addiction part. I have the recovery aspect of it is well, which is what I primarily focus on.”