Thanks to recovery, REM ONE grinds on that hip-hop hustle

REM ONE

Want proof that recovery provides for miracles? Look no further than Frank Morgan, the hip-hop artist known as REM ONE.

The Ties That Bind UsBy all accounts, Morgan should be somewhere in a Baltimore graveyard, dead from an overdose or the violence that often accompanies addiction. Or, worse, he could still be shuffling in and out of jails and institutions, reduced a little more with every trip through those revolving doors, until his spirit was a dying coal in a fire that had long since burned out.

Instead, he now owns his own business. He’s married to his long-time soulmate, Danyell. He’s part of a collective of recovering rappers who will be heading out on tour after the current coronavirus pandemic passes on their own tour bus. He’s working on new music, standing up beside his recovering brothers and working on giving back to the society from which he took for so long.

Recovery, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently, has given him the strength the break the cycle, so that he can do something more with his life than pad a sheet of statistics. And in so doing, he stops it from perpetuating in the children he and Danyell are bringing up in the world.

“I have probably 11 aunts and uncles on my mom’s side, and I think six on my father’s side, and alcoholism and drug addiction was very prevalent in our family,” Morgan said. “Most of my uncles have lived and died in the same 20-block radius in Baltimore their whole lives. They went to work and sat in a bar, and that’s all they did. Everybody was in the neighborhood was what you would call a functioning alcoholic, and drugs were around all the time.

“When you come up with that, you don’t know that there’s another way of life. You kind of think it’s normal.”

Which makes his own ascendance — in music, in recovery, in life overall — all the more miraculous.

REM ONE: Origin story

REM ONEThere was one uncle in particular who plays an important part in Morgan’s story. His elder by seven years, he lived across the street, and when Morgan’s mother had to work, he and his friends would keep an eye on her boy. Morgan’s father and mother divorced when he was 5, and his dad remarried and settled into the Baltimore suburbs, while back in the city, his son found himself drawn to the music his uncle and his uncle’s friends played.

“They were into early ’80s heavy metal, the Beastie Boys, long hair, partying and drinking,” Morgan said. “They got a kick out of giving me a beer at that age and seeing me catch a buzz and headbang to the music. I think a lot of my traits growing up stemmed from that — making them laugh and feel good and always wanting to be the person making people laugh.”

Back home on his Mickey Mouse record player, he discovered sounds by Def Leppard, Michael Jackson and Metallica, and when a buddy of his uncle picked up the new Anthrax record, young Frank filched it from the cassette case.

“When he left, I showed my uncle, and I saw how excited he was,” Morgan said. “Now, a normal person would have taken it, yelled at me and made me give it back — but he rewarded me by letting me go pick whatever album out of his collection that I wanted. So stealing what I wanted, I believe, came from that, too.”

However rough-around-the-edges the family was, though, it was the center of Morgan’s existence. Most of his relatives lived in the same line of row houses in Baltimore, and there were so many of them that holiday dinners had to be pulled off in shifts, because there wasn’t a table among them that could seat everyone. Young Frank was the family mascot, he remembered.

“I realized that I could crawl under the kitchen table, under this long table cloth, and hide under there,” he said. “I would hit my uncles’ legs, and they’d pass me their beers to give me a few sips. I wasn’t at the point yet where it was my everything, but I could never wait for the next family gathering.”

He was 7 years old at the time and learning by observation. Because his grandmother was a police dispatcher, her boys wound up on a dispatch bench outside of her office whenever they got in trouble. Sudden, inexplicable violence was the norm — he remembers watching one uncle beat another with a table leg — but it was wrapped in the familiarity of family, and his grandmother and mother managed to keep things from spiraling out of control.

By the time he was 14, Morgan was right there in the middle of it.

“I was sneaking out of my mother’s house — climbing out the window and hanging with my uncle on the corner,” he said. “I would come back home, and at that point I knew I was already caught and was going to be punished severely, but it didn’t even matter. It was worth the punishment to get drunk with my uncle.”

The getting ...

By that point, he added, he’d gotten thrown out of school for bringing a dart gun to class, and after sneaking out once again to get drunk, his mother, exasperated, gave him her blessing to go live with his father in the Baltimore suburbs.

“So I moved from the inner city to a really nice county, and it was a whole different world,” he said. “I was like a wild animal set free. Living with my mother, I could only go right out front of the house. She had to be able to open the door and say my name, and I’d have to come in. But my father had no idea — he wasn’t into the street life and didn’t know anything about drinking or drugs, so he didn’t see it coming.”

Under his father’s roof, he became fast friends with his stepbrother, and together, they found a nearby store that would sell them alcohol. It became a daily thing, and once he found a hookup, weed was added to the rotation. He found his lane in school and made friends who could drive, which led to parties and girls and chaos. It didn’t take much, however, for Morgan to revert to the learned behavior of his inner city childhood.

“At 16 or so is when a lot of the violence I had seen growing up started coming out in me,” he said. “I was getting into confrontations, and I was always quick to grab a weapon and hit somebody with it, not really thinking about the consequences or how bad someone could get hurt. I absolutely never gave it a second thought and never realized how serious it was.”

The invincibility of youth also led to a sea change in his attitude about drugs. Before, his red line was on the other side of booze and weed. After friends convinced him to attend a warehouse rave, however, he did his first hit of Ecstasy, and that was when everything changed.

“I had never done hard drugs and thought, ‘Those are for losers, and I’ll never be a loser,’ but once that pill kicked in, I was like, ‘This is amazing. Everybody had it all wrong,’” he said. “At the time, I had no money and no job, but I had my room set up like a party lounge, with black lights and posters and bongs, and I went home and sold it all to my neighbor for maybe $50, and I went and bought two more E pills the next day.”

Within three months, he had tried every drug he could get his hands on, but when he started snorting heroin, he reached his personal chemical nirvana. By the time he was 18, he had a habit and, thanks to his father, a car. That, he said, is when the train of unmanageability hit the straightaway and began to pick up speed.

“I was going back to the city and seeing my older uncle, and that was the first time I got arrested in 1998 for having a weapon in the car — basically a big stick — when I got pulled over,” he said. “It got thrown out, but by now, I’m driving to the city and buying dope and hanging with my uncle.”

The using ...

A few months later, Morgan and his stepbrother had to get out of town. A liquor store clerk refused to sell them alcohol, and the two returned a short time later, started a fight and ended up breaking a stock boy’s jaw in two places. Morgan had some money saved up and suggested the pair head to Ocean City, Maryland, to get on methadone, get off of heroin and escape the heat for the summer. They did and managed to kick smack, but not their propensity for trouble. Casual flirtation with a couple of girls escalated when the ladies’ boyfriends showed up, and in attempting to defuse the situation, Morgan pulled a knife.

“My upbringing always prepared me to have a weapon, and I was trying to scare them off,” he said. “I was basically saying, ‘Look, man, my brother’s drunk, and if you touch him, I’m going to cut you.’”

Words were exchanged, a brawl began and Morgan ended up cutting one of the guys. The cops nabbed his brother within the hour; Morgan turned himself in, but because he was 18 and his brother was still a juvenile, the consequences were more severe.

“That was the first time it hit me: Holy shit, this is not normal. This has consequences,” he said. “I was charged with attempting to main, and my father put the house up to get me out. The funny thing is that I told myself I was going to change, and I had already kicked the habit — but the second I knew I was getting out, I told my dad to bring an extra $40, because I owed it someone in jail. He brought it, and within the first hour of me being home, I went into the city to get high again.

“I thought I was going to prison, so it was balls to the wall — I figured I would go really hard, because what’s the point, anyway? I finally moved back to the city with my mother; got arrested again for a drug charge and did 90 days; and when I finally went to court for the stabbing, the judge gave me two five-year sentences, consecutive.”

That was in 1999, and his lawyer got everything reduced to 18 months and a year of probation. That first long stretch of time gave him plenty of time to think: Unknown to anybody, though, he began to nurture a secret dream. As a kid, he fantasized about being a musician, but it took several years before he began writing his own material. In high school, hanging with friends and smoking weed, he would freestyle occasionally, but no one realized how serious he was. In jail, writing lyrics became a coping mechanism.

“I just wrote music and wrote music and wrote music — no beats, just writing lyrics, and I would rap with other people in the jail,” he said. “They would say, ‘That’s really good,’ but I never tried to put my own lyrics over a beat.”

Toward the end of his sentence, out on work release, he renewed his relationship with Danyell — the two had first met at the rave where he tried Ecstasy for the first time — he tried to keep it between the ditches. Working in a chicken plant, he even managed to sign a lease for an apartment, but the day he walked out of jail a free man, he headed back to Baltimore, the inexorable pull of addiction reasserting its hold.

... and the finding ways and means to get more

REM ONE“Things went downhill quick,” he said. “We were back in the city, on the same street I grew up on, and I started shooting dope and selling drugs. From that point on, it was arrest after arrest after arrest — I believe I have 42 arrests total, but probably 20 of them were failures to appear.”

He only had a year of probation, but those 10 years were hanging over his head. As the heat got worse, he eventually skipped town and moved to Delaware, where Danyell was from. He stayed there for 10 years, stuck in a cycle of getting, using and finding ways and means to get more. Miraculously, he managed to avoid trouble, and after a decade he and Danyell — now parents to two children — were ready to make a change. Back in Maryland, his brother had gotten clean and started his own business and offered Morgan a helping hand.

“He said, ‘Come live with me, and in two or three weeks, you’ll have enough money to get an apartment,’” Morgan said. “He kept my money, and he helped me get an apartment, so we all moved back … but I was still wanted. I got pulled over, locked up and had to go to Ocean City to deal with (the stabbing probation violation).”

The judge didn’t even remember the case, and because 10 years had passed without Morgan catching any new charges, he was ordered to pay court costs and granted his freedom. It seemed like a cause for celebration … and so he started doing heroin again. Between 2010 and 2011, they were evicted from three different houses, and he began catching new charges — six in total, all for shoplifting. It was, he told his wife, time to go back to Delaware.

There, he kept boosting merchandise to resell for dope, and he met Joe Nester — a fellow musician in recovery who was, at the time, homeless and addicted as well.

“Up until then, I always did my best. I always kept my family together,” he said. “We had a roof, electricity and cable — even though it was stolen, or we were getting evicted, in my mind, I thought I was doing my job as a father. That’s ridiculous, I know, but up there, running with Joe, the drugs got ahold of me in a bad way. My kids and my wife were living with her grandmother, and I was living on the streets and in flop houses.”

He was eventually busted for attempting to shoplift baby formula at a drug store he’d hit two previous times. His Delaware charges were bad enough, but he cleared them up with 90 days served. It was the six charges in Maryland, to which he was extradited, that did him in. Not because he was sent away — but because he was given more probation and set loose with no idea of how to get clean or stay that way.

“The whole time I had been in jail, people were offering me drugs, and I was turning them down,” he said. “I knew I wanted to change, but I had no idea how to go about doing that. I made it maybe three days, but then I got the itch. I knew I shouldn’t do it, and I was telling myself I didn’t have to do it, but I did. I caught another charge, and I knew there was no way I was going to (get off) again, so I decided to just go hard.”

REM ONE: Getting clean on the inside

REM ONESix months and eight new charges later, he was at his bottom. Danyell and the children were living with her father, whose house was being staked out by bounty hunters. To buy himself time, Morgan had gotten on Obamacare and bounced from one 30-day rehab to another. Finally, he went to see his family, surrendering to the idea that he would again be a ward of the state.

He was sentenced to five years, no credit for the nine months he had to serve while his cases worked their way through the legal system, and was required to serve three before being eligible for parole. It was in prison, he said, that he found the rooms of recovery.

“The first time I ever went was because I wanted to,” he said. “Honestly, the best thing that had ever happened to me was the judge giving me that time. If I’d just gotten a slap on the wrist, or only done a little bit of time, I’d probably be dead by now. The best thing they could have done was send me away.”

And this time, he was entirely on his own. In the past, he had been able to con and manipulate family members into making things easier, but this time, there was nothing: no money on his commissary, no phone calls, no letters.

“That’s when reality really hit: that I put myself here, that nobody’s helping me, that the only person who can help me is me,” he said. “I realized I had two options: to get involved with the gang culture in jail and continue to get high and violent and all that, or do something different. And at first, I was a little torn and hurt and angry that no one would answer my calls.

“But then I saw this guy walking through the yard, and he looked like he was wearing armor. He was assertive, letting people know he wanted no part of their foolishness, but everybody was respecting him. It was so weird, and I wanted to know more, so I started talking to him, and that’s when he told me they had four recovery meetings in the prison every week.”

It wasn’t a thriving fellowship: Out of a 1,500 inmate population, most meetings topped out at 10 people or less. But because attendance wasn’t mandatory, the ones who went wanted recovery, and among them, Morgan found his tribe.

“Being able to share freely about my feelings, being able to break down and cry — that was sanctuary,” he said. “I could get real advice from people that I felt like didn’t want anything in return, and it changed my life. Greg, that guy I saw in the yard, I’m still in contact with him, and he actually lives within walking distance from my house. He actually proposed to his girlfriend on stage at one of my biggest shows, and he’s also the reason that I started writing positive music.”

After those prison meetings, the guys would goof around and talk recovery. One of the attendees was a drummer who used to tap out a beat on the table, and Morgan would start rapping. Greg was impressed, but he also issued a challenge.

“He said, ‘You’re good, but I want to challenge you: Write something positive about your life and how you want to live it,’” he said. “He said, ‘I’ll give you a week,’’ but I came back the next day with a 6-minute song.”

Experience, strength and hope meet hip-hop

After his release, Morgan started from scratch with nothing — physically or monetarily, anyway. He had been clean and sober since May 29, 2014, however, and back under his father’s roof, he began to put his life back together. He kept his head down, his nose clean and his family close … and in his spare time, the rhymes began to wash over him like ocean waves, and he kept writing them down.

“I would go out and find an instrumental, play it in my father’s car, and rap over and post it,” he said with a chuckle. “I maybe had 100 people on my personal Facebook page — obviously, I missed out technology — but one of the videos got, like, 5,000 views overnight. I thought, ‘Holy shit, I made it! I guess I’m going to do this again.’”

Although his beats have evolved and his rhymes have gotten more complex, the method of his delivery showed promise early on. There’s a clipped, inner city street wisdom to his delivery, and it’s easy to hear how, if he’d so chosen, a career glorifying his past would have likely been successful. With his focus on redemption and resurrection, however, his flow is visceral without being acerbic, direct without being militant, urgent without being histrionic. It’s little wonder, then, that a niche label with a stable of recovering artists reached out to him. When he got online to check them out, he discovered that, on the same day, label representatives had signed his old Delaware running buddy Joe Nester.

“I got in touch, and within a few weeks after that, I went down to his house in Florida to visit,” Morgan said. “I admit, I was a little worried, because the last time I saw him, he weighed 120 pounds, had no teeth and was on the street beside me. I worried whether I would like him clean.”

The label asked REM ONE to get on board and helped him get into the studio. At the time, he knew nothing except that he was propelled by a power greater than himself to get his rhymes out.

“I walked in and didn’t know anything!” he laughed. “I just said, ‘Here’s the beats I want,’ but I had no hooks, no song structure — and everything was 4, 5, 6 minutes long. I didn’t care; I just wanted to rap! It was crazy.”

They recorded six songs and six videos and two days, and back home in Maryland, he flirted with the idea of relocating, but by that point, he was making good money doing flooring, and Danyell was pregnant again. He opted to start his own business instead, buckling down and staying in touch with Nester, still dreaming about being on stage.

“We got our own place, and I was going to work and going to meetings and taking care of my recovery, but something was still missing: that music, that standing on stage,” he said. “I was always sitting outside, on my porch, listening to beats, writing … and that’s when I came across B-RAiN.”

REM ONE: More will be revealed

Brian "B-RAiN" McCall (from left), Frank "REM ONE" Morgan and Joe Nester.

Brian “B-RAiN” McCall lived in Maryland, came from a background of addiction, was centered in recovery and was trying to make it as a hip-hop artist as well. The two formed a fast friendship, and eventually an entire community of recovering artists began to coalesce around them: Nester, KC Makes Music, Colicchie, REM ONE and B-RAiN are part of a collective known as “We Are Cloudgang,” and together, they’ve made powerful waves.

From touring together to lifting one another up — McCall brought Morgan along when the former got an opportunity to open for rap superstar (and recovery icon) Macklemore — they’re professional colleagues, but that takes a backseat to their recovery.

“Me and B, we’re partners now,” Morgan said. “We meet each other in the parking lot and just sit down and talk. If I know he’s depressed, I’ll call and say, ‘Let’s take a ride,’ and when I’m feeling that way, he does the same thing with me. We’re both in recovery, and we make an incredible, incredible team. When this is over, we’re going to hit the ground running.”

Not that Morgan has slowed down. In 2018, he released the seven-song EP “Chapter One: Incunabula,” a lean collection that floats on soulful, languid beats that give everything he does an undeniable groove. This year, he’s released three singles, all of which are distinctively different, breaking new ground and leaning in new directions — from the hiccupping bounce of “Monologue” to the seductive purr of “Love You” to the Eminem-style machine gun spray on “Payroll.” Combined, they prove that as REM ONE, the only limits Morgan has are the ones he places on himself.

“I’m going to get back into the studio as soon as humanly possible,” he said. “I have probably seven songs ready to go, and another five I’m working on, and I’m ready to record, as soon as this is over. It’s just a lot of planning, and I’m on a FaceTime chat with these guys at least once a week.

“We can’t let this virus stop the grind or stop the movement, because it helps so many people. And selfishly, when I write the music, it’s for me. It’s my therapy. To be able to perform it and share it comes from a place of, this is what I do to stay clean and give back.”

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