New York rap duo 4 Wheel City turn shooting tragedies into a positive mission
Both shot as young men, Namel Norris and Ricardo Velasquez now rap from their wheelchairs – they’ve played at the White House and yearn for mainstream fame
Wednesday 17 August 2016 05.00 EDT
Staged at the United Nations headquarters in New York and performed by disabled musicians, the Beautiful Concert – in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities – aimed for an air of sedate harmony.
Following one violinist’s meditation from the French opera Thaïs and a pianist’s performance of Beethoven’s Mondschien, up rolled Namel “Tapwaterz” Norris and Ricardo “Rickfire” Velasquez. They grabbed mics, waited for the bass to echo through the sonorous arena and from their wheelchairs started rapping Welcome to Reality.
“You think you’re rough, you think you tough, you think you’re bad as me … keep it up and you’ll be sitting down like me,” exhorted the duo, known as 4 Wheel City. “Mr can’t think, read or write, Mr one to carry guns ’cause you can’t fight ... You living life the wrong way … I ain’t trying to play, trying to open up your eyes before you end up in jail or paralyzed.”
Even at the UN, 4 Wheel City pulled no punches. “We have two sides to what we do, and we try to do them both with the same mission, the same purpose,” says Norris, when I catch up with him at the 4 Wheel City booth during a recent New York street fair to mark the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. “We do music to inspire people and we do music to plant seeds. Youth need checkpoints and references when they’re in trouble. If a kid says: ‘I’m not going to touch my gun today, because those guys told our class their story and their story’s crazy,’ then we’ve done our job.”
During a long-looming crisis over gun violence in America, in which 7,845 people have been killed and 16,372 people injured in the first six months of 2016, 4 Wheel City are a vital voice. Prior to their mid-June UN appearance, the group performed their song Mainstream – whose lyrics draw the link between disability and poverty – at the White House, released a 10-year anniversary album, shot a gun violence prevention video and finished a spring tour of disability expos and arts festivals.
Their message seems particularly timely when gun control and the shooting of unarmed black men by the police are matters of national urgency. “We feel like we beat everyone to the punch years ago,” Velasquez says. “We had a meeting with the police a few weeks ago, before any of the recent violence started. We don’t have to be reactionary – they’re catching up to us.”
At 17, Norris, an avid basketball player and aspiring rapper, was accidentally shot by his cousin and paralyzed. His mother approached Velasquez, by then a paraplegic of three years after being struck in the street by a stray bullet, outside their Bronx housing complex and asked him to befriend her son. Norris says he “was looking for that light at the end of the tunnel after everything had been taken away.
“I had already seen that guy in a wheelchair who looked like me, and I figured we would have to have that conversation, but I didn’t want to confront the real world.” A few weeks later – prompted by his mother – Norris turned up at Velasquez’s door as he was “throwing some beats” on a drum machine. Instead of discussing their disabilities or their traumas, the two men started a conversation about the hip-hop business.
Within a few months they launched 4 Wheel records, with Velasquez producing Norris as a solo artist. Following two albums, in 2006 Norris finished his degree at Lehman College and the pair started the non-profit 4 Wheel City. Their mission: “guns down, four’s up”, illustrated by four fingers which stand for a pledge to “inspire, educate, advocate, and entertain”.
“Where we come from, people don’t talk things out – they shoot it out, they fight it out, and they end up in wheelchairs or dead,” Norris said. “The problem is the mentality of young people in the community that I come from wanting to be tough. Back in the day it used to be bats or knives, but guns are so easily available. And if you have a gun it’s like you’re cool and you’re bad.”
Velasquez feels a bit differently. “I hate guns,” he says. “We have to get rid of all of them. But what are people using them for? They want to shoot somebody and they miss their target. That’s what happened to me. I’m sitting here, and I had nothing to do with guns.”
Besides touring and making records, 4 Wheel City runs two core programs: Welcome 2 Reality, a school series in which Norris and Velasquez deliver motivational talks and rap montages to encourage teenagers to stay in school and away from guns; and Rap Therapy, which are inspirational and instructional hip-hop concerts at rehabilitation hospitals.
“I was immediately drawn to their talent and positive mission to use hip hop to spread awareness about gun violence and its relationship to disability – their unique perspective and musical talent was something I had never seen before,” said Victor Calise, the commissioner of New York City mayor Bill De Blasio’s office for people with disabilities, who met the men at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital, where they had both received treatment. “Especially for people with disabilities, the members of 4-Wheel City show that when you work hard enough at your dreams, you can accomplish anything – no matter the restrictions and expectations society may impose on you.”
The men, assisted solely by Norris’ cousin and sponsored by the New York City chapter of United Spinal Association, have nonetheless largely created their own success from rhyme to recording. “No one was coming to give us a record deal, so we decided to go out and do our own thing – be our own bosses,” said Velasquez, the more muted point-man to Norris.
Despite their challenges, the men are starting to reach their intended audience. Early successes included appearances at VH1’s Hip Hop Honors Awards in 2006, nominations for an Underground Music award, a 50 Unsung Heroes designation from the New York Daily News and the opportunity to work with Snoop Dogg on a remix of Welcome to Reality. Still, as Velasquez points out, “we’re the only act that has accomplished so much and not received a call from a record producer”.
He adds: “I think most people look at us and don’t believe two guys in wheelchairs can do what we do. You might see some musicians with disabilities, but it’s not usually a black person. That’s what I thought before I was in a wheelchair. But how can someone have a vision of something they’ve never experienced before? So we just keep going and proving them wrong.”
As the sun bears down on Mott Street and a Chinese singer wraps up the afternoon with a traditional prosperity song, Velasquez and Norris gather their CDs and T-shirts and make their way up to the Access-A-Ride pickup point four blocks north. As Norris carries the plastic boxes in his lap and films the surroundings with a DSLR camera, Velasquez hitches a ride by grabbing the back handle of his partner’s electric wheelchair. Along the way, the men stop, listen to their surroundings for inspiration and banter.
“I used to think that you do something and it will propel you to where you want to be in life – I hit those checkpoints and I’ll win that Grammy,” Norris said.
“Now we just work and don’t look back,” Velasquez adds. “Instead of being, we just want to be doing.”