If you’d seen Mach-Hommy’s car once, you’d recognize it again. A little over a year ago, I wrote what I believe to be the first in-person magazine profile of the Haitian-American rapper, who covers his face in public and has never acknowledged any government name. Beginning with the reporting of that story, and resuming when he reached back out to me several months ago, I got used to spotting the distinctive vehicle — a luxury sedan in an icy metallic color — in unusual locations: parked alone on a deserted block in Leimert Park, tucked into the foliage outside a Malibu estate, idling in front of a hotel in Beverly Hills. Despite cutting an imposing silhouette, Mach is not clockable by the average person; the slightly uncanny ride is the only sign that all might not be so ordinary.
While he’s an expansive speaker whose stories are dotted with allusions to both ‘90s rap songs and critical theory, Mach and I have agreed to keep the vast majority of our conversations off the record. Despite the acclaim he’s received for albums like 2016’s HBO (Haitian Body Odor) and 2021’s Pray For Haiti, and despite the ubiquity of his influence over rappers who have followed his unconventional commercial model or borrowed his stop-start flows and handmade production aesthetics, he places a high value on privacy. This serves to funnel focus back onto the work itself and to afford Mach a more uninterrupted personal life. So, in advance of his new album with Tha God Fahim, a sequel to 2018’s Notorious Dump Legends, he and I got to work on a story structure that would fill in some of the gaps in his life story — with guardrails.
What follows — what will be published in three parts, over the next three days — is a series of recollections that Mach has written about songs recorded at pivotal moments in his life and career. Though our in-person conversations continued, Mach sent these vignettes to me via email, which is also how our interviews about them were conducted. In his prose you’ll find the same pointed humor, hyperfocus on detail, and authoritative voice that defines his raps. His self-insertion of “[laughs]” notations is a sly acknowledgment of the medium. Any added emphasis, fittingly, is his.
Only one of the three songs Mach chose to write about has ever been officially released. The first will surely never surface: a freestyle the adolescent Mach recorded, with two older boys, over one of the most iconic beats in the genre’s history.
Still to this day, I’m not even sure how I got over the first hump as an MC, but I want to tell you a story about the first time I ever recorded a verse. First time I ever recorded anything was on the “Verbal Intercourse” instrumental.
My man looped that shit in his basement and put it on a blank cassette. That was on a Tuesday. By the following Sunday, I was recording my verse on some ninja smokescreen-type movements. It was me and two other guys on the song.
I was only 13 years old. My man, the next-door neighbor, was in high school, and his homeboy from across the street was home from college. My Mom thought they was weirdos. She couldn’t understand why they would want me on a song and kept constantly telling me to watch out for older boys that like to take advantage of younger ones. She could never imagine that I was the main one causing all the commotion whenever I was let out the house — not the other way around. I was the baby everywhere, every time. It put me in a space where I was able to operate more competitively with other boys. I was the designated unicorn, and so much so that I was literally taking girls from niggas twice my age — basically grown men, and not no Chanel Number 5s neither — dime pieces.
It's Wednesday and I’m on my front porch with my next-door neighbor and his homeboy from across the street. His homeboy freestyling to some beats that my man had looped up in his basement the night before. That’s when my mom’s younger brother pulls up, parks his Honda Accord 6 speed, and hops out Polo down. My neighbor’s homeboy from across the street, a hopeless extrovert, didn’t even think to stop, and, perhaps, wait for an older head to pass through. Nah, he just kept right on freestyling.
My uncle didn’t even interrupt us, he stood there, and listened for three or four minutes straight, bopping his head real calm, just like a nigga from Port-au-Prince, though. He gave buddy mad rope and let him finish rapping; smiled, and then stuck out his hand. Then he looked him dead in his eyes, dapped him up and said, “Mach has better lyrics than that. That was ok, but your lyrics have no substance. Mach, why don’t you show this guy how it’s really done?” Ohhhhhhhhhhhh! It was crazy. He says that and then he goes inside the house.
Now I got these two older niggas on my case, like on me, on me. “Oh, you holdin’ out little nigga?! Let me find out! This little nigga right here! YOU!?! You gon’ have to show me! You definitely got a smart-ass mouth though! You probably got some ol’ scientific ass bars! You gon’ quote your degrees?!?!!” My one homeboy from down the hill started looking at me like I stole something out the collection plate. Niggas was pious that day.
Meanwhile, I’m mortified because nobody ever knew that I wrote. That was my secret. I never advertised, not even a single hint was given. I’ve always been very private about things like that: works in progress. No one even knew what I could do with my pen, except for my closest family and a few teachers. A few friends from school knew about what happened with the English lit teacher one time when I was about eleven though:
Constantly interrupting her lesson plan, always getting sent to the Vice Principal’s office, forever on the brink of suspension/expulsion, I was like the worst student she ever had — on paper; yet, she still had the time to put my well-being ahead of her own, the way a teacher is supposed to. My English lit teacher ended up getting two of my works published in some quarterly periodical. I’m still reeling from the initial shock of the moment when she presented me with a published copy of some serious-looking hardcover book wherein two of my homework assignments (a short story and a poem) were contained. She wanted to show me that my mind was worth something.
Anyway, we ended up recording the song that following Sunday in the neighbor-across-the-street’s attic while he and his parents went to church. The “key” to the whole operation was that we had to do it while they were gone, in and out, quickly, before they returned from service full of joyful noise and church chicken (all flats!).
It wasn’t no Ferris Bueller’s Day Off-type shit. He had to go to church no matter what. There was no two ways about it. It’s almost like his parents would rather have had him end up on a milk carton than have him miss Sunday service. Perish the thought.
It was crazy going up the stairs in his empty home, but he did engineer the whole scheme and facilitate our entry by leaving the side door unlocked for us. Once we got up into the attic, there were speakers everywhere. His stepfather was a DJ for Christ. There were microphones, bibles, mix boards, RCA jacks, crosses, speaker wire, you name it. The recording equipment itself was straight no chase. The little blue Tascam 4 track mixer with the tape cassette well. The mic was a little, beat-up Shure live mic with the cord, nothing fancy.
So, we finally set up and record. I get one take and nail it! Before we can even get a playback, my boy realizes that he either forgot to arm the vocal track or had the inputs crossed. My man turned into the studio police. After we argued childishly for 15 minutes, about how he was stifling my creativity, we decided to run the verse back. I ended up having to spit that shit for what seemed like 20 or 30 extra takes. Shit devolved into a nauseating mix of pure adrenaline, clownish ego, and repetitive frustration. By the time we got the verse done, I was so pissed off that I laid the verse on some angry shit. (That performance would end up locking me into this “aggy” phase which stayed with me all the way to Goon Grizzle).
We saved the verse on a blank white cassette tape, like the type of nondescript tape that they would record a church service on and keep in the church records for POSTERITY. Mission was accomplished in the end though, except for one little hitch. The family ended up coming back early that Sunday, which was uncanny. They were the type that usually spent half the day in church on the regular, but for some reason, the stepfather wanted to get back home immediately after service this time. We barely got out with our lives!
The FADER: First of all, I want to situate things: This is in Newark, correct?
Mach-Hommy: Yes, it’s Newark. Vailsburg Section. West District.
What do you remember about your physical life at the time: Your home, the building, the blocks around you?
It was me, my mom, my sister, and my father in this attic that was converted into an apartment. We kept that little, tiny space pretty clean. It was a third-floor unit with one bedroom, a common area, a kitchen, and a bathroom. I slept in the common area. The entire house itself was a single family, but my cousins never made me feel weird about anything, so you gotta know that I was downstairs a good amount. Looking back on those days, I guess that was the literal textbook definition of “cramped apartment.” I had the shield of my cousins living in the house below; so, it looked a lot like that was my house, from the outside looking in. There was a big university five minutes up the road. We used to go run indoor fives there whenever it rained, especially during summer break. There was this big Roman Catholic cathedral a few blocks down the street where we used to go to church on Sunday. Everything was in walking distance. There was a Haitian restaurant, a Haitian bakery; Wyclef’s father literally had a church around the corner from my house. Nothing too crazy. You could fuck around and see Rah Digga, Pras, Tame One, all the usual suspects: Redman, Slang Ton, Treach, etc.
“I became informed because of the way that I listen and the way that I see, but not because I was intentionally molded that way.”
Those early raps you wrote and showed very few people: Who were you writing like?
I found my voice listening to Mobb Deep. Prodigy was my favorite. You have to understand, the public school system tried to put me in ESL classes because of my accent. For some reason, P really helped me embrace myself and find my voice. He was the first one… those Havoc landscapes… just, wow!
And were you writing to beats, a capella, full verses at a time, a couplet here and there?
In the beginning, I didn’t have the courage to write to a beat. That would have been sacrilegious. I was more sneaking around writing little lines here and there which quickly progressed into whole verses. Never a beat, I tarried without a sound.
You mention your English lit teacher publishing some of your written work. You’ve also told me in the past that your family placed a high value on education. What was the intellectual culture in your home? Would you and your family discuss books, films, the news?
Not really. If you understand anything about colonial systems of governance and the type of mindsets they can foster on average, you’ll notice that very little choice is given in the matter. Education was compulsory. For instance, I was never praised for making straight A’s. Positive feedback was kept at arm’s length. My job was to be smart. If I’m smart and I do well in school, then I will be allowed to live rent-free and eat free food. Books were discussed but not directly. Films were discussed but not directly. I became informed because of the way that I listen and the way that I see, but not because I was intentionally molded that way.
I took advantage of a lot of grown-ups back then. You know the whole seen-and-not-heard routine? I would either feign ignorance or pretend to be shy. Then they would open up and say all kinds of inappropriate shit in my presence, just as if I wasn’t even there. Men and women were both the same in that respect. I knew everything. By the time I was 7, I had heard it all. I knew what women thought about men and vice versa. I exploited those conditions like no one’s business.
What writers were formative influences on you?
I was a big fan of the KJV Holy Bible, The Holy Koran, The Torah, Thomas Aquinas, Lorraine Hansberry, Malcolm X, CLR James, Felix Morriseau-Leroy, Chinua Achebe, Shakespeare, George Orwell, Dostoevsky, Nietszche, Dante, etc.
Homing in on “Verbal Intercourse” itself: How did that song make its way to your friend group?
Because niggas always loved Wu-Tang and they loved Nas too. It was a no-brainer. Track number 4, side 2. Everybody knew that.
Was it simply that the purple tape was so beloved? Was it buzz around Nas? Or — having gone back and listened to as many mix shows as I can from that era — was it more about the fact that it had become a popular instrumental to freestyle to?
Some people prefer home cooking. Others prefer restaurant. That record was Ital with a dash of salt — healthy and tasty. Far as why we picked the beat, it was the only beat we had at our disposal. That and Janet Jackson, “Got ‘til it’s Gone.” You tell me. [laughs]
On that note: Do you think Nas or Ghost is better on it?
That’s just like saying: Do you think water or lemons is the best part of a lemonade? What about sugar’s performance? Which is the better of the three? What about ice?
I don’t choose to see certain stuff that way, and this is what you might consider certain stuff.
“It was like molten lava was coming out of my throat whenever I recorded. I’d be hoarse for several days after one four-hour studio session.”
Church looms large in this story, both as a literal pillar of the community and in the piousness you note on the face of your friend. Did the church — any church — play a role in your life at that point? Related to this: In your work, you seem to value certain codes of conduct, honor, morality. What forces shaped that?
By the time I entered public school, stuff like going to church had all but come to a grinding halt. It didn’t matter, though. I was already indoctrinated. The Roman Catholic Church had it’s own rules comprised of 613 mitzvot, all nicely tucked behind the first 10 of which they marketed as their Ten Commandments. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” or is it “thy neighbor’s ox?” Hmm. So, it’s safe to say that I’ve had to do a lot of unpacking over the years. By now, I’ve distilled the bulk of my childhood experiences with religious dogma, and I have found some tremendous good among the rubble. My only problem is that there’s too much rubble for me to give all the glory away to the church. I learned a lot from being outside on the block, as well. There you’re expected to be Zarathustra… the Godless. You see? Superman! If these same kinds of expectations were placed on battle tested war dogs, let alone adolescent boys, they would be dismissed as out of touch with reality. You’re supposed to keep it real and crash out in the name of what again? The code? Let me know when you finish cracking that jawn. [chuckles]
I’m very interested by you saying that this marathon session locked you into a particular mode of rapping. Is that because you liked how the verse came out and wanted to continue evoking that feeling? Or was it unconscious, even against your will?
I say that because people really, really liked it. I would literally turn into a demon or something. I’d be perfectly fine. The beat would come on, and it was like some of the lowest vibrations known to man, like gun sulfur cologne. Vailsburg for Men!! [laughs]
It was like molten lava was coming out of my throat whenever I recorded. I’d be hoarse for several days after one four-hour studio session. What a worthless endeavor. It wasn’t entirely without purpose though. I ended up learning a lot about human nature and how most people want nothing but heaviness for others. Oppression. Pain. Bondage. Wrath. I think they call that type of shit schadenfreude, when one takes great pleasure in the misfortune of another.
It was unconscious at first being that I was an unwitting participant… essentially blind to the situation. Then after a while, I started to notice the toll it had taken on me. Reminds me of how niggas describe the downfall of Asun Unique once he adopted the persona of ODB. I had to self-correct and catch myself.
One thing you don’t include in this story is anything about the other two guys’ verses. Am I, the reader, to assume you won on all scorecards?
I became Mach-Hommy, my man next-door became a public servant, and I’m not sure what his homeboy became in life. No one else from that day on the front porch is still doing music. I can assure you of that much [laughs].