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Homeless man makes music from the streets

Hip hop artist peddles records any way he can

July 4th, 2007 10:00 PM

by PHILLIP KAPLAN, Medill News Service

Sharkula eats, breathes, and lives hip hop.

And he's been doing it in Chicago since 1992, known to most people as, 'that guy who sells discs on the trains.'

Sharkula is a semi-homeless rapper, a sort of music vigilante. Despite his apparently marginal lifestyle, his music has connected with some hip hop fans and his most recent record, Diagnosis of Sharkula, is well-produced and being carried by Reckless Records, among other places.

Dylan Posa, who works at the Reckless Records downtown store, said of Diagnosis, "this is the most high quality stuff he's done. I think I first met him in 1999. His tape had a baseball card in it and I thought that was cool.. It's different stuff, not just the notion of being different."

Sharkula has places to stay, like a brother's house at 298th Street or at his mom's in Crete, but those places are never where he is when he is ready for sleep, which is usually in Wicker Park late at night after a full day of hawking his wares -he sleeps on trains.

But Sharkula can do nothing but hip-hop. "It's the only thing I know," he said. "I'm a hooker to hip-hop."

The real Sharkula

Sharkula was born Brian C. Wharton in 1973 in Homewood. He attended Smallville High School. The 33-year-old, though, looks younger while he traverses the poorly lit caverns where he frequents.

He takes drugs and drinks almost everyday.

"Dog," he said once, twisting his torso, raising his arms and breathing deep, "does your liver ever hurt?"

Sharkula makes $15,000 a year but eats up $100,000 of stuff, though that number is an estimate.

He gets all his clothing from deals - $10 pumas, free T-shirts and the like. He often gets into clubs and bars for free because he is known.

Sharkula's life is boom and bust. Once he made about $90 in 20 minutes from selling discs. But he said, "Holy she-! I got, like, a hundred bucks, that's a lot of f--ing money!"

He attended Louisiana's Southern University at 17. He said it was easy because the school "let everyone in."

Sharkula was a walk-on baseball player, but took a line drive to the face and quit. At www.sharkula.info, his Web site, it says he played "basedball."

Throughout the years he has gone to several schools: Columbia College, Prairie State and Western Illinois.

Today, he often stays with family members, who all live in separate homes. He stays in the city sometimes for weeks at a time, sleeping on trains or staying in bargain hotels for roughly $30 per night.

But 'his place' is in Crete, where his mother lives. He likes to get to Crete once per week to rest. Sharkula says he loves her very much though she sometimes chastises him, as does his brother, about what he is doing. But he needs to be in the city, "Cause that's where the money is."

Big dreams

In his room in his mother's Crete home he has "a museum of hip-hop knickknacks."

He said he probably has 90 percent of the series YO! MTV Raps on VHS. You can mention the most obscure of hip-hop Ephemera and he knows it.

He also has a few alter egos besides Sharkula. Thigamajiggee (pronounced Thig-a-muh-jig-gee) -he often goes by just Thig. Then there's Spidermania, Dirty Gilligan, Force Face, Mr. Diffy, New Now, Quasee, Le Royal, Mr. Dearticks and Sherlock Homeboy 2028.

"I'm so many things man," he said.

Brendan Kredell, a Northwestern University film student, who's documented Sharkula, said he's got a kind of split personality.

"[He's] not schizophrenia or anything, but you never know which guy you've got," Kredell said.

It couldn't be verified, but Sharkula confessed that he spent a few days at "a place" once.

"Not anything major, no rubber rooms or anything, but I went. It was cool."

Sharkula records where he can. Mostly he rhymes and records on the street, burns it at a friend's house and sells it for the highest price he can get. $10 is the goal.

Sometimes he talks to 300 people in a day. He makes friends not to be friendly - even though he is - but to live, and sells tapes and CDs out of his bulging backpack like a one-man tent city.

"Sometimes carrying this pack is hard on my back," Sharkula said, "and I always have to watch my back."

There are recordings of him rhyming over train whistles and kitchen cleanings.

"He knows when a song is dope," said Roburt Reynolds, Sharkula's friend and de facto album producer. "He won't flow over a [lame] beat, but he'll rhyme over an engine. People call him a savant, but he's more than that - he's a channel for the ever-changing."

And he has a bit of a following, and has been the subject of no fewer than three documentaries. The most recent, made by Kredell, is a 10-minute vignette included in Chicago 360 v.2, which documents the culture of Chicago.

"When we first met him, we took him out to dinner. He cried. My roommate couldn't handle it," Kredell said. "We met some guys who'd done videos of him. Sharkula seems vulnerable to exploitation. You get a lot of young white college kids who get him drunk and laugh at him. Some think he's legit. Some just exploit him."

A rocky road to success?

Some people have compared Sharkula to Wesley Willis, another wandering street musician from Chicago who died a few years back.

Reynolds and Posa said these comparisons are made by "people who don't know."

Posa elaborated.

"They see a black guy on the street making music and they think it's the same thing."

Reynolds can only sum it up to say that Sharkula "is hip-hop, as hip-hop as it gets."

Sharkula's album, Diagnosis, has received an initial good response at local record stores like Dr. Wax and Reckless Records.

Right now, it seems to be happening for Sharkula.

"[Sharkula] is a great guy," said Posa, "That's the thing that sold me on it, him. He's so undaunted and upbeat."