GIs laid down beats as break from Iraq grind
August 2, 2005
RAMADI, Iraq — Soldiers of the 2nd Brigade did everything they could to get a respite from the stresses of their mission. Some immersed themselves in video games, some hit the gym, others spent hundreds on movies and books.
For two young soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry, it was continuing a burgeoning music partnership they’d formed at garrison back in South Korea. Spc. Phillip Harris and Spc. Chandra Sullivan, a combat medic and a fuel specialist, had been a rap duo billed as “So Heated,” performing in clubs and bars near U.S. bases in the 2nd Infantry Division area.
In their first months in Iraq, they were too busy to keep it going with any regularity. But as the soggy, cold winter dried out, they had an idea. Using leftover plywood, some discarded mattress pads and the military mail system, they built a recording studio on Forward Operating Base Ramadi.
Calling it a studio might be a little generous. The structure, no more than 15 feet by 15 feet, is more like a storage shed. The recording equipment — a simple boom box, a keyboard and mixers to create beats, various other gadgets — sat on a wooden shelf. In a cramped space padded by the mattresses, they hung a microphone.
And then they let loose.
“We rap about everything. From love to chaos,” said Sullivan, a 19-year-old from Spartanburg, S.C.
They’d spend as many off-hours as they could in the box, laying down tracks about their time in Iraq or anything else that flowed. Soon, their little creation became a haven for hundreds of other soldiers. On any given night, two dozen troops would come by to unwind, shoot the bull or put some of their own thoughts into verse.
“If we could do anything to provide a little relief, that’s what we wanted to share,” said Harris, a 23-year-old from Dinwiddie, Va. “We wanted to show some love for the soldiers. They’d hear about the studio, and they’d stop by. We had Marines, we had contractors, everybody would come by.”
The visitors would leave their own mark on the wall, inking messages of love, shout-outs to family members, or candid thoughts — many sprinkled with obscenities — about Iraq. Some of the visitors were good, and their tracks were added to the half-dozen mix tapes that fill out the catalog of So Heated Records. Some, well, weren’t so good.
“One guy set the record. He had to do 24 takes to get it down, and he came out of that booth covered in sweat,” laughs Harris. “We put his name and a ‘24’ up on the wall.”
As word of their music spread, and with a little help from Sgt. James Coombs, a 30-year-old boxer and self-styled promoter from Baltimore, the soldiers organized a show for the entire camp. Because Ramadi was off the beaten track and too dangerous, the soldiers there saw few, if any, of the entertainers who sometimes visited camps in Iraq.
So they did it themselves. The group approached the brigade command, who bought into the idea of putting some of its soldiers’ talents on display. Over two shows at the base recreation center, they put together rappers, gospel singers, R&B crooners — all drawn from the various units on the camp. Some 400 soldiers found their way to each of the shows.
One of their songs, “Ode to 2ID,” begins with quick eulogies of dead buddies, then transitions to a near lament of South Korea, a place few soldiers thought they’d be sad to leave behind, until they got to Iraq.
“They were sons, uncles, brothers and dads,Now I’m starting to think Korea wasn’t all that bad.There’s no adjumas, selling throwback for 20 dollars,It’s insurgents with RPGs throwing back gunpowder.”
Sullivan eerily channels the laid-back drawl and smooth delivery of rapper Snoop Dogg. Harris flips styles, running raps reminiscent of everyone from Kanye West to LL Cool J.
The best compliment they received, they said, was from soldiers who would come up and tell them they’d nearly forgotten they were in Iraq.
“It’s worth it if we can bring people together and make them forget they’re in a combat zone for an hour,” said Sullivan.
Harris and Sullivan already have shows lined up when they get back to the States. They’ll play at “Strike Week,” a Fort Carson, Colo., event to welcome the brigade in September. And they’re booked for the Colorado Summer Jam in Colorado Springs and the South Philly Block Party.
The irony of being real soldiers, when so much of hip-hop culture is enamored of shout-outs to figurative soldiers and gunplay, is not lost on Harris and Sullivan. Their album of songs from Iraq is titled “War Stories,” and the cover features a photo of the pair in full battle rattle.
In the end, they hope to break through in the music scene. But if not, they’ll have no regrets.
“It was worth every bit of sweat,” said Harris. “It helped us through the tour, and hopefully we helped out some of the other soldiers to get through, too.”
Third in a four-part series on the 2nd Brigade’s year in Iraq.
A year on the edge: 2nd BCT bound for Colorado after grueling tour in RamadiMemorial in Ramadi stands testament to high price paid by 2nd BCT in IraqJoe Giordono / S&SSpc. Chandra Sullivan, left, and Spc. Phillip Harris spent their off-hours at FOB Ramadi in a makeshift recording studio laying down beats and rapping about their experiences in Iraq.
Joe Giordono / S&SThe makeshift rap studio at FOB Ramadi quickly became an open hangout for hundreds of soldiers to vent, relax or simply try and take a mental break from the rigors of their year-long tour of duty. From left to right, Spc. Chandra Sullivan, Spc. Phillip Harris and Sgt. James Coombs.
Joe Giordono / S&SSoldiers who passed through FOB Ramadi left messages on the wooden walls of the studio.