On a Saturday afternoon in June, local rapper Perry Wilkins Jr. stares out across several houses. Dressed in a flannel shirt with rolled-up jeans and boat shoes, he's hanging out on a large wooden balcony at "The Flight Deck," the home of a friend, on a steep hill in Encanto, in San Diego's sprawling 4th City Council district. As the aroma of grilled chicken wafts from the kitchen, an elderly neighbor puts on some jazz records.
For many San Diegans, District 4 is better known as "Southeast San Diego." In the early 1990s, though, then-City Councilmember George Stevens successfully campaigned to have the reference banned from official use, citing its association with gangs, drugs and violence. In 1992, he buried a coffin of criminal paraphernalia to symbolize the term's death.
Wilkins—who goes by the name Piff California Herrera, though many just call him PCH—still lives in the area. At The Flight Deck, he talks about how Ronald Reagan's economic policies, the proliferation of drugs and increased gang activity have shifted lower-income communities away from being "family-driven" to being "death-driven." Indeed, this is still the Southeast. There's still work to be done, and Wilkins sees himself as a part of positive change.
"My purpose is to be a voice for the fatherless," he says, "to be a voice for those in poverty, spiritually and monetarily."
A seasoned artist who'd become jaded with the Christian hip-hop market, Wilkins is ready for his voice to reemerge. In 2009, he released his first album in eight years, the fiery Vintage Verses: The Paradigm Shift. He also has other projects in mind, and at the end of July, he'll drop Taco Shop Philosophy, an album with veteran rapper-producer Mr. Brady on the beats.
"The beats that he gave me just really sounded like the 4th District. All I heard was Southeast," Wilkins explains. He says the album reflects "the mind-frame of people going [to the taco shop], the energy of the city."
Though he no longer identifies with Christian hip-hop, Wilkins' music still contains elements of truth-seeking. But he weaves insights into his rhymes organically, partly to avoid sounding preachy but also to flex his lyrical muscle. Indeed, as a rapper, he's a technical monster. He obsesses over rhyme patterns, creating labyrinthine verses. At times, his "goal was to not rhyme but rhyme"—to avoid traditional rhyme schemes, burying rhymes internally and leaving line endings unrhymed. His lyricism recalls the technical experiments of jazz icons like John Coltrane, whom he cites as an influence.
He demonstrates his unorthodox patterns and insights in "No Reign," a track off Taco Shop Philosophy: "Pen raised with the sun rays, mane of the lion cut / Iron cage, pacing where the fires blaze / Pride swallowed like / Jazmine Cashmere was here, have a blast busting that nasty / Product that slapped on NAFTA-approved.'"
Wilkins, 34, slim with unflinching eyes, grew up with his mother in Valencia Park. He pursued creative writing and rapping thanks to his mom—who was active in the arts community—and local rap pioneer Big June, whom Wilkins would hear freestyling while walking to school.
But growing up, Wilkins was haunted by night terrors and "visions," which only worsened in his crime-addled surroundings. He remembers seeing friends die before reaching high school.
"I felt like I literally was gonna die by the time I was 21," he says. "I told my mom, Mom, I want twins when I'm 14, so at least I could see them to be 7 years old.'" His move toward the church began one night in 1998, when he joined a friend for Bible study in Lincoln Park. He was spiritually skeptical, and he just hoped to meet girls, but his disbelief waned as he witnessed others around him, including active gang members, fall into trance-like states: "crawling like dogs, vomiting, convulsing, some people speaking in tongues."
"All this shit is happening to these people and I know these people aren't church people," he recalls thinking. "Am I evil? Why isn't anything happening to me?"
When he finally prayed for help, he says, he involuntarily screeched for two minutes—which he identified as "demons being driven out of me." Later, at a religious conference, the concept of spiritual warfare helped shape his opinion that a secret group of powerful people had planned the decimation of low-income communities like his.
Wilkins dove into spirituality, enrolling in the now-defunct Immanuel Bible College and releasing two Christian hip-hop albums. But he soon abandoned the niche.
"You gotta deal with so many politics," he says. "If you don't say Jesus' 300 times in one song it's like the Self- Righteous Police [will say], Prove to us that you believe in God and we'll let you into Heaven.'"
A financial dispute with his label, Syntax Records, didn't help matters.
Back at The Flight Deck, though, Wilkins sounds revitalized. He says he no longer believes he'll die physically— though you can't tell if he's joking.
His rap peers' hustle has inspired him to pursue music again. And he talks about plans for fashion, film scripts and books. Ultimately, he wants to help reform the Southeast.
"I have a vision that community is coming back," Wilkins says. "We're the people that's supposed to be here to affect change."
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