"Dream Master" covers Raheem "Mega Ran" Jarbo's unbelievable journey from its humble beginnings in Philadelphia to college and the classroom, then how a focus on video games and hip-hop encouraged a complete career shift and propelled him to all the way to stages across the world and ultimately to a Guinness World Record.
Raheem, perhaps better known to fans by his stage name, "Mega Ran," is a jack of all trades. He games, he raps about games, he rubs elbows with wrestlers, and he's worked in education. Dream Master distills that whirlwind journey into a thoughtful and powerful chronicle of where he's been, where he is, and where he still wants to go. – David L. Craddock
"I've been a fan of Ran as a musician for over a decade now and, well, now I'm a fan of him as an author. A personal look at a truly one-of-a-kind talent."– Rob T
"Raheem "Mega Ran" Jarbo's memoir "Dream Master" tells the story about how a young kid from Philadelphia interested in hip-hop, video games, and professional wrestling ended up living the dreams of what he could only imagine as a child. The book tells the story about about his meandering journeys through graduating Penn State, working some odd jobs at Toys 'R' Us and EB Games, teaching at various grade schools, releasing his first album The Call, getting big through nerd rap, going all around the world (including Japan!), and proposing to his wife at MAGFest! (I may have forgotten quite a bit, but you just *have* to read this book to get his whole life story!) After reading the book, I felt a sense of satisfaction of reading a great book I only felt after reading Tim Powers' On Stranger Tides or George Orwell's 1984.
If you like extremely interesting life stories, *get this book*!"– Sam A
"Poignant and truthful, this is a fascinating look at a young man growing up in a turbulent atmosphere but with grace and help along the way. It was fun to see his affection for nerd culture coupled with street life and old school rap."– David W
My middle school teacher, my high school teachers, my college advisor, and my mother told me that as a Black man I'd have to work harder, smarter, and be better than my White counterparts to make it in this world. I never wanted to believe it, but the past forty years have proved to me they were most certainly correct.
There's an invisible competition in the heads of most marginalized people in this country... we all feel it. It's like everyone lines up on the starting block of a big race, but our legs are tied together by rope, while the other runners have jetpacks strapped to their backs. While obviously not true in reality, it sure feels that way at times. We have to tell ourselves this while visualizing the struggle – it's the carrot that motivates us to be better than our perceived best. Everyone has obstacles that can hold them back from greatness – it's what you do when facing those obstacles that shows what you're truly made of. The true legends turn tragedy into triumph.
Pleasing God. Pleasing parents. Pleasing the world. In that holy trinity of life goals, pleasing one's self isn't afforded much room. Though I had a hard time focusing when younger, high on my list of priorities was being the best person I could for my mother, who worked her hardest to keep me on the straight and narrow, and getting a well-paying job that could help support myself and a family. But somewhere along this path, music entered my life and really managed to complicate things even further.
Halfway through my second year of college I still didn't have a clue what I wanted to do for a living. I was in the midst of changing majors for the second of three times: from pre-dentistry to journalism, then later to African-American Studies and English. After squeaking by my first semester with C's, I anticipated time at home with friends and family. My best friend Chuck, later known as JonBap, and I watched wrestling tapes, played video games, and wrote rap songs during the winter vacation.
I brought my Sega Genesis home for break. I jammed and slammed all over Chuck in NBA Live '97, and then switched gears to writing hip-hop songs. We named our rap group Double Impact, based on the ridiculous Jean-Claude Van Damme movie of the same name. One memorable night, things flowed so well with our exercises in rhyme that we
wrote three new songs. We stayed awake well past midnight listening to new music by 2Pac, Mobb Deep, and other favorite hip-hop artists.
Things were perfect.
Earlier that night, my uncle, Bobby Lee Durham, stopped by our house and asked if I wanted to ride with him down South. Now, down South for us was Rock Hill, South Carolina, where all my family was born and raised. Uncle Bobby was my favorite uncle,
and he had a signature style all his own, defined by his hearty laugh, million-dollar smile, the Jheri curl he rocked as long as I could remember, and the smelly cigars he puffed on that billowed smoke like an overworked steam engine. Uncle Bobby lived out in the sticks, and didn't come by often, so I cherished every moment we had together.
Every year during the holidays, we took a trip to Rock Hill and spent time with the family; that year was no different. Uncle Bobby loved Cadillac's, and that year's trip to South Carolina was the perfect time to road test his brand new, shiny 1996 Seville. I would never have imagined passing up an opportunity to ride with my favorite uncle in a brand
new car to a much warmer South Carolina.
Yet, to my surprise, I heard myself say, "No thanks, Unc'. I'm gonna stay here." My reply stunned Mom and Uncle Bobby, who asked again if I wanted to go. "Naw, I'm good," I said. "Thanks, though."
The inspiration was flowing. I told myself that I'd see him when he got back. Uncle Bobby exhaled a cloud of cigar smoke (in the house, which Mom hated), shrugged, and said, "All right, see ya later. Be good."
Chuck and I resumed our hip-hop sessions while Uncle Bobby, my Aunt Liz, and my cousin Adrienne hopped in the Caddy and rode off to Rock Hill for Christmas fun, time with family, and food. Uncle Bobby had worked as a trucker for Consolidated Freightways for over twenty years, so he'd meandered up and down every road of the United States more times than he could count. We used to joke that he could make that trip with his eyes closed, so I felt he didn't need an extra driver – a convincing argument for staying home in what was one of my most productive vacations ever. Chuck and I were in the zone, writing Double Impact rap songs until the wee hours of the morning.
Around 3 a.m. the next morning, a panicked banging on my door woke me, and I knew something was wrong. The culprit was my older cousin Vince, who as far as I could recall, had never come to our home before. Vince wasn't Uncle Bobby's son, but he lived closest to the city so we were the first family members he could reach. Mom was at work, so I had to endure hearing the worst news imaginable for a nineteen-year-old while alone.
"Hey, Ra.... Um…. Uncle Bobby got shot.... He's gone... he's gone, cuz." Vince proceeded to weave the dark tale while I listened in rapt disbelief. On his way back to Philly, Uncle Bobby had stopped at an unassuming rest stop in Dale City, Virginia around midnight. Uncle Bobby made his way to the men's room alone. Then, three gunshots shattered the still night air. Aunt Liz and Adrienne saw two males running to their cars. They traced the men's path back to a disgusting bathroom stall to find my favorite uncle bleeding to death, robbed of one hundred and fifty dollars. He had defensive gunshot wounds to his head, chest, and hands. My aunt and cousin witnessed his last breath and then drove his Cadillac back to Philly, weeping into the night's wind. Uncle Bobby was gone.
The three gunmen, Andre V. Carter, Michael T. Baggett, and Khalif Rodriguez, were kids my age. To this day, I can't understand the reason they gave for the murder of my uncle. They weren't broke, and they weren't desperate – they were from typical, middle-class families. Their ages weren't the only things we had in common. The three boys were also aspiring rap artists. However, whereas Chuck and I just listened to the gritty street opera of Mobb Deep or 2Pac lyrics, those kids dreamed of living them.
Andre, Michael, and Khalif were convinced that the only way to make it in the rap game was to appear "real". They thought the only way to get a reputation was to do real
things. They believed if you rapped about drugs, guns, and women, then you had to live that life. In their eyes, the worst thing you could ever be called was fake. While other f words are usually fair game in hip-hop, this f-word is what every rap artist desperately strives to avoid.
The boys thought that to appear real they had "to catch a body" as their seven-page testimony read. It didn't matter who, it didn't matter when, and it didn't matter why. They had to shoot someone in cold blood and live to write a rap about it. That's what hip-hop was to them – Real and Cold. So, when Andre, Michael, and Khalif trailed Uncle Bobby down I-95, it wasn't personal in their eyes. It was just business. Uncle Bobby's murder was another sad case of someone being in the "wrong place at the wrong time."
Vince accepted the unenviable task of driving all over Philadelphia at 3 a.m. to break the news of Uncle Bobby's tragic death to each family member. He left ten minutes after his staccato hammering at the door. I was home alone, attempting to process the worst thing I'd encountered in my young life.
As a nineteen-year-old college student whose mind was usually only on my next meal or next party, I went through every emotion imaginable. I felt hurt, sadness, and then overwhelming guilt. The first two passed, but the monstrous guilt I felt for not accompanying Uncle Bobby that night never left. It still hasn't.
I should have been there, I thought. That truth ricocheted in my head as I tossed and turned in bed, crying through the night. I replayed a fictional series of events in my head. In each, I walked to the men's stalls with my uncle that fateful night, and they always played out three different ways.
*FLASH* The gunmen saw Uncle Bobby and me enter the restroom, but moved on.
*FLASH* The gunmen enter the restroom, and we take them down, Rush Hour style.
*FLASH* The gunmen shoot Uncle Bobby then turn and shoot me. We both die. Because I regretted joining him on the trip, of all these scenes, the one with my death is the one I revisit most.
Michael and Khalif both conspired against and told on Andre under oath, who they claimed was so proud of his actions that he'd put that night's events in a rap song. The deadpan lyrics offered in eulogy to my uncle by his killer read:
Three to your head,
Bang bang bang, he's dead.
On top of being a heartless, cold-blooded killer, Andre really needed to step up his rap game.
As angry, hurt, and sad as I was, I realized those kids had only performed what they thought was expected of them, based on the lives they saw depicted on camera, heard on cassette, or experienced in life. I started thinking that as pretentious and corny as it sounded, artists, especially established ones, have a huge responsibility when they get behind that microphone and must understand the true power of words. As rappers, we speak to an audience who may not be getting "proper home training," as Mom succinctly puts it. The Bible even states, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue."
But music is only half the story. Tupac Shakur may have been known as a thug or a rapper, but before that, he was a poet. He attended the best performing arts school in Baltimore and achieved high marks. The late Albert Johnson, known as "Prodigy" of the rap group Mobb Deep, is the great-great-grandson of the founder of Morehouse College, one of the oldest Historically Black Colleges in US history. Neither of these gentlemen have mentioned those facts in their bodies of work.
KRS One said, "All I really have is hip-hop, and a Glock / The results are obvious if I'm confined to my block." That sounded like Andre, Michael, and Khalif to a tee. I didn't know them at all, but I could guess what their home life looked like. I could picture their surroundings. And they didn't look very different from mine. What was the difference? What sent me off to college and them to jail?
Jack Nicholson's character in The Departed said, "I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me." That line stuck with me big time. Just because I grew up among violence, drugs, and drama didn't mean that had to be my life. I recognized that I had the power to write a different story.
In The Souls of Black Folk DuBois cites the example of the Black artisan as, conflicted between producing goods and art that reflect the unique perspective and life experience, and goods that are marketable and acceptable to a broader population they are engaged in a battle of double aims. Music is a product. By working to create what is the best expression of himself, he will be deemed unsuccessful, and by creating what makes him successful he fails to express himself and, in some ways, may appear to be rejecting his true self. Musicians want to give you the real, but Black people are often afraid of revealing their entire self to the audience for fear of judgment. Therefore, we repress. We cover up. We close off sections of our life or personality that may be considered "too Black." We let people touch our hair. We change our tone and accent. We shrug off racist remarks. We smile when we don't feel like smiling."
I wish I could blame Uncle Bobby's murder for my lack of focus in college and the tough time I had in academia, but the truth is that I was already on a rocky path before I got the news. Freedom had turned this once phenomenal student into a lazy bum. Shaken, I had to somehow return to campus a week later and continue my journey.
Uncle Bobby's death motivated me to take everything more seriously, from school to music, and I entered the next semester recharged and refocused. I didn't pull a 4.0 GPA, and I didn't attain instant stardom, but I'd say the next twelve years were extremely transformative.
Welcome to the world of Raheem Jameel Jarbo, also known as Random, and later known as Mega Ran. Dream Master. Hey Hey, Alright.