Will the Real Citizen Cope Please Stand Up?
Photo by Alex Elena
He was 18 years old, a recent graduate of the Washington, D.C. public school system. Following high school, he moved to Texas to be with family after the uncle with whom he shared a name passed away. The impact of that loss manifested itself in a writing binge.
“He was a very dominant figure in my life,” Cope explains. “I was looking for some answers, not only about that, but outside of that as well.” He started writing poetry and quickly found it coming out in torrents. “Shit was just comin’ off the pen.”
He got a drum machine and started organizing his writing into spoken word, which, in turn, led him to start writing songs. “I liked a lot of the hip-hop stuff going on, so I started learning how to sample, trying to understand how to put a song together.”
Taking advantage of open enrollment at Texas Tech in Lubbock, a few hours from the small town that he lived in, he found that a few teachers inspired him. “I guess when people give you positive reinforcement, you can get somewhere you didn’t expect,” he says.
But his college career would be short-lived. He dropped out after a year. “I knew there was something for me; I just knew it wasn’t where I was at,” he says. “Where I landed wasn’t where I was supposed to be.”
He spent a couple of years in Austin, working on music, buying and selling concert and sporting event tickets to make ends meet—a talent that he’d picked up as a kid. Eventually, he headed back to D.C., still scalping tickets as he put together a demo.
Michael Ivey, frontman of the D.C.-based alternative hip-hop outfit Basehead, was among those who heard it. With an album done, Ivey asked Cope to join him on the road to work the sampler and to DJ.
“I was like. ‘I don’t do that. You should find someone who does.’ And he was like, ‘No, I like you a lot. Your music’s gonna be good, so you need to learn this shit,’” Cope says. The tour took them to Europe for a couple of months. And they spent a couple more in the U.S. “I was just learning at his expense,” Cope remembers, “which was great.”
When Ivey stopped touring, everyone resumed what they were doing before. For Cope, that meant selling tickets and writing music. Using the money that he’d made scalping tickets at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, he financed time in a studio outside of D.C. He recorded five tracks, among them a song about one of his scalping “colleagues,” an older man called George.
“That wasn’t his real name,” Cope clarifies. “He’d say he was from Greece; then, he’d say he was Italian. He had a New York accent, but he lived in Baltimore. He’d been around.”
Fans should recognize him as the subject of one of Cope’s most popular songs. “He was like a more worn Harry Dean Stanton, but real frail and short. He was a real weasel-ly character,” he remembers with a sort of bittersweet nostalgia. One day, after George had a big night, he showed up asking for money to start his workday. Cope outright asked him “George, what’s the most money you’ve ever had?” The answer, only slightly modified, became the song title, “200,000 (in Counterfeit 50 Dollar Bills).”
Cope made calls, sent his music out and played open mics around D.C. He was gaining a small following as interest began building. A well-timed, positive article in the Washington Post and a discovery of his demo in the unsolicited pile at a major label sent him into the whirlwind that would be his adventures with recording contracts. It began with a demo deal from Capitol Records that turned into a full contract.
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