Into the light

Dec 16, 2009 at 12:00 am

Music videos don't have the same cachet or traction they once had, not in an era when MTV's seminal video countdown show Total Request Live has been canceled and BET's 106 & Park no longer registers with a lot of music fans. Hell, MTV doesn't even broadcast all that much music these days. As a result, videos on the Internet have become increasingly more important than videos on television during the last decade.

Detroit's Quest MCODY — born Kimani Graham — has found a new method of video survival, however. When you see the emcee on the small screen these days, it isn't in music videos with scantily clad women and people falling into swimming pools in the background. Instead, the emcee has been taping entire shows that are ending up on MTV and Showtime reality shows as well as acting on straight-to-DVD releases.

"I'm either likable or dislikable; there's no front with me," Quest says, explaining, without irony, how he sees himself on reality TV. "What you see is what you get. I don't do anything in front of a camera that I wouldn't do away from a camera. And you get the same thing with my music. I'd rather be loved or hated because of the person I am than a person that I'm pretending to be."

After working as an engineer at the Disc — a Detroit studio known for housing sessions by the likes of Busta Rhymes, George Clinton, Kid Rock and others — Quest began battle rapping at Lush in Hamtramck in 2003, because he figured that he wasn't getting any closer to a real buzz. He climbed his way through the circuit, advancing from smaller venues and street battles to winning (or at least making it to final rounds of) high-profile battles sponsored or hosted by mogul Russell Simmons and DJ Whoo Kid of 50 Cent's G-Unit. (For proof, search "Quest MCODY" on YouTube and find countless videos of his various contest performances.) But what began as a mission to gain respect quickly began a legitimate source of income. 

"I was on the set of [the Eminem film] 8 Mile as an extra, and rappers like MarvWon and Supa MC were getting this acclaim, just from battling," he says. "I was like, 'I rap as good as or better than the guys I see.' After that, I still loved doing it, but it also became how I made my living. I could literally go somewhere every night of the week and make $100."

As a result, Quest MCODY's reputation spread quickly through the city, leading to his first television opportunity. And with the success of 8 Mile, Showtime execs were soon going around the country to find emcees for a reality show based on the battling that was introduced to the mainstream masses via Em's film.

The executives "were making calls to various local people, asking who the dope emcees in Detroit were," Quest says. "When they finally contacted me, they said, 'Everybody we spoke to gave us a list of five, 10 or 20 people, and you were on all of the lists.' I was surprised, because I was only nine months into rapping at that time."

Quest went through a screening process that included an interview about his background and delivering an impromptu freestyle rap on a specific topic, among other things. He won the part soon thereafter, and Showtime camera crews came to his home to record his day-to-day life. After defeating Detroit vet J. Hill in the Detroit Showtime battle, he was flown out to California, where he lost to a Los Angeles emcee in the national contest. But despite the loss, his career was cemented on several levels.

"It was the first time my family saw what I was doing and started taking it seriously," Quest says. "When they saw the cameras and then saw me on TV, they were like, 'OK, maybe you do rap!'" He laughs. "I'd always been a performer or at least the guy in class who got in trouble because he wanted attention. So it wasn't astonishing that this is what I ended up doing. But being on TV opened a lot of doors. When [the camera crews] came to my hood, there were 50 or 60 people hanging around outside that I haven't seen since that time. But that's proof that when somebody thinks you're doing something important, they come out."

He got his first subsequent MTV appearance on the documentary series True Life. This episode was based on three emcees' journey to the lauded Rap Olympics battle event, and Quest was driving Swann, a good friend and fellow Detroit battler, to Ohio to help him handle his duties for the show. Since he was already there, Quest entered the battle at the last minute, and although he and Swann ended up winning second and first place in the battle — taking home $2,000 and $5,000, respectively, and getting coverage on the channel — he didn't network extensively there out of respect for his friend, with whom he wasn't competing.

But he'd get his chance at his own MTV show later. He discovered that other Detroit emcees had been contacted for a casting call to be a coach on Made, a new self-improvement reality show that spotlights experts in different fields — dancing, sports and modeling among them — teaching teenagers how to excel in said areas within a few weeks of training. After feeling slighted that he wasn't contacted, he soon discovered that he had been contacted but just hadn't seen the original e-mail. 

He called the phone number listed, asking if he could still try out for the part. The show rep told him the casting director had already finished her auditions and was leaving Michigan the next day. Quest asked if he could please meet up with the woman before she left. After receiving a deadline time and location, he and a friend left for Paw Paw — a four-hour drive from Detroit.

"While I'm on my way to Paw Paw, though, I was already feeling like a winner," Quest says. "I'm saying, 'I'm going to go down there, she's going to love me, she's going to give me the role, and I'll be all good.'"

He got the part. 

He stayed in Paw Paw for a month, coaching a suburban teenager named Heather how to be a rapper. Quest also had a lot of input into the show's creative direction and enjoyed the entire experience. The show won a Daytime Entertainment Emmy for "Outstanding Special Class Series." 

His work so far has extended beyond just network TV appearances, though. He acted in a straight-to-DVD film, Five.K.One, alongside Clifton Powell (Rush Hour, Dead Presidents) and Melvin Jackson Jr. (The Wire). Perhaps most important of all, however, is his Quest for a Cure Foundation, an initiative he founded that focuses on bringing an end to hunger, illness and poverty. According to its press material, the foundation was created based on Quest's desire to make a difference, save lives — and to have a great time doing it.

And on Dec. 19, the Quest for a Cure Foundation will find him performing alongside such Detroit mainstays as Invincible, PL, MonicaBlaire, Street Justice, K'Jon, Vina Mills and Ro Spit at a Detroit benefit to raise money for Benjamin Martin, an 8-year-old boy whose insurance won't cover the "experimental" treatment he requires for a cancerous brain tumor following grueling years that have included several brain surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation. The child was doing well for a short time, but at the beginning of September, the tumor returned with a vengeance. With the "experimental" treatment, however, Martin's chances of survival would increase significantly.

Foundation organizer "Joanna Cooper and I wanted to do something that can help people now as opposed to when it's too late," Quest says. "I've got a son with sickle cell anemia and we go to the hospital a lot year after year because of complications or scares. Hopefully, other people will catch on and spread the help, and other organizations can help show us the ropes. We'll keep track of Ben and fight for Ben — but we'll also be doing other events in the future. And it won't be linked to just music. Joanna's heavy into running marathons, so we may run a marathon and take donations for a certain cause."

Quest's debut album, The Light Project, was well-regarded for its lyrical dexterity, honesty and storytelling, while free mixtapes, such as his recent CTRL + ALT + DELETE, showcase the battle-ready Quest that his fans have come to enjoy, respect and love. 

"I'm mentioning no one particular, but if you were to take the complete cluster of emcees coming from Michigan, I'd be one of the most genuine acts," Quest claims. "I'm willing to open up in rhyme about my life, my pain, my insecurities and my issues. I don't think a lot of emcees are able to do that and make it worth something."

Call it boasting, call it truth-telling, it doesn't matter because Quest is who he is. And he enjoys both music and screen appearances for different reasons. Music's his first love, it's where he's always himself, but he likes television for the organizational expertise and financial security. 

"I've been in control with the behind-the-scenes part of music for a while," he says. "I can redo a record if I don't like it. My manager can handle things if my money's not right at a show. But with TV, it's a lot easier: 'This is what we're going to pay you. This is where I need you to be. And what would you like to have?' It's a lot more structured.

"With reality [TV], I'm just being me. And with rap, I do the same thing. I'd rather live my life rapping about me. And if people don't like me, they don't like me."

Quest for a Cure's benefit show for 8-year-old Benjamin Martin takes place on Saturday, Dec. 19, at St. Andrew's Hall, 431 E. Congress St., Detroit; 313-961-8137. With Quest MCODY, Stretch Money, Invincible, PL, MonicaBlaire, Street Justice, Marvwon, K'Jon, Vina Mills, Seven the General, Ro Spit, Coldmen Young, the Bang Ups and more. Tickets can be purchased online at General admission is $10 at the door.  Check the website for ticket specials prior to the event. Donations can also be made at the website.

William E. Ketchum III is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]