By Michael Atkinson
By Luke Winkie
By Steve Weinstein
By Brian McManus
By Brian McManus
By Dan McQuade
By Dan McQuade
By Brian McManus
"And when I die/And when I'm gone/There'll be one child born/And a world to carry on." —Laura Nyro
I'm sweating in Gil Bianchini's shoebox of a room at 1775 Houses, a housing project at 126th and Park in Spanish Harlem. A table lamp barely illuminates his face. One wall is coated with clippings of bikini models. Modest studio equipment—two woofer speakers, a microphone protected by a black plastic bag, and a MacBook, probably the most expensive item in the room—is all situated within four feet of a mattress lying in the corner.
Gil, a/k/a Gil-T, a/k/a Thoroughbred, is a 30-year-old half-Jewish, half-Indian wunderkind sporting a black Yankees cap, a colorful T-shirt, a gold lion's head around his neck, and a nonplussed attitude about his humble surroundings. With a couple of computer clicks, the room suddenly comes alive with the voice of late-'60s/early-'70s cult singer-songwriter Laura Nyro, who died of ovarian cancer in 1997 and happens to be Gil's mother. A line from her 1968 tune "Eli's Comin' " blasts from the speakers, refashioned as a repetitive, low-rider–worthy beat.
Mother and child are once again reunited on "Eli." Gil, head bobbing, lights a Newport—he'll soon advance to blunts during our face-to-face interview—and begins rapping along with himself ("Yo, what they want from a playa/I'm a rolling stone/Mom's a diva/Pops, he was never home"). A minute in, he stands up and faces the wall, rhyming and gesturing all the while, as if standing before an audience—or an adversary he has no choice but to attack relentlessly.
"You're not going to stand up to somebody and be like, 'I'm going to hurt you,' you know what I'm saying?" he explains. "You're going to be like, 'I'm going to fuck you up,' you know what I'm saying? It's real life, man."
Gil-T has written and recorded at least 117 "joints," but he's relying on five tracks—all sampling two-second snippets from his mother's most recognizable songs—to make it big. Even with three self-produced albums and several mixtapes to his name, he's still searching for an audience beyond Harlem. Get a hold of a Gil-T album, and you'll find his cell phone number in the liner notes. Call to express your appreciation or book studio time at $20 an hour, three hours minimum.
He remains, of course, self-confident. "It ain't no way around/You either win or lose," he raps on "Paperchase," a track off his latest album, The Don. "Man, it's the game of life/It's Thoroughbred/I make the rules."
In the works since 2006, the Laura Nyro Tribute Album is set for release "when I get these samples cleared," Gil explains. Rapping over his mother's beats, he becomes more playful, more comforting. A track like "Marry Me" (sampled from 1966's "Wedding Bell Blues"), for instance, has him talking about watching "my man, Bill" succumb to matrimony: "I couldn't believe that, man/Like I lost my homie, you know?" Still, Gil has no shame in pouring himself and his skills wholly into the project: It's all with the goal of keeping both his fledgling career and his mother's legacy alive.
"I'm dealing with two different lanes," he explains. "And I don't want to offend nobody, you know what I mean? So what I'm doing is, I'm making sure that these people over here got music, you know what I'm saying? And, at the same time, I'm putting myself in a place where I have an opportunity to reach a bigger, huger, broader audience. . . . They not gonna know who she is, but they'll get caught up in the hip-hop."
He's right. Anyone under Gil's age probably doesn't know about Laura Nyro, a musician so talented that mogul David Geffen quit his job as an agent for the William Morris Agency to manage her in 1967. She was a songwriter who penned some of the biggest hits of the '60s: In November 1969 alone, three Nyro compositions—"Wedding Bell Blues," "And When I Die," and "Eli's Comin' "—were in the Top 10 simultaneously, thanks to versions by the 5th Dimension; Blood, Sweat & Tears; and Three Dog Night, respectively. (All three were written before she turned 21.) And she was a recluse who pulled a "Jay-Z" when Jay-Z was just a toddler: "retiring" in 1971 at 24, but heading back to the studio less than five years later.
Gil, Nyro's only child from a brief relationship with an Indian man named Harindra "Hari" Singh, has her crooked nose, her crooked smile, and her lyrical creativity. He's just a bit more blunt and profane. Most of his tracks address hood themes: making money, fucking people up, fucking. "She knows I'm not saying some crazy shit, like, you know, 'Let's go out and kill everybody,' " Gil says. "I'm talking about the streets and the people that's in it and in that lifestyle . . . but, like, she's seen all of that. She know what it is."
Indeed, in her youth, Nyro would sing doo-wop with Puerto Ricans in New York subway stations; as she morphed into a full-blown artist, her lyrics would constantly explore the most important facet of human existence: survival. "Poverty Train," a 1968 composition, says it all: "It looks good and dirty on shiny light strip/And if you don't get beat, you got yourself a trip/You can see the walls roar/See your brains on the floor/Become God, become cripple, become funky, and split."