By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
By Ray Cummings
By Nicholas Pell
"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."
To ensure that his tribute is taken seriously, Gil is hell-bent on keeping his mother's original vocals intact. (Kanye West sampled her 1969 tune "Save the Country" on his 2007 album Graduation, but sped her vocals up into chipmunk anonymity.) To make Nyro's presence all the more authentic, Gil ditched a producer from Atlanta keen on electronically morphing Nyro's voice in favor of New York–based veteran Fred "Catfish" Alias, who favors a more organic approach and live studio instrumentation.
So, in a downtown studio, Gil spit his most accessible fire to date: You hear real horns, flutes, whistles, and hand-claps as Nyro's catchy chorus snippets meld themselves harmoniously to her son's stream-of-consciousness flow. As Gil's baritone aims at seduction, his mother's soprano maintains the hooks, proving that her style and sound resonate in any decade. "I feel like the music will speak for itself," Gil says. "Honestly, it's done real good, but it sounds like she just laid it down yesterday, you know? In the booth right behind me or something."
With this mind-set, Gil is currently "playing the company game," waiting for representatives from Sony BMG to give him the go-ahead to use his mother's voice to promote his own. Being Laura Nyro's son does give him the advantage of getting record executives' attention; it's been an ongoing process, but Gil remains assured that when he sits down face-to-face with company execs, he'll have his time to shine.
"Sony's dealing with a lot of my mother's music, and I'm kind of bringing it back to life, and it's more personal for me and more business for them, but it all works out in the long run," he says. "I don't want to jump out the box with shit looped and speeded up, you know? We can build it into something real big and huge."
Learning that Laura Nyro's offspring is a gritty rapper is like discovering Barry Manilow fathered a punk rocker. Gil laughs at one specific teenage memory: His mother confiscated his Slick Rick cassette because she was offended by "Treat Her Like a Prostitute."
Gil has no siblings and never met his father. (Nyro gave him the last name "Bianchini" in honor of her husband, carpenter David Bianchini, though their marriage ended before Gil was born.) His mother was his best friend growing up. Despite their initially comfortable surroundings in Danbury, Connecticut, somewhere things took a turn. At 15, the same year he got serious about rap, the Fat Boys fan was busted for hustling drugs and received two years' probation in Danbury. Soon thereafter, he was sent to live with his godparents in Colorado, but because of a clash in music tastes, he was asked to leave and wound up back home. After violating probation several times, he was given a choice: jail or an alternative-to-incarceration program in upstate New York. Choosing the latter, Gil was kicked out after three months for fighting.
Despite being diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the time, Nyro fought for Gil, getting him placed in a group home in Queens. But when things were at an all-time low, the worst happened. On April 8, 1997, his mother died. "I don't know if you ever lost a parent or lost a son or a daughter, and you'll be able to imagine how I felt," he says.
Relocating to the Lower East Side with a girlfriend, Gil went through turmoil. Before he turned 21, he was serving time in Rikers Island, writing rhymes to maintain his sanity. "I was in a dorm, and it was like 23-hour lockdown," he says. "You locked down—you can go in your dorm or in the cell block, or you can go in the middle of the area where everybody's at or whatever, but you know you locked down."
But Gil never gave up the dream of making it. He eventually cleaned up his act, spent years as a barber in Harlem, sired a son, and started laying down joints and performing live. "I've been trying to really just build the right life for myself and make this music shit happen, like, make it official, let my presence be known through the streets," he says. "I'm wearing a lot of hats, you know what I mean? Sometimes, I got to stop myself and be like, you know, gotta get more back into writing, recording, man. I'm so busy promoting and networking."
Being Laura Nyro's son has not left Gil independently wealthy. Getting by on booking studio time for others and sporadic gigs, he says he's continually discussing financial matters with the executors of his mother's estate. "Everything was designed and built a certain way, where it's not like everything is just mine, you know? That's just the way it's stipulated, being that I was kind of, like, you know, wild when I was younger. There was a point in time when we wasn't really in contact with each other and, you know, a lot of people kind of tried to count me out of the equation. . . . Now, I'm in better communications, and we're more organized."
Fortunately, Gil does have a couple of important supporters in his corner. First, his godmother, former Nyro collaborator and soul icon Patti LaBelle, who brought him onstage during a solo concert at the Capital One Bank Theatre in Long Island to show off his stuff nine months ago. In appreciation, Gil composed "Good Looking," the kind of "clean shit" he wants people to appreciate: "I remember not too long ago I was down on my luck/Like a crab in the bucket, it was like I was stuck/Trying to think to myself, 'Damn, what should I do?'/It's when I got that phone call telling me to come through . . . So you always have a place in my heart/Anything you can need, if I can help/I'll be there from the start."
Another patron is Nyro biographer and Ms. magazine senior editor Michele Kort, who met Gil more than seven years ago and was instantly mesmerized by his physicality and lyrical charisma. "He's just a very beautiful-looking young man, kind of soft-spoken and hip-hop in the sense that he has a definitive style," she says. "I remember, at one point, him doing a little rap, a little rhyming, and that was when I was most impressed."
The Laura Nyro Tribute Album ultimately isn't meant for the clubs. In time, Gil will revert back to his usual self: He's planning to shoot a "Paperchase" music video in New Jersey, complete with poolside models. He nonetheless aims to keep these two stylistic worlds separate, all too aware that his mother's champions, collaborators, and confidants might be conflicted about his music as well as his intention to mix his music with hers. He stresses that it isn't for everybody—but it could be.
"It's not like I'm limited to the kind of music I can make, you know?" he says. "I can write about anything, man, you know what I'm saying? I can write about this PS3 here . . . like, about this cup of coffee right here . . . so it's not like I have to stay in one lane. If anything, it's music. It should go out to everybody."