Squeezed inside the empty closet of an upstairs bedroom of a Herndon townhouse, Derek Meitzer leans into an upright microphone, ready to flow. You have to start somewhere.
Besides, this totally beats Iraq.
An up-and-coming rapper in D.C.’s underground scene, Mr. Meitzer also is a lance corporal in the Marine Corps, a combat videographer stationed at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia.
“Spit it how you’re going to spit it,” says Jason the producer, also known as Maestro Metaphorics. “So I can get the sound level.”
Yellow noise-dampening foam covers the walls. Posters of Biggie Smalls and the movie “Scarface” paper the ceiling. This is Jason’s studio, where Mr. Meitzer is recording a song he just wrote, about coping with a friend’s suicide.
I remind myself that you’re gone
By breaking hearts, don’t mistake it for charm
I hurt others, to save myself from
Reminiscing, for too long …
One take becomes two. Two become three. Five minutes becomes a half-hour. Peering through his glasses, Mr. Meitzer holds a laptop computer in his left hand, reading lyrics off the screen.
Grinning, he flexes his left arm.
“All that time in boot camp, holding the rifle out like this, getting yelled at?” Mr. Meitzer says. “It’s finally paying off.”
In some obvious ways, the two worlds are incongruous — hip-hop fantasies of Bentleys and champagne rooms colliding with military realities of Quonset huts and meals ready to eat; individual swagger and hedonism butting heads with patriotism and exacting small-unit values like self-sacrifice and mutual loyalty.
And yet, for the 25-year-old Mr. Meitzer, rap and soldiering are — unlikely as it might seem — mutually inclusive.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising.
“They have the same demographic,” notes University of Colorado English professor Adam Bradley, co-editor of “The Anthology of Rap.” “Get a group of young men — and to a lesser extent, young women — from across the country, all walks of life, different socio-economic standings, races and ethnicities. Bring them together. One of the things that will emerge is a common love of hip-hop.”
During his 4½ years of military service, Mr. Meitzer has released three albums. Dropped rhymes in New York City, the Philippines and the Persian Gulf. Represented D.C. in a national competitive rap league. As an artist, he lists Jay-Z and Bob Dylan as major influences. His oeuvre combines hip-hop, jazz and folk music.
When performing, Mr. Meitzer likes to wear bow ties.
“I can’t give him a typical beat,” Jason says. “He isn’t the typical hip-hop artist.”
Art provides a release
Mr. Meitzer isn’t the first hip-hop artist with military ties. Ice-T once served in the Army. MC Hammer was in the Navy.
Following 9/11, rapper Canibus enlisted in the Army, despite being 28 at the time.
“That story doesn’t end well,” Mr. Bradley said. “He was booted out of the service for smoking [marijuana in 2004]. But his heart was in the right place.”
More recently, retired Army sergeant and rapper Leo Dunson recorded a diss track entitled “Change Your Name” after hip-hop artist Soulja Boy released a song with the lyric “[expletive] the Army troops.”
Performing with the stage name Solider Hard, former Army gun-truck commander Jeff Barillaro raps about post-traumatic stress disorder, friends being killed by roadside bombs and the dissolution of his marriage following overseas deployment.
“We now have a generation of young men who have been in war and need some kind of release and outlet,” Mr. Bradley said. “Art provides that. Hip-hop is an accessible, powerful way to channel raw emotion into safe places, places that create rather than destroy.”
Mr. Meitzer concurs. He wants his music to raise awareness of veterans and help bridge what he sees as a psychological gap between soldiers and the rest of society.
“There’s a shared burden for all of us, whether or not you want to admit it,” he said. “We’re your future co-workers, your brother, your cousin, your kids’ baseball coach. I’m not trying to parade things. It’s just to say, ‘Hey, we’re still here.’ “
A Marine’s alter ego
Rise at dawn. Run six miles. Breakfast. Office work. Lunch. Shoot photos and video. More paperwork. Dinner. Back to barracks. By day, Lance Cpl. Meitzer lives like any other Marine.
At night, he becomes his rap alter ego, D’Meitz.
“From the moment I get home to the time I go to bed, I’m writing music and networking online,” Mr. Meitzer said. “It’s all my free time. I don’t do much else. When I take a vacation, I’ll go to a rap battle.”
“I’m in debt because of it. Probably spent close to $15,000, with travel and everything. On a military income, that’s quite a bit.”
When the Cleveland native entered basic training in early 2007, he already had dropped out of Kent State. He wanted to support the nation’s war efforts.
Mostly, he said, he was “lost in life.”
Mr. Meitzer’s grandfather served in the Army and was stationed in Germany during the Korean War. His father was in the Navy and completed two tours during the Vietnam War.
“I wanted to one-up my dad,” Mr. Meitzer said with a laugh. “And my grandfather always wanted to be a Marine. But they didn’t push me to serve. I just wanted the toughest, hardest challenge.”
A regular on the Cleveland underground rap battle circuit as a teenager, he self-released his first album in 2009 while stationed overseas, then persuaded disc jockeys in the Philippines and Okinawa, Japan, to play it.
During a 2008 tour in Iraq, Cpl. Meitzer entertained troops with his freestyle verses; a series of YouTube videos show him performing in a trailer on an air base in Al Asad, wearing fatigues, producing laughs and dropped jaws with his playful, rapid-fire, family-unfriendly lyrics.
“Everyone in my unit knew I rapped,” he said. “I had to rap for the [commanding officer] once. I did it for his birthday.”
Two kinds of battles
A different theater of conflict: the Island Cafe in Northwest Washington. Early March. Packed house. Ball caps and bottled beer.
In one corner: Richard Cranium, a battle rapper from Atlanta wearing a button-down shirt under a dark gray hoodie.
In the other? D’Meitz. Wearing, of course, a bow tie.
“It was a classic,” Jason the producer said. “It took D’Meizt to the next level.”
Three rounds. Five judges. One objective: outrap — out-disrespect, really — the other guy. Best MC wins.
Cranium wags his finger. Curses a lot. Rhymes even more. Likens D’Meitz to Doogie Howser, M.D. Looks scornfully at Mr. Meitzer’s outfit — glasses and an argyle sweater.
“Why has Malcolm in the Middle been dressing like Malcolm X?” he asks.
Back and forth it goes, the swapping of creative and creatively profane insults. The crowd oohs. They laugh. Let loose with a few daaaaamns! In his last verse, D’Meitz mimics Cranium’s quick rhyming style, then drops an intricate series of bars referencing Greek mythology.
D’Meitz wins. Afterward, the two shake hands.
“With battle rap, presence and delivery is as important as your bars,” Jason the producer said. “D’Meitz has charisma and bars when he raps. And when you see a white guy who shows up in a bow tie, that’s different.”
Mr. Meitzer competes for GrindTime DMV, the local division of a national rap league that matches rappers from across the country, then posts footage of their tete-a-tetes online.
For Mr. Meitzer and others, the league provides an opportunity to travel, network and get much-needed exposure: Uploaded in July, the Cranium-D’Meitz match already has registered more than 30,000 views on YouTube.
Jason, who works as a corporate vendor and manages GrindTime DMV alongside Skillz “Paradoxx” Ferguson, said Mr. Meitzer averages about 20,000 online viewers per contest.
“It’s not like it was 10 years ago, when radio was building up rappers,” he said. “If D’Meitz goes and drops a mixtape, he’s like every other dime-a-dozen rapper. Nobody cares. But if he’s averaging 20,000 people per battle, he has a built-in audience that will be interested when his projects come out.”
Mr. Meitzer got his start in hip-hop as a 13-year-old battle rapper in a Cleveland church league. As a teenager, he represented his hometown against a team from Detroit, then joined the Detroit team to take on a team from New York City.
After arriving at Quantico, Mr. Meitzer auditioned for GrindTime DMV at a rap battle in Baltimore. He since has competed in England and Canada.
His Marine background, he said, is an advantage.
“There’s definitely a martial sensibility to it,” Mr. Bradley said. “Two MC’s in a ring, surrounded by onlookers, just you and your skills going toe to toe. The concept of battling is essential to hip-hop culture.”
Time for self-reflection
An old military axiom holds that war is 90 percent boredom and 10 percent sheer terror. In Iraq, Cpl. Meitzer experienced a bit of both.
Terror: hiding in the belly of an airstrip excavating machine during a mortar attack in Rawah, camera in one hand, rifle in the other, flush with adrenaline, a siren drowning out his heartbeat, realizing that if death comes, it comes.
Boredom: sitting atop a dirt hill, alone, for 30 minutes a day, watching ants fight giant beetles, the beetles flicking the smaller ants away, the ants eventually flipping and disemboweling their larger foe.
“There’s a lot of time for self-reflection,” Mr. Meitzer said. “You sober up. Become clear-headed. I learned a lot about who I am and what life means to me.”
While attending Kent State, Mr. Meitzer dreamed of owning his own production company. And a modeling agency. And a private island, with a moneymaking cruise line business in the event of climate change. He attempted to set a world record for the longest freestyle rap. (Two-plus hours, he recalls.) He owned a set of diamond-encrusted gold teeth.
Today, he’s studying music management online. Applying to colleges in New York City. After he leaves the service, likely in November, he wants to live in hip-hop’s Mecca — but also earn a degree in international relations.
That’s the steady thing. The realistic bet. A regular career.
“But I really just want to do music,” Mr. Meitzer said. “Create continuously.”