Nicholas “NicDanger” Rodriguez relentlessly pursues his dream of becoming a rapper. But does the 23-year-old Columbia artist have what it takes to break into the cutthroat hip-hop industry?

Heavy gold bling, women in bikinis, cars that cost more than most Americans make in a year: all are iconic images in the world of American hip-hop.

You won’t find these accoutrements in the lifestyle of Columbia rapper NicDanger. Nicholas “NicDanger” Rodriguez is the antithesis of a high-rolling rapper. The 23-year-old Columbia hip-hop artist is on a mission to break into the music industry, but his dreams don’t swirl around Maseratis and yachts.

While Lil Wayne raps about being “Mr. Make-It-Rain-on-Them-Hoes,” Rodriguez’s lyrics criticize those who glorify such ideas. His song “I’m A Rebel”declares: “You do it for the women, for the drugs, for the fame / Hip-hop, I do it ’cause I love it, ’cause I live it, and I give love to above.” Later in the song, he adds: “I’m a rich king, rich in my own way / You rich only when paid.”

Marco “BlackGrits” Patterson, a producer at Bluehouse Studio in Jefferson City who has worked with Rodriguez to record some of his songs, says he respects Rodriguez for writing honest lyrics. “You have guys who rap and all they talk about is money, and yet that’s not the lifestyle they live,” Patterson says.

Rodriguez doesn’t rap about getting drunk in the club, either. In fact, he doesn’t drink or smoke. “I just don’t see the point,” he says.

Instead, his songs deal with subjects he knows well: ambition, pounding the pavement and proving the doubters wrong. While Rodriguez is unfailingly friendly, quick to break into a warm smile, his music reveals the frustration — even bitterness — that goes along with being an up-and-coming artist.

It’s not just Rodriguez’s rhymes that set him apart from the glam rappers on the radio. Although he’s still developing his own sound, his music seems closer to alternative or underground rap. For Heezers Palace Studios owner and music producer Tim Hanson, Rodriguez’s style calls to mind independent artists such as Tech N9ne and Hopsin.

“Nic is a really unique artist in that he doesn’t necessarily fit in the same basket as every other rapper I work with,” says Hanson, who’s helped Rodriguez lay down some studio tracks. “His music is definitely very raw and very straightforward. He doesn’t have to put a lot of glitter on it.”

Rodriguez cites a diverse group of artists as his musical influences: Buddy Holly, Immortal Technique, Puddle of Mudd, Arrested Development, Frankie Valli, Chaka Khan, Tech N9ne, Michael Jackson and countless others. In honor of the rapper’s Latino roots — his father is from Venezuela — Rodriguez also listens to bachata and salsa artists such as legendary Cuban singer Celia Cruz.

Another crucial influence: Rodriguez’s supportive family, including his parents, Mary and Miguel Rodriguez, two younger sisters and an assortment of aunts, uncles and cousins, many of whom are also involved in the arts. Although Mary and Miguel divorced when their son was young, they’ve always worked together to put him first.

Mary jokes that she sometimes has to remind Miguel that she’s the one who delivered their son into this world, but the talk takes a serious turn when she says a lot of families aren’t lucky enough to include an involved father.

“It kind of shows in Nicholas,” she says. “I think that helped a lot, in addition to his own drive and determination. I guess it was just a good recipe for success.”

Poetry inspires Rodriguez. The seeds of his rap career were planted with fourth-grade poetry assignments at Rock Bridge Elementary School. Rodriguez would write in his composition notebook, and when the teacher said time was up, he found he wanted to keep going. So he began writing poetry at home, too, and that interest in poetry eventually translated to music.

Many notebooks later, after graduating from Hickman High School, Rodriguez took a call center job alongside his mother.

“I looked over at him, and he was sitting there on the phone writing,” she says with a laugh.

Rodriguez says his background in break dancing — a talent that landed him in a previous issue of Inside Columbia — figures into his musical style as well. “You can dance with your voice, too,” he says.

And dance he does: Rodriguez uses what Hanson refers to as “lyrical trickery.” He ramps up or slows down the speed of his delivery to fit the content of each song, and his style can have an aggressive edge. He selects beats and writes hooks that feel true to him instead of just following the latest hip-hop trends.

“He’s not a real commercial guy, and I don’t think he wants to be,” Hanson says. “He doesn’t want everybody to like his music. He doesn’t want people to dislike him, but he kind of gets a spark under him when he gets comments on his videos.”

As Rodriguez puts it: “I stand for being yourself. Some people might not like it, some people might not agree, but at the end of the day, people appreciate it.”

Hanson is quick to point out that the lack of a commercial sound doesn’t mean Rodriguez won’t make it in the music industry. “There are lots of artists who have been successful, independent, internally driven,” he says. “You don’t hear Tech N9ne on the radio. You don’t hear Krizz Kaliko or Stevie Stone on Top 40 radio. But their fan base is so tuned in that they sell records and they sell out tours and they make a lot of money.”

And while Rodriguez might not sound like the artists who dominate Top 40 radio stations, he’s armed with a powerful weapon: an unimpeachable work ethic.

“It’s like Daniel-san in ‘Karate Kid,’ ” Hanson says. “He’s going to do the crane kick until he’s the master of the crane kick. That’s how Nic approaches being an artist.”

Indeed, Rodriguez never seems to rest. He meets up for an interview just days after returning from Memphis, where he shot a music video for “Blast Away,” a song from his upcoming mixtape “Poetic & Ignorant.” He’s booked to perform at The Blue Fugue late that night, and the next morning he’ll record some music at Bluehouse Studio. After that, he’ll head to the set of another music video. Between fielding questions, Rodriguez pauses to jot down ideas in the same notebook that appears in his “Blast Away”video.
But it all costs money: recording, video production, traveling. Rodriguez and his friend Kendale “Kid Kase” Williams, who does backup vocals for Rodriguez and vice versa, end up paying out of pocket when they travel for shows. Sometimes they earn enough to cover their food expenses, but they still have to shell out for gas and hotel rooms.

“He’s not afraid to hit the road and travel with his last penny to try to get something accomplished,” Patterson says. “He’s motivated. He’s not a quitter.”

So Rodriguez works at a variety of odd jobs to support himself as an artist. He’s written jingles for Super Sami’s Beauty Supply and the FastCAT bus system, and he coordinates and promotes events for Centro Latino, two poetry groups, local music venues and, of course, his own shows. He and Williams canvass Columbia on foot to hand out concert flyers.

“Hand-to-hand combat, that’s what I call it,” Rodriguez says.

Sometimes people refuse the flyers or throw them out right away.

“You’ve got to love it, though, man,” he says. “I love this, even though it hurts. It’s like a double-edged sword.”

Hanson calls Rodriguez a strong promoter who will “shake hands and kiss babies, that kind of thing.” He gives his take on the rapper’s attitude: “Let it be known I’m the guy who’s out there holding up the town. You may not like my music, but you know who I am.”

So far, it seems to be working.

NicDanger has opened for national acts including Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Tech N9ne, and he’s in talks to open for R&B singer K. Michelle this spring. He has performed at every venue in town except Roxy’s and Jesse Auditorium, where he and Williams are planning a set in the coming months.

And he’s been getting attention locally for his song “Columbia Stand Up.” The music video features cameos by well-known Columbians such as Veterans United’s Sarah Hill, attorney Jennifer Bukowsky,Inside Columbia publisher Fred Parry and Mayor Bob McDavid, who delivered baby Nicholas at Boone Hospital back when McDavid was still a practicing physician. Rodriguez sprinkles the song with historical references such as the University of Missouri’s establishment in 1839 between rapping the hook: “I’m from the middle of the middle of the middle of the map / Columbia, Missouri, where you at? / The middle of the middle of the map / Columbia, Missouri, bring it back.” To make the video, he had to rap the entire song 130 times in different locations including City Hall, Douglass Park, Ninth Street and the columns on the MU campus.

Rodriguez’s latest music video, “Blast Away,” is his most professional yet. Between filtered shots of the artist writing and rapping, the video cuts to the Memphis city lights and a time lapse of the water under the iconic Hernando de Soto Bridge. The beautiful footage befits the song Rodriguez says he’s most proud of, a melancholy, vulnerable track in which he questions aloud whether the struggle is worth it. Over the beat from Fabolous & Pusha T’s “Life Is So Exciting,” Rodriguez raps: “Nobody with me on my mission … Pass me like they never knew me / So when I make it there / I’ll make a toast to myself / ’Cause I tried the hardest, worked the hardest.” His rhymes are bookended by a sad, smooth chorus sung by Danny Sea: “Should I go or should I stay? I just want to blast away, blast away.”

Patterson sees promise in Rodriguez’s material. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be trying to work with him,” he says.

In an industry saturated with star-struck wannabes, will Rodriguez find success?

Perhaps that depends on how one defines “success.” Rodriguez has a modest definition: “A car, a paid-off house and being able to eat,” he says. “To make the music I love and inspire people.”

His loftiest wish is to open a performing arts center with Williams for the children of Columbia. When Rodriguez was growing up, he says his teachers weren’t supportive of his artistic pursuits. “They told me my music was silly, told me to get a real job,” he says. He and Williams want to establish a place where children’s creativity is encouraged, not stifled.

And he will leave the Champagne dreams to other rappers. “I don’t need to be too flashy,” he says.

Yet another refreshing departure from the Kanyes and Lil Waynes of the world.

Check out Rodriguez’s new “Blast Away” music video on his website, www.nicdanger-music.com.

MIXTAPE REVIEW:

“Dangers Coming”
By NicDanger

Nicholas “NicDanger” Rodriguez’s mixtape “Dangers Coming” is a collection of scrappy songs that practically dare naysayers to bet against the young artist. Featuring original lyrics over a mix of both sampled and original beats, the tracks center on themes of personal pride, self-reliance, contempt for hip-hop fat cats who focus on money and drugs, and — perhaps most frequently — giving the middle finger to the haters.

Slightly ominous sounding, “Steal the Show” serves as an introduction to the rapper. His hook is direct: “NicDanger came to steal the show / They didn’t even know.” But it’s juxtaposed against some clever lyrics, such as: “Got big dreams but I’m makin’ little dough … Laugh at myself ’cause I make my own jokes / Make my own money ’cause I make my own quotes.”

More laid-back is “Get on My Level, featuring a minimalist background track dominated by the sounds of electric drums. The overall effect is straightforward and slower-paced, two adjectives often used to describe the Midwest itself — unsurprising, maybe, given that Rodriguez was born and raised in Columbia. His lyrics even include a shout-out to the Show-Me State.

“You Oughta Know” samples Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out” and a Das Racist song, also titled “You Oughta Know.” Rodriguez’s former girlfriend Alicia “Aleesia” Smith — who auditioned for “American Idol” last year — sings the original Das Racist hook: “You should never argue with a crazy mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mind / You oughta know by know.” After listening to this track, it’ll be stuck in your head for the rest of the day.

Although some of the songs on “Dangers Coming” rely on other artists’ beats, Rodriguez’s personal lyrics give listeners a glimpse into the life of a local young man with big-city dreams.

“Dangers Coming” can be streamed or downloaded for free through Rodriguez’s website, www.nicdanger-music.com.