You could say that Ryan Harryman died twice. Or that he was two people, only one of whom was named Ryan. The other one was named 3Pac, a chubby, trollish white rapper. Either way, both Ryan Harryman and 3Pac both died in October of last year, at the age of 24.
Harryman’s death was reported by two very different types of news outlets, both of which failed to paint the total picture of who he actually was. There were straight-laced papers such as the San Jose Mercury News and the Washington Post, and a local NBC affiliate, who mentioned that he was a club water polo player at San Jose State, who had a great sense of humor and was a well-liked member of his college community. That Harryman made music at all, let alone was by some measures a genuinely popular musician, seemed like an afterthought to publications like these — some mentioned that he made music, some didn’t, and almost none mentioned the name 3Pac.
Meanwhile, the news of his death was also picked up by such sites as HipHopDX, AllHipHop, and VladTV. To them, he was 3Pac, a white rapper whose videos consistently went viral, who dubbed his fans the “Zero Hoots Gang” and himself their leader, and who had been nursing a still-simmering beef with fellow white rapper Slim Jesus. It was almost shocking that 3Pac was real, a person who had a life outside of his YouTube videos.
I will die for ur hoots just like how Jesus died for ur sins son
— ZERO HOOTS 3PAC SON (@3PACTV) September 15, 2015
Even on rap Internet — where outlandish personalities, bizarre scenes, microtrends, and hyper-specific memes are routine — 3Pac was strange. A white kid from the Bay Area, he possessed a single-minded dedication to riling people up. He drew his name from his claim that he was an even greater rapper than 2Pac, in part because 2Pac never used the word “swag” in a rap song. His freestyled vocals often consisted of screamed nonsense or gibberish delivered in a redneck voice. He used self-made slang terms like “hoot” and “trout” indiscriminately in his raps, and was known to sell autographed McChicken wrappers to fans. At best, he was an avant-garde artist giving hip-hop the same treatment that Andy Kaufman gave, say, pro wrestling — using the medium as a tool to point out the inherent absurdity of life itself. At worst, he was a really weird and offensive 4chan thread come to life. Either way, his fanbase spread the world over and counted among its ranks rap fans, hardcore kids, music critics, Internet shut-ins, and Lil B the Based God. He was a teen with a dream to be a meme, and he succeeded.
Though his music was arguably offensive and inarguably strange, it also resonated with people. His “RAP GOD (HARDEST IN THE GAME SON)” video has more than 750,000 YouTube views. The video for “RICH WHITE MAN MARK CUBAN (WE BOOZIN)” is at nearly half a million hits, while “EBOLA IS HOOT (EBOLA AWARENESS VIDEO SON)” has well over 200,000.
In his own way, 3Pac fit onto a timeless continuum of a certain, everpresent strain of DIY music: the bored suburban teen who makes noise just to piss people off. If this were 20 or 30 years earlier, that suburban teen probably would have joined a bad punk band. They would have pressed up a 7-inch, or in the 2000s posted the tracks to their MySpace. But these days, says Anthony Fantano, a popular music vlogger and Internet personality who creates content as the Needle Drop, “Kids don’t pick up guitars, they pick up computers. I think with new technology, a lot of artists have found ways to make hip-hop as visceral as rock used to be.”
Fantano was a fan of 3Pac, and had even collaborated with him for a track on a mixtape Fantano released as his persona Cal Chuchesta. He sees 3Pac’s music as representative of “less a trend, and more of a floodgate having been opened.” You can see 3Pac’s freewheeling, Internet-addled amateurist white-boy style reflected in contemporaries like Yung Lean, Post Malone, and Slim Jesus — kids who are both rappers and accidental conceptual artists who skirt the line between homage, appropriation, and pure whatthef**kitude. But where Yung Lean’s music skews toward the art world, Post Malone seems to possess genuine musical chops, and the wannabe drill rapper Slim Jesus appears to be acutely unaware that he is mimicking a culture to which he does not belong, 3Pac’s music emphasized the distance between its maker and hip-hop’s center.
For me, everything compelling about 3Pac is encapsulated in his video for “I DON’T GIVE A HOOT (ZERO HOOTS FREESTYLE).” In it, 3Pac meanders through an abandoned mall with toilet paper wrapped around his head and an oversized gold chain slung around his neck, dancing on top of food-court tables and rapping while squeezed into a stationary, coin-operated police car that he’s much too large to fit into. His words are mumbled and slurred as he mimics a deep Alabama redneck accent. At first blush it seems like he’s being completely serious, offering the world’s most misguided interpretation of the famous El-P line, “Even when I say nothing it’s a beautiful use of negative space.” Either way, to me it’s like the portrait of Kramer in that one episode of Seinfeld: a manchild crying out for love. Loathsome perhaps, probably offensive, yet impossible to look away.
When conducting himself as 3Pac, Harryman operated with a brazen disregard for even the foggiest sense of propriety. In one music video he dressed up as Osama Bin Laden, and another of his songs was simply called “White Nigga,” both of which so blatantly s**t all over decorum that there’s barely even a point to me reminding you that they’re offensive. Still, even when Harryman deployed bad taste he cast 3Pac as the weirdo, acting in a way that was absurd within the context of hip-hop, as well as reality itself.
For context, let’s compare 3Pac to Lil Dicky, the comedic white rapper whose hit single “Save Dat Money” critiques what he sees as hip-hop’s materialistic culture. Dicky’s music implicitly says, “I, a middle-class white man, am normal. Hip-hop is not normal.” But 3Pac’s music said, “Hip-hop is totally normal. I, however, am not normal in the least.” Though the terms and imagery 3Pac used were often f**ked up, the sentiment powering “Save Dat Money” is at least equally questionable, in that it propagates the actively racist idea that white culture is superior to black culture. The point is, 3Pac was not the first white dude in hip-hop to pull some questionable s**t, and he will not be the last.
To understand why Ryan Harryman would decide to become 3Pac at all, you have to understand the greater dynamic of the Bay Area in which he grew up. The Bay is something of a hip-hop mecca, a hugely influential area with its own hermetically sealed scene. It’s “the soil where other rappers be getting their lingo from,” as E-40 once rapped in 2006’s “Tell Me When to Go.” It’s long been home to an idiosyncratic and fruitful rap scene in which cultivating unique aesthetics, fashions, flows, and slang have been the hallmarks of successful rappers. Think Mac Dre’s origination of the term “hyphy,” Too $hort and Dru Down’s pimp personas, 40’s innovative and sputtering cadence, or even the rich interior world, philosophies, and vocabulary created by Lil B. It’s a scene which thrives whether or not it garners national attention, and it’s one whose sole influence often seems to be its own history. According to his friends and family, Ryan was fascinated by Bay Area hip-hop, as are many kids who grow up in the Bay — it is by far the dominant popular music in the area.
Meanwhile, companies such as Facebook, YouTube, and Uber are based in the Bay, and the area’s VC-funded start-up landscape prizes qualities like relentless commerce and constant growth. “Growing up watching [these companies] grow in his backyard, he was able to understand the power of media and deliver content at a minimal cost,” says his older brother, William Harryman, who’s in his late twenties and lives in Santa Barbara.
But for all of their physical proximity, there is very little cross-pollination between Bay Area’s rap and tech scenes. When they do interact, the juxtaposition often manifests itself in unexpected ways.
“Ryan just wanted to troll people,” says his close friend Tad Malone, who frequently collaborated with Harryman and eulogized him on the hip-hop site Cypher League. It’s the middle of February, and Tad’s video chatting me from his porch in the Silicon Valley town of Sunnyvale. Though Malone speaks fondly of his friend and is more than willing to expound at length upon the subject of 3Pac, he also describes Harryman’s death as “like a nightmare I haven’t woken up from.”
Malone and Harryman first met in their early teens and were close friends from then on out. The pair attended Homestead High, whose most famous alumni are Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. In fact, Apple HQ is “literally down the street from where we went to high school,” says Malone. “That was our world.”
After graduation, Malone says, Harryman stayed in suburban, boring Sunnyvale, a place he characterized as “awesome for 40-year-olds.” Malone went away to school in England for a time, coming home one break to find his friend had begun producing beats and rapping under the name 3Pac. Though Malone says that Harryman was enrolled in community college and had a job lifeguarding at a local pool, it seemed that he spent most of his free time “on the Internet, networking with people.”
Malone says that Harryman boasted of having made connections with well-respected Bay Area rappers like the Jacka, San Quinn, and Del the Funky Homosapien. “I didn’t believe it half the time,” he says, “but then he made a connection with someone at WorldStarHipHop.” That person took it upon themselves to post Harryman’s music video for the track “I’m Swaggin’” on the ubiquitous video site. The clip was simple, and the song bad — Malone wrote it off as “just him in his backyard in his pool.” But there was something mesmerizing about the short, in which Harryman can be seen rapping on his parents’ back porch with an inflatable floatie around his considerable belly, playing basketball in their pool, and gallivanting with his dog. Malone says the video “made 3Pac known, or at least hated.”
“He would really do everything he could to piss people off,” says Malone. That might mean starting fights in comments sections of his own videos, or making a song like “White Nigga.” Malone recalls being at a 3Pac show where Harryman was performing the song live at a punk house, wondering, “How is this acceptable? At what point is someone not going to be chill with this and beat the f**k out of him?”
Oliver Scott-Brown is a 17-year-old living in the U.K. who self-identifies as a member of Zero Hoots Gang. Brown didn’t know 3Pac personally, but he says the rapper “changed how I feel about society.” He enjoyed being a fan because of how engaged Harryman was with his fans. “3Pac would encourage his fans to ‘battle’ with other fanbases,” he says, meaning that Harryman would make videos urging supporters to attack fellow Internet personalities in the comments of their YouTube videos. This gave his overwhelmingly teenaged fans a sense of identity, as well as serving as an opportunity for more people to enter the off-kilter online world that Harryman had created.
One of 3Pac’s most popular tropes concerns the word “hoot,” which he had jokingly used in a few songs, proclaiming “I don’t give a hoot.” Soon, though, 3Pac’s motto became “Zero hoots,” his fans became the “Zero Hoots Gang,” and his logo became an owl that was crossed out. Topics and individuals worthy of derision became referred to as “hoot” (as in, “Ebola is hoot”), or they were “hoot-givers” — in that they were the opposite of 3Pac, who gave zero hoots — and therefore were, uh, bad.
When it came time to film his video for “RICH WHITE MAN MARK CUBAN,” he enlisted a middle-aged actress named Judy Cerda to be his co-star and gyrate around him as he rapped. “He knew a lot about marketing,” Cerda, who also appeared in Fountains of Wayne’s 2011 music video for “The Summer Place,” tells me over the phone. “I think he was excellent at it.” Her association with the rapper made her something of a satellite to Planet 3Pac. Because of him, she says, “I’ve received Facebook messages from people in France and Russia.” She became a staple of 3Pac’s videos, injecting a certain element of low-budget Lynchian dissonance to already-bizarre affairs.
And silly as it might have been, a rapper going around yelling the word “hoot” is startlingly effective branding. And though starting online flame wars with other Internet fandoms is highly antagonistic, it is — in its own warped way — a form of growth hacking. Harryman also worked to boost his publicity by starting a site called LegitHipHop, where he would post false and outlandish hip-hop news items, inserting blatantly fraudulent references to 3Pac in the articles.
Says Fantano, “You wouldn’t take [3Pac] seriously as a rapper, but he had memes and catchphrases” that even serious rappers would have aspired to create. “In a genre where ultimately your pen game is what makes you famous, you couldn’t take that away from him even if his music was silly.”
Malone recalls accompanying Harryman to a show he’d been booked to play at a house party in San Luis Obispo, home to Cal Tech and about a three-hour drive from San Jose. “We didn’t know to expect,” Malone says. “There were these two dudes standing outside [the house], and one of them asked, ‘You here to see 3Pac?’ Then Ryan was like, ‘…I am 3Pac.’”
The bouncers opened the door, “and there were 50 people inside. They bum-rushed Ryan and surrounded him.” In that moment, Malone says, “it was like watching a celebrity become real.”
Even as his renown as 3Pac compounded, Malone says that Harryman “didn’t have many prospects.” He was often broke, getting by through monetizing his fanbase however he could, whether that meant selling merch, releasing music on BandCamp, freestyling to fans over Snapchat in exchange for a few dollars, or signing McChicken wrappers and selling them to fans for $5. “He was like an Internet vagrant who produced content,” Malone jokes.
Harryman still lived with his parents, who Malone says “hated 3Pac.” As a way to minimize the impact of his rap career on them, he would frequently record his music in his car. (More diplomatically, Ryan’s brother William told me, “My parents never really understood [3Pac], but they gave him the space and freedom to do what he wanted.”)
Close to his death, Harryman had successfully transferred from community college to the nearby San Jose State, where he studied business (and later switched his major to anthropology) and joined a club water polo team.
It’s also around this time that 3Pac had, paradoxically enough, started to become something of a legitimate joke-rapper. He was playing shows on a semi-regular basis, and had begun to collaborate with other artists. On “I Need My Friends,” from Fantano’s mixtape, 3Pac rapped over the instrumental for A$AP Rocky’s “1 Train” with more skill and dedication to his craft than he’d displayed on any of his own viral hits. “This is just the beginning,” he rapped, “best believe we’re all finna be winning.” It’s not unreasonable to assume that if Harryman had kept at it, he could have followed a similar trajectory as the word-drunk, free-associative RiFF RaFF, or transitioned into the world of Internet comedy à la Nic Coletti, who first gained attention as a rapper named Yung Turd.
When Fantano first heard about Harryman’s death, he was skeptical. Anyone with a rabid Internet following is bound to be the subject of false death rumors — Fantano’s seen tweets and memes claiming he himself had died, he says. He wrote off the initial news of 3Pac’s passing as “crazy Internet s**t,” adding, “It’s sad to come to the realization that the person who was trolling on the Internet is a very real person with a very real mortality.”
The idea that 3Pac might fake his own death was not out of the realm of possibility. After all, Harryman had once started a hoax claiming that 3Pac had gone to jail. And not long before his death he’d released a diss track against Slim Jesus, the rail-thin, gun-toting white rapper from Ohio with a certain level of online infamy. Initial reports of 3Pac’s death on sites like VladTV and AllHipHop focused on the pair of white rappers’ so-called rivalry. Soon enough, the Internet did the thing that it does, and people who had no idea what they were talking about started openly wondering if there were links between the rappers’ beef and 3Pac’s death. It was totally feasible that Harryman might have grown bored of 3Pac, or decided the character was more trouble than he was worth, and killed him off in a blaze of good-ass posts, getting in one last dig on Slim Jesus in the process.
But 3Pac’s death was not a hoax. On October 13, according to various news reports, Harryman was at water polo practice and lost consciousness while swimming warm-up laps. He’d been under for about a minute before his teammates realized what was going on and pulled him out of the pool. He was then rushed to a nearby hospital, where it was determined that he’d suffered severe brain damage. A few days after entering the hospital, he was taken off of life support. According to a later San Jose Mercury News story, his death was ruled a drowning, and “there were no other underlying causes listed in his autopsy,” indicating that there was nothing medically wrong with Harryman before he drowned.
“He was just under too long, basically,” says Malone. “No one really knows how he drowned or why, but it happened.” In the end, the distance between our true selves and who we are online collapses, and all we are left with is nothing.
It’s a testament to both Harryman’s unique approach to life and music — not to mention the strength and strangeness of the character he created — that the legacy of 3Pac continues. Inspired by Harryman, Oliver Scott-Brown decided to make music of his own, and now raps under the name Yung Son. The teen also curates a web page tracking every musical affiliate of ZHG, including artists with names like Jock Jam Jesus, Cass0nva Riff-Raff, and DudeWithSwag. Perhaps inevitably, one of the artists emboldened by Harryman has taken on the name 4Pac.
Judy Cerda tells me that she’s still in contact with many members of Zero Hoots Gang, who check in on her and ask for feedback on their music. “Even though he’s gone I still get messages about him regularly,” she says. “I think he made a very big impact.”
After his death, many of his family and friends gathered at San Jose State for a vigil meant to commemorate the life of Ryan Harryman the young man and the legacy of 3Pac the rapper. It is there, with his brother wearing a Zero Hoots Gang apparel hoodie as he officiated the memorial, that Harryman and 3Pac converged for good. “Just the amount of people there as they were playing ‘Ebola Is Hoot’,” says Malone, who spoke at the tribute, “It melted my heart.”