Most students spend finals week stressing about exams and grades. Mark Gavigan, a fourth-year English major at UC Berkeley, spent finals week of fall 2012 rapping in his dorm room. For Gavigan, who rhymes under the moniker “Second Nature,” it was the culmination of two years of producing beats and writing lyrics. The end result was Saving Private Rhymes, a 14-track album that Gavigan describes as “a concept (album) of concepts.”
It’s an accurate description of the record, which Gavigan released online in April. Saving Private Rhymes is the equivalent of spending time with Gavigan himself. Gavigan, who transferred to UC Berkeley from Stockton, Calif., his hometown, raps and speaks with a friendliness that belies his openness. The first track, “Me Llamo,” is boisterous and bombastic with an undeniably infectious hook. This intro sets the tone for the album, which maintains a consistent emphasis on positivity — a disposition that Gavigan stresses is essential.
The rapper, who was raised with three siblings by a single mother on welfare, claims that humor is a coping mechanism for him. “If we didn’t have humor, we would just be miserable,” Gavigan said. “It’s what brought us through. It continues to bring me through on a daily basis.”
Gavigan’s humorous outlook is most evident on tracks like “On My Grind,” a song about one of the most prevalent coping mechanisms — caffeination — and “R2-D2,” whose title is a reference to the “Star Wars” droid. In fact, Gavigan, who is something of a movie buff, drops pop cultural references with incredible ease. In “On My Grind,” for example, he mentions Keyser Soze, a character in the 1995 film “The Usual Suspects.” In another verse, Gavigan compares his caffeinated self to “the Great Cornholio” of “Beavis and Butt-Head” fame.
For all the comedic emphasis, Saving Private Rhymes doesn’t parody hip-hop. Gavigan, who has been recording since he was 7 years old, penning lyrics since middle school and performing in a Wu Tang-style rap group called Legion of Doom, is an avid member of Students for Hip-Hop at Cal and CalSLAM. With a roster of influences that includes Coolio, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, pre-2008 Kanye West and even Enya, ’70s country, Simon and Garfunkel and Tears for Fears, Gavigan is a music and media fiend. He pays homage to his interests and passions in this album, from coffee to movies to Stockton. The hip-hop artist’s preponderance for liveliness, however, doesn’t preclude him from addressing darker themes.
Some of the most personal songs on the album, like “Pure Imagination,” “Find My Way” and “Salutations,” find Gavigan mining his life experiences, or the life experiences of people close to him, for inspirational fodder. Prison bars entrap us in “Pure Imagination,” but, as the title suggests, the imaginative faculties are indeed necessary to understand Gavigan’s metaphor: The song actually addresses abortion. “Find My Way” also addresses sexual assault, domestic abuse and drug dependence.
“Salutations” is a warm shout-out to friends and family, including Gavigan’s war-veteran grandfather, who passed away in the midst of the recording of Saving Private Rhymes, and his artistic, polyglot uncle, who committed suicide when Gavigan was a young child.
Despite some heavy themes, Gavigan remains an optimist. “Even the crap I’ve been through has shaped me in some profound way,” the musician said. “You just have to come to grips with it, and art is a great way of doing that. You have to flip it into something positive.”
It’s no coincidence that “Salutations” is the last song on the album. With a title that is itself a film reference, Saving Private Rhymes is a pop culture-referential record that never really wants to bid the listener adieu. It ends on a “hello,” and we know it won’t be long until Second Nature rhymes again, whether in a dorm room or onstage.