Whenever Michael Leonard’s at a loss for words, he apologizes because he knows he’s a reticent talker. But during performances like his set opening for Method Man and Redman at Madison Theater, Leonard’s MC alter-ego, Vincent Vega, commands crowds. Named after John Travolta’s hit-man character from Pulp Fiction, Vega is a lion-heart behind the mic and damn confident he’s a lyrical assassin.
On his album, Man on Fire, Vega breezes through verses, compiling metaphors, internal rhyme and larger-than-life imagery that isn’t gun-shy.
“I’ve been asked, ‘What’s my hook?’ and my hook is that I’m a regular guy; but with the rhymes,” Vega says. “I can out-rhyme you. It’s not necessarily about ‘fresh’ or ‘fly.’ When it’s time to rhyme — let’s go. Let’s see who brings what to the table.”
Vega employs the boasting and spoofing style long depended upon by Hip Hop wordsmiths, which is akin to the African-American folk tradition of signifying or exaggerated storytelling. Rapping in the “Live from Ohio Cincinnati Cypher” video with nine of the city’s strongest lyricists, he wields 32 bars of darts such as, “I’m a loose cannon, ready to blast/As much as I write bombs, my right arm should be in a cast.”
“I’m bringing lyricism to the forefront, back to how it was,” the 28-year-old Vega says.
The navy blue zip-front hoodie he’s wearing says “Good School,” which is indirectly synonymous with the kind of Hip Hop he associates his music with. As he raps on his current single, “Bring the Music Back,” Vega wants to resurrect the lyrical Hip Hop he was a fan of as a teen, recalling cerebral, well-conceived classics such as Nas’ I Am and It Was Written.
“I was a huge Jay-Z fan, a huge Nas fan,” the Madisonville native says. “Coming up, late-’90s music was just so much better then than it is now, for some reason. You had DMX, Nas, Jay-Z — all these different heavyweights dropping albums in the same year. At the time, I was in high school and a lot of that stuff I could relate to.”
Respectively, Vega finds much of today’s Rap delusively shallow. As he observes, “Nobody’s really ‘making it rain.’ ” Instead, he offers “motivational music” for the average listener who’s less likely to blow paychecks at the club, like his uncle Da’Mon George (aka DJ Stank), who has 20 years experience in local Hip Hop and DJs Vega’s live shows.
“Too many rappers I see in our area stick to the popular format and bring nothing interesting or new,” Stank says. “(Vega's) a blue-collar MC that tells his own story with flavor. That's what I love about my favorite MCs.”
When Vega describes what he hears as “motivational music,” he refers to his favorite artist, Lupe Fiasco, explaining that the Chicago MC is “crazy lyrical” with wordplay and thinks outside the box. And those are tools of the trade that attracted him to rapping.
“I fell in love with the way people put their words together, not necessarily what they were saying,” Vega says.
Vega didn’t begin making music until he was 20, debuting as “Vince Lombardi,” named after famed Green Bay Packers coach. He discovered it took more than a clever name to stand out and wrote methodically until being “crazy lyrical” came naturally.
Stank, who refers to his nephew as “Mikey,” sees his work paying off.
“In the past two years, I saw his passion take him to another level,” Stank says.
Today, Vega’s autocratic and always thinking ahead, because there’s no manager or street team making sure his name stays in the public eye. In addition to appearing with Method Man and Redman, Vega has opened for GZA, Nappy Roots, Joel Ortiz and J. Cole.
Stank also sees Vega interacting within a strong network of like-minded artists, one of whom is up-and-coming MC/producer Jonathan “J-Skillz” Cunningham. Last year, Cunningham took home an Ohio Hip Hop Award as Best New Artist and is the production mastermind behind some of Vega’s tracks on Man of Fire. His signature style of pairing Classical strings and keys with deafening kicks and bass is reminiscent of producers like Jus Blaze, and they hype double-entendre punch lines of Vega’s that give crowds the “OH!” face, like, “I got the bars to make you stutter like chopping and screwing.”
“(Vega) is also very humble and realizes he still has much to learn,” Stank says. “I think he will definitely do his part in elevating the Cincinnati's Hip Hop scene.”
“It’s more than just music,” Vega says. “It’s professionalism. It’s emotion. It’s a little bit of everything when selling you as an artist. You have to be able to go all the way in.”
For more on Vincent Vega (including song samples), visit www.reverbnation.com/vincentvega513.