Zero Hoots Forever: The 3PAC Phenomenon
I set out to write this piece as a celebration of singular American character; about a young man whose obsession with entertaining was so deep that, almost impossibly, he became the fulfillment of that dream. A suburban high school jock who set out to create a music parody, a Web work of performance art, and who, against all odds, instead found a seriousness and an identity in his life’s work.
This article is still that celebration. But it is also now a memorial.
3PAC, as the name suggests, began as a YouTube joke, a little Internet-trolling and attention-seeking by a white kid from the Silicon Valley suburb of Sunnyvale, California, who knew from the start that his choice of moniker and music—freestyle rap—would make him the target of both hatred and derision.
But what Ryan Harryman couldn’t imagine in 2010 was that his little joke would become a sensation. That he would develop a legion of fans across the country who, like Ryan, would appreciate both the humor and seriousness of the music. And that he would, in time, come to identify with this alternative identity so deeply that he would adopt its persona . . .and even make it into a career.
No one was more surprised by the 3PAC phenomenon than 3PAC’s friends.
I first met Ryan when we were twelve years old. We were both first-basemen in neighboring Little Leagues. In those early years, we played against each other in inter-league championship games. Later, we played on the same team, alternating at the position.
This should have created a competition, an antagonism between us. But while I was willing to fight, Ryan was too kind to join in the fray. He was just too warmhearted and unaggressive; he just came to play, even if it was for only a couple innings. And we became friends.
Anyone who has attended an American secondary school in the last decade knows that some of the most intense adherents to black culture–especially hip hop–are suburban white high schoolers. There are a variety of reasons for this. Hip hop can help one rebel against their surroundings, just as it can entice a teenager’s boundless curiosity of the unknown. But most of all, it can fulfill the desperate need to get away from the tired and familiar into something exotic and dangerous. Somewhere in every high school, there is a white middle-class kid who dreams that he too, against all evidence to the contrary, is destined to become a famous rapper.
Homestead High School in Cupertino, California certainly had its share of these hip hop wannabees. So when Ryan unexpectedly began to assume the persona of Silverback, then a little while later 3PAC, writing and spouting his own raps, his circle of friends–including me–assumed that he was having a little fun, indulging in a temporary goof before he moved on to something else. It was only with time that we realized, to our astonishment, that the genesis of 3PAC came from a very deep, and until then untapped, place in Ryan’s psyche.
The inspiration had, in fact, first come from Ryan’s older brother, who was trying his own hand at rapping while living in Santa Barbara. From him, Ryan learned the basics of music production and equipment. Ryan started producing hip hop beats under the name Silverback Slaps. Even though his knowledge was rudimentary, he exhibited a natural talent–for making beats at least–and that, combined with his ambition, began to open doors. Soon Ryan was getting verses from Bay Area legends like San Quinn and Del Tha Funkee Homosapien for his orchestral, bass heavy beats.
That work alone could have led to a successful, if anonymous, music career. But Ryan already wanted more. So he began rapping in earnest—not because he was necessarily good or had something to say, but because he simply wanted to get his name out there.
He was singularly unsuccessful. His destiny seemed that of every other unknown rapper.
Then something changed. Frustrated by his failure, Ryan turned his ambition upside down–if he couldn’t succeed as a serious artist, Ryan decided, he’d at least have some fun satirizing the whole process. And it was then, when he decided to stop taking it so seriously, the world started to look on with serious, if not amused, interest.
3PAC started out as a parody of hip hop—or at least the insular, utterly redundant characteristics of “bling bling” hip hop: the jewelry, women and cars, the unflappable confidence and excess in all its forms. Ryan’s persona, in a strange way, seemed to insulate him from his own shyness, and made him fearless. He released his first videos on YouTube, crude amateur productions of him freestyling and shouting in his room, threatening viewers with a sword.
Needless to say, there were no shortage of bad rap videos on the Web. But Ryan brought something different to the game. One thing he appreciated early is that social media moves incredibly fast. 3PAC videos quickly responded to that ceaseless momentum. If a news story broke, Ryan found some way to tie it to 3PAC, be it hoax articles about Miley Cyrus or songs singing the praises of Chevy Chase. Vigilant in his musical output and on his social media game, an endless run of new 3PAC videos appeared, somehow managing to be written, filmed and posted inside the current news cycle.
As soon as 3PAC released his first ‘official’ music video for “I’m Swaggin’,” it was almost immediately posted to WorldStarHipHop. Filmed by his little sister, the video featured a shirtless Ryan, his swimming pool and his dog. It inaugurated themes that remain consistent in the 3PAC universe: powerful beats accompanying a unshakeable confidence that bordered on delusion. The dog was also a first glimpse of the increasing anthropomorphism and animal iconography in 3PAC videos. Trouts, Owls, and Silverback Gorillas—all would soon play play a part in the 3PAC bestiary.
A dozen videos later marked the first appearance of Judy Cerda, a 39-year-old actress that Ryan found on Craigslist to appear alongside him in the video for his song “Rich White Man Mark Cuban.” Cerda’s film and TV credits included “Sex Sent Me to the Slammer,” “I (Almost) Got Away with It,” and “My Strange Criminal Addiction.” In 3PAC’s videos she acted as his “sugar mamma,” the proverbial video ho, but one who was also old enough to be his mom.
By this point, 3PACs growing persona was nearly complete. As a character, he is confident beyond all reasonable judgment. Indeed, he is beyond reasonable anything, except an utterly cynical idea of what it means to entertain. Only today, when whole virtual entertainment empires rise and fall in minutes and entire careers are destroyed by one tweet, could an absurd perversion like 3PAC exist and—more importantly—thrive.
You can call it narcissism, but that would be a disservice to Ryan’s ceaseless and inventive attention seeking. As 3PAC he was willing to slander public figures, complete with diss–tracks, just to get his name noticed. And, in time, with a legion of followers to do his bidding, Ryan sicked them upon whatever target he deemed worthy. In a brilliantly subversive move, Ryan bought the domain name legithiphop.com. Then, through this ‘legit’ hip hop site, Ryan wrote fake articles that somehow tied back into 3PAC. These articles were often mistaken for real news. He even made The Washington Post; his “Ebola is Hoot” rap was referenced in an article on the Internet’s reaction to the Ebola Scare.
The sheer amateurishness of 3PAC’s videos work in their own favor. In an era of expensive overproduction, 3PAC played a role in the strange rise of today’s esoteric rap. Harkening back to the rise of indie rock in the 1980s, 3PAC’s songs were recorded in one take through a computer microphone. The performances themselves are anything but choreographed: 3PAC consistently veers in and out of gibberish and screaming; catching a hook or flow for a second before jumping off again into chaos. Although Lil’ B’s weirdness was a big influence on Ryan, 3PAC is a whole different animal. If you were to add more synthesized vocals, his music would sound a lot like that of hip hop’s currently hottest acts, like Young Thug or Chief Keef.
Needless to say, a lot of 3PAC’s music is surpassingly strange, if not irritating, on first listen. You have to go back to someone like Captain Beefheart in the 1960s for a comparable first-time listening experience. 3PAC’s most prominent flow style is like a cross between free-form jazz and a rambling homeless man, where he first raps quickly and loudly, then slows his verbiage to an elementary crawl before flying off again like a human car alarm. Though they might be almost unbearable to sit through, there are some 3PAC songs that display an amazing range of vocal ability. In some cases, as noted in some of his snapchats, 3PAC nearly faints after rapping as loud, hard and fast as humanly possible. This signature style is what his fans have deemed ‘the auctioneer flow’; a style of rapping that is so fast, high pitched and manic that it sounds like a possessed auctioneer. The appearance of this unexpected talent from the most unlikely of settings, a white boy who went to private school—plus a chain of events we’ll soon discuss—makes 3PAC, incredibly in retrospect, something like the Bix Beiderbecke.
He even has some of Bix’s legendary “sweetness.” Although the prominent parts of his catalogue are “avante-garde,” upon closer listen 3PAC is capable of a wide range of styles and abilities. Some tracks are slow and conventional—if not romantic. Others sound like how 95% of hip hop songs are structured, where the flow is someone actually spitting rhythmically over the beat instead of yelling and screaming. The zealous 3PAC fans may prefer the chaotic 3PAC to the restrained, but it may be the latter that endures.
Like any group of teenagers, Ryan and I and our high school friends shared our own invented vernacular. Twisting the definitions of strange Bay Area slang, we converted words like “wack,”“bunk” or “hoot” into the opposites of their original definitions. This subversion of language made its way into the unique vernacular of 3PAC, where every couple words is punctuated by “son,” and even the most complex topics are reduced and molded into such broad and distinctly 3PAC phrases like “Don’t give a hoot, son,” and “I’m the beast in the booth, son.”
It is a cliché to say that the person and the performer are two very different people. But in Ryan’s case that dichotomy was taken beyond its imaginable limits.
I perhaps saw this as closely as anyone in his life, not just because I was Ryan’s friend, but because I also–often reluctantly–filmed some of his early videos. Even though I knew him and his dream so well, I still had trouble reconciling my shy, sometimes awkward buddy with the shirtless rapper, standing in front of a McDonald’s on El Camino Real, singing and signing as thousands of cars drove past, their passengers staring in disbelief.
Here’s what I know: Ryan Harryman was a doughy, white, suburban guy in his early twenties with an Elvis sneer who was likely to end up a middle-aged, mid-level manager in some mid-sized Silicon Valley tech company–but who instead, against infinite odds, chose to bet everything and pursue his rap dream. And he pulled it off. He did so with a combination of performance art, self-parody and earnestness. He somehow managed to overcome his natural social reluctance and unleash his own id – all while standing back and watching himself do it. He laughed at his creation and he took it dead seriously . . . until even his friends and family–even perhaps Ryan himself—couldn’t tell where Ryan ended and 3PAC began.
To his fans, he appeared to be transparent—but in fact, Ryan/3PAC was opaque, even to himself. When I asked Ryan to describe 3PAC, Ryan thought for a second and answered as 3PAC, “He’s a public figure not giving hoots about other people’s opinions and doing what he wants to do, son.” A brave remark, but not nearly as courageous as the life choices made by Ryan himself.
Had 3PAC existed as only a series of bizarre rap videos, he would have likely enjoyed a (very) small hardcore following. But there was yet another side of Ryan.
My father, a freelance journalist for The Wall Street Journal, once said to me, “Everyone looks at Ryan and sees 3PAC. But I see one of the most original marketing geniuses of his generation. He’s already better at marketing, branding and positioning than most of the companies I write about.”
Beyond the forced feuds, phony controversies and faked stories, beyond the news hooks and signature phrases, Ryan devoted almost every second of his waking hours to building the 3PAC empire. The steadily building viewership of the YouTube videos, Facebook posts and Snapchats, was soon joined by merchandise: t-shirts, caps and body shirts featuring the trademarked, “Zero Hoots” phrase and a red, distinctive, crossed-out owl image.
Not surprisingly, Ryan had a natural understanding of social networks and crowd sourcing. In another shrewd and potentially disastrous move, Ryan made his personal Facebook an extension of 3PAC’s fan page. This allowed him to gain a surprisingly wider exposure. As he told me: “Facebook made it so only 15% of people can see your posts on pages, so I knew I needed to use a personal profile to be engaged fully.” But it further erased the dividing line between the man and his creation.
Ultimately, it could be said that 3PAC’s appeal is really a testament to the power of the Internet. 3PAC/Ryan didn’t pay for videos, marketing, or tours. In fact, he tried to get out of paying for anything. Instead, with a professional marketer’s acumen and a circus performer’s fearlessness, he pushed his message strongly—like any good troll—and people responded.
It wasn’t always easy. In the beginning, the reception to 3PAC was almost universal mockery and hate—even some death threats—that took form in unadulterated verbal sparring matches between YouTube comments and videos. Even a Juggalo rapper who was featured on Tosh.0 took his shot. But over time, as 3PAC somehow endeared himself to the mob, racking up millions of total views, the game of insults became another form of one-upmanship, almost biblical in its hyperbole. In time, that game unwittingly contributed to the 3PAC legend, comment by comment, in which stories of 3PACs great deeds cleansing the world of hoots were extolled. “They treat me like a god,” Ryan would say, laughing.
As for 3PAC’s fans, I’m not even sure they liked his music. Perhaps they were more intrigued by the momentous world, lacquered with absurdity and positivity, that the music created. One thing is for sure, the fans were eclectic. Calling themselves the Zero Hoots Gang, they were comprised of all types of internet denizens.
Sometimes they come from the least likely of places, like 4chan, which has shown admiration from a distance for 3PAC’s trolling techniques. Famous League of Legends player Trick2g and Dota2 player Arteezy played his songs in their streams. Another is Anthony Fantano, better known as the YouTube music reviewer TheNeedleDrop. Fantano is such a fan that he included 3PAC on the recently released mixtape The New Calassic for his own rap alter-ego Cal Chuchesta.
Is @3PACTV the future of meme rap?
To subsist, 3PAC offered a range of goods and services. Besides merchandise and live shows, there was a personal touch to the otherwise public persona. He sold verses to other aspiring rappers, as well as personal freestyles for anyone with a Paypal or Venmo account. Crowdfunding nearly every aspect of the 3pac Universe, Ryan lived the life of a rapper-vagrant. 3PAC concerts of the last year—San Luis Obispo; Palo Alto; Vegas; Missoula, Montana; and Edmonton, Canada–were all subsidized by fans literally paying for 3PAC’s plane tickets. This same mass of followers also voluntary created content for all things 3PAC: album art, songs, twitter brigading, and photoshop that further emboldened the 3PAC image. His newly redesigned website zerohoots.com was done for free by one of his fans. A large part of his new mixtape consists of music simply given to him. Somehow, miraculously, it all worked. In fact, it thrived. And as much as 3PAC loved the art of music creation, he understood that the real test of his art would be live performance. Could he pull off in person the combination of knowingness and amateurism he had accomplished so brilliantly in his videos? The first show in September 2014 in Palo Alto was a disaster. He was too drunk and almost got into a fight with the party organizers. It was months before the next invitation came, this time for a house party near UC Santa Barbara. Perhaps nervous about how college kids might receive him, Ryan asked two of us old friends to come along. He needn’t have worried: the skate-rat crowd not only welcomed 3PAC, they embraced him like a celebrity and knew all his songs. The result was a raucous sing-along that lasted for hours, with 3PAC the epicenter of the fun. That night, as we stood on the hotel balcony having a cigarette, Ryan turned to me and said, with perfect sincerity, “This is the happiest day of my life.”
At age 25, Ryan was doing well in college, working part-time and playing for one of his school’s water polo clubs. Ryan’s parents were greatly relieved. As a majority of their son’s online content was created in his room at their house, or in his car that they paid for, one can imagine the opinion they had about their son rapping on the internet in his underwear about beating cheeks and ebola. As Ryan says: “They say basically, I wish he wasn’t as vulgar. But at the same time, they see deep down what I’m doing has a good message, and it’s slowly unfolding. “They also ask me: ‘What, are you’re going to be 30 years old and still be 3PAC?’ I don’t really know what to say,” Ryan told me with laugh and a shake of his head. As I interviewed Ryan early last week, he was living the life of a typical suburban twenty something; finishing up college, picking up old hobbies like swimming and working the rest of his waking hours. In the 3PAC world, water polo may be the least hip hop activity outside of cricket; but in the Ryan Harryman world it is a natural. And somehow it was possible to imagine that two worlds would once again rationalize this contradiction. Would 3PAC soon produce a video from a collegiate swimming pool? Indeed, it almost seemed a natural evolution from that backyard pool in his earliest videos. In fact, the process had already begun. Even as he carried his books to class, Ryan was recognized as 3PAC. People shouted to him from passing cars, stopped him for photos as he crossed the campus . . . and even his water polo team took up “Zero Hoots!” chants during games. By working out, Ryan’s physical appearance changed. He lost more than 30 pounds and began to take on the chiseled look of the athlete he’d once been.
Whatever the look of his latest incarnation, and however he disguised himself, Ryan/3PAC was always quintessentially American. Brash and forthright to the point of discomfort, self-effacing while simultaneously implausibly confident, a caricature of both American excess and candor, 3PAC is a creation of scope wider than its reach, eager to both inform you his philosophy on life and deter you through his behavior. And within that persona was Ryan Harryman, who my little brother saw the other day waiting patiently in his car at an intersection for an elderly lady to cross against a red light; who proudly suited up for his college water polo game. If 3PAC was the sight you don’t want to see but can’t help but watch; Ryan was the quiet figure of consequence you barely notice. Perhaps that’s why, at the heart of 3PAC and his Zero Hoots Gang, is ultimately a message of positivity. To be yourself and not worry about the consequences. It is an utterly irreverent affirmation of life. After all, says Ryan from behind the mask, if I can do it, why not you? Then, 3PAC takes over and announces, as he did to me: “I think at this point it’s just what I do. To keep the haters hating and the fans loving it. You have to act like shit to be the shit.” Last Sunday, sitting on my back patio, I interviewed Ryan for this article. We talked for hours —the best conversation we had in years. Two nights later, a call came informing me that Ryan had suffered a medical emergency during water polo practice. He had been pulled out from the bottom of the pool by his teammates, received CPR and was being rushed to San Jose Regional Medical Hospital. After the ER, he was transferred to the Cardiac ICU where his heart stopped twice. He was revived and placed on life support. The 3PAC beat in Ryan Harryman heart had now quieted forever, but his fans soon found out, and so came the outpouring of thousands of messages in tribute, including from Anthony Fontano and Lil’ B.
Zero hoots son - Lil B
On Friday morning, more than a dozen of us childhood friends gathered in Ryan’s hospital room to cry and say goodbye. Then we, some of his oldest friends, met on that same patio where I’d interviewed a happy, healthy and optimistic Ryan Harryman just a few days before and had our own memorial. We told Ryan stories. Then we told 3PAC stories. And we laughed to hide the tears.
Cover illustration by Lauren Melenudo.