The video opens with a shot of a young, shaggy-haired man who sports a whisper of a mustache and sheepish smile. Clutching a microphone, he stands in a janky Oak Park backyard, surrounded by an empty bird cage, tattered couches, a moped and small keyboard placed on top of a random drum.
“Hello, I love a girl,” he says in a voice that somehow manages to be both monotone and manic. “I’m a man, and I love a girl, and I like her so much. And this song would be for you babe, but it’s sad, so it’s not going to be, but I like it a lot.”
The star of this homespun video is rapper Frank Lopes, 22, better known in music circles as Hobo Johnson. And through his series of lovably low-budget clips, he’s emerged as one of the hottest and perhaps most unlikely stars of local hip-hop.
A hardened street soldier of hip-hop Hobo Johnson is not. But the rapper – whose 1994 Toyota Corolla once doubled as his home, thus the name “Hobo Johnson” – is finding success just by being true to his slightly neurotic self.
Lopes was raised in Loomis. His teenage years were turbulent. He was kicked out of Del Oro High School, he says, and grappled with a drinking problem that led to stints in juvenile hall.
The legend of Hobo Johnson began when Lopes was about 19, following a spat with his dad and stepmom that left him kicked out of the house. He opted to turn his Corolla into a kind of makeshift apartment, sleeping in the back seat when he wasn’t working at a Rocklin pizza parlor or using a Roseville 24 Hour Fitness as a place to shower.
He was a hip-hop fan who already had toyed with writing rhymes, many of them about failed attempts at winning over girls. It wasn’t the usual subject matter for a genre that takes its self-aggrandizement seriously.
Broke, and grappling with cramped legs from sleeping in his car, Lopes embraced a new persona: “Hobo Johnson.” This rapper would celebrate the scrappy and keep his subject matter sincere, even to the point of awkwardness. Hip-hop would remain his platform, but his style would show the influence of folk-punk bands such as the Front Bottoms and other groups that celebrated the confessional and self-conscious, all in a low-fi atmosphere.
“When I was in the Corolla, it made me feel that music was all I had,” he said. “I finally got over the fear of people thinking I’m weird. I was listening to my songs and it wasn’t good because I wasn’t being honest. I’m weird. That’s what I do.”
Lopes ultimately blew the head gasket on his Corolla, which had poems scrawled on its hood. He ended up selling it for parts. “The car meant so much to me, it was all I had and they crushed it with a big ol’ crusher,” he said. His music career continued to hobble along as he moved to Oak Park in 2015. He released the album “1994 Toyota Corolla” in 2015 followed by 2017’s “The Rise of Hobo Johnson.”
His breakthrough finally arrived with the release of his “Live From Oak Park” video series. To make it, he basically ran through his live set in the backyard of Derek Lynch, the guitarist in Lopes’ backing band The Lovemakers. The recordings ended up going viral around Sacramento’s music scene.
With its ramshackle setting, the videos convey Lopes’ earnest appeal as he raps candidly about family dysfunction (“Father”), dreams of fame (“Dear Labels”) and unrequited romance (“Sex in the City”). In some instances, Lopes plays tinkling piano melodies and laughs as he nearly flubs his rhymes.
“I want to make ‘nice’ hip-hop,” Lopes said. “A lot of people can get put off when you say ‘rapper,’ especially with older people, because there’s a stigma that it’s got to be ignorant, knucklehead (stuff). I see people that are like a 40-year-old couple coming to my shows.”
This year, fans can look forward to more shows and new music as Lopes gets back to what he does best – writing, recording, and performing.
Written by Chris Macias in The Sacramento Bee.