“When people first see me get up to rap in a collared shirt, baseball cap and jeans, they’re probably thinking, ‘Oh, this white boy probably went to a private Catholic all-boys school,’” says 24-year-old Adam Ferrone, who goes by Rone. “Well, I’m just glad I can complete the circle for them, because I did.”
If you wouldn’t expect a graduate of Philadelphia’s reputable St. Joe’s Preparatory School to be stomping onto the city’s rap scene, you’d be thinking right. The Jesuit priests don’t often encourage their boys — whose parents are paying a pretty penny for tuition — to pursue a career in hip-hop. Without hesitation, however, Rone is proud to announce that the grammatical foundation he built at the Prep is his sharpest weapon.
“It’s an advantage if you’re a writer. It’s about how well you can use language and how dexterously you can move throughout the vernacular. See there, I just flexed a bit,” he jokes.
Six feet tall, 160 pounds, with baby-smooth pale skin and deeply dimpled cheeks, Rone hardly fits the typical mental picture of a rapper from the streets of Philadelphia. From the beginning, however, he has never apologized for his whiteness. In an early face-off with Union City, Calif., rapper Caustic, he brought down the house with this line: “I look better in a sweater/ having tools/ grammar rules/ politically correct answers/ wittier dinner banter/ propane igniting/ creative writing/ hiking/ biking/ pretty much any white thing.”
Ferrone was 21 and studying journalism and theater at Penn State University when he first discovered rap battling. Instantly hooked, he found that skipping class to watch great freestylers and practice rapping was a much better use of his time.
He applied to the world’s largest hip-hop battle league, New York’s GrindTime-Now, and brought with him his very large vocabulary.
To Rone, battling is a completely academic endeavor. He puts in serious, diligent work before the big day. “I have to think up the most intricate wordplay and schemes against them. … There’s just no excuse for me to not do well. I have college degrees, I have a reputation to uphold and I need to prove to myself that I’m doing the right thing with my life.”
Well, judging by the dozens of videos on YouTube, he’s on the right path. It’s not just the surprise references and rapid-fire wordplay. It’s also the way the crowd reacts. No one expects the white kid from the suburbs to show up, let alone destroy longtime battlers in front of their followings.
Rone has taken on some of the best battlers from around the world, such as Australia’s 360, California’s Okwerdz and Canada’s Tricky P. And with each victory, he accumulates the necessary respect to continue advancing in the battling underground. It’s like passing a test, only cooler.
It didn’t take many of these hot mic massacres before Philly rapper and Roots associate Dice Raw recognized the rising star.
“Being a white rapper, you have to be able to battle,” Dice says. “When I went to Rone’s battles, I saw somebody who had great rapping potential. It was nothing but charisma, it was funny, but he was still tough and just smart.”
Dice summoned Rone to the Raw Life studio to see if there was chemistry with producer Rick Friedrich.
Friedrich — who has seen and worked with countless talented Philadelphia artists under the banner of The Philadelphia Record Company — immediately saw a Renaissance man in Rone. “He’s a singer, he’s a rapper, he’s an actor, a comedian, a talk show host. … He smiles and makes eye contact.” The most impressive trait that his producer has seen in the kid, however, is in his dedication. “A lot of artists want things, but when Rone wants something, he gets it.”
Rone’s debut album, The First Story, was released on Tuesday; this Saturday’s gig at MilkBoy doubles as a release party. As Friedrich says, “When you hear all the songs together, a character emerges, an artist evolves. It’s the same with any artist you really love; people like the person that they’re left with after they’re done listening. … It’s the Rone experience.”
To all his former classmates at the Prep and neighborhood friends who are blown away by the transformation of that nice little boy they once knew, his friend and manager Mike Wallace assures that, “he was always witty and intelligent. I think he finally just found the perfect channel to show it all off.”
Co-managers Ryan Thomson and Wallace agree that Philadelphia is an ideal-size pond for Rone. He’s working with The Roots network, which gives him access to the world of hip-hop, and locally, his fan base is growing daily. In less than two years with an account, Rone has accumulated more than 5,000 followers on Twitter and 6,000 Facebook fans.
And then there’s his blood entourage, his family. His father and sister, both physicists, and his mother, a nurse, may not understand what Adam is doing, but they know his potential. His grandma watches all his battles and sends handwritten critiques to his mailbox in Manayunk.
“They have given me confidence,” says Rone. “Caution is to the wind, so I’m gonna go out there and fuck everyone up, ’cause my momma said it was OK.”
Sat., June 23, $10-$12, 9:30 p.m., with Don McCloskey and Nikki Jean, MilkBoy Philly, 1100 Chestnut St., 215-925-MILK, milkboyphilly.com.