Most creative writing majors know they face limited job prospects after college. But the opposite has been true for one young Bay Area rapper, who has turned his 2016 degree in creative writing and media studies into a successful and satisfying career.
Frak, as he is known professionally, has been writing songs and rapping since he was 14 and already has a bigger audience than most writers can only dream of. Cuts from his new album have been streamed online more than 500,000 times, and he has a regular hip-hop gig at the Elbo Room in San Francisco. Not only that, but one of his songs was featured at Golden State Warriors home games this past season.
“I think hip-hop is its own form of creative writing,” he says.
Alex Fraknoi (aka Frak), 24, was born in San Francisco and grew up in the Inner Sunset. He attended the Brandeis School (then called Brandeis Hillel) through the eighth grade and Lick-Wilmerding High School, where he began freestyle rapping with some friends. At 15, he won the MC Olympics, a Bay Area-wide competition featuring the best young emcees (rappers who also pump up the energy of a room in a master of ceremonies role). That led him to compete in freestyle battles in other U.S. cities, Canada and the United Kingdom.
He released his first album, “Bagels,” in 2012 when he was at Pitzer College in Southern California, and it was a hit, getting more than 200,000 plays online. SFWeekly named it one of the top local hip-hop albums. The 13-song project contains references to his relationship with Judaism. In a track called “ISM” he raps:
Oseh Shalom, the song therapeutic,
Chills on my arm, we’re resounding in unison.
What I realized in the shower of music,
more than anything was the power of humans.
Though he doesn’t consider himself very religious, the exposure to Jewish music, as well as his education at Brandeis, enter into his ruminations on spiritual themes.
“My cultural Judaism has a profound effect on the topics of my music,” he says. “I am always questioning. Also the music itself: I draw inspiration from the dark notes of songs I remember from temple. I often sample those songs.”
Some of those early explorations continue in his latest album, “Limewire ’03,” which began as a college creative writing project.
“I kind of snuck it by them as poetry,” he says.
During college he was exposed to many different types of writing that influence his process. He says he “made poetic choices in this album,” which he describes as “an 11-track take on life in the millennial era where everything is accessible.” Violence, spirituality, family and romantic themes are mixed in with “some jabs at America’s current social climate.”
One of the tracks is “Onomatopoeia,” a literary term for a word that is derived from a sound (such as “boing” or “gurgle”). Others, such as the track “Spine,” more directly bear the stamp of his Jewish consciousness:
It’s the forgotten thoughts of a holocaust survivor,
The Alzheimers blocking out the rocket launches fired,
The atomic bomb designer Dr. Robert Oppenheimer
Was lost within the Oscar-winning guilt that he inspired…
Dan Wolf, a Bay Area Holocaust educator, theater performer and co-founder of the early hip-hop group Felonious, says he crosses paths with Frak when he raps for the monthly live show Tourette’s Without Regrets in Oakland.
“Frak is a true skool rapper. He can battle and write rhymes that honor and push the form,” Wolf said in an email.
Frak says going to college never felt like a diversion from his interests as a musician. “I think I always wanted to do both,” he says. “I was always into words.”
He has now parlayed his facility with language into a gig as a hip-hop educator — another creative use of his studies. He leads writing and freestyling workshops at the San Francisco Public Library and at a continuation school in Oakland for the local organization Youth Speaks.
“It’s my dream job as a rapper,” he says, “doing what I love while working with Bay Area youth who are also interested in rapping.”
His new music video “Feng Shui” is going to drop any day now, he says. It’s a collaboration with Kaly Jay, one of his longtime pals from high school. “We both bring verses dedicated to all the buzz-killers who ruin good times,” he says. The track from the “Limewire ’03” album was produced by Bay Area rap artist Will Randoph V., and the video was shot near Fort Funston.
Frak enjoyed the whiff of mainstream fame recently when his song “Draymond” reached the ears of Draymond Green, the Golden State Warriors star forward. Bay Area rapper Mistah F.A.B. sent it to the DJ at Oracle Arena, and the song got on the playlist at Warriors’ games. Green himself gave it a shoutout.
What is there left for a young poet to wish for?