PORTLAND, Maine — The sparks spraying out across the midnight highway in June delivered a clear message to Nate Shupe, up until then willing to ignore the pain building inside of him.
When the car finally came to rest after losing a whole wheel and skidding on metal to a halt, he decided the universe was telling him that this road trip could be skipped. To go back home to Maine and see a doctor.
Shupe, 27, had plenty of reasons to keep putting off a checkup, despite what had been increasing pain in his midsection.
As the DJ and producer for up-and-coming rapper eyenine, Mike Dionne, Shupe at that very moment was on his way to the four-day Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee at the personal invitation of rap legend RZA. El Shupacabra, as he’s known on stage, and eyenine had been traveling the country with the Wu-Tang Clan mastermind and other rap A-listers like U-God and Supernatural.
Back home in Portland, Shupe and Jesse Wagner — aka Ill By Instinct — had over four years helped build the city’s weekly Rap Night showcase into an underground destination for performers and fanatics from around the nation.
So what was the big deal with a little soreness? As Shupe soon found out, it was cancer.
For five months, Shupe’s dream rise in his music career was interrupted by a medical nightmare.
But on Wednesday, he’ll be back. As Rap Night opens at its new home venue at the Asylum in Portland, Shupe will make his long-awaited return to the stage, complete with a new appreciation of his and his city’s skyrocketing stock in the rap world.
The John Lennon of hip hop
In December 2011, Wu-Tang had a Tuesday night concert at The State Theatre. Half the group stayed in the city on an off-day Wednesday before moving on to the next tour stop, and RZA led a contingent over to the Big Easy, which was then the host establishment for Rap Night.
“I remember being on stage and seeing him at the back,” Shupe recalled. “I remember a specific moment where one of my beats was playing and he was bobbing his head. I was geeking out: One of the greatest beatmasters ever was bobbing his head to my beat.
“RZA to hip hop might be like what John Lennon is to rock and roll,” he continued. “[RZA and his friends] watched [eyenine] play and they were very impressed. They called the club the very next day and said, ‘We need eyenine’s contact info.’”
At RZA’s insistence, Shupe and Dionne developed a slate of six or seven of their best songs and then went to North Carolina to record an EP at a studio affiliated with Wu-Tang.
A series of high-profile performance invitations followed. Shupacabra and eyenine went to New York City for the annual Rock the Bells hip hop festival almost a year later and then joined headliner RZA on a 10-date nationwide tour in promotion of the rapper-turned-Hollywood maven’s new movie “The Man with the Iron Fists.”
Another short northeastern tour with fellow Wu-Tang member GZA followed in March of this year, and alongside Dionne, Shupe seemed invincible.
He’d grown up idolizing Wu-Tang and collecting every recording he could find from the group’s many spinoff acts.
“Anything Wu-Tang-related I would buy,” Shupe, a Portland High School graduate, recalled of his teen years. “Now, the Wu-Tang management logo is on the back of our latest album. I used to seek out Wu-Tang affiliates, now we are one.”
This summer, Wu-Tang Music Group’s Real Hood Music released “Dissembler,” an EP by eyenine produced by Shupacabra.
By then, everything had changed for Shupe.
‘It messes your body up’
After Shupe had returned to Maine from the aborted trip to Bonnaroo, he took the broken wheel as a not-so-subtle nudge from above to figure out why one of his testicles had become so swollen and sore in recent weeks.
He checked in at a walk-in clinic in Portland on a Friday. By the following Wednesday, June 19, he was scheduled for surgery to remove what a biopsy determined was cancer.
“They removed the tumor, but the fear was that at that point it might have spread,” Shupe said.
It had. Further tests discovered cancer beginning to take hold of his abdomen and right lung. Having recently seen his uncle and aunt each die of brain cancer even after painful chemotherapy treatments, Shupe was skeptical of the recommended treatment and considered not going through with it.
“Part of me was just, ‘I’ve already done more than I ever thought I would as a kid,’” he said. “I was just going to change my diet, try to live healthy and let my body just do what it was going to do.”
Shupe’s doctors convinced him that chemotherapy, for his kind of cancer, has a 90 to 95 percent success rate and was worth enduring.
But while he agreed to accept the life-saving treatment, it brought his music career nearly to a halt. He was left in a mental fog and uncoordinated.
“My hands weren’t doing what my brain was telling them to,” Shupe said. “Chemo is not cool. It messes your body up.”
For several months, he had to settle for just listening to music and studying his craft. He came to appreciate not only his own life, but Portland’s Rap Night, which he’d helped grow along with Wagner and which rallied in his absence.
“Prior to my cancer, I didn’t really think about our success,” Shupe said. “I was too busy to think about it, but the last couple of months have been nothing but reflection.”
Shupe and Wagner — El Shupacabra and Ill By Instinct — have been in charge of Rap Night since 2009, when previous organizer dj shAde moved to Chicago. The duo added regular showcase attractions to the open mic and pushed the Rap Night brand around the city.
“We wanted to put Rap Night on the map, so that when you’re thinking Northeast and you’re thinking hip hop, you’re thinking Portland,” Wagner said. “Portland is definitely more of a destination for rap than people realize or give it credit for, and that’s one of the things that we’ve worked hard to show people.”
Said Shupe: “We used to get 30 or 40 people a night. Now we get 120 to 150 people a night.”
But since July, Shupe has not been one of those hundred-some-odd attendees. Since his last turn on the Rap Night stage, where he was often the house DJ alongside Wagner as the master of ceremonies, the event has moved from the closed-down Big Easy and finally landed a new home at the Asylum.
“Rap Night has definitely missed him,” Wagner said. “He’s such a huge part of the night. It’s a big testament to how important the night is to the community and how well we’ve done to overcome these challenges we’ve faced recently.”
It seems both Shupe and Rap Night have reached the lights at the ends of their respective tunnels. Shupe learned in recent weeks that his body is cancer-free.
In part because he remembers how difficult it was to mix beats while undergoing chemotherapy, Shupe is nervous for the first time in a long time about taking the stage Wednesday, when he’ll appropriately lay down beats for Rap Night partner Ill By Instinct.
If his rollercoaster battle with cancer has a silver lining, Shupe said it’s the nervousness — almost an excitement. He wants to take more risks with his music and try new things.
“In art, you don’t want to get too comfortable, and maybe I was getting to that point,” he said. “In a way, it was good to be shaken up.
“I can’t wait to bring that energy back to the stage,” Shupe continued. “I know that as soon as we get going, I’ll feel right at home. I think it’s going to be a huge relief. I could have died. Not only could I not have made music, I could have died.”