Following his February 2017 assault of an ex-girlfriend, is the rapper out of chances?
As Run the Jewels' January 2017 concert at Express Live neared its close, the hip-hop duo paid tribute to late rapper Camu Tao, inviting select friends and family members of the Columbus native onstage as Tao's song “Hold the Floor” boomed through the venue's sound system.
Among the group that swarmed the stage that night were artists such as Metro, RJD2 and Copywrite, the Columbus-born rapper whose long, well-documented history of offstage trouble has, at times, eclipsed his music.
In that moment, however, as Copywrite rapped along to words first spit by his teenage running mate, it was possible to believe the MC could finally pull things together, delivering on the promise of his prodigious lyrical talents, which had long been celebrated in underground rap circles. He had finished serving time for a 2013 OVI and assault on a police officer, and in June 2016 he had released a new album, Blood, Bath & Beyond, which balanced raw, revealing autobiographical tracks with boastful battle raps — a long-held hallmark of his sound. The future, it appeared, was wide open.
But less than a month later, an ex-girlfriend penned a Facebook post alleging abuse at the hands of Copywrite, born Peter Nelson 39 years ago, including graphic details of the incident, which occurred on Feb. 1, according to court documents. “Pete ‘tyrone' nelson aka copywrite, got thrown out of ravari for putting me in a choke hold a couple weeks ago,” the woman wrote in a Feb. 13 public post, which is still active and had generated 177 comments and 83 shares as of press time. “When I went to get my dog and work equipment from his house, he punched me in the face and kicked me down his wooden stairs. (I ripped his chain off his neck and threw an empty milkshake cup at his wall) this was not the first time he hit me.”
The response to the post was immediate, with family, friends and strangers chiming in to offer support for the victim. “I admire you for doing what most women in your situation are too afraid to do — loving themselves enough to come forward,” read one typical comment, echoing a recent trend where additional credence is being given to women who speak out detailing acts of violence, sexual assault or discrimination.
A police report was taken the night of the incident, and charges against Nelson were filed in early May, with a warrant issued for his arrest. The case was eventually dismissed in mid-December after the victim declined to appear in court, highlighting the difficulty inherent in pursuing domestic abuse charges. (The woman in question initially agreed to be interviewed by Alive, but later backed out citing health issues; absent an on-record conversation, Alive has chosen to withhold her name.)
“I think it is a difficult weight put on the victim to be the state's witness for the case,” said Nancy Neylon, executive director of the Ohio Domestic Violence Network (ODVN). “If a survivor chooses not to go through with [a trial], is it fear of reprisal from the guy who attacked her? Is it going through the court process itself? ‘You mean I need to be at the arraignment and the hearing? How much time do I need to take off work?' And sometimes it's just, ‘I'm done with this. I'm moving on and don't want to be bothered with this anymore.' Or it could be some combination of all those things.”
Prior to court proceedings, on the evening the controversy ignited social media, Copywrite poured gas on the flames when he posted a private, sexually explicit video of the ex-girlfriend who levied the accusations. Though he later deleted it, the damage had been done.
“When I post that video, that's when I manifest into the dirtbag she was accusing me of being,” Copywrite said in the first of two January interviews. “That's when I prove everybody right.”
“I was in the wrong. It's cowardly to run and hide and not talk about it. You can't heal like that,” he continued. “No man should ever hit a woman, and I am guilty of hitting a woman. It's nothing I'm proud of. It's also nothing I have a track record of in life.”
The following day, Zachary “Coolzey” Lint, a rapper and the founder of Public School Records, which released Blood, Bath & Beyond, publicly cut ties with Copywrite in a Facebook post, pledging to donate future profits from the album to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). (Lint more recently said the album's 2017 profits, though meager, would be donated to RAINN in the woman's name, with revenue reverting to Copywrite beginning in 2018.)
“I had been suppressing and/or ignoring an anger and indignation that had grown in me from being subjected to Pete's instability and misogyny on tours, as well as having had to endure several amazingly sociopathic stunts that I simply can't discuss, but let me just say that words don't do justice to the outrageous disregard that I witnessed for the well-being of others, including his best friends,” said Lint in an emailed statement. “What is hard for people to understand is how I can say that and also say that I love Pete and I forgive him. People like to throw around the phrase ‘forgiveness is divine,' but they never really stop to think about what it means. … Saints become sinners eventually, and vice versa. None of us are exempt.”
For years, Copywrite has vacillated between these extremes, establishing a pattern where arrests were met with intermittent periods of sobriety and relative stability. As a result, since 2012 Alive has published multiple features about the musician centered on a similar theme: redemption.
“For my personality type, the drugs and alcohol just don't work. … I've done it long enough, and I'm over it,” Copywrite said in May 2014. Then in July 2016 he discussed the legacy of trouble-making attached to his name and his efforts to shift the narrative. “There's so much negative folklore in the city about the legend of Copywrite doing this or that and fucking this shit up,” he said. “So many people who've never met me … still believe all that shit.”
Conversations on the concept of accountability have become more prevalent in recent times. Who gets a second chance? Are there lines people can cross from which there is no coming back? Is it ever too late for redemption? And who gets to decide?
It's not a discussion that tends to generate clean, easy answers.
“I don't think we as a society have a good accountability system for people who are batterers or sexual harassers or that kind of thing. We just don't,” said Neylon of ODVN. “More people are speaking up, yes, but is there accountability yet? I would say not.”
Copywrite was born at Riverside Hospital on June 12, 1977, though much of his adult life has been shaped by death. His father died in June 1998, inspiring the rapper's best-known verse, on RJD2's “June,” which he described as his way “to make a memorial to my dad, to pay my respects to him.” In 2009, Copywrite's mother passed away. Coupled with the 2008 death of friend Camu Tao, the loss sent the rapper into a deep tailspin. “It was drinking excessively and mixing it with pain pills or Xanax or opiates,” he said, “to where you black out and don't know what you're doing.”
A string of OVI charges followed beginning that same year, culminating in a 2013 arrest during which Copywrite emerged from a blackout handcuffed in the backseat of a police cruiser. He later learned that he had struck two cars before crashing into a house on Buttles Avenue, in addition to biting the thigh of an officer who had attempted to administer a sobriety test, resulting in an assault charge. Prior to the trial, the rapper received a video of his arrest, though he has yet to watch it because he's too ashamed.
“Some people should not drink. … I'm definitely one of those people,” Copywrite said. “Even when I was going to [Alcoholics Anonymous] and things were going well, it still took me more mess-ups to learn I can't drink that way and have a normal life.”
While the rapper said he has slowed his intake, he has continued to drink despite his addiction, believing alcohol helps him manage the lows brought on by his bipolar disorder better than the half-dozen medications he has auditioned, each of which left him feeling numb.
“Sometimes I have a feeling of impending doom, and if I don't take a shot or two I'm walking around feeling like my soul is being crushed,” said Copywrite. “I've tried lithium. I've tried Lamotrigine. I've tried Strattera. I've tried Wellbutrin. I tried Celexa, twice. They all kill your personality and make you feel like a zombie. … Alcohol can help [with anxiety], but it can also change it into anger if you're not in the right mood when you drink. If I have any type of turmoil in me when I drink, it's coming out, and it's coming out at the wrong person, which is shameful.”
Friends and musical collaborators have witnessed this split personality. Producer Chris “D1” Dickerson, who has worked with the rapper since 2013, said there can be two distinct sides to Copywrite: A calm, sober presence that shows up to the studio locked in and ready to work, and a drug- or booze-addled version that can completely sabotage a session.
“He has a problem with impulse control, and at the same time he'll feel bad automatically [when he makes a mistake],” said rapper Dominique Larue, who first crossed paths with Copywrite about 15 years ago. “I've seen Pete on the up and up, like, ‘Yo, I'm bettering myself and I appreciate the person I'm becoming.' And I've seen Pete relapse and go right back into the same things. … It's like, ‘Bro, you're grown. You know what you should be doing.'”
At the same time, those closest to the rapper said he has made noticeable personal strides that run counter to his criminal record, which dates back to a 1997 arrest for stealing $28.94 in merchandise from a Meijer (the rapper said he attempted to abscond with a copy of Source magazine and the double Wu-Tang Forever CD). Dickerson, for one, said Copywrite has become more empathetic of people around him, while Larue, a domestic-abuse survivor who noted Nelson has “a very, very deep hole to climb himself out of” following the assault, described him as funny, charismatic and big-hearted.
“We were all in different places 10 or 15 years ago. A lot of shit shapes you and changes you,” said rapper and longtime friend Metro, who has known Copywrite since the mid-'90s; despite Metro's perception that Copy has made positive strides, he didn't know if the public credited him with similar growth. “I hope he ain't looking for credit. That's the type of shit you don't get rewarded for. You don't get praised for doing the right thing. You gotta mature. You gotta straighten up. That's life.”
Copywrite's talents as an MC are well-known, and he's had moments when he flirted with a larger breakthrough, first alongside RJD2, Camu Tao, Jakki Tha Motamouth and Tage Future in the hip-hop crew MHz, and later as a solo artist, when he nearly inked a recording contract with producer Just Blaze (Nelson said he walked away from the deal at the urging of a former manager). Regardless, the name Copywrite still carries significant weight in his hometown, and most interviewed said there has likely been more willingness to extend multiple chances to the rapper because of his skills on the mic.
“Pete goes through these phases of being reckless and then going too far with how reckless he is and realizing he has to pull back and tighten up,” said friend Beau “The Catalyst” McNaboe, who initially distanced himself from Copywrite when he learned of the assault charges. “But people such as myself, people who really know Pete — I know Pete like he's a family member — those people who get a glimmer at what I guess you would call Pete's good side, they really root for that, and they want to see him develop more of that, because deep down that's really who he is.”
Views within the local hip-hop community have been comparatively split following the initial assault allegation.
“Once it blew up online, it seemed like everybody was talking about it, and everybody had their opinion,” said Josh Miller, who helps run the annual 2x2 Hip-Hop Festival in addition to the Break, a weekly hip-hop event that takes place at Rehab Tavern in Franklinton. “Some people were saying, ‘Don't believe what you're hearing [about Copywrite].' Then other people were getting out pitchforks and getting ready to burn the place down. … Having a weekly hip-hop night, it's going to be a topic that's brought up in conversation when you're out and about, and it was almost like people had to pick a side.”
“Pete knows he's being looked at with a certain skepticism and a certain criticism,” McNaboe said, “and I think he knows he has to accept it and take it.”
Copywrite, for his part, largely disappeared from public view beginning in mid-February, save for a single onstage performance at Double Happiness in November 2017, during a showcase organized by DJ and producer J Rawls. (“I get why people want to see him succeed, and want to try to help, and I'm one of those people,” said Rawls, who supported the rapper's appearance despite reservations expressed by some attendees.)
The rapper's exile was partially by choice — “After all of that happened, I made a conscious decision not to be seen,” he said — and partially due to circumstance, as Copywrite was sentenced to serve six months in jail on a late-2016 conviction for operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs, his sixth OVI charge. “I didn't want to tell people I was going to jail before I went,” he said, “because I'm sick of people hearing that about me.”
In January, settled back home in Franklinton, the rapper is finally addressing the assault head-on, rather than deflecting and denying, as he did in a public Facebook post in the immediate aftermath, writing, “The disgruntled ex-girlfriend mud slinging is getting out of hand. … Her dragging my name through the mud at a time when things are going well for me seems a bit suspicious.” (Copywrite chalked up his initial denial to anger and to the idea that “some conversations are too big for Facebook.”)
“I've been kicked out of some places [since the incident], and the thing is, I don't blame them,” he said. “They don't need to understand the whole story, or even be sensitive to it. There doesn't need to be a whole story. The mere fact I laid my hand on a female is the only detail that matters. Anything else is irrelevant. Nothing justifies that.”
Following this admission, according to multiple people interviewed, it's on Copywrite to show that he is making continued efforts to better himself, should he still desire a public platform.
“It's one of those things where it's going to take time. And it's going to take action on his part — real, visible action,” McNaboe said. “I don't know how easy that will be to pull off, but he has to intently walk a straight and narrow path. You can't come out and make a statement: ‘Hey, I've changed now and I'm sorry for what I've done in the past.' You really have to show and prove.”
Neylon echoed these words. “It's more than, ‘I will never raise my hand to you again.' It's, ‘I really need to rethink my worldview, and I need to change my value system,'” she said. “And that doesn't happen overnight, and it's not easy. It's not asking forgiveness for a single act or even saying, ‘I will never commit this single act again.' It's much more involved than that.”
Revisiting the assault also snapped Copywrite back to a moment from his childhood, one he hadn't thought about for a while, and one he documented on the song “Confessional,” off his 2010 album, The Life and Times of Peter Nelson.
“Never understood what gives men a reason for woman beating,” he raps on the track. “Not saying that my dad did it/Maybe once, he wasn't bad with it/But the one time he did it left a bad image.”
“I didn't see it, I heard it,” said Copywrite, growing quiet as he recounted how he and his sister tearfully huddled in their bunk beds as their dad attacked their mother verbally and, he believes, physically, just one room over. “I know he was saying a lot of cruel shit, and I don't know if he hit her, but I think he did. It was that type of [sound].”
Having allowed himself to visit a similarly dark place, the rapper seems to more deeply understand the effort it's going to take to get where he still hopes to go, and he's cognizant another misstep could end his music career, if his actions haven't already damaged it beyond repair. At the same time, he's also inspired by rappers who discovered new, unforeseen levels of success as they entered into their late-30s and beyond — artists such as El-P and Killer Mike of Run the Jewels, M.F. Doom and the late Sean Price.
Copywrite has paused at similar crossroads multiple times in his turbulent career. But the question hangs particularly heavy this time around: Which path will he choose?