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Hobo Johnson finds his home in hip-hop

The making of Hobo Johnson

Frank Lopes, aka "Hobo Johnson," is a young up and coming rapper living in Oak Park. Hobo recently signed a recording contract.
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Frank Lopes, aka "Hobo Johnson," is a young up and coming rapper living in Oak Park. Hobo recently signed a recording contract.

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 titled “Hobo Johnson – Live From Oak Park,” he’s emerged as one of the hottest and perhaps most unlikely stars of local hip-hop.

As the beat drops on his song “Romeo & Juliet,” Lopes fumbles his words as if he’s got a bad case of first-date butterflies, all while offering a smile so enveloping that his eyes squint: “I’m too emotional/Good luck to my future wives and their future lives without me/I’m sure they’ll do great/I’m sure I’ve prepared you for every guy you’ll date/And every guy you’ll marry and every guy you’ll hate.”

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. He recently signed with a Los Angeles-based management company, and often finds himself swamped by fans who want to snap selfies with him.

“The last show I did, there was like, a bunch of people waiting in line to take a picture with me,” Lopes said during a recent lunch at T&R Taste of Texas in Oak Park. “I never expected it to happen like this. From out of nowhere we released the (Oak Park) videos and in a month got 3,000 Facebook likes. Before that, nobody listened to (my) music.”

Though he’s best identified with Oak Park, the neighborhood most affiliated with the gangster-rap sensation Mozzy, Lopes was raised about 25 miles away 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.

“I was a bad kid,” he said. “By the time I was 17, I had three drunk-in-public (arrests) and a DUI. I was mean to my teachers. I was really disrespectful. I tried to be the class clown, but I did it all rude.”

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 2016’s “The Rise of Hobo Johnson.”

Initially, the reaction to his music was “crickets,” Lopes said. “It felt like everything I tried, no one liked it. It was frustrating.”

His breakthrough finally arrived in December, through 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.”

It’s this kinder, gentler and somewhat quirky approach to hip-hop that’s earned him a fan base that includes Rituals of Mine co-founder Terra Lopez, who’s currently recording music for an upcoming Warner Bros. album. Lopez, who divides her time between West Sacramento and Los Angeles, was so struck by Hobo Johnson’s Oak Park videos that she not only shared them on her Facebook page but also invited the rapper to coffee to build friendship.

“I wanted to pick his brain and let him know that ‘I support you,’ ” said Lopez, in a phone call from New York City. “The whole time I was watching his videos you couldn’t help but smile. I feel like what he’s doing is so effortless and unique and his delivery is really exciting. It’s rare to find someone who’s so humble with that kind of talent.”

Buzz about the Oak Park videos ultimately went beyond Sacramento, to the point that Hobo Johnson received a message via Instagram on Christmas Day from talent manager Joseph Pepin, of Los Angeles’ Control Music Group.

Pepin hopped on a flight to Sacramento a week later, and took Lopes and his bandmates out for sushi. Control Music Group specializes in up-and-coming artists related to electronic music, hip-hop and pop, and the talent manager felt that Lopes had promise. Lopes signed a two-year deal with Control Music Group in mid-January, and is now looking to secure a booking agent and publishing deal to take his audience to the next level.

But for now, being Hobo Johnson still means scraping by. Lopes has been carless since his Corolla conked out, and he recently quit his job as a cook at Old Soul Co. to focus full time on his career. But what he lacks in a steady paycheck he makes up in his commitment to his craft. Lopes is scheduled to headline Feb. 25 at Ruhstaller Taproom and continues to work on an album.

For perhaps the first time since assuming the name Hobo Johnson, Lopes isn’t feeling so down on his luck. The rapper said he rarely drinks any more, and now dreams of performing in Paris and starting an art commune in Oak Park.

“Working jobs makes me really sad, and I’ll get depressed sometimes,” he said. “But underneath every sadness and every frustration, being an artist and chasing your dream can give you that extra layer of hope. It’s that thing that keeps you going.”

Chris Macias: 916-321-1253, @chris_macias