As a kid escaping gang life in Los Angeles, Henry Andrade's (aka Cloud) life could have gone many ways. Today, the world-record holder of the longest freestyle rap (18+ hours) is touring his musical, Bear Grease. We talked about the show and how he fell in love with his wife and her hometown of Edmonton.
By Cory Schachtel | December 8, 2022
Where are you from?
Henry Andrade: I am from Hawthorne, California, just outside Los Angeles, where I was born. My mom is huichol [pronounced WEE-chol] — we call ourselves wixárika [wee-RA-dica] — and she was 17 when she had me. I don’t know my dad, never got a chance to meet him, but he’s probably a really good-looking dude (laughs).
And that kind of set me off for life, because I didn’t have a dad around, and my mom wasn’t making the wisest decisions, so my babysitters and my mom came to the conclusion that it would probably be best if they raised me. So I was raised by a beautiful Mexican family in the heart of Los Angeles. And I grew up around the Mechica movement, the Mechica culture, you know, this generation of Chicanos learning their roots, getting back into their culture, after everything that’s been lost to colonization.
What was it like in school?
Well, in Hawthorne, there are a lot of gangs there. And we’re products of our environment — my dad was in a gang, my brothers were in a gang, my uncles, like everybody in my family, one way or another, was gang-related.
In our junior high school, we had about 1,500 kids — half the school was Black, half the school was Mexican, and everybody’s either a Blood or Crip, or working their way into a Mexican gang. So literally, my first day of school in sixth grade, I’m a new kid, everybody’s bigger than me, everybody’s already growing in their moustaches and developing and all gangster-ed out. And I remember feeling like a little kid, in the cafeteria eating Tater Tots, and I see a bunch of kids running to the grass area in the school yard.
So I went too, and there’s these two big, eighth-grade Black kids, and they’re just mad dogging each other. I thought it was gonna be a fight. I get into the circle, I’m alongside everybody else staring at these dudes, but I didn’t know the context. Because as soon as the crowd doubles to about 30, one of the dudes right next to me covers his mouth and just starts beatboxing. Everybody’s hands are going up. And then I see these two eighth-grade kids and it was like the most magical thing I’ve ever seen. They were going in on each other, making fun of each other and their moms and their dicks and their clothes and their shoes. Every punch line, every time they would diss each other, the crowd would go nuts. And they were making it rhyme!
It took me a while to figure out like, yo, how did he know what he was going to wear today? How did he know he was going to wear those shoes? Then it was, oh my god, they’re freaking freestyling! This is improv. They’re making it up as they go along. And not only are they making it rhyme, they’re making it funny. And that’s how I was introduced to the art form of freestyle battle rap at a very early age. As soon as I started getting into rap, I started going through rappers at my school, and then I’m going through eighth graders, and even their big brothers would come over to the school, and I would battle them. That’s when I knew that I had something good. And the gangs, the gangsters at my school, they thought it was cool. And before you know it, they’re just like, hey, homie, why don’t you join the family? As an eighth grader I got jumped into our local gang, Lil Watts.
So rap kind of got you into a gang, but how did you get out?
Through rap! I mean, we used to do gangster shit, but like, eighth-grade gangster shit —graffiti, get into fights, rob and steal sometimes, but petty stuff. We were pee-wees, not old enough to be YGs (young gangsters) or OGs (original gangsters), but we were on our way, already getting arrested for graffiti and stuff. But it was through a hip-hop assembly that I was able to let go of the gang life. It was this magical assembly that they had at my school. I thought it was gonna be like a scared straight kind of thing. But they were actually rappers and they came on our campus — these grown men sharing their hearts and their tragic stories — and, it made me think about my life and my brothers and my homies. And I got jumped out of my gang, brutally jumped out, and that’s kind of what turned my life around. After that, I started just focusing on school and my grades and I graduated with a 4.0 GPA — first one in my family.
So I have a big heart for the youth and for Indigenous youth. No matter what I do, we will always do workshops and always work with students and kids because somebody took their time to do that for me, you know, and it truly changed my life.
So after all that, how did you end up regularly showing up in Edmonton?
I’m married to the most beautiful, Indigenous woman on the face of the Earth from Enoch Treaty 6, Crystle Lightning, and we’re touring the world and doing what we love.
How did you meet?
She was born in Edmonton but moved to L.A. when she was nine. And in L.A., all the natives kind of know each other because everybody’s from out of town. And I remember watching Three Ninjas Knuckle Up when I was a little kid — she was the girl all the kids were swooning over — and I was like, Yo, she’s beautiful. I had a huge crush.
So you first saw her on the big screen?
No, I first saw her on V.H.S. (laughs). Then when I got older I saw her on American Pie: Bandcamp. Then I find out she’s also a DJ. And I ended up doing a photo shoot for Native Threads, this clothing company that’s based in California. They ended up getting a bunch of actors to do their catalog, and Krystle was there.
Were you smooth when you first met her or were you intimidated from meeting your on-screen crush?
I was like, Hey, can I carry your bags for you? You know, carry her bags to the car as a gentleman. Then several months later, her mom invited her to a show I was performing at on Long Beach. And she comes in with her mom. And it’s like a movie, bro: It was packed with people. And I’m on stage rapping and I’m improvising and I’m freestyling as she’s walking in, and I notice her — she’s just got this big energy. And when she walks in, I start freestyling about how Crystle Lightning is in the house, what she’s wearing, stuff like that, and I could see her blush from across the room.
And when I’m done, I go right to her like, Can I buy you a drink? Even though I probably had like 20 bucks in my pocket. I eventually asked if she could DJ for me on this upcoming tour I had in Canada, because my DJ couldn’t make it because of his record. She said yes, and we fell in love on the road.
What did she tell you about Edmonton?
I met her family and her grandparents on a trip to Enoch, and the community was so wonderful. Then I came down for the Fringe and it was just, wow, Edmonton is freaking theatre community. The love of it is in the air. And every time I would come it would almost always luckily land around Fringe, or some other theatre event, and I was just like, holy man, I love Edmonton. So we would come here a lot and it was wonderful every time. And I think I opened up for Tech N9ne at West Edmonton Mall before with Crystle — we perform as Lightning Cloud.
Then almost four years ago, Crystle was seven months pregnant, and we were on tour, covering the whole southwest — Cali, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado. Then we got a message from Crystle’s nation saying they wanted us to perform at the River Cree. So we flew out, thought we’re going to just rock a little set, and in the middle of performing Crystle’s water breaks — baby is born six weeks early. So they rush us to the Misericordia and everything was great. She gave birth without any complications, but we have a little preemie. And now she’s at the NICU for like 21 days until baby’s better and OK to leave.
During that time I flew back to L.A. and then I drove all of our stuff to Edmonton. And while we were doing that, she gets a phone call: Hey, remember that audition you did a few months ago for that series? Well the director wants to fly out and meet you. And Crystle got Trickster, her first big lead on CBC. And we just looked at each other like, I think we should stick around here — you know, baby’s born here, she just got her first lead in a movie, and she ended up winning the Canadian Screen Award for best actress for her role.
Your baby is obviously your best collaboration, but how did you two come up with the idea for Bear Grease?
Well I was in Grease in high school, and I loved it, so it was always brewing in the back of my mind. Then one day I’m on the couch with Crystle, and we were watching Grease. And it was just one of those stoner ideas: Imagine Grease, but it’s all natives — like, ha-ha-ha, right? But then the words just started coming to our heads. I told her: Summer snaggin’, had me a blast. And she goes, Summer snaggin’, happened so fast. Then I tagged it with, Met a girl, sweet as can be, and she kills me with, Met a boy, he’s not related to me! And we just laughed our heads off.
That’s hilarious — and I assume “snagging” means what it sounds like it means?
(Laughs) Yeah that’s a term for hooking up, like when natives go to a powwow and there’s all these different communities — someone meets a girl and it’s like, did you two snag?
And you’ve been touring the show ever since.
Yeah, that was the foundation for Bear Grease, and when the pandemic hit that gave us more time to finish it up. So maybe half of the songs are already songs that me and Crystle have written, songs from our albums that just worked so good for the show. So we were just tightening it up and we get a phone call from the Edmonton Fringe: Hey you guys, we have this new stage, the pêhonân stage, and we’re focusing on Indigenous peoples to come and perform, and would Lightning Cloud like to do a show? And so I said, babe, we can’t just do any old show at the freakin’ Fringe. This is where plays and theatres are born — let’s do something amazing. Let’s do Bear Grease. And the crazy part is, we tested it, we rehearsed the crap out of it, and we were the first play to sell out at the 2021 Edmonton fringe, the fastest to sell out at 15 minutes.
What can people expect from the show?
It will make you smile. We just created this beautiful story that has the blueprint of Grease, but it’s absolutely not the same thing. It has the same feel and some of the same classic songs and vibes, but it’s something completely different. We do Stand by Me in Cree and it’s so beautiful. It’s got hoop dancing, jingle dress dancing. It’s also a visual project, and the graphics are insane — the background changes with every scene, and for some of the songs there’s lyrics on the screen so the whole house sings along. It’s improv, it’s freestyle, it’s so hard to explain. Our first two Fringe shows were for all-white audiences, and they were on the floor laughing. They absolutely loved it. I don’t want to give anymore away, but it’s like comparing Wicked to Wizard of Oz, like, yeah, it’s the Wizard of Oz world, but it’s another story. And it’s so, so deadly.
See Bear Grease December 8 to 11 at the Fringe Theatre Arts Barns.