Badlands Booker: A Pioneer of Fireworks and Food

Badlands Booker: A Pioneer of Fireworks and Food
by Newbear Lesniewski

Thanksgiving has its turkeys. Christmas, its trees. And the official start of summer, when the calendar flips to June 21: more daylight than any other. But the action really heats up when it, well, literally heats up.

Sometimes it damn near catches fire.

“When I was a kid, we used to always know that one house that had all the fireworks. My favorite was (the) Roman Candle. You’re supposed to stick it in the ground, light it and watch it go. But for whatever reason, we’d hold ‘em and shoot ‘em - and that 4th of July, one of them kind of blew up in my hand,” Badlands said.

The candle in question knocked the big kid right off his feet. Those handheld laser shows may have taught young Badlands a little bit about safety, but it’s safe to say that a history of explosive childhood memories only added to his love for the 4th of July.

“It’s such an all-american thing, celebrating our independence day, our freedom, paying homage to the soldiers that allow us to have this way of life. And then what’s more American than a hot dog? It’s baseball, hot dogs and apple pie, right?” he begged.

And then there’s Coneys on Coney, a boardwalk empire unto themselves.

“Nathan’s is the epicenter of the (eating) game. I remember qualifying for my very first contest in June of ’97, and I remember when the contest used to be in the alley. I watched it grow from then to now, from small crowds to 50,000 friends. It’s nothing but good times, good memories, great eaters and great hot dogs,” he said.

The Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest has made more than an impression on Eric “Badlands” Booker. In some ways, it’s simply an extension of other childhood memories spent on the Atlantic beaches, captured in the lyrics of a song he’ll rhyme out for the people this weekend.

“I have a seven-track EP out, talking all about Coney Island. Its history, the corner itself, even breaking it down a little with MLE’s own Rich Shea (beat box handle: Aqua Fresh). One of the songs I’ll do at Nathan’s is called ‘Hard To Forget’. It’s about my first trip to Coney as a kid, from dreaming about it the night before, to packing my lunch and riding the subway in and enjoying everything ‘til the sun went down,” he said.

Chances are, if you’re a fan of Nathan’s, you’re a fan of Badlands Booker. There may be no better example in all of sports for the term “man of the people”.

“I appreciate (the fact that) people appreciate the sport I love. I just want to give them as much Badlands Booker as I possibly can. I’m always the first to come out at any contest, getting in the crowd and taking pictures, signing autographs, on stage rapping. And I’m the last person to leave. I do it all for the fans, because I love the energy they give off and how they appreciate all of us,” he said.

You’ll still see Badlands on stage at Nathan’s 2011 - you just won’t see him eating. Despite a resume that includes twelve seats at the game’s biggest table, he failed to qualify this year.

“I was crushed. It was a long, two-and-a-half hour ride back from Fishkill. I was disappointed for sure, but at the same time, there’s some steep competition out there this year - a lot of new guys that have bright futures. And I’m really happy for them. Thank God I get to rap so I can still be there, be able to give back to the fans. But even if I didn’t rap, I’d still be there, to be in the stands with my people,” he said.

When prompted to compare his longevity and success to one of today’s mainstream athletes, Badlands didn’t hesitate.

“I compare myself to Brett Favre. Man, I’ve been in the game for a long time. I retired and came back - because I felt there was still more to do. I feel like I’ve been a pioneer, a patriot and a pillar in this game,” he said.

Levi’s may have infused their brand with Walt Whitman’s words in the name of jeans, but one section of that spot is perhaps more applicable to the big man from Queens.

All the past we leave behind,
We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,
Prioneers! O pioneers!

As a man deeply touched by the transcendent nature of music, Badlands has seen what was once a localized sound take Billboard by storm; as a man stuffed by the expansive nature of insane amounts of food, he’s seen what was once a sideshow became an ESPN showcase event.

Pioneer. Patriot. Pillar. Know that as his two favorite worlds collide on stage in the coming days, his words ring true.

You’ll feel it in his handshake or bear hug, should you find him amongst the throng this weekend.

And he’ll be happy to know that one of his all-time favorite memories has just become one of your own.