Nathaniel T. Rice pulls his battered station wagon into the littered parking lot at Gwynn Oak and Liberty Heights avenues and starts unloading sound equipment. Children on the street realize immediately this is going to be an unusual night in their drug-plagued West Baltimore neighborhood.
Rice, 42, is leader of the P.S. MAD Kids. That stands for Parents and Students Moving Against Drugs. Rice and the kids, ages 10 to 15, perform anti-drug and Christian music with a funky beat at playgrounds, parking lots, schools, McDonald's and other fertile areas where Rice can plant seeds.
That's what Rice says he does: Plant seeds. He and his kids sing mostly to children and teen-agers whose lives swirl around a Maypole of drugs. Rice says he wants merely for his anti-drug message to touch a heart.
"You can't throw your hands up in the air and give up on our children," says Rice, an earnest, talkative man whose pulse seems to beat for the survival of a generation. "The news media would have you believe there are more bad kids than good, more kids using drugs than not using drugs.
"But let me tell you: There are many more kids out there trying to PTC do the right thing. Of course, that doesn't sell newspapers. . . . The glass is half full, not half empty. That's the way I see it."
The P.S. MAD Kids are trying to do the right thing. Four or five perform with Rice, depending on who's available. Regardless of the number, Rice always tells the audience there used to be one more P.S. MAD Kid: Burnel Briggs.
One night three years ago, Burnel, 14, was sitting on a bicycle in Irvington when he was caught in the cross-fire of a drug shootout. A stray bullet ripped into his heart.
Born addicted to heroin, Burnel had despised drugs because of his parents' addiction, according to news reports at the time.
Just last month, two hours after a P.S. MAD Kid show on Rosedale Street near North Avenue, Tiffany Smith, 6, was shot and killed in a wild shootout. Police said the shootout was not drug-related, but the area is widely known for drug dealing and violence.
Tiffany had sat on the curb and clapped to the music of the P.S. MAD Kids the night she died, neighbors said. The group had performed one of its most effective songs, the one Rice always dedicates to Burnel Briggs: "We'll Stop All the Fuss, When You Stop Killing Us."
Rice founded the P.S. MAD Kids in 1986 two weeks before Len Bias, the University of Maryland basketball star, died of a cocaine overdose.
Born and reared in Baltimore, Rice says he was a high school dropout, teen-age parent and drug-user before being delivered by Jesus Christ.
He says he smoked reefer, drank liquor, took pills and used cocaine and heroin. Yet he ran profitable management and insurance companies, he says, and managed his younger brother, Gene, now a rhythm and blues musician for RCA.
"I've had the Cadillac and the Corvette and the gold chains," Rice says. "But let me tell you something: It don't mean nothing."
He says he was high on drugs late one night, and his car wouldn't start. Walking down the road, he looked skyward, he says, and said: "Lord, you gave me many talents. Please use me better than I'm using myself."
Within a week, Rice says, he was writing songs and had formed the P.S. MAD Kids from youngsters in his neighborhood.
It's a professional group, he says. He makes a living, pays his kids and meets the group's expenses with grants from the city and donations from businesses.
He also hosts a Sunday morning radio show on WWIN with his wife, Elaine, a minister at Maximum Life Christian Church in the 4000 block of Liberty Heights Ave.
"I'm really impressed with Mr. Rice," says Robin Martinez, the mother of Andrea Motley, 13, who has been a MAD Kid for nine months. "I like the way he works with kids. Some people have a knack for that kind of thing."
Rice picks up the kids and takes them home from shows and rehearsals in his 1982 gray Ford Country Squire station wagon with its dented body and cracked windshield. Rice says the group performs about 100 shows a year.
This past June it played Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in West Baltimore. Ilean Roberts, a parent at the school, liked the group so much she came out to see it again last week.
"If kids can learn this other trash they hear, they can learn songs against drugs," Roberts says.
She also came to see one of the kids, Paulette Lucas, 13, a student who tried out for the group after seeing the show at the school. She made it, and her performance at Gwynn Oak and Liberty Heights is her second as a P.S. MAD Kid.
"Drugs won't do nothing but mess up your life," says Paulette, who bounces on the balls of her feet during a break and rattles off a rap about peer pressure: "Peer pressure, it's OK, as long as it's used in a positive way; you can look forward to a better tomorrow, based upon a wish you had learned today."