Snow Storm

updated 05/10/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/10/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

SURE, WHITE GUYS CAN RAP. BUT NO way can a skinny, can't-dance Canadian who has never even seen the Caribbean master Jamaican toasting, a reggae-flavored rap style delivered in singsong patois at auctioneer speed.

Better make that Snow way. Born in Toronto, Snow, 23, has established himself as rasta rap's gab-gifted savant with "Informer," the catchy single that reigned at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 for seven weeks. Though its lyrics are delivered at such bewildering speed that the video carries subtitles, the radio-ubiquitous song has pushed the debut album that spawned it, 12 Inches of Snow, into the Top 5.

Snow (real name: Darrin Kenneth O'Brien) learned the rap style from neighbors in the mostly Jamaican housing project where he grew up, the second of four children born to a cabdriver father and a homemaker mother. A ninth-grade dropout ("I didn't know how to read that well; still don't"), he graduated to the slammer after a string of arrests for street brawling. In the projects, violence became routine, Snow says. "I would just chill out, drink, whatever. People would walk by, we'd get all drunk and beat 'em. Tempers, I guess." Charged with two counts of attempted murder in 1989, he spent a year in jail before the charges were reduced to aggravated assault. He was later acquitted. Snow, who swears that he was framed and had nothing to do with the crimes, made the experience the subject of his "Informer" single. Last year he served eight months on another assault charge before his release in January. Since then he has quit drinking, and he keeps old partners-in-combat at a distance. "I still talk to them," he says, "but they get me in trouble."

Although he managed to cut his album between jail stints, he was a captive audience for the debut of its video, which he watched on TV in the dayroom of a Canadian prison. Now living in New York City and planning for his maiden tour this summer, Snow says music helped him dodge the bullet. "I would have been a criminal all my life," he says. "I was seeing a future in it."

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