Ten days and two spinal surgeries after emerging from a horrific car accident, music producer Jack ‘Tha Audio Unit’ Burton asked for his laptop.
“Sit me up,” he said from his bed at Mount Carmel East. “I’m ready to work.”
Less than a week earlier, Burton said he awoke in the hospital with his neck in a brace and tubes jammed down his throat but holding a clear recollection of everything that happened in the immediate aftermath of the crash, which took place on Sunday, Aug. 20. Burton was riding in a car driven by his partner, Ashley Burrell, when another vehicle plowed into the passenger side as the couple tried to clear the intersection while making a left turn at East Livingston Avenue and Shady Lane Road, less than a mile from their former East Side home.
“The car T-boned us and we spun out. And literally in the middle of the spin, I was like, ‘What is going on? Oh, there’s airbags.’ And then it clicked that we were in an accident,” Burrell said.
As the car came to a stop, Burton said he remained conscious and coherent, but that he couldn’t feel his legs. This was followed by a stinging sensation in his neck – a pain that intensified as paramedics loaded him into an ambulance.
“And then I woke up in the hospital four days later,” Burton said in late October from the Berwyn East house he and Burrell moved into a month ago, abandoning their previous two-story for a single-floor, ranch-style home Burton can more easily navigate from his wheelchair. “So, it’s been a wild two months, for real, for real. But I’m here. I’m good.”
That the uber-prolific Burton would make a quick return to music shouldn’t surprise – he described the process of crafting beats as akin to breathing – but Burrell and others close to the producer were still left agape when he first declared his intent to get back to work from his bed at Mount Carmel.
“I couldn’t believe it. Dude’s sitting there, destroyed, and he’s still working,” said fellow producer Derek Christopher, who would record vocals by rappers such as Chaos 13 and then forward the files to Burton, who then mixed the tracks from his hospital room. “And that messed me up, man. I’d be in there getting all the sympathy points I could.”
Burton said he sustained a C7 spinal cord fracture in the accident, which, for the time being at least, has left him confined to a wheelchair. “I had one doctor tell me, ‘You ain’t never going to walk again,’” Burton said. “And then another doctor will tell you, ‘It could be three months,’ and another tells you it will be a year.” (“I personally don’t believe this is it and that he’s going to be in a wheelchair the rest of his life,” Burrell said. “No. He’s going to walk again.”)
As a result of the spinal injury, Burton said he also temporarily lost feeling in several fingers on the hand with which he controls his computer mouse, though the sensation has since returned, which he demonstrated by grasping the mouse on his desktop and making a series of deft motions.
Beyond the physical injuries, Burton said the accident cracked something else open within him, compelling the normally guarded producer to finally tell more of his own story, which he does with candor, grace and heart on his new album, Through the Wire (Tha Audio Unit Story), out digitally on Friday, Nov. 10.
“I’ve been through a lot – cerebral palsy, diabetes – and music has always been my therapy, my release. It’s how I get through life,” Burton said. “After the accident, [doctors] were like, ‘You know, you’re going to need to take some anti-depressant pills,’ and, honestly, I don’t need that. As long as I have my baby, my music, I’m good. It keeps me focused, keeps me going. If I didn’t have working hands, that might be a problem. But I can still do what I love to do, so why not tell my story now?”
The producer also hasn’t shied from sharing his experiences post-accident. The title Through the Wire is taken from the Kanye West track, which the rapper famously wrote and recorded with his jaw wired shut following a car accident, and the album cover art features an X-ray of Burton’s fractured spine shot through with a series of titanium screws.
Interspersed with audio clips taken from a podcast interview conducted with Burton by Jerome Barkley, the album has the effect fast-forwarding through the get-to-know-you process, Burton introducing himself with typical chest-out certainty (“You get that cocky, best producer of all-time talk,” he said, and laughed) before dropping his guard as the album reaches its back half.
“I don’t know if you know … but I was born with cerebral palsy,” Burton says to Barkley on “Release Therapy.” “And it fucked with my physical [abilities], not my mental. … I’m a diabetic also, so health-wise it’s been a toll. … If I didn’t have music, I’d be fucked up, for real, for real.”
Largely eschewing guest artists – only Philly P and the late Columbus rapper Nes Wordz turn up on the lush, soulful “A.U.P.” – Burton remains front and center throughout, the album emerging as a sonic portrait of an artist as a young man. “Oh, I cried a couple times listening to certain tracks,” Burton said. “I really let people into my world, where they hear me speak.”
Burrell said she wasn’t surprised that Burton opened up on record in the way that he did, noting that he pours parts of himself into every instrumental he builds, even if it sat less explicitly on the surface in the past. “But with this particular situation, I didn’t expect anything less than his most personal, most vulnerable album,” said Burrell, who has known Burton for more than 30 years and started dating him four months ago. “And I was waiting on it, to be honest.”
Burrell and Burton both attributed the producer’s quick return to music to a never-say-die attitude and an unflinching optimism that have been entwined with his core from birth. At the same time, Burton has been open about the accumulated angers, frustrations and depressions that have flared up amid his injuries, describing his situation as “an emotional rollercoaster” in one Facebook post, and then proving this point a couple of days later with another post in which he confessed to cussing out a nursing technician.
“He has his days. Who wouldn’t?” Burrell said. “Some days he’s like, ‘Hey, let’s go embrace the day.’ And then other days it’s like, whatever. But I expect that, and I’d be concerned if he didn’t have those days. I’m glad he has feelings. I'm glad he’s not numb.”
Two days a week, Burton travels to Martha Morehouse Outpatient Care, where for 90 minutes a physical therapist essentially kicks his ass, putting him through intense exercises focused on strengthening his upper body and stimulating his lower limbs. “Physical therapy is about every limb – even the dead ones,” said Burton, who shared that feeling has started to return to his legs, fueling his hope for a full recovery. “You gotta move this way, and then back this way. … You gotta relearn everything. Everything.”
Even as Burton focuses on his recovery, he has continued to process the accident, which he said has served as an urgent reminder that he has more he wants to accomplish in whatever time he has remaining. So, while the producer is someone who has never lacked for motivation, he somehow sounded more resolute than ever to get to work.
“I have a lot left I want to say,” Burton said. “I thought I was a goner. I thought I was out. But God won’t let me leave. I’m still here. I’m here.”