At the age of 20, Hugo Sanchez was homeless.
Sanchez goes by many names. Friends call him George. Family call him Jorge. Fans call him Young Smoothness.
At the age of 28, he reached a milestone after struggling to find his true home and purpose.
On Thursday, Sanchez not only performed his first rap show, but he did it by opening for Curren$y — one of the original members of Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment.
Sanchez has a long way to go, but he’s not afraid to struggle.
• • •
Before finding himself stranded on the same streets where he grew up, Sanchez listened to music drifting under his siblings’ doors.
Sanchez is the youngest of five children, and he is the first of his family to be born in the U.S., not Mexico.
He wrote lyrics and strummed a guitar to stay out of trouble in his Ft. Lauderdale neighborhood.
“I spent a good chunk of my life around criminals,” he said. “Gang violence, drugs... It would have been easy for me to fall into it. Music kept me out.”
Music found Sanchez at a young age, and he’s since dedicated his life to what started as a hobby.
Manuel Sanchez, Hugo’s older brother by 11 years, said his family always admired Hugo’s drive, discipline and undeniable talent.
“It’s impressive when I think about my brother,” Manuel said. “He had a passion, and he stuck to it. It’s almost like he had no choice — the music was in him and he couldn’t get away from it. I’m so proud of him.”
But no amount of music could drown out the internal problems his family faced, eventually leading Sanchez to leave home.
“I was fortunate to have enough friends and family up and down the state that I was able to crash with,” he said. “People who were willing to feed and clothe me in between recording records and playing very low-paying gigs with any band that would have me.”
“All the while I was listening religiously to anything I could get my hands on, including a multitude of rap records that would influence me for years to come,” he said.
• • •
In 2010, Sanchez researched places to start over.
He found Gainesville, where the cost of living was lower and the music scene was appealing.
He pitched the idea to his friends, who said it didn’t take much convincing before they agreed to join him.
Sanchez met Alex Cordova, Ross Papitto and David Bell when they were teenagers growing up in South Florida.
The same year Sanchez and his friends migrated to Gainesville, they created their rock ’n’ roll band, Young Hookers.
Now, all the band’s members are involved in his transition to hip-hop.
Papitto, 26, plays guitar in Young Hookers. Now he also stands alongside Sanchez and hypes up the crowd.
“I’m like the backup dancer of rapping,” Papitto said. “Hype man is an unofficial title.”
Cordova, 27, met Sanchez when they were both 14. Cordova said he produced music as a hobby for a few years, and now he’s responsible for the musical aspects of Sanchez’s hip-hop tracks.
“I’ve always made beats as a creative outlet,” he said. “I was looking for someone who would be a good rapper to work with. I couldn’t have predicted it would be Hugo.”
Cordova said maintaining the group’s friendship all these years has been crucial to their success.
“The four of us as a collective, whether we’re playing music or not, wouldn’t be doing as well without each other,” he said.
• • •
Sanchez and his friends lived and learned together for years.
One of their more recent lessons: Nothing lasts forever.
For about two years they lived in the same house, recorded music, played gigs and worked on personal projects.
In 2013, Sanchez’s producer, Cordova, moved to Austin, Texas, with his girlfriend. From there, the friends who held each other together began to live apart.
In the same year, Sanchez moved to Marion County with his fiance, Raiza Perdomo, who worked as a teacher there.
Sanchez said he enjoys the slow-paced environment in Marion, where he writes lyrics, watches “The Rachel Maddow Show” and plays “Fallout 4.”
“It’s kind of like my bat cave,” he said.
When Sanchez returns to Gainesville, he lets loose.
His other two bandmates remain in Gainesville.
“It proved to be a crucial time for us,” Sanchez said. “We had to find a way to collaborate and create while being spread apart.”
His solution: hip-hop.
“I learned that the skills I had acquired as the front-man in a rock band were so valuable in hip-hop,” he said.
Sanchez said his lyrics are a balance of humor and social messages.
“I consider myself a member of the 9/11 generation: a civic-minded man who was shaped by the policy and tension of the era,” he said.
And that’s what his music is all about.
• • •
At Thursday’s show, Sanchez buzzed with apprehension.
He paced in a back room at High Dive and struggled to finish a full sentence.
In front of the stage, blue lights illuminated a crowd of more than 150 people.
Bass soon shook the wood-paneled walls as Sanchez — clad in blue jeans, a floral print button-down and his signature black-framed glasses — debuted his original hip-hop.
Papitto reunited with his old friend, bouncing by Sanchez’s side and singing backup vocals.
His niece, nephew, siblings and friends stood proudly in the crowd, watching Sanchez start a new chapter of his life.
“He’s just super, super smart,” his brother Manuel said.
“He inspired me to be a better human, because he was honestly so caring all his life,” he said.
After the show, a sweaty Sanchez stood among the crowd.
While sipping beer from a clear plastic cup and handing out a collection of his new music, Sanchez admired his first crowd as a rapper.
“This is my first year on the scene, but I want to get firing on all cylinders,” he said.
Hugo Sanchez, a 28-year-old Gainesville-based rapper, performs for a crowd of about 150 at the High Dive as the opening act for New Orleans rapper Curren$y Thursday night.
Hugo Sanchez rehearses lines under his breath backstage before his performance at the High Dive on Thursday. Sanchez said he didn’t feel nervous before a performance, just anxious to go out.