Make Your Mama Proud
Sooner or later, almost everyone receives a phone call that forever changes their lives. Don Robinson says he made that call in 1988, back home to St. Louis, Missouri, where his mother Mercedes, a single parent working two jobs, had raised six children. That day, her youngest son called from Austin to say he was going to pursue a career as a rapper rather than a degree from the University of Texas. That was also the day Mercedes Robinson stopped paying her son's bills. "It was the hardest phone call I've ever had to make," relates Robinson, better known to local audiences as MC Overlord. "Her dream was to have me go to college -- to do something she didn't have the opportunity to do. And here I was telling her I wanted to be an entertainer. She flipped out. She certainly wasn't going to pay for me to run around down here trying to be a rapper."
Although his intimidating 6'5", "Refrigerator" Perry physique allowed him to get work as a bouncer on Sixth Street and thus pay his own bills, Overlord's self-sufficiency didn't mean he stopped needing his mother's approval or respect. On the contrary, the 30-year-old MC's peace-loving, self-conscious rap style is nothing if not a tribute to strong family values. That Mercedes Robinson didn't raise a gangster means Overlord has had no trouble resisting rapping like one.
"I have never said anything on record or onstage that I didn't believe in," says Overlord. "Or anything threatening or offensive. It's just not how I live my life. Growing up, if you said "Dang,' D-A-N-G, you caught a beatdown from moms. Disrespect wasn't tolerated. That's in me deep."
Today, a decade after that watershed phone conversation, Mercedes Robinson has settled into the role of proud parent quite nicely. She's seen her son return home and play packed houses; she's heard his four self-released albums, including the latest, House of Funk, which includes a track about her; and perhaps most importantly, she's witnessed her youngest offspring's unwavering determination. Not only has MC Overlord consistently challenged himself and fans with ambitious live instrumentation, he's also gracefully turned the other cheek when the local hip-hop community spent years snickering at his "Westside" appeal and predominately white fan base.
As a matter of fact, Mercedes Robinson's son has all but single-handedly taken local hip-hop places it's rarely been in Austin -- not just west of I-35, but also onto Sixth Street (Steamboat), lily-white local rock radio (KLBJ), and even the Austin Music Hall's large stage (1997-98 Austin Music Awards). It may have taken him 10 long, hard-fought years to earn citywide respect, but MC Overlord has ultimately become Austin's most recognizable and undeniably promising rapper. In the hip-hop vernacular, Overlord is the consummate "Ghetto Supastar"-- a small-market star waiting on a big break.
"I look at ghetto supastar status as the minor leagues," he says. "Now, all I gotta do is find the person [at a label] that's going to put their job on the line to let me shine. Though I'm not the type of artist that waits around for something to happen. I'm always gonna make noise and do whatever I can do to represent Austin. What's important is that I can make my music, share it, and know it's being appreciated. And I can see the growth every day. I reach more and more people every day and every record. I wouldn't be doing this if my fan base were shrinking."
Of Overlord's four self-released discs, House of Funk is clearly the one best poised to reach an audience outside Austin. Despite having been recorded locally on a modest budget, it's every bit a major-label blueprint -- a galvanizing mix of live instrumentation, programmed beats, and sultry soul. And while the album's cameos and collaborators -- Patrice Pike, Malford Milligan, Lisa Tingle, and Wan Santo Condo -- illustrate Overlord's knack for genre-jumping, House of Funk is also the rapper's most casually cohesive recording to date. Mostly, it's Overlord himself, his authoritative storytelling bringing together the album's myriad styles. And what separates Overlord from most other hip-hop contenders is a positive outlook more inspiring than preachy. He's got skills and a conscience.
"I just wonder if anybody's ready for a cat preaching positive messages," says Overlord.
Although hip-hop is hardly over its fascination with thug life, it's still not a bad time for Overlord to have dropped his most convincing and commercially viable album yet. If hip-hop's two prevailing movements are rockers like Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit and the intelligent underground flavor of the Jurassic Five or Mos Def, then Overlord's appeal is that he meets them halfway.
Like most of his backstory, the source of Overlord's positive vibrations comes right back to Mercedes Robinson. Admitting he could've easily grown up angry and confrontational, particularly since his father abandoned his mother three months after he was born, Overlord says he heeded his mother's advice, avoiding schoolyard fights and pretty much keeping to himself.
"My mom taught me the golden rule: Don't pick any fights that were going to pull her away from a job she needed to put food on our table, but defend yourself if anything ever happens," explains Overlord, who grew up in a predominately black neighborhood but attended a racially mixed high school. "And kids pick on kids. When you're the big kid, you're gonna get it bad. But while most kids were brave enough to call me names, it was never anything physical. Then again, the mental stuff isn't much better."
Rather than picking fights or hanging out at parties, young Don Robinson immersed himself in music, listening to his family's old Marvin Gaye and James Brown records, and finally, in 1979, finding something he could call his own: Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." Bringing the 12-inch to school just to prove he owned it, the aspiring musician didn't act on his hip-hop interests until his senior year of high school. At that point, Robinson adopted the MC Overlord moniker and began entering talent shows and entertaining in the student lounge.
"I had big crowds at lunch because I could flow off the top of my head," he recalls. "If you said "tree,' I had 30 minutes about a tree."
Hip-hop also allowed Robinson to recognize the value of his "big guy" stature.
"I began to realize the "big guy' thing was not baggage, but an advantage," he explains. "It gave me an extreme stage presence other MCs didn't have. I didn't acknowledge it in my songs yet, but I used it onstage. It was like, "Wow! That big guy can move!'"
In a move straight out of Felicity, Overlord moved to Austin in 1987, in pursuit of a high school classmate who didn't realize he was interested in her. After enrolling in Austin Community College, however, Overlord began forgetting about the girl and living a typically UT lifestyle -- hanging out at the Dobie dormitory and garnering invites to fraternity parties all across West Campus.
"Until I left for Austin, I'd never been out of St. Louis,"says Overlord. "I was terrified for a while. But I didn't have trouble meeting people. I stood out."
Overlord really started standing out and making friends after he began sitting in with one of the fraternity circuit's most popular live bands, the Bizness. After making and shopping a few cassette demos, Overlord decided not to transfer to UT and instead continued sitting in with the Bizness and entering talent shows. At the time, the rapper was a full-on Heavy D tribute, complete with two dancers and a DJ, but it was enough to win a 1989 talent show thrown by Texas Rap Network, a small local fanzine. First prize: an opening slot for KRS-One's Boogie Down Productions show at Austin's Club XS.
"I remember a lot of the other acts were upset," chuckles Overlord. "They were like, "This cat isn't from here. He's not like us. He's coming in and taking all the shine.' It was backlash that would settle in time, but I just didn't know the Eastside. I didn't know how Austin was structured. I knew where I lived, and that was Austin to me. If I had lived over there, that would have been my crowd, because I was rapping well. I think they felt I just didn't belong yet."
Either way, with the combined exposure of the Boogie Down Productions gig and his ongoing cameos with the Bizness, Overlord began amassing a modest local following of his own.
"There were a bunch of rappers not getting an opportunity," says Overlord of the early Nineties hip-hop scene in Austin. "The closest thing you had to hip-hop were the cover bands. But it was almost a blessing; if you had something going on, people were going to come out. And because I never cared who was at the show -- what color you were, where you came from -- I was able to merge a bunch of different audiences. It was just a bunch of kids genuinely enjoying hip-hop and I was glad to see them."
Unfortunately, whatever confidence Overlord had nurtured in his ability to entertain and take his talent outside of Austin collapsed in 1992, when he began shopping demos in Los Angeles. It was during a meeting with a vice president of A&R at Interscope that Overlord's cassette was stopped midway. The label exec had a question: "Who told you that you were a rapper?"
"I was speechless," recalls Overlord. "I told him, "Nobody told me, it's just what I do,' but he wasn't feeling it. He went into this big rap about image and marketing and that's when I got my first unveiled look at what the entertainment business can be about. It's not who you are, but who they want to make you. I left Los Angeles broken. I never thought I'd touch a microphone again."
Not long after Overlord returned to Austin, one of his closest college friends, Corey Ziegler, lost a long battle with leukemia. To deal with Ziegler's death, he wrote the song "October." After recording it, set to an acoustic backing track written and performed by Jason Mozersky of Wan Santo Condo, it was suggested Overlord complete a full album of acoustic hip-hop and dedicate the proceeds to a scholarship fund in Ziegler's name. The resulting EP, October, introduced Overlord to the idea of working with live musicians and sold briskly. What started as a plan to commemorate a close friend, not advance his own career, quickly led Overlord to rethink his early retirement.
"Originally, I was doing it just to use my name to raise money," he says. "But everything changed. With a live band, I felt control and the energy to do something new. I began thinking about getting back into the music, only on a different path. Instead of trying to be Heavy D & the Boyz, I was going to create my own blueprint. I wasn't going to be the next anything. I was going to be the first me. And whether you label it hip-hop, funk, Austin music, or whatever, it was going to be my blueprint of what I wanted to do, not something designed to fit anybody else's ideas or standards."
By 1994, Overlord had begun playing with dozens of local musicians at Toulouse on Sixth Street, and before long was able to make the unlikely jump across the street to Steamboat. Although Steamboat owner Danny Crooks regularly paid Overlord for shows virtually nobody attended, the rapper's regular guest spots with Steamboat mainstays like Davíd Garza, Vallejo, Sister 7, and Ugly Americans led to a modest drawing power of his own. Clearly, Overlord's use of live instrumentation allowed him to tap into a nontraditional hip-hop audience.
As Overlord starting amassing a sizable fanbase, it became obvious his crowd reflected the rapper's peaceful vibe -- giving club owners and promoters the confidence to book him at other nontraditional venues. At the same time, Garza and a host of Bizness expatriates took Overlord under their wing and helped him work out song structures and live-band dynamics. They also encouraged him to put out his own albums until the majors took notice.
"There isn't an act in this business, from Puffy to Master P, that wasn't told they couldn't be a rapper," says Overlord. "And those guys took things into their own hands. That was going to be my method too. And if it could work locally for Davíd or Sister 7, I figured doing what they did could work for me too."
With a business plan intact for Lordship Entertainment, Overlord's label, his company dropped 1995's A Better Funk and 1997's Dark Side, both of which jumped between R&B, hip-hop, and funk with confidence but little cohesion. While each album sold more than the last, Overlord is the first to admit that their lack of focus and some hokey stage antics, including a massive "security force" inspired by Public Enemy's infamous S1Ws, may have set his momentum back some.
"I spent a lot of time trying to do a little bit of everything and maybe it was too much," says Overlord. "But I was never afraid to think big. Like the security force. It may have been hokey, but I was thinking, "If you're gonna be big, act big.' I may have been a little immature as an entertainer. I was still under the illusion that I was just going to burst onto the hip-hop scene with a thud and change everything."
The upside of the Dark Side effort and the shows that followed the album was Overlord's working relationship with drummer Brannen Temple and bassist Yoggie Mussgrove, an all-star rhythm section that not only provided its own draw but also pushed Overlord creatively. By his own admission, the MC says his rhythm section's improvisational jazz aesthetic made him rethink what he knew about live instrumentation, songwriting, and performance. The result is a noticeable, and somewhat newfound, confidence in his lyrical delivery as found on the new House of Funk -- even if the Mussgrove-produced effort actually features less live instrumentation than his previous releases.
"It's a little less radical musically," acknowledges Overlord. "Yoggie felt like we needed to hold back a little to appeal to radio and have something to shop to labels. I think I'm just learning some discipline. I know I can do the live-instrumentation thing, and it's not like I'm never going to get the opportunity to do it again. But I'm making those decisions. I'm still doing it my way. There's no outside pressure to be pigeonholed or become a certain type of artist."
In theory, proving he can rap with or without live instrumentation may be the last hurdle standing between Overlord and major-label contention. If it seems odd that he needs to prove he can present himself old-school style only after breaking live-instrumental boundaries, consider this: Overlord's predominantly white audience is also something of an unsigned rap anomaly.
"While most labels take a rap artist and initially work on his street credibility, they know they eventually have to make them appeal to a cross market since 70 to 80% of rap albums are bought by white suburbanites," he explains.
"Last South by Southwest, I talked to a guy from Tommy Boy who told me that was the most insane thing he ever heard. He said, "You reversed that.' I have the cross market already. All I need to do now is develop an audience at a label that understands what I've done. The size and diversity of my following is not an unappealing factor of what I do, it's a driving factor."
Even in Austin, the days when local rappers laughed at Overlord's diverse fan base seem to be over. In part, the baggage is gone because Overlord has been working the Austin scene for nearly 10 years; he's no longer a rookie nor a potential carpetbagger. But more than anything else, he's proved there's a viable west side audience for local hip-hop. Today, young Eastside MCs wouldn't think of forgoing a west side crossover.
"I think I kicked some doors open, and I'm proud of that," says Overlord. "I showed local club owners that there's nothing to fear about hip-hop. It's just message-oriented, party-oriented music. The kids that come out aren't trying to hurt anyone, they're trying to have a good time."
Now that his reputation in Austin is solid, Overlord figures all that's left is to parlay his ghetto supastar status into national stardom. More than ever, the chances look good; House of Funk is selling well, he's still entertaining interest from a handful of labels that caught his SXSW '99 set, and he's already proven the viability of his grassroots formula by replicating his local success in Boulder, Colorado. To hear Overlord tell it, it's a matter of when, not if, he'll find someone ready to gamble on a cat preaching positive messages.
"I didn't put nine and a half years into this career not to break the glass," states Overlord. "I plan to see whatever happens in hip-hop on the national scene from the inside looking out. I believe I'm gonna get there, although I think I've evolved from thinking I'm gonna change everything. I'm an entertainer. I take every opportunity I can to rip it and be the best I can. I want to leave people with their jaws open.
"And the encouraging thing is that there's been no negative feedback to anything I've done onstage," he continues. "Never -- in any setting. Crowds have been just as hype at traditional hip-hop shows in Fayetteville, Arkansas, as the college crowds in Boulder. I'm gonna make it. I'll get my chance to shine. No sellout. That's my word."