Blowing "Up" with wordsmith Bavu Blakes
"I'm not down with being inferior to nobody,
below somebody, slower than somebody."
-- Bavu Blakes, "Up South."
"Down" can be a dirty word. Which is the primary reason one of Austin's preeminent hip-hop MCs, Bavu Blakes, opens his new CD Create and Hustle with "Up South." Not that he'd be satisfied with simply eradicating the ugly historical connotations of "down South."
Raised by parents immersed in African-American culture, Blakes learned that one goes "up south" to get to the source of the Nile, which flows northward into the Mediterranean. In other words, traveling "up south" takes one back to the fountainhead of human civilization. Likewise, Blakes wants to reroute the east/west rap map southward to get to the roots of the culture.
Rap and hip-hop burst onto the cultural scene during the Seventies in the South Bronx, but its sources are as Southern as the blues and jazz. The genre's lyrical tree draws sustenance from the boast, the toast, signifying, playing the dozens, all essentials of Southern folklore. Eschewing another negative label, "Dirty South," the media tag for rap from below the Mason-Dixon, Blakes is determined to help foster a new, more realistic understanding of the South and especially of Texas.
How many of y'all know where Texas is?
Stolen land, formerly Mexican.
Southwestern like my next of kin,
Supreme specimen with a pen.
I wreck until the day of reckoning,
No choice but to listen in.
Snared by the drums they draw you in,
We making rap music raw again.
-- "Up South"
Blakes was exposed to music and poetry very early, womb-early. His loving parents, who left Baton Rouge for Washington, D.C., recited the poetry of Haki R. Madhubuti and played Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela records for their soon-to-be. Once he arrived, in 1974, they strengthened his possibilities by naming him Bavu, "force" in Swahili.
Force & Flo
Nurtured by his father's extensive collection of jazz, R&B, soul, and African music, Bavu was ears-wide-open for the music of hip-hop and the poetry of rap in the Eighties. By the time his father accepted an engineering position in Dallas, 10-year-old Bavu had decided to be a rapper. He already wrote poetry and knew the sources of hip-hop's musical samples. Neighborhood and school friends helped him mix live raps and beat-tapes.
At North Garland High School in the 11th grade, Blakes became sports editor of the school newspaper. Words had always been important to him. Into his book of rhymes and poems went transcriptions of rhymes he admired, particularly those of Long Island old-schoolers Rakim, Busta Rhymes, Public Enemy, De La Soul, and EPMD. An influence closer to home was Dallas rapper Doc T (aka the D.O.C.), "miles ahead of everybody as far as pen to the pad." Later, Texas rappers like Scarface, Bun B (of UGK), and Devin the Dude worked their words on Blakes.
When he enrolled as a journalism major at UT in fall 1992, he began scouting out the local hip-hop scene. Although Austin had enjoyed a vibrant hip-hop presence in the mid-Eighties (breakdancing in the parking lots of Sixth Street, Scam's glorious graffiti murals, and rap contests at Doris Miller Auditorium), by the early Nineties there were few players. One beam of light was Flo Motion (later, Flo Mob). Catfish Station, Hip-Hop City, and a few other clubs were open to the notion of local rap.
"There used to actually be some black clubs as opposed to now where a lot of the bars and clubs downtown have extremely racist unwritten policies," states Blakes.
In "We Used To..." the MC catalogs some of the horrors imposed on African-Americans in the past and warns of the present dangers of consumer enticements.
We used to eat watermelons for sport.
We used to hold golf tees in our mouth and pop our eyes way out.
Hold our face in the hole at the baseball throw,
Got lynched with refreshments for sale at the show.
Used to perform at places our people could not go,
Used to build the roads, farm the land, shovel the snow.
Now you sayin' it's alright that we're degradin' ourselves,
Hypin' up dumb shit, never celebratin' ourselves.
As if self-destruction didn't drop last decade,
Now we're damn near ready to be re-enslaved.
Probably die if the mall and the grocery store closed,
Never got around to gettin' our own like we supposed to.
After a year of bloody-knuckle club-invasions, Blakes & Co. moved onstage with Reelaktz, which at different times included childhood friends J Dennis and Bobby Dixon, along with Sheldon Croomes (DJ Phyfteen), and Charles Yarbough. This crew introduced Austin to "the fresh new hip-hop-from-Dallas perspective," appearing at talent shows on campus and Apollo night at Catfish Station. Around 1996, Reelaktz began inviting Dallas rap crews to Austin to present the "Greater Dallas Showcase." Reelaktz, Disgruntled Seeds, Big Game Hunter, Sockeye, X-Factor, and Tee-Double kept the scene alive.
After graduation in 1997, Blakes took a job as sideline coordinator with ABC Sports, which entailed traveling to national college football games and helping produce the TV broadcasts. During this time away, he began analyzing his position within hip-hop.
"I realized that the whole group thing wasn't really going to go down like it needed to," explains the MC, "which was pretty traumatic, because all I'd ever done was group stuff except for battling and kind of being the spirit of the group, which is still not the same."
Blakes concluded that the crew's problem wasn't on the creative side, but on the hustling side. So he decided to go solo.
Confident and it's evident,
Never step on stage hesitant.
Never feel out of my element,
Act a fool, still intelligent.
Some folks rap for the hell of it, saying nothing,
Now that's negligent.
-- "Up South"
Building on a prior relationship with Sixth Street's emerging home of hip-hop, the Mercury, Blakes and other rappers inaugurated Hip Hop Humpday one Wednesday night in July 1999. Bavu, J Dennis, Tigre Liu (Big Game Hunter), and Garyson (Applied Culture) rapped alongside DJ Phyfteen and one-man band D-Madness, bass player Rudy Eccles, Mario Vela (percussion), and Taylor Ryan (keyboards). There were nights of pure transcendence when the music, the raps, the freestyle dancing carried the audience to new highs. Traygod and Tee-Double added to the energy and creativity.
The next step was recording. From 1999 to 2001, Blakes worked on vinyl and CD projects with Pea Dee, a Dallas-area producer, and with Austin turntablist NickNack.
Create & Shout
The process ultimately culminated in the brand new Create & Hustle, a reference to the symbiotic twin towers of artistic success. Even Bobby Dixon's design for the CD title embodies the concept; Create looks like a quick and graceful graffiti tag, while Hustle is massive, overpowering, hard. One of the dominant themes on Create & Hustle is that hip-hop heads realize that Texas has produced serious, intelligent, positive rap.
If you read and write,
I got somethin' you gon' like.
Broadcastin' live new non-white Cronkite.
Blakes throws down a steel-gloved challenge to other rappers to bring it on. Freestyle battling is all about competition -- rhyming better, faster, tighter, turning words inside out, pushing each other to new heights. It can be brutal, but Blakes encourages rather than disrespects. The subject matter of contemporary rap, with some notable exceptions, depresses him. But he promotes the antidote for the radio virus:
Not just another killer pimp medley,
another set of dubs on a Chevy.
That's my folks and it does affect me,
I'll be damned if I let it define me.
-- "Up South"
Blakes is most interested in a positive, creative, intelligent hip-hop, not the played out gangsta/consumerist stereotype that took over the Nineties. Just to prove he can provide the 411 on bitches, video ho's, the po-po, and invitations to sit-on-my-big-thick-dictionary, he offers the ironic "Sarcasm," assuming the guise of a fed-up positive-tipper, who concludes he won't earn wads of Franklins until he starts disrespecting women in his lyrics.
First head in the noose will be that of his girlfriend who's always loved his sensitivity, but complains his "shit don't sell." She even buys other playas' misogynistic hits, so her lover sees only one way out -- capitulation. Blakes knows this song will be widely misunderstood, as if it represented his own beliefs rather than his cool, witty observations of money, consumerism, self-respect, and relationships.
The disturbing, insightful "Only Your Life" is a hip-hop ballad observing the life of Coltrane, a young man punked out by his war-scarred uncle Ty. The narrators, one a war buddy saved by Ty, don't judge the two men harshly, but determine that life can be mysterious and difficult to understand.
Life's dilemmas shake you up like the tremors from earthquakes,
But remember, do have faith, don't forget what's at stake:
Only your life, tough decisions we gotta make.
With "Suicide," Blakes surpasses his previous homicidal confrontations with other rappers and confronts the only opponent capable of standing up to him in a freestyle battle -- himself. It's a Buddhist exercise in destroying the old self to move on to higher levels of understanding. "See You" is equally learned, making any mother proud and any son jealous, perhaps ashamed.
Your beauty secrets, stay away from drugs and booze, left it on us to choose.
What beauty was, being strong or being buzzed, you saw a lot of things in us we didn't see in ourselves.
Wouldn't have known otherwise, mother who molded our lives, so unbelievably wise.
I feel so young in your eyes, where a lot of my soul lies.
"See You" debuted on KAZI's Texas Top 20 Countdown on Mother's Day and reached the No. 1 spot in August.
On "See You," as with the bulk of Create & Hustle, Blakes flows like the Mississippi in flood time. He uses his prodigious verbal skills to set up wicked wordplays, shoot three rhymes to the line, and produce percussive rhythms. His words remind fools that rap is the package poetry comes wrapped in these days. Blakes, who calls himself a wordsmith, keeps language alive by breaking it up, reshaping it, loving it, and helping it grow in amazing new ways.
The music of Create & Hustle provides a masterful foundation for these vocal treasures. Powerful jazz riffs uphold some of the songs, while naked drum & bass glide through others. Duets with S'ence and Jade add feminine touches to two tracks. The production work of Pea Dee, DJ Massive, Adrian Quesada, Obadele Thompson, Arson Optics, DJ Phyfteen, and NickNack offers a powerful showcase of Austin talent. Riding over everything, Blakes' voice is strong, certain, unfaltering.
Composed, recorded, mixed, mastered, and dubbed, Create & Hustle has to move onto the second, tougher verb to make its way to the people. Blakes has sound ideas for the hustle part of the endeavor.
Hustle & Shrink
"To shrink Texas is the way I put it," he says.
While wrapping up a distribution deal with Dallas-based Crystal Clear Sound, he's plunged into the world of self-distribution. He modestly hopes to sell 2,000 CDs in Texas by year's end. But his eyes go beyond Texas.
"The further away you get recognition, the more likely it is that you are suddenly legitimized in your own back yard."
Blakes has already begun serious promotional work with listening and release parties, solo appearances, and performances at a recent Jurassic 5 concert in Dallas and the Blackalicious show in Austin. He recently launched a Web site, www.bavublakes.com.
Blakes will put Austin firmly on the hip-hop map with this CD, but will Austin be ready for the spotlight?
"There's something about Austin and the nature of the personalities of the people involved in the entertainment industry and music industry," states the MC. "There's a lot of overselling and a lot of insults to your intelligence and things of that nature to where just being around a lot of the people you're around can make you really exhausted."
He's concerned about the return flight to discrimination by some clubs.
"Now most of downtown has these unwritten policies at a lot of the bars and clubs where they don't really want a lot of people of color in the clubs," he says. "I know that for a fact, even some of the ones I deal with. Or you'll have a club where they have hip-hop night and the DJ spins hip-hop, but is required every so often to play a CD or two of techno songs, and it clears the whole floor [of dancers]. Kind of breaks away from whatever they fear is building up, even though they make their money off [the hip-hop audience]."
With few exceptions, including Nasty's on Mondays and NickNack at Plush on Saturdays, hip-hop MCs and DJs have been relegated primarily to Wednesday and Sunday nights for ongoing weekly shows. Besides Mercury's now-defunct H3, which returned live hip-hop performance to the entertainment district on Wednesdays, Miguel's La Bodega instituted its own Wednesday hip-hop scene this year, and veteran Jump On It presents hip-hop showcases on summer Wednesdays in Rosewood Park, often followed by a party at Texture.
"Why they gotta squeeze them all in on that bad night?" wonders Blakes. "We got that night a long time ago because it was what we could get, what was available ... We should already have slid down in the week to better accommodate the amount of people that would go if it was on a more convenient night. They make everybody compete, self-destructing like crabs in a bucket. Wednesday night is now the bucket."
When asked why H3 ended at Mercury, Blakes has a direct answer: "Hip Hop Humpday was a beautiful three-year moment. It galvanized the local, and in a sense, the statewide hip-hop community. As far as ending it this past July, H3, Mercury, and Jazz figured we'd go out on a high note and leave the community with positive memories of Hip Hop Humpday. And it worked."
Counting my blessings, 'cause every day that I grind, is teaching me a lesson:
All good things take time.
So I'm steady progressing, hustling as I create.
Rushing, though I still gotta wait for that release date.
That release date was August 13, which came with 25% of those 2,000 projected sold copies of Create & Hustle already pre-sold. At the age of 27, Bavu Blakes has gained several lifetimes of experience in artistry and business, creativity and hustling. It's a safe bet that "overnight success," after 17 years of preparation, hard work, and superior skills, has begun.