Life Is a Rhythm
A moment of truth in the 2-3
Pulling up to the Northeast Austin intersection of Rogge and Manor Road, an SUV settles at the stoplight, three members of the Public Offenders rap group sitting in back. A hurried yellow school bus screeches to a halt next to them and empties out a couple dozen Pearce Middle School students onto the sidewalk. As one of the boisterous students spots Gator, Public Offenders' most recognizable member thanks in part to his Black Panther-esque afro, a full-fledged frenzy ensues as 15 or so of the students rush to the vehicle to slap hands and exchange enthusiastic words with their latest neighborhood heroes. Holding up traffic for an entire light cycle, the fanatic scene underscores a reality where proximity and kinship often serve as the most electric of social commodities.
How is it that a local rap group could be so popular within its specific neck of the woods enough to sell 1,200 copies of their most recent album by hand and foot in the span of four months yet hardly register outside the 78723 ZIP code? It certainly helps that Gator, otherwise known as Chris Ockletree, served as senior class president at Reagan High School a couple of years back and now spends much of his time pounding the pavement for activist causes. Still, a proper answer transcends the Public Offenders' story alone, treading deep into the history of a neighborhood that's grown accustomed to a relationship between isolation and self-sufficiency.
The 2-3, as it's known by its youngest inhabitants, is bordered by I-35 to the west, Ed Bluestein Drive on the east, Highway 290 to the north, and the intersection of Airport and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards to the south. During the course of the 1970s, the central 2-3 neighborhood of University Hills absorbed a significant influx of African-American home buyers, who were for the most part relocating from nearby neighborhoods including Clarksville, downtown East Austin, and St. John's. The children raised by these proud, middle-class families discovered common footing at Andrews, Harris, Blanton, Winn, and Pecan Springs elementary schools, Pearce and Kealing middle schools, and Reagan and LBJ high schools.
"Back when I first started rapping," explains former LBJ High student turned Austin wordsmith Mirage, "there were only maybe five or six kids in the entire school who could really do it. We used to skip our lunch periods and go and battle in the courtyard at Kealing. It seems that every generation since then has carried on that tradition. Nowadays, I substitute teach, and I often get kids in class beating on tables reciting rhymes. I want to stop them in order to get them back on their work, but sometimes I just sit back and listen because, more often than not, they're undeniably amazing with it."
As hip-hop culture began revealing itself outside the confines of lunchrooms and schoolyards, Dottie Jordan and Bartholomew parks emerged as prime breeding grounds for enthusiastic MCs and dancers. The emergence of Jam City on access TV in 1983 provided the initial vehicle for showcasing local youth caught up in an emerging hip-hop whirlwind. Once KAZI moved its public radio station to the corner of Loyola Lane and Manor Road in '84, the University Hills community enjoyed its own intimate outlet for rap music all too often ignored by commercial stations around town. Well-known for its open-door policy, KAZI became a much-needed refuge for kids who often stopped by on their way home from school in order to listen to their favorite jams in the air-conditioned lobby of the station. As Austin groups, including Project Crew and Lady IC & MC KB, scored homegrown hits, the 2-3 scene coalesced into a tight-knit family of neighbors who weren't all that bothered that people from other areas of the city hardly ever came around to experience their mastery of hip-hop autonomy.
"Back in the day," relates former Reagan High student Tee Double, "there was a real nurturing effect where cats that were doing it big would take a youngster under their wing. DJ Cassanova used to pick me up, bring me over to his crib, lock me in his studio, and tell me that when he got back I better have made five beats. I didn't even know how to use the equipment, so it forced me to figure it out."
In July of '88, the mighty Run's House tour, comprised of Run DMC, Public Enemy, EPMD, JJ Fad, and DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, made a most-dynamic appearance at the Texas Exposition and Heritage Center. As an added bonus, KAZI, which regularly hosted barbecue jams in its parking lot, joined with local activists to organize a voter registration drive that was capped off with a free daytime performance by Run DMC.
"When I saw Run DMC do 'Run's House' on the corner of Loyola and Manor, it changed my entire life," claims longtime 2-3 resident Mr. Supreme. "Then two weeks later, you pop on MTV, and it's Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince backstage at the Texas Expo and Heritage Center doing the very first intro for Yo! MTV Raps. Hardly anyone seems to realize that the first episode of Yo! MTV Raps was filmed here in Austin. At the time, it just blew my mind."
Shortly thereafter, national attention began to focus its glare upon Northeast Austin as not only a rewarding market for rap music but also a source. In 1990, Reagan High Schooler Candy Fresh attracted the support of 2 Live Crew's Fresh Kid Ice as her single "Do the Get Busy" blew up KAZI airwaves and beyond. Another Reagan High School product, Papa Chuk, formerly known around town as half of Chuck and Quince, released a nationally distributed album four years later on New York City's Pendulum Records. The feat was eventually duplicated between 1999 and 2000 when L.A.'s Goodvibe Records played host to Tee Double's Lost Scriptures and then Mirage's Life Is a Rhythm.
To date, the 2-3's most notable hip-hop success story surrounds producer Salih Williams, Reagan High, '91. Having previously scored shades of mainstream acclaim with instrumentals provided for albums by Houston's Big Moe and the Wreckshop Family, it's Williams' twice-gone beat for Slim Thug, Mike Jones, and Paul Wall's "Still Tippin'" in '03 that made his studio concoctions irresistibly enticing to both Universal Records and bigwig suitors, including Bun B, Chingo Bling, Ice Cube, and Nelly. In the midst of fiery bidding wars for his services in '04, Williams remembered where his bread was buttered by temporarily situating his Carnival Beats studio just across 290 from Reagan High School.
"There's so much untapped rap talent right here in this neighborhood that I'd really like to focus on helping it grow," noted the former Bizness keyboardist in an Ozone Magazine interview last year.
Carnival Beats wasted no time bringing 2-3 residents Swift and Basswood Lane into the family fold as an expansion of its already diverse portfolio. Basswood's Tony Wayne identifies the current Northeast Austin sound as a natural reaction to the everlasting DJ Screw phenomenon. "With Houston usually trying to slow things down, we started to get crunk, and we started to bounce. But we maintain that same touch of Texas flavor."
Along with their Northeast Austin neighbors Casino & Gutta Gang, whose "Gametime" has probably traveled farther and wider than any Austin rap this year, Basswood Lane rumbles for the sport of it. "We used to get into fights because we'd shout out 2-3 at shows," acknowledges Wayne. One of his partners, Jamie Lee, explains the requisite chest-thumping bravado in the simplest terms. "Basswood Lane is printed on my birth certificate. So there's no question that I'm proud of where I'm from. And if anyone wants to express a problem with that, they're going to have to answer to a whole lot of us at once."
"Now it's seen as cool to be from the 2-3," adds former Reagan High student T.Y. da Crook of da 2-3 Mic Breakaz.
Quite a bit of that perceived appeal stems from area artists implicitly, if not explicitly, merging the functions of rap music and community activism. Public Offenders members Gator and Black Prophet not only share lineage as former members of the marauding, under-21 Austin Poetry Slam team, they also testified before the Texas Senate on the issue of police brutality and continue to work diligently as contributors to programs sponsored by the Texas Coalition Advocating Justice for Juveniles. Public Offenders' collaborative manifesto "My People," which features members of da 2-3 Mic Breakaz and singer Rochelle Terrell, is the type of song to lead marches and motivate otherwise complacent minds to battle.
With institutional racism persisting in Austin as a multifaceted set of hurdles for any black artist to overcome, 2-3 artists prepare themselves for the struggle by emphasizing a unified front.
"There's been a lot to learn from the sheer grind of 2-3 rap artists who came up before we really had access to mainstream press and quality venues," indicates Tee Double. "We might not have had all of the resources in the world, but we still managed to sustain ourselves by working together and developing our own community amongst ourselves."
One coalition-building event that's been sorely missed of late by the Northeast rap community came in the form of frequent Jump On It concerts held in Rosewood Park. Initiated in 1997 by former Reagan High student NOOK and the now-late Colony Park matriarch Dorothy Turner, Jump On It supplied up-and-coming rap talent the chance to stand on equal footing with visiting headliners including Lil' Flip, Slim Thug, and Z-Ro. The fire that destroyed Midtown Live's Cameron Road facility in 2005 didn't do the scene any favors either, leaving a gaping hole in the landscape, both figuratively and literally, as an all-important venue that had been serving primarily African-American patrons since '87 fell by the wayside. The overt racism that surrounded both the city's slow response to the fire, as well as any plans of the club being rebuilt in its former location, only confirmed what many have known as despicable truths for far too long.
In Austin's annual Zilker Park throwdown, at least one 2-3 booster finds a categorical disregard for the modern urban experience. "People come from all over the world to go to the Austin City Limits Music Festival," asserts Mr. Supreme, "but when it comes to hip-hop, all you hear is crickets."
Despite marginalization by the powers that be, the 2-3 continues attracting those who value a communitywide grassroots effort. Emerging rapper Lady Legacy spent her formative years in Manor but now finds herself striving to stake out a music career as a recent transplant to the University Hills area. "Instead of my peers hating on me, which seems the norm in other places, those in the 2-3 who've been in the game for a while have made a point to reach out to me," she says.
As a rapper with a serious message to convey, Legacy takes kindly to the shared credo of her 2-3 neighbors. "What keeps me working hard in the face of so much adversity is that I know what I'm talking about is real. I listen to a lot of other rappers, both from around Austin and elsewhere. I hear what they're talking about, and much of it simply doesn't apply to me. We don't have gold and platinum. Nobody is riding whips around here. I find that I'd much rather communicate with and hopefully affect kids in the hood who are operating under the impression that the negative images that they're seeing on television and hearing on the radio are their only future options."
As many longtime residents of the 2-3 have migrated farther north to Pflugerville and Round Rock in recent years, the time for the neighborhood to be recognized as a teeming fountainhead of hip-hop culture is long past overdue. Ask Gator what he thinks of the situation, and he doesn't hesitate one second in his blunt pronouncement.
"This is our time to shine."