Hip-Hop on the Verge
Austin finally cemented a scene, but who will break out nationally?
Months before becoming only the second local rapper to play the Austin City Limits Music Festival – 2008 – Bavu Blakes tucked into a corner booth at Magnolia Cafe on South Congress to discuss his progress on a yearlong series of releases.
By then, the 33-year-old Garland-bred UT grad was more than a year removed from a Chronicle cover and 2007's energetic The Woodgrain Collection, a mixtape made in tandem with celebrated beatmaster DJ Rapid Ric. He'd worked with all the scene notables: NickNack, Tee-Double, DJ Phyfteen, Gerald G. Through his weekly Hip-Hop Humpdays at the Mercury (now Parish), he and MCs Tray God and Tee-Double, plus multi-instrumental wizard D-Madness, seeded a new millennial hip-hop community hungry for a home field.
Well before our food arrived that day, those trendsetting Wednesdays on Sixth Street had become a distant memory. Six years later, he'd settled into elder statesman status. Until it went off the air that August, Blakes held post as the Urban Music Director at ME Television.
Discussing his "08 Is So Great" campaign and upcoming set in Zilker Park, he didn't hesitate when asked if there was anyone working hip-hop locally that might impact the national scene.
"No, but I think there are some younger ones out there learning from us who will."
Whut It Dew
Back in the Nineties, when today's OGs were just new Gs, the question of who could hit big outside city limits was mooted by a more pressing concern: Who could score a headline gig Downtown? Catfish Station, an oasis for hip-hop in a sea of Sixth Street blues bars, shuttered for good in 1995. For years afterward, you'd be hard-pressed to find a local rapper setting up shop in any venue west of I-35.
On East Riverside at the Back Room, local rappers put on shows to exclusively black crowds. Nook's Jump on It concerts in Eastside parks helped developing acts flip bars with more established artists. Eventually Salih Williams, now guitarist in Latasha Lee's Blackties, linked up with Big Moe from Houston and Wreckshop Records. In 2004, he delivered "Still Tippin'" to Swishahouse. That went national.
Austin remained completely local.
"Austin hip-hop doesn't have its own sound," Dirty Wormz's Smackola told these pages in 2002. "There's a lot of diversity. You've got the Down South rappers, the Screwheads. You've got the East Coast-oriented acts, and you've got the West Coast. Everybody I run into is doing something different."
Houston's emergence didn't change that, but it did give Austin something to look up to. South by Southwest hired Matt Sonzala, brought in to book European acts. In 2004, he rallied his co-workers to what was happening in his native Houston. Mike Jones and Paul Wall's Swishahouse were soon guests of the festival, booked alongside UK whiz kid Dizzee Rascal.
"Bun B played as a favor to me," noted Sonzala, now a local promoter, last month. "He didn't even know what South by Southwest was."
Homegrown talent was equally outside the loop. Sonzala remembers the first time MC Fatal, "the OG of this city," got a badge:
"He was like, 'Wait until I show this to all the people in the hood. They won't believe this shit.'"
Houston's emergence put Texas on the rap map, with visits now regular to Austin. Suddenly, the Capital City gained proximity to the hottest spot in hip-hop.
"I remember when Chamillionaire was just selling CDs at MusicMania," says Blakes. "Now look at him! You can't not be inspired by that. You look at him and say, 'What was he doing? He's messing with these people. I can do that.'"
H-Town also birthed a marquee Austin gang. A loose, regional clique that included local Eastsiders Gerald G, Da Ryno, and Black Mike, the Whut It Dew crew bit on H-Town's off-kilter, wholly faded modernization of DJ Screw. DJ Rapid Ric was its architect, adopting the nickname "Mixtape Mechanic" for his endless stream of expansive compilations.
Watching from the wings, the next generation.
"Go back and look at whoever made a Ric mixtape when Whut It Dew was dissolving [at decade's end]," implores Blakes. "It's damn near everybody. It's the League [of Extraordinary Gz]. It's C.O.D. It's Southbound. It's Zeale. It's Phranchyze."
Dark Side of the Moon
Valin "Zeale" Zamarron can safely claim to have accomplished more nationally than any rapper from here. Now 31, the South Austin native has spent the past two years almost exclusively in Los Angeles or on a tour bus. Zeale isn't strictly hip-hop, however.
"I love guitars," he asserts from home after a run with Blue October. "I love distortion. Growing up in Austin, that's what you have: There's a bunch of live music everywhere."
Last fall's high-octane Frnz & Fngz EP makes evident Zeale's enthusiasm for big guitars. Ditto for his 2009 debut Haterz & Robotz, produced by – you got it – DJ Rapid Ric.
"The main song was a remix of Pink Floyd," he says of "Dull Daze," his take on Pink Floyd's "Time."
Nonetheless, Zeale's forays into hip-hop did as much to advance his career as it did to progress a style within the city. His 2008 collaboration with Phranchyze brought local hip-hop to Fun Fun Fun Fest, and a Lucky Lounge residency with Boombox ATX, Tray God, and MC Overlord further bridged the gap between generations of hip-hop and rap.
By 2010, Zeale had outgrown the market. He took six months to himself and emerged with a new sound helmed by Croatian DJ Marko Jelic. Two years later, at Free Week, he boasted about making his living off of music. Now he tours the country to states as random as Montana and Ohio.
"You'll get 1,500 to 2,000 people out," he says. "That's the thing to do. Some of the bands who open up for us in other cities, man, they're terrible. But they bring out crowds, because that's all that's there."
Drawing hip-hop crowds in the 512 isn't strictly about talent. It's a deep-rooted racial issue in a still silently segregated city. Stack on the genre's local standing as fifth, ninth, or 19th wheel of genres, and it's no wonder Zeale saw fit to cross over.
"I love to see a mixed crowd," he says. "I don't care if it's guys, girls, white faces, brown faces. That's my own logic. I don't expect a certain type of person."
Five years his junior, fellow Southsider Kydd Jones zeroed in on Zeale's style after stepping into Mohawk one Saturday during his teenage years.
"That night I was like, 'No more all-black shows. I want to be performing to this crowd, to the white people in Austin,'" he says over brisket at Sam's BBQ. "Those are the people who are going to shed light."
Working with Chubbie Baby, a manager out of Atlanta who used to run with Dipset, Jones also reports living off his music. Companies like Red Bull have proven instrumental to his progress. He hopes to release debut album Gr33d this spring, complete with an assist from Chuck D.
Jones' modest live aspirations parallel a longstanding disparity in the local club scene (revisit "Cold Sweat," June 13, 2014), but Downtown no longer mourns Catfish Station. The North Door spotlights the genre, and Beauty Bar did the same. Holy Mountain, Beauty Bar's successor on Seventh Street, has also become a regular outlet. Transmission Events, whose Fun Fun Fun Fest rests at least one of its funs on hip-hop, books rap regularly at Red 7 and Mohawk. Empire Control Room, which opened last year as one of the most exciting venues in the city, features hip-hop as often as it doesn't.
Live instrumentation helped it happen. It's evident in the shows of Zeale, Kydd Jones, Phranchyze, Magna Carda, and Riders Against the Storm, a husband-and-wife duo originally from Rhode Island who arrived with club gigs that rival the precision of the Roots. Topping it all off, ATX's League of Extraordinary Gz – Dred Skott, Southbound, and southside neighbors Da C.O.D. – converged in 2010 and quickly became the preeminent rap troupe. When League architect Octavis "da 6th Street Bully" Berry died in Oct. 2011 from a pulmonary embolism, the community lost its Pac and Biggie.
"[We're] growing, but we're still suffering," says Jones. "We don't have any real major outlets. We need the industry outlets to make the hype."
Since the Bully's passing, hip-hop has finally grown into a vibrant and unavoidable component of the city's music scene, one that packs Downtown clubs on the strength of local talent. To go with it, a new, robust farm system. Austin Mic Exchange, the weekly Spider House open mic founded in 2012 by rapper Adam Protextor (P-Tek) and KOOP Development Director Leah Manners, offers a live forum through which aspiring MCs can develop alongside peers.
"It's a networking opportunity and unifying scene," says Manners, who hosts KOOP's Hip-Hop Hooray show Sunday afternoons, of the Tuesday residency. "We wanted to create a space where [rappers] could perform without charge. Where there's no barrier to entry in a space that's safe, open to experimentation, and inviting to newcomers."
Now, AMX alums like Feral the Earthworm, Chamothy the Great, and Anya, a female rapper with a crack new band whose recent Free Week set turned heads, perform in clubs throughout the city. Meanwhile, with the help of Sonzala and others, Manners and Protextor doubled down and in September founded the Weird City Hip-Hop Festival, a club-bound weekend focusing on locals, nationals (Dilated Peoples, Guilty Simpson), and SXSW/FFF vets like Jean Grae and Pharoahe Monch. After a successful debut last year, Manners hopes year two hits bigger.
"We believe the talent is here, it just lacks the support network," she says. "We think the festival can become a good tool for that network."
That network truly needs it. Enough talented ATX rappers still feel ignored, and the dearth of women across the landscape remains even more disheartening. Save perhaps Anya, KB the Boo Bonic, Cha'keeta B, Staci Russell, Magna Carda's Megz Kelli, and Riders Against the Storm's Tiger Lily, local femcees have been met with steady roadblocks.
Before releasing Seventies-style blaxploitation stunner Supacabra in November, Dallas native Dat Boy Supa threatened to hang up his microphone altogether.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm shouting into a wind tunnel and nobody's listening," he admits. "That's frustrating. But it can be uplifting when that one person hears it and says, 'I love what's there.'"
Mr. Greezo, a LOEGz member who moved to Atlanta after collaborating on the hands-down best rap album this town's ever produced in 2013 debut #LeagueShit, has endured similar struggles.
"Hip-hop in Austin is like recreational softball," he says. "You'll wake up and be 40 years old and still performing at Flamingo Cantina. Bavu experienced it. Basswood Lane experienced it. You get to the point where you've done this. And I feel sorry for our fans. They support us but don't see any progress."
As far as an ATX breakout, Greezo has his hopes set on LaDarrian "Dowrong" Torry, the Bully's nephew and son of former Cooly Girl Juana Esparanza, who began hanging around the League as their 14-year-old, lion-besuited mascot. Now 21, Dowrong recently dropped The Dowrong EP in conjunction with Eric Dingus, a 19-year-old beatmaking wunderkind putting together music with Drake.
"What LaDarrian has with Dingus, that's one of the perfect combinations," proclaims Greezo. "If anybody has a chance from Austin, it's the kid who's putting out music with Drake's producer."
Dingus wouldn't confirm his relationship with the Toronto megastar when we met for coffee in December.
"Hopefully soon," he mutters at Dominican Joe's on South Congress and Riverside, a block away from the Downtown apartment he recently started renting.
Of record is Dingus' November 2013 remix of Drake's "Worst Behavior," which the rapper's manager Oliver El-Khatib posted onto his client's blog. That remix now has more than 270,000 plays. In June, just prior to a much-publicized appearance at Houston Appreciation Weekend, the Drake camp commissioned Dingus to make a Screwed Up mixtape celebrating both the rapper and Bayou City. Smack in the middle of said mixtape is a chopped-and-screwed take on Dowrong's "Shooters."
"That's a kind-hearted person," Dowrong says of his new producer. "One of the most kind people I've ever met. He's just a real humble dude. I can't even say too much about it."
Dingus recently released an EP with Austin's Bishop Light through he and his friend Zed DiMenno's Dream Sequence Records label. Aside from The Dowrong EP and Deathbedreams, an EP he made with LOEGz's Sandman, he's collaborated almost entirely outside of Austin, using the Internet to foster relationships with UK rapper Danny Seth and Minnesota breakout Spooky Black.
"He's this Internet sensation from the last six months," enthuses Dingus of the latter 17-year-old. "I found his song when he had less than 2,000 views. Now it has millions. It's crazy. I did a remix of his song 'Without You' the day after it came out when it had 1,000 or so views. He reposted it on his SoundCloud, and I was getting him attention. Now he's the one bringing attention to my SoundCloud."
Bavu Blakes can't stop talking about the potential future for Dingus and Dowrong a few days after Thanksgiving.
"The biggest rapper in the world doesn't commission you to make a mixtape like that for him as a favor," he nods.
Good Kid, Maad City
Now 40 and back in Austin after spending time in southern California while his wife pursued her doctorate, Blakes fills his days teaching English language arts to seventh-graders at Decker Middle School. He's a father now. He and his wife have an astute and outgoing little toddler named Ellison to cart around, so toys and tiny figurines lay out across the living room of their Northeast Austin home.
In August, the rapper released his first work in two years: a soulful single called "Summer Saturday Songs" about mowing the lawn and his son digging in the dirt. We take a drive to Pflugerville to pick up Ellison, who likes to queue up DJ Chicken George's Third Root on the car stereo. Blakes holds hope for the current crop of local acts.
"In the last two years, I've seen Kydd and Riders, and their presentations, go from good to great," he says. "The unfulfilled dream is an Austin artist becoming nationally and internationally recognized to the point of becoming a household name. Then, when they come back to Austin, their support rivals that of the other household names who come here from other places.
"Maybe not Jay Z. More like Kendrick Lamar."